This past summer, I found myself on a train headed for Fairbanks, Alaska.
A friend and I had driven across the entirety of the United States, up through British Columbia, Yukon, and into Alaska. From there, it turned into a solo backpacking journey through the state.
This particular day on the train was special, and it was empowering to be experiencing it alone — this day, July 18th, was my 10-year anniversary as a type 1 diabetic.
When I was 12, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. A normal doctor’s appointment quickly turned into a three-day stay at the hospital. I vividly remember my experience there: understanding carb-counting, learning about insulin and how to administer it, and learning the ropes of this disease. I remember being terrified, fearful that I wouldn’t be able to live normally. I remember my parents crying. But above all, I remember telling myself that I would not let this disease stop me from anything. That includes solo travel.
Traveling with a disability or disease can be intimidating, daunting, and scary. It can make you fixate on worse-case scenarios instead of enjoying your experiences. There have been (and still are) moments when this disability made me scared to travel alone. Traveling already has its highs and its lows, but travelers with diabetes have to deal with literal blood sugar highs and lows, too. This disease becomes a balancing act, and an around-the-clock mind game. But that didn’t mean it was going to stop me.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. This disease doesn’t go away on its own –– even if you eat well and exercise. And it’s not the kind your grandmother has — Type 2 Diabetes. Like I said, it’s a balancing act, a constant challenge to keep your blood sugar levels from getting too high or too low. I take insulin to lower my blood sugar levels, and the amount taken is unique to each diabetic and how they react to it. But sugar isn’t always the enemy. If your blood sugar drops too low, you’ll actually need sugar to boost your levels.
In case you’re wondering the breakdown of blood-sugar levels: for a non-diabetic, levels are largely constant between 80-120. When I was diagnosed 10 years ago, my sugar levels were in the 600s. Diabetics can experience extreme highs and lows, which can be harmful to the body if not treated properly.
As a traveler with diabetes, it’s imperative to be prepared at all times, but there are some additional insights that can help diabetics along the way.
Take your Disease Seriously
Don’t be ashamed to let people know about your disease or disability. I usually explain to people what diabetes is and how someone can help in case of an emergency — I am always willing to answer any questions. In fact, I encourage questions. Fortunately, I have never needed any help, but it has never hurt to make others aware.
Pack A Medical ID
Wearing a medical ID that has your disease, personal information, and emergency contact information on it can literally save your life. It helps quicken the emergency care process if paramedics are needed, as they’ll know exactly how to help you. It can save precious time in these situations. Want to know an even better idea? Pack two. I once lost mine in a waterfall, but luckily, I had a spare with me.
Understand Your Disease
If you are a diabetic who carries insulin, it is necessary that you keep it cold. In preparing to travel for two to three months at a time, I purchased an item called FRIO, a breathable container that becomes cold when dipped in water, and can maintain the right temperature for insulin for days. Because of my constant exposure to the sun when I was in Southeast Asia, FRIO was literally a lifesaver. Finding this kind of accessory for my insulin allowed me to travel with ease.
Know How to Say Your Disease in Different Languages
While traveling, it helped to have screenshots of the word “diabetes” in different languages depending on where I was. Most of the time, I just used them to ward off people who were trying to sell me sugary drinks, but they could have been vital in emergency situations.
Don’t Overstep Your Boundaries
I am definitely someone who likes to push my limits. As I stated before, nothing thrills me more than doing something someone thinks I can’t accomplish. But, it is absolutely necessary to sit things out if something doesn’t feel right. Even if that means having to cancel a tour or miss a night out, remember to take your disease seriously. It is always better to be safe than sorry when you’re miles away from home.
Pack supplies in two separate bags
When traveling, there is always the risk of bags getting lost or stolen. Because of this, I’ve realized the importance of dividing my insulin into two separate bags. If one is lost or stolen, it is crucial to have a backup that will last until you can acquire more.
When I left on my first backpacking trip, I was afraid of all that could go wrong. But with proper preparation, awareness, and communication with others about my disease, I learned that it is more than possible to travel safely and be in control at all times.
I have taken my diabetes along for the ride through North America, South America, and Southeast Asia — on the train, that day in Alaska, I promised myself to not stop traveling anytime soon. I intend to keep that promise.