Backpacking With Type 1 Diabetes Working Through The Fear

Written by Amy Tappendorf

“What was your favorite part?” It’s a common question I get after returning from a backpacking trip. The thing is, I have a really difficult time answering that question.

To pick a favorite part or to categorize these moments means leaving out the whole process, every little thing that makes the experience. It means forgetting that each moment was created through connection to each other and to our surroundings. Obviously, I have moments that stand out above others that I absolutely love, and other moments that I don’t enjoy very much. A lot of times it isn’t the breathtaking views or the scenery that stand out, it’s the little things. It’s walking alone and hearing a single bird sing the same tune over and over, almost as if it’s trying to have a conversation with you. It’s watching a group of strangers become fast friends because you all share a similar passion. It’s seeing the look of pure joy on someone’s face because they were able to conquer their fears. It’s two friends laying on the ground and laughing because they’re so tired they aren’t quite sure what to do. All of these moments make up the whole, and without them, the backpacking trip wouldn’t be the same. Sure, you may get some amazing views and really good weather, but are you able to connect with nature and soak up every second that you could?

Me in the Grand Canyon

When I think back to the moments I don’t enjoy, it is the moments of fear that come to mind. Since my very first backpacking trip I have had many moments of fear, not just on the trail, but in preparing for a trip as well. I’m sure everyone has a healthy amount of fear leading into the unknown, but mine is a fear that I never thought I would be able to conquer.

I’m sure I was fearful on my first backpacking trip three years ago, but I can’t remember a lot of that fear because I think I was so excited to just get out there and do it.

I have been living with Type 1 Diabetes for 25 years. Many people have probably heard of all the complications that can happen with diabetes and many are under the impression that someone with diabetes can’t do everything that anyone else can, but I had made it my mission since a young age to never let diabetes hold me back. I’m sure I was fearful on my first backpacking trip three years ago, but I can’t remember a lot of that fear because I think I was so excited to just get out there and do it. Even after that first trip, the second, and every trip after, the fear was there. It’s there every single time. More so on that second trip because now I understood that everything I thought I knew about my body and how it reacted to different things went out the window. I was dealing with something that was brand new and no matter what I tried, I could not figure out how to manage blood sugars the way I would like to. Eating 80 grams of carbohydrate? Ok, let’s give a fraction of the insulin I would at home. Nope, blood sugar is low 30 minutes later and now I’m having to eat more skittles or getting injected with glucagon. Eating 80 grams of carbohydrate the next night? Let’s not give any insulin and see what happens. Well now my blood sugar is in the 300’s and my muscles hurt. It seemed like no matter what I did, I could not figure out how to find that ‘sweet spot’. What worked really well one time was a complete disaster the next time I tried it. This definitely created a lot of fear and anxiety while I was prepping for trips because I didn’t know what all I would need to bring to keep me safe. Then there is always more fear on the trail whenever I have a low blood sugar, because I think in the back of my head “if you keep having low blood sugars like this, you are going to run out of supplies”. Thankfully I have never run out of supplies on the trail and I have always brought everything I need to keep me safe.

Conquering Fear Of The Outdoors
Me in the Sycamore Wilderness Canyon, AZ

Can I say that all my fear is gone? No.

However, as I’ve gained experience and have had some success around unexpected moments with diabetes on the trail such as severe low blood sugars, a damaged insulin pump, and a blood glucose monitor malfunctioning because of extreme temperatures, those same moments don’t seem to elicit the same response they would have in the beginning. All those fearful situations have taught me the most about how to handle those unexpected moments. It has helped me to see what my margin of error is (within a safe range), and it has taught me what it takes to be prepared in a variety of different situations.

My insulin pump ended up smashing into a rock and the entire screen shattered.

The biggest challenge I had to accept, and honestly am still learning to accept, is that things aren’t going to go as planned and will not be like they are at home. Blood sugars aren’t going to be perfect and I might have to give myself injections every two hours because the insulin pump no longer works. The biggest question is, do I have everything I need to get myself back to the car in the worst case scenario? When we were in the Grand Canyon, I fell going uphill on some loose shale. My insulin pump ended up smashing into a rock and the entire screen shattered. I couldn’t see any information on the pump’s screen and I couldn’t do anything with it either. If that would have happened three years ago, I would have been hysterical and would not have been able to think through that situation clearly for quite awhile. When it happened this past trip, I was able to assess the damage and realize there was nothing I could do that would change what just happened. I had the supplies I needed, I knew I was safe, and the only thing to do was keep hiking. Was giving injections for the remainder of our trip fun? Not particularly. Did it take away from the experience of the trip? Absolutely not. If you ask me, I actually gained something from it. I gained more confidence. Not only more confidence in myself, but confidence in that I was prepared enough to address the situation without adding an abundance of fear.

It has definitely been a process of working through that fear, but in all honesty, I don’t think I would want it any other way. Has it been difficult? Without a doubt, but I can honestly say that backpacking has changed my life. I have been able to experience some amazing places that I never would have dreamed of seeing in person. I have met some of the most amazing and adventurous people that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Most importantly, I didn’t let diabetes hold me back. I didn’t let myself use diabetes as a crutch or an excuse to not do something because I was afraid. I allowed myself to grow as a person and a backpacker, to use all my fear, all those moments of doubt and hesitation, and turn it into a passion. I can choose to focus on self-doubt, the hardships, and the not so fun moments, or I can choose to see opportunity, beauty, growth, and tranquility.

My advice to anyone who is hesitant to go backpacking or try something else new or different because some nagging fear may get in the way, Just Go Do It. Don’t ignore the fear, it’s there for a reason, but instead figure out the reason behind that fear. Find a way to work through that fear and what you can do to make those fears less intimidating. Put safety protocols into place if it makes you feel more comfortable, but don’t let yourself think you aren’t able to do it. As we’ve all heard before, where there is a will, there is a way. If you find something you are passionate about, you will find a way to do it despite any obstacles you may encounter. Is it easy? Never. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

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In 2003 I completed a Thru-Hike on the Appalachian Trail. Since then I have over 12,000 miles underfoot and 20 years of backpacking, and camping experience. Certifications include WFA, WFR, LNT Trainer, and belong to AORE. Have been guiding backpacking trips for over 10 years. The outdoors has taught me one thing. Trusting the Trail! really does provide everything a person needs.

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