I’m an active person and grew up in a household where my sisters and I were encouraged to spend as much time outside as possible. We would go hiking, camp in our backyard with our neighborhood friends, and go swimming at our country club or a friend’s backyard pool. Naturally, the enjoyment for outdoor activities followed me into early adulthood, and I didn’t want to give that up when I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC).
When you’re first diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease like UC and learn the ramifications of not being close to a bathroom, it’s hard to find the confidence to even walk out your front door.
I can still remember the first time I went hiking with my boyfriend Danny after I was diagnosed. We went to Hocking Hills, a beautiful state park that’s about an hour and a half outside of Columbus, Ohio. We had hiked at Hocking Hills before my diagnosis and we assumed the trip would be just as simple after.
We were wrong. Danny and I had to make numerous pit stops along the way. I was gripping onto the side of the passenger seat, eyes closed and trying to take deep breaths as we drove the 20 or 30 minutes off the route to get to a bathroom.
Luckily, we made it to Hocking Hills after a few unplanned bathroom stops. I was determined not to give up, even though Danny had asked me several times if I still wanted to go.
We walked 30 or 40 minutes up the trail, passing giant ledges of stone and chestnut oaks that were covered in the vivid colors of fall, before I felt the urgent need to use the bathroom again. A wave of pain came over me and I knew that I had to go ASAP. The closest bathroom was at the front of the park, and I sprinted towards it. But there were long lines at both the men’s and women’s bathrooms. My state of panic increased along with my pain. Danny and I ran to the car and he drove the 3 miles to the gift shop bathroom, where I could finally relieve myself.
I remember sitting in that bathroom thinking, “Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like? Not being able to do anything I love or go anywhere new or fun because of my ulcerative colitis?”
What I wish I had back then was someone to tell me how to plan for trips like that. That specific hiking trip was towards the beginning of my journey with UC, so I wasn’t well educated. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of education when you're first diagnosed. I hear a lot of people tell me that their doctors didn’t adequately prepare them for what their diagnosis meant for their individual lives or their specific interests.
If you like to hike or take part in other outdoor activities and you have UC, you don’t have to give up what you love. Here are some tips and advice that I wish were shared with me before I started adventuring outside post diagnosis:
- Write down how many times you go to the bathroom a day and at what time, so you know what your average is. While ulcerative colitis is a difficult disease because of its unpredictability, it does help to know about how many times and how long after eating you may need to use the restroom, so that you can be better prepared.
- If you're going on a hiking or camping trip, be sure to research that specific park. Map out where all the bathrooms are and share that with a family member or friend. If Danny and I would have mapped out where all the bathrooms were at Hocking Hills and knew that the only one was by the entrance, we might’ve chosen a different park or hiking trail.
- Call the main office of the park and ask if they have a standard procedure for those with special needs, such as private bathrooms near the front office or entrance.
- Plan your meals accordingly. Before you start your hike or excursion, eat a binding snack that won’t cause any irritation. A food option from the BRAT diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast) works best for me. I made the mistake of not eating anything before my first hike. Hiking on an empty stomach meant I had to go to the bathroom more than usual because there was nothing to soak up the digestive acid in my stomach, which irritated my colon.
- Staying hydrated is just as important as watching your diet when you are planning a hiking trip or other outdoor activity. People with IBD have a tendency to become dehydrated easier than people with healthy digestive systems because of excessive bowel movements and diarrhea. Make sure you're drinking and packing plenty of water before, during, and after your trip.
- Stay hydrated, especially when spending time outdoors in the heat and humidity. Drinking plenty of water and eating a small amount of salty food, like pretzels, can be helpful.
- If you’re camping or staying for a long period, pack smart foods as well. Turkey sandwiches with light provolone or Swiss cheese, crackers and peanut butter, Greek yogurt, pretzels, grilled chicken breasts, and dairy-free pudding are all good options. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about other healthy foods to bring.
- If you wake up on the day of your planned trip and find that you aren’t feeling well, don’t push yourself. It’s okay to say “no” and to move the trip to another day. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t — it’s better to stay in and rest than to overexert yourself, which can cause bleeding or intensify pain.
- Take your medication accordingly. Make sure you're preparing to be away from home with a pill-carrying case or the pill bottles in labeled plastic bags. It helps me to take Tums, Imodium, loperamide, or Bentyl during trips when I know I’m going to be away from the bathroom for an extended period of time. The medication helps me with upset stomach, cramping, and frequent bowel movements. Be sure to talk with your doctor before taking any kind of medication outside of your normal regimen, though.
- Make sure you’re traveling with friends or family members who understand this illness and your need to be closer to a bathroom.
- Talk to your doctor before going on a long camping trip for additional recommendations on how to remain pain-free.
- Stay relaxed and take it easy on yourself. If that means going to bed earlier than others or sleeping in later, then do it. Sleep is so important when you have UC, and getting a good night’s rest will make a day of hiking even better.
With my ostomy and now J-pouch, I hike outdoors all the time. It’s a great way for me to leave behind the bustle of the city and de-stress in nature. I have found that being outdoors even calms my symptoms. Simply sitting in the sun or under some shade is incredibly soothing. I hope you are able to enjoy spending time in nature, too.