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8 Survival Tips for Camping With Chronic Illness

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I want to start with a string of expletives, but I won’t. Summer. That precious time with our children stretching out before us. Sunshine. Slow motion running along the shoreline. Blissful laughter on the breeze…

For some reason I decided it would be a great idea to go camping for two weeks in Devon, changing sites at the halfway point to maximize the adventure. I know, crazy right!?

The stereotypical British image of rainy, grey summer days: it’s accurate. In the South West we are at the constant mercy of Mother Nature; this summer she decided that I didn’t have enough to test me, so she sent me gale force winds and torrential rain for 10 days. In a tent. With four kids. And a dog. On a cliff top.

By day three I couldn’t walk as the constant wet and cold got into my bones. The children were loving it but created a huge volume of wet, muddy mayhem wherever they turned. Wet beds, soaked shoes, coats; you name it. It became a constant mission trying to keep their beds dry and warm, with very limited resources.

By the fourth morning I sat in tears, in pain and at a loss as to how to proceed. Yet again the wind had kept us awake all night. The tent although waterproofed before we left, leaked. Our beds were soaked, we were soaked and the weather was due to take a turn for the worse yet again. So we came up with a plan.

My practical boyfriend took a trip to a hardware store, returning with a pile of random items: stakes, rope, ratchet straps, tarpaulins and a heater. By the end of the day we had a watertight sleeping and social space that wasn’t going to blow away.

We were safe and dry.

I learned that nothing is impossible with chronic illness if you have the right support, are adaptable and as prepared as you can be. To be honest, camping with chronic illness is a living hell, but I wouldn’t say never again. The kids were a tired, soggy, muddy mess from living slightly feral for two weeks, but they were happy. I watched them swing from high ropes, climb, zip wire, balance and swim in the sea, lakes and rivers; challenging their fears and embracing life no matter the difficulties we faced. My little family made me proud through my tears of pain.

Would I recommend camping while chronically ill? No. I’m afraid if I’m honest, I wouldn’t. If you could guarantee dry, warm weather then it would be a resounding yes, but in the UK it’s such hard work. Cooking, washing, getting dressed, washing up; all of it is 10 times harder than at home and uses up so many spoons of energy. The simplest tasks become a huge mission.

If you, like me are foolish enough to attempt this kind of mission, then I have some top tips for survival you might like to consider:

1. Be prepared — research the area, come equipped to deal with the unexpected. Gather information on local services before you arrive.

2. Bring drugs! I packed for the worst and I’m super glad I did. Topping up to max pain relief helped me survive this for the benefit of the kids. I also brought all my mobility aids.

3. Make sure you have at least one person in your group that will be practical and calm in adverse conditions. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to do this trip without someone who could physically achieve what needed to be done.

4. Be realistic and honest about your limits before you go. My family all knew what they were getting themselves into and that that definitely helped.

5. Bring plenty of things to keep you warm, dry and comfortable. I had my special cushion on a camp chair, blankets, waterproof covers, slip-on shoes — that kind of thing. Anything that limits your essential physical activity is a must.

6. Be prepared to not shower much — we call it a Cornish shower, a packet of baby wipes and deodorant. Your spoons need to be used wisely as the physical demands will be very different to at home.

7. Bring plenty of static activities to amuse you all, alongside physical activities that the children can do at a safe distance. I bought boules, stuff for an assault course, frisbee, etc. For static games we had coloring, workbooks, stories, excavation kits, puzzles and babies.

8. Be flexible. By day 10 I confess to breaking the family rule of no devices or Internet on holiday. I let them all have a couple of hours screen time to watch a film and play apps. Rules are great but sometimes your needs come first. I used this time to just lie still next to the kids in our camp beds; it gave me the energy to push through yet another rainy day.

Life is short; I personally try not to avoid hard situations just because they are by nature hard. We all look back on that holiday with a smile and fond memories; the tough bits that felt overwhelming at the time were eclipsed by what we as a family unit gained.

Sometimes the toughest experiences are the ones that define you; I taught my children that no matter how hard life gets, there’s always a way to survive. They will undoubtedly face challenges in life, but have some of the tools now, to overcome them. We didn’t give up, even if we wanted to. They also witnessed firsthand that hard work pays off. We survived in relative comfort in the end because we adapted, problem solved and worked as a team to execute our plan.

No matter how tough the experience was, those skills will stay with them for life, and that makes every second of pain worth it for me.

Originally published: September 20, 2016
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