Can I Camp If I Have IBS?
Last updated: July 2019
I am a city girl, having been born and bred in Brooklyn, New York. I never laid eyes on a tent the first two decades of my life much less pitched one till I was an adult, mid-way through college. It was the summer of '99 and I wanted to go to the Woodstock '99 festival that was only a couple of hours from my college campus where I was taking classes at the time. I bought a cheapo tent from Target for the event and went off by myself to enjoy it. But the truth was it was a test of another sort, besides just "can I handle attending a rowdy music festival by myself?" It was also: "How will my IBS fare during this trip?"
I had only been diagnosed with IBS the prior winter, after a sudden onset of symptoms in late '98 that caused me to dwindle from 120 to 100 pounds in a single semester. I was so sick, I had to take the following semester off on a medical leave of absence. I had gained much, but not all, of the weight back by the time of the festival and was a little bit better at knowing what to eat. Yet, I still had flares several times a week. The festival groups didn't have regular bathroom facilities, but gross port-o-potties. I decided to eat very little and only stick to confirmed "safe" foods. I bought a bag of bagels and that was it, though in the searing heat most of them spoiled within a day and I only had one. After I mostly fasted, drinking tons of water but not really eating. I cut my trip short too, only really being there a day and a half (which was a good decision, as the riots started shortly after I left).
Rules for camping
A few years later I met a man who loved camping and we were in a relationship, so I decided to try it with him. Here were the rules I employed, which helped me out:
1. Real bathroom facilities
Only camp in areas where there were real bathroom facilities, with plumbing. Not all people with IBS do this, and I admire how hardcore they are for digging holes in the ground and/or braving outhouses. But for me, knowing I there would be real bathrooms with flushable toilets relieved my anxiety and stress, because I knew I didn't have to worry about planning for a flare. With that assessed, I could focus on enjoying where I was.
2. Camp in close proximity to those bathroom facilities
I always made sure when we went camping that we were within 20 or 30 feet from the bathroom facilities -- somewhere I could handle going to late at night or multiple trips. This also relieved my anxiety.
3. Plan meals out ahead of time and stick to it
The day before and morning of leaving to camp, I always ate more bland foods than usual and avoided the usual triggers. Then while camping, we stuck to very plain, IBS-friendly meals -- usually oatmeal and banana with herbal tea for breakfast; a plain bagel with cream cheese for lunch maybe; and for dinner, usually plain rice and some IBS-friendly veggies sauteed in there. No fatty sauces, no spicy staples. No coffee. No alcohol.
4. Permission to leave if needed
I've always made it clear that if I am feeling like a flare might be coming on, we can leave to go home early. I did this once. We camped overnight and during the day I started to feel sick and I knew one more night would do me in. So, we finished our hike and headed home before dark. I did get sick the next day and it was good to be back home so I am happy I followed my instincts.
5. Understanding and accepting your limits
I am never going to be the person who goes camping in the woods for a week. I just can't due to my health issues (which doesn't only include IBS). I used to beat myself over this and feel like less than because the image of myself that I wanted to project didn't pan out. I love the outdoors and sometimes in certain circles there is almost this competition as who is more "genuine" in who is more outdoorsy, and that is exhibited through camping feats. It didn't help that my ex really wanted to camp a lot. But I knew my limits and I've made peace with them. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy the outdoors. But I do in a way that works for me and is compatible with the needs of my body. And the people in my life now accept that about me as well.
Do you camp with IBS? If so, how do you plan for it and what tips do you have?
Do you suffer from IBS-C, IBS-D, or IBS-Mixed/Alternating?