As a Type 1 diabetic that loves long-distance walking, I thought I’d share some musings on a few things I’ve found helpful to consider before hopping over the garden fence and heading for the hills. Last year, I completed the End to End Trail in true thru-hiking fashion by wild camping 2000 KM from the most South-Westerly corner of Great Britain to the most North Easterly.
For those who are unfamiliar, diabetes is essentially a long-term health condition where your body is unable to regulate your blood sugar. It’s a diverse and complex illness that comes in a wide variety of shapes and variations, and everyone’s bodies and situations are fantastically different from each other. But for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to be focusing on my own diabetes and how I’ve managed to incorporate my condition into my love for the outdoors. These are my views based on my own experiences relating to my body and my condition and are definitely not intended to be taken as blanket advice for all the wonderfully different diabetic bodies out there.
Now, for Type 1 diabetic hikers like me, there are some serious practical considerations to long-distance hiking that I’d like to mention, especially if you’re thinking of going alone. Firstly, and let’s get it out the way: You really might die… Sure, that’s sort of the deal for all of us any of the time, but heading out alone into a remote area as a Type 1 diabetic does bring with it a certain amount of additional risk that we need to be candid about. The type of trail you choose to undertake will, of course, correlate to your own personal propensity for risk, but in addition to general outdoor safety that everyone should be aware of when planning a hike; for diabetics specifically, there is a very real chance of hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar that can lead to loss of consciousness and death). If you’re a T1 diabetic hiking alone through a remote stretch of trail, the last thing you want is hypoglycemia. So, here’s the super high-tech master plan: Ready?
Emergency gummy bears.
When I’m walking, I always ensure I have enough sweets to get me safely through to the next trail town. This can sometimes be a little testing; especially when I’ve completely run out of my main food supplies and I know I’ve got a bumper pack of yummy gummy bears, just begging to be eaten… But NO MATTER how delicious they look. No matter how they call to you; pleading to have their adorable little heads chomped off. No matter how many miles you have left to walk on an empty stomach. NEVER EAT YOUR EMERGENCY GUMMY BEARS. Until it’s an actual emergency of course. Then you may devour them with glee!
Another unique aspect of hiking with diabetes is the dramatic change in routine. On a long hike, the first week always tends to be particularly challenging for me. As a Londoner, the metabolic shift from a sedentary cosmopolitan computer-bound lifestyle: To climbing hills in the sleet with a heavy backpack, can be quite intense; and it usually takes my body a few days to adjust. During this time my blood sugar levels tend to go a bit haywire, which is very draining, especially as it’s usually compounded by the fatigue that any hiker feels over the first few days on a new trail. During this transition period, I will be monitoring my blood sugar levels via a Freestyle Libre Constant Glucose Monitor (CGM) in my arm. I could write an entire essay on how my CGM has revolutionised my life, but for now, I’ll just implore you: If you’re Type 1 diabetic and you don’t have a CGM: Do everything you (legally) can to get one.
Depending on your starting fitness and openness to new experiences, it may take your body a little longer to settle into your new existence of digging cat holes, river bathing and being able to see the stars again. Be patient. It will come. At about day 5 on the End to End Trail, my body seemed to accept that whatever we were doing, clearly wasn’t just a stroll to the post office. And I felt my systems begin to settle down into the simple rhythm of my crunching footsteps; building like a gentle drum roll that seemed to bring my heart and breath into synchronised accordance. My blood sugar levels became incredibly stable: And with that stability comes something strange and beautiful for diabetics. If you’re anything like me, your blood sugar has a dramatic impact on your mood, energy levels, and ability to pay attention and care about things. In a sense, I feel that the daily rises and dips of my blood glucose actually change who I am to an alarming degree. But out on the trail, I felt for the first time like the same continuous version of myself for whole days and weeks at a time. We are all constantly changing, updating, and replacing ourselves with new cells, to the point where technology, you can never freeze time and hold onto a particular version of yourself in any one moment. But for Type 1 diabetics, in particular, long-distance hiking provides a truly unique opportunity to bring yourself into alignment with the present moment, and stay there in a constant feeling of oneness with yourself and your body, along the gently rolling path.
Long-distance walking has become a regular and essential part of my diabetic management toolbox, and over the last few years, has evolved into something of a holistic philosophy for me. Time in nature is, of course, a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the nature of yourself as a living being, and particularly as a diabetic: A unique kind of body, moving itself along a path, across this beautiful earth for a finite period of time. Being diabetic or existing with any kind of ‘disability’, ‘long-term illness’ or whatever terminology you deem most useful for yourself, is a unique opportunity to more imaginatively explore what it means to be a living being and an intrinsic part of nature. Time seems to unfold most naturally at walking pace, and it is at this strolling speed, I believe, that we can better explore what it means to exsist as beautifully different bodies, in perpetual forwards motion, across the heather and granite and whatever pathways we are called to walk along. For me, the ancient art of walking for the sake of itself is an act of conscious and unconscious inquiry: Into the landscapes of our bodies, the landscapes of our minds and the landscapes of the world. It opens a gateway for each of our individual odysseys into the possibilities of everything that we are and everything we could be.
Interested in Hiking the End to end trail?
To follow more of Charlie’s adventures, you can find him on Instagram –
And you can watch his End to End vlog here