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I haven’t even left California yet and I’ve already screwed up. Awesome.

Checked my e-tickets two days ago and discovered that for reasons lost to the mists of post-menopausal memory, I booked us on a 7am flight out of San Francisco.

Which means we need to get to the airport no later than 5am. Crap.

Much furious consultation with my spouse ensued. We decided to get a motel room at a place near the airport that offers free shuttle service, plus a well-lit place to park a car for the 10 days we’ll be gone.

Of course the problem isn’t confined to the California end of the trip. We arrive in Dublin at 6:55am. Which means that we’ve got ~9 hours to kill before our room in Dublin City Centre opens up.

I can’t manage sightseeing after a transcontinental+transatlantic flight. My body absolutely will not tolerate that kind of nonsense.

The answer is yet another airport motel room. I emailed customer service at the Radisson Blu Dublin Airport and discovered that they’re set up to deal with situations like this in a couple of ways. They’ve got what they call Day Rooms that are available from 9am-5pm, or they’ll let a weary traveler rent a room overnight and check in very late (like, say, early the following morning), then check out at 3pm for no extra charge.

I went with option B, which will allow me to stagger/roll out of Customs and Passport Control straight to the free shuttle, straight to my motel room to collapse in an insensible heap.

While I haven’t yet stayed in their motel, so far I’m quite happy with the Radisson Blu customer service folks. They’ve followed up with me and seem intent on making sure I’m taken care of.

The morals of this story:

1. Pay attention to your flight bookings, and try to make your departure and arrival times work for you rather than against you.

2. Flexibility and good problem-solving skills are key for traveling with pain. Be willing to change your plans to make yourself more comfortable.

3. Money helps. A lot.

Next week I’m off to Ireland. I’ve never been to Ireland before, so everything will be new and different and shiny.

Here’s how I’ve planned around my pain so far.

Flying out

I’ll do all the right stuff to make the long flight more tolerable, including:

  • Get to the airport ~3 hours before my flight leaves.
  • Use the wheelchair service
  • Bring my own food
  • Bring my neck pillow
  • Do in-seat stretching exercises
  • Get up every hour and walk the length of the cabin and back at least once
  • Stay hydrated
  • Relax when disembarking–the prize for the “race” to the baggage carousel is to wait 20-30 minutes for the luggage to appear, and I don’t want to win that prize

Hotels

All my hotel rooms are booked. Because I’m traveling on my parents’ budget rather than my own, they are nice hotels. Which means working elevators, other people carrying the bags, soft comfy beds, bathtubs, and room service. It’s not politically correct to say so, but rubbing money on the pain really does help.

On the ground transport

In Dublin, we’ll be walking and taking public transit. Because it’s a big touristy city, I know I can catch cabs if I need them. I also know that if I’m having an iffy day, I won’t stray too far from the hotel.

We’re hiring a car and driver for the longer hauls and our time out beyond Dublin. The ‘cars’ will actually be minivans, which means I’ll have a place to lie down if I need it.

Meds

I’ll be refilling all my prescriptions before I leave. None of my current meds are restricted in the EU. All meds will still be in my carry-on, in their original (labeled) bottles.

Ireland is a civilized country that sells codeine-based painkillers over the counter in pharmacies. I will likely take advantage of said civility.

Money

I’ll be getting in touch with my bank early next week to inform them of the trip. These days, you want to do that, so they don’t suspend your account (for suspected fraud) when you suddenly start making charges in another country.

Yup, that’s a lot of planning. But every practical thing I take care of at home makes it easier for me to relax and enjoy

 

This is the Ostrich Pillow. You can get one of these and wear it on a plane. Seriously.  Photo by Kevin Hale on flickr

This is the Ostrich Pillow. You can get one of these and wear it on a plane. Seriously.
Photo by Kevin Hale on flickr

One of absolutely most important parts of traveling with pain is sleep. To manage my pain on the road, I must must MUST get enough sleep every single night.

I ran across this article in the New York Times today. The author tried out a number of supposedly sleep-enhancing apps and products. While the article is very smart-phone-and-tablet-app heavy, it’s also got a few serious sleep masks and funky pillows mixed in towards the end.

I haven’t tried any of these products. And I won’t be trying the apps–I wear earplugs to sleep, even at home, and they work for me. But I may give the masks a whirl. And if I’m ever feeling really brave/uncaring of how ridiculous I look, I might try the Ostrich Pillow for the humor value.

Have you tried any of these products? If yes, what did you think?

Mmm…Dust!

Liz’s update: Nope, I still don’t go to Burning Man. I’m slowly working my way up to attending bigger SCA events. But a 69,000-person dust-choked baking-hot week at Black Rock City with a chance of severe thunderstorms? Nope. Here’s why, with updates on how to do it if you really really want to.

A confession: I’ve always wanted to go to Burning Man. I’ve got firm roots in subculture; any number of my friends have Burned. Burning Man has long since gone semi-mainstream–families bring their children to the no-holds-barred festival of art and weirdness.

But I don’t go. For a traveler with pain, Burning Man really isn’t a good idea. Neither are other big multi-day festivals, like the Coachella Music Festival in California or the Pennsic War in Pennsylvania. This is one of the big bummers of being hiddenly disabled–I/we can’t go anywhere and do everything that healthy people do. Huge crowds encamped over hundreds of acres, miles of walking over uneven ground every day, crappy bathroom facilities, zero quiet for sleeping, ridiculously awful camping conditions or insane parking…it’s all a recipe for painful disaster.

Infrastructure

It may be super-popular, but Burning Man remains a giant camping event out in the middle of the barren desert. Black Rock City has street signs, but no running water, no electricity, and only the most basic of medical facilities. While, er, certain pharmaceuticals do tend to be easily available at Burning Man, actual medications are much harder to come by. You’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, for real, with no cell phone signal and little chance of getting immediate help if your condition flares.

Climate

Here’s my most serious reason for not Burning–the climate out on the playa. Triple digit heat, endless winds, and of course the raging dust storms. As exciting as it sounds to fling off my clothes and run around in the pounding sun, then have dust particles blown into every crevice of my body, I’m going to pass for the next while. I can’t handle bunches of dust in my sinuses and lungs–and anyone with asthma or any other respiratory condition should think twice before packing up the RV.

If you choose to go, don’t just wander out into the desert unprepared. Read and reread this manifest by the operators of Burning Man about keeping yourself safe and reasonably healthy.

Smoke

Speaking of lung-clogging dust, Burning Man patrons also get to inhale plenty of smoke. Leading up to the Man’s burning, other flammable art installations go up. As do pounds of smokable substances within the encampments. Folks with allergies and sensitivities are unlikely to find their fellow Burners to be interested in accommodate requests for a smoke-free area.

Recreational Pharma

I can’t do most recreational drugs. Which does in fact mean that I’d miss out on a pretty big aspect of the festival. Why can’t I? Because reliable research (not hysterical government-inspired propaganda, nor “it’s all good man” wishful thinking) tells me that many/most fun drugs don’t play well with my prescription medications.

If you’re planning to play that way, DO RESEARCH FIRST. Then be safe first, and entertained/amused/high second (or not at all). Combining ‘scripts with recreational drugs can have severe consequences, and no high is worth having a heart attack or seizure. (Remember, on the playa you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest real hospital.)

Cost

Finally, there’s the USD cost of going to Burning Man (called Burning Wallet by an acquaintance who goes to the playa every year) or to any other major festival:

  • Tickets to get in the gate cost hundreds of dollars per person.
  • RV rentals go for super-premium during Burning Man. Seriously–many renters charge double their high season rates for the week before and the week after Labor Day. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for one week for a small RV, and $2,500 for a larger one. Or more.
  • Food and drink: All on you, and you’ll need more non-alcoholic drink than you imagine. Figure $100 and up per person.
  • Gas to get to the event, and to run a generator in your RV.
  • Equipment: Why bother going to an event like Burning Man if you’re going to cower inside your RV all day? To get out and join the party, you’ll need stuff. Camp chairs, shade structures, some sort of vehicle to get around Black Rock City is big–to explore, it’s necessary to walk or bike or somehow travel several miles in the blazing heat of the day or weird dry chill of the night. Oh and a storm poncho and good sunglasses and a hat. A respirator if you’re sensitive. A giant art project or shareable community thingo.

It adds up to thousands of dollars. Thousands.

The Bottom Line

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to go to a festival with pain. I am saying that it’s likely to be really really hard. And maybe not a great idea. For me…I’d probably get about two hours of doing kewl stuff out on the playa, then get to spend the next two days of the festival in bed. That’s not the best fun vs pain ratio, and it’s always key to estimate the fun vs pain ration when traveling.

HOT TIP: Yes, you can go to Burning Man in a wheelchair. No, it’s not at all easy, and no, Black Rock City is not subject to the ADA. They’ve got some accessible port-a-potties, and that’s about it. They’ve also got square miles of alkaline dust that can harm or destroy your chair. But if you insist, they do have info about Burning in a chair here.

If you’re out on the playa now–awesome! I hope you’re having an amazing time. And I’m sorry I won’t be joining you.

Photo (c) Wonderlane on Flickr

I ran across this Car Talk advice column today, and it spoke to me:

Sciatic pain may mean it’s time for an automatic

Sigh. It’s true–my next vehicle needs to be an automatic with a power-adjustable driver’s seat. Right now I’m driving a 15-year-old manual transmission pickup truck. And it hurts.

If you’re going on a road trip and you’ll be driving (or even passengering), think about the car you’re taking.

  • Is it comfortable for you?
  • Really?
  • Can you adjust your seat to make yourself more comfortable?
  • Does the passenger seat lie flat back?
  • What about when you’ve got your luggage in the car?
  • Is there room to add pillows that will support your back, neck, legs…whatever’s hurting you?
  • Does the seat belt lie where it should on your body, without adding pain?
  • When/if you’re driving, can you adjust your seat for maximum comfort and minimum impact?
  • Does it hurt to operate the vehicle?
  • Do the temperature controls (including heated/cooled seats) work well enough to keep you comfortable?

One option I’ve used: if my vehicle isn’t comfortable enough for a long trip, I rent something. Larger sedans tend to be the best for me for long road trips. Luxury sedans are lovely if I can afford them. I neither need nor want a convertible–too much money for a feature that can add to my pain. On the other hand, heated seats diminish my pain noticeably if I’m traveling in a cold climate.

It’s okay to choose a different car than your daily driver for a long road trip. It won’t get its feelings hurt.

 

Coleman pop-up tent trailer

Editor’s Note: Yup, I got to spend five days and five nights in a trailer on Loon Lake, Washington with my husband. This trailer hasn’t moved in almost three decades, so I didn’t deal with the driving part of RVing. Actually, it was more of a cabin-style experience. So I’ll be updating and reposting my cabin camping post too.

 

I adore the outdoors, but it’s become hard to spend 24/7 out in nature. With chronic pain, sleeping on the ground goes from uncomfortable to untenable. And so comfier camping options start to look more attractive than backpacking tents.

RVs have come a long way from their Airstream and VW Bus roots. Today, even tent trailers burst with indoor bathroom and kitchen facilities, heaters, and push-button pop-up/pop out capabilities. Camper-vans include king-sized beds in the back. And bus-sized super-RVs have everything and the kitchen sink–A/C, satellite TV, pop-out living rooms, automatic awnings…all the comforts of home or more.

So how do you choose the right RV for you?

Make a list of your needs and wants

As a traveler with pain and a bladder condition, my RV needs list look something like this:

  • Comfortable bed that’s at least 6 and half feet long
    I’ve gotta sleep at night or my pain flares. Also, I’ve got a tall husband and we both need comfy sleeping space.
  • Heater
    Cold exacerbates my pain, and I can’t sleep if I’m freezing. And the best camping spots out in the forest often get cold at night.
  • Indoor toilet
    I have to get up to go to the bathroom at least once every night (and that’s when my IC’s not flaring). A long walk to a campground restroom totally disrupts my sleep.
  • Enough space to store things like pillows, blankets, hot water bottles, and coolers comfortably, so that I’m not tripping over things at night.

My high wants for an RV are:

  • Refrigerator
  • Kitchen w/ stove, oven, and sink
  • Indoor shower
  • Electricity for blankets, reading lamps, and so forth

But that’s me. Make your own list, based on your health needs.

Size and driveability

RVs and trailers feel cramped inside–even the bigger ones. Passageways are narrow and “rooms”…well, there’s a reason I put quotation marks around the word. My husband and I can’t change clothes at the same time in the bedroom of an average-sized RV without whacking into one another. If you’ve got an anxiety disorder with any hints of claustrophobia, RVing may not be the right choice for you.

On the other hand, somebody’s got to be able to drive the thing. If I tried to drive one of those giant RVs, I’d be a quivering ball of stress and pain within an hour, because I’m not accustomed to piloting a Greyhound-bus sized vehicle.

Giant RVs can’t park just anywhere, either. When you pick out your rental or purchase, think about who’s going to drive, where you want to go (windy roads? high wind areas? ice/snow?), and how much luxury and space you really need.

If you’re considering a trailer, do you have a truck that can pull it, or will you need to rent (or buy) that too? Renting RVs ain’t cheap–expect to pay about the same per-night rate as you would for a moderate motel. ~$100 per night is what I’ve found for smaller RVs, and it goes up from there.

I lean towards the smallest possible RV or camper that’s got all my needs and a few of my wants, even though it’s a squeeze to stay in. You might feel differently, especially if you’ve got a partner who’s comfortable driving larger vehicles.

Set up and tear down

How much physical work and time does it take to set up your RV to camp in? Do you just push a couple of buttons, or do you have to lift, pull and crank? How hard is it to detatch a trailer or truck-bed cap from the towing vehicle?

Possibly more important, how much physical work do you need to do to pack the RV back up, reattach the trailer, and do everything needed to get the RV ready to go back home. You’ll be more tired at the end of the trip than at the beginning. Make sure you’ll be able to pack down without causing a pain flare.

Pick the right campsite

Before you leave home, know where you’re going. RV campgrounds and campgrounds with RV spots often require reservations (and sometimes fill up months in advance). Here are some things to think about when choosing your destination:

  • Make sure you’ve got a spot your RV fits into. If you’re new to RVing, campsites go by RV length. The shorter your RV, the more sites you’ll have to choose from.
  • What hookups (if any) does the site offer? Electricity? Water? Sewer/sanitation? If there’s no sewer hookup, does the campground have a dump station?
  • Does your site have shade trees?

The Burning Man Effect

Just as an FYI, RV rentals triple in price for the weeks before and after Labor Day weekend. At least that’s true in the Western states. Why? Because they’re expecting you to take the RV to Burning Man and possibly to trash it. My advice–pick a different time of year to rent an RV.

All that said, a nice modern RV with push-button setup and easy sanitation clean-out can make camping with pain a viable and even comfortable vacation option.

Pop-up photo by jimduell on flickr
Bathroom photo by marada on flickr

Nice tent–wish it were nearer to the trees

Editor’s Note: I’m camping again! My pain condition has improved since I wrote this in 2010. Also, I’m now following my own advice. I’ve got the double-thick Coleman air mattress with the 1-inch zip-on memory foam pad that keeps the cold air away from me. I’ve got the tent that sets up in 2 minutes. I’ve got a couple of friends I camp with who carry the heavy stuff for me so I don’t aggravate anything.

While I still wouldn’t recommend tent camping for anyone with severe chronic pain, I now believe that with mild to moderate chronic pain, tent camping can be both possible and fun.

Here’s how:

Bring friends

Then let them do as much of the work as possible. Because tent camping takes work–you’ve got to unpack the car, set up camp, cook, do dishes, secure food away from bears, hike back and forth to the bathroom, carry water…it goes on and on. Think about all the work that needs doing before you head out camping–it’s a lot harder than staying in a hotel.

Buy a big tent

Like one of these. Or these. Stooping down to fold and spindle yourself into a 2-3 man backpacking tent will make pain worse, not better. In a big tent, you can fit all the equipment you need to maximize your comfort, including the oversized air mattress and the propane heater.

Set up that nice big tent beneath a nice big tree. About three seconds after the sun rises on a nice summer day, the icy air inside an unshaded tent will rise about 140 degrees. Or at least it’ll feel about like that. But a shaded campsite makes all the difference. If you open up the windows to allow air to circulate through your tent, you can even take an afternoon nap in a shaded tent.

Create the warmest, comfiest bed you can

Start with a sturdy, self-inflating air bed. If  you like, add a memory foam mattress topper. Before you inflate the mattress, spread out a wool blanket, an old wool rug, or a sleeping bag. This goes underneath the air mattress, to keep as much cold from seeping up as much as possible.

Skip the expensive Zero-Kelvin mummy bag and make yourself up a real bed. Sheets, blankets, multiple pillows, the works. Regular rectangular sleeping bags, fully unzipped, make good camping blankets. Not only will it feel more comfortable and homelike, you’ll be able to share in your camping partner’s body warmth. Now’s not the time to be squeamish, either–even if your camp buddy isn’t your life partner, borrow some body heat!

If a pile of blankets doesn’t keep you warm enough (it doesn’t work for me), a few options can help turn up the heat. My favorite is the battery-operated electric blanket. A poor man’s version, the hot water bottle, doesn’t work anywhere near as well for general bed heating, but is better if you need to warm up chilled joints or icy feet.

Skip the traditional camp food and eat right

For me, beenie-weenies from a can mixed + burnt marshmallows + grape kool-aid = hideous pain flare. Instead, keep as close to your standard daily fare as you can. Unless you’re already good at it, don’t bother trying to cook whole meals over a fire. Instead, buy a propane camp stove–Coleman stoves are fuel-efficient, easy to cook on, and virtually indestructible. (My recommendation: always buy Coleman branded camp stoves. Cheap imitators never work half as well.) Cooking on a good multi-burner camp stove feels lots like cooking on an at-home gas stove. With a matching camp stove griddle, eggs and pancakes for breakfast fry up in a snap. A pot of boiling water plus some gourmet jarred sauce becomes a delicious pasta dinner. I do pack nuts and dried fruit in ziplock bags and call it trail mix when I take it hiking. And yeah, I’ll roast a few marshmallows after a nutritious dinner. Some traditions ought to be honored.

Bring a super-comfy seat

Bring a comfy camp chair, preferably with a footstool, like this one. Add an extra plastic dish pan to your kit, and use it for either warm water or ice water so you can soak your feet. Get a few crack-em instant hot packs and cold packs from the drugstore, so you can ice or heat sore spots each evening. If you’ve got an old yoga mat, bring it along too, and spread it out each day for a stretching and relaxation session.

Light up the night

Pack flashlights, a couple of camp lanterns, and plenty of extra batteries. Then use them every time you get up to walk anywhere at night. Nothing makes the pain of camping worse than adding a broken toe or a sprained ankle from tripping over an unseen root or stepping in a gopher hole in the middle of the night.

Use a camp toilet

Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is my least favorite part of tent camping. Sure, most modern campgrounds provide shared facilities. So all I’ve got to do is slip out of my nice warm bed, find my shoes, struggle into a coat, grab a flashlight, unzip the tent, and shiver my way across the campground in the dead of night, hoping that I’ve remembered the right path to take. Given my bladder issues, I get to do that between once and five times every night.

The best solution: thrust my shivering dignity aside and use a camp toilet. These days they come with seats and high tech plastic disposal bags. Best of all, by shoving  a camp toilet in the corner of the tent (and possibly adding a makeshift privacy screen) I can avoid all of the wretchedness of leaving the tent in the middle of the night.

That’s about it. Oh, except for my opinion of backpacking and hike-in camping. Don’t do it. If you’ve got pain, the level of misery you’ll achieve while backpacking will be amazing. [Editor's note: this part's still true. Chronic pain = no hike-in camping for me.]

Next up…RVs and other civilized means of camping with pain.

Photo by baylina on flickr
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