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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.

 

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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
Moon California & prescriptions

Meds I have traveled with. Yes, I keep them in their bottles with labels like that.

There’s no central place on the Internet or on paper that lists which prescription and non-prescription medications are legal and illegal by country. Which makes international travel with meds…a little nerve-racking. I’ve heard and read the horror stories of tourists with legal opiate prescriptions being detained and imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)/Dubai.

So I decided to create a list here. It’s woefully incomplete, but it’s better than anything else I’ve found. But what you’ve really got to do is contact the embassy of

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: This list does NOT substitute for contacting the embassy of the countries you’re visiting and getting the latest legal information from them about traveling with medications. I take NO legal responsibility for anyone traveling with medications of any kind.

Oh, and if you’re stupid enough to travel carrying illegal drugs (which includes medical marijuana, pretty much worldwide) you’re so totally on your own. Be aware that if you’re caught with illegal drugs in another country, your passport will get you precisely squat in the way of legal protection.

United States

Painkillers with codeine are prescription-0nly items in the USA. If you’re from Canada, the U.K., or another country that sells codeine OTC, be aware that you will NOT find your meds OTC in the U.S. You’re permitted to carry these pills, but you’ll want to have your passport with you any time you’ve got your pills on your person as it is NOT legal for US citizens to carry OTC codeine.

United Arab Emirates/Dubai

All narcotic painkillers (that is, anything with codeine or oxycodone or any other opiate derivative or synthetic opioid) are banned in the UAE. To carry a prescription opioid into the UAE, you’ve got to carry a doctor’s letter and prescription information, both of which must be notarized and registered both with your home country’s State Department and the UAE consulate.* If this sounds like way too much work, I’d consider thinking about whether you really need or want to travel to Dubai or elsewhere in the UAE.

While I’ve seen plenty of individual reports online of travelers who have not been searched or questioned about their meds when they’ve entered the UAE, here at TWP I recommend NOT just hoping that you’ll get lucky. ‘Cause in this case, UNlucky = years in a foreign prison. Don’t go there.

State Department info on UAE’s alcohol and drug laws….

* I haven’t been able to verify this statement.

China

You’ll need to carry your prescription meds in their original bottles with labels AND have copies of the original prescriptions available to show Chinese authorities if asked. Yes, that’s a lot more liberal than many of the other countries on this list. Live and learn.

Japan

Cosmopolitan though it is, Japan’s policy on “importing” drugs and medication is draconian. Japan’s got restrictions on OTCs that contain pseudoephedrine and codeine. They’re not fond of people who try to mail or Fedex in their meds either–if you need to mail yourself meds, be sure to get a Yakkan-Syoumei certificate from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

You need to get permission IN ADVANCE from the Japanese Consulate to bring prescription opiates, psychotropics, injectables and syringes (including insulin). Your prescription and a doctor’s note are NOT enough.

If you get caught with a banned medication and no documentation for it, Japanese customs or police can detain you for several weeks. You can be convicted of a drug offense in Japan based only on a urine or blood test.

Seriously, if you’re traveling to Japan, contact the Japanese Embassy in your home country and learn whether your meds are allowed and what documentation you need to carry them–and do this weeks before you leave home.

State Department info on Japan’s drug laws

Mexico

You can hand carry your meds into Mexico legally, though they advise that you have your prescription info with you. (Which you should always do anyhow.) Mexico does permit visitors to ship personal-use medications into Mexico provided that you do some paperwork beforehand. For a fee, you can go through a broker to get your paperwork expedited. Check the link to the State Department for more info about that.

You’ll find a lot of “pharmacies” selling antibiotics, pseudo-Viagra, and who-knows-what-all…especially in heavily traveled tourist areas. Buy from these places at your own SERIOUS risk. TWP recommendation: don’t buy “medications” from “pharmacies” at Mexico’s tourist traps. You don’t know what’s in them.

State Department info on Mexico

Thailand

You can bring up to 30 days worth of medication to Thailand.

Be aware that if you get caught in a drug sting at a club or party, you’ll be arrested if your urine tests positive for drugs. So if you’re taking prescription opioids, consider avoiding the club & rave scene. Yes, I know that’s the main reason lots of people go to Thailand, especially Bangkok. But please consider the ramifications of ending up in a Thai prison, and just go to Burning Man or an ecstatic dance weekend if you’ve really got to do the rave thing.

State department info on Thailand

That’s it for now. I’ll add Parts 2, 3, etc. as I have time to do the research for y’all. Which brings up the question…What countries would you like info about medication/drug laws for?

Hey, Bay Area (and especially East Bay) peeps! I’ve joined up with the Arthritis Foundation, Northern California chapter to give some talks about traveling with pain.

The first of these will be on June 18, 2013 from 6pm-7pm in San Leandro. Info about reserving a seat in the flyer below. If you’re in the area, come check it out! I promise no boring info slides, and lots of Q&A.

2013 Braddock Full Page Flyer

I didn't see this kind of bug in my room at Napa Discovery Inn. But then I was only in there for 5 minutes.

I didn’t see this kind of bug in my room at Napa Discovery Inn. But then I was only in there for 5 minutes. Photo by smee_me on flickr

Twice in the last month I’ve found myself in untenable  situations on the road. Both times, I had to change my plans on the fly. It’s tough and expensive to do that. But sometimes it’s necessary, no matter what your ability or pain level.

In short: Sometimes the best way to improve a bad travel experience is to  pack up and go home.

It’ll be up to you to decide when your personal pain/chaos/trouble-meter has pegged in the red zone.

To stop a trip in the middle, or make a major unforeseen change (like changing flights or hotels) usually costs money. Right now, I make good money at my day job. That means I can afford to indulge my pain and panic attacks in a way that I couldn’t back when I was a full-time freelance writer. When I was skating the poverty line, it took a lot more to make me change paid-for travel plans. Nowadays, I’ll suck up lost money to make myself more comfortable.

It’s up to you. It’s always up to you to figure out what’s worth it to deal with, and what’s just not worth it.

Here’s what drove me to make a major change in one case, and to bail in another case.

The Spider-and-Mosquito Motel

Last month I accidentally found what may be the worst motel in the Napa Valley: the Napa Discovery Inn. In a region that’s got about a thousand wonderful motels, inns, B&Bs, spa resorts, etc etc ad infinitum, there’s no reason at all to stay in a place this crappy. Just a few miles north, the Chablis Inn is a clean, comfortable, safe motel that actually costs less than this freakin’ travesty.

What happened

My instincts started ringing bells and popping red flags the instant I pulled into the Napa Discovery Inn’s parking lot. I stared into the dark, exposed parking lot, lit primarily by my truck’s headlights, and thought “my truck’s going to get broken into.”

I went in to the tiny office, not comforted by the “safety window” that lets clerks deal with customers without letting them in to the office. Hint: those are common in Oakland. NOT in Napa.

Though the clerk was friendly, an overwhelming smell of curry (which I’m kind of allergic to) and loud talking from the next room made the check-in experience unpleasant. And the clerk charged my card for my two-night stay then and there. Another no-no.

Room key in hand, I parked my truck in the too-small space in front of the exposed ground-floor room in an attempt to block the window a bit.

The room was small, badly designed, and not overly clean. But what finally did me in/started me into a full-fledged racing-heart panic attack was the bugs. The distinctive whine of mosquitos came from the ceiling. And as I stared, a big red-and-yellow spider sauntered across the night stand next to the bed.

That did it. Standing there alone, feeling unsafe and creeped out, I freaked.

What I did about it

I grabbed my bags, threw them back into the truck, and strode shaking to the office with the keys. A different clerk, male this time, appeared. I told him my room had bugs and I was leaving.

He wanted to give me a different room. I said no. He yelled at me, angry that I wouldn’t “give him a chance.”

Oddly enough, being verbally abused didn’t help my panic attack. I dropped the keys on the desk and fled.

On the way to the Napa Discovery Inn, I’d seen a couple of chain motels. I picked a Hawthorne Inn & Suites that was only a mile or two away. It was after 10pm, I was pale and shaking and felt like crap. I didn’t want to drive around anymore.

Sure enough, the Hawthorne had rooms available. The lobby was clean and nice (and didn’t have a security window). I went on up to my not-on-the-ground floor room after parking my truck in the well-lit lot. Then, and only then, did my heart rate start to diminish.

I’m never going to see that $300 prepay to the Discovery Inn again. Fine. I’ll repay them by panning them on every review site on the Internet. I can afford to suck up the cash loss.

Mini Burning Man

A couple of weekends ago, I went camping with a big group in a horse pasture in California’s arid Central Valley. I do that occasionally–I belong to a re-enactment group* that does camping events on a large scale. It’s tough to find shady campgrounds that can take 500 people, so we cope with the heat.  The whole state experienced an epic windstorm that weekend. Ever been camping in 35 mph winds? Yarg.

What happened

Friday night was charming. I hung out with friends, had a couple of cocktails, and enjoyed the atmosphere. What with one party and another, I didn’t make it to bed until about 2 a.m.

At about 5 a.m., I woke up when my tent hit me in the face. At 6 a.m., I woke up to children screaming. At 8 a.m. the sun had turned my tent into a steam cooker, and I gave the hell up on sleep.

The temperature rose to 90F-plus by 10 a.m. But what killed us was the wind. Also by 10 a.m. it blew constantly, gusting high. People’s tents and sunshades started blowing over, disrupting the day’s activities. Many folks had expensive tents badly damaged. (One friend had her 20-inch-long wrought-iron tent stakes bend.) We were all breathing dust and powdered horse crap.

I found myself enduring three of the main conditions that comprise the reason I don’t go to Burning Man: heat, wind, and dust.

What I did about it

By 2 p.m. my friends and I had had it. (I camped with couple who brought two children under 5 years old to this event.) We packed up and left a full day early. One of my friends drove my truck home, because I was on the verge of collapse. We got home, and I spent the evening huddled on my couch watching TV and basking in the lack of dust-filled air pummeling my skin.

The good news for this incident was that we didn’t lose money on the deal. The fee to attend the event was flat. No hotel or transportation reservations got canceled. And the gas cost the same on Saturday afternoon as it would have on Sunday afternoon. All we lost was a day of camping with friends.

* I’m in the SCA, if you care.

Liz Hamill Mossbrae Falls

I have conquered Mossbrae Falls! On a road trip through north-central California.

Hey readers! This week I’ve got a guest post by Fiona Hill about road trips. She gave me some new things to try!

Road trips can be daunting for people suffering from invisible illnesses. We all know that unnecessary stresses can exacerbate everything from chronic pain to fatigue. So, does that mean that those of us suffering in relative silence should miss out on the trips that everyone else enjoys?

In short, no! With a little extra care and preparation, road trips when dealing with chronic pain and other ailments are possible. Check out these tips to make sure you’re comfortable and enjoying yourself! 

Before You Leave

If you have a long journey planned try to make sure you are well rested before the journey starts. Organize everything you need in advance, including medication to avoid rushing and becoming stressed, as stress often triggers conditions like fibromyalgia. Have an itinerary planned for your journey and for your break when you arrive at your destination, and factor in a day of rest before you travel back.

Your Throne

Possibly the most important part of any road trip when you are suffering from an invisible illness is your seat. Whether you will be seated for an hour or 8 hours (we hope not), it’s important that you are comfortable. Whether you rent a car or are driving your own make sure the seat you will be occupying is comfortable by using a mesh back support or an orthopedic back pillow that will give you extra support and help you to maintain your posture during the drive. You can also pick up neck support pillows at most retailers that will ward off neck aches and pains. The better your posture the less stiff you will become.

When your seat is as comfortable as possible you might want to think about some simple stretching exercises you can do whilst in the car to prevent any stiffness that will soon turn into pain, as well as fighting off fatigue. Head to http://www.drivetimeyoga.com/roadtripstretches for information on road trip body stretches, including ‘Stoplight Yoga’ and the ‘Tailbone Tuck’.

Baggage

Think carefully about how much luggage you need to take, especially if you’ll need to unload or load it by yourself. Heavy lifting can make your symptoms worse leaving you unable to enjoy your trip.

That said; don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. What’s worse? Asking a stranger for help or dealing with days of pain by pushing your body too much?

Stop! Restroom Time!

Planning your journey with rest stops is important. No matter how comfortable your seat is or how well planned the start of your journey was, nothing beats a good break! If you’re aware of restrooms and roadside dining options along the way you can avoid mad panics when you feel a bout of fatigue or pain beginning. Where possible you should find out as much as possible about the rest stops along your journey, do they have the correct facilities for you? Are they known to be clean? How large are the toilet stalls? Do they have handrails? (Liz: Are they safe and comfortable for solo/female travelers?)

When Hunger Strikes

Staying well hydrated and well fed during your journey ensures that you have the energy to continue. It’s especially important to eat a healthy breakfast. Avoid snacks that are laden with sugar that leave your system quickly and choose foods that will provide both instant and slow release energy like dried fruits, nuts, bananas, whole-grain bread and a splash of coffee.

If you need to stay alert, chew peppermint gum; the chewing motion and minty flavour will help you to stay awake. (Unless you’ve got TMJ and can’t chew gum—in that case, sucking mints can do similar things. –Liz) Chewing apple slices has the same effect and will also boost your fructose levels.

How do you cope with your invisible illness during road trips? If you have any tips or tricks then let us know. Check out Liz’s post on 10 Ways to Screw Up Travelling with Pain.