5 Tips for Diabetics on Long Road Trips

Diabetes doesn't mean you have to stay at home. We've got five tips to get you ready to hit the road.
Diabetes doesn't mean you have to stay at home. We've got five tips to get you ready to hit the road.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Living with diabetes is difficult, whether you're an adult, a child or the parent of a diabetic child. Trying to maintain an active lifestyle can be even more challenging. But it's possible.

Diabetes, the most common ailment of the endocrine system, affects more than 23 million people in the United States alone [source: WebMD]. Generally speaking, the disease prevents the body from maintaining safe sugar levels. So the best, prevailing advice for diabetics planning long trips can be boiled down to the time-honor Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared."

Diabetics, especially those who are insulin-dependent, understand that limitations are a fact of life. Taking proper precautions, however, can alleviate many of those restrictions. Just don't wait for the last minute.

The first place to start? The doctor's office.

5
Apprise Your Medical Team

Diabetics should never feel like they're traveling alone. Make sure you contact your doctor and medical team beforehand (six to eight weeks is a good timeframe) to assess your current state of physical fitness and diabetes maintenance, to address any possible acute medical issues that might arise, and to make sure you have adequate medication and supplies.

Laura Jones is a Massachusetts mother of a teenage son, Trevor, who has Type 1 diabetes. She developed a long laundry list of precautions designed to make sure her son stays safe when the family is traveling.

"Basically I have supplies everywhere -- car, cooler, purse, suitcase, Trevor's bag," Jones explains. "I pack three times the amount of supplies I will need, and carry those in three different places.

"Above all, I make sure that his MedicAlert necklace is on, and in plain sight."

Immunization shots, which can disrupt insulin levels, should be administered four weeks prior to departure [source: WebMD]. A call to your health insurance provider would be wise as well to ensure you have proper coverage no matter where your travels take you.

Your physician should be able to be able recommend doctors and hospitals in the general vicinity of your destination. And always keep a list of phone numbers of your medical team with your medications.

If you're road tripping across national borders, a list of English-speaking physicians can be found at the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers [source: Chandran].

Find out why your routine shouldn't change across different time zones.

4
Maintain Your Routine

A diabetic's greatest ally is a safe and predictable routine. Long trips often can throw our schedules -- and our bodies -- out of whack, especially if your travels take you across different time zones. Again, prior planning is crucial to help diabetics maintain a proper balance.

Diabetics ought to share copies of their travel itineraries -- specifically showing destinations and anticipated departure and arrival times -- with their physicians. These details will allow health care providers to estimate necessary adjustments during travel.

If her son is on his insulin pump, Jones brings plenty of extra batteries and writes the settings down. "I request a loaner pump from the pump company and have it delivered ahead of time," Jones says of her backup precautions, adding that she also brings the pump case to protect what can be a delicate, but life-saving, piece of equipment.

Traveling to different regions can also present certain dietary challenges, especially regarding proper carbohydrate levels. Check with your nutritionist before departing. If you have a regular exercise regimen, make every effort to stick to it (unless, of course, your vacation plans require you to be more active than usual).

Remember: Travel west will add hours to your day, while traveling east will do just the opposite, compressing your schedule. Give your body adequate time to adjust.

How can you make sure you're road ready? Keep reading.

3
Don't Be a Road Worrier

While the open road can be a gateway to adventure, it can also be a minefield for the traveling diabetic. Make sure to keep a list of all special requirements you or your child might have, including dietary restrictions, and have that list readily available at all times (in the case of a car accident, medical personnel will want as much information as possible).

Keep copies of all medical prescriptions with you -- on your person, not just in the car -- and readily available. In a similar vein, all supplies, such as syringes, insulin pumps and glucagon kits, should have pre-printed manufacturer labels. Keep all medications and supplies close by, in an insulated bag or cooler.

Much like your pre-trip visit to the doctor's office, take your vehicle in for a check-up at least a week before leaving. If you're traveling to regions that often feature extreme climates -- especially high temperatures -- ask your local service station or dealer to pay special attention to the air conditioning unit and engine coolant. A roadside breakdown that is an inconvenience to some can be treacherous for a diabetic.

To keep your vehicle and on-board medications cool while parked in the sun, invest in inexpensive solar shades for the windows. To avoid delays such as getting lost or stuck in traffic jams, which can tax your vehicle and your body, invest in a reliable GPS mapping system. Auto clubs -- like AAA -- can provide updated maps to help you avoid heavy construction areas.

Likewise, make sure your cell phone is always charged, and take an extra battery.

While traveling, make your hotel a home away from home. We'll tell you how on the next page.

2
Make Your Hotel a Home Away From Home

Whether your accommodations are luxurious or the budget variety, you want to be comfortable and secure away from home. Even though most hotels these days have detailed Web sites, it's worth placing a quick phone call in advance of your travels to explain the particulars of your condition. Often the desk staff won't be able to answer all your questions; don't be afraid to ask for a manager.

"I [talk to] the hotels to check on proximity to the hospital, and check the menus online to find out what type of food they have to see what I might need," Jones says.

Once you arrive, get a current map of the city or town, and if you didn't find out beforehand, ask specifically where the nearest hospital and emergency centers are located. Get two copies, and keep one with you at all times during your stay.

While at the hotel, keep your insulin and all medical supplies, which can be temperature sensitive, out of direct sunlight. If possible, rent a room with a refrigerator for your extra supplies (you should plan to bring at least enough for an extra week, as a precaution). If a refrigerator isn't available, have a cooler well-stocked with ice. Similarly, don't rely on the hotel to provide a satisfactory first-aid kit. Bring your own.

Many hotels and motels also offer fitness rooms, or access to nearby fitness clubs, to help you keep pace with your exercise program. However, that's less likely with quaint inns, bed and breakfasts, or remote lodges. Check beforehand.

Ready to take in all the sights while traveling?

1
Taking in All the Sights

Of course, the best part of travel is enjoying all the sights that a different locale has to offer. Diabetics should feel confident that they can do just that, with proper attention to their condition.

If your travels include physical activity, such as walking tours, hiking, rafting or cycling, stock a cooler with drinks and snacks, as well as your medications. Be aware of how often you go to the bathroom, and avoid dehydration.

Bring plenty of loose-fitting cloths, and comfortable shoes and socks (and support hose, if necessary). "I always [pack] extra socks and sneakers, to make sure Trevor's feet are dry and clean," Jones says. If you're visiting a beach, opt for wearing beach-specific shoes instead of open-toe sandals or walking barefoot (the same holds for the hotel pool).

Keep in mind that popular destinations such as big cities -- Las Vegas and New York City are good examples -- often feature a late-night entertainment schedules that visiting diabetics may be unaccustomed to. Plan accordingly by getting enough rest and staying hydrated with non-alcoholic, caffeine-free beverages.

Young diabetics visiting amusement parks or similar attractions are going to want to enjoy the rides. Parents can allow them with little inconvenience. Again, an ounce of prevention works wonders.

"For attractions, I always stop at the gate and let them know that I am with a diabetic," Jones says. "I show them the medications, introduce them to Trevor, and see what kind of accommodations they might have if needed."

Ready to hit the road? We've got lots more information on the next page.

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Sources

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  • Chandran, Manju and Steven Edelman. "Have Insulin, Will Fly: Diabetes Management During Air Travel and Time Zone Adjustment Strategies." Clinical Diabetes, American Diabetes Association. April 2003 (June 30, 2011). http://clinical.diabetesjournals.org/content/21/2/82.full
  • Diabetes.co.uk. "Diabetes and Travel." Diabetes.co.uk, The Global Diabetes Community. (July 1, 2011). http://www.diabetes.co.uk/travel.html
  • FitForTravel. "Diabetes Mellitus and Travel." NHS National Services Scotland. (July 1, 2011). http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/advice/advice-for-travellers/diabetes.aspx
  • Jones, Laura. Personal interview. July 1, 2011.
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  • WebMD. "Diabetes Health Center: Overview and Facts." WebvMD.com. (June 30, 2011). http://diabetes.webmd.com/guide/diabetes-overview-facts
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