Road Trip Tips

By Talley Henning Brown


Whatever shape your travels take, it’s a good idea to pay extra respect to type 1 diabetes (T1D). JDRF’s own “road warrior,” Andy Bell, who was diagnosed with T1D at age 14, is certainly a case in point. “For me, the journey has always been more meaningful than the destination,” he says. If you’re a traveler with T1D, you might just want to plan for that journey a little differently.

A communications professional originally from Columbia, MO, Andy has spent more time driving the highways of this country in the past few years than many people will spend in a lifetime. To him, a road trip is a positive journey. “Sometimes I’ve had a reason to go where I’m going, but mainly I do it because it’s really empowering,” Andy says. Over thousands of miles and numerous states, he has certainly faced his share of treacherous weather and hazardous road conditions. He always keeps a close eye on the caution advisories—the bright orange and yellow highway signs that warn of “Construction in Progress” or roads that are “Slippery When Wet.” However, unlike most of the other “road warriors” with whom he’s shared a stretch of pavement, Andy has to watch for another condition, for which the signs are not always so visible—hypoglycemia.

One night while staying alone at a hotel in New York City, Andy experienced five hypoglycemic episodes in the course of several hours, at one point losing awareness of where he was for nearly 15 minutes. The glucose tablets and sugar packets he had on hand helped keep Andy from slipping into unconsciousness, but the situation was frightening, to say the least.

Not frightening enough to put an end to Andy’s solo road trips, of course. In January 2010, he drove from Omaha, NE, to San Francisco, CA, to Las Vegas, NV, to Denver, CO, and back again to Omaha—a 3,500-mile drive that crossed icy mountain passes not once but twice. For that trip, he was determined to be “overprepared.” He stocked his 1997 blue Dodge Dakota with bread and other smart-carbohydrate foods that would give a slower rise in blood-sugar levels than the white sugar he needed to rely on the night in the afore-mentioned hotel room. He also packed water and sports beverages containing sugar, as well as other T1D supplies, including extra insulin, prescriptions for insulin and test strips, and a temperature-insulated  package, like the ones used in picnic baskets and lunch boxes, to keep his insulin from freezing or overheating. That trip was uneventful (in the best sense of the word), and Andy went on to complete yet another solo trip—this one stretching 4,200 miles, from Columbia, MO, to Sedona, AZ, across the South to Georgia, and up the Eastern Seaboard to New Jersey—again without incident. “When life throws you a curve in the road, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve got type 1 diabetes or not,” Andy says. “But that little bit of extra preparation gave me a greater sense of security and, maybe more importantly, of freedom, while I was on the road.”

Young adults with T1D may face unanticipated challenges when they first leave home. For Anthony Rao, that was freshman year in college, when he and a group of friends decided to take the train to a nearby town for lunch. Having been diagnosed with T1D at age 17, Anthony was no stranger to planning ahead, and he not only called the restaurant, which verified that it was only a few minutes’ distance from the train station, but he also  brought snacks with him for the journey. “We got off the train and started to walk,” says Anthony. “We kept walking, and walking, and walking, and it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer. I had no idea it would be such a long, grueling day, so before I knew it, I had eaten all of my food.”

Anthony focused on not panicking, and the group finally came upon a gas station, where he bought a soda to bring up his plummeting blood sugar. The lesson Anthony took from the longest walk of his life? “In unfamiliar territory, always expect the unexpected.” Even if you probably won’t need them, bringing extra snacks and supplies is an excellent idea whenever you’re traveling somewhere you’ve never been before.

For Harley King, the same rule applies even if you’re a seasoned traveler. By the fall of 2011, when Harley spent three and a half months studying in Kunming, China, she had already traveled several times to Asia—but she had been diagnosed with T1D only one year before, at age 18. On an overnight trip to the village of Shangri-La, Harley and her friends bicycled to Napa Lake, a popular scenic destination in the area. Although just five miles away from their hotel, the lake was at a higher elevation, and the path was rough, hilly terrain. “It took nearly two hours to get there,” says Harley. “It was definitely worth it, but on the way back, I had a hard time keeping up with my friends. I felt like my energy had drained from my body, and I was pushing the pedals with all that I had left.” The day ended safely, although in darkness. Halfway back, Harley and her friends encountered another group of tourists, who offered their own snacks to help push Harley’s blood-sugar level back up within range, and the friends parked their bikes in Shangri-La at dusk. Harley is still planning adventures all over the world, but while doing so, she keeps in mind that “even a ‘small’ adventure can escalate into something bigger than you can imagine—meaning that you have to think ‘bigger’ in terms of what you pack for low-blood-glucose episodes.”

As popular T1D blogger Kerri Sparling can attest, you don’t have to travel all the way around the world to find yourself in a tight spot. With T1D, even the most mundane, routine tasks—the kind one performs at least a hundred times, with no problems—can take an unanticipated, and potentially dangerous, turn. In the car running errands one weekend, Kerri’s continuous glucose monitor alerted her to the fact that her blood-glucose level was taking a nosedive. She pulled off the road and confirmed that her blood sugar had dipped below 50 mg/dL. “You never realize just how handy those ancient fruit-gummy snacks that you stashed in the glove compartment will actually be, until that’s all you’ve got between you and a serious problem,” says Kerri. The same scenario may never happen again, but her car is now a perpetually well-stocked pantry, with snacks and other T1D supplies—just in case.

For Adrian Ramos, the adventure was a his first full-time job out of college. “I worked in consulting, and it was a pretty high-stress job with sometimes very long hours,” says Adrian. He frequently found himself immersed in long meetings, practically held captive with no access to snacks. Or, he was tasked with critical deadlines, leaving him no time to stop and eat more than a few bites of lunch—if he had time to eat at all. He began experiencing near-constant worries about his blood-glucose levels, a concern he felt was not shared by his colleagues or his supervisor. To compensate, Adrian started coming in to work 30 minutes early to get a head start on the day and help ensure that he could stop for lunch later, and he now stashes plenty of snacks such as granola bars in his desk, for those especially challenging days. Adrian’s take on his experience? “You don’t always have the power to change your situation, especially when those around you don’t understand,” he says. “But then, people with type 1 diabetes are better than most at adapting.”

It goes with the TID territory that everyone hits a roadblock now and then—no matter where you are or where you’re headed, and whether it’s the journey or the destination that’s important to you. A little bit of thoughtful planning ahead can go a very long way in helping you get out of a jam and back on the road.

Have a Safe Trip

What to do before you embark:

  • Map your route, noting spots along the way where food and/or pharmacies will be available.
  • Service your car before you leave. Hitting the trails? Make sure your bicycle is in good working order—tires, chains, etc.
  • Build an emergency stockpile: spare tire, jack, and tire iron; gasoline; flares; thermal blanket; extra cell phone battery; cell phone battery charger.
  • See your physician and obtain prescriptions for “backup” supplies that you can fill before you leave. Then, no matter how far afield (and how far from a pharmacy) you wander, you’ll be set.
  • Make yourself a meteorologist: always be ahead of the weather (and traffic) reports. All local television news stations broadcast them both regularly—usually several times an hour—as do many local radio stations.

What to stash (in your glove compartment/backpack/desk drawer/laptop case/purse):

  • Extra insulin, glucose tablets, and other supplies
  • Extra syringes, glucose meter, test strips, and/or other tools
  • Snacks. No one knows better than you what works best to safely and effectively raise your low blood sugar. Crackers? Granola bars? Candy? Dried fruit? Whatever it is, think like a squirrel with its peanuts and tuck away supplies everywhere you go.