As I don’t want to bog you down in all the boring details of my disability, I’ll try to keep it brief. I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Type Three, a connective tissue disorder that means my body doesn’t create enough collagen. It’s known as an umbrella diagnosis, which means anyone with this condition can have a variety of symptoms, but no two EDS-ers experience the condition in the same way.
I experience chronic pain, dislocations and subluxations in every joint (I mean evert joint, from toes to jaw), chronic fatigue, IBS, endometriosis, Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, migraines… and so on. You get the picture. I have great teeth though. I was diagnosed in my early twenties, and I spent the first few years in a wheelchair, discovering all the things I couldn’t do. I found myself in my early twenties, with my whole life ahead of me. An ever-increasing list of things I love to do, but couldn’t do anymore.
This was not okay with me and I spent over a decade of trial and error learning how to redo the things I love. Exploring the term “in a paced manner” (channelling my pain management team). Of everything I loved to do, travelling has always been high on my list.
But, if you’re disabled, why go to all this trouble? Why not stay at home, watch some telly, go to the pub? Yes, I’m disabled. And yes, I do have mobility issues. But I’m also human. I have a brain in my head and a heart in my torso. I know they’re there; I’ve seen the scans. That brain and heart grew up loving the outdoors, walking in the mountains, camping in the wild, swimming in the lochs. Sadly, this way of life is rarely compatible with a mobility related disability.
What to do? If a global pandemic and countless lockdowns have taught me anything, it’s to find the time to do what nourishes you. That positivity feeds your soul and keeps you going. Don’t get me wrong, watching telly or going to the pub have their place of importance. It’s not every week we can skip off into an adventure. But every week cannot be average. In order to refresh ourselves and spark life into the everyday, we need make time to do the things that nourishes us. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So, if able bodied people get to make that choice, why the hell shouldn’t disabled people? I may be disabled, but I’m not unable. Although, there is always a trade off for such an escapade. The price for what I love may be well over a week of recovery involving long sleeps, dealing with physical pain, rehabilitation exercises, increased medication and trips to the chiropractor. But we all pay a price for things we value right? Why the hell not?
For the like-minded amongst you, I want to share the things I’ve discovered recently so that I’m not the only one learning from my escapades.
Covid and a tight budget has put pay to travelling out of the county. But I live in Scotland, one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and so for a spot of wild camping, it’s off to the Highlands I go. For the novice, I strongly advise wild camping a night or two in a near-by location with a group of friends, before going further afield.
If you’ve graduated from local wild camping, here are a few things I’ve learned.
1. Research the hell out of your journey.
Don’t just have a plan A. Have a plan A through E and maybe an F, just to be safe. Don’t just plan your route, plan your camping locations. Double check those locations on street view and add a few more local spots just to be safe. Keeping in mind that what you search online is never the same onground.
Next step is to plan for the body. Look for local bothies, youth hostels and hotels. I went for three nights, but only camped one night. To have done more would have been unwise for my health, something you’ll come to understand as I go on.
2. Check your equipment before you go.
Even brand-new equipment has the potential to let you down. I bought a new compact camping stove for the morning essentials of coffee. An essential component of my morning routine, I knew I’d need it to keep me happy and pleasant to be around. When sitting in a glen surrounded by snow and the icy wind whipping my face as I try to enjoy the dawn, a cuppa was high on the agenda.
It would have turned a potentially grim morning into a refreshing start to the day. But after half an hour of trying every which way to get the gas canister to fit, I realise I’d bought a cylinder with the wrong connection for my stove. No coffee for me: a particularly painful lesson.
Before you leave on your adventure, make sure everything connects. Check that you have enough gas, that your inflatable mattress doesn’t become an uncomfortable ground sheet and that the zips on your tent are secure. That last one stings a bit. My supposedly top-of-the-line four season tent ended up in the bin as the zip to the entrance fell off. The Scottish highlands during January are brutal enough without having a door flapping like a flag.
3. Pack extra socks.
Packing light is camping one-oh-one, but what is also a priority is your comfort. Balancing these two isn’t always easy. Try out your equipment to assess comfort before leaving is prudent, as is researching products and joining online groups for advice and guidance.
There are many great Wild Camping communities on Facebook who are happy to suggest good locations and advice on kit. I personally cannot camp without a comfortable sleeping arrangement. The impact on my body after ‘sleeping rough’ for one night could be the end of an adventure for me.
A few things are always in my travel bag. A good, and I mean good pillow and a reliable, hard blow-up mattress. Another is a stable seat. Sitting on the ground for me can easily result in a dislocation, which as you probably can imagine, is to be avoided when on a mountain side. Luckily, I’ve found a super light supportive chair that folds up into 40cm-ish bag. Extra socks are also a good call. Wet feet are never comfortable and leaves you prone to chilblains and blisters, and even if you’re a little uncomfortable, having warm, toasty toes is a good way to keep the smiles up.
4. Take a big, strong human with you.
Ok, hands up, there is a lot wrong with that sentence. They don’t have to be big, and they don’t have to be that strong, but it’s always a bonus if they are. It’s certainly wise to take someone with you for this kind of trip. The stubborn part of me always wants do things on my own and completely independently.
But realistically, that is just not safe. So I travel with at least one other person. That way the driving, carrying and setting up can all be shared. Okay, my mule- oh I mean my big strong human- took the brunt of it, but they knew what they were getting themselves into because we spoke about it before hand.
Communication is important. You’re already undergoing enough challenges with a trip like this and you will need someone to take the majority of the physical demands. Speak with your travelling partner openly and honestly about what health difficulties you face and what help you may need. Do NOT be shy or embarrassed, remember that regardless of ability, any adventuring in the Highlands (or anywhere wild) should be done in pairs or in groups with people you trust and feel safe with.
5. And finally, know that you will be exhausted.
Driving is exhausting. Walking is exhausting. Setting up camp is exhausting. Talking is exhausting. An adventure can make anyone exhausted. Going to a hotel on the last night was the best idea I had. Never has a Premier Inn offered a more kingly bed and I put my head down for a nap at 5pm and woke up at 7am the next day. This was vital because it meant I was able to face the journey home with a sharp mind and a strong spirit- even if I ached like a sonofabitch.
Trips do not go to plan. But when they don’t, it’s called an adventure. You are always allowed to try again and each time you will be better prepared and totally Baden-Powelled. Disabled does not mean unabled. So, why the hell not?