When I started my blog, I soon found out I was not the only one traveling with a Chronic Illness. But I did not find that many people actually talking about travel with chronic illness. You can read my tips for taking a road trip with Crohn’s disease and How to pack your meds when flying. I would like to use this space and share more inspiring stories from other travel bloggers who travel with chronic illnesses. The first in this series is Laia who talks about travel with Scoliosis and her trip backpacking with Scoliosis.
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Travel with Chronic Illness: featuring Laia from DreamTravelGirl.
Meet Laia, she is the girl behind DreamTravelGirl and she shares her story about travel with Scoliosis.
When the doctor told me I had scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, I immediately thought about the dream I still hadn’t fulfilled.
“Can I travel with a backpack?”
“Yes”, he answered. Good news! “Maximum 10% of your weight”. Bad news.
“But… “ I said hesitantly, “5 kg is not much”.
My dream was to do a round the world trip for one year. How could I possibly travel for a year with only 5 kg? My heart sank.
“I don’t mean carrying it the whole day, just to go from one place to the other”, I specified.
“In that case, you could take up to 10kg. Find a backpack that adjusts to your body and has a belt, so the weight falls on the hips, not the spine”.
There was hope. I could travel with scoliosis and go backpacking around the world.
Living with scoliosis
Scoliosis is a lateral deviation of the spine, towards the side. It means that, from the front, the spine is not straight but it looks like a C or an S. Doctors consider over 40º of curvature severe and scoliosis patients might consider surgery.
Fortunately, I have a mild case.
However, even if it’s a small deviation, I often feel discomfort and soreness on the lower part of my back. If I stand up, it starts to ache after 10 or 15 minutes. If I walk, after one hour or two. Even taking breaks, walking 5 hours a day tends to be my limit (I love exploring new places on foot).
In addition, I cannot carry weight. As my doctor said, I can travel with scoliosis and with a backpack but only to move from one destination to the other, not the whole day (as in multi-day treks or long-distance hiking).
It’s a lifelong condition, and the only thing that can be done is exercise. I have to exercise for around 30 minutes every morning to stretch the spine and strengthen the muscles. In the beginning, I wasn’t very constant at this, but as the back pain got worse I started doing them every day. And yes, it helps!
One year and a half after that visit to the doctor, I decided to follow my dream of making a round-the-world solo trip. It wouldn’t be easy, but I was determined to find a way to travel with scoliosis and backpacking regardless of my back pain.
Preparing the trip: the luggage
Of course, the first thing I had to consider was if a backpack was, in fact, the best option for me.
The doctor said it was fine to travel with a backpack as long as it had a belt so most of the weight fell on my hips instead of my back.
I had traveled with wheel bags, and I must say that they’re practical only on paved roads, escalators, and elevators. Dragging a wheel bag on an unpaved road is hard, and carrying it up and down the stairs is really bad for the spine.
The best backpack for scoliosis (for me)
Considering the places I wanted to visit and the way I’d be traveling (alone, on a low budget), I thought that a backpack would be better.
Side note: I don’t mean to say that this is the right solution for people with back pain, every situation is different. I have a friend with a more severe problem who cannot travel with a backpack anymore. In my case, so far, I feel that a backpack is better.
However, it was out of the question to use the 65L backpack I had. If I was limited to 10kg, I didn’t need such a huge bag, not to mention that it weighted 3kg all by itself.
The first thing I did was to sell it and buy a light 35L backpack instead.
Travel light when you’re backpacking with scoliosis
The second step was to research a bit to make my luggage as light as possible. I have to say that travel blogs helped me a lot! I changed my laptop for a lighter one, decided to keep my compact camera instead of upgrading to a reflex, discovered lush shampoo bars and learned to minimize my clothes.
Last but not least, I bought comfortable hiking sandals and hiking shoes. They’re not stylish, but much better for the back.
The result: I managed to squeeze everything I needed in that 35L backpack plus a small handbag. In total, 11 kg.
The feedback: it was great. I could take it as carry-on luggage and I could easily move around. I had to be creative to adapt the clothes to the changing weather conditions, but it was fine.
Travel with Scoliosis
The biggest limitation while traveling with back pain was that I couldn’t walk all day without taking many breaks and that I couldn’t do multi-day treks or go backpacking with my scoliosis.
Travel in Asia
That wasn’t a big problem in Asia, though. I was interested in people and culture, and I could do many other things.
In India, I did boat tours in the backwaters of Kerala.
In Laos, I discovered the relaxed atmosphere of Buddhist temples.
And in Cambodia, I rented a bicycle to explore the Angkor temples.
In Malaysia, I snorkeled around tropical islands. I met travelers and locals, made new friends, experienced new things, learned, laughed, enjoyed.
Travel to New Zealand
New Zealand, however, was a different story. I went there for the landscapes. It’s a gorgeous country, one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. I couldn’t leave without doing at least one trek. So there I did my first (and my second) treks with back pain. I’ll talk more about my experience hiking below.
Travel in South America
After New Zealand, I went to South America for five months. I did one more trekking there and had amazing experiences as well.
I visited friends in Santiago de Chile and Patagonia. In the north of Chile and Bolivia, I saw the most unreal landscapes. I made local friends in Argentina and visited a couple from Uruguay that I had met in New Zealand.
I challenged my limits on a recent trip to Thailand. I made a motorbike road trip with a friend: 1.000 km in 9 days. Although I didn’t drive, I was the passenger sitting behind, and believe me, it was hard for my back.
We had to take breaks every hour or so, more often by the end of the day. We stopped and I stretched my back or lied down for a while. It was difficult, but I did it.
Hiking with scoliosis
Hiking is the most challenging activity I do while traveling with back pain.
It all started in New Zealand because there was a trek I really wanted to do.
Hiking in New Zealand
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular day treks in New Zealand (and the whole world). Thousands of people do it every year, but it’s not an easy trek. It’s 19 km long (11 miles) with a considerable slope and the weather conditions might change at any moment.
Since I hadn’t done any trekking before, I decided to start with an easy one in the Abel Tasman National Park to test my physical condition. It was fine so I decided to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
I’ll be honest: I was scared to go hiking with scoliosis. Once you start, you have to get to the end, and you have to make it back in time to get the bus to the hostel.
It was a single-day trek so I could leave my luggage at the hostel, but I still had to carry food and water for the day, some clothes in case the weather changed, and a first aid kit.
Fortunately, I was traveling alone. And I say fortunately because being on my own allowed me to walk at my own speed and stop to sit down when needed (at least 10 minutes every hour). It kept me motivated and confident, and I never thought I wouldn’t manage. It took me a bit longer than the average (7.5 hours instead of 6-7), but I did it.
I challenged my limits and it was a very rewarding experience. I was so happy! I rested for one day and then I was fine to continue my trip.
Hiking in Bolivia
I had a similar experience in Bolivia a few months later, slightly more challenging. At Lake Titicaca, I wanted to visit the island, Isla del Sol.
A popular way to do it is to go by boat from Copacabana to the north of the island and walk to the south (10 km/ 6 miles). Then, you can take the boat back to the mainland or spend the night on the island and go back the day after.
I wasn’t sure if I could get to the south part of the island in time to get the boat back. Therefore I decided to spend the night there.
However, I couldn’t carry all my luggage! So I left my luggage in the guesthouse in Copacabana and only took a small daypack with food, water, and warm clothes for the night.
In addition to scoliosis, I had to face another challenge that day: the altitude (around 4.000 meters / 14.123 ft. above sea level). Again, I went at my own speed and took my time. When I reached the southern part of the island, all the boats were gone. So it was a good idea to plan a night’s stay.
Continue reading below this image.
Hiking with a group in Thailand
I had a more difficult experience in a recent trip to Thailand. I was traveling with a friend and we had to hire a guide to do a trek in the jungle.
My friend was carrying all our stuff but there were two more people in the group, and it was hard to follow them.
I was too shy to tell them from the beginning that I had a problem, and by the time we stopped for the first time, we already walked 2 hours non stop and my back was in pain.
After that, I had to ask them regularly to stop, and I felt bad. Sad. Miserable. “Why did I come?” I wondered and told myself I’d never do a guided group trekking again. Never. Again.
We finished the trekking in about 9 hours. The guide told us the average time was about 7-8 hours. I felt bad because I had slowed down the group, but at the same time it was rewarding that I had managed to do it. It was 18 km/ 11 miles with a lot of slope.
The day after I rested the whole day, and my back was fine again.
And now, a few months later, I think that maybe I would go hiking with scoliosis like this again. Maybe.
The feedback of my experience is that it’s possible to travel with scoliosis and back pain (at least, with a mild scoliosis). There are limitations, but traveling offers many possibilities and there are many ways to travel with scoliosis.
If you want to know more about Laia, please visit her blog at DreamTravelGirl, or follow her on her social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.
If you like to know more about Scoliosis or travel with Scoliosis, click here.
Do you travel with a Chronic Illness or a Chronic condition? And would you like to be featured on this blog in the Travel with Chronic Illness Chronicles? Please contact me with your details at firstname.lastname@example.org and you get a chance to share your story!
Are you okay now? Did your spine straightened normally?
Thank you for your interest Thea. This is a guest post by Laia and she still travels despite her back issues.
Hi Laia, this is a very moving story you tell. It shows your courage and persistence, two very important qualities. Many people, even if they do not have a chronic disease, would have complained about a walk of 19 kilometers. Whenever I feel down or tired, I will remember your example, and not complain; and your story has also made me more attentive when other people cannot follow my rhythm, it may be because they need a break. Thanks a lot!