I recently decided that I desperately needed a break, something that would get me anywhere other than my home. What I needed was a change of scenery and a break in my day-to-day activities to clear my mind and refresh my outlook. So when I realised it was 2 years since my last holiday, I decided it was time for a road trip – my favourite way of travelling – and immediately got packing.
I love the freedom of a road trip since you’re not stuck in one place and can easily drive around to explore, which lets you be spontaneous and not planning everything ahead of time. A strange little titbit about me: I’m normally quite a planner, except for when I travel this way, which I think is why I like it so much. But while freedom of movement is great, I also love having no luggage limits and being able to toss whatever I want in the car.
In the past, I’ve had lots of practice with long-distance road trips, but this time around was different. This was my first time travelling since beginning the low FODMAP diet, so my food restrictions surpassed what I’d previously dealt with while travelling. Also, while I’ve been travelling with IBS for over 20 years, it was after my last holiday that my IBS became substantially more temperamental so I knew that this time would be more challenging.
I’d like to say that it all worked out perfectly and I had a completely blissful time away, but the fact is that I made some mistakes and suffered a pretty big flare up. I learned a lot from my mistakes though and took lots of notes on how to make things run more smoothly next time. So this blog post is as much a reminder to me for my next road trip as it is to help you with yours.
Here’s how I’ll be doing things the next time I get on the road…
1. Think carefully when choosing your destination and accommodation.
My favourite place to stay on a road trip is a self-contained cabin in a caravan park for three reasons. Firstly, they have kitchen facilities so I can prepare some of my own meals. Secondly, they have their own bathroom so there’s no rushing to a toilet block in the case of urgency or needing to navigate through darkness in the middle of the night. Lastly, because they remind me of my childhood holidays staying in a caravan on the beach.
While cabins in caravan parks aren’t the flashiest accommodation choice, they’re much better than they were 10-15 years ago, with deluxe versions that can house a full family (or more). But, you can also find flashier apartments, cabins or other self-contained accommodation options if you prefer.
Regardless, these are the key features I look for in accommodation:
- Easy bathroom access that offers some privacy.
- Full kitchen facilities including a stove and oven, but at the very least it must have a fridge/freezer, kettle, toaster and microwave.
- A bedroom that’s fairly isolated in case you need to hide away and rest from a flare up.
- Fairly easy access to amenities or healthcare, including supermarket, pharmacy and medical. This isn’t too hard since you have a car to get around, but you’re bound to forget something essential and will need one of these places.
- Somewhere nearby where you’re staying that you can chill out to keep stress levels low. For me, this means is normally the beach or a forested/green walking tracks.
2. Pack your luggage carefully and make sure to include ‘emergency’ items for managing an IBS flare up.
This is the step I failed badly this time around, so the things listed here are what I wished I had packed. Why did I get this so wrong? Because I packed my bags and the car on the morning I left in a rather haphazard way. I was trying to be spontaneous. Big mistake!
- Medication to help with constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, or whatever your more common symptoms are.
- Other IBS management tools that you often use. For me, this is a microwavable heat pack and peppermint tea. How I forgot these is beyond me, but I ended up having to buy replacements.
- Clothing with a loose (or adjustable) waist in case you have a major bloating. Don’t make the mistake of only packing jeans like I did.
- Your own pillow, because sleeping on crappy pillows can get your neck and back out of alignment, which affects your sleep and causes pain in your body. That physical stress can trigger symptoms and also make things worse if you have IBS pain too and can’t settle easily.
- Anything you use to destress your body or help to relieve bloating, gas or pain. I use yoga and qi gong DVDs for this and thankfully I remembered to take these along with a yoga mat. It was my one saving grace!
Note: There’s no absolute list for packing that will suit everyone, so take some time to think about what you use at home when you have particularly bad flare ups.
3. Prepare ahead for the long-distance driving of the road trip and pack safe food.
The long haul driving to your destination is when you have the least control of your surroundings. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the driver or a passenger, you’ll face large gaps between towns that limit your options. I was travelling from Melbourne to the NSW South Coast, which meant there was normally 20-40 minutes between towns or petrol stations, but often an hour or two between major centres.
With this point, I did some things right and some things I majorly failed at.
- Pack snacks and drinks that won’t irritate your gut. Finding snacks that you’re not intolerant to can be tough and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with potato chips, lollies and a fizzy drink – not the best combination for sensitive tummies. Here’s some low FODMAP snack ideas to help get you started.
- Consider packing a lunch too, such as a sandwich and some fruit. You might like to pack it in an esky or cooler with an ice brick or two. And don’t forget some water too.
- Think ahead about where you can find toilets along the way. I find the best options to be petrol stations, fast food restaurants, and shopping centres. If the toilets are only for paying customers, I normally buy a cup of tea or a bottle of water.
- Take music or podcasts to listen to, a book to read (if you’re not driving and don’t get car sick), or something else that you can use to relax or focus on if your belly starts having issues and you need a distraction.
- Allow for regular breaks, even for a few minutes at a time, to break up long periods of sitting. Too much sitting and lack of activity can increase the risk of constipation. Or if you’re already constipated, it can make it feel worse. On my drive out I didn’t take many breaks, but on the way home I took 3-5 minute breaks every hour and out of the car and stretched my body. I really noticed the difference!
- If you’re more prone to diarrhoea, be prepared by packing a change of underwear and pants, along with plastic bags for holding soiled clothing, and some wet wipes.
4. Plan to eat at some of your daily meals from your accommodation.
When you’re in a new environment and are unfamiliar with the eating places, finding safe foods that won’t aggravate your food intolerances and IBS can be like rolling the dice. Odds are that sooner or later you’re going to be served a meal that won’t agree with you.
Depending on the severity of your intolerances, it’s likely you can tolerate a little of certain foods before all hell breaks loose, but the more you have, the worse it gets. These additive effects across the day can be avoided if you prepare at least some of your meals yourself – and that’s the reason why you want a kitchen in your accommodation.
I recommend making your own breakfast, at the least. And why not, because you’re starting the day within your accommodation anyway? But if you also add in a dinner or a lunch each day, or every other day, that could go a long way to keeping your food choices safer, and also saving money.
Here’s how I deal with this strategy:
- Pack some groceries from home – there’s room in the car so why not? Pay attention to anything that might be hard to purchase at your destination – this is particularly important if you’re used to living in a big city and are travelling somewhere remote. I took gluten-free pasta, a bottle of safe pasta sauce, peanut butter, low FODMAP bread, homemade muesli, homemade muesli bars, tea bags, tins of plain tuna, and rice crackers.
- Buy perishable foods from the closest supermarket to your destination, e.g. lactose-free milk and yoghurt, eggs, low FODMAP fruit and veggies. You can then buy additional dinner or lunch ingredients each day as needed.
5. Getting ready to eat out when you’re there.
Strategies for eating out when you’re away aren’t much different to when you’re at home. Do be careful though of a desire to ‘let go’ while you’re away and instead continue making safe choices. As a general rule, here’s how I suggest dealing with eating out:
- Before you go out, have a look through brochures for menus of nearby restaurants or ask the staff for recommendations.
- Be content with having only one safe option on a menu. You’re not there for a culinary delight, you’re there so you don’t have to cook and to experience a different town. I find that salads are often the safest option – they’re relatively easy to change and they give you healthy fibre to help keep the bowels happy. Otherwise steak and veggies is a good choice.
- Go easy on the potential gut irritants. This includes fatty foods, which can be quite common on café and restaurant menus. But also go easy on caffeine, alcohol, chilli and chocolate, especially if you know they irritate your gut.
- Be careful of treat foods, e.g. cakes, biscuits, ice cream, which may not be the best of choices because of their high sugar and fat content, and because they’re low in fibre. In general, your normal strategies for food choices should apply when you’re away.
6. Find a way to add exercise into your day to help keep your bowels regular.
Exercise does wonders to help keep the bowels moving, which is especially important for anyone prone to constipation. It’s also good to get your body moving as soon as you can after your long drive. The easiest way to do this is to go for a walk and explore your surroundings, which can also help you find nearby places to eat.
Here are my other tips for getting exercise while on holidays:
- Look for scenic places to walk, such as the beach or on bush or rainforest tracks. There’s often lots to learn in these places and you’ll see things that most other people miss out on.
- Rather than driving all the time, walk to your local store or café if they aren’t too far away. That way you get exercise on the way to lunch and the walk back will aid digestion.
- Go for a swim at the beach or in the pool (if there’s one where you’re staying).
- Find another activity in the local area that can get you moving.
7. Accept that you may have a flare up when you’re away and try to deal with it gracefully.
Being away from home, eating different foods, altering your daily activities, and added stress… all of these can lead to a flare up, even before the risk of eating a food that you’re intolerant to. Unfortunately, this means there’s a fairly high risk of your IBS being triggered while you’re away. While this is annoying, accepting that it’s a risk of travelling with IBS can decrease your frustration when it does.
This is where step 2 is really important, because you’re going to need your emergency management items to calm your gut as best as possible and may also need to take it easy over the next 24 hours or so to allow your gut to settle. It’s also a good time to prepare your own safe meals during this time to prevent further irritation, hence the careful accommodation choices in step 1.
You may also need to skip an activity or accept that you’ll have to deal with pain and other symptoms if you choose to continue on with your plans. It’s your choice. But do try to be graceful about it and don’t make your travelling companions miss out because of something that’s no one’s fault.
8. Enjoy yourself as much as you can and try not to be too afraid of a flare up.
Last but not least, try not to get too caught up in what could go wrong and instead focus on having fun while you’re there. After all, holidays are meant to be fun and relaxing. So long as you’ve followed the other steps and planned for emergency, then you’ve done everything you can already and there’s no use worrying about maybes. So kick back, have a laugh and enjoy.