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Rocking Diabetes in the Backcountry

An Interview With Professional Snowboarder Sean Busby

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Updated November 25, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Updated November 25, 2013

Professional snowboarder Sean Busby may make his living riding down mountains at top speed, but he's no stranger to the joy of a good hiking trail. He also happens to have Type 1 diabetes, and was kind enough to speak with me about the reality of living -- no, thriving -- with diabetes in the backcountry.

A quick note on the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes: Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys your pancreas' ability to produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease; your pancreas still produce insulin, but your cells don't respond to it.

About Sean Busby

Busby grew up in the world of snowboard racing and boardercross, and began his professional snowboarding career at age 16.

When introduced to the backcountry side of boarding, he fell in love with the idea of "earning your turns" by making your own way up a mountain before the ride down. Since then he's traveled all over the world, guiding others on the adventures of their lives and searching for first ascents and descents. He's hoping to complete a tour of all seven continents this year.

Busby was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 19, while training for the 2010 Olympics. Like any professional athlete, Busby's career depends on being in tune with his body. "I feel like by having this disease my body is definitely more sensitive as far as what I can feel," he says. "I'd say it's an advantage, just being able to know and understand what's going on with my body."

However, he allows that "it does have its moments," and emphasizes that educating both yourself and your partners is a big part of staying safe in the backcountry -- after all, you don't want to endanger yourself or others, and a well-educated partner can help you spot the symptoms of high or low blood sugar before it becomes an issue.

Hiking With Diabetes

Although Busby isn't primarily a hiker, he's logged plenty of miles on his boots. Every time he's in the backcountry, he's after the same thing you are: "It's all about being in that wilderness setting and being able to enjoy it," he says. With that in mind, Busby's had to become both skilled and confident at managing his diabetes. Here are his suggestions about how to reach that same level of skill and confidence yourself:

  • Test your blood sugar frequently. "The more often the better." The more you check your blood sugar, the more you'll learn about how your body reacts to both a new environment and a new type of exertion, and the faster you'll be aware of any issues that could potentially become problems. Hydration breaks and stops to fuel up on carbs are great opportunities to check your sugars.
  • Educate yourself. Consult with your physician and medical team so you know how to react to your readings. "It really comes down to doing homework and discovering how the body interacts in that sort of environment," Busby explains.
  • Protect your shots or pump. They'll return the favor by protecting you.
  • Educate your partners so they can help you recognize the signs and symptoms of high or low blood sugar.
  • Pay attention to what your body's telling you. This is important for anybody, but it goes double if you have diabetes. If a part of your body doesn't talk to you the way it used to -- say, if you have issues with neuropathy -- check up on it regularly.
  • Fuel up and stay hydrated. "Make sure you have good carbohydrates on you to keep the body fueled." Busby's favorites include Honey Stinger protein bars and honey packets for good carbs, and Nuun tablets for hydration.
  • Above all, be proactive. Busby uses himself as an example, explaining that every day his blood sugars will act differently. By constantly checking to see where they're at, he can tell if they're going to change and prevent emergencies from developing in the first place.

I'll throw in a suggestion of my own, the same advice I give any new hiker: Take it slow and practice your skills on short trips at first. Give yourself time to get comfortable with the idea of what you're doing, refine your skillset, and get feedback from your medical team before you tackle long trips with potentially greater consequences.

Check Your Gear

Having the right gear helps make anybody's hike more enjoyable; if you have diabetes, the right gear can do even more to facilitate your adventures. Start with your boots: Brand new footwear can cause blisters for anyone -- an extra concern if you have diabetes -- so it's worth putting in the time to get comfortable, well-fitted footwear.

The bottom line is figuring out what works best for you, but there's no need to reinvent the wheel. "It comes down to doing the research," Busby says. He recommends connecting with other groups of active-minded folks with diabetes; OmniPod has a great list of places to start. Busby also recommended some of his favorite gear:

Get Out and Play

The bottom line is that you have a world of resources out there, and diabetes doesn't have to keep you indoors unless you let it. From speaking with Busby, it's clear that managing diabetes in the backcountry is a balancing act between being aware of your sugars, but still finding a way to let go and enjoy yourself. Yes, he acknowledges, trying to be proactive about your health in every possible way can be a bit of a double-edged sword, "but if it's gonna allow you to continue doing what you want to do and be out there hiking, it's worth it."

Where to Find Sean Busby

Want more Busby? He's working on a trip to the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, plus an expedition to Japan. He offers world-class guided trips through his personal site, Powder Lines, and hopes to guide a group of people with Type 1 diabetes to Liverpool Land in Eastern Greenland.

Busby is also the founder of the non-profit Riding on Insulin, which empowers and connects the global diabetes community through shared experience and action sports; and you can catch up with him through occasional blog posts at OmniPod's Suite D.

The medical content within this story has been approved by About.com’s Medical Review Board.

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