River Rafting — The Unexpected (T1D) Great Vacation

WRITTEN BY: Blythe Nilsson

Our family loves travel and outdoor adventures. Since our son’s diagnosis with T1D in 2008, we have ridden elephants through the hills of Thailand, trekked the South Island in New Zealand, been free diving with sharks in the Galapagos, jumped off waterfalls in Hawaii, raced with a ski team in Argentina, and rappelled off a cliff in Costa Rica, to name a few. But our best adventure vacation yet may have been the four days we recently spent camping and river-rafting through the Rogue River in Oregon.


Given the challenges of paddling the Rogue’s class II-IV rapids all day with our worldly belongings in bags at our feet and camping rough on its sandy shores at night, with no cell service or contact with the outside world available, this mightn’t seem to be the obvious choice of vacations for a family with a 9-year-old Type 1 Diabetic. However, we enjoyed it so much that we’ve sworn to do a river-rafting trip in a different place every year until our children are grown. Here are four reasons why:

  • Simply put, rivers run in beautiful places. Many rafting companies hold permits to run through protected mountain wilderness where nothing has changed in centuries. The Rogue River features deep, pine-forested canyon scenery, gorgeous rocks and abundant wildlife that ranges from a constant stream of fish and beautiful birds to the black bear that casually ambled through our camp and brown rattlesnake that swam past our boat.
  • Rafting brings your group together. River-rafting is a cooperative venture – you train together, paddle together, look out for each other on the water, encourage each other, and camp together at night. That’s all you are doing, and it occupies every second of the day. Our modern lives are hectic and complicated. On the river, you live in the present, for yourself and the people around you.
  • Rafting will bring you adventure and accomplishment.   A good rafting guide will help you challenge yourself, whether that means paddling with a group through a relatively calm river, or practicing how to navigate an individual boat down a class III or IV rapid. Our guides did this and more, even showing us how to swim certain rapids, and leading us to special adventure spots. My favorite of these was a cliff that you could jump off, dropping you into an eddy that spun you around under water and spit you up and out down stream.
  • Rafting trips and diabetes management have more in common that you’d think. Just like a successful diabetes regimen, a successful river-rafting trip means good planning, staying safe, and sticking to the basics while having a good time. The two experiences make sense to each other.


Canyon BeautyFollowing are the steps we took to make sure that our trip went smoothly:

1. Unless you are an experienced rafter and know the area, pick a reputable company with a long history operating on your river.   We used OARS, the oldest rafting company in the US, and were very happy with them.   If you go with a rafting company, they will lead you down the river, take care of all of your equipment, cook your meals, and help transport your things.

2. Let your guides know ahead of time that you are T1D and will be bringing medications that may need refrigeration. One of their gear boats will have a huge ice block in a cooler ready for you to use. If you follow a low sugar diet, let them know this so they can purchase healthy alternatives to include in their meal and snack plans. Discuss emergency procedures so that you know how you will get off the river and out of the wilderness in case of an emergency. If you are camping in areas where there will be bears or other foraging wildlife, make sure you put your nighttime low supplies in their bear box, and that you know how to get to it when you make camp. Repeat this conversation with the trip leader when you arrive. Our guides helped me with all of the above, and even set out the nutritional information for any packaged the food they brought so I could accurately count the carbs in the (delicious) meals they prepared for us.

3. Bring back ups for everything you use in diabetes management, just as if you were taking a regular trip. Unlike a traditional camping trip, you don’t have to carry a pack all day – take advantage of this! Bring small wet bags to keep your most vulnerable items dry (we kept our son’s CGM in one and lashed it to the boat near where he was sitting for example), though most companies will provide these for all of your gear anyway.

4. If you wear a pump, consider what clothing or clips will work for you that are comfortable and very secure even if you are flung from the boat or swimming through rushing water. We sewed a pocket into our son’s swim shirt that snapped closed, as his pump clip sometimes comes dislodged from his belt when he is very active, and we knew he’d be jumping into the river from high places as well as into rapids. You are required to wear a life vest at all times on the water, which can also work to your advantage for pump protection in bumpy situations.

Just this much forethought and planning made a huge difference in creating a wonderful trip for our family. So pull out a map, pick a river in the deep wilderness, and begin.

Blythe Nilsson

A former English teacher with a Masters in English Education from Columbia University, Blythe has lived and worked all around the world. She likes words, learning, and traveling to new places. Her son Kip was diagnosed at 24 months while their family was living in South East Asia. Blythe also serves as a consulting editor for Beyond Type 1.