Nina Modak is one of our allergy trailblazers and has travelled to over 20 countries with a nut allergy. She runs the website www.eatallergysafe.com and believes “allergies aren’t about missing out, they’re about doing things differently.” Here she shares her top tips for backpacking safely.
Backpacking with Food Allergies
By: Nina Modak
Backpacking is an experience you will never forget. You will be challenged, inspired and amazed.
The ability to choose where you go, when you go and how you go gives such a feeling of freedom, spontaneity and wanderlust.
The first time I went backpacking was in 2011 at 19 years old. I went inter-railing across Europe with my best friend. In 30 days we had transversed 8 countries, visited 11 cities, saw the River Danube River in 3 countries and sometimes travelled across 3 countries in a 24-hour period!
The second time I went backpacking was a year later. Wanderlust had not left me and I just wanted to go explore my world! Three university friends and I travelled to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu for 5 weeks. We taught in a school for disadvantaged children and then got to explore.
Having a severe peanut and tree nut allergy was not going to stop me and both times I managed to backpack without having a reaction.
Being able to adventure safely with allergies is all about preparing for the unexpected and using your common sense. By being prepared you will know you have the tools to deal with whatever comes your way, whether you’re in a big city or a small rural town. Confronting the harsh possibilities and then making preparations should they happen will lessen your anxiety and make you feel confident that you can respond accordingly to any situation. (It will also mean your parents won’t freak out as much and actually let you go… :p)
So let’s jump straight in because it’s time to start preparing for your adventure! When you are backpacking these are the absolute 7 basic things you need:
Like you would at home, don’t go anywhere without your medical kit. While you are travelling, it is also a good idea to take extra because you never know what adventure you’re going to go on and whether they’ll be a pharmacy on the road side. Whenever I went anywhere, my medical kit came with me. I kept it in a little fabric purse in my backpack or handbag. It was in the same place every time I packed my bag so that I could quick find if needed. I also made sure my travel buddies knew what it looked and where to find it. I also at the beginning of the trip gave them all allergy medication 101 training. They were all fascinated and quite happy to stab me with my adrenaline pen if I needed it :p!
Prepare for the unexpected. You will never expect to have an allergic reaction like you wouldn’t expect to break your leg, so make sure you have travel insurance which covers your allergies. They will be classed as a pre-existing medical condition so sometimes it’s best to speak to someone to make sure it’s on your insurance.
3. Safe snacks
There is nothing worse than having a huge backpack on your back and then finding out that there is no place open or safe to eat. Make sure you bring safe snacks from home! Long life but light items with high protein content are the best because they fill you up for longer. When you find a supermarket, check for safe foods. Make sure you keep your snack pack topped up!
4. Eating safely while travelling
When you’re backpacking, you’re usually travelling on quite a tight budget plus allergies = few options. The way I got round this both around Europe and in India was doing as much cooking as possible. My friends and I would choose hostels that had a kitchen we could use. We’d go to the supermarket or farmers markets and buy cheap vegetables and meat to make dinner. To avoid cross-contamination wash pans, plates, boards and cutlery before we used them. I also wouldn’t ever use the shared jam or butter pots because I had no idea whether other people had double dipped a nutty knife. Any leftovers from dinner were wrapped up for breakfast or lunch the next day.
In India, we persuaded the school we were working for to share the cost of a gas cooker. We were in a rural area so both money, distance to the local shop and allergy safety for me were made easier. I didn’t eat when I wasn’t comfortable. I would always try and communicate about my allergy but sometimes I just wasn’t understood.
Hostelling was not only a cheap accommodation option it was also a great way to meet fellow travellers. The travelling community is so friendly, welcoming and open. When it came to choosing a hostel, my friends and I would usually choose one that had a kitchen we could use. This was partly my request and also so that we could save money. Having a peanut and tree nut allergy I felt fairly ok. I grew up with nuts in the house, so if there were people eating or cooking nuts at the hostel I was prepared to de-contaminate or avoid nutty areas. Or simply ask the person to clean up and bleach their area. Many hostels with kitchens have a dishwasher so you can blast any allergen-contaminated utensil.
6. Travel buddy/ies
I would highly recommend travelling with a friend or group of friends. There will lots of new places, cultures and situations and having a friend with you makes it more fun and safe. If you are travelling with friends, they need to know all about your allergy: what it is, what happens if you have a reaction, how to use your medication, where you keep it, what your medical bag looks like and things to look out for. When I travelled, my friends were always looking out for my allergy. If they were doing the food shopping, they would double and triple check ingredients and let me have the final say. They also would advocate for me on occasion or back me up if someone didn’t sound like they were listening.
7. Allergy cards/translations
Most likely you are going backpacking because you want to explore new cultures. Part of this will be experiencing new languages. Whenever someone else is preparing your food, you will need to communicate your allergy needs. You need to learn your allergen vocabulary in those different languages write them down on a piece of paper, bring allergy cards (plus copies) with you in the languages you might need, and bring an offline translation dictionary on your phone/ipod/tablet.