How to select ostomy pouch styles for the outdoors

Last weekend I was reminded why I love using closed-end ostomy pouches on hikes and climbs. I was up on a long ridge between between Loveland Pass and Mt. Sniktau in Colorado. Though it was a gorgeous 75-degree day down in Denver, up at 13,000′ it was blustery and frigid. We left the house at 4:15 a.m. so that we would be done with our climb and back to the car before afternoon thunderstorms came in. I emptied my appliance before leaving the house, but by the time we reached the summit of Mt. Sniktau at around 9 a.m., my pouch was reaching its 1/3 full point. This is typically when I like to empty it.

Problem was, no ideal place to empty a pouch could be found on the entire ascent. The wind was howling and shelter was non-existent. On top of this, there were many feet of snow on the ground. The few places where there was exposed earth, it was frozen solid.  There was also no way to go off of the ridge to empty away from the trail. Precarious cornices sat 50 feet to the east of the route and dangerous avalanche slopes could be found 50 feet to the west. Emptying would have meant draining my pouch in the snow close to the area where people travel. Once the snow melted, fecal matter would have been left on top of the ground in a popular area. This was one of those instances when wearing a two-piece ostomy system and using closed-end pouches was almost a necessity.

The ridge between Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau provided few places to empty a pouch.
The ridge between Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau provided few places to empty a pouch.

If you are just finding out that you will be having an ostomy, or are recently out of surgery you may find the sheer number of ostomy appliance choices to be overwhelming. Closed-end, drainable, one-piece, two-piece — what do all these mean and which ones are best suited for various outdoor adventures? A lot of these choices come down to a matter of personal preference.  The goal of this post is to share some information on the basic types of appliances and explain how I utilize the various options on peaks and trails. I’d also like to hear what you’re using in the outdoors.

First, ostomy appliances come in one- or two-piece options. With a one-piece appliance, the wafer (also sometimes called a skin barrier) is permanently joined to the bag and cannot be separated–you’re literally stuck with this pouch until you remove the whole thing. The benefits of this style is that it has a low profile and sits very flat against the abdomen. The disadvantage is that because the wafer and bag cannot be separated, you lose the flexibility of being able to swap out different types of pouches unless you take the whole system off your belly. I used one-piece drainable pouches for the first five months after surgery, and on one of my very first major outdoor trips as an ostomate: a three-night early spring backpacking excursion. The ground was snow-covered and frozen on this adventure and I ended up trying to drain my pouch into plastic bags so that I could pack out my waste. It didn’t go well and I got output all over my pants and all over the outside of the bag I was trying to drain into. From that point on, I recognized that a two-piece system would be a better option for my outdoor trips.

In a one-piece ostomy system, the wafer is permanently attached to the pouch. Because of this, swapping out different pouch styles on the same wafer is impossible.
In a one-piece ostomy system, the wafer is permanently attached to the pouch. Because of this, swapping out different pouch styles on the same wafer is impossible. Pictured is a Coloplast SenSura X-Pro drainable one-piece appliance.

With a two-piece appliance, the wafer and pouch are separate and attach to each other with a plastic ring that snaps together much like Tupperware. Once the wafer is on your belly, different styles of pouches can be put on or taken off this ring. These systems are a little higher profile because of the plastic ring. However, there is much flexibility in using them because you can swap out different types of pouches depending on your activities. Due to this, a two-piece appliance is my clear choice for outdoor adventures. Also, I find that even with the plastic ring, two-piece ostomy systems are undetectable under my clothing.

There are also choices for the pouch portion of an ostomy appliance; they come in drainable or closed-end versions. Drainables have a tail that unfolds so that output can be emptied out of the bottom. Once the tail of the pouch is wiped clean, it rolls up and closes with either a clip or a Velcro strip until it needs to be emptied again. A person with an ostomy may use the same drainable pouch for multiple days.

Closed-end pouches have no tail. Once they fill up, they are designed to be thrown away full. Due to their simpler design, they cost less per bag than drainable pouches. However, most ileostomates don’t use them the majority of the time. Due to output coming directly out of the small intestine having higher water content, those with ileostomies usually have to empty their pouches six times a day or more. Even though closed-end pouches have a cheaper per-pouch cost, going through so many  in 24 hours makes them impractical and not cost-effective. Generally closed-end pouches are better suited for those with colostomies who may only have to empty a few times a day. That said, there are occasions when closed-end pouches are the perfect tool for those with ileostomies too.

With a two-piece system, the pouches can be separated from the wafer. On the right is a drainable pouch and on the left a closed-end one.
With a two-piece system, the pouches can be separated from the wafer and swapped out. On the left is a drainable pouch and on the right is a closed-end one. Pictured clockwise is a Convatec Sur-fit Natura drainable pouch with an Invisiclose tail, a closed-end pouch, and a Durahesive cut-to-fit wafer.

Drainable pouches are my preference most of the time, even on wilderness adventures, as long as I can find a good place to empty. Packing out full closed-end pouches can be heavy due to the high water content of ileostomy output. In fact, I once weighed the trash bag that contained a day’s worth of full closed-end pouches after an all-day climb and it came in at 3.5 pounds! Multiply that for trips that may be several days long and you can see why I use closed-end pouches only when necessary.

However, my hike on the ridge is an example of an ideal time to use a closed-end pouch. I also like using closed-end pouches in other places where it is impossible to empty: on cliff faces when climbing, on rocky peaks where it is impossible to dig a cathole, and on crowded urban trails. Though I haven’t been on a river trip with my ostomy yet, I can also see them being very useful in these situations when one cannot get far enough from a water source to empty. Also, it takes longer to dig a hole in the ground and properly drain my pouch when in the wilderness than to swap out a pouch. There have been a few times when I have been caught in storms and have decided to swap to a closed-end pouch instead of draining in order to minimize my exposure to lightning, high winds, cold rain or other dangerous elements.  Both drainable and closed-end options also come in smaller sizes if one wants a tinier pouch for some activities such as swimming.

It is also worth mentioning that there is one other style of two-piece ostomy appliances; they are called adhesive coupling systems. Instead of having a plastic Tupperware-like ring like traditional two-pieces, the wafer has a smooth plastic area and the pouch affixes to this with a sticky adhesive ring. The benefit of these is that, without a plastic ring, they are very flat on the belly. You can still swap out pouch styles by peeling off the old bag from the wafer and sticking on a new one. However, I find that adhesive coupling appliances don’t work well on my outdoor trips . When I peel off the full pouch, a little output inevitably gets on the place where I am supposed to affix a clean one. I then have to fully clean this in order to get the fresh pouch to stick. It ends up being too messy and hard to deal with in the wilderness where there is no water to clean up with. I find it much easier to use the traditional two-piece appliances with plastic rings. Even if a small bit of output gets on the ring, it still snaps together fine and is not messy at all.

In adhesive coupling two-piece systems, the wafers and pouches stick together with an sticky ring. They are low profile, but I find them messy to swap out when on outdoor trips.
In adhesive coupling two-piece systems, the wafers and pouches adhere together with an sticky ring. They are wonderfully low profile, but I find them messy to swap out when on outdoor trips. Pictured on the left is a Convatec Esteem Synergy adhesive coupling system and on the right is a Coloplast SenSura Flex wafer and pouch.

A downside of closed-end pouches is that they are a disposable item. I try to make the best environmental choices possible in my daily activities, so I do sometimes cringe when I throw away my bag of closed-end pouches after a climb knowing I have added more to the landfill than I would have if I would have stuck to a drainable that day. I try to remind myself that I do this for a medical reason and to deal with a basic life process of bodily waste removal. In other aspects of my life, I try my best to be gentle on the earth. I take reusable bags to the store, drive a fuel-efficient vehicle, use public transit, buy organic produce to protect wildlife from pesticides, use eco-cleaners to keep toxins out of our water supply, recycle every item possible, and make wise purchases. I hope that, in the grand scheme of things, the impact of the pouches that I throw away is small. I really do only try to use them when absolutely necessary.

When I was on Mount Sniktau on Sunday and decided draining wouldn’t be possible, I even began to wonder if I could find a good place to take off my full pouch and put an empty closed-end one on. It was so windy and there were people everywhere on the ridge. Once my pouch was 1/3 full, I couldn’t find a place to make the switch. I decided I would wait until later to deal with it. The good thing about my ostomy is that, unless I eat something that irritates my stomach and gives me pure liquid output, I have plenty of time to get around to emptying. It is rarely urgent.

On the summit of Sniktau. It was really cold and windy up there with very little shelter.
On the summit of Sniktau. It was really cold and windy up there with very little shelter.

As I made my way down the ridge from the summit, more and more people were coming up and I realized I couldn’t be fussy with my site selection for swapping. My pouch was now 1/2 full and I needed to take care of it soon. I ran ahead of Doug and his dad but also saw that some people were heading towards me.  I had about 5 minutes before they reached me so I tossed my pack to the side of the trail next to a small pile of rocks and tried to create a wind break. I then dug my supplies out and tied a small doggie poo bag to my pack strap so it wouldn’t blow away (this is what I would throw the full pouch into). Next I pulled down the front of my pant waistband, took my hernia prevention belt off, and quickly swapped out the full pouch for the clean one. Just as I had gotten my clothing back into place and was bagging up my trash, the two hikers approached me. I said hello and we talked for a second about the route. They clearly had no idea I had just dealt with my ostomy. To them, from a distance it probably looked like I was futzing around with my clothing or backpack. One can very discreetly manage their ostomy on the trail with a two-piece system and closed-end pouches.

With all the options out there, it pays to experiment with all the different brands and styles. Don’t feel like you have to use only one type of appliance. Have a dressy occasion where you definitely don’t want your appliance to show? Wear a sleek one-piece that week. Hanging out at the beach all day? Go for a mini drainable pouch that won’t hang out beyond the bottom of your suit. And if, like me, you find yourself needing to empty on a wind-swept ridge with sheer drop-offs on both sides — a two-piece with a closed-end pouch may be just the ticket. Take advantage of all the products out there to make life with your ostomy the best it can be.

This is the spot where I swapped out my pouch. By the time Doug caught up and snapped this photo, I was finished managing my ostomy and was changing my camera battery. However, from a distance swapping out a pouch doesn't look much different than this. It can be done very discreetly.
This is the spot along the trail where I switched out my pouch. By the time Doug caught up and snapped this photo, I was already finished managing my ostomy and was changing my camera battery. However, from a distance, swapping out a pouch doesn’t look much different than this. It can be done very discreetly.
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