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Winter Elbow Loop Successful Attempt.

We had some trouble deciding where to go on our father and son fatbikepacking trip. We’ve had some warm weather and some of our favourite trails are an icy mess. We debated trying a few new routes, but some of them were likely to be 90% what Scott refers to as, “hiking with an awkward cart.”

We were pretty confident that our old favourite, the Elbow Loop would be mostly free of the kind of ice that forms from lots of foot traffic, and since it is re-opened to snowmobiles this year, we had high hopes that a grooming crew had passed at least once. Tadhg’s main reluctance was the 12km of closed road that we would have to ride to get to the trailhead. Steep and varying between deep snow and treacherous ice, it is not our favourite.

[as always, click pictures to enlarge]

This variant of the road was bumpy hard snow followed by an exhilarating descent on 4km of bare asphalt. Once past it, we were on to the real riding.

The North side (Little Elbow) has a new bridge on it since September, and so we knew there would be no major obstacles. Tadhg was feeling pretty tired, but I encouraged him to dig deep in our attempt to get to the Tombstone campground where we had booked the night. The trail was mostly rideable with snow cover and not too much ice. Some spots were a little punchy, but we could still mostly ride. Tadhg was walking some of the steeper sections since he felt like his energy was low.

We passed the wreckage of Mt Romulus campground around 6pm, after sunset, but with enough twilight to see where we were going. Unfortunately, with the greater snow and steady climbing (and only 2 snowmobiles traffic this year) as it got dark, it became increasingly difficult to ride. Tadhg could ride some of the trail, but I was walking most of it. Eventually, we decided to stop for the night since we weren’t likely to make it to Tombstone before 10pm.

Since our camp spot was of questionable nature, we had no fire to roast our burritos. I was pretty certain that we would not be in any trouble since we were our usual no-trace selves and there were not likely to be anyone coming by anyway.

While the wind may have blown over both our bikes during the night, we were snug and warm in our tent. Tadhg was tired enough to get to sleep by about 9:30 and slept right through until I woke him after 9 in the morning. I knew the day ahead could be hard, and I wanted him in good shape to tackle it. I fed him some more burritos for breakfast, and we were on our way. The food and sleep had done its job and Tadhg’s energy and attitude were both refreshed. He was optimistic about the rideability of Tombstone pass.

What had been unrideable for us at night turned out to be mostly rideable when we had a better look at it. We were down to less air pressure in our tires than most people use, but still, we were riding [Mike Curiak explains fatbiketire pressure here]. Some of the steep uphill parts needed some walking, but that is often the case in summer as well.

Through Tombstone Pass was equally mostly rideable, there were some drifted in sections, but even some of those we managed to power through.

The descent from the pass was a combination of drifted in trail and crust hiding unknown depths of snow. We began the descent with Tadhg able to ride more than me due to his light weight, but even for me most of the trail was rideable. Where we punched through the crust, we came to a sudden stop in sometimes waist deep snow, but we were having a ton of fun. Our only concern was that we might have to push the bikes back up if there was no packed trail when we reached the bottom.

2017-01-28 14-21-34 1031.jpgAs we approached the Tombstone junction, my fears were confirmed when I could see no tracks heading in the Big Elbow direction. I was dreading the climb back over the pass. Fortunately, it was only a large snowdrift hiding the first 10m or so of the tracks and my stress was for naught.

The trail leading toward Big Elbow had not seen much traffic, maybe one or two snowmobiles, but it was nearly 100% rideable with the exception of the hills on the snowmobile route. In the summer, the bike route follows a different trail than the winter snowmobile route and since snowmobiles require almost no extra effort to climb grades that leave people on bikes pushing, the snowmobile hills can be steep and involve much more climbing and descending. I distracted myself from the brutal climb by trying to get Tadhg to swear, (he doesn’t)  but the most I could get from him was, “stupid hill!”

Though steep, the descents on the snowmobile portion of the trail were tremendous fun. The snowmobile route also avoided the double river crossing or cliff climb that is part of the bike route.

Once back on the main route, we found a feature that was normally a small stream crossing in summer, was in fact a treacherous ice flow at least this winter. As I looked back to take some pictures of Tadhg crossing the ice, I stepped poorly and started sliding quickly down the cascades of ice. By using my bike pedal  as an ice axe, I stopped my descent after about 20m. Tadhg wanted to go for a fun slide after he got his bike across, until we investigated where the cascade ended and it was the river.

A while later on, we came to the first of the missing bridges from the ’13 flood. It has not been replaced, but there was a convenient natural ice bridge across the river.

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After the short climb and descent on the far side we came to the bridge that several people, including a park ranger told me had been replaced. It was in no way replaced, and the ice bridge that happened to be nearby seemed on its last legs. I had brought my overboots in case there were water crossings, so even if there hadn’t been ice bridges, we would likely have made it across with dry feet.

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This is not the new bridge we were told about.

The Big Elbow campground is a familiar haunt for us, and we settled in for some dinner. I read to Tadhg for over an hour since we had gotten to the campground so early and we slept through a very windy night.

The wind continued in the morning, and though it made coffee and breakfast preparation a little more difficult, it was in the direction we were headed, so we had high hopes of tailwind for our ride back to the car.

The wind, being a Chinook, was warm and dry and had visibly sublimated some of the snow on the trail out as well as the road. The tailwind was strong enough that we pedaled up the road hill with ease (except for getting blown off once). We were somewhat fearful that the downhill side of the road would be a bumpy sheet of ice, but it turned out to be treacherous in only a few spots, and though it was teeth-rattling bumpy, we were at least riding.

 

 

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Kids and Cold: a Few Tips on Winter Outdoors

People often ask me how I get my kids to go out camping in the winter with me. The truth is, when they were young I acted like it was normal (and it is), so by the time they noticed that no one else was with us at the backcountry campground, they were hooked. Now they vie for the privilege of going to the backcountry in all seasons.

Getting outside in the winter is our way to enjoy the inevitable. Staying inside is simply not an option for us, we are unwilling to put our recreation on hold for an entire season. Aside from the physical benefits of being active, the mental benefits of being surrounded by nature, and the skills we gain by challenging ourselves, the outdoor world has a lot to offer in terms of simple enjoyment. In some ways, being outside in winter is easier than in summer. There are few bears out in winter and keeping warm while active in -35ºC is easier than keeping cool while active in +35ºC. It is way easier to get away from the crowds in winter than it is in summer and even a paved road looks like wilderness if you hide it with a few feet of snow.

Fiona is the one we refer to as “Arctic Girl”, she will generally be the first to be taking off layers whatever the temperature.

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Fiona at -27ºC

We sometimes credit Fiona’s cold hardiness to the Scandinavian tradition of putting babies outside to nap. At first we thought it was so we wouldn’t be trapped in our house every day for nap time, but we soon realized that our baby slept better outside than in.

No matter the reason, Fiona’s cold-hardiness does not give her superpowers. She can get frostbite or hypothermia (at least we assume so) and so we take the same precautions that people in cold climates have taken with their children for millennia.

Tadhg seems to have colder extremities than most kids, so we need to pay close attention to keeping his hands and feet warm if he is to feel comfortable on any cold weather outing. When people tell me that their kids are too sensitive to cold to go on winter backcountry excursions, I often mention that Tadhg isn’t tough enough either, he is just well dressed.

So what the heck do I do to keep my kids warm? First, I listen. If they tell me they are feeling cold, I believe them and I look to do something about it. Before they could talk, I used to reach in to snowsuits and blankets to feel if hands and feet felt warm enough. I also watched for signs of discomfort – young kids may not shiver, but they won’t be comfortable, so if something is disturbing that placid sleeping baby face, it’s worth paying attention to.

Children’s snowsuits from better suppliers are generally warm, but that isn’t the same as designed for sleeping outside in -30º. Inactive people produce substantially less heat that active ones, so if the kids are standing around or sleeping, they need much more insulation. When the kids were smaller, I generally bough an extra suit, one size too big to put over the base suit. When they were in diapers, I tried to have the zippers on the snowsuit layers line up so I wouldn’t have to completely remove either suit. For naps and sleeping, sometimes a double snowsuit wouldn’t be enough to keep me (yes me, the caring parent) comfortable – for those occasions, I would put the kids onto a sleeping bag over the snowsuit layers.

A great way to keep anyone warm is to keep them moving. We try to keep moving until it is time to eat or get into a warm sleeping bag for the night.

A popular evening camp (in)activity is sitting by a campfire. While it is fun, it is also exactly the same as any other type of sitting – it produces virtually no heat. Couple that with the warmth from the fire tricking your body into shedding warmth and even sweating, and a fire with no shelter becomes a recipe for feeling cold. Lately, we have been going for walks or bike rides in the evening after eating. Instead of getting cold, the moderate activity warms us up so that we get into our beds comfortably and can relax right away instead of shivering for the first while. This is not to say that we never have campfires, we just limit the times we spend sitting around them.

Boots for kids are generally not as good as they should be. The problem is not the manufacturers, just the many demands placed on kids’ boots. Adults will generally spend hundreds of dollars on their own boots, but it is hard to part with as much when they are only going to be worn for a couple of months. Most waterproof boots will not allow water vapour from sweat to escape at -30ºC, while boots that aren’t waterproof will be wet and cold at temperatures around freezing since they will allow water in. For babies, my compromise was to put camp booties on them. I usually bought two pairs so I could put the pair that wasn’t being worn in my pocket to dry it out while the other pair was on the baby’s feet. The smallest kids didn’t wear them out, especially since they didn’t wear them on concrete in the city. Warm legs can help to keep the blood that reaches the feet warm If a kid is wearing shorts, they will tell you all about how their legs don’t get cold, but their toes will be like little ice cubes. Closed cell foam mattresses are a great way to keep the ground from drawing heat away from feet or bums that may be in contact with the ground. It is surprising how much warmer feet will be when standing on a piece of blue foam.

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Fleece costumes count as insulation

Mittens are another problem area for kids. They are constantly trying to pick stuff up but have small sensitive hands that lose their heat quickly. Around freezing, the only solution seems to be to have several pairs (as many as you can carry) and change them as often as you can without running out mitts before the outing is over. With Tadhg’s sensitive hands, he will often wear a pair of my mitts over his own liner and overmitt. Many people neglect the arms as part of the mitten system, but like feet, the hands depend on the blood reaching them being warm in order to keep warm. Warm arms go a long way toward keeping the hands at the end of them toasty.

On the bikes, I have pogies for everyone’s hands, but I also wrap the brake levers in foam packing material which I hold in place with heat shrink tubing. Metal poles (including ski poles) are really good at conducting heat away from hands. Insulation between the hands and the bars helps and of course so do carbon fiber bars.

Hot liquids can help greatly in warming up a child who is getting uncomfortably cold. By the same token, drinking icy cold drinks can really cool a body, and especially a small child’s body, quickly. Too many hot liquids can of course be a problem since a trip out of the tent in -40 is a good way to lose the heat that was gained by drinking a hot tea.

There is a lot of talk about how much heat is lost through the head, and in fact wearing an insulated hat is an important part of outdoor activity.  Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the biggest source of heat loss, the lungs. The human lung has a moist surface area of at least 50 square meters which is 25 times the skin surface area of a large person. Imagine getting out of the shower and then blowing on yourself outdoors. The easiest solution to this is to wear a scarf in front of the face, which is great until it becomes a mask of ice and wet fabric.  Most Northern peoples have developed some type of hooded clothing that places a pocket of still air in front of the face where it can be warmed by outgoing breath and facial warmth. This is great, though it allows no peripheral vision, it does keep the face warm. My preferred solution is a heat exchanger mask or balaclava. There are a number of them on the market, with the https://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=coldbikecom-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0091CC38A&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr“>Ergodyne (amazon.ca affiliate link)  and the Airtrim being my favourites. I generally feel that a good heat exchanger mask will add 10ºC to whatever you are wearing.

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Hot foods are warming as well, not just from the heat of the food, but from the heat released when the body uses the energy in food. There are many ideas about eating foods like cayenne pepper to warm the body, but I find that just eating a hot meal will work well enough.

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When camping in the winter, there is often no heated building to take shelter in if things go poorly. It is imperative to be prepared. If things get out of hand, it may be necessary to simply get into the tent and snuggle the young ones to warm them up. Hanging out the door of the tent while making a hot drink may not be the preferred cooking method, but it allows a parent to get hot liquids into a child while helping to warm them. Hot water in a steel water bottle can be used as a warming pack inside a sleeping bag to help warm a mildly hypothermic person of any age. For that matter, rocks can be heated to use for warming purposes assuming care is taken not to melt any tents/clothing/sleeping bags or burn anyone.

One of the key elements for us being out in the cold is to have fun. If we are having fun, we can more easily deal with the troubles that come from cold. We also aim to be flexible and we are willing to shorten or cancel an activity because we feel it will stop being fun.

Away from the lights and noise of the city, I always sleep better in a tent. I do awaken frequently to check on the kids though – especially when Fiona talks in her sleep. Many of the cases of frostbite in winter camping happen from sleeping through the onset of frozen feet. There are also many cases of hypothermia that happen at night, so it pays to be extra careful. When the kids were young, we would put them to bed in a snowsuit, a large snowsuit (that either covered hands and feet, or with booties) and then pack the whole kid-snowsuit assembly into a sleeping bag.  While this was heavy, it was warm and comfortable. These days, we have moved toward simplifying the system with Tadhg sleeping in a down/synthetic sleeping bag, adding a down jacket if it is colder, and with a down jacket of mine if it becomes absolutely necessary. Fiona is now using a down sleeping bag with a home made synthetic overquilt. Either the quilt or the bag is good to about -10ºC, but the combination should be comfortable down to about -40.

There is a persistent myth that people need to be naked inside their sleeping bags. The fact is, insulation inside the sleeping bag works (until it gets compressed) just as well as the sleeping bag itself. The only caveat is that wet insulation of any type works poorly.

In the same way that layers of clothing can help to keep people comfortable in a range of temperatures and activities, so too can sleeping bags be layered. Of course no one wants to carry three sleeping bags per person, but it is not too onerous to carry a sleeping bag/overbag combination in most cases. In our case, our overbags weigh only 800g, so the total weight is actually less than what a single -40º rated bag would be.

Sleeping bags only insulate the top half of a sleeper since the bottom of the insulation is compressed beneath them. A warm sleeping pad is essential, more so the colder it gets. I really like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm mattresses, but after having one spring approximately 500 leaks on me this summer, I will not trust them as my sole sleeping pad. In the past, I have used closed cell foam pads either alone or for extra insulation with an air-filled pad, and I have now re-instituted their use in winter. (note that my leaky pad was replaced, and Therm-a-Rest recommend a foam pad as backup)

Some kids roam in their sleep and this makes keeping them on the pad an extra challenge over simply putting them on a quality sleeping pad and letting them sleep until morning. I generally pile all of Fiona’s and my own packs next to her so that she would have to work to wander over them. Her new sleeping quilt attaches to her sleeping pad and helps somewhat to keep her in place on the pad.

People some times question the safety of taking your kids camping in the cold, but I have to defer to the the entire North of Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the First Nations from around here referred to winter camping as “life” and though they had occasional issues with extreme weather, they thrived in our climate even though they slept out in tents every night. While their teepees were much larger and heated by a fire, it remains that they did not live in thermostat-controlled heated houses. I feel that on our most daring adventures, we have always left a large margin of safety, so while we have occasionally been uncomfortable, we have never been at the threshold of physical danger.

For more practical information, check out this Play Outside Guide to Keeping Kids Warm in Winter.

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New Years 2017 fatbikepacking campout

[click pictures to enlarge]

There are 3 nights of the year that connoisseurs refer to as “amateur night” at the bar, Saint Patrick’s day, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve.

Even though we don’t go to the bar very often, we avoid those nights at all costs. This year I talked Tania into joining me and the kids for a fatbikepacking camp from the 30th of December to January 1st, thus putting us into our favourite place, the wilderness, instead of well, anywhere else.

Since Tania lacks my passion for bikes on snow, we decided on spot with a short ride in, the Spray River in Banff National park has just 6 km of trail before the campground. To make things even better, the trail is now signed and groomed for shared-use between fatbikes, walkers and skiers.

I foolishly decided to shoehorn our 4 fatbikes into our 3 fatbike minivan and so I had more work than I should have to assemble the bikes at the trailhead. I had all but two wheels removed from the bikes, and all the bags and pogies had to be installed as well as strapping on extra gear to my bike since this was our first winter bike adventure with the whole family and I was carrying more than usual. I ended up with a 25 pound backpack in addition to an 85 pound bike. While this could limit me if trail conditions were marginal, I was anticipating reasonable conditions and wasn’t worried.

Tadhg had his usual complement of gear, mostly mittens for his chronically cold hands, and of course his sleeping kit and the pole for the tent. I also snuck a toque of Fiona’s in there as well.

Fiona brought her backpack with chips for the family for the weekend, as well as a flashlight. I was impressed with her wise choices. Her bike frame bag contained her booties as well as one of her sleeping mats being strapped to the handlebars.

Other than the trail having been trodden by many people in (apparently high-heeled) shoes and more than a little bumpy, conditions were excellent. A fatbike was almost certainly necessary, but no heroic measures were required to be able to ride. As keen skiers, we were disappointed that at least one group had used the ski track preferentially as a walking track – the track was not usable for skiing.

We achieved our goal of getting to the campground in time to set up before the sun went down (at this time of the year, about 5:30pm). Fiona decided that we were sleeping in the tent with the rest of the family so I only had one structure to set up, but had carried an extra two pounds of tarp and groundsheet. After setting up, we went back to the campground eating area (about 200m up the trail) and set to building a fire and making dinner. As usual, we had fire-roasted burritos with home-made re-fried beans.

 

Sitting around the campfire is a sure way to slow down the blood circulation and get chilled before bed, so Tania had the great idea to go for a post-dinner walk.  Not only did it get our blood pumping, but it padded out the time between our supper and a reasonable bedtime. We all got into the tent around 9 and after some reading, went off to sleep.

I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping under the tarp, so the warmth of the four of us in the tent was an interesting change. It was certainly warm, and I found myself removing clothes and pulling off a quilt to cool down. The morning temperature outside was -18°C so it wasn’t just the mild weather that had our tent so warm. There was no shortage of frost inside the tent though, so any jostling resulted in an indoor snowstorm.

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For our second day excursion, we split up with me and Fiona bringing our bikes while Tadhg and Tania walked up the Goat Creek trail. Since Fiona is nine, and Tania can walk pretty quickly, a head start for the walkers left us pretty well matched for the uphill portion of the trail, and we met up for snacks so we could hang out together.

We saw very few people, and fewer still were on bikes. The snow cover was a little thin for skiing, but great for hiking and biking. We did see some tracks from someone with either over-inflated fatbike tires or 3″ plus tires that were clearly floundering on the trail and were sinking deeply, so the fatbikes were serving their purpose.

We also ran into Evil Moose Megan on the trail on her way to and from Banff while racking up over a hundred km for the day to exceed a 500km holiday challenge.

Our ride back to camp was mostly downhill, so even with several stops for putting clothing on or off, eating snacks, taking pictures, etc, we were substantially faster than the walkers and so we were well into melting snow and boiling water for dinner when they got back. Melting snow is definitely not the fastest way to get water, but the river access was a little treacherous near the campground so I opted not to get river water for cooking.

Another nice evening walk and an even warmer sleep led to another -18ºC morning. It had snowed overnight, so we had a nice coating of insulation on the tent and a bit of padding for the footprints on the trail.

Coffee is an important part of all our mornings, and I made Tania her usual cappuccinos and my own Aeropress espressos to start our day. I do not scrimp on the camping coffee since it makes for such a luxurious experience.

Our ride out was mostly downhill, though Tania found she was pedaling hard the whole way – mostly because we were moving pretty briskly. Our ride out was well under an hour, even with several stops along the way.