Fiona and I had enjoyed the previous weekend’s trip to Shadow Lake, that Tania suggested we do a quick overnight to the campground at km 7.2, Lost Horse Creek.
Tadhg and I decided to bike, both of us generally prefer biking when it’s one of the options. Tania left herself the option to ski or walk, and Fiona was planning to either ski or ski with her other pair of skis. At the trail head, Tania opted to take advantage of the packed trail surface and walk.
With the weather above freezing, the way in had us down to our t-shirts in short order. Tadhg did leave his hat on.
Fiona and I decided to sleep under the stars to save time putting up our tarp and in hopes of seeing some Northern Lights (though chances were slim, the northern sky had mountains obstructing the view). We dug out a nice spot in the snow to put the tent up for Tania and Tadhg.
I was proud of getting up at 7:15 to make coffee (a pride that lasted until I found out it was time change weekend in the car home) Winter has the great advantage of being able to bring real milk for Tania’s cappuccinos, and I always feel better about serving real milk than even the whole milk powder that works reasonably well.
We gave Fiona and Tania a substantial head start while we packed up, but even with that, the bikes speed advantage over Tania’s walking, and the downhill trail meant that we passed them on our way down. It was a fun finish to a very relaxing weekend.
We have been going to Lake O’Hara for a couple of years on family day weekend, but this year we decided to switch thing up for a variety of reasons.
We considered skiing in to Mt Assiniboine again, but the forecast did not look promising in terms of seeing the mountain after what for us is a 2.5 day ski in.
Spray River from Banff to Goat Creek has been consistently good for us in that we’ve never seen people there that didn’t come with us, it is easy to bail from, it is pretty, and it super easy to ski or bike to.
We decided on 2 nights at the campground with a day trip up Goat Creek. Tania chose skiing over biking, the kids followed her lead, and since I didn’t really want to bike alone, I skied as well.
Tadhg and I towed sleds, he likes to avoid backpacks at all costs, I just had too much stuff to fit in my backpack.
It was not warm, but with our routine of using a fire to roast our burritos, then going for a walk before bed rather than sitting around a fire getting sweaty and telling our bodies to shed heat, we were quite fine as we went to bed near 10 pm.
Fiona and I were under the tarp as usual, and since the forecast called for cold, we had our -10ºC sleeping bags with our quilts over them and were toasty warm. When I looked at the thermometer at 8 in the morning, I was a little surprised to see it reading -23ºC (-10F). Fiona and I eventually got out of bed and made the trek down to the eating area to make coffee.
In what would turn out to be a potentially serious event, when I screwed my stove together, I failed to notice some ice that prevented the canister from sealing correctly to the valve. As the stove sat there burning poorly, I went to get some more snow to melt. As I was returning with the snow, I got to see the fuel that had leaked out catch flame. While unspectacular, I was concerned that if I just left the flames burning, it would heat the canister enough to become a big problem. I cleverly figured what the problem was as I was walking toward the stove, and quickly reached in and tightened the canister to the valve. Once the leaky canister was dealt with, the remaining fire quickly dissipated.
Now this would not have been very serious at all if not for the quantity of fuel that leaked out. In the absence of a scale to measure how much fuel was left in the canister, I have to rely on “the force” to estimate remaining fuel. The remaining fuel did not give me a comfortable feeling. I was certain that I would have enough for dinner, but not positive that Monday morning coffee was going to happen.
I advised Tania when I handed her her first cappuccino that we might have a fuel shortage. Neither of us was keen on facing a morning without coffee. While there is a fire pit at the Spray 6 campsite, making a cooking fire at those temperatures seemed a little onerous to set ourselves up for. We decided to do our day trip and then head home afterward. The choice was hardest on Fiona who would have liked to stay another night. We did get in a wonderful ski on a beautiful clear day.
Though cut a bit short, we still had a great weekend in the woods. When measured in fun, this was a great success. It also shows the importance of being willing to change plans in the event of unusual circumstances. We weren’t really in danger, but we also weren’t necessarily in line for the level of comfort that we wanted.
I like to think that I learn lessons when things don’t go exactly according to plan.
We did of course have the option of me skiing back to town to buy a spare fuel canister, but this was a family trip, and the trade of me missing the day’s skiing with them for a trip to town sounded like poor value. In hindsight, this was the correct decision.
In the future, I can consider several options. The best option is to be more careful with fuel, to avoid leaks. I should also have been making more of an effort to get to the river to fetch water rather than melting snow. Also, on a trip like this, would it really kill me to bring an extra 200g of fuel? I only had about 75g of spare fuel and I estimate that I lost about 100g.
I normally bring 2 fuel canisters with me on winter trips, in this case, I had used up the mostly empty canister on the first night. I had felt that since I had plenty of fuel, there was no need to be thrifty and I could just use up the canister. Next time, there will be no frivolous (fuelish?) wasting of even the dregs of the canister.
I had also expected to be using fresh milk for cappuccinos, which saves fuel. I had not insulated the milk jug though (I usually do), so it froze solid on the first night. I will continue to hang my food bag at night, not just for bears, but for rodents, who will spoil a food bag very effectively overnight.
It’s worth thinking about bringing my white gas stove as well. While it is a bit more complicated to use, it is much easier to tell exactly how much fuel is left in it. Had we been going to Mt Assiniboine, I would have been carrying both stoves (or possibly an alcohol beer-can stove), I like to have a backup because of the greater isolation of the trail. I would bring only a small fuel canister for the butane stove and consider it emergency backup. The white gas stove (I have an MSR Whisperlite) is also way more functional below -30ºC (I also have an arctic pump for mine) where the canister stove works, but is very slow.
Last year’s hike to the Rockwall was spectacular, but trail conditions were a little questionable, and the weather ranged well into the adverse zone with snow, sleet, hail, wind, and rain. We thought we would have another go at it this year to see if we could top our previous experience.
There were many emails warning of bridges out and deadfall and avalanche debris on the trail. We weren’t overly concerned, since last year featured whole days of mostly climbing over deadfall, routefinding over large expanses of snow, avalanche debris, and the very same bridges missing.
We were very concerned about the possibility of smoke obscuring the views, but we saw pictures and heard reports that it was clear, so we went ahead with our trip in spite of some trepidation. It is way less fun to do a world-famous hike when you can’t see the world-famous mountains – we experienced that at Mt. Assiniboine and had no desire for a repeat.
We ended up having the luckiest hike in history. We lucked out on weather, though if we need to complain, a couple of days were too hot and sunny. We were also fortunate that the smoke was elsewhere, and the views were spectacular. The trail crew had been hard at work to clean the trail debris, the missing bridge was a trivial wade across the river, the sun had melted most of the snow, and there was less deadfall for the whole hike than we experienced some days of last year.
[click pictures to enlarge]
One of our ideas for going in later July was that the wildflowers would be in bloom, and we certainly were treated to some impressive displays.
On our third morning we were were alerted to the presence of a bear by some other campers. The bear had come between the two eating areas of the campground after circling the one where we weren’t. We made some substantial noise and the bear left. Our last 5 minutes of hiking were also enlivened with a bear sighting, this time an adult bear about 50m to the side of the trail. We again made some noise, this time with the safety latch of the bearspray off, and we made it to the car with the bear having been last seen heading slowly away from us.
There was the porcupine attack…
I awoke at 1:45 AM to a gnawing sound. I looked out the mosquito net to vaguely discern a shape that was possibly gnawing on Fiona’s flip flop. I bravely attempted to retrieve or bat the flipflop away from the (blurry) large-cat-sized rodent, possibly a large marmot? Fortune smiled upon me once again. The rodent was not a skunk. I am 100% certain of my mammal identification because my swipe at the sandal was interrupted by the pain of a couple of porcupine quills stabbing into the backs of my fingers.
Once I had painfully removed the quills from my flesh, (the backs of fingers fortunately don’t have too deep of flesh before the quills hit bone) mopped up the blood, and calmed down a little, I wanted to go hunt down the porcupine to take a picture of it. I am pretty certain that it was very cute, even though it did a number on the handle of Tania’s hiking pole handle (its actual chewing victim, not the flipflop). Fiona would have no part in the chase, “Dad, it isn’t cute, it’s a porcupine!” For his part, Tadhg was concerned about possible venom in the spines and asked “What if it comes back to eat us?”
The porcupine wounds cleared up, and I hope I have learned an important lesson about finding the flashlight before lashing out at vague shapes in the night.
This year, I built a second pulk sled for Tadhg, and mine is much more refined than my original. Tadhg is not the biggest backpack fan, so now he has the option to ski without wearing one, though he is pulling the sled, unlike on the bike where he has bags on the bike.
[click pictures to enlarge]
The trail in to Lake O’Hara is an 11km gravel road which is groomed and trackset. It climbs steadily for the first 2 and last 3 km, with the middle portion being rolling hills. Other than some waxing issues I was having (Skier Bob was having the same troubles), the trip up went really well. I had decided to avoid the trouble of melting snow for our water by bringing up 20L of water for the weekend. While pulling it in the sled was much easier than carrying it, I would skip the water carrying next time. I might bring a large pot to make snow melting easier, especially at Lake O’Hara with its eating shelters with stoves.
Just past the half way point, we met the aforementioned Skier Bob, and he took our picture and spoke with us for a while about my waxing issue and about our camping adventure. We were lucky enough to have our picture featured in the skier bob story of his ski.
When we reached the campground, we were disappointed to find the toilet was locked. This seemed unusual to us since we had been there before and had used the pit toilets there. There was another outhouse up at the Le Relais shelter (about 5o0m up the trail), but it seemed a long way to go when you need to go.
There are two picnic shelters at the campground, both with wood stoves. The wood stoves are usually very convenient for cooking on, but they work poorly with the door opened, and the shelter we chose had the stove door panel removed, so it was not getting as hot as we wanted for toasting our burritos. We at least got them hot and melted the cheese, even if the outsides weren’t as crisp as ideal.
When we arrived, we had the entire campground to ourselves and we shoveled out the first spot for the tent, followed by laying out Fiona’s and my sleeping bags and pads in a stomped down area in a tree well. (like described here). Fiona is definitely a fan of sleeping outside, and our setup was as outside as you get.
Our morning was the usual routine of backcountry cappuccinos for Tania, fresh-ground Aeropress coffee for me, and breakfast all around. The overnight temperature was around -12ºC, so while my water bag was partially frozen, the milk was only at the slushy stage. Winter camping is generally easier than summer when it comes to keeping foods fresh, though fruits and vegetables are often susceptible to damage from freezing.
We had plans to build a quinzhee, so we did some shoveling to pile up the snow. Well, mostly I did the shoveling. I got a good size pile, and we went for a quick snowshoe up to the lake, the Elizabeth Parker huts, and a bit of the surroundings. The kids were looking forward to getting back to the campsite, so we only wandered for a couple of hours.
On our way back to the campsite, we saw that some people had arrived at the warden’s cabin, so we stopped to ask about getting the toilet unlocked. Edwin, the warden, wasn’t hopeful, but said he would come by later with some keys he had to give it a try. He also provided us with a great lesson on an ingenious braking system for the pulk sled, as well as some good general information. He and his friend seemed very impressed that we had our kids out winter camping.
Edwin did have the correct key and got at least the women’s washroom unlocked, this would be much handier in the morning than the substantial walk. Not that we don’t like walking.
Digging out the quinzhee was going rather well, the interior was starting to get fairly big, until a sudden settling alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t packed down the base enough, especially on one side. Rather than risk an unstable shelter, I abandoned the project – the kids were mostly building their slide anyway.
We were joined on Saturday by a group of men who set themselves up in the other shelter and started drinking. They seemed friendly enough, and we assumed they would be like a similar group the year before, competent and quiet.
As we finished our dinner, a second group arrived, this time two couples. We didn’t see much of them that evening, but they were definitely there to enjoy the backcountry.
After another delicious dinner of what has become a camping staple for us, red lentil sweet potato dal (I have been shredding it with an immersion blender to make the sweet potatoes rehydrate better), I read to the kids for a couple of hours, and then we headed off to bed. I had deployed the tarp to keep the snow off Fiona and I since it was snowing fairly steadily.
Though the group of men in the picnic shelter did have a fairly loud and late party, we slept well enough, and soon morning dawned. It had snowed several cm overnight, and the campground looked nice with the fresh covering of powder.
Some of the campground was not so nice. The party group were packing up quickly, no doubt because they were hung over and hopefully embarrassed to have left so many cigarette butts and so much mess in the shelter. Somebody had also peed on the seat of the privy, failing to lift the seat seems to me to be the epitome of laziness, as well as an indication of contempt for your fellow campers.
Breakfast, on the other hand, was a treat. The two other couples in the campground joined us in the shelter, and they were beyond delightful. Not only did they have some more good pulk sled information, but they were clearly people who embraced the joy of winter camping. Though I failed to get any of their names (social graces are not my strong suite), we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them. Their invitation to join them on an Iqaluit (where one of the couples live) adventure was icing on the cake. Their coffee setup was similar to mine, with a portable grinder for the beans while they had a 2-tier stove top espresso machine rather than my Aeropress.
The ski-out featured enough fresh snow that Tadhg and I were sometimes pulling the sleds downhill, since they had enough drag to not slide on their own. The temperatures were warm enough that we struggled with snow buildup on the kick zone of our skis, but some scraping and crayoning of glide wax in the problem areas seemed to help.
Though we might want to skip the party gang next year, we still had a great weekend and enjoyed our visit easily as much as last year.
Like all bad ideas, it started innocently enough. “The kids have no school on Friday, let’s go camping.”
The Point campground on Upper Kananaskis Lake is a spot that we have walked past, but not camped in. It is only 4km from the trail head if you go the hard way, and 7km the easy way. When we had been there before, it had been summer, so we were blissfully unaware of what winter conditions might entail.
We thought it might also be a good shakedown for my new pulk sled, before we take it on a longer trip. The new sled is basically the same as the old one, with slightly improved hardware.
We set off in the snow at a balmy -12ºC on Friday to hike to Point campground. We chose the 4km route since it was shorter and there was just the one hill that we could recall. Tania and Fiona got a head start with Tadhg and I hauling the sleds behind. The forecast called for -18ºC at night, so we brought a few extra items of clothing and sleepwear just to be on the safe side.
It was snowing as we set out, as per the forecast. We figured the sleds would work better with a bit of snow, so we weren’t overly concerned. Of course, the hike started with a pull across the gravely surface of the dam, where there was almost no snow at all. Soon though we were into the woods with a wonderful packed trail that climbed gently enough the forest.
[Click on pictures to enlarge]
The first avalanche path that we came to was pretty icy and slanted, so we unloaded the sleds and ferried the gear across so no gear would get lost if the sleds went downhill. The next avalanche path was much easier to traverse.
Another short section of path led us to the switchback boulder field that led down the hill we had climbed. We had totally forgotten this part of the path, and it was more than a little obscured by snow. This was where we met back up with Tania and Fiona, who had turned around and were heading back to the car since they had been unable to find the remaining path to the campground or the campground itself due to the whiteout conditions.
It turned out that the path they had been following was not the correct one, just the one that many people had trampled. We never did find the correct one, but by heading across the lake for a bit, we came to the campground.
The Point is a fairly extensive campground with about 30 sites and 2 outhouses, but we were happy with the first two sites in from the lake, which had a pre-shoveled tent pad and a quinzee, respectively. The roof on the quinzee was a little low, but a bit of shoveling got it to the point where I could stretch out enough to sleep and we were soon set for the night. (Fiona and I had the option of sleeping under the tarp as usual, or sleeping in the tent).
Once we had the tent set up, we moved on to our favourite opening night meal, roasted burritos. A few folks have asked, so here is the basic recipe.
3 cups dry pinto beans, 1 large onion, 2tbsp miso paste, 3tbsp chilli powder, 1/4 cup of butter. soak the beans overnight, rinse them, add ~4cups water and the other ingredients, cook in a slow cooker about 8 hours, blend with an immersion blender until they are not-quite smooth. Then dehydrate them in a dehydrator. I usually fry some onions and red peppers and dehydrate those at the same time. At the campground, I rehydrate the beans and peppers, wrap it in a wheat tortilla with some shredded cheddar and then I roast them on the grill that comes with most fire pits, or on a flat rock if I have to.
Running out the clock when camping in winter is sometimes tricky, but this time around, we managed to keep everyone up and active until 9pm, and so we headed to bed. We woke up to a few inches of fresh snow in the morning and I started in on making Tania’s coffee. Fiona started converting the path to the bear-proof lockers into a bobsled track, which was good, since it kept her warm in the -19ºC temperature.
Our Saturday was spent on the usual Saturday chores, building a quinzee, making a bobsled track, going for a hike across the lake so we would have a better trail for the morning (foreshadowing) and of course a great deal of eating. It continued to snow for the day and the temperature stayed pretty steady, so we had an easier time staying dry.
When I looked out the quinzee door on Sunday morning, there was only an inch or so gap between the snow and the top of the door. After burrowing out through it, I found myself in fresh snow up to the tops of my thighs, nearly 3 feet of snow. My hands were dragging in the snow if I didn’t lift them.
This table had been cleared to bare metal just the night before.
Before making coffee, I excavated the lower 4 feet of our 6 foot tall tent from the snow so Tania and Tadhg could get out without an avalanche.
The top 3 sections of our 7 section tent.
The temperature felt balmy, I was shocked when the thermometer read below -20ºC.
Once coffee was done with, we had a quick candy and granola bar breakfast and quickly packed up our stuff for the slog out.
And what a slog it was. I was towing over 100 pounds on the sled, and the snow was deep enough that the sled was just plowing it rather than gliding on top. The snow varied between waist and upper thigh deep and even though it was fluffy, it was still an all-out effort to pull the sled through it. I tried to keep my forward progress to a minimum of 20 steps between breaks, but sometimes I didn’t even make that many. It was also quite windy, so I no longer thought it was warm. This went on for 3.75 hours to make the 3.5km back to the car.
At one point Tania asked me if I felt like I was Max pulling the Grinch’s oversize sled. I responded that I’d sure like my heart to grow three sizes that day…
Now, a lot of people have asked me this week if I felt like activating the SOS feature on my InReach device. and the answer is, “not even close.” Now, this was a very difficult trek for all of us, but that’s not something that requires a rescue. If any one of us was in danger of so much as losing a toe, I wouldn’t hesitate, but we were not at that stage. At all stages of our weekend (including the hike out in the full out blizzard), we consistently asked the kids how they were doing – how were their feet/hands/face, etc. We were all very uncomfortable on the hike out (and there were a few tears from the kids), but that doesn’t need a rescue, discomfort is not the same as an emergency. When we arrived home, we still had clothes we hadn’t worn. And, not a trace, or even threat, of frost-bite.
Personally, if you asked me to go out and do it again next weekend, I would. Fiona still reports liking winter camping better than summer camping.
When we got back to the car (the lone car in the parking lot), not only was it covered in piles of snow, but the snowplow had been by. The kind driver had plowed to the side we were parked on, leaving a very tall snowbank/windrow to get through before getting underway. Thanks. While I loaded the car, Tania and the kids shoveled out a space in the wall of snow so we could get underway. Luckily, the snow hadn’t melted and frozen again and, therefore, was relatively easy to remove. This time we weren’t too concerned about the sweat the shoveling could generate since we’d be driving back to Calgary in a warm car (you want to avoid sweating whilst winter camping).
Every outdoor trip/adventure has its “learning moments” and this one was no different. When you’re dealing with the outdoor elements, you need to be prepared for all types of weather, which we were. Even with our uncomfortable moments, it was still a successful adventure with a lot of fun moments, but definitely a little more “adventure” than some of our trips.
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.
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.
Nap time at -20ºC
Yes, the thermometer says -32ºC next to that 7-month-old
sleeping outside at -30ºC (on a camping mattress for warmth)
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.
The frost on his hair at -35ºC shure is pretty
Though his sister was skiing in a T-shirt at -25ºC, he was 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.
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.
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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<1=_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.
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.
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.
The quilt strap goes around the sleeping pad to hold in in place
Testing the new quilt
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.
My buddy Scott at Porcelain Rocket has been several times to Fish Lakes, up the Mosquito Creek trail on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National park. He has consistently talked about it being one of the best hikes he has been on. We have been watching for vacancies in the campground that lined up with potential vacation days for a couple of years now, and this year we had the opportunity to try it.
Our first day was a bit of a warm-up with a short 5km hike to the Mosquito Creek backcountry campsite. It was pleasantly tucked into the woods near the creek, and the hike was easy, if a little muddy from all the rain we have had this summer. There are occasionally horses on the trail, so the trail does have numerous potholes that drain poorly.
The Perseid meteor shower was due to peak on our first night out, but there were some fairly persistent clouds that prevented us from getting much of a view of them. Fiona worked herself up over them enough that she woke up a couple of times in the night to ask me to check for “rocks falling in the sky”. Though we were under the tarp as usual, we had the bug net deployed, so I needed to move quite a bit further than usual to see the sky.
Our second day was much more ambitious, 13km over North Molar Pass. The kids have learned to be leery of the word “pass” since it sometimes means really steep climbing and equally steep descending on the far side.
After the first couple of kilometres of hiking, we emerged into a gorgeous alpine meadow with views of mountains all around. The meadow itself would have been enough to make most hikes worthwhile, but it turned out that this was only the opening act of a very impressive show.
The meadow went on for a couple of kilometres, and then gave way to the climb of the pass itself. The hike wasn’t easy, but at the same time it was not as arduous as many of the passes we have hiked this summer.
But what a view! It was spectacular on the way up, even better at the summit, and continued to amaze on the way down. I know why people come here.
It was only a few downhill kilometres to the Fish Lakes campground on the shore of upper Fish Lake. We got a laugh when we spotted the “no fishing” signs. The kids really enjoyed the irony. We set up our mid and our tarp in a couple of the cleared spots in the trees and started on making dinner.
As per usual, we met a few friendly and interesting campers. I increasingly believe the idea that time spent in the backcountry improves your sanity. It seems that the people who spend the most time in the backcountry are the easiest to get along with.
Fish Lakes has a number of options for dayhikes from the campground. Armed with a vague description and no map, we decided to try Pipestone Pass, with the idea that we would turn back if it turned out to be too far (I have a pretty good map collection, but not this one).
After passing the rangers’ cabin a kilometre or so down the trail from the campground, we followed the sign to Pipestone Pass. After a series of switchbacks through forest, we were ejected into a series of alpine meadows with lakes and mountains and glaciers to look at. We hiked on through the day in a wonderland of flowers and lakes that were breathtaking. The recent rains meant that the trail was quite wet and there were a couple of creek and bog crossings where we took off our shoes to cross. Neither this, nor the “horsed ” trail could dampen our enthusiasm for the surrounding scenes.
I did have to break out some stories on the trail to distract Fiona from working up to a trail conniption. I usually tell lesser known sequels to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. This time, it was one about the boy joining a civil service construction union. It took 4 guys, seven weeks to change a lightbulb – only a slight exaggeration. The stories are based around being long, literary merit is not given the least consideration.
As we came to the summit of the pass, we were a little disappointed when the trail died out suddenly. Only later, when we had read some trail descriptions. did we realize that this is how the trail goes. A bit of bushwhacking (rockwhacking?) would have gotten us through the pass to see the far side unimpeded. As it was, we had spent more time and gone further than we had intended. Our one-way distance was around 11.5 km and we still had the return journey to make.
Fiona was near the limit to her hiking, but as soon as we turned around, she perked up. (after we explained to her that she could still swim when we returned)
The time flew on our way back and soon we were back at the campsite to spend another night. The 8-year-old and the 48-year-old were pretty tired, but the hike was well worth it.
It was also our fancy dinner night and we had coconut couscous lentil stew, it was delicious, even though I added a little too much water to the lentil part of it. We cook up the lentil and spice part ahead of the trip and then dehydrate it since lentils cook very slowly at high altitude.
Of course when I woke up at 6 on Sunday morning, it was starting to rain. A thorough look at the sky showed me cloud from horizon to horizon, with a thunderstorm passing just the other side of the lake. It was clear to me that we were going to be packing up and hiking out in pouring rain again.
Just after our first coffee, I was proven wrong when the clouds moved off leaving a sunny sky in their wake. The hike out was actually very pleasant, other than the trail being somewhat wetter than when we hiked in. We did the entire 18km out in one day, with a couple of lunch and snack breaks.
One of the classic Canadian Rockies hikes, the Rockwall in Kootenay National Park has been in our sights for a while. Last week/end, we finally got around to this 55km gem.
Since the hike starts and ends at two different spots, I brought the car down to our end point at Floe Lake trailhead with the intent of hitching a ride back. The Floe Lake parking lot is a bit deserted, so the hitching was a little more difficult than some. Fortunately, as I was planning on doing a 12km run back to the trailhead to start our hike, it started to rain – always a boon to hitching, and I got a ride right away.
Of course, this meant that we started hiking in the rain, but we came equipped, and we seldom back out for weather disturbances.
With kids in tow, we try to keep the mileage lower than we might if we were just hiking on our own, so we had just under 7km to the Helmet-Ochre junction campground. It made for a great start to our hike, and though the campground scenery was less spectacular, it was pleasantly surrounded by creeks and lush forest.
There are plenty of bears in Kootenay Park, and we had no desire to contribute to their delinquency, so we made plenty of noise on the trail. Shouting, “Hey bear!” is frankly boring, so we usually sing or tell loud stories on the trail.
The kids are prone to loud singing at home, but if you get them on the trail, it seems to shut them down completely. We introduced Fiona to the “marching song”, and made up our own lines. She was at first reluctant, but then became the “marching song monster” so that we spent over an hour singing it on our second day.
The second day was the day of our major obstacle for the trip. A missing bridge at the 12km point of the trail required either a ford, or crossing a log that spanned Helmet Creek. The creek had clearly eroded the bank around our end of the log, so that it now was floating in the creek behind a tree and was partially submerged. The water was quite turbid, so a place to ford the river was quite elusive as well. We opted for the log, with me making a second trip to carry the rest of the family’s packs across. It was more than a little nerve-wracking, but we managed it, and were relieved to be past.
For the last couple of km into Helmet Falls campground, I sang most of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album so that I wouldn’t have to sing any more of the marching song.
This section of trail generally seemed to lack maintenance. There were many fallen logs across the trail and some were challenging to climb, especially for the four-foot-tall girl.
Helmet Falls is an impressive falls, and the eating area for the campground conveniently has a great view of the falls proper. Though it rained through our meal, we were still treated to a great view, and the kids used the space under the bear bins as a rain shelter for eating their dinner. Of course they were singing loudly during dinner.
We are always a little apprehensive, when we need to cross a pass, sometimes what they really mean is, “climb a cliff.”, but our first day of pass crossing was strenuous but reasonable with mind-blowing views at the top.
“I am sick of marching sooong! It’s gone on for far to looong!” In my efforts to tame the “marching song monster”, I introduced the Arrogant Worms’ “Last Saskatchewan Pirate” to the mix. It was a move I would later question as I sang the song 6-12 times per day for the remainder of our hike. There is no question that the kids were happy to be shouting at the top of their lungs for the chorus and I’m certain the bears were well alerted to our presence.
Tumbling Creek was another large campground with the eating area conveniently in the open so we could look at the Rockwall and Tumbling Glacier while we ate.
As happens so frequently, we ran into a guy from the neighbourhood. We had a nice chance to eat and converse with Michael and his daughters who were on a 3 day hike through Floe Lake and Tumbling Creek. The teenage girls would be the only young people we saw on the hike and they were both good company without any of the disagreeable nature that people associate with teens.
The following day was another pass, this time Tumbling Pass to Numa Creek. The views were once again phenomenal. The descent to Numa Creek was a little overgrown, but easy enough to find. We made good time to the nearly deserted campground. In spite of the 18 bear bins, there were only ourselves and one other couple in the campground. Our six days on the trail was the exception more than the rule, and most people tried to do it as a 3 or 4 day hike. This meant that the Helmet-Ochre junction and the Numa Creek campgrounds were skipped by many people (though we heard later that there were a few people who stayed an extra night and hiked out from Tumbling Creek when they didn’t think they could manage a 2 pass day).
Numa pass was the most climbing of the 3 passes along the Rockwall, but it felt no worse than the others except that it had the most downed trees across the trail of any section we had done. We counted 50 tree trunks across the trail which made for substantial obstacles for Fiona.
On our way up the pass, it began to hail. We made an attempt at waiting out the worst of the storm with a 9 minute pause before we broke the treeline and that worked out really well since the snow and hail didn’t start back up in earnest until we were over the first saddle of the pass. As we pushed through the pass, we were a little disappointed that we were missing the views afforded by our high position, but we pressed on.
Fiona asked me why I was laughing, and I tried to explain how there was nothing else to do since we were on top of a mountain pass, walking in mud, being snowed and hailed on in a wind in July. I don’t know if she understood my gallows humour, or if she just accepted that maybe dad had cracked, but she stopped asking.
Fortunately for us, just before we dropped off the ridge with the best panoramic view, the clouds dissipated enough for us to get a great view of Floe lake and its backing rock faces and the surrounding valley. There was still mist lingering at the tops of the cliffs, but it was nonetheless beautiful.
When we reached the campground, we set up and had a rest as the rain had started up again and we didn’t feel like standing around in the downpour if we didn’t have to. Fiona even had a nap. We had a quick break in the weather that got us halfway through dinner, and after finishing eating in the slushy rain, we went back to shelter. The heavy slush was pushing in on the tarp by quite a bit, so I re-set the cords to improve things and keep us dry.
Coming in to the campground in the midst of this was Greg, perhaps the happiest guy in the world. He came in during the worst of the downpour, smiling and cheerfully commenting that he didn’t see too many others camping under a tarp. He had one of the lightest backpacking setups I have seen, and I was very impressed with his back country skills as well as with his very positive outlook.
Fiona and I got up to get some pointers on tarp camping from Greg, as well as some general conversation. I felt enriched by his great outlook and by the level of enthusiasm he had for being outdoors. I hope to encounter him again some day.
Our last day dawned overcast and rainy, but we still enjoyed our coffee and breakfast before heading back down the trail back to the car. The trail down was overgrown, and though it made for some beautiful flower displays, we grew weary of pushing foliage out of the way.
With a little help from the pirate song, we made our way back to the car, loaded up, and were on our way. The first thing the kids wanted when we got home was the pirate song on the stereo.
We love cross-country skiing, we love camping, and we had a 4-day long weekend for easter. The obvious solution to this non-dilemma was to go ski camping.
After our awesome trip to Lake O’Hara for a long weekend in February, it was a strong contender for a return visit. On top of that, a group of really cool families were going to be there and it would be nice to meet up. In the end, we decided that, beautiful as it is, Lake O’Hara is better suited for a one or two night winter stay since so much of the surrounding area is in avalanche terrain and so the options for day trips with kids are limited.
We decided to head up the Bryant Creek trail toward Mount Assiniboine. With campgrounds at 9 and 17km from the trailhead, it was well suited to a 3 night trip with nice 8-10km daily distances.
When we got there, we took a look at conditions and Tania wisely decided that walking/snowshoeing was the right mode for the trip. Tadhg has enough experience that he also knew that conditions were questionable for skiing. Fiona, is a little lot more obstinate and was determined to go ski-camping. I decided that I should ski so that I would be better able to keep pace with Fiona, I also brought my boots and snowshoes. I dutifully loaded the snowshoes for the family into the sled in anticipation that we might need them later.
The first part of the trail is the Watrige lake trail from the Mount Shark trailhead, a gentle groomed XC ski trail. The trail itself is a little dull, but the surrounding peaks make for enough distraction that it is hard not to enjoy.
After a few km, the trail has a long descent to the Spray River/Lake and that was where my ski plan began to fall apart. My sled was simply too heavy for me to hold back with the poles I used to pull it. I had never used it with the weight of our snowshoes padding out the usual load of food and a sleeping bag. Even after taking my skis off, I had to struggle to keep the sled from overtaking me – I was worried about breaking the tow poles with pushing back, and if I tried zig-zagging down the hill to keep the speed in check, the sled would roll and I would need to drop my pack to go back to set it upright.
The second half of our first day was spent climbing the Bryant Creek trail to the campground. The BR9 campground was where Fiona and I had spent our fun weekend skipacking together in February so we knew what to expect.
Our now traditional first night of camping meal is bean and cheese burritos with our homemade dehydrated pinto beans. It is surprising how well the beans rehydrate to taste like real food. We have been roasting them over campfires to make them even better, but the Bryant Creek campgrounds do not allow fires and so we had to skip this improvement.
Our second day had us hiking past the Bryant Creek shelter, 2 more campgrounds and reaching the BR17 campground at the Allenby junction. Apparently, no one but us had used this campground this winter, because it was undisturbed snow – I was somewhat happy to see this because it meant that the snowshoes that I had been dragging suddenly became indispensable.
After searching around the deep untracked snow in the forest for about half an hour, we located the outhouse and a reasonable spot to put up our tarp and tent. Tadhg shovelled a tent pad 2 feet into the snow, as well as the outhouse door (about 3 feet deep) and some stairs down to it. Fiona wanted desperately to help with the shovelling, and she finally got a turn when it came to shovelling out a pad for us to sleep on below the tarp. Tadhg also dug a snow cave that he thought Fiona should sleep in – I told him he had to make it big enough for the both of us, but he was tired of shovelling.
The Allenby junction is surrounded by mountains and is as beautiful as it is remote. I would definitely be willing to walk the 17km to stay there again. It was also higher and colder than our previous campground. When we got to checking the thermometer at 9:30AM it was -14ºC after warming up for a couple of hours so we estimate it was around -18ºC at night. It seems I was pushing my -10º sleeping bag a little. Nonetheless I was comfy enough to sleep and everyone was better rested when we got up.
Our stretch goal for the weekend was to make it to the top of Assiniboine pass where we hoped to get a view of the iconic mountain as well as the surrounding area.
The last 4 km to the top of the pass were fairly steep and since they were quite icy, we used snowshoes for the extra traction. The climb was well worth it even though Assiniboine was shrouded in cloud and snow, it was still somewhat visible and we sat facing it while eating our snack.
Afterwards, we made the trip back down to the campground to collect our stuff and make the return hike to BR9.
I was last to leave the campground and as I pulled out, I broke one of the poles that pull the sled. After a hasty repair, I got moving on the trail again. Unfortunately, my repair was not as effective as I hoped and my ability to steer the sled was very limited. Also, whenever the sled got more than a tiny bit sideways, the working bar would pull the sled over, forcing me to drop my pack to run back to put the sled back upright. After about 50 iterations of the sled rolling game. I finally caught up to Tania and the kids waiting for me. This meant that Tadhg could follow behind to right the sled and to pull on a brake rope for descents.
It was past our usual dinner time when we got back to camp, but we got everything set up quickly and though we had to eat in the dark, we weren’t as put out as we might have been.
I took a few minutes in the morning to revise my sled repairs into something I thought I could deal with and we were off right around noon with Fiona skiing again and the rest of us hiking. After the climb from Spray Lake, I even put on my skis for the last 3 or so km back to the car. Finny still says that only she went ski camping since I didn’t ski enough for it to count – she was the only one to ski the whole way between the campsites.
We had originally planned to do a bike trip – this is a bikepacking blog after all. Since the bike trail was on fire at the time, we decided to choose an alternate trip. It ended up being a hike for a variety of forest fire reasons, and since mount Assiniboine did not have reservation system it was one of the few things that we wanted to do that wasn’t booked. The way that we wanted to do the trail was starting from sunshine Meadows. The best way to start the hike was to take the shuttle bus up from the Sunshine parking lot and begin hiking at the ski resort.
So that we could take an early shuttle and begin hiking early, we decided to spend the night at one of the car camping campgrounds around Banff. The only one that had space when we were reserving at the last minute was Tunnel mountain. The on-line reservation system was very clear that there were no parties allowed after 11, not even campfires and conversations. We took this as a good sign since we intended to sleep during those hours.
We should have been concerned when we got to the campground and of the 6 vacant campsites around us, 5 had smouldering fires left by previous occupants. We became more concerned when we saw that the occupants of the adjacent site were rowdy hipsters.
We went to bed at around 9:30 so that we could get up early in the morning to drive to Sunshine in time to catch our 10AM shuttle. When Tania and I got up to go to the washroom at 11PM, the hipsters had just returned from town. They were loud and drunk, but we assumed they were going to bed. There was no such luck. The party lasted until well after 3:30, with loud shouting, arguing and laughing without concern for the other campground denizens. Not that it mattered since in the years since we spent time in car campgrounds it has become acceptable to have a car that honks the horn when you lock and unlock it and to lock and unlock it many times per night. I am sure that no more than 30 seconds went by all night without a car honking and no more than 5 minutes went by without a car alarm going off. The trains going by were tranquil by comparison. Fiona got a few hours of sleep, Tania and I got a few minutes between us and Tadhg may have been awake the entire night.
The following morning our usual jitters about starting a long hike were calmed by the knowledge that it couldn’t possibly be worse than Tunnel Mountain campground. We had been through hell and there was nowhere worse to go.
We were early enough that our preparation for the bus ride was casual and calm. We all had our packs sorted and ready to go since we didn’t unpack them at all the night before. I laid out the car camping tents and bags in the back of the car so they would dry and double checked everything in my pack.
The bus ride itself was a little dull, as bus rides tend to be, I was glad to be riding rather than hiking the relentless uphill grade to the ski village.
It doesn’t take long from the ski village to go from beautiful to stunning. The ski lift infrastructure may not be a wilderness experience, but the surrounding mountains are still beautiful, ranging from lush to stark.
Our weather was close to ideal, cool enough for hiking, warm enough to not have to bundle up. We hiked along the trail past gorgeous mountains, over passes and through valleys. The hike to Assiniboine is well recognized as one of the most scenic in the world and it lives up to the hype.
The kids made us stop a few times for snacks and so they could sketch mountains and write in their books. In spite of our fatigue, we were happy and filled with wonder at the scene surrounding us.
Our final descent of the day was a tough one. The slope was the steepest we would see, and our packs were loaded with all the food for the entire week. Fiona had saved her trail conniption until the last 500m to the campground at porcupine creek, but even that couldn’t dampen our spirits in such a wonderful spot.
Sleep came easily to us after our long day of hiking and we slumbered peacefully in the mountain air with the faint scent of campfire smoke.