I get asked, like most winter cyclists, “why?” The situation varies between riding with my kids a couple of blocks, to riding in extreme cold, to riding and pushing through snow to go sleep outside somewhere. The implication is that it’s too hard to be worth it.
Some of the questioning comes from a mistaken assumption that it is inherently unpleasant. This is almost invariably from people who haven’t tried it. There is seldom a ride where I feel uncomfortable during the ride. I generally dress reasonably for the temperatures and weather conditions. I often end up shedding a layer while riding, but seldom feel the need to put a layer on. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so I avoid it. I sleep well outside.
Many people assume from my hobbies and appearance that I’m some sort of hardcore leathery mountain man who pits himself against the odds to see if he can. Again, that is rooted in a lack of knowledge. I love to see the beauty of the mountains. I love the freedom of outdoor life. I love a challenge, but I’m quite cautious by nature. My 10-year-old daughter is way more of a daredevil than I am.
I do get a rush from the exertion of pushing myself a little. I sometimes enjoy the thrill that comes from not holding back. Sometimes I like to suffer a bit, to feel my lungs burning, or to fight falling asleep on the bike as I put off stopping for the night.
Mostly though, I like being outside, moving. I was not built to sit idly by as life passes. Past experience tells me that if I get out and move, I feel good. It’s as simple as wanting to feel good. Some might call it an addiction, but if it is, it’s one without consequences and one I feel comfortable sharing with friends and family.
This winter has, for some people, dragged on. For me, It has been fun. I’ve been out camping on skis, my feet, my bike, and most importantly, I’ve done it with my family and friends. I feel good that I haven’t wasted my winter watching TV. I feel great that I’m fit. I mostly feel great because I’ve spent my time outside. Even the most mundane grocery run is more fun when you do it by bike.
Life is short. At the end, I anticipate regrets, but I don’t expect to regret a single minute of riding my bike, in the cold or not.
We were dropping Tania and Fiona off for a 4-day weekend in Radium and so the logical idea was to challenge ourselves with the Kootenay Gravel Grinder route. We were a week late for the race, and we’d be days off the pace, but it was in the right place, and from what I hear, a nice route.
The forecast 35ºC heat sounded a little discouraging.
Fortunately, the very rad Megan “Evil Moose” Dunn was putting on an overnight family bikepacking trip on behalf of bikepack.ca on our “home trail” the Elbow Loop. Though Tadhg was going to be the only teen on board, I didn’t want to miss a chance to meet other bikepacking families. I figured Tadhg’s babysitting experience would serve him well.
We decided to take the easy way in so that we could leave the car in a good position to follow Megan’s overnighter with another, longer ride.
We always think of the hike up to Elbow Lake as a bit of a slog, but as Tadhg grows, more of it becomes rideable for him. Our 7km ride in to Tombstone campground was done in just under half an hour, I felt like going for an out-and-back ride somewhere just to have been riding my bike for a bit of time.
[click pictures to embiggerate]
We set up our tent, and were just discussing moving it to a more open area to get out of the stench of horse droppings (the campground is used by equestrians, who apparently have no rules or desire to do any cleanup after their horses) when Megan and her gang arrived.
They had made it up the Little Elbow side of the trail in about 5 hours, which sounds slowish but is actually pretty good time for a family. When there are a 4 and 6 year old riding a tandem attachment and their own bike, the speeds drop pretty quickly.
Later in the afternoon another family arrived on foot with their 1-year-old baby in a backpack. This was definitely a hardcore group.
Once the tents were set up in a more open area of the campground, thoughts turned to food (and the kids started playing tag with each other). I had my new “recipe” rice:
2 cups instant rice (with salt from rice instructions)
1/2 cup roasted cashews
oil from rice instructions in separate container
1/2 cup coconut milk powder
1 tbs curry powder
Add water according to rice instructions and let sit for 5 minutes (10 minutes if above 1500m)
The coconut milk powder really boosts the calorie count and the cashews add some valuable protein to this tasty dish. I plan on adding dehydrated vegetables to future versions.
As we finished dinner, Jeremy and Chris arrived, Chris’s 8-year-old was under her own power on a 24″ wheel fatbike while Jeremy had his Surly Big Fat Dummy with his daughter as cargo (and pusher on steep hills). They had experienced some traffic and other delays, and had come up the much harder Big Elbow side. Their 5 hour time was a substantial accomplishment.
I struggle to find adequate words to describe how much I liked this group. I knew Megan was the real thing in a world of phonies. It turned out that her buddy Katrina is pretty much a force of nature. She and Mike’s son is the kind of kid I like to be around, energetic, patient, intelligent and fun-loving. Jeremy and Chris were justifiably proud of their daughters. It took a lot of effort for them to ride/push in the harder way. It really is easy for me to like bikepacking parents, I hope to do something with them again soon.
For our second day, Tadhg suggested that we do the 40km loop, and since he had bonded with the younger boys, we opted to escort them out and then giv’er back to the campsite for our second night.
Mike Rocked the pack-mule bike and trailer.
Katrina is my new bike hero.
From experience, I can say that the 5 hours it took us to get out to the trailhead was a very decent speed for a group that included a pregnant woman, a dad with trailer and panniers, a 4-year-old on tandem attachment and a 7-year-old. The level of whine was impressively low as well.
Our trip back up the other side with just the two of us (mostly unladen) was just under the 2.5 hour mark, including a stop for second lunch and investigation of the newly refurbished Romulus campground. This was always our favourite of the loop campgrounds, but the new version has a much improved hiker section, so that the equestrian and hiker sides aren’t the posh equestrian and the rustic hiker sections. I can’t wait for it to open.
The fancy new outhouse at Romulus
Monday’s ride back to the car was uphill, so it was slower than the way in, the plan was to move the car to Sawmill, and then ride the High Rockies Trail to Goat Creek trail and then down to the backcountry campground near Banff town.
I had heard on Friday an interview with the designer of the High Rockies trail in which they discussed how beginner-friendly it was. There was also discussion of how much flow it had. There was even mention of bikepacking, though I was dubious. Previous sections I had ridden were fairly smooth, so I was a little surprised when it became clear how much climbing we were doing.
The reality is that the trail is designed to follow contours and drain well, so it isn’t quite as beginner as I was expecting. Tadhg has no pump track experience, so the constant dips sucked his speed away rather than giving him a chance to pump. The trail flow is also at faster speeds than he could manage with a loaded bike.
Since we had the car option, I decided that we needn’t suffer quite so much and so we turned around after 45 minutes or so to return to the Sawmill Parking lot. Conveniently, we may have missed a bear closure on the trail just ahead of where we were. The more downhill ride back to the car was much easier than the ride out.
A look at the map and a car ride took us a bit further up the trail. Buller mountain seemed a reasonable place to start and be able to get into the campground by nightfall. The trail was still difficult, but Tadhg was getting the hang of the wavy trail and keeping some of his momentum. After nearly 18km, we came out to a spot near the road and had a good look up the valley. We saw virtually nothing. The smoke was getting quite thick and was obscuring our views of the mountains. We then made the decision to pull the plug on the adventure. Neither of us were in the mood to ride through a smoky mess with the accompanying dry throat and stinging eyes.
On the way back, we did shortcut a section of the trail by taking the road, but the dusty gravel held little appeal, and we were soon back on the trail. All total, we rode roughly 60km for the day which isn’t a bad number for the types of trails.
I do not want to seem like I’m disparaging the High Rockies Trail, it is extremely well-designed, especially given the difficult area it travels through. My main issue with the High Rockies Trail is its lack of campgrounds. There are essentially no campgrounds (a couple of car campgrounds at the south end) for the entire 80km of trail. Since few people (and no beginners) have it in them to ride 160km of the trail as an out-and-back trail in a single day, the lack of campgrounds is a significant oversight. If there were campgrounds at the North end and two other places along the trail, they would go a long way to making the trail bikepacking friendly. I’ve heard that I wouldn’t have this issue if I didn’t have my family to slow me down, but realistically my family don’t move much slower than the average adult, and approximately no hikers will go 80km between campsites.
As it sits, the High Rockies Trail is a great collection of day rides. I might one day ride it as a very long day, but as a hiking or bikepacking trail, it fails miserably until some campgrounds are built along its length. Perhaps making the Mt Rummel campground year-round would be a good start.
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.
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.
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.
A woman we met though Tania looked so great that she had likely stayed in a hotel.
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.
Tadhg mocking the skate ski icon (not the skiers)
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.
Megan after about 65km
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.
Tania often tells me I look like a hobo. Here is why.
For various reasons, we decided at the last minute to take a holiday at the end of August. There are, of course, limits to what can be planned at the last minute, and so we decided to go bikepacking on another section of the KVR trail. I packed the food and we each packed our bike bags. We lined up possible itineraries with likely camping spots for the night. I built some wheels for Fiona’s bike (in the living room, much to Tania’s chagrin). I lined up everything so it was ready to go.
Tania went with Tadhg to Radium with her parents, I went bikepacking (can’t have too much bikepacking in your life) with Fiona and the Roberts family for Saturday night. When we got back on Sunday, I repacked and on Monday morning we were off to Radium. Until the pass coming down into Radium, everything was going more or less according to plan. Then my brakes started making a nasty grinding noise.
Fast forward to Wednesday morning, we were driving out to the Kananaskis in a borrowed truck with our bikes on the back and our bags in the luggage space. The kids and I have used the Elbow Loop as our stand-by route for a number of years. Tania had done the lower segments, but had not yet experienced the entirety of the loop. With our time now limited to three days and with the unknown of bikepacking with kids on a non-rail trail, we decided that it would be a good fit. Our “emergency vacation” was on!
The first day was a known quantity, 7km of easily rideable gravel. All of the 2013 flood damage on this part of the trail is repaired or re-routed. The campground is serviced by an ordinary pickup truck. As such, the campground had an ample supply of firewood and was cleaner than it had been last year.
Around 5AM, the wind suddenly picked up quite a bit and became gusty. This did not bode well for the following day as it was coming directly from the direction we were going to. I was hoping for the wind to die down a little while I served Tania her backcountry cappuccinos and we all ate breakfast.
The first few km were not too bad, fierce headwinds, but rideable terrain. Until we reached the first missing bridge, the trail was even fully repaired. I had worn my sandals with the intent of ferrying the bikes and people across the river so that no one else would have to suffer cold, wet feet.
Once across the river, we were fully exposed to the wind. I should explain, that Tania is not usually a mountain biker, this trail fell into the barely rideable category for her without the wind. When the wind started knocking her from her bike, she was not amused. I felt bad, I hadn’t predicted the wind would make things so much more difficult. Much worse, I was enjoying the extra challenge.
After the second river crossing, there were a few washed out sections of trail that required some hike-a-bike and even a bit of bushwhacking. Tadhg and I had been through here last year, so it wasn’t that new to us, though we usually did this section as a technical downhill in the opposite direction. I did a bit of ferry-pushing where I would walk back down steeper sections to retrieve Tania and Fiona’s bikes.
We took about 5 hours to cover the 14 km or so to the campsite at Tombstone, but we did make it. I like to think that Tania will forgive me one day. I did carry the beer and the tasty dinner to recharge after a long day.
Our last day was back in the comfort zone. We had a couple of km of pushing followed by 15km or so of mostly downhill. Fiona rode 90% of the pushing section, I alternated between riding and pushing, and we made it to the top soon enough.
Though it was threatening to rain, it was warm enough that we didn’t need to bundle up for the downhill. Tadhg and I made a game of doing jumps off the water bars. We paused frequently to allow Fiona with her smaller wheels to keep up with us, but we still had some easy riding.
Fiona did yell at me whenever we came to an uphill (all very small) since I promised that the day would be almost all downhill.
We (well, mostly me) were absolutely delighted to come down the steep embankment to the river to find that a temporary bridge was in place until the permanent one gets installed. I left my sandals right where they were and we all crossed the river with dry, warm feet.
A short couple of km and we were back at the car. Another family bikepack, more or less successful.
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.
Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park is one of the few trails close to us that allows bikes and is long enough for a reasonable bikepacking weekend. As such, we tend to go there a lot. Sometimes I get the feeling that it is a compromise to go there since it is so familiar. This weekend, we met a few people who adjusted my perspective and rejuvenated my attitude toward this ride.
For all the times I have taken the kids to Lake Minnewanka, Tania had never come with us. When the weather forecast looked good, I booked us in at the LM11 campground since it is our favourite.
By mountain standards, the day was ridiculously hot, 25ºC and hardly a cloud in the sky. Our car ride out suffered from the greenhouse effect – that is, our car is a greenhouse. Fiona was on the sunny side of the car, and we heard a lot about how put out she was to be in such oppressive heat.
I hurried my way through the assembly of bikes at the trailhead so that we could get on the trail. Since our ’93 Previa only holds 3 bikes and their wheels need to be removed and I remove the bags of the bike on the roof, it isn’t trivial to get ready for the trail. Tadhg is starting to be a bigger help, and he can get some of the bags installed on bikes.
The crankiness started soon after the trailhead, with someone complaining about how it was too hot, and she was too tired after the hot car ride to ride a bike. Tania and Tadhg cleverly rode ahead to get out of earshot of any further whining. After an hour or so of deliberately slow pushing and complaining about the heat, Fiona decided I had been punished enough and got herself in the mood to ride
We made reasonable time with Fiona riding, and we were only 50 minutes behind Tania and Tadhg when we got to the campground. This included fixing a flat on Fiona’s bike.
Since the sun is up late this time of year, we took advantage of it and had dinner before setting up the tent. The campground was nearly full, which is apparently a trend as more people discover how great backcountry camping is. This year, we have had some struggles as backcountry campgrounds that were previously available a single day in advance are now booked months in advance.
The wonderful thing about the backcountry campgrounds is that they usually attract a clientele of diverse nature lovers. This one was no exception, and we were happy to meet Jesse, who was there for a weekend on his own in the woods. Erin was a dedicated cyclist (though she was hiking this trip) from Wisconsin who was visiting Banff for the first time who Fiona took to right away. It was their perspective on the lake that reminded me of how special a place it really is.
After dinner (burritos grilled over the campfire, yum!) Tadhg and I set up the tent while Fiona used the free art supplies on the beach to build things with.
We all got a great sleep, and we didn’t stir until 9:00, and after a leisurely breakfast, Tania and Fiona were wanting to lay low to avoid overheating in the 27ºC heat. They stayed back and had a beach day of playing in the water and building rock structures.
My restless nature needed some expenditure of energy, so I drafted Tadhg into coming on a bike ride with me. We had a great time in spite of the heat, and we rode down to the campground at LM20 and back. We were both feeling great and would have gone further except we had told Tania we would be back and I didn’t want to extend our fun at the expense of her worrying.
Tadhg was thrilled with the way his new bike handled, and had no trouble keeping a fast pace for our entire ride. At the ranger cabin at km 15, we saw some deer browsing on the rich grass that grows around the cabin.
The deer weren’t very afraid of Tadhg.
The view was at times breathtaking.
After dinner, Tania took the kids for a walk with Erin, and Tadhg actually got in the water for an in-and-out swim. For Tadhg to get more than toe deep in glacial water it needs to be a very hot day.
Sunday was our day to leave, and so after breakfast, we packed our bikes and hit the trail. This time, Fiona’s mood was good, and her riding reflected it. We put her in front to set our pace and were making great time.
As I was enjoying the rhythm of rolling along, I had to make a sudden stop as I was powering up a steep bit and my chain snapped. I opted to try to take out a link since I didn’t have another single speed quicklink with me. It was tight and involved pressing the wheel all the way forward in the dropouts and removing my wheel tensioners, but it just barely made it with only a tiny bit of bearing notchiness. Back on the trail, Tadhg and I quickly caught up to Tania and Fiona.
It turned out that Fiona had had her own mechanical issue when she was alone with Tania. She had crashed and knocked her chain off. She then told Tania, “I can just fix it!” and did so in seconds.
With the family together again, we rode along, and were joined by a woman on her first ride after knee surgery. She was clearly thrilled to be on her bike, but sensible enough to hold back from re-injuring herself. Fiona immediately adopted her as a buddy, as she is prone to doing. When we stopped for a snack at the base of a steep hill, Tania pressed ahead of us pushing. I helped Fiona push the steepest parts and when I returned to get my own bike, Fiona and her buddy were riding off. It is so nice to have people on the trail help my kids and encourage their riding progression. I took advantage of the freedom to ride a little quicker on the fun parts of the trail.
As I hopped a tree root, I heard a crashing sound and suddenly remembered that I hadn’t closed my camera sleeve as my camera cartwheeled down and off the rocky trail. Surprisingly, it was in a mere two pieces and though it no longer has a rear LCD, it still functions. I also had to repair the lens as it had torn from the mounting plate. I do not recommend abuse of camera equipment, but the Fuji XT-1 gets a ringing endorsement from me.
While I was dropping my expensive belongings and then finding them in the trail-side bushes, Fiona was busy tearing up the last bits of trail. She loves to impress people, and she takes pride in her abilities and her drive.
Camera notwithstanding, it was a very successful weekend.
The tweet went out last month. I was intrigued, I love bikepacking with kids!
hey @coldbike! Overnight bike packing. Minnewanka LM8. Fri April 29th First attempt with 4 year old Thomas! Gonna need your tips… 2016-03-18, 7:09 PM
I was pretty excited to see adam taking his kids out for some bikepacking goodness. I had met them previously at the park and around the neighbourhood and they seem like a fun family. Four-year-olds bikepacking seemed like a stretch, but with good planning…
We wanted to get in some bikepacking and we decided to tag along with Adam and Thomas. The Minnewanka trail is a favourite of ours, and family bikepacking is never a bad thing.
As the date approached, we decided that just Fiona and I would go, which would give me some time away with her and let Tadhg have a longer ride with me later.
The Friday came and though we had a couple of delays getting out of the house, we hit the road aiming to meet Adam in the parking lot at the trailhead. Adam was about half an hour ahead of us at this point, so fortunately he decided to start riding rather than wait for us.
This was Fiona’s first bikepacking ride with the fatbike, and as might be expected, it was a lot for her to handle. She was determined to prove to me that it was the right bike though, which probably saved me having to listen to a lot of whining. It was fairly slow going though since Fiona had to push up some of the steeper hills at the beginning of the trail.
When we got to the campground, Adam had set up his tent and was throwing rocks in the water with Thomas. Fiona went down to meet them and immediately became Thomas’s rock throwing buddy. I set up the tarp and soon they came up to see what I was doing.
Like most modern backcountry campgrounds, the food prep area at LM8 is quite a way from the tent area. We made our way over to have some dinner. I brought an alcohol stove on this trip, so there was lots of time to gather firewood while waiting for our water to boil.
Apparently Thomas’s favourite thing in the world is campfires because he was entranced, and spent the rest of the evening putting wood and rocks in the campfire, with a short break for s’mores. In a gesture of foresight and generosity, Adam shared beers with me as I had tragically neglected to bring any.
Though I hadn’t thought the rocks in the fire were that good an addition, they did provide us with some entertainment since they were glowing red with sparkles by the time we were putting out the fire for the night.
Fiona always sleeps her best in the backcountry, and this was no exception. Fiona sometimes has nightmares in which she shouts in her sleep, and apparently Thomas does too, though they were far enough away that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been awake when it happened. Fiona slept in until 9:15 which is somewhat unprecedented, but I was glad she got enough sleep.
After a leisurely breakfast, (Adam and Thomas were up at 8 and had eaten by the time we got up) we packed up and hit the trail out. The riding went really well as the kids motivated each other. Fiona was showing off for her younger buddy, and he in turn was pushing himself to ride as much as her. Fiona had the advantage of size and low gears, but Thomas has some top-tier bike skills and the determination of a 4-year-old. It made the ride more fun for everyone and increased Thomas and Fiona’s friendship even further.
Adam’s big dummy as a bikepacking bike and sag-wagon combination worked super well. He has it set up as a 26+ mid-fat with wide rims and nearly 3″ wide tires. It handled the gravely trail well though it may also have been Adam’s bike handling skills.
Put everything you want to bring in a pile. Then put half of it back. It’s the cliché of bike touring and backpacking alike, but it has an element of truth to it.
I like to start by deciding what the coldest temperature I could possibly encounter and decide what I need for that temperature. For most winter trips, that means 2 layers of wool tops and bottoms (wear one, pack the other), my custom bike tights, a fleece jacket with a windproof front, my Steger mukluks, a pair of mittens, my earflap hat, a buff and my heat exchanger balaclava. If I have to stop, I add a down sweater over this to keep me from getting hypothermic while eating or fixing bikes. I bring a spare pair of socks.
It’s no secret that the low-hanging-fruit of bikepacking are the main components: sleeping bag, tent and whatever you carry them in.
I have pretty much settled on Porcelain Rocket bags for all my bikes. They are reasonably light, very innovative and uncompromisingly durable. I have frame bags for all my family’s bikepacking bikes as well as seat bags and handlebar bags that I move from bike to bike. Tania has micropanniers since a seat bag does not fit her bike.
I generally carry a backpack, but I keep the weight in it to a minimum when I have the bike to carry the heavier items. Though my backpack looks large, it generally only contains a sleeping bag, a bag of candy and my Delorme InReach.
There is no comparisson between synthetic and down when it comes to weight, down bags are much lighter, even after factoring in a dry bag to keep the down from getting wet. I find I can get away with a somewhat lighter bag than most, partly because I use a heat exchanger balaclava on cold nights (below about -20ºC). With the kids in tow, I don’t even think about scrimping on their bags.
My tent is a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid4 which holds our family of four and is lighter than most 2 man tents. For winter I will sometimes skip the net insert if it is just me and the kids, but I bring it if Tania is coming for the extra comfort of a floor. If I bring a pole and the net insert it comes in just under 3 pounds. The minimum, without the pole or insert is about 1.4 pounds.
I did a bunch of weighing of stoves and fuel last summer and now have different systems for different trips.
For trips in winter, white gas is by far the easiest to work with as well as being faster by a substantial margin than alcohol. Inverted canister stoves work down to -20ºC (some even colder), but standard canister stoves are not useful below freezing. So for winter trips I use my MSR Whisperlite with white gas.
In the summer, for trips less than 28 person-meals (about 3 days for the 4 of us) our beer can alcohol stove is the lightest option. For longer trips, the white-gas has a higher density and has a much lower starting weight. The average weight of the stove + fuel package is lower for trips of 5 days or so, but the initial weight matters to me a lot since as we eat food, my total weight goes down anyway. Canister stoves are a little lighter for long trips since their fuel is higher density still than white gas.
Though bears are few in the winter months, I am aware of several other creatures that will steal or spoil your food and so I tend to keep my food in an Ursack bear-proof bag even in the winter. So far it has resisted the rodents and weasels that have managed to make past trips less enjoyable.
On the topic of bears, carrying bear spray in a holster outside in winter means that the bear spray will get cold enough to spray almost no distance. When I carry bear spray in anything below 5ºC, I carry it inside my jacket.
For my last winter bike trip with Tadhg, my total bike and gear weight was 66 pounds to start including food and a book. For solo trips, I can easily take 10 pounds off that. Every time I think my kit is approaching light enough, I encounter someone who is running lighter still.
One day I hope to reach the point where I can keep a week’s worth of food and equipment in my pockets. I will be able to go further and faster than ever before. You will not want to stand downwind of me after a week-long trip though.