Jeremy and I had not gotten out for a bikepacking overnight since the weather turned winter. I planned to take my family, and invited Jeremy and some other friends to add to the fun.
The Actual Group
By the time Saturday rolled around, it was Jeremy and I and a daugher each. Jeremy’s daughter had been with us before on rides, but this would be her first bikepacking ride on snow. We hoped for a firm or firmish trail.
My family are equipped with fatbikes and winter camping gear. Jeremy’s daughter is still on the small side for a 26″ wheeled mountain bike, so she was on her 24plus bike, she weighs little enough that the tire pressures can be run at roughly what an adult fatbike can. Jeremy is a fatbikepacking veteran, so he has more than adequate gear. He brought his own -32ºC Western Mountaineering sleeping bag for his daughter to ensure that she would be warm while they slept. Their tent was pretty much filled with down insulating products.
The only gear that wasn’t quite up to the task were a pair of Bogs boots. These boots really should come with a warning label. There is way too much thermal mass in a Bogs boot to consider it a viable boot for any kind of long-duration winter activity. There were tears Sunday morning as the frozen boots sucked the life from a young girl’s feet. Thankfully, the sun eventually came over the top of the mountain, and we put the boots in the sun to warm. My new official policy on Bogs is that they should be restricted to the wet season, as they are truly great for keeping feet warm in cold (liquid) wet conditions.
As dads, our job is to help our girls to prepare for life. A bit of challenge and a lot of fun meant that this trip helped the girls get a little extra empowerment, and some of the bragging rights that come from doing something a little beyond what the average kid has a chance to.
The trail was firm enough to ride, but soft enough for a bit of challenge for the snow-bike rookie. Fires are permitted at the SP6 campground, so our burritos were roasted and yummy. The temperature dipped down to something below -18•C at night, so we were glad we brought appropriate sleeping gear. The stars were bright, and we all slept well. The dads did not get their fair share of chips, which was my fault since I neglected to bring a bag of my own like I usually do.
The girls agreed that they were glad they had come, and that’s really what counts.
Many of these photos were courtesy of Jeremy, thanks for helping me get outside.
I have been lamenting the lack of a winter ultra race in the Calgary area for many years. We have a great location for it, all we lack are enough connected winter trails that together could make an exceedingly difficult race. One where if things weren’t ideal, walkers and skiiers would keep up to or pass the folks on bikes. One where some years no one would finish. I also wanted something scenic that most people would not otherwise experience, something that would be a rewarding tour.
Pick a Route, Any Route
I decided to put together a route, any route, where I had ridden most of it in the past. My prime criteria were: it had to pass mostly through areas where random camping is permitted. It had to be difficult to complete in 3 days, and bikes needed to be permitted on the trails.
Once I had something mapped, I thought I’d do a weekend test ride on as much of it as I could possibly do. I was pretty certain adding the Highwood Pass section of closed highway would be too much for me, but I did want it to be difficult.
Winter ultra races like the ITI have always discouraged comparisons between years as invalid since conditions have so much effect on a race. Often, a lead racer will be caught by the rest of the racers when a storm holds them up. Sometimes, an hour’s worth of snow accumulation means the lead racer can open an hour’s lead to days. Some years, a route is impossible.
A 3 Day Tour
I left Friday morning, to start a 3 day full-speed tour. I knew conditions were to be cold. That can be a good thing, so I wasn’t worried. I was concerned about the snow, but I had hopes that someone would have snowshoe packed the first bit of trails, and that snowmobiles would have passed on some more of the trails, and that I could push through the rest.
The “Short Loop” of Prairie Creek and Powderface Creek is one that I’ve done dozens of times, it sees consistent snowshoe traffic and so is generally pretty good. Indeed it started reasonably, having been snowshoed by at least a few people. It was mostly rideable, if a little soft and slow. The trouble started when I turned up the trail to Powderface Ridge. It had only one set of touring ski tracks, and they were not hard enough to ride on, nor to walk on. On top of that, some wild horses had used the trail to move between grazing areas leaving some sections of trail pocked with deep footprints. My progress slowed. I was moving at about 1km/2hr, this was the kind of challenge I dreaded and wanted.
With a race roster, the second through last racers get the benefit of trail breaking by the lead racer, in my case, there was only me. I’m pretty fine with pain and suffering though, so I continued on at a ridiculously slow pace. I moved my gear to a sled that I brought to pull the bike in, the depth of the trail meant the bike dragged on the trail sides, so it was just the gear. Still, the lighter bike was easier to manage.
Then Things Got Worse
As the sunset approached, I started feeling a little chilly. First I had to put on a sweater. At this level of output, it is rare indeed to need much in the way of torso clothing. I checked my thermometer and saw that it was indeed below -30ºC. I was well prepared though, so I didn’t really worry.
The trail didn’t get any better, but there were some more substantial uphill bits, which slowed my progress even further.
As the temperature dropped further, I decided to sleep before I was out of the trees on the exposed side of the trail. My estimating from the bottom of the thermometer scale to the line on the thermometer put the temperature somewhere near -38ºC. That’s into the realm of cold, even for me. Frostbite from touching metal is within seconds, so everything has to be done with mittens on. Even lighting my stove was a challenge, as the white gas fuel needs a flame to it for a couple seconds before igniting.
A Good Night’s Sleep Always Helps
I wasn’t racing, but I was tired from the effort. I slept soundly from about 10:30 until 7AM. When I woke up, it was near enough -40º. Making coffee was tricky, everything wanted to freeze, I don’t think the makers of Aeropress intended it to be used at -40º. I had to use my hot water to thaw it to open it, then I used more hot water to warm it, then I had to quickly make the coffee before it froze again, and yet, my coffee was very satisfying.
Now, the logical choice when faced with such an obstacle as this trail, is to turn around and go the way that you know will be easier. For some, this would be the fun way. Instead, I wanted to stay on my intended route. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from doing something hard.
Packing up is never my strong suite, but packing gear in -40º is a real challenge. Taking mittens off for even a few seconds is uncomfortable, not just while they are off, but because when they go back on, they have cooled enough to be painful to touch. Either way, I got myself packed and underway.
And Then Things Went South.
I knew by this point I wasn’t making it the full distance. I was fine with that, because I was in the backcountry, in the cold, and well away from my comfort zone.
The 2.5 hours for the remaining km to the saddle at the top of this section of trail was not that onerous. I was feeling good after a nice night’s sleep, and I was in a good frame of mind (though a horrid song was stuck in my head). I reached the top and decided to send Tania a reassuring message about not worrying that I was so slow, when I discovered my InReach Mini was missing. I ordinarily have it mounted on my bars with a carabiner to secure it to something in case it falls or breaks off the mount. But, the InReach Mini is only rated to -20ºC at which point it starts to turn itself off, so in the cold I had to put it in my pocket. One of the times that I put it in the pocket, I must have failed to zipper it in (it was -35º, I was wearing mittens).
The InReach Mini is an amazing piece of technology. It allows me to reassure my family that I am okay, it lets me call for help in an emergency, in short, it is a great communication device for the backcountry. It is also very small, and pretty much impossible to find when it’s dropped in the snow. I had no choice but to stop my trip, go home where I could retrieve the last position the InReach sent, and to go back to try to find it another day. I was devastated. I had not had a solo winter trip in years, and here it was cut short by my carelessness.
The Consolation Prize
When I got home, I looked up the track from the InReach and it had sent a final location. Fortunately I had had tracking turned on. After driving back and skiing up to the place where my GPS showed the device should be, I started raking the snow with my ski pole. Less than a minute later, a little orange device popped out from under the snow on the trail. I was thrilled, both at not having to replace it, and that it was so accurate that I could locate it within a ski-pole’s length.
I was prepared for comfort at -40º
Tether the indispensable electronic device (if you have to move it from its correct spot)
I don’t mind when things are tough, but I don’t like when I mess things up myself.
My previous philosophy of no sled with the bike was mostly correct.
Count calories: I know how much food I can eat, and I brought too much of it.
In the end, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.
km travelled: 13 of 178
Hours moving: 12
Hours sleeping: 10
Hours searching for device: 3, with a 5 hour trip the following day
The Gear That Worked:
My sleep system as always was a -10ºC down sleeping bag with a home-made -10ºC synthetic quilt over it. My sleep system is a Thermarest Ridge-Rest with a Neo-Air Xtherm over top. I was comfy at -40º, my only complaint was that it was hard to see the stars with my sleeping hood done up. I brought my tarp but did not use it.
My bike is my usual Salsa Mukluk Ti with a Rohloff hub. I was pleasantly surprised that the Rohloff shifted well at -35ºC.
My bike luggage was my usual Porcelain Rocket bags with a custom spacer for the bar bag from Tadhg.
Pogies were my own design, they were warm enough but I really should have insulated my brake levers as I have done on my kids’ bikes.
As I read this I realize that I have not put the most positive spin on it. While this was not a successful trip, it was a trip, and I didn’t see anyone else out there, so that’s something. Also, while I did mess up my weekend, I can honestly say that I lived it, rather than wasted it.
Pogies are giant mittens that go on the handlebars of bikes to allow the user to wear light gloves but still work the controls and not freeze their hands. They are a not necessity for winter cycling but they sure are a great way to keep hands warm. If you know how to sew, you can make pogies and have toasty warm hands on your bike this winter.
For those who don’t ride their bikes in the cold, pogies might not make sense, but they are probably the single most important piece of equipment for making me comfortable on the bike in the winter. It is entirely possible to ride a bike in mittens, but brakes and shifters wear out mittens at a very quick rate. I would not go bikepacking in winter without them.
For anyone who doesn’t care about making their own, or hearing my philosophy on making pogies, go ahead and scroll to the bottom or click this link to just buy some.
How I started making them.
My second bikepacking specific item I ever made was a pair of pogies. At the time, there were few options in pogies commercially available, and I wanted some specific qualities. First I wanted them warm enough to keep my hands from freezing. Second, I wanted them to be roomy enough the I could fit some snacks thawed in them, third, I wanted them to serve extra duty as emergency booties. What I missed out on was the part where they would be better if they stayed better attached on the bars. Though they worked well enough, the outer edges would rotate outward unless I left the zip ties that I designed to hold the corner tethers in place. Unfortunately, the zip ties would rub on my hands causing serious wounds after a few hours.
There are a bunch of commercial solutions to the problem of securing pogies to the ends of handlebars. A very popular method is a velcro strap and tether. It works, but does not really address the issue that I had of my city-boy hands rubbing on the strap. It also does not do an ideal job of securing the pogies. My favourite way to secure pogies is a bar plug that clamps the pogie to the end of the handlebar. Conveniently, Tadhg took up 3D design and printing just as I was trying to work out how to modify some off-the-shelf bar plugs to work with pogies. He has refined the design enough now that a pair of his clamps comes with all the pogies I sell. One of the big advantages of home-made gear is that you can modify it easily, or at least easilyish, if it doesn’t do what you want.
My pogies have changed over time
I modified that first pair of pogies several times, and I still have them, they now use a plug in the end of the bar to keep the pogies on. The number one issue I have had with them is that they can fill up with snow if I leave them on the bike without rotating them downward. They were, however designed to be used as booties when they are off the bike. I have not made any more pogies that fill with snow.
As time goes by, my preferences change, and many things that I liked about the first set of pogies were not what I ultimately wanted, and so I have tried several other styles over the years.
Upcycled Children’s Jackets as Pogies.
I have made many pairs of pogies from children’s size 12 to 14 jackets where I simply hem the cuffs, turn them inside out, sew each side of the zipper to the back of the jacket, cut them in half, and voila, a pair of pogies. They are warm reasonably light, and aren’t too expensive to make. They are not the most attractive pogies, but they are simple, warm, and are reasonably light. I still have several pairs of these in my collection (how many people have enough winter cyclists and winter bikes in their family for a pogie collection?) and they are great for around town and even for longer trips. Several of my pairs of this style don’t have mounting holes in the sides, so they are quicker to install and remove than the newer style that I make.
They are a great first MYOG project, and I can definitely endorse finding a relatively simple style of kids jacket in roughly a size (US age sizing) 14 and making it into pogies.
Pogies from Scratch
When I first started selling pogies, I made them by upcycling children’s jackets with faulty zippers. These eventually became harder to source in sufficient quantities, and I eventually decided to make my own design of pogies from scratch.
My experience had shown me by then that I wanted several things in pogies. First was simplicity. I have made pogies with complicated vent systems, food thawing pockets (it is exceedingly difficult to eat things that are frozen to -30ºC), storm cuffs, and a number of other “features”, but I gravitate toward simple styles.
My preferred style for the last few years has been a simple shape with roomy hand area, longer arms (to keep the blood warm on the way to your hands) and enough stiffness to help me get my hands in but not so much that they face upward and get filled with snow in a storm. They are fleece lined, which is comfortable and reasonably warm, they are large enough to fit a couple of snacks in the bottom for thawed food.
I encourage people to make their own pogies, but people have lives. Not everyone wants to make their own, and not everyone likes sewing as much as I do. Some sewing machines won’t punch through the materials well enough to make pogies. For this reason, I sell my own pogies on this blog. Feel free to buy some, also feel free to ask me questions about building your own.
Since I am not only a winter bikepacking nerd, but also a dad, I of course make the pogies in smaller sizes for kids (or anyone with smaller hands).
[Editor's note, I know this is technically the first published, but I wrote it as the 4th in the series. Read them in any order and they should still make sense. Also, I get asked a lot of questions about my tarp.]
MYOG Sleep Systems, introduction
Canada can get cold. The Canadian Rockies can get even colder. I like to sleep comfortably and warm, but I’m lazy and I don’t like to carry a lot of weight. My current system of a tarp and quilt is what I consider a great compromise between weight and warmth.
When I started out, I used a commercial down sleeping bag, and a backpacking tent. These can be great, and modern tents have come a long way in the last decade. 10 years ago, 5 pounds was considered light for a 2-person tent. Now, I have a commercial 4-person tent that weighs 3 pounds with a pole and mosquito net insert. Weight is no longer really the savings when making your own gear.
Most of my backcountry trips seem to involve rain or snow (except if I bring my friend Jeremy, who also does not mind adverse weather). A few years back, I did some experimentation to see what would happen to my sleeping bag after a few days of sleeping out. I was surprised to find that my sleeping bag took on several hundred grams of moisture the first night of sleeping in a tent. Even with draping my bag out in the sun to dry, by the third night I was sleeping in a less effective, and heavier system.
But Why a Tarp?
This is part of how I came to be sleeping under a tarp. Sleeping outside greatly reduced the amount of condensation in my sleeping bag, but if it rained, the rain would get in. My bivy sack had the same problem as the tent. The tarp would keep the rain off me, but trapped far less condensation in my bag than the tent. I used a commercial rectangular tarp for a few years, but found it was hard to pitch so that it consistently kept out the rain. In other words, I wanted a custom tarp. The other half of the tarp origin story is that we “allowed” Fiona to sleep out under a tarp with me one night and she awoke in the morning and said, “I only sleep under tarps now, no more tents.”
There are about 7 million tarp designs available on the internet, and I took ideas from a few of them. I wanted it to shed wind and water better than a rectangular tarp, so I made it with a catenary cut ridge line and front. I also wanted not to adjust in the middle of the night, so I chose silpoly as the material for minimal stretching. I also wanted light weight but enough durability to hold up in a substantial wind.
The holy grail of bikepacking tarps is one where your bike fits inside, or can be used to support the tarp. I also hike and ski, so though I think bike-supported are extremely cool, I opted to use bike supports only for treeless bikepacking situations and use hiking/ski poles as primary supports where trees are not available. The tarp weighs in at 300g, so it ended up being on the lighter end of the shelter scale.
The silpoly does not stretch in the rain and doesn’t need to be re-tensioned when it rains. I do not recommend it as an easy fabric to sew, it is like sewing live squirrels to each other.
Not Exactly a Bed Quilt
Since I’m foolish enough to think that winter is the primary bikepacking season, I wanted to have some versatility to my sleeping bag system. I wanted lighter weight in summer, I wanted synthetic material for the outer since down performs so poorly in wet conditions. I wanted light weight since my daughter would be carrying one.
In the 80s, I used a dual bag system of a sleeping bag with an overbag. I really liked it, but I had also been interested in quilts as an alternative to sleeping bags. I talked up the concept of a down bag with a synthetic quilt over it for cold, with the quilt on its own for more moderate temperatures (well, moderate for the Canadian rockies). Camping quilts are not exactly like a bed quilt, they are usually shaped in some way, and many (like mine) have a footbox like a mummy bag and a drawstring closure at the top.
The home made portion of the combo ended up as the quilt – down sleeping bags are relatively available, and affordable. I used Climashield Apex as my insulation layer and the lightest nylon I could find, Membrane from RSBTR. The sleeping quilts have simple ribbon loops to attach them to a sleeping mat, so they can tuck under the sleeper at the sides, and they work well down to about -10ºC.
The quilts being about 800g each puts them as competitive weight wise with the commercial versions, but they were about half the price to make as the commercial equivalent. In winter, adding a -10ºC sleeping bag yields a combination that is comfortable below -30ºC, theoretically to -40ºC, but we have not been out that cold since I made them.
No Hood, No Problem
A big problem for me with traditional mummy bags has been that the hood can end up in the wrong spot when i roll over, and then the hood fabric gets wet from breath condensation. With the quilt, this doesn’t happen since the quilt lacks a hood. To deal with the lack of hood, I made sleeping hats from the same material as the quilts themselves. the hat acts like a hood, but turns with the sleeper allowing them to not get wet from breath.
Mid March, my friend Katrina organized a very fun overnight bikepack to Lake Minnewanka. The original plan was to get up early on Saturday, bike from Goat Creek trailhead through Banff (town) and then ride up to the Lake Minnewanka trailhead and proceed to the LM8 campground.
The year previous, this is exactly what an intrepid group had done. Of course winter fatbikepacking is a task requiring either time, flexibility or both, it pays to be adaptable. In this case, we were out for Saturday overnight, some of us hadn’t had the experience of pushing a bike for a full day, and the group consensus was that it might not be the most fun to have on a weekend.
Katrina and Mike were celebrating a 21-year anniversary, Tadhg and I would probably have gone bikepacking anyway, I asked Jeremy to come along (because he is fun), and Guy was there for fun and to test out some new equipment. Ultimately, it was all spurred on by Ryan Correy who started the Bikepack Canada organization. Though Ryan is battling cancer, he continues to passionately promote bikepacking in Canada.*
Waiting for the old people pushing.
Since we started a little later than expected, the trail was softening in the sun as we rode. The benefit of weighing a mere 100 pounds and having lots of fatbike experience showed with Tadhg being able to ride almost everything. I was able to ride about 90% of what I ride in summer thanks to my Bud and Lou tires on 100mm rims, and my willingness to ride with less air than most people think is necessary. I think it’s important to note that there is no substitute for experience, and I’ve been bikepacking on snow since the 1990’s and I’ve owned a real fatbike to do it since 2004.
The others did more pushing, but there was still a reasonable amount of riding, I’ve certainly done trips where the bike was just an awkward cart for my stuff, or worse, a hard-to carry piece of luggage in snow above the wheels.
At the campsite, we all set up our tents and such, Tadhg had relented to the use of the tarp when I explained that he would be carrying any tents that we were going to use. My tarp is 430g with pegs, so it really does offer a significant weight advantage, even if it isn’t as luxurious nor as wind-protected as our HMG Ultamid.
I’m fascinated by other people’s techniques for winter camping. Guy had a vapour barrier liner that he was experimenting with. In the morning, he deemed it a success. I’ve had good experience with vapour barrier liners in terms of them keeping me warmer, and keeping my sleeping bag insulation very dry. The dry insulation is a significant benefit on trips over 3 days since sleeping bags and quilts lose insulating value as they accumulate moisture over consecutive nights. The vapour barriers do have the disadvantage that they can get moist and clammy on the inside. In my experience, my body tends to sweat less if I use the vapour barrier, but the inside still feels more damp than the sleeping bag. The vapour barrier is definitely something I’ll consider on longer trips and it seems like Guy is planning using it for all trips.
Our ride out was earlier in the day than our ride in, so we had the benefit of a frozen trail. Tadhg rode everything but the hill that he usually walks, I was pretty close to him as far as riding to pushing ratio, and I think all of us were much happier to be mostly riding.
A big thanks to Guy for taking us all out for lunch, it wrapped up our weekend nicely.
*Since I wrote this, Ryan has succumbed to cancer. I’m grateful for his efforts to bring us all together. His Bikepack Canada organization has done a lot to share skills, experience, and advocacy to the community. He will be missed.
When my kids were young, they took naps. Tadhg stopped around 10 months. Fiona would still occasionally nap until she was 5. Now this is purely anecdotal, but Tadhg mostly napped in a crib at home, while Fiona took part in what has been a tradition in Scandinavian countries for generations: the outdoor nap.
No matter what the temperature, I would take her outside to sleep after lunch. Usually, she would be in the bike or a stroller, but sometimes she would just lie down on the deck, or in a sled. Now I have a lot of experience with being outside, so I know how to dress a baby to be comfortable in -30ºC, professional driver, closed course, don’t try this at home, other fine print.
Yes, the thermometer says -32ºC next to that 7-month-old
sleeping outside at -30ºC (on a camping mattress for warmth)
There is a belief that sleeping outside may help children resist viruses, or improve their health, or just improve their sleep in general. I’m comfortable that at worst it does no harm. What I am certain of is that it can free a parent to get things done that otherwise might not happen during a nap. I often made trips to get groceries, to visit friends and relatives, and any other errands I wanted to do. I was never a servant to the nap.
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.
Every year I try to make it out on a couple of trips alone with each of our kids. The one-on-one time is great bonding for all of us. I try to choose something that will be at least some challenge so the kids can take some pride in it afterward. I have high hopes that I’m providing some opportunity for my kids to learn the freedom that nature provides.
In spite of our local school board’s efforts to instill fear of any cool temperatures in my kids, Fiona enjoys the challenge of a cold weekend. She was disappointed to hear that the forecast low for the weekend was -16ºC. “But I was hoping for cold!” she told me. Personally, I was thinking of how much easier it would be to not have to deal with the extra work that comes with cold. Putting on boots in the morning is so much nicer at -16ºC than -30ºC.
We’ve been on a few ski camping trips this winter, and I’ve been wanting to do some bike trips while the season is here, so I encouraged Fiona to agree to a bike trip. I had had heard good things about the Redearth Creek ride to Shadow Lake. Only the first 10km are open to bikes in summer, but in winter bikes are allowed as far as the lodge. (Shadow Lake Lodge is a beautiful historic backcountry lodge with individual cabins and a wood-fired sauna.)
We left the house on Friday afternoon, and after driving through a snow storm, (past many crashes, one of which I stopped to offer assistance to the driver) we arrived at the trailhead just after 4:45. We were riding by 5, which was good since at this time of year, the lights need to be turned on at about 6:45.
[click photos for larger version]
The trail was steadily uphill, but not overly steep, so I could ride almost all of it though conditions were a little loose. Fiona needed to push up many of the hills, the laws of physics dictate that 10 year old girls do not have the favourable power to weight ratio I have.
We weren’t there to race, so our many snack breaks and slow pace weren’t an annoyance, just a part of our ride. It did turn out to be the longest 7.2km in history though. I started investigating side trails for signs of the campground about 2km back from where the actual campground was. We were thrilled when we finally spotted the sign for the campground in our headlamps.
As per usual, few people had used the campground this winter. We placed a high priority on shoveling out the outhouse door to simplify visits later on. I often wish the National Parks outhouses did not have the front step exactly the same height as the door. It would be much easier to open the door if it were an inch higher so that we didn’t have to scrape every molecule of ice from the step. Since it was snowing hard, we set up our tarp, even though we had an ample tree well to shelter in.
There was a nice creek water source at the campground, and the approach to it looked very reasonable. I was, however, too lazy to shovel a path in the waist-deep snow to get to it, so we melted snow for our coffee, oatmeal and the day’s drinking water.
We took our time, and were riding our bikes by 11AM. Again, we weren’t racing, and since we knew that we had time to backtrack if we missed the campground, we didn’t even need to be vigilant, we just needed to enjoy the ride. We weren’t any faster than the guys on snowshoes who kept stopping to take pictures, but Fiona’s riding had benefited from a good night’s sleep and she was riding up some fairly steep sections of trail.
Fortune smiled upon us, and we encountered a woman snowshoeing just as we were to pass by the campground. She was surprised that we would even attempt to camp out in winter, but kindly showed us where the site was.
Our early arrival at the campsite left us with plenty of time to go for a short hike up to Shadow Lake proper. There wasn’t much to see on account of the heavily falling snow from overcast skies, but it was worth going for a walk and answering an extensive series of science questions from Fiona. Our discussion of the future of humanity did stray a little toward the preamble to the film “Idiocracy” but she was hoping to direct our evolution toward having 6 fingers per hand – because, “I’d love to have more fingers!”
We got back to camp in time to prepare supper in the light and then, after some reading by headlamp, we were off to sleep.
I don’t know if it’s the mountain air, the physical exertion, or some other factor, but I always sleep well outside. I awoke feeling refreshed and happy. Fiona had also had a great night, and other than some reluctance on her part to put on her cold boots, she was at her best and helped with breakfast and breaking camp.
We decided to start our day with a quick jaunt up to take some pictures at the Lodge. Conveniently, a kind stranger offered to take some “kind stranger” pictures of the two of us.
The trail back was mostly downhill, which we were looking forward to. We were somewhat concerned about the new snow that had fallen all weekend, but the trail was mostly rideable and with the weather cleared, we enjoyed much better views.
An interesting thing had occurred as the snow fell and the supply snowmobile from the lodge had passed up and down the trail, what had been a single trackset on the trail had become several. In a couple of places I’m afraid that we ran out of room and used the 6th or 7th ski track for ourselves, I know that I’d have a tough time being angry if I was on skis and was limited to even 1 set of tracks, so I hope everyone else feels the same.
The loose conditions allowed Fiona to practice her control skills. Though she acts modest, she has tremendous talent when it comes to keeping a bike going in snow. Of course, any time we get a chance to put in 3 consecutive days of riding, skills are going to improve. While Fiona had a couple of crashes, it was still a lot of fun.
I’d like to encourage others to go out and try this sort of trip with their kids, or on their own. Not only is it a learning experience and healthy physical activity, but it is fundamentally fun. With a little luck, one day we will get to a backcountry campground in winter and the outhouse door will already be shoveled.
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.