Monday, April 30, 2012

Family camping made easy - Warm sleepers are happy sleepers

I occasionally get questions from readers about camping and how to make it more fun for kids.  If you're a seasoned camper or have that RV all set up to keep everybody toasty warm and as comfortable as they would be in the city, you may not need the tips I'm going to share below.  For the rest of us though, camping with kids - especially babies and toddlers - can be incredibly intimidating!  This will be our third season camping with our son and it still terrifies me.  Therefore, I can hardly call myself an expert in the area and my husband will be the first to broadcast that I'm a bit of a camping princess.  I'll plan the trip, make the bookings, find the group, pack and unpack but when I'm in camp the work falls on my beloved camping savvy husband.

Honestly, there is no "right" time to introduce the family to camping.  Many would argue that it's best to start early and that kids are easiest to camp with as babies.  I would highly agree with this personally but then again, I don't have twins.  I don't have a child that will disappear or try to escape out of the tent while sleeping.  I don't have a child that is terrified of using an outhouse or needs a fixed routine every day.  Only you will know when it's the right time to try camping with your family.

Here are a few things I have learned though in our last few years that may make that first, second, or fifth trip a little more comfortable and enjoyable.

Warm sleepers are happy sleepers


Buy a small three season tent

If you are planning on tenting (which you can continue to do even with a baby) buy a small tent.  Don't buy that gigantic tent with three rooms from Canadian Tire or your will freeze your butt off.  I guarantee it.  Body heat keeps everybody warm and that will only happen if you are sleeping close enough together to actually tell there is another body near by.  It's my personal opinion that nobody needs their own bedroom when camping.  The whole joy of tenting is that it brings the family closer together.  You sleep together, side by side, and listen to each other breathing.  You can put your arm around your child, cuddle them to sleep, and even snuggle under the same blanket.  Otherwise, you might as well go buy that tent trailer or RV if you want personal space.

Bring blankets

You aren't backpacking so there's no reason you can't bring blankets along.  We each have our own down filled sleeping bag but no toddler is going to stay inside his or her sleeping bag all night.  They move around too much.  I don't even like to be wrapped tight inside mine.  I need room to sprawl.  We bring an old comforter and throw it across my son and I.  I can sleep with my arms outside my sleeping bag and wrap an arm around my son for comfort.  He on the other hand will toss and turn all night, warm and snug under the blanket I ensure stays over both of us.

Use snowsuits, bunting suits or sleep sacks for babies

When my son was a baby we would layer him for sleep much like you would layer a child to play in the snow.  Below are the layers that my son wore his first two years camping and backpacking:
  • Fleece blanket sleeper with feet
  • Fleece bunting suit or snow suit
  • Quilted sleep sack
  • Tuque, winter hat, or something to cover the head
  • Mittens if the bunting suit doesn't have hand covers

This baby was definitely toasty warm in the tent (Photo: G. Duncan)

Bring a down jacket

I like to sleep in a down jacket.  That way I can keep my upper body out of my sleeping bag and have more freedom to move around.  If you don't sleep in your jacket you will still want it for that 2am feeding, the 6am wake-up call when your toddler insists he is all done sleep, or for general camp use.  It's cold in the Rockies in the evenings and mornings.  If you are going to stay up long enough to enjoy the campfire after the kids go to bed or get up and make breakfast in the morning before the sun reaches your campsite, you'll need that warm jacket.  Note that it can take until 10:00am for the sun to get over the mountains and reach your tent.  Most kids aren't going to stay in the tent that long so you will have to brave the cold morning air.

More stories to follow in this series on family camping made easy.  To read the next one, follow this link to Family Camping Made Easy - Baby Adventures.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Snow, Puddles, and Mud - Oh My!

We went for a hike in the city a couple weeks ago and soon had "snow, puddles, and mud - oh my" as our trip mantra.  Welcome to Spring in the Rockies!  One day you can be outside in a T-shirt and the next day you are back in your winter coat complete with mittens, a hat, and boots.  It's a mixed season challenging the most prepared parents when it comes to dressing the kids for outdoor play and adventure.

We aren't experts by any means when it comes to outdoor clothing and keeping children dry, warm and happy.  However, we have learned a few things here in our land of ice and snow.  What we have learned, I pass on to you. 

One - Keeping kids dry and warm doesn't have to cost a fortune

My son's spring outdoor wardrobe consists of the following items:
  • Thomas the Tank Engine rain boots from Walmart ($12)
  • Fleece sweat pants that can be bought absolutely anywhere for $10
  • Rain pants from Walmart ($10 and absolutely waterproof against puddles or mud)
  • Any long sleeve shirt, cotton or not (He's 3 and honestly I'm just not all that worried about him sweating buckets on a little hike or romp at the playground)
  • Any fleece hoodie (again, cheap and available anywhere!)
  • A three season jacket (These can get a little pricey but your child will wear it all Spring, Summer and Fall.  Buy it big and they'll wear it for two seasons.  We got ours on sale and also convinced Grandma to buy it.  If you can't find a good deal, look for second hand jackets.  The key is fleece lined, water resistant on the outside, and warm enough for variable weather.)
  • Mittens and a hat (that you'll have from winter anyway)

Don't be the parent who tells their child to get out of the puddles - be prepared!
Warm in a simple three season jacket and fleece pants

Two - Don't buy into the idea that you child has to be wearing official outdoor clothing for simple outdoor play

You can go down to REI or Mountain Equipment Coop and buy all the big name brand clothes for your child but why?  Honestly, my son's cheap Walmart rain pants are amazing and almost every child in our Outdoor Playgroup has a pair.  They might not last more than one season, but for $10 who cares!  And, would your child fit any pair of pants for more than one season anyway? My son has jumped in puddles that went over the top of his boots and finished walks with his cheap rain pants absolutely soaked.  When I take them off though the fleece pants underneath are 100% dry every time.  And his socks - dry too.  Don't underestimate the quality of something just because it doesn't come with an expensive price tag. 

Furthermore, I could write a whole story about hiking pants and why your child doesn't need them.  When it's cool out, my son wears fleece pants with a waterproof layer over top.  When it's warm, he wears cheap, thin cotton pants from Old Navy.  They last one season and again - that's all you need.  Bring a pair of rain pants along if you fear your child will get muddy or wet - all good!  My son has gone backpacking, stood on top of cold windy mountain summits, spent numerous weekends camping in our chilly Rocky Mountains, and done more hikes than I can count - all in simple pants that come from a department store.  I'm definitely not sold on zip-off pants because I've seen my son run and fall down on almost every one of our walks.  I'd be putting band-aids on his wounds every time we went for a walk if I let him go exploring in shorts.  What I do like is pants that have buttons at the bottom so that you can roll them up a bit and hence protect the child from tripping on long pant legs.  If it's hot outside, we dress our son in thin cotton pants to prevent against overheating and we're all good.  

Third, the concept of official long underwear is foreign to us.  Seriously!  We are pretty hard core as far as families living and adventuring in the Canadian Rockies go and our son doesn't own a pair of long underwear.  If we feel the need to put a warm base layer on him, he either wears fleece pjs, or a two piece fleece pants and sweater set, again from any department store. We've had friends ask us where we got our son's amazing fleece hiking set.  I laughed as I told them that it came from Walmart and that it cost $10.  We check our son's feet and legs when we come inside and he's always been warm.  (a challenge when you are outside in -20C temperatures)

My son does not own a pair of official hiking pants. 

Three - Save your money for a few important items needed for serious outdoor adventures

If you are the kind of parent that plans to take their child outside in the middle of a torrential downpour, you'll be doing backcountry trips where the potential to get wet is high, or you generally do a lot of activity in the mountains all year round, it is worth it to spend the extra money to get a few pieces of technical clothing.  My son has a one piece rain suit from Mountain Equipment Coop and when we hit the mountain trails on cool or wet days, he wears that.  Walmart rain pants are fine for mud, puddles, and walks close to home but I'm not going to venture out into the backcountry in a cheap pair of pants and risk my child getting hypothermia.  My child also has proper waterproof hiking boots and if we are going hiking outside the city he always wears warm hiking socks I picked up from REI.

Even when looking for those select items that tend to cost more money, you can still save a penny by buying second hand rain suits, jackets, or boots.  My son's first boots were bought off a friend and they were awesome.  And, it's still a good idea to have a price in your head that you won't go over when choosing outdoor clothing for your family.  I bought my son's newest boots from Pay-less Shoes because I can't justify paying more than $30 for a pair of shoes my child will wear one season.

The amazing one-piece rain suit my son often lives in

A few final notes:

  • The sun is getting stronger with the warm days so make sure your child is wearing either sunglasses or a big floppy hat to cover their eyes if you are going to be outside for an extended period of time.
  • Bring out the Sunblock now that Spring is here - if you haven't already been using it for snow sports.
  • Always buy rain pants and rain suits a size larger.  No child is going to be happy playing outside in pants that are too tight to climb up a slide, run around, or move freely in.
  • A light puffy jacket (preferably synthetic and not down) is excellent for cool mornings.  My son has been wearing his all winter and still wears it when we are going to be outside for a long time.  Be warned though that they are not cheap!  Buy large so you will hopefully get two seasons out of it or try to find one second hand.
Mr Cool in his sunglasses and his North Face light puffy jacket

I hope this inspires you and frees you to get outside this Spring with your children.  Worst Case scenario - bring a change of clothes and a new pair of shoes for the car ride home.  Most kids will hardly notice if they're wet as long as they are having fun and if your children are young, chances are your adventures won't be longer than a couple hours anyway.

Notice the first child on the left is wearing hiking boots, the second one is in everyday city shoes, and the third is in rubber boots.  The kids are wearing simple sweaters and jackets.  Two of the three are in waterproof pants from Walmart.  Each child hiked 4km and wet or dry - were all happy!

Today's linked in blogs

Tales of a Mountain Mama - Our No-Cotton Philosophy + Gear - Day1
Wilderness for kids - Having a Soaking Wet Good Time: How to have fun with kids in the rain

Check out these blogs and don't forget to check out the daily contest at Tales of a Mountain Mama.  Each day this week there will be a different contest to enter with awesome gear to be won.  Each contest lasts 24 hours only so check daily for the next give-away.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Redefining the defininition of Outdoorsy

 A week ago I came across a contest for Outdoorsy Blogging Moms through a social media site called Circle of Moms.  The contest is called "Top 25 Outdoorsy Moms, 2012."  I heard about the contest through my friend Amelia with Tales of a Mountain Mama.  She asked fellow outdoor writers to vote for her but also encouraged us to participate in the contest if we wanted with the promise that she would vote for us as well.  Several of us threw our hats in the ring because of the opportunity to have our blogs promoted to six million readers.  I never expected to win or even finish in the top five because though I am definitely outdoorsy, I know there are so many deserving moms out there.  Amelia and her blog above are pretty much household names in our house because of how much inspiration I draw from the blog.  In no way do I even think I should be in the same contest as her when it comes to being an outdoorsy mom.

When I think "Outdoorsy Mom" I think of another great girl named Tiffany who created a camping blog called "A little Campy."  I consider her to be a camping guru and if I ever needed advice on anything from camping on a budget to teaching a child how to fish - I'd go straight to her blog.  When I think "Outdoorsy" I also think of all the climbing moms that haven't given up their passion but still get out to the crags with their babies, toddlers, and kids in tow.  These hard core moms are simply inspiring and I have to say more than a little intimidating.  Check out Haley's blog, Climb, Run, Lift Mom if you don't believe me. If biking is more your thing, check out Jen's blog, Velo Mom.  Jen's style of riding isn't your average urban bike ride around the local park in your neighborhood.  We're talking single track trails through the Moab desert.  Oh and when she isn't riding, she can be found surfing or ice climbing.  Hard core chick!

Family Camping in Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington, USA

The term "Outdoorsy" has always involved nature in my mind - be it hiking, camping, fishing, walking through the forest, mountain biking, trail running through alpine valleys, or skiing.  Anything that gets you out of the city and off pavement.  If you're lucky, you live in a city like Calgary where you can actually forget the city exists due to the abundance of natural areas and parks within city limits.  It's easy for us to retreat to nature just by walking out our back door.

A peaceful hike with my son

Since becoming a mom, my definition of "outdoorsy" has also grown to include outdoor play - playing in the mud, sand, water, or looking for butterflies while out on a walk.  Today we went for a walk and the biggest excitement of the day wasn't the rocks we thought our son should climb but the flowers we saw since it's crocus season finally.  Pine cones were also a big thrill as were the sticks we found.  Before becoming a parent I barely stopped to look down when I was outside because I was too busy climbing to the top of something.  All I ever saw was scree, more scree, and then, even more scree.  Imagine my surprise upon having a child and slowing down to learn that there are flowers in those mountains!  Wow!

Exploring with children is magical

I've had a lot of good mentors in the area of Outdoor Play and I encourage you to check out the amazing blogs listed on my blog roll.  One mom that especially impresses me is Lindsey with Outside Mom.  Lindsey is an Environmental Educator and in her words, "The outdoors is infused into everything we do."  You don't get much more Outdoorsy than that. 

Finally,  you can "like" the outdoors and be an "Outdoorsy person"  but to truly be an "Outdoorsy Mom" it has to be bigger than you.  It has to be about your whole family.  When you add the word "Mom" - you are implying  that you are not alone in something but that your kids are somehow involved.  I admire families that get outside together, as a family.  I think it's our responsibility as outdoor parents to pass on the appreciation of nature to the next generation starting with our own family.  I'm sure it's hard if running is your thing and you have toddlers at home to raise who can't join you in your races yet.  And professional climbers can't exactly take their kids with them on all of their adventures.  However, if you are truly passionate about nature, you will find something outdoors that you can do as a family.  I am always surprised by how much I love toddler hiking for example.  We've given up downhill skiing for a couple years here but we've done a lot of cross country skiing because we can take our son with us in a sled.  We even still go backpacking with our three year old - we just choose easier shorter trails.  One mom that inspires me in this area is Alyssa with the Kid Project Blog.  When they go camping, they bring their climbing gear, their bikes, their friends, backpacking gear, hiking boots - and pretty much their entire collection of outdoor gear it sounds like.  Awesome!  They go as a large group and everybody gets to participate - be it on their Strider Balance bike or on the climbing walls.

Camping with friends is always more fun

I'm not going to ask you to vote for me because it's becoming apparent that the contest is just a large popularity contest between running groups.  If you want to vote for me that's awesome and I'd appreciate it but please consider voting for some of the amazing girls listed in this post.  And whether you vote for them or not, please visit their blogs when you get a chance and be inspired as I have been.  Check out the other blogs on my blog roll too and support your Outdoor Moms.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Snowy adventures in Elk Lakes Provincial Park

Snow caves, propane lanterns, outhouses with ice cold toilet seats, ice fishing for water, and a budding romance - just another weekend in the backcountry!  Add sore muscles, bruised hips, blisters, broken snowshoes, and small children -  Now you have an adventurous weekend in the backcountry.  We could have left the kids with grandparents and we certainly could have waited until Summer to visit the Elk Lakes Cabin but what kind of adventure would that have been?

Playing in the snow at the cabin  (Photo - John Koob)

The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) maintains a cabin deep in the wilderness of Elk Lakes Provincial Park.  In the Summer you can drive within 500 metres of  the cabin's front door from back-roads in British Columbia but in the Winter there is only one approach and that's on foot from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country.  You start at Kananaskis Lakes from the Elk Pass parking lot and travel 5km to the top of Elk Pass.  From there it's another 4.2km down the power line into British Columbia.  We've always skied to the Elk Lakes Cabin in the past since the first 5km is on Peter Lougheed's perfectly groomed cross-country ski trails. This time though we figured we might have an easier time of it on snowshoes since we were taking two toddlers and a baby in to the cabin.  The journey down the power line is best done on backcountry skis and we were worried about making the trek while pulling small kids in sleds.

The Elk Lakes Cabin

Our group composition was one of the more interesting assemblies we've managed to put together thus far for a backcountry adventure.  First of all we had  four single adults from Edmonton who hadn't ever spent much (if any) time in the backcountry.  The group of four included our son's favourite Uncle John along with friends and co-workers of his.  Second, we had our backcountry friends Patricia and Jorge from Argentina along for the journey.  They typically join us on our adult mountaineering, scrambling or ski touring adventures and had never joined us on a family trip before.  Third, we had a family of four that we've shared many adventures with.  Their toddler is one of our son's best friends and potential girlfriend after this trip.

The brave explorers who were willing to spend a night in a  remote cabin with three small kids
Patricia and Jorge - note that we thought it would be warm and sunny, being April after all!
Greta and Ian with their Chariot weighing at least 70lbs including kids

Think maybe these two kids are spending a little too much time together
The trip in to the cabin was a lot longer on snowshoes than I had remembered it being on skis.  Not surprising I suppose since we had to walk both up and down the hills.  Silly sport!  The trip was even more challenging for me than expected because one of my snowshoes broke before even reaching the pass.  The nuts and bolts seriously just fell off of the snowshoe, leaving it behind as I walked forward - the binding still attached to my foot.  These weren't new snowshoes but had always served me well in the past.  Thank God the trail was hard packed and I had minimal problems hiking down from the pass to reach the cabin.  My poor calves got a bit of a work-out though as each of my steps sunk further below the surface of the snow than those of my companions on snowshoes.

Winter or Summer, you'll follow the Elk Pass Ski Trail for at least three quarters of the way to Elk Pass.  It's a wide open trail lacking much in the way of excitement but fortunately it does meander beside a scenic creek for a good kilometre or more.  There are also two fabulous picnic tables - one at the junction with the Blueberry Hill Trail and one at Elk Pass.  We took full advantage of these rest areas to feed the kids snacks and catch our breath. 

The scenic portion of the trip along the Elk Pass Ski Trail

One of our rest stops at Elk Pass
Once you leave Elk Pass and cross into British Columbia you leave the official ski trails behind.  At this point it's just another 4km of plodding under a power line.  We followed old ski doo tracks that occasionally left the power line to loop through the trees.  It was a pleasant diversion and a bit more scenic than following the power line the whole way.   Note that you can access the power line 2km from the Elk Pass parking lot and follow it all the way to Elk Pass, continuing as mentioned above into BC, but we chose to follow the Elk Pass Ski Trail for scenic reasons and only picked up the power line at the pass.  I think most people do this but if you are planning your own journey to the cabin you can consult the ACC on which way they recommend for your group.

My husband and I with our son in his ski pulk (Photo - John Koob)
A beautiful sight after 4 hours of traveling

Lots of snow at the entrance to Elk Lakes Provincial Park
We rented the full cabin which is easy to do when it only sleeps 14.  Many of the ACC Huts sleep as many as 20 or more people in Winter.  If you've been to the Elk Lakes Cabin in the past you'll be surprised at the renovations that have recently taken place.  The cabin used to sleep 10 and had only one table for eating.  There are now two eating areas and the kitchen is bigger.  One of the private rooms in the back was removed to make more room for the kitchen and living area.  There is still one private room but it only has a single bunk bed for two people so we gave it to the one child-less couple on our trip, calling it the honeymoon suite. 

The cabin is great for families because everybody sleeps upstairs in a big loft which now has sleeping platforms since the renovations.  In the past there were just mattresses upstairs and you threw them on the floor wherever you could find a free space in sleepover fashion.  There is ample room for sleeping and we felt that 20 people could have easily fit in the loft.  This means you can spread your stuff out and you are not sleeping on top of strangers - as is the case in some of the other huts.  The kids had a great time playing in the loft and chasing each other around.  They thought it was their own private playground as they took turns jumping off the platforms onto the floor with a loud bang, making those of us downstairs fear that they would soon come through the ceiling.

In typical ACC fashion, the cabin has propane stoves with an oven (which I can't really recommend for much more than maybe a batch of cookies), propane lanterns, and a wood burning stove for heat.  If you are sleeping upstairs you'll want to make sure you stop loading that stove with wood a couple hours before bed or nobody will be getting much sleep - heat rises!  The outhouse is close by and please use it!  I know many men think they don't need to use them for a quick pee in the middle of the night but yellow snow just isn't cool.

Fetching water from the nearby creek
Cooking dinner for the group in the spacious kitchen (Photo - John Koob)

We love staying in ACC cabins because you don't need the whole collection of camping gear typically required in the backcountry.  You can leave the stove, dishes, pots and pans, sleeping mattress and tent all behind.  When you are taking children into the wild, it is by far the easiest method of spending the night.

We also love staying in the backcountry because of the opportunities it provides our children to play outside and to experience nature.  Previous visitors had obviously been very busy building snow caves and tunnels because the kids spent a lot of time exploring the snowy wonderland outside the cabin.  Our son wasn't exactly a fan of snow or Winter at the beginning of the season  but after many months now of riding in his sled, heading out on the ski trails with us, and having opportunities like this to see how cool snow can be, I think he's become a little more comfortable with the whole idea of embracing each season and its uniqueness.

Winter is for sledding, snow angels, skating, skiing, playing in the snow and even hiking.  It's a great season and we were grateful to have one final weekend to enjoy it.

Don't you love my son's pink mittens?  Yep, actually forgot his mittens!  He had to wear the baby's spare mittens.

How awesome are snow tunnels!
Even the youngest child got out to play in the snow (Photo:  Greta Duncan)

The trip out was uneventful and we retraced our steps back up the power line, down Elk Pass, and out to the waiting cars.  It was just as long out - dumb snowshoes again I say!  We packed the kids up and headed to Kananaskis Village for lunch and well deserved coffee before heading back to the city.

Snack at Elk Pass

The Whiskey Jacks are always friendly (Photo:  John Koob)

Our toddlers playing at the pass

Kids have a LOT of energy when you let them out of their sleds.
Had to get a photo in here of our youngest group member climbing the rocks at Kananaskis Village

Have you ever stayed in an ACC Hut or a backcountry cabin?  I'd love to hear about your adventures. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Learning to share in the backcountry - part two

In case you missed yesterday's post on group etiquette in the backcountry, here's the link to the story, Learning to share in the backcountry.  Today I continue with the topic of sharing, playing nicely, and being a fabulous person to share space in the mountains with.

One - Don't show up without a reservation and expect to poach a spot in a backcountry hut

You don't think it happens?  It hasn't happened to us recently so maybe people are smartening up but in the past it happened to us about 50% of the time when we've stayed at an Alpine Club of Canada Hut.

Scenario one - we were at the Elk Lakes Cabin when two families showed up as it was getting dark.  We had the whole hut booked and they knew this but in their own words, decided to come anyway and camp outside.  By "camp outside", they meant that they would be cooking dinner in the hut, hanging out with us until bed, and coming back in for breakfast.  Meanwhile they wanted to pay for day use rights.  I don't think so!!  If they hadn't have had small kids with them, we would have told them to turn around and hit the trail again.

Scenario two - a private guide showed up at the Elizabeth Parker Hut with two clients expecting to spend the night.  I don't know about his clients but he at least didn't have a reservation and the hut was full.  When we put up a fuss, he made a big stink about how he was the owner of a big Calgary outdoor store, he knew people, and wasn't going anywhere.

Scenario three - We were staying in the Wates Gibson Hut, in the remote backcountry of Jasper National Park.  We didn't have the hut fully booked so technically additional people could have shown up.  This still doesn't give you permission to crash the hut though.  A group of backcountry skiers showed up and since the hut was open wanted to spend the night.  They had been planning on camping but decided to be opportunistic and make use of the unlocked warm hut.  I made a big deal out of it and in the end they eventually agreed to pay me for two spots our friends had actually been unable to use - but had already paid for.  Fair's fair folks!  Don't expect to stay for free somewhere when everybody else has paid for the privilege. 

Hostels rarely see poaching because there's usually a caretaker on site but one more place that's horrible for freeloading is the Parks Canada shelters.  I've witnessed myself as well as heard many tales of people crashing the Egypt Lake Shelter to escape rain at the campground.  The last time we were supposed to stay there we actually canceled our reservation because it was going to be raining all weekend and we knew the whole campground would try to get into the shelter.  It's a tiny cabin that requires a reservation.  If there is space when you show up, you can pay to stay there on the spot but you can't stay at both the campground and the shelter.  You pay for one or the other.  It simply isn't fair to those who have paid to sleep inside to encroach on their space just because you don't want to get wet making dinner or you want a dry place to play cards.

The bottom line - free loading isn't cool!  Stay where you've paid.

The Elizabeth Parker Hut in winter


Two - Don't be a backcountry princess (or prince)

This isn't just aimed at women!  In the backcountry everybody helps out and contributes to the basic necessities of survival:  fetching water from the local creek, melting snow for water if necessary, keeping the fire going, cooking and yes - cleaning up.  If you don't want to make the trek to get water you'd better go with a partner who is willing to do it for you (as my dear husband is always want to do).  I confess I am a bit of a backcountry princess but that's why I always travel with my husband who is Mr. Backcountry!  He makes sure nothing is left undone and usually gets water more than once in his stay at any given hut or cabin.  He often cooks for our entire group and also carries everything in for the communal meals.  He's a trooper!  If you don't have a partner like that, I'm afraid you have to be a big boy or girl and help out!  Note:  that in our case, I do all of the planning, make the reservations, and coordinate everything with our group prior to our trips in order to help offset the fact that I will likely do less work when at camp. 

Signs that you might be a mountain princess: 
  • You wonder briefly where the water comes from but that's as far as it gets.
  • You make your friends carry your gear for you while getting to backcountry destination (without them offering) - usually by begging, whining, or complaining.
  • Dishes - what's that?
  • You leave the hut clean-up to everybody else.  That includes sweeping, wiping down counters, making sure the last cup is clean, ensuring the windows are closed, and that the fire is out.
  • You mooch off others.  If you want alcohol - bring it.  If you want tea or coffee -  bring it.  If you need Advil - bring it.  (you get the idea)  If you need to borrow something, it's suggested that you show extreme gratitude at the very least.  Most people are willing to lend you a tea bag or Advil but expect nothing and show appreciation when strangers extend kindness.  Of course if somebody offers you a glass of wine, that's a whole different story.  It would be foolishness to refuse something generously offered to you.
  • You don't at least offer to carry communal gear or food.  Many people will refuse the offer, but you should at least acknowledge that somebody is carrying your dinner.
  • Gosh, I don't know where the garbage went.  Somebody carried it out?  
The bottom line - To quote my friend Kathy:  Do more than you have to. Don't just wash your table, wash all the empty tables, take your turn with gray water, chop a little extra wood, leave the hut/cabin/hostel a little cleaner than you found it.

Getting water from the creek at the Elk Lakes Hut


Three - Go far off the beaten path if you want privacy

The last time we stayed at the Elizabeth Parker Hut we were told that the hut was a place for mountaineers and our kids didn't belong.  To that group - I suggest you visit Abbot Pass next time.  That hut is for mountaineers.  You will likely have all the privacy you need up there and can climb some big peaks while you enjoy your whiskey in the company of an all-adult crowd.  Don't go to one of the Alpine Club's most family accessible huts and expect an adult retreat.  Alternately, as mentioned in part one of this topic, book the whole hut for your group and don't invite any families.

Outdoor Moms and Dads deserve respect!  They have not only hauled their personal gear into the cabin but have brought in everything for their kids as well, often carrying or transporting the children too.  To get into the Elk Lakes Cabin this weekend, 9km from the nearest parking lot, we had to pull a 60lb sled carrying our son as well as carry two backpacks full of our family gear.  My husband was likely carrying close to 50lbs in addition to pulling that sled up to Elk Pass and down the other side.  Next time you want to complain that the kids are too noisy, that you couldn't sleep, they woke you up, or that they don't belong in a backcountry hut - pause for a moment and reflect on the kind of childhood you had.  Did you get to go camping?  Did you get into the backcountry?  If you didn't, I bet you wish you had.  I had to wait until I was an adult to have the adventures my son has already had in his first three years.  Applaud parents as they come in the door of the cabin and congratulate them on the brave and challenging adventure they most definitely had in getting there.  We could be out RVing or traveling to Disney Land but we have a different plan for our family.  Please support us.

Bottom line - Rent the whole facility if you want to choose who you'll share it with.  Otherwise - learn to share and make some new friends.  Go out and play with the kids and rediscover the inner child in you.

Skiing in the Tonquin Valley from the Wates Gibson Hut - an excellent place for an adult adventure

The Balfour Hut - another great adult destination high up on the Wapta Icefield Traverse - for mountaineers

What family backcountry travel looks like - en route to the Elk Lakes Hut  (photo - John Koob)
Thanks for reading this two-part series.  I'd still love to hear what other suggestions you have for sharing in the backcountry.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Learning to share in the backcountry

I've been sitting on this story for a while now - mostly out of fear of offending people.  The topic is fresh on my mind though after a successful backcountry experience this weekend at one of the Alpine Club of Canada Huts.  The full story of our adventures at the Elk Lakes Cabin will be coming later this week when I get my plethora of photos organized. 

Have you ever stayed in a cabin with a group of strangers and had a less than desirable experience where you wanted to send the whole lot of them back to kindergarten for a lesson on sharing and playing nicely?  I have!  I've had experiences I'd like to forget in cabins, huts, and wilderness hostels all over the Canadian Rockies.  And I know I'm not alone.  Just today I was asked about our weekend from a leery mom who's had bad experiences in the past that have left her scared to bring her children to another hut.  That's really sad considering that both the Alpine Club of Canada and Hostelling International pride themselves on being family friendly.  Check out the photo below as proof - you've seen it before on my blog.  The Alpine Club is currently using it in their campaign to attract more families to their huts.  The caption in one publication says, "This could be your family."  And that is my family in the photo below - at least the little boy in red pajamas.

Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park

 In the hopes that this story goes far and wide, I present to you:    

Group Etiquette 101.

 One - Cook together as a group

We stayed at the Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel this winter with another family.  Friday night we also shared the hostel with a group of Girl Guides and Saturday night we got to share our cabin with a group of Boy Scouts.  The Girl Guide group was highly organized and the leaders took the lead on all of the cooking.   They'd prepared a huge breakfast casserole for the group before coming and Saturday morning had nothing to do but put it in the oven - simple, fast and easy.  The Boy Scout group on the other hand had no concept of organization.  The leaders sat back while 30+ teens all cooked individual meals for breakfast and dinner.  Have you ever seen 10+ people in a kitchen at one time?  I'm sure there was a bit of collaboration going on and maybe the leaders thought they were organized in appointing one teen to cook for two or three others, but how much simpler would it have been if they had prepared a huge batch of pasta for the whole group Saturday night?  Pancakes and sausage for everybody Sunday morning.

The bottom line - if you are sharing a cabin or hut with a group of 4+ people, cook together and free up the kitchen for other hut users.

A photo from the archives of our trip into the Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park

Two -  Respect the sacred act of sleeping

I'll start with saying that if  you are sharing a cabin with a group of friends or strangers and you expect to get a good sleep - you are delusional.  If you want a zen-like sleep or want to sleep in until 10am, go to a spa for the weekend.  However, there are things each of us can do to make sleep easier for others.
  • If you snore (and don't give me the crap that you didn't know) admit it to the group before going to bed with an apology, pass out ear plugs to those who forgot to bring a pair, and perhaps think of some other way to redeem yourself.  (bringing extra alcohol, cookies, or brownies to share would be a good start.  Making fresh coffee for your hut-mates in the morning would be awesome!)
  • If your snoring is loud enough that it is driving people outside to sleep (I've seen it happen once at the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel), you have no business sharing hostels or cabins with other people.  I'm sorry, but seriously, consult a doctor if your snoring is that bad.  As mentioned, I've only seen it once, but once was enough!  I live in fear forever going forward.  
  • If you have children that wake up early, plan some kind of quiet activity to occupy them in the morning.  We always bring a portable DVD player for our son and my husband has gone as far as to take my son into the kitchen of the Elizabeth Parker Hut at 5am, wrapped in a blanket, where the two of them sat on the cold hard floor and watched cartoons until the majority of the hut users were awake.  
  • Don't pack your stuff up while others are sleeping unless you have an early start and need to be out the door before 8am.  Otherwise, go have breakfast first, grab a cup of coffee, and go back to the sleeping area once others are mostly awake.  There will always be that one person who is trying to have a marathon sleep, but go with the majority. 
  • Be respectful of children trying to sleep.  If you want to play a loud card game or get drunk with your buddies, wait until all children are fast asleep.  Yes, I know, the parents chose to come to the hut and they knew they'd be sharing it with those who might not have kids.  Still - compassion people?  Live it,  study it, practice it!  (this goes for Boy Scout groups too playing Spoons outside the door where toddlers and babies are sleeping.  You are so lucky my friend didn't hurt you when you woke up her kids.  I assure you - she wanted to.)
The bottom line - Respect goes a LONG way in the backcountry.  The person you piss off at night might be the person who goes down to the creek and gets your morning water, lends you a tea bag, or picks up your child's dropped hat and carries it out to the parking lot for you. 

A photo from our trip to the Peyto Hut, Banff National Park

Three - If you are going to represent the majority - rent the whole facility!

Would you want to share a cabin with 35 children or teens if you weren't their parent, leader, or guide?  Or how about sharing a very small back country shelter with a private church group who takes over the whole cabin?  Neither scenario is fun but both have happened to us.  If you know that you are going to be booking more than half of the spaces in a cabin, hut or hostel, and especially if you have a group that will be less than desirable for others to share the facility with - just rent the whole space!  You can either absorb the cost of the extra spots you don't need or invite more people to come with you.  And don't even suggest that you are then being rude by hogging a place to yourselves and preventing others from coming and using the extra beds or rooms.  Trust me - nobody wants those extra spots!!  We had an amazing family weekend at the Elizabeth Parker Hut when a member of our local Alpine Club rented the whole cabin for our group. 
 It was a great trip because everybody staying in the hut had children and knew what to expect - little sleep, everybody going to bed early, and lots of noise.  We wouldn't have dreamed of making a single couple share the cabin with us.  This past weekend we stayed at the Elk Lakes Cabin and we also rented the full cabin.  It made us feel less uncomfortable when our children woke up in the middle of the night, chased each other around the loft screaming, or cried themselves to sleep.

The bottom line - Book as a group and enjoy your private cabin!  Play crazy card games until 2am, drink with your friends, stay up all night - whatever you want.  It's your cabin.  The Alpine Club of Canada actually offers group discounts for those making a private booking FYI.

Staying at the Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park (we booked the whole cabin)

Staying at the Mosquito Creek Hostel - We booked their private cabin for two families

What would you add to my list of group etiquette rules? 
Continue on to read part two which covers the issues of poaching, free-loading, mountain princesses, and family haters in the backcountry.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Families love the Canmore Nordic Centre

If you aren't familiar with the Canadian Rockies you probably have no idea what or where Canmore is. If you've spent even an hour in Canmore though, (yes, it's a place) you know why I'm so enthralled with this charming mountain town.   Living in Canmore is the dream for many if not most Calgarians who love the mountains.  We don't want to take up permanent residence in the tourist haven of Banff, but Canmore - now that's a different story!  It's a storybook mountain town with majestic peaks surrounding you on all sides.  Canmore is located 5 minutes away from the park gates of Banff National Park and 45 minutes from our urban centre of Calgary, providing easy access to both Banff's many hiking trails as well as Calgary's shopping and entertainment.

View from the ski trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre

Having no plans for the Easter weekend, we decided to head out to Canmore on Saturday to do some cross country skiing at the Nordic Centre.  Our son wanted to go hiking but as the saying goes, "make hay while the sun shines" and (here I add on), ski while the snow falls.  We've had a lot of fresh snow and I am not one to turn down a day of warm spring skiing.

The Nordic Centre has no shortage of snow this April

I had a friend once ask if we ran into a lot of families on the trails and I had to say that often we didn't.  Now I know why.  They're all at the Canmore Nordic Centre!  Don't believe me?  Drop in on a Saturday afternoon and count the number of families having lunch in the day lodge, the number of sleds lined up outside waiting to take baby skiers out on the trails, and the number of children learning to ski in the practice area.  It gave me hope that the next generation is not entirely being raised by Nintendo.

Noah and his new friend having a snack in the day lodge

This was my son's 14th day out skiing with us this winter and I guess 14 is the magic number because I've never seen him so happy in his ski pulk.  It probably didn't hurt that my husband did a lot of skate skiing and was flying along the trails faster than I could keep up.  Kids, I have learned, don't like slow moving parents when they are confined in a sled for two hours.  We usually stop at least once to let the kids out but they still get bored when Mom and Dad are slowly slogging up a steep hill.   Noah was also captivated by my friend's son and kept looking out of his sled to search for his new buddy - something that helped immensely if we stopped to rest for a moment.  As long as Noah could see his friend coming up behind him, he was happy and remarkably patient.  This will likely be our last ski day of the season and I'm ecstatic that it was met with giggles, squeals of laughter, and smiles rather than screams of "out!" as is usually more common.

The boys in their sleds

Mr. Cool

New friends

Upon finishing our ski loop we went back into the day lodge for snacks which consisted of coffee and Easter chocolate for me.  One of the main reasons why the Nordic Centre attracts so many families is because of this amazing lodge.  It has an abundance of tables, comfy seating in front of a wood burning fire place, high chairs for the smallest tots, and a cafeteria for Mom and Dad who need more coffee before driving home.  We always bring our lunch and snacks but should you be in a rush getting out the door, you could buy everything on site.

An awesome day at the Nordic Centre

Additional information:
If you visit the Nordic Centre earlier in the winter, there is a toboggan hill for the kids and a skating rink as well.  To further reach out to families, Trail Sports on site has a selection of ski sleds should you need one for pulling your youngest skier.

Lessons can also be arranged through Trail Sports.

Once the snow melts, the Nordic Centre converts to a world-class mountain biking facility with many beginner trails perfect for Summer family adventures.  To quote the Park's website, you will find:
an 18-hole disc golf course, four orienteering courses, more than 100 km of single and double-track mountain bike and hiking trail, 6.5 km of paved rollerski trail, and a mountain bike skills park
For more information on the Canmore Nordic Centre, go to Provincial Parks website which features the daily trail descriptions and grooming report.
Winter trail use fees are $10/adult.
Contact the Nordic Centre for summer fees and discounted rates for children.