Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Backcountry adventures

This is the final story in my Family Camping Made Easy Series and I thought I'd tackle something a little different - backcountry camping.  It seemed intimidating when we set off on our first family backcountry trip when our son was just one year old, but we quickly discovered that it was a lot of fun. 

It doesn't have to be a crazy epic adventure and there are ways for the most novice of families to get out into the wild with very little gear necessary.  I'm going to outline the various styles of backcountry camping below with some practical suggestions for those traveling with small children.  I'll also list our favourite places in the Canadian Rockies to get into the wild with your kids. 

Backcountry Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

Backpacking Trips

Backpacking Trips are hard with children under three because you need to carry the child and your gear.  If you have only one small child and a very strong partner, you can do it with one person carrying the child and one person carrying everything else.  We haven't attempted this as it just seems difficult.  If you have a baby that fits in a front carrier you could technically carry your child and a backpack at the same time.  Again, we didn't try this.  We chose backcountry trips we could do with a Chariot when our son was too young to hike in by himself.  (see the section below on biking and Chariot trips)

This year marks the first year that we will be able to do a normal backpacking trip with all three of us walking.  The key is to choose a destination that is within your child's walking ability.  We've chosen a campground for this summer's backpacking adventure that is a 3km hike.  With our son walking, it will allow both my husband and I to carry a backpack. 

Local suggestions:

Our Campsite at Laughing Falls (and nobody fell in the river, yay)
Backpacking with friends in the Yoho Valley

Walk-in Tent Campgrounds

For families a little less ambitious, there are many walk-in campgrounds where you only have to walk 500 metres to reach the campground.  You can make multiple trips to haul in your gear and some places even provide wagons.  Lake O'Hara is accessed by a bus that drops you right at the campground with your bags.  This is family camping for those wanting more solitude than your average campground provides.  You won't be listening to car stereos or partiers all night long at walk-in sites.

Local Suggestions:
  • Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park (bus and campground reservations must be made three months in advance and don't delay on that booking or you won't get a spot!)

  • Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park (wagons provided for the short hike in.  Have a back-up plan in mind if trying to get a spot here on a weekend because it's first come first serve camping)

  • Mount Sarrail, Kananaskis (walk-in tenting in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, no reservations required)
Takakkaw Falls
Lake O'Hara

Canoe trips

This is a super easy way to get into the backcountry without having to carry anything.  If you are at all worried about your paddling abilities, choose a calm lake and paddle close to shore.  It's strongly suggested if you have small children that you get out at least a couple times before the big trip so the concept of sitting still in a canoe isn't a foreign concept.  You don't want Junior to try and jump overboard in the middle of a lake or fast moving river.  Going with another family is a good idea for novice paddlers as well.  There's always strength in numbers.

Riverside camping doesn't get better than this!

Something we are thinking about doing this summer is a canoe/hike combo trip. If you go with another family, you can have two adults canoe in with all the gear while the other adults hike in with the kids.  Switch it up on the way out so everybody has a chance to hike and canoe.  We like this idea because then we'll have a canoe at camp for the rest day and we can take short trips out on the lake with the kids who might not have a long attention span for riding in the boat.

Local Suggestions:

  • The Point Campground, Kananaskis (you can either hike or paddle to your campground and since it's on a point, it's pretty easy to find your campground.  It's also a short paddle and easy for beginners.)

  • Jewel Bay Campground, Kananskis (another paddle or hike destination with a short paddle across Barrier Dam)

  • Lake Minnewanka, LM 8 Campground, Banff (Hike, bike, or paddle to this campground, 8km from the trailhead)
Life jackets for everybody and mini-lawn chairs to keep the kids in place (Photo:  M. Mcdonald)

Edits for 2017:

We've done a lot of overnight paddling trips since I originally wrote this story. Check out the stories below for more suggestions on where to camp overnight with kids by boat.

How to fit 7 people in a Canoe - Backcountry Adventures in Kananaskis 

The Annual Family Backcountry Trip - Worth Fighting For

Easy Overnight Paddling Trips for the Whole Family 

Paddling and Camping on the Columbia River with Kids   

Paddling the Alberta Badlands 

Easy paddling on the Red Deer River


Don't have a tent, sleeping bags, a backcountry stove or anything for camping but still want to feel like you're camping?  This is the option for you!  We started hostelling with our son when he was one because it gave us a dry roof over our heads, a cozy place to stay, and yet felt like we were close to nature. 

Hostelling International has wilderness hostels spread out all over the Rockies and many of them are very family friendly.  I've written stories on many of our stays so far. You don't need anything when you go to a hostel other than your personal items and food.  The kitchens are fully stocked and linen is provided for the beds.  The parking lot is also conveniently located within 500 metres of all wilderness hostels.

HI Hilda Creek Hostel

Family Friendly Wilderness Hostels:

  • Mosquito Creek, Banff National Park (private cabin with two bedrooms)

  • Kananaskis, Located at Ribbon Creek (four private rooms)

  • Hilda Creek, Banff National Park (you'll have to book the whole hostel but it only sleeps 6 so that's not hard to do. Bring your own bedding or sleeping bags)

  • Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park (there are two private rooms for families)

 And here are a couple of stories to read:

Autumn Camping at Mosquito Creek, HI Mosquito Creek Hostel 

Moving on to Big Adventures - and the kids get to come! (HI Hilda Creek Hostel)

HI Mosquito Creek

Backcountry cabins

Another easy solution for families with limited backcountry knowledge - the Alpine Club of Canada has backcountry huts and cabins scattered all over the Rockies and several of them are family-friendly.  You'll need a sleeping bag but other than that, the kitchens are stocked and sleeping mattresses are provided. 

The Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara is even accessed by a bus that takes you within half a kilometre of the hut.  The crux of the whole trip is usually getting a spot in the popular huts for summer.  Members of the Alpine Club that have paid for an upgraded membership can make bookings up to a year in advance.  Otherwise, they can book 60 days in advance.  Non members can only book 30 days in advance -  hence why it's hard to get a reservation.   If you want to stay at Lake O'Hara you actually have to enter a lottery to earn the privilege of booking a spot.  It's that popular in summer!  You can still stay there without an advance booking but you'll likely have to stay mid-week or in the off-season (June or September).

The Elizabeth Parker Hut, Lake O'Hara

Note that in ACC huts there are no private bedrooms so you'll have to share a common room with other hut users.  We've often found this challenging and my husband swears he isn't doing it again each time we go.  Consider going to a smaller hut and renting the whole facility.  The Elk Lakes Cabin is a good choice for this.

The best huts for families:
  • The Elizabeth Parker Hut, Yoho National Park (500 metres from where the bus drops you off at Lake O'Hara)

  • The Wheeler Hut, Glacier National Park (One of the only huts that you can drive up to in summer)

  • Stanley Mitchell Hut, Yoho National Park (10km hike on a good trail from Takakkaw Falls)

  • Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park (You can either drive to the cabin in summer, a very very long drive, or you can hike in from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis.  It's a 9km hike on a good trail that's chariot friendly)
Elk Lakes Cabin, BC
Edits for 2017:

Below are a few stories on our recent summer trips into ACC cabins:

 Backcountry Cabin Camping with Kids - Elk Lakes Cabin, BC  

Summer Backpacking Trip to the Asulkan Cabin, Rogers Pass  

Backpacking in the Bugaboos (and our first family glacier traverse) - Conrad Kain Hut 

Summer at the Asulkan Cabin, Rogers Pass


Backpacking with a bike or Chariot

This has got to be one of our favourite ways to access the backcountry.  We've taken two backpacking trips now with the Chariot and what a fabulous way of transporting a child and gear!  Many trails are bike and Chariot friendly which allows you to carry gear instead of tired toddlers.  You can also strap gear to both the bike or Chariot. 

We took the Chariot into Laughing Falls last summer in Yoho National Park and while I can't exactly promote it as a stroller-friendly trail, we managed.  We did however, have to repair the broken Chariot before heading out with a tent peg so probably best leave the Chariot at home.  Always check park guidelines before bringing your bike on a trail.  Some trails are designated as multi-use trails whereas others strictly prohibit the use of bikes.  Chariots and strollers usually fall outside any rules and regulations - yay for us!

Loading the Chariots for the trip to Laughing Falls

Local Bike and Chariot friendly Trails:
  • Elbow Lake, Kananaskis (1.3 km from Elbow Pass day use area)

  • Mt. Romulus or Big Elbow Campground, Kananaskis (These campgrounds are on the 43km Elbow Loop that starts from the Little Elbow day use area.  I wouldn't do the full loop pulling kids or pushing a Chariot but you could do an overnight trip into either of these campgrounds.  Romulus is 12km in and Big Elbow is 8km in. )

  • Mt. Rundle Campground, Sp6, Banff (6km from the Bow Falls Trailhead on the Spray River Loop)

  • Cascade Bridge, Cr6, Banff (6km from the trailhead at Lake Minnewanka on the Cascade Fire road)
Creek crossing on the Big Elbow Trail

I didn't go into a lot of detail on specific campgrounds so if you are planning a backcountry trip and need detailed trail information, please send me a message.  I'd love to help you plan out your family vacation. 

If you are just joining us in the series on Family Camping Made Easy, you can click on the links below to see the other topics already covered:  Warm sleepers are happy sleepers, Baby adventuresPreschool adventuresBathing in the woods,  and Siestas for the junior camper.

Have a favourite backcountry destinations?  I'd love to hear about it.



  1. Great post. Now I really want to go to Canada, lol!!

    1. We'd love to have you visit Haley. I'm sure we can even find you some climbing.

  2. Great post. I am wanting to take my family backpacking, the boys will be turning 4 and 5 this year. Glad to see other family's making outdoors, hopefully it will be us in the Mountains soon:)

    1. Maybe we'll run into you on the trails then Chris. 4 and 5 sounds like a great time to get the kids out.

  3. Lots of great tips here, my nieces and nephews arrived this winter and I have a lot to show them this summer. First time I went to Takakkaw Falls last spring, I should be ashamed of myself, living for decades in this beautiful province and not seeing all the majesty of this province and the next! I will be making up for those missed decades though!

  4. Hello, love the Chariot post, I have a twin Chariot - would that work on those trails?

    1. The trails I mentioned that are chariot friendly would generally work with a single or double. Most of my friends that have chariots have the double and they often come with us on our trips.

  5. What a great post! I thought I was the only one crazy enough to take a toddler backpacking. My 3-year old, along with grandpa has been on several of these trips (Laughing Falls, Big Elbow Campground, Jewel Bay and we are heading to Mount Rundle this weekend). I just love getting him outdoors.

    Here's us at Laughing Falls. He was not quite 18-months for that trip.

    1. Thanks Trev. We were supposed to do Jewel Bay this summer but it's still closed so we went into the Point last weekend instead. We kayaked in with our son and I rode my stand up paddleboard to get there. Took us 20 min. to get to camp. SWEET!
      Next year we still want to do Jewel Bay when it opens again.

      Please let me know how you like Mt. Rundle. We have never camped there but it's on my list.
      And how did you like the Big Elbow Campground? I've gone part ways as part of a Chariot hike but haven't been the full way to the campground. I've camped on the other side of the loop to do some scrambling but haven't been around on the Big Elbow Side.

    2. Awesome post, thank you! Were you concerned with wildlife? With kids in the party, I am sure that was your top concern.

    3. always concerned with bears yes, but we carry bear spray and make a LOT of noise on the trail. We also pay attention to trail warnings.

  6. Hi there. I'm enjoying the info here on backcountry camping trips with kids, and we are preparing for a few trips next summer. Here's our challenge. We have four kids, so the tents we are looking at already exceed the pad size at Lake O'Hara (four people max anyway) and I'm wondering which of these hikes has larger camp sites or pads? Considering maybe Elbow Lake, Jewell Bay, Point.... Any recommendations? We're ok with splitting up the load of the larger 16 pound-ish tent. Just looking for a good amount of space to pitch the tent.

    1. you could always book two tent pads and split up into two tents, which is warmer as well. Otherwise, I think most tent pads are a pretty standard size in the backcountry and are not meant for 6 people. As a family of 6 you pretty much have to pay the extra cost and get two sites. But call visitor centres and ask them. They might have better advice.

  7. Great post with lots of detail!!! Thank you Tanya!

  8. I need an article like this for Utah!

  9. Thanks for the helpful post! My husband and I have just booked 2 nights at Laughing Falls this summer and our plan is to take our 18-mo old up in a chariot. Could you describe the trail a bit more - specifically, what the terrain is like? Parks Canada's website says it's only a 125m elevation gain, but someone described it to me as "steep, a slog with a chariot". Curious for more insight. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for emmailing me. Hopefully I provided all the info you need.