Friday, November 30, 2012

How to Love Winter in the Rockies - On Skates!

While one of the classic winter sports, skating is often overlooked by families choosing a winter hobby or sport.  There are whole magazines devoted to skiing and snowshoeing but I don't know of one that focuses on simple ice skating.   And I'm not talking about competitive figure skating, hockey or speed skating - just pure and sweet skating on a frozen pond, lake, or river.

Skating on Cascade Ponds in Banff this November
I'm always surprised when people tell me that they don't own skates, haven't tried skating since they were a child, or that their children have never tried it.  How can you live in Canada and not own skates?  And what's not to like about ice skating?  It's relatively cheap once you buy a pair of skates and there's no additional cost if you skate outdoors.

Learning to skate is not nearly as difficult as learning to ski,  (sign the family up for a lesson if you need and you'll be gliding around the ice in no time), and the whole family can skate together;  You don't have to put junior in daycare while you go ski for the day or take turns on the bunny hill while one parent skis solo.  Our family is all about leisure activities we can do together!  We also like sports with low learning curves and that don't leave our bank account weeping.  Skating is therefore the perfect answer on all accounts.

Skating - A Classic Family Activity

Getting Started

  1. Go to a second hand store and find yourself a comfortable pair of skates.  Unless you excel at triple axel jumps or plan to enter an ice dance competition, you don't need to spend the money on a brand new pair of  skates for recreational use. There are many used sport stores in Calgary and you can get a decent pair of skates for under $50.  I recently went to one sport store to get myself a more comfortable pair and was surprised to see an entire wall, over 10 rows high, of used skates.  It wasn't hard to find something I liked with that selection.

  2. Choose a pair of skates that are both comfortable and easy to put on.  There's nothing worse than spending 10 minutes trying to cram your foot into a tight skate and another 5 minutes trying to lace it up.  By then your hands are frozen and you still have your children's skates to do up. 

  3. Most men will choose hockey skates but for women, consider the newest skate on the market called a "comfort skate."  It's what I recently upgraded to because while they are still figure skates with the traditional picks on the front for jumps and spins,  they are wider, more comfortable, have extra padding for warmth, and are lightning quick to lace up.  I can have both of my skates on in the time it takes my husband to put on one hockey skate!  That is what I need if I'm going to be doing up a child's skates too!  I do find my new comfort skates provide less support than my old figure skates, but the extra warmth and ease of putting them on is worth it to me.  You can buy these skates new from Canadian Tire (Christmas present)  or try to find them used.  I was lucky and found a second-hand pair in my size.

  4. Get toddlers and preschoolers started early with a pair of "Bob skates".  Another Canadian Tire store classic, they come in both black and pink and feature double blades for the beginner skater.  I know people who look down on these skates because the kids can walk around on the ice at most, marching around in their little blades that barely slide.  And while that is true, what 2-year old is going to put on a pair of hockey skates and tear up the ice with fancy power moves?  Toddlers just need to get comfortable being on the ice, having fun without the fear of constantly falling, and feeling like they are participating in a sport with the rest of the family instead of riding in their sled the whole time.  Bob Skates are perfect for the first winter skating.  My son started on them last year and now he has moved up to regular skates with confidence and enthusiasm for skating.  As a bonus, you won't have to try to find a used pair of Bob skates because they only cost $10 new.

  5. Consider expandable skates for preschoolers with ever-growing feet.  There's nothing worse than buying a pair of skates, shoes, boots, etc. and then having to buy a new pair a month later when the child goes through a growth spurt.  We bought new skates for our son and they were horribly expensive so I go back to number 1 - try to find used skates first!!  If however, you can't find a second-hand pair, I would still recommend a pair of  these skates - even at full price.  They are molded for extra warmth, adjust to at least 4 different sizes, have removable liners which makes it super easy to put them on (put the child's foot in the liner first, and then insert into the skate), and best of all - no laces!!! They have bindings like a ski boot instead of laces which is awesome in my opinion!  (Yes, I hate laces on skates.)

  6. Enroll your children in a basic skating lesson with a trained teacher who will have tons of fun games up his or her sleeve to make skating fun!  My son's preschool teacher had the kids carry teddy bears back and forth across the ice and it was a brilliant idea!  The kids loved the game and they got practice walking or gliding on their skates, turning around, and bending over to pick up the stuffed animals. In as short as one or two lessons, your children will have enough confidence to leave the chairs and skate aids aside.  We bought a skate aid for our son and I doubt we'll ever have to use it.

  7. Though you won't see one present in every one of my photos, I can't recommend enough that you get your children a proper multi-sport helmet, designed for skating.  My son wore a bicycle helmet his first year but they are not generally designed for absorbing multiple impacts.  As for mom and dad, it's still not a bad idea to have a helmet.  :)
Toddlers skating on Bob Skates
Always bring sleds for young kids.  When they get tired you can keep skating and they LOVE the ride!


Where to skate

I consider indoor skating rinks and arenas to be places where you take lessons, practice, and get your confidence on skates.  But it's not the real deal!  No rock climber for example aspires to climb indoors his whole life.  Indoor walls are great for practicing (and keep you climbing year-round) but something's missing. Skating is the same in my mind as climbing - you gotta get outside for the true classic experience.  And you don't have to go far to find a neighborhood pond or outdoor rink.

In Calgary, go to the City's website to find a list of outdoor skating rinks.  We love Bowness Park with it's lagoon, fire pits, and meandering creek you can skate down.  It's the classic experience and if you go mid-week you'll have the pond to yourself.  Bring hotdogs and marshmallows to further enjoy the experience.

Bowness Park on Christmas Day last year

In the Kananaskis and Banff area, check out the following ponds and rinks that see official maintenance and snow removal:
  • The Pond at Kananaskis Village (cleared by Delta Resort staff and open to all visitors. Skate rentals on-site, open by December)

  • The Pond in Canmore (located on 7 Avenue at Mallard Alley two blocks from Main Street, cleared by the Town of Canmore. Note: No hockey sticks allowed on this pond.  Open by December and home to the annual Canmore New Year's Eve Party on the Pond)

  • The pond behind the Banff Springs Hotel (open December to March)

  • Lake Louise (cleared area on the lake in front of the Chateau Lake Louise, open from November to April.  Skate rentals available on site)
Skating on the Pond at Kananaskis Village
The Pond in Canmore

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Family Snowshoeing Adventures - Elbow Lake

Elbow Lake is a very popular place for backcountry camping, hiking, and even mountain biking but very few people visit this magical place in winter.

The main reason?  The highway leading to the Elbow Pass Day Use Area closes on December 1st each year.  Meanwhile, in November when Hwy 40 is still open over Highwood Pass, most people aren't thinking about snowshoeing yet; It just seems too early for some reason. 

Approaching Elbow Lake

Last year, we had an early winter with lots of snow in the mountains and thought we'd try snowshoeing up to Elbow Lake at the end of November - just to see what it was like at this time of year.  We were blown away by how beautiful it was, how much snow the area had in November, and how perfect the trail was for snowshoeing! 

At only 1.4km one way and with only 150m of height gain, the trail is very accessible for most families.  Yes, it's steep, but you can make it to the lake in an hour at a reasonable pace and then spend as much time as you want walking around the lake or exploring further up towards the Rae Glacier.

Winter Paradise (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

We headed up to Elbow Lake again last weekend for what will certainly become an annual tradition in late November. 

We were relieved to see that there was less snow this year and that the trail had been packed down already.  I love powder and don't mind breaking trail through knee deep snow for an hour but when you are pulling sleds it's a lot harder!  Last year we carried our son but this year he was going to be pulled in his ski pulk. 

Using a Chariot with skis is an excellent way to transport kids in winter

We also had three other families coming with us who planned to transport their kids in Chariots with skis and one family was bringing a toboggan.  We had no problems pulling the sleds on the wide packed trail this year but I'm most certain we wouldn't have made it last year.  It will be interesting to try this trail again next year at the same time to determine what snow level is the norm for this area in November.

Two kids are bundled snug and warm inside the Chariot
Our son has a ski pulk that we love for off-trail adventures.  It too has a cover for cold days or nap time

 We had hoped that the children would try snowshoeing up to the lake and we brought several pairs of junior snowshoes with us, but in reality, the trail is really steep for preschoolers in winter. 

I'm sure they all could have hiked the trail in summer with a bit of motivation (read - Candy!) but winter is a different ball game.  This will be a great family snowshoe adventure in another year or two when our son will definitely be able to hike in on his own without the sled. 

For the moment however, Thank God we all have sleds or Chariots because it opens up the possibilities for how far and where we can go on our adventures.  It also helps with nap time as many of the kids fell asleep on the way back down the trail, our son included.

We at least got a couple of the kids on their snowshoes for a few minutes.  :)

We got to the lake and found a great spot to have lunch in the campground.  Benches and tables make for a great resting spot.  Just make sure you bring insulated bum pads if you want to sit down.  I sadly had forgotten and had to sit on my mittens since I was wearing every extra layer I'd brought while we weren't moving.  We left most of the kids in their sleds to eat - another great reason for having sleds or Chariots with you.

Elbow Lake at the backcountry campground
Lunch break
Trying out my new snowshoes in the deep snow surrounding the lake
Mom and daughter have fun tromping through the deep snow

 Beyond the lake, the snow was less packed down so we didn't go too far with the sleds and Chariots but we did hike to the back of the lake for the spectacular views not seen as well from the campground.

Hiking around the lake
Enjoying the views

So, if you haven't already added this trip to your winter bucket list, I highly recommend the experience!  The bad news though - you have 4 more days left this year to get up there.  So grab those snowshoes or backcountry skis if you prefer and get going.  :)

If you can't make it up to Elbow Lake before Saturday when Hwy 40 closes past the Peter Lougheed junction for the Upper and Lower Lakes, then put a reminder on your calendar for next November. 

For more information on the Elbow Pass Trail or Backcountry Campground, visit the Kananaskis Website.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Baby, It's Cold Outside

**Guest Post
Today I welcome Jennifer Aist, author of Babes in the Woods, Hiking, Camping,  and Boating with Babes and Young Children.  I wrote a review of Jennifer's book back in October and one lucky reader won a copy for her own family.  Many great questions were left for Jennifer in the comments following the review and I knew we needed to have her back here with more advice for parents on how to get those young kids outside all year long.  Winter is here in the Canadian Rockies and Jennifer knows a thing or two about raising winter-loving children in her native Alaska.  Please take some time to read through the amazing advice and suggestions she provides below on making the most of winter.  Spring won't be here for many more months and we can't hibernate till then. 

Baby, It's Cold Outside

The temperatures are dropping fast, but that doesn’t need to keep you or your wee one inside. With just a little know how, you and your baby can stay warm and active all winter long. 

Photo:  J. Aist

Lesson #1:  Parents need to be warm too!  

We parents do such a great job taking care of our children. We spend hours researching and buying the best gear we can find to keep our kids warm and dry in the elements. But we often fall short at taking the same care for ourselves. I hear lots of moms tell me they don’t enjoy spending time outside because they are always cold. Well ladies, make this the winter to be warm! Here is a must have list for my winter city brethren:
  1. Ice grippers for your shoes. Don’t get yourself hurt slipping around on icy sidewalks and driveways. Ice grippers are the best (and likely cheapest) safety investment you will ever make. Some running stores will even stud your shoes for a nominal fee.
  2. Wool socks. There are many great brands out there. Cotton socks make for miserable toes, so go wool.
  3. Hand/Foot warmers. Another great, inexpensive, indispensable item to always have with you. You can buy the disposable type (often available at Costco) or for shorter outings, heat up a pouch of rice to stick in your mittens.
  4. Snow skirts. This is my favorite piece of outerwear. Snow skirts are insulated skirts of varying lengths that are easy to pull over any pants and add an amazing amount of warmth. I know, I live in Alaska and wear mine religiously. These skirts are well made and well worth the investment. Some companies even make some kid sizes.
  5. Warm hat. This may seem obvious, but I’m always surprised how many folks forget this all-important layer. Make sure the hat will cover your ears.
  6. Mittens. Yes, I said mittens, not gloves. Mittens will always keep your hands warmer than gloves will. Buy a few pairs; if you are like the rest of us, you will leave a trail of mitts wherever you go.
  7. A toasty coat. I prefer down for the weight and superior insulating value, but any cold weather coat will do. A hood is an added bonus as is parka length to cover your back end.

Photo:  J. Aist

Lesson #2:  Bundle thy baby! 

1.      When layering yourself or your child, think in 3’s. The first is the base layer—wool, silk or polypro. No cotton. Layer #2 is your insulating layer—fleece works great and is readily available, not to mention cheap. Top it all off with a shell to keep all the warmth inside.
2.      You can save a bunch of money outfitting little ones with a little creativity. Adult wool socks with the toes cut off, become leg and arm warmers. An old adult size down coat becomes a cozy bunting bag for a baby in a stroller or front pack. Learn more tips about layering in Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping and Boating with Babies and Young Children.
3.      Little hands and feet can be hard to keep warm, especially when they are in a stroller. Consider using hand warmers—just make sure you don’t put them right next to your baby’s skin. I like to drop one in the legs of snowsuits to generate some nice heat. You need good circulation to stay warm, so watch out for anything that might be too tight like socks or booties with a drawstring. I always bring a few extra pairs of mittens and socks just in case some get wet.
4.      Duct tape is your best friend. Use it to secure mittens and boots to toddler snowsuits.  This will eliminate the red, frost-nipped ring around ankles and wrists that develops when snow gets in, not to mention eliminating the battle of “keep your mittens on”.
5.      If your kids’ feet continue to stay cold despite good layers, consider adding a vapor barrier like a plastic bag. Just slip it over the socks and into the boots. Caution: be really careful that you take the bag away after outside time.

Photo:  J. Aist

Properly outfitted, you’ll want to spend even more time outside having fun with your kids. Play on!


For more information on Jennifer's book Babes in the Woods, Hiking, Camping,  and Boating with Babes and Young Children, please visit her website, Wilderness for Kids.  To read the review I wrote for the book in October, follow this link to the book review.  Jennifer's book is full of practical advice, lists, suggestions, and even no-fail camping recipes with  the goal of  De-mystifying the whole subject of family outdoor adventure and play.  Jennifer also teaches classes on Babes in the Woods, Babes in the Snow, and Babes on the Water in her native Alaska.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Christmas Gift Ideas for Outdoor Children

Christmas is coming and it's impossible not to notice if you live anywhere near an urban centre.  Holiday music is already playing in most major department stores, decorations and trees are on display, 

Here are a few of my Christmas gift ideas for the outdoor children on your list.  Some ideas come straight off my own list for my son, while other items have been purchased for friends over the past year, or been enjoyed so much by us that I have to share!

Every Christmas tree should have a pair of skis under it

Our Favourite Outdoor Themed Books (for toddlers and preschoolers)

  • My first hike by Catherine Maria Woolf 
    •  Grandpa takes his grand kids for their first hike

  • Scare a bear by Kathy-Jo Wargin
    • A funny tale about scaring a bear out of camp

  • Duck Tents by Lynne Berry
    • A group of little ducks go camping and fishing

  • Sheep take a hike by Nancy E Shaw and Margot Apple
    • A cute tale of a group of sheep taking a hike together

  • Camping Day by Patricia Lakin
    • Dinosaurs go camping and get scared by monsters?

  • Hey Pancakes by Tamson Weston
    • Who doesn't want to read a cute story about children making pancakes when camping?

  • Going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
    • A classic!!  Your child will memorize this book and recite it to you on your next hike

  • Caillou Goes Camping by  Roger Harvey
    • Caillou camps in the backyard with Grandpa

  • Just me and my Dad by Mercer Mayer
    • Dad and his Little Critter go fishing and canoeing together

  • Just camping out by Mercer Mayer
    • Another Little Critter book - this one about camping

  • The Berenstain Bears Blaze a Trail by  Stan and Jan Berenstain
    • Who doesn't like a hilarious Berenstain Bears book?   In this one, Pa tries to help the kids earn their Boy Scout Merit badges for hiking

  • Curious George goes Camping by Margret and H.A. Rey’s
    • Fans of Curious George will love his camping adventures

  • Do Princesses wear hiking boots by Carmela LaVigna Coyle
    • A little girl asks if Princesses have to brush their teeth, have to clean their room, and - even if they wear hiking boots?  Great for the outdoor princess on your shopping list!

Story time at Camp

Give your children their very own gear - just like Mommy and Daddy 


  • A Sleeping Bag designed especially for children
  • Their own backpack for day hikes
  • Skis or snowshoes of their own
  • A Strider Balance Pre-Bike
    • Kids can practice inside through the winter or take it outside on warm days 
    • In Calgary, purchase your bike from CalgaryStrider.Com

  • A canoe or kayak paddle just their size
  • Their own headlamp for camping
  • Skates and a hockey stick cut down to size
    • Toddlers will do well on a pair of $10 BOB skates from Canadian Tire for their first season.  These double blade skates give them the confidence to get on the ice and have fun without fear of falling constantly.
    • For preschoolers, look at adjustable skates that will grow with your child over a couple of years.
    • Don't spend a lot of money on a hockey stick.  We bought a simple stick at Canadian Tire and then cut it down to size. 
The Kid's Deuter Day Pack


Give your child the gift of warmth this winter season


  • A Buff - the best scarf, face mask, neck warmer, head band, and bandanna - all in one!
    •  We got our son a children's sized buff from the Trail Centre at the Canmore Nordic Centre last winter.  Best gift ever!!  He wears it as a neck warmer and then we pull it over his mouth and nose when it's cold instead of a scarf.  It's easier to breath than a heavy fleece scarf and just as warm!  We also use it to wipe his runny nose or wipe tears from his eyes as needed.  - It gets washed a lot!  He loves it and asks for it when we go outside.

  • Down Booties for backcountry trips
    •  Babies and toddlers can wear these in a sled instead of boots.  Older children can use these camping and as slippers when staying in backcountry huts or hostels. 

  • A North Face Reversible Perrito Jacket
    • If you are in Calgary, you can buy this jacket from the Great Outdoors Store
    • This is hands down the BEST jacket I have ever found for toddlers and preschoolers.  It's just as warm as a down jacket without the bulkiness.  One by one I'm converting all of my outdoor friends with children to this jacket.  North Face also sells a similar down jacket if you find that you need something warmer but we LOVE our Perrito Jacket and  my son wears it year round for camping, hiking, playing in the snow, and skiing.  There are a number of different colours for boys and girls available.

  • The MEC Toaster Suit
    •  My son lived in this his first couple of winters.  It's incredibly warm and there are no gaps for snow or cold to get in because of it's one-piece design.  They fit big so you'll usually be able to get two years out of them - bonus!!

  • The MEC Newt Suit
    • This is the best one-piece Rain suit you can buy locally.   My son wears it for puddle jumping, bike riding in the rain, hiking year round, and any time the weather looks variable on our trips to the mountains.
The MEC Toaster Suit

Not to be forgotten - here's a few outdoor-themed toys and fun items as well

  • Toy camping stoves
    • ToysRus has a model that looks fun called the Grill and Go Camp Stove
    •  Our son has a wooden model - the Camping Stove Play set - complete with pancake, hot dog, and S'more maker.  I believe it came from Chapters or Indigo.

  • Playmobile camping themed sets
  • Calico Critters camping themed sets
  • Lego or Duplo camping themed building blocks
  • Leap Frog Toys for road trips and down time while camping
    • Our son has a Leap Frog Tag Reader Junior and it comes on every camping trip with us.  He reads the books for down time, and it easily fits in a backpack for overnight trips with a few favourite books.
    • This year we are upgrading to a Leap Pad which will  be great for long road trips and even comes equipped with a camera.

  • Your child's very own camera for their next hike or nature walk
    • The Vtech Kidizoom Camera has good reviews 
    • Alternately, many families choose to give their child a real camera and have the child grow with it over the years.  Look for something that's durable and can handle being dropped if you go that route. 

  • A new Camelbak Kid's Water Bottle
    •  They come in various colours for both boys and girls. 

Birthday present last year


Check out my Complete Set of Holiday Gift Guides

A Holiday Gift Guide for Active Kids 


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skating Season in the Rockies

I promised many of you that I would let you know the second I found out that people in Banff were skating on the ponds and lakes - so here it is - skaters have been seen on Cascade Ponds and Vermillion Lakes.

Skating Season has begun.  I myself have not been out in Banff since last weekend when the lakes were definitely not frozen yet so please, please, take caution if you are going to head out this weekend searching for frozen water.

And take a minute to read this very informative post by the Town of Banff with lots of ice safety information.

These ponds and lakes are not professionally cleared or maintained.  Be prepared that if there's too much snow, you won't be able to skate.  Skating season does not occur every year and we often have to accept that snow will fall before the water can freeze enough for safe skating.

Skating on Johnston Lake - there was a one-week window last winter in November for this lake

To find out more about skating season, visit the Calgary's Child Website and read the story I wrote for them titled, Skating Season in Banff.  This story covers where to skate in the Banff, Canmore, and Kananaskis areas.  It covers both natural ponds and lakes as well as maintained rinks such as the lovely pond at Kananaskis Village or the cleared section of Lake Louise.

Skating at Kananaskis Village on the pond

Skating is one of the easiest family-friendly ways to enjoy winter.  It's affordable, and rentals are easy to find.  If your family doesn't skate yet, maybe this is the winter to learn.  :)