Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How to Choose a Winter Hiking Trail

We've done winter hikes as a family that have worked...and hikes that have not worked so well.  Through each experience, we've picked up tricks, learned lessons, and come up with a pretty solid system for success.  And while there is no guarantee that a trip will go well, you can be prepared to ensure you have the best chance possible for a happy day on the trail.

One - Choose favourite summer trails that you know, love, and are familiar with

There's nothing worse than trying out a trail for the first time in winter only to get lost, realize that you have no idea where you are going with the path buried under 6 feet of snow, or discover that it's too steep, painfully boring, and maybe even too difficult for your family.

Our disaster trip this winter was on the Fullerton Loop in the Elbow Valley.  I did everything wrong and should have known way better!  First, we told nobody where we were going (never smart) and I went out on my own with my preschooler with no other support.  Second, we chose a hike that was just plain miserable when we did it last summer.  Why I thought it would be so much better in winter is beyond me.  My son found it boring then, and he found it boring now.  

Finally, I had this crazy notion that I'd use a toboggan for the hike.  I fully planned to pull my son up 200+ metres in a toboggan!  Trust me, I felt this excursion in my arms for the next week!  The true moment where I declared this to be the "worst hike ever" was when the wind flipped our sled with our bags and my camera, pitching everything down a steep icy slope - that I had to navigate to fetch our gear.  Oh yeah, and then I sprained my ankle not even 10 minutes later.  Worst.Hike.Ever!! 

I had to pull that stupid sled out 2km on a swollen ankle, pulling a 40+ pound preschooler that refused to walk.  I could add that I chose this hike because I was pouting and being childish after finding nobody who wanted to come hiking with us - and decided to show everybody how hard core we could be with our choice of winter hike.  Fact!

A successful winter hike to Elbow Lake, Kananaskis

Two - Choose trails that you can do with a Chariot or sled

I know that this really only applies to those families with children under the age of 5, but for those of us in this season of life, a sled always saves the day!!  All of our successful winter hikes have been done with either our Chariot and ski attachment, our Ski Pulk, or a simple red plastic sled.  When our son was smaller we used a Pelican baby sled with wind protector and it was awesome too!  T

A few reasons why we love sleds:
  • It's crazy hard to keep toddlers warm when carrying them on your back.  Their little feet just hang there, dangling in the cold.  Meanwhile in a sled, you can wrap a down jacket or sleeping bag around your child, you can use a wind screen if you have a Chariot or pulk, and you can load that sled with a mountain of warm blankets.  Many children wrapped up in a Chariot with another sibling generate so much body heat that they won't even need a hat or mittens on. 

  •  Kids get tired.  When they get tired they get grumpy.  When they get grumpy, parents get grumpy.  The hike goes downhill quickly and pretty soon nobody is having a good time.  Meanwhile, bring a sled and the kids can ride when they tire from the hike.  My son will hike 4km in summer with few problems but winter hiking is harder.  You should count on cutting your normal hiking distance in half when hiking in winter.  Having to walk through snow, wear bulky clothing, and breath in the cold air all contribute to a slower pace.  

  • You'll get a great workout when the kids jump on the sled and you have to pull them up even the tiniest of hills.  Forget the pleasant stroll you were on - start pulling 40-80lbs behind you and you will really start burning calories!

  • Kids are unpredictable.  You might head out to the mountains for your hike thinking your child is in great form, is going to hike forever, and that this is the day it's going to be glorious.  Ten minutes later you discover your child has fallen asleep in the car, and you know he or she is going to be a grumpy bear when you wake them up at the trail head.  Thank God for the sled though because most kids will accept a sled ride for an hour or two.

Hiking at Mosquito Creek, Banff
Hiking to Elbow Lake with a Pulk and Chariot

Three- Choose a trail that features something interesting for the kids

Our favourite trail in the Canadian Rockies for winter hiking is the 4km (return) Troll Falls hike in Kananaskis.  You start off following the Hay Meadows trail beside the Kananaskis River.  It's a scenic trail with lots of open space beside the river for the kids to play and explore.  If you can get the kids away from the river, you continue on to Troll Falls where you find a giant frozen waterfall and winter wonderland.  

There's nothing boring about this hike and kids will love trying to climb up the ice to the base of the waterfall.  In good conditions, you can even walk behind the waterfall - thought there's always been too much ice when I've been there.  (Bring crampons or ice cleats should you want to get behind the falls)  

Bonus - you'll be on wide cross country ski trails much of the time so bring that sled or Chariot with you.  The snow is always well packed down so you'll also never need snowshoes.

The Hay Meadows Trail, Kananaskis

Troll Falls in winter, Kananaskis

Canyons if not too icy, can be a lot of fun in winter and are extremely interesting with frozen waterfalls, creeks, bridges, and narrow slots to walk through.  Sometimes, winter is the best time in fact because you can walk right through the canyon with ice cleats rather than skirting around on the normal summer hiking path.  

Our favourite winter canyon walk in the Kananaskis area is the 4km (return) Heart Creek trail.  The trail is wide enough to pull a sled on and the area doesn't usually get enough snow that you would need snowshoes.

Halloween Hike in Heart Creek, Kananaskis
Heart Creek, Kananaskis

My third trail of choice in the Kananaskis area for families would be the Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail in the Elbow Valley.  While the trail is always interesting with little bridges and a path skirting the edge of the Elbow River, you'll also find a playground in the campground you have to walk through to reach the trail.  

Bring snowshoes just in case the snow warrants it, and definitely bring the sled if you want as you'll be on campground roads for part of your hike.  Total hiking distance is about 4km including the walk through the campground and around the short interpretive loop.  To shorten hiking time, just head through loop A and make straight for the river.

Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail below Campground Loop A

What's your advice for choosing a winter hiking trail?  Any other no-fail suggestions?  Readers would also love to hear your favourite trails in the Kananaskis area. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Beginner's Guide to Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies - Book Review

I was very excited when I heard that Andrew Nugara would be writing the first-ever snowshoe guide for the Canadian Rockies a couple of years ago.  My bookshelves were filled with guide books on every subject from hiking to climbing, mountain  biking and skiing, but a book dedicated to snowshoeing was definitely missing in our library.  When we wanted to go for a winter hike we either had to stick to official snowshoe trails, usually so packed down that we never needed snowshoes, or else we had to revisit summer hiking trails and hope we didn't find ourselves in avalanche terrain.  There was no real resource guide out there for the average hiker wanting to hit the trails year round other than books on ski touring, which could only take you so far when you didn't want to do glacier traverses or epic backcountry trips requiring winter camping.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Winter Camping - in Style

I love camping and I'd camp all year long if I could but the idea of camping in the snow terrifies me!  Once the first snowfall comes, I need a certain number of amenities before I'll spend the night in the wilderness.  I don't require much, and I'm fine with having to go outside at night when it's -20C to pee.  I love skiing and am more than happy to spend the whole day outside playing in the snow.  It's those hours between skiing and sleeping that are the problem for me.  When you're sleeping, it doesn't matter where you are and there are many creative ways to stay warm in a tent.  But what do you do after you've taken off your ski boots, put on your cozy down booties, boiled a pot of water for hot chocolate, and the sun is going down?  I know many winter campers just retreat to their tents to read, play cards, or go to bed early but there's something missing there for me.  When I go camping, I want to spend the night sitting around a fire laughing and talking with my friends.  I want to enjoy a few drinks, swap stories, and most importantly - stay up late!  I don't want to go to bed when the sun goes down.  I have a preschool aged child and I savor those glorious hours when he's sleeping and I have time to myself.  Or, when camping, time to hang out and chill with my husband and friends.  

Winter Camping at the Mosquito Creek  Wilderness Hostel

Fortunately, we as a family have found the perfect solution for the desire to camp year round without having to sleep in a tent.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Everything for a family to love at Nipika Mountain Resort

My family recently had the fabulous opportunity to spend a night at Nipika Mountain Resort on the edge of Kootenay National Park in British Columbia.  We'd visited numerous times in the past to ski on the cross country trails connected to the resort but had never been able to spend a night.  I had always thought we didn't need to actually stay overnight if we could pay a small fee to access the ski trails as day users.  As soon as we walked into our cabin though, I knew I had been wrong.  Very very wrong.  You definitely need to spend a night, weekend, or even a week at Nipika to truly discover how magical the resort is!  I knew within five seconds of looking around our cabin that we would be back many times, that we'd bring friends next time, we'd bring more family, and that we'd tell everybody we knew to pack their bags right away for a weekend away in Nipika Paradise.

Nipika Paradise

Nipika Mountain Resort is a small Eco-resort built on 100 kilometres of trails for cross country skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and trail running.  The resort is open year-round and while you can drop in for a day from nearby Radium Hot Springs, you'll benefit immensely from staying in one of the eight cozy cabins on the property.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Move Over Skis - Hello Snowshoes

If you've been following this website and my previous posts, you'll know that I LOVE skiing.  I've expressed a mild interest in snowshoeing but only as an absolute, there is no way to do this trail on skis, kind of sport.  I've actually laughed at people slogging up (and down) trails on snowshoes in the past, wondering why on earth they would choose this slow and arduous method of travel over the often effortless gliding down hills that can be done on skis. Well, now it's time to eat my previous words and say that Snowshoeing is AWESOME!  I love this sport and there's nothing arduous about it when you choose to go out with White Mountain Adventures for the day.

Gliding Effortlessly Through Fluffy Snow in Sunshine Meadows (Photo:  Giulliana Arevalo)

Last weekend I rounded up three awesome girls for a trip up to Sunshine Village Ski Resort for an afternoon guided snowshoe tour with local Banff company,White Mountain Adventures.  I'd been following their adventures on Facebook for a while now and was blown away by the amazing winter scenery above Sunshine Village.  I've been up to the Village in summer and autumn several times to hike around Sunshine Meadows but I'd never had the opportunity to visit this incredible place in winter before.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Waking up to a New Year in the Columbia Valley

We have a family tradition of ushering in the New Year in Radium Hot Springs, across the border in beautiful British Columbia.  Located two and a half hours west from Calgary, it's the perfect distance to drive for a long weekend away and we always enjoy the scenic drive through Kootenay National Park.  Once we settle into our condo, a winter wonderland of activities awaits us from skating on Lake Windermere to skiing at Panorama Mountain Resort, shopping in Invermere, or visiting the Hot Springs in either the village of Radium or Fairmont. One of these years we are going to have to stay longer and explore opportunities for snowshoeing or winter hiking as well.

New Year's Eve at the Hale Hut, Panorama Mountain Resort