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. 

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