Thursday, October 31, 2013

Winter Camping With Kids - Warmer Than You Think

I love camping and I’d camp all year long if I could get past the idea of camping in the snow! Once the first snowfall comes, I need a certain number of amenities before I’ll spend a night in the wilderness. Add children to the adventure, and most of us are not going to jump at the thought of pitching a tent in a snowdrift. Fortunately for us (hardy Canadian families wanting to get into the great outdoors year round) Hostelling International (HI) has the perfect solution with private rooms and cabins at several of their wilderness hostels. Here are our family’s favorite hostels to bunk down at in the winter.

Mosquito Creek, Banff National Park

The Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel is located on the scenic Icefields Parkway, 20 minutes away from Lake Louise. There is a private cabin on-site affectionately known as the “family cabin”. The cabin is divided into two private rooms with a sitting area and kitchen in the middle. Each bedroom sleeps five and has two bunk beds, one of them a double on bottom.

To read more about Mosquito Creek along with the other wilderness hostels I recommend visiting this winter, please visit my newest story for Calgary's Child.  The story is in print right now in magazines around Calgary as well.

Mosquito Creek in January

Note that private rooms in hostels fill up very quickly so if you are interested in staying at a hostel this winter, you will need to reserve now at the very latest.  :)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to Throw The Best Outdoor Halloween Party Ever!

Last weekend we had our second annual  Halloween party with Calgary Outdoor Playgroups- and it was awesome!  I was originally thinking we'd just do a short little costume hike and wiener roast but then the numbers started to climb and I realized we were going to have approximately 20 families coming.  With children, we were looking at a group of 80 people coming out for the party.  How do you plan an outdoor party for 80 people at a time of year when there could be snow, rain, temperatures well below freezing...?

Fortunately for us, we totally lucked out and it had to have been one of the warmest days on record for late October here.  The temperature was close to 20 degrees Celsius by mid-afternoon and we were all in shirt sleeves running around in the warm fall sunshine.  I even got to wear flip flops!  Contrast this to last year when we had a foot of snow already and did our hike with sleds, bundled in winter clothing and wearing boots.

Outdoor Halloween Hike with Calgary Outdoor Playgroups

The Hike 

The key to a successful costume hike with small kids is to choose a short easy trail.  You want to enjoy a fun  adventure where the little dragons and tigers can have a good time chasing each other and running around rather than complaining over how far they have to walk.  We also discovered that princess dresses require a fairly wide trail with no overhanging bushes or branches on the trail.  The Widow Maker trail may not have been ideal for hoop skirts.  Oops. 

Dragons, Dinosaurs, and Princesses - the theme for the hike
Dragons, Dinosaurs, and Princesses - the theme for the hike

We also wanted to choose a trail that all of the children from youngest to oldest could do at least a good portion on their own without being carried.  The parents wanted photos of their little bumble bee or lady bug walking/flying through the forest.  Harder to get good photos when the children are just riding in child carriers.

Halloween Hike on the Widow Maker Trail, Kananaskis
Halloween Hike on the Widow Maker Trail, Kananaskis

The Wiener Roast

I made a Costco run the day before the party to get enough hotdogs, buns, and juice boxes for the group.  I knew it wouldn't do to ask everybody to bring their own stuff.  We would have ended up with each family bringing way too much stuff.  As it is, I ended up with an abundance of hot dog buns and wieners now taking up room in my freezer until the next party.  I just asked each family to bring a small amount of cash to cover the basic food and invited everybody to bring other snacks to share.

The result of the invitation to bring other snacks ended up with donuts, muffins, marshmallows, chips, chocolate, cookies, oranges, and a plethora of other yummy stuff.  Definitely a Halloween Party!  The kids loved roasting marshmallows and I know there was enough food because I couldn't even think about dinner that night.

Wiener Roast and Post-Hike Halloween Party
No outdoor party is complete without marshmallows

Party Games

The best thing about hosting an outdoor party - no need for games.  Just let the kids run wild around the group area.  We were very fortunate that the group use area at Canoe Meadows was free because it had a giant fire pit and field for the kids to play in.  We waffled at first over whether we could actually use this area without booking it but after many unsuccessful phone calls, I gave up and figured we would treat it as a first come first serve area.  It was officially closed for the season so it's not like we could have officially booked it anyway. 

Canoe Meadows Group Use Area

The one "game" we did have though was a pinata.  The kids had a great time trying to open it up as they took turns hitting it with a stick.   My son obviously needs more exposure to pinatas though because he was pretty upset when it broke.  (I think he thought it was like a toy that you aren't supposed to break.)  The pinata will definitely become an annual tradition in our party because after all, what's Halloween without candy?

Pinata Time

Pinata Time

The only other thing I'd bring for next year's party is more balls and toys like that to entertain the kids while running around in the field.  One parent had thought to bring a small football and it was extremely popular!  For a while I thought a real game of football might break out as the kids tried tackling each other over control of the small  ball!


Next year

We'll definitely be doing another outdoor Halloween party next year.  What it will look like remains to be seen.  Maybe we'll luck out with another warm-weather party, or maybe we'll be sledding again.  Either way, there's something fun about seeing the kids dressed up as princesses, dragons and dinosaurs, chasing each other through the woods.  Beats a professional photo shoot at the mall any day!

I leave you with a few final photos.

My little dinosaur beside the Kananaskis River
Too cute for words
The Best Halloween Hike Ever
Such an easy costume!
Final pinata photo with one of our lovely princesses

Monday, October 21, 2013

Summer's Over - Now What? 10 Ways to Enjoy the Late Autumn Season

Summer's Over but the mountain parks are still open!  There are so many fun things that can still be done in the mountains near Calgary, and early snow opens up doors for a whole new season of activities from skiing to snowshoeing.  Below are 10 suggestions for your family to make the most of this late autumn season here in Kananaskis and Banff. 


Go on a Halloween Costume Hike

We started this last year and it's now an annual tradition.  To read about some of our adventures last year, follow this link to Our Halloween Winter Wonderland.  (We had lots of early snow last fall so we got to go tobogganing and do a hike with sleds which was super fun.)

Hiking in Heart Creek last October


Ski Frozen Thunder at the Canmore Nordic Centre

The Canmore Nordic Centre offers x-country skiing from Mid-October each year on a special track known as Frozen Thunder.  Snow is stored on site from the previous season in  order to get this course up and running each fall.  Frozen Thunder opened for the season on Oct. 19th this year and special day passes are available to ski it before the rest of the trails open up.  It is open for public use after 12:00 noon on week days and all day Saturday and Sunday.

Skiing at the Canmore Nordic Centre

Go Hiking in the Front Ranges of Kananaskis and Banff

The front ranges would refer to Bow Valley Provincial Park along the TransCanada Hwy, hikes along Hwy 40 around Barrier Lake and Kananaskis Village, and the foothills of Bragg Creek, Sibbald Creek or even down near the Sheep River area near Sandy Mcnabb day use area.  Hikes around the townsite of Banff are also popular for late season hiking.

For  hiking ideas, follow the links in the previous paragraph.  Also, you can visit my story:  Life After Summer in the Mountains - part two.  In this story, I've listed most of our favourite fall hikes in a huge list! Note that this story was written pre-flood though so the Alberta Parks website should be consulted for up to date trail reports before setting off on any hike listed in the story. 

Waterfalls in the Sheep River Area, Kananaskis


Climb a Mountain 

Many people don't realize this but the Banff Gondola is open year round.  You can either ride the gondola both ways to tag the easiest summit ever; The summit of Sulphur Mt. is a very short 2km return walk from the upper gondola terminal on a boardwalk with stairs, or you can hike up to the top, gaining 700m of height spread over 6km, and ride down for a reduced fee.  Alternatively, we love hiking up Tunnel Mountain in Banff each fall.  It's a great shoulder season hike and can be hiked all winter with the aid of ice cleats.  To read up on latest trail conditions, visit the Parks Canada Trail Report.

To read some past stories on autumn fun in Banff, follow these links to Life After Summer in the Mountains, November in Banff, and a Stress Free Day in the Mountains.

Tunnel Mountain

Go on a Family Bike Ride Before the Snow Flies

Top suggestions here would be the Banff-Canmore Legacy Trail or the River Trails in Canmore.  Both will be snow free well through November most years though it is recommended to check with the Tourism Canmore prior to heading out.  Afternoons will also be better on days when the trails have frozen overnight.  For information on both, visit the Tourism Canmore website or The Town of Canmore website for trail maps.

Scenery along the Bow River, Canmore
Biking the River Trails in Canmore

Celebrate the Longest Non-Glacial Ski Season at Sunshine Village With November Skiing

The hill is scheduled to open November 8th weather permitting and Sunshine Village always has some of the best early season snow in the Rockies.  Want to stay overnight at Sunshine Village in their on-hill hotel?  Visit their Sunshine Mountain Lodge website for early booking stay and ski specials.

Sunshine Village Ski Resort, Banff

Go Skating in Banff

November ushers in a magical time of year in Banff known locally as Skating Season.  It doesn't happen every year, but we're two for two now in being able to skate on lakes in Banff over the last couple of years.  Skating Season refers to the brief window when some of the local lakes have frozen over but are still snow free.  The most popular lake near Banff with families is Johnson Lake on the Minnewanka Loop Road.  There's no set date to plan for unfortunately but mid-November is a safe bet.  More information can be found on my past stories:  How to Love Winter in the Rockies - on Skates, Enjoying Shoulder Season in the Rockies - Think Outside the Box, and November in Banff.

Skating at Johnson Lake, Banff

Skating on Cascade Ponds, Banff

 Get the Kids on the Slopes at Canada Olympic Park

Opening day is November 15th this year so downhill ski enthusiasts can get out there again in less than a month!! visit the Canada Olympic Park website for more information.

Canada Olympic Park, Calgary's local ski hill (photo:  Winsport Canada )

Ski the Moraine Lake Road, Lake Louise

By mid to late November, the Moraine Lake Road is typically groomed and track set for early season cross country skiing.  We're usually itching to get out by that time and this is always one of the first places to x-country ski near Calgary.  To read the story I wrote a couple of years ago now, follow this link to Cross country skiing with toddlers - November at Lake Louise.   To find out the current trail conditions, check the Parks Canada Trail Report.  It will  be updated for skiing by mid November.

Skiing the Moraine Lake Road, November at Lake Louise

Go Snowshoeing at Highwood Pass

There is a brief window where snowshoers and winter hikers can access the trails at Highwood Pass, Kananaskis, before the highway closes for the winter.  We always make our annual trip to Elbow Lake at the end of November each year before the road closure date December 1st.  To read last year's trip report and story, go to Family Snowshoeing Adventures - Elbow Lake.  

November Snowshoeing at Elbow Lake
Family Snowshoeing at Highwood Pass

Too many wintery ideas and not ready for snow yet?  Fortunately some of my outdoor blogging friends have other ideas for you that do not involve snow.  Check out the links below for more inspiration to get outside this fall.  Have your own story you'd like to share?  You can add your own link to the list below.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Summer Camping Project - Great Gear for Happy Campers

As I mentioned in my last post, Summer Camping Project - Lessons on Community, we've just finished 41 nights of camping over the past 4 months. During that time we learned a lot about which items we consider to be essential car camping comfort items, luxury items we want to buy for next season, and items that we'd never camp without. Christmas is coming so this is a good opportunity to start making those wish lists for next year's camping season too.

Below are a few things we grew fond of this summer while camping - some new to us, and others that just remain awesome each year.  I've also included my wish list items at the end of the post that we might try to pick up before the 2014 season. 

The 2013 Camping Project all started with our new trailer

A few things we really loved: 


1.  Our new trailer 

This die-hard tenting family finally caved and bought a small hybrid trailer this spring at the prospect of camping for 40 nights.  The result?  LOVE the trailer.  Will never camp without it again.  Tents are awesome in the backcountry.  Car camping though - might as well make it as comfortable as possible, right?

We stocked our trailer with everything from toys to dishes, pantry food and spices, toiletry items, and about 80% of the other items we had to pack up each and every time we went camping the previous summer.  The end result was 1 hour of packing before each trip, gathering clothes, food, and a few last minute items.  It was so sweet and easy.  We're official RV converts now.  While we still don't have a shower or toilet in our trailer, and while we have soft sided pull-outs, we are much more comfortable and I sleep better in the trailer than I do at home now.

Our trailer with camp kitchen

2.  Our kayak and stand up paddleboard

I fell in love with stand up paddleboarding last August when I tried it in the Okanagan.  I bought my own board at the end of the last season but never got to use it on any camping trips until this year.  Actually, I guess I never really got to use it on any camping trip because I bought a new board this summer to replace the second-hand one I had originally purchased.  

We planned most of our trips around places we could paddle this summer and bought a two-person recreational kayak so that my husband and son could join me out on the water.  We had a blast becoming a paddling family and will definitely be choosing more water-friendly campgrounds next summer as well.

One thing we learned though this summer was that when a campground is advertised as being across from the beach, near the beach, or even that it has a beach, this still does not mean you will be camped close enough to the water to just put your boats in anytime you want.  We will be searching out waterfront camping sites next summer so that I can actually put my board in at sunrise or sunset without carrying it half a mile (or further as was often the case).

Our Tandem Recreational Kayak 
SUP - my not so secret passion!

3.  Our screen tent 

In July when mosquitoes are at their worst, camping is absolutely miserable unless you have a screen tent to shelter you from the blood sucking monsters.   The same can be said for late August when wasps buzz around campsites in a vengeance to get at any piece of meat, garbage, or food item they can find.  Even our screen tent couldn't completely ward off the offenders, but it was a start.  (and it was much easier to kill them with a fly swatter from within the confines of a tent than out in the open.)

Our trailer and screen tent made for a cozy home away from home this summer

4. Our down blankets

Get a down blanket and you won't need to worry about ever being cold when camping!  Yeah, we have a trailer, but it still gets really cold in a trailer when you're camping in May or September and we don't use our heater while we sleep. 

We used real sheets, blankets, and a down duvet on our bed but it was still a bit chilly for me at times.  On those nights, I'd taco myself in my down blanket, get into bed, and within 5 minutes it felt like I was wrapped in an electric blanket.  The KEY to ultimate warmth is that you have to put the down blanket next to your skin and layer the other blankets over top. Our son didn't like the cool fabric against his skin so his was layered over his first blanket and he was never as warm as I was.

Best Christmas present last year!!

5.  Keen sandals

In previous years when we've gone camping, I've had to bring sandals, biking shoes, water shoes, hiking boots, and a plethora of other footwear.  This year, I camped in my Keen sandals and used them for everything!  I even used them for backpacking this summer.  They are that awesome!  The only time I had to switch to other shoes was when they were drying out after using them in the water.

The solution for next year will be to get one pair that I reserve for the water so that I always have a pair of dry ones.

Water time in my Keen sandals

6.  Our ENO Hammock

If you haven't checked out the gear review I did for our new Eagles Nest Outfitters hammock, take a look and add a double nest hammock to your Christmas list.  Best camping investment ever (aside from the trailer maybe). Our campsite was always popular thanks to the hammock and I'm sure we've had at least 6 kids in the hammock at one time.

Fun in the ENO hammock (5 kids in this time)

7.  Our camp kitchen

Last summer we bought a deluxe camp kitchen from Bass Pro Shops and used it in our screen tent to add a bit of comfort to our car camping.  This year we set the table up against the side of our trailer and it gave us an outside kitchen for ultimate camp comfort.  We could do our dishes right there with the built in sink (rather than hauling them to the campground sinks), leave the dishes out to dry on the attached table, and do our cooking on the stove rack.  It was brilliant and we loved it. 

Our camp kitchen in front of our trailer

8.  Our RV matt

You can't get a trailer and not buy one of those giant carpets to place under your awning.  It helped keep dirt out of the trailer and I enjoyed the civilized atmosphere it created.  Between the awning, carpet, the outdoor kitchen, and our lawn chairs, we created a small outdoor room in front of our trailer.  Our son would sit on the carpet to play with his toys and sometimes I sat there to play guitar as well when I needed quiet time.

Our Camping home

2013 Summer Camping Project - Lessons on Community
2013 Summer Camping Project - Lessons on Commun

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Summer Camping Project - Lessons on Community

41 nights and it's a wrap!  Our Camping Project goal was to camp 40+ nights this summer and we have succeeded with the mission.  Sadly, the 2013 camping season has finished for us now, our trailer is packed away in storage for the winter, and my paddleboard is safely hanging in the rafters of our garage (which I'm trying not to cry about.)  We had a great summer, learned a lot, and camped with some amazing families.  In hopes that some of our insights will benefit you all for next year's camping trips (and so I don't forget these brilliant lessons), I'll be writing a couple of stories to wrap up the camping project.

Today I want to talk about community, group camping, and what we learned from camping with friends this summer. 

Camping friends are the best friends

Camping is a social activity

I know that many families enjoy getting away to enjoy a quiet camping trip alone, and that this is how they reconnect as a family.  Unfortunately this doesn't really work for us.  I've waffled over feeling guilty and thinking there must be something wrong with us but in the end I've come to accept our camping style.  We are a social family and like camping with other people.  We like communal camping feasts, margarita parties, shared campfires with our friends after the kids have hopefully all gone to bed, and watching the children all run feral around the campground on their bikes. 

Group Camping in Waterton Lakes National Park
Communal Breakfast at Surveyor's Lake
Camping with Friends at Boulton Creek

If you're going to camp as a group, you have to really camp as a group

We did a lot of group camping this summer with groups ranging in size from 4 families to 9 families.  What I learned is that it's extremely challenging to maintain a tight sense of community unless you are actually camped together in an official group campground or on a shared site.  When we camped at Writing on Stone Provincial Park, we had a group site and were able to do communal meals with ease, share a large campfire, and watch the kids as they ran around the field together.  Contrast that to other trips where I spent half my time running around the campground rounding up families for the next hike or where families felt scattered and left out because they weren't camped near the rest of the group.

Our group campground at Writing on Stone

Group trips need an activity coordinator 

I know it's wonderful to go camping without the watch, to wake up when you want, set the day's agenda at will, and move at a slower pace.  Unfortunately, when you are camping with a group this isn't always possible.  If you want to coordinate a group hike with 5+ families, you've gotta be specific.  What time do you plan to leave the next day?  What time should families plan to get up and have breakfast dishes done by?  What time do you need everybody ready to jump in their cars?  This is also true with paddling trips if you have a 5 hour river trip planned for the day.  You don't just decide at 11am that you will start working out the logistics of the car shuttle now.

We never forced anybody to join us on our hikes, day trips, or paddling adventures while camping this summer.  Many families would choose to hang out at camp and relax with the kids.  Others broke up into smaller groups to do their own thing, or took off as a family for some alone-time.  But for those who did choose to join us in a big group activity, we tried to be specific about what time we'd set out the next day, make plans around the campfire, and set a rough schedule for what the next day would look like.  Otherwise, I spent a LOT of time running around the campground asking, "Are you ready yet?", "When did you want to leave?", "How long till you'll be ready to go?"... - and it got exhausting. 

Group paddling trips require a lot of organization with shuttles
You can't go on a hike with 10+ families without organization ahead of time

Camping is all about WHO you go with

  • Always bring somebody who can mix a mean camp margarita.

  • Friends who hand you a beer or glass of wine as you pull into camp are definite keepers!

  • The nicest thing you can do for somebody when they pull in late is to help them set up their tent or trailer.

  • I love friends who offer you coffee as you stumble out of your trailer in the morning.

  • More love to the friends who would feed our child cereal while we were cooking our breakfast.(incidentally, the same friends who gave me coffee each morning)

  • Two thumbs up for the amazing dad who took all the kids "hunting" while we were packing up at Writing on Stone!

  • You will forever endear yourself to the group when you offer to take all the kids on a bike ride to the playground at any time of the day.

  • Yay for the Bush Pie Mama - we all love you!

  • Any friend who can figure out how to make me nachos at camp (without an oven) gets to come on every future camping trip (especially since she's also the Margarita Master!)

  • Baileys is a great way to start the morning and I am in debt to anybody who splurges to bring it (and share)

Our Margarita Master
Leading the troops on a hike around camp

Thanks everybody for joining us on our adventures this summer!  We look forward to more great camping trips next year.