Friday, April 04, 2014

Raising Tough Kids - Our Annual Winter Backpacking Trip

This story is titled "Raising Tough Kids" because that's certainly what it feels like we're doing!  We (and friends) took six kids between the ages of 2 and 6 into the backcountry for two nights, in winter, with temperatures dropping down below -15C (5F), and made the kids travel 11km to the Elk Lakes Cabin where we'd stay in Elk Lakes Provincial Park.  That's almost 7 miles and it was a long distance for a four year old to ski!  Yet, that's exactly what happened.  We had one four year old girl ski the whole distance in and out by herself, on her own skis, with no towing or other assistance.  The other four year old girl required a bit of towing but she also made it in by herself on her own skis.  The six year old boy in our group skied in by himself as well and my five year old son rode his ski bike to the cabin and out, mixed with a bit of snowshoeing.  Tough Kids Indeed!

Final Race to the Cabin on Skis and Snowshoes

We did let the 2 and 3 year olds ride in sleds to reach the cabin but once we got to the cabin, everybody had to do the day tour to the closest lake on their own.  No sleds were used to complete the tour and the kids skied or snowshoed 2-3km round trip to the Lower Elk Lake (including the 2 year old!)  Tough Kids - yep!

Day Touring from the Cabin

So, why are we trying to raise tough kids?  I don't know if that's the goal, but mostly, we want to raise kids that can keep up.  In our group of friends, we all believe in taking our kids with us as much of the time as possible on our adventures and there are only so many ways to get a kid into the backcountry in winter.  And most of the four and five year olds are honestly just getting too heavy to pull anymore!  Add the fact that most of our kids WANT to be active.  They don't want to be carried, they don't want to ride in sleds... They want to participate on their own little legs.  So we let them.

Skiing in Elk Lakes Provincial Park
Snowshoeing on the Lower Elk Lake

The important thing for me when it come to difficult trips like this is to focus on my child's abilities and interests rather than trying to push my own agenda as a parent.  On this particular trip, our family was the only one in the group to choose snowshoeing as our means of transportation.  And, it would have been very easy to have forced Noah to ski  - because everybody else was.  It would have been easy to feel stupid for snowshoeing when it was actually "suggested" that snowshoeing was slow, boring, and not the best way to travel.  And I'm pretty sure the bike was mocked at the trailhead.  BUT, Noah got the last word there!   He kicked our butts (and everybody else's butts) to the parking lot at the end of the trip.

Noah showing some skiers how it's done on the descent from Elk Pass heading out
Elk Pass on a Strider Ski Bike
Daddy towing the bike on the flats

I "try" to follow these principals when planning BIG family trips:

One - Forget the others, where is MY child at?  Will he be able to hike/ski/bike.... that distance?   And if not, how should we proceed.  On this trip, we knew our son could not ski or even hike the whole distance to the cabin on his own.  So, we brought his bike with a tow rope and got to the cabin in our own creative way.  It was certainly unorthodox to be riding a bike on the official cross country ski trails of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, but it worked. And as soon as we crossed Elk Pass into British Columbia, we were very happy to be on snowshoes as we entered backcountry terrain. 

Trying to get over the first big hill on the way in
Noah riding his bike down a hill on the Peter Lougheed Ski Trails

Two - Forget how I want to travel, how would my CHILD want to travel.  Honestly I would have preferred to ski on our backpacking trip.  But, I know my son is better on snowshoes.   This was especially evident on the long slog out over Elk Pass - I knew we'd want snowshoes then for the whole family!  And honestly, while it was hard on this trip to be the only family on snowshoes when everybody else was skiing, you do what you have to do for YOUR family.  Competition is just silly in the backcountry.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race - Snowshoeing worked just fine!
Snowshoeing to the Lower Elk Lake from the cabin

Three - I will NOT push my child past his abilities.  I believe in encouraging my child to live up to his potential.  I set big goals for him, and many could even accuse me of riding him pretty hard on trips to reach the potential I see in him.  BUT, choosing a trip where you'll have to scream at your child the vast majority of the time because it's just too hard for him is not cool!   I've learned that the hard way.  On this particular trip we tried to figure out what would be the most fun way to get to the cabin.  For Noah, bike = fun.  So it was a no-brainer. 

Playing on his bike at the cabin
Skiing down Elk Pass to the cabin

Four - Adventure has to be FUN for kids in the moment.  At least most of the time.  I don't believe kids have the same ability that we do to spend hours slogging, toiling, and suffering - knowing that they'll be happy afterwards for what they achieved.  Gratification has to be much more instant for kids!  There were definitely moments on our trip that were not fun (climbing the pass on the way out was NOT fun.)  BUT, there were fun moments spread out over the whole trip in and out.  Every hill that Noah  got to fly down on his bike was fun, and made the challenging moments worth it.

Noah flew down this hill so fast, it took, me a good 5 minutes to catch up to him - running!
Getting ready to ski down the power line to the cabin

Five - Be realistic and have back up plans.  What will you do if your child can't make it the whole way to the campground, cabin, lake, etc.?  What will you do if your child needs help on a trip?  It's all well and good to say "my child should be able to do this" but what if he or she is having an off day and can't?  For us on this trip, we pulled a sled with us.  We brought snowshoes.  And, we had the bike.  We had a lot of options.  We even had a tow rope for the bike.  We knew Noah would reach the cabin one way or another.  And in the challenging moments, we played games such as Eye Spy, counted to 100 (which takes a while for a 5 year old) or played simple mind games such as listing off food or animals that start with each letter of the alphabet.  That got us over the pass!

Sled, Snowshoes, Bike - lotsa options!

We had a great trip and while it was challenging at times, we were prepared, we followed the motto of "slow and steady," and we tried our hardest to not make it a race.  We did what worked for our child, for his pace, and for his abilities.

Making our way to the cabin

Some of the Fun Moments at the Cabin


Teaching the Kids to play Cards
Playing in the Snow outside the Cabin
Day Touring to the Lower Lake
Making Snow Angels and Doing Snow Yoga at the Lower Lake
Playing Tag on the Lower Lake
Snowshoeing around the area
Sledding outside the Cabin
AND, playing on the bike

For more information on the Alpine Club of Canada's Elk Lakes Cabin, visit the link to the ACC website.

The Elk Lakes Cabin
Looking down at our wet clothes drying from the loft
Reading stories in the loft

Read about our previous adventures here:

Spring Adventures in Elk Lakes Provincial Park

Winter Glamping - Not or the Faint of Heart

More Card Games in the Cabin
A Real Mountain Papa

For information on Noah's ski bike, go to the Strider website or the Alberta Balance Bikes website. Below, is Noah's best descent on the way down.



What is your secret when planning BIG trips with kids?


  1. This is such a great post, Tanya! I especially appreciate your principles and will keep those in mind for my future adventures as my little one gets older. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Meghan. Maybe some day we'll be together on one of these trips!

  2. A great post indeed. Thanks! Out of curiousity, does Noah have the seat extender for his bike? We're wondering if that would be a good investment for our 4 year old...

    1. Hi Kristin. Yes, we have the seat extender and it has been worth it for sure!! Especially with the ski attachment. Noah will be able to use his bike next year as well. He uses a pedal bike now but we still like the Strider for snow and for mountain biking.