Thursday, June 23, 2016

Backcountry Cabin Camping with Kids (Elk Lakes Cabin, BC)

You like vehicle-accessed camping, you've mastered sleeping in a tent with the kids, enjoy eating and cooking outside, don't freak out at the thought of using a pit toilet, can handle a few bugs and creepy crawlies, don't mind getting dirty (and can survive without showering for a few days,) enjoy an easy hike as a family, and generally like being outside. Yes? Well then, read on...

Maybe you enjoy camping but don't enjoy some of the things that go along with the traditional "car camping" experience (loud neighbors who stay up late drinking and partying, generators that ruin your dinner time peace and quiet, crowded campgrounds where you feel like you're sharing a site with the trailer beside you...?)

Camping can look a lot like this... (photo: Elk Lakes Cabin)

If solitude is what you're after, backcountry camping could be the next step for your family. And, it's not as hard as it sounds! There's an easy peasy way to introduce the family to backcountry camping in complete comfort, with beds to sleep on, a propane stove to cook over (that you won't carry in with you,) and tables to eat at - inside if it's raining or cold out. Welcome to hut or cabin camping (yes for the tent purists - I'm calling it camping) and we have been doing this since our son was just a toddler.

Playing on the log pile outside the Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC


Background Intro to Traditional Backcountry Camping


I enjoy the occasional backcountry camping trip where you follow a more traditional style of camping, setting up the tent beside a scenic alpine lake for a night or two, cooking outside over your backcountry stove, filtering water at a  nearby stream, hanging the food at night... (enough that we're going backcountry camping this weekend in fact)

Traditional Backcountry Camping (awesome when it's sunny)


Enjoyment of traditional backcountry camping aside, I can't get past the fears below to make it a regular occurrence.

Some of my fears:

The Elk Lakes cabin has a great fire pit
  • What if we get an entire day of rain and there's no way to dry our clothes out, no way to dry out soggy boots, no way to warm up (not many backcountry campgrounds here allow fires,) and no way to escape the rain (other than crawling in the tent to go to bed early.)

  • What if the bugs are honest to god horrible and there's no retreat or escape from them? (And you're already wearing ten layers of DEET?)

  • What do you do if your kids wake up at 6:30 am and it's still freezing cold outside, barely 5 degrees Celsius, and they want breakfast. Now. So ok, you feed them. Then what? Do you start your morning hike at 7:30am? It probably won't take ALL day to complete your day hike so do you really need to start that early? If not, what else do you do this early in the morning at camp?

  • What do you do when the sun goes down? Fortunately now the sun stays up till 10pm at least, but later in the season it will get  dark earlier. And if you tuck the kids into bed, what do you then do until you're ready for bed? Add rain if it's a wet evening and you don't feel like sitting in the tent for hours on end or factor in early or late season camping when the temperature plummets in the evening. Basically, what do you do to pass the time until you can go to bed??
 
Playing games inside the cozy Elk Lakes Cabin

Intro to Hut or Cabin Backcountry Camping 


Two weeks ago we hiked into the Alpine Club of Canada's Elk Lakes Backcountry Cabin and below is an inside glimpse into our comfortable, cozy weekend backcountry camping - with shelter from the elements.

The Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC


The Hike in - It rained for three solid hours during our hike in! My group was moving fast because we were seriously drenched and the kids were starting to complain of wet hands and feet. Others in our party though spent upwards of five hours hiking in - again in the rain!

Arrived at the hut and soaking wet.

Honestly though, the hike in wasn't that bad. We knew we had a warm place to retreat to, we knew we'd eventually be tucked into our cozy warm cabin, and we had an end point in view. If we had have been tenting... ( I can't even imagine it!)

We got to the hut and everything had to hang to dry. The boots took over 12 hours to dry out and only finally started to dry once we'd stuffed newspaper in them to soak up the water. - now what would we have done in a regular backcountry campground with kids soaked to the bone, freezing cold, no fire pits, boots drenched...?

Not sure how you'd do this if you were tent camping...


Evening at the cabin - We played games, the kids played upstairs in the loft with toys they'd brought with them, we ate food that we were able to cook over propane stoves (and didn't have to use any of our own pots/pans/dishes, etc. - it was all supplied for us at the hut.)

We warmed up, we stayed dry, and we had a blast in our cozy cabin with the three other families who'd hiked in with us. Note if you want this experience of hanging out with your friends and don't want to risk sharing the hut with people you don't know - book the whole thing! The Elk Lakes Cabin only sleeps 14-15 people so it's pretty easy to book the entire cabin.

Playing outside the cabin in the evening


Bed time - We slept on cozy warm dry mattresses in the loft. Again, we didn't have to carry the mattresses in with us. All we brought in were our sleeping bags. It was warm, everybody slept reasonably well, and we were out of the rain.

Another thing I loved was that the kids could be upstairs sleeping while the adults played cards downstairs, chatting and enjoying a few nice beverages (we packed a LOT of beer in since we didn't have to bring stoves and dishes.)

The Loft (sleeping area and play room for the kids)


The next day at Elk Lakes - It rained off and on but it didn't bother us much. We went out and hiked to the Lower Lake, got wet, came back to the warm hut, and dried out again. Repeat later in the afternoon.

Heading out for a day hike to the Lower Lake (half an hour away and easy peasy to reach)

The "nature playground"
When the sun did come out, the kids enjoyed playing in the wood pile and built a nature playground out of it. This may have been the highlight for the children from the entire weekend. Otherwise, the kids were very content to play games in the hut, to learn a new dice game, and to play with their toys.


More beverages and good food were shared. And since we had less stuff to pack in compared with regular backcountry camping (no backcountry stove, no dishes, no mattresses,) we were able to bring more luxury items (think bacon and pancakes for breakfast or spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner made from real ingredients rather than just poured out of a "just add water" pouch.


The hike out - We cleaned the hut, left it cleaner than we found it (the golden rule,) and hiked out. We had sunshine (finally) for the return trip and made good time getting back out to the vehicles.



Hiking out via West Elk Pass

Cabin and Hut Camping for Novice Backcountry Campers


While backcountry tenting is totally feasible with kids, enjoyable much of the time, and certainly worth trying, we've found that cabin or hut camping increases the comfort level and makes the experience much more user-friendly for novice backcountry campers.

Cabins and huts make these trips possible when the weather is less than ideal. We would have cancelled our backcountry trip to Elk Lakes given the weather forecast were it not for the cabin we knew we'd have to sleep in.

Finally, you won't have to invest in backcountry gear for a hut trip. Get some simple sleeping bags (or honestly, bring sheets and blankets,) boil water if you don't have a filter, and borrow a backpack from a friend. Easy peasy.

Hut Camping with Friends

 

Cabin and Hut Camping with Babes and Tots


Hut or cabin camping is also great when you have wee little kids (babes and tots) and you're just not ready to go "hard core" on the backcountry experience just yet. Some huts are chariot-friendly for ease of access, (Elk Lakes is if you use the bike trail up and down the power line from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park,) and some huts even have vehicle access approaches (The A.O. wheeler Hut  mentioned below in this story has drive-in access in summer.)

You'll probably want to book the full cabin if bringing young children though and go with a sympathetic group who will understand if somebody starts crying in the middle of the night. Just assume that a group of single adults in their young 20s probably doesn't want to camp with your baby and preschooler in the same hut unless your kids sleep exceptionally well and won't be running around the hut screaming all evening.

You don't have to carry a lot when you stay at a backcountry hut or cabin

 

Bonus Photos from Elk Lakes 

 

Drenched kids about to enter the Elk Lakes Cabin to warm up
Hiking towards the Lower Elk Lake
Viewpoint over the Lower Elk Lake
Lower Lake Viewpoint
Playing by the river along the trail to the Upper Lake
Boardwalks on the West Elk Pass Trail
Picnic break on the hike out, back in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park


Recommended Backcountry Cabins and Huts in the Canadian Rockies 


Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park (featured cabin in this story) - 9km hike from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Chariot friendly if you take the bike trail up and down the power line, Otherwise, hike the West Elk Pass Trail which is more scenic and enjoyable. Also enjoyable as a ski trip in winter.

Read about Elk Lakes in the winter here.


Elk Lakes Cabin in winter
 

Elizabeth Parker Hut, Yoho National Park  - Accessible by park bus and then a short 20 minute hike in. Sleeps 24 in summer. VERY popular. Lottery system in  place for the summer season. Consider making a booking for winter and ski in.

Read about the Elizabeth Parker Hut in winter here.


Family Camping at the Elizabeth Parker Hut


Stanley Mitchell Hut, Yoho National Park - 11km hike suitable for school aged children. Not chariot friendly. Sleeps 22 people.

Stanley Mitchell Hut


A.O. Wheeler Hut, Glacier National Park - Drive in access in summer. Short 2km hike or ski in winter. Sleeps 30 in summer (24 in winter.)

Read about the Wheeler Hut in winter here.

The Wheeler Hut in winter
 


Cameron Lake Cabin, Waterton Lakes National Park - Winter use only. Sleeps 8 people (super easy to book the whole cabin.) Short 2km ski or hike in.

Cameron Lake Cabin in winter


Read about the Cameron Lake Cabin in winter here.

For more information on booking an Alpine Club Hut, on purchasing a membership, pricing, and hut amenities, please visit the Alpine Club of Canada's website.


This story was not sponsored by the Alpine Club. All words are my own.


Current note on trail conditions in Elk Lakes Provincial Park - The trails in this park were heavily impacted by the last flood in 2013. The West Elk Pass Trail is open and is in good condition. The power line trail for those with bikes or chariots is also open and good to use.

Beyond the Elk Lakes cabin however, trails are still under repair and as of June, 2016 you can't go beyond the Lower Lake. (technically anyway.) We did push the boundaries a bit (purely to give you an accurate trail report of course) and attempted to reach the viewpoint above the Lower Lake. We got to the top, had great views, and the trail was fine for our children. However, there was one bridge still out (log bridge in for the moment) and there were many trees down on the Viewpoint Trail.

Temporary bridge in place en route to the Upper Lake

If you are thinking of going into Elk Lakes Provincial Park, consider saving the trip for 2017 if you want to hike to the Upper Lake or to Petain Falls beyond. All bridges should be in by September of 2016. If you are going in with young children, you will likely be content to explore the area around the hut and walk to the Lower Lake - which is still fine.

For more information on trail conditions in Elk Lakes Provincial Park, please consult the park website.



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