Put everything you want to bring in a pile. Then put half of it back. It’s the cliché of bike touring and backpacking alike, but it has an element of truth to it.
I like to start by deciding what the coldest temperature I could possibly encounter and decide what I need for that temperature. For most winter trips, that means 2 layers of wool tops and bottoms (wear one, pack the other), my custom bike tights, a fleece jacket with a windproof front, my Steger mukluks, a pair of mittens, my earflap hat, a buff and my heat exchanger balaclava. If I have to stop, I add a down sweater over this to keep me from getting hypothermic while eating or fixing bikes. I bring a spare pair of socks.
It’s no secret that the low-hanging-fruit of bikepacking are the main components: sleeping bag, tent and whatever you carry them in.
I have pretty much settled on Porcelain Rocket bags for all my bikes. They are reasonably light, very innovative and uncompromisingly durable. I have frame bags for all my family’s bikepacking bikes as well as seat bags and handlebar bags that I move from bike to bike. Tania has micropanniers since a seat bag does not fit her bike.
I generally carry a backpack, but I keep the weight in it to a minimum when I have the bike to carry the heavier items. Though my backpack looks large, it generally only contains a sleeping bag, a bag of candy and my Delorme InReach.
There is no comparisson between synthetic and down when it comes to weight, down bags are much lighter, even after factoring in a dry bag to keep the down from getting wet. I find I can get away with a somewhat lighter bag than most, partly because I use a heat exchanger balaclava on cold nights (below about -20ºC). With the kids in tow, I don’t even think about scrimping on their bags.
My tent is a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid4 which holds our family of four and is lighter than most 2 man tents. For winter I will sometimes skip the net insert if it is just me and the kids, but I bring it if Tania is coming for the extra comfort of a floor. If I bring a pole and the net insert it comes in just under 3 pounds. The minimum, without the pole or insert is about 1.4 pounds.
I did a bunch of weighing of stoves and fuel last summer and now have different systems for different trips.
For trips in winter, white gas is by far the easiest to work with as well as being faster by a substantial margin than alcohol. Inverted canister stoves work down to -20ºC (some even colder), but standard canister stoves are not useful below freezing. So for winter trips I use my MSR Whisperlite with white gas.
In the summer, for trips less than 28 person-meals (about 3 days for the 4 of us) our beer can alcohol stove is the lightest option. For longer trips, the white-gas has a higher density and has a much lower starting weight. The average weight of the stove + fuel package is lower for trips of 5 days or so, but the initial weight matters to me a lot since as we eat food, my total weight goes down anyway. Canister stoves are a little lighter for long trips since their fuel is higher density still than white gas.
Though bears are few in the winter months, I am aware of several other creatures that will steal or spoil your food and so I tend to keep my food in an Ursack bear-proof bag even in the winter. So far it has resisted the rodents and weasels that have managed to make past trips less enjoyable.
On the topic of bears, carrying bear spray in a holster outside in winter means that the bear spray will get cold enough to spray almost no distance. When I carry bear spray in anything below 5ºC, I carry it inside my jacket.
For my last winter bike trip with Tadhg, my total bike and gear weight was 66 pounds to start including food and a book. For solo trips, I can easily take 10 pounds off that. Every time I think my kit is approaching light enough, I encounter someone who is running lighter still.
One day I hope to reach the point where I can keep a week’s worth of food and equipment in my pockets. I will be able to go further and faster than ever before. You will not want to stand downwind of me after a week-long trip though.
We love cross-country skiing, we love camping, and we had a 4-day long weekend for easter. The obvious solution to this non-dilemma was to go ski camping.
After our awesome trip to Lake O’Hara for a long weekend in February, it was a strong contender for a return visit. On top of that, a group of really cool families were going to be there and it would be nice to meet up. In the end, we decided that, beautiful as it is, Lake O’Hara is better suited for a one or two night winter stay since so much of the surrounding area is in avalanche terrain and so the options for day trips with kids are limited.
We decided to head up the Bryant Creek trail toward Mount Assiniboine. With campgrounds at 9 and 17km from the trailhead, it was well suited to a 3 night trip with nice 8-10km daily distances.
When we got there, we took a look at conditions and Tania wisely decided that walking/snowshoeing was the right mode for the trip. Tadhg has enough experience that he also knew that conditions were questionable for skiing. Fiona, is a
little lot more obstinate and was determined to go ski-camping. I decided that I should ski so that I would be better able to keep pace with Fiona, I also brought my boots and snowshoes. I dutifully loaded the snowshoes for the family into the sled in anticipation that we might need them later.
The first part of the trail is the Watrige lake trail from the Mount Shark trailhead, a gentle groomed XC ski trail. The trail itself is a little dull, but the surrounding peaks make for enough distraction that it is hard not to enjoy.
After a few km, the trail has a long descent to the Spray River/Lake and that was where my ski plan began to fall apart. My sled was simply too heavy for me to hold back with the poles I used to pull it. I had never used it with the weight of our snowshoes padding out the usual load of food and a sleeping bag. Even after taking my skis off, I had to struggle to keep the sled from overtaking me – I was worried about breaking the tow poles with pushing back, and if I tried zig-zagging down the hill to keep the speed in check, the sled would roll and I would need to drop my pack to go back to set it upright.
The second half of our first day was spent climbing the Bryant Creek trail to the campground. The BR9 campground was where Fiona and I had spent our fun weekend skipacking together in February so we knew what to expect.
Our now traditional first night of camping meal is bean and cheese burritos with our homemade dehydrated pinto beans. It is surprising how well the beans rehydrate to taste like real food. We have been roasting them over campfires to make them even better, but the Bryant Creek campgrounds do not allow fires and so we had to skip this improvement.
Our second day had us hiking past the Bryant Creek shelter, 2 more campgrounds and reaching the BR17 campground at the Allenby junction. Apparently, no one but us had used this campground this winter, because it was undisturbed snow – I was somewhat happy to see this because it meant that the snowshoes that I had been dragging suddenly became indispensable.
After searching around the deep untracked snow in the forest for about half an hour, we located the outhouse and a reasonable spot to put up our tarp and tent. Tadhg shovelled a tent pad 2 feet into the snow, as well as the outhouse door (about 3 feet deep) and some stairs down to it. Fiona wanted desperately to help with the shovelling, and she finally got a turn when it came to shovelling out a pad for us to sleep on below the tarp. Tadhg also dug a snow cave that he thought Fiona should sleep in – I told him he had to make it big enough for the both of us, but he was tired of shovelling.
The Allenby junction is surrounded by mountains and is as beautiful as it is remote. I would definitely be willing to walk the 17km to stay there again. It was also higher and colder than our previous campground. When we got to checking the thermometer at 9:30AM it was -14ºC after warming up for a couple of hours so we estimate it was around -18ºC at night. It seems I was pushing my -10º sleeping bag a little. Nonetheless I was comfy enough to sleep and everyone was better rested when we got up.
Our stretch goal for the weekend was to make it to the top of Assiniboine pass where we hoped to get a view of the iconic mountain as well as the surrounding area.
The last 4 km to the top of the pass were fairly steep and since they were quite icy, we used snowshoes for the extra traction. The climb was well worth it even though Assiniboine was shrouded in cloud and snow, it was still somewhat visible and we sat facing it while eating our snack.
Afterwards, we made the trip back down to the campground to collect our stuff and make the return hike to BR9.
I was last to leave the campground and as I pulled out, I broke one of the poles that pull the sled. After a hasty repair, I got moving on the trail again. Unfortunately, my repair was not as effective as I hoped and my ability to steer the sled was very limited. Also, whenever the sled got more than a tiny bit sideways, the working bar would pull the sled over, forcing me to drop my pack to run back to put the sled back upright. After about 50 iterations of the sled rolling game. I finally caught up to Tania and the kids waiting for me. This meant that Tadhg could follow behind to right the sled and to pull on a brake rope for descents.
It was past our usual dinner time when we got back to camp, but we got everything set up quickly and though we had to eat in the dark, we weren’t as put out as we might have been.
I took a few minutes in the morning to revise my sled repairs into something I thought I could deal with and we were off right around noon with Fiona skiing again and the rest of us hiking. After the climb from Spray Lake, I even put on my skis for the last 3 or so km back to the car. Finny still says that only she went ski camping since I didn’t ski enough for it to count – she was the only one to ski the whole way between the campsites.
First, if you haven’t been to Lake O’Hara, put it on your list. It is one of the prettiest mountain lakes I have ever seen, and that was in the winter when lakes aren’t usually as impressive.
We wanted a family friendly ski camping weekend. Lake O’Hara was high on our list of places that we should go to and the reports were saying that it had reasonable conditions.
We booked a couple of sites at the campground (there is a lodge and the Elizabeth Parker hut as other accommodations at Lake O’Hara) and we were off.
The ski in is not that difficult, but it has a couple of relentless uphill sections. Though the first 2km took us about an hour and a half, we sped up to a reasonable pace for the remaining 8km and arrived at the campground with enough time to set up in daylight. Many of the obvious spots in the campground were already taken, so we scouted out an area where we thought we could pitch the tent and the tarp and started shovelling.
I knew that the tarp pitch was poor, but I was too lazy to shovel out a better area, so I left it as it was. Tania and Tadhg were going to be safely ensconced in the tent and Fiona is not that fussy about what she sleeps under.
The campground at O’Hara has a couple of picnic shelters with wood burning stoves. The other group were in one of them and thought they were obviously friendly, we chose to cook in the second shelter. We had a delicious Valentines day dinner of bean and cheese burritos (home cooked – dehydrated beans and fresh cheese and tortilla shells).
After a bit of reading, we decided to turn in and get a good night sleep. It was snowing heavily as we went to bed, so there were no stars or aurora visible. The other camper group spent the evening at the day shelter further up the trail and they were so quiet coming back to sleep that I wasn’t sure when they returned – I really like it when groups like that are sharing a campground with me.
Around 1AM I woke to a tarp that had sagged from falling snow almost to my face. I roused myself to reset the tarp and tie it low enough to shed at least some of the snow that was falling. The wind was blowing quite heavily, so occasional clumps of snow were falling from the tree branches. I did a quick job, but at least it kept snow from falling on my face so much.
Morning dawned much clearer than the evening. We had a good view through the trees of the surrounding mountains unobscured by clouds. Fiona was first up of course, and we went down to the cook shelter to make coffee.
I got a chance to chat with the other group in the campground and got some really good advice on pulk sleds and attachments. They had had a good chance to perfect their designs and their sleds had much less slack and much better control than mine.
We had a nice leisurely breakfast and set out for some day skiing. Lake O’Hara itself is about half a km past the campground and it is stunning. The surounding mountains are beautiful and have many hiking trails to explore. Many of the trails involve avalanche risk though, so we limited ourselves to a select few. It was a perfect day to ski around the lake itself, and so we did the west half of the lakeside trail.
Though the skiing for the day was short, we still had a great time and the views could not have been better. We will definitely be back.
The group that left the campground left behind a quinzy and Fiona immediately declared her desire to sleep in it. While it seemed a little more closed in than her usual choice of a tarp, it also saved me setting up the tarp properly and allowed me to pack the tarp away early. We used the super roomy quinzy as a spot to read to the kids for the evening and Tania got to do some reading of her own in the roomy and quiet tent.
Once again it snowed most of the night and so once again we awoke to fresh snow. We were pretty thrilled since we figured the fresh snow would provide some drag to help slow down our primarily downhill ski out to the car. I offered to carry Tania’s pack in the sled so that if she fell, she wouldn’t have the extra weight to push her into the ground.
The ski out was, in fact, quite slow, the fresh snow gave us lots of control. Unfortunately, we had some struggles with ice on our skis in the flat and uphill parts of the ski out. Even Tania’s waxless skis were building up enough ice on the bottom that her skis would not glide. All we could do is stop to scrape the ice off and try to keep moving. From km 5 to 3, the terrain is quite rolling, so we made poor progress as we needed to stop and scrape at least 3 times.
Guest Blogger (sort of) 8-year-old Fiona wanted to write up this trip. The timestamped photos are ones she took, and they are accidentally set 12 hours ahead from the camera set up AM, not PM. We went to Banff National Park BR9 campground on Bryant Creek from the Mount Shark trailhead in Spray Lakes Provincial Park. On our middle day, we skied approximately 10km up the valley toward Assiniboine Pass.
Daddy was pulling a sled with mattresses and stuff in it. I didn’t carry my backpack on the way there, but I did on the way back.
We left home. I had a nap in the car. We got to the Mount Shark trailhead. We started skiing. I took selfies of myself.
We crossed a bridge and saw an ice bridge. It was cool.
It got dark. We skied in the dark. [about 3 hours] We set up camp. We set up our tarp to sleep in because it was snowing. [Fiona had planned for us to sleep under the stars]
Next day, we skied to the shelter [Bryant Creek]. We had snack. We had Brie and it wasn’t frozen because Dad put it in his pocket. We went inside the shelter because we wanted to see. I went on the top bunk.
We skied more. We needed to groom the ski trail.
The bunnies went on the trail because it was less deep and I called it a bunny highway.
We saw bear prints crossing the trail. It was cool.
We went back to camp.
Next day, I got “chocolate covered sugar bombs” for breakfast. I made my own “hot chocolate” with the “sugar bomb” dust and water. Daddy made big eyes for the picture.
Next day, we had to go over a log. I helped get the sled over the log.
I skied down some steep hills, but when I was going up a different hill, I fell down. We went over a bridge.
We passed over some creeks and we saw mountains.
“Hey dad, you know how I sometimes complain that it’s freezing when the kitchen is 18ºC at home?” Tadhg and I were just finishing up our day’s ride on Lake Minnewanka from the LM 11 campground to just past the end of the lake at the first of the Ghost lakes. It was -15ºC, not that cold, but significantly colder than our home.
We started out on Friday afternoon after finalizing our planned destination on Friday morning. Our original destination was going to be the site of a snowmobile rally, and though I never mind having snowmobilers on the trail with me and offering me beer, I thought hundreds might intrude on the tranquility I was seeking.
The trail was in great condition, but we decided we would make better time and see more of the mountains by riding on the lake. I could see skate ski tracks on the lake and if snowpack is hard enough to skate ski, it is hard enough to fatbike. We indeed moved quickly along the ice, and a scant 3 hours after leaving the parking lot, we found ourselves at the LM11 campground where we had booked both nights. LM11 in this case is a bit of a misnomer in that we only rode about 8km to get to it – I don’t call it cheating since if we took a canoe or kayak in the summer, we would travel a similar distance.
With sunset at around 5pm, we had an hour or so to ride in the dark, or at least twilight and the sunset over the mountains reminded me of how much I like this place. We had camp set up in a very short time. Having cleaned my stove on Thursday meant that I had boiling water from snow in very short order. Our dehydrated meal was home made refried beans and cheddar which is always popular with Tadhg and I have to admit is quite delicious.
We spent some time off and on during the evening walking out on to the lake to look at the stars and watch for aurora. Though the aurora did not appear for us, the sky was clear and we were treated to an impressive array of stars. Tadhg spent some time speculating on their trajectories – different than his sister who invents and names constellations.
In spite of the fact that we were sleeping by 10pm, Tadhg and I managed to sleep in till 10 in the morning. It was nearly noon by the time we loaded up the bikes for a ride down the lake. Though we were planning to return that night, I made sure to bring enough to spend the night in case something went wrong. The temperature was -18ºC when we left the campground – not very cold, but well within the realm of dangerous to the unprepared.
We made it to the end of Lake Minnewanka where it drains to a river and then a series of Ghost lakes. We rode on the river bank as far as the first Ghost Lake and decided that was a good point to turn back. In hindsight, we both probably had plenty of reserve energy, but when you are that far away from rescue, taking chances is probably not the wisest choice.
At the LM20 campground, we saw some fresh cougar tracks. We didn’t see the cougar, so it was either gone or hunting us.
The east end of Lake Minnewanka is in my opinion the more impressive end of the lake. I highly recommend it as a fun destination.
We were back at camp and done eating by 5:30 on saturday, so with heavy clouds in the sky, our entertainment recourse was to lie in the tent reading. Fortunately, I had brought the book I am currently reading to Tadhg and more fortunately, we were not that far along in it because after 3 hours of straight reading, we made substantial progress.
Our Sunday morning started early for Tadhg with us getting vertical at 8:30. The sky had cleared and the temperature was moving upward with it being above -10 when we got up and warming as the morning progressed. By the time we hit the trail at 10:45, it was only single digits below freezing.
For the trip out, we decided to take the trail since it looked to be almost rideable. In fact, as I pushed ahead and rode 20% of the trail and pushed the rest, Tadhg was merrily riding along in my bike’s track.
We took to the lake at the washout next to LM9, and rode the lake for the km or so to LM 8 where we returned to the trail. From there, the trail was fast and comfortable for great riding all the way to the parking lot.
The Highwood Pass highway closes on December 1 every year for the winter. We decided to squeeze in one last camping trip to our favourite spot, Elbow Lake. This time we brought along Fiona’s schoolmate to share the adventure. We also brought Fiona’s class mascot since it was her turn to have him home for the weekend and write up what they did together.
In late November, the sun sets early and so by the time we drove out and hiked in to the campsite, we were setting up in twilight and cooking in complete darkness.
This being a winter camping trip, we were expecting cold, and we got it. I knew things were pretty chilly when my fingers were sticking to metal as I prepared dinner. Though I didn’t bring a thermometer, from past experience I would say that the temperature after sunset was in the -20ºC range, possibly colder.
Priority for warmth definitely goes to the kid that isn’t mine, so we made sure that both girls were well bundled for daytime and for sleeping. Fiona kept to her policy of sleeping under a tarp and she and her friend were well protected – cocooned in their individual sleeping bags, both of them inside a double bag. The nighttime temperature dropped, definitely into the low -20s. I had placed some water bottles between me and the girls in the hope of keeping them thawed, but they were quite frozen by morning. The girls slept through the night with me waking nervously to check on them from time to time.
We slept in on Saturday morning and didn’t start coffee until after 9. We spent the day on a leisurely hike down the Elbow Valley toward Tombstone campground. The valley is always beautiful, but with a coating of snow and hoar frost on the trees, the beauty was magnified.
We headed back to camp fairly early so we could prep dinner in at least some light. The kids took that as an opportunity to sled on the trail leading into the campground.
Saturday evening discussion revolved around whether it was colder or warmer than the night before, but it mattered little – once you get below -20ºC, you need to pay attention. I heated up the water bottles and wrapped them in clothing to keep them from freezing overnight.
I was thrilled that the girls slept just as well our second night out as our first. After reading to them for half an hour or so, I didn’t hear from them until morning.
I had Tania’s first cappuccino delivered by 8 AM. The happy kids did some more sledding after breakfast while we packed. We hit the trail back to the car by 11.
Thought the morning had dawned cold, by the time we reached the parking lot, the temperature had warmed to what felt to us like tropical: we guessed just below freezing, but someone in the parking lot told me -8ºC. Typical for this type of trip that the warmth comes as we leave.
Thanks to Mia and Jim for the loan of their 7-year-old daughter for the weekend, that was a big show of trust, and it made our weekend that much more fun.
Our second day of hiking dawned a little hazy. We assumed it was some sort of weird fog until it occurred to us that it was responsible for the campfire smell that we had noticed during the night.
Even with our view obscured by campfire smoke, the trail was stunning. Since the longer view was hidden, we payed more attention to details that we might otherwise have missed. The area around Mt. Assiniboine has a tremendous variety of ground cover and Fiona delighted in pointing out mushrooms and naming them. I am not a mycologist, so some of these may be repeats, but there was still a huge variety.
Our second day’s hike was much shorter than the first and so even though we dallied in getting started, we arrived at the Og lake campground in reasonable time for dinner. The lake itself was not huge, but was in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. It would have been nice to see them, but we still really enjoyed the surroundings. Most happily for Tadhg it was the day that we ate the supper from his pack, so he would be treated to a lighter load on the third day.
Our third day of hiking was a short 7km to Lake Magog campground. Though we were close to Mount Assiniboine, we could not tell it was there. The smoke was thick enough that visibility was under 200m. We were disappointed, but we tried to make the best of it.
Since we figured the smoke probably wouldn’t last forever, we decided to stay an extra night and spend three nights rather than two at Lake Magog. We figured that this would give us the time to wait for the smoke to clear. Tadhg was dead set against it since it meant that we were redistributing the extra food among all of us instead of using it to curb his insatiable appetite.
We spent our days enjoying the mountains, dayhiking (though the views were somewhat obscured), swimming in the lakes (well, Fiona anyway), and enjoying what we could see. We hiked the Nub a few times if it looked like the smoke was thinning in hopes of getting a good view. Though we never got the spectacular views we hoped for, we did get the fun of the hikes and the kids got lots of time to play.
The evening of our second day at Magog was at least moderately clear. Tania had the very good sense to hurry us through supper and down to the lake shore to take advantage of the break in the smoke. It was a good thing since this was the clearest view we would get of the majestic Mt. Assiniboine.
Part 3 coming soon