People often ask me how I get my kids to go out camping in the winter with me. The truth is, when they were young I acted like it was normal (and it is), so by the time they noticed that no one else was with us at the backcountry campground, they were hooked. Now they vie for the privilege of going to the backcountry in all seasons.
Getting outside in the winter is our way to enjoy the inevitable. Staying inside is simply not an option for us, we are unwilling to put our recreation on hold for an entire season. Aside from the physical benefits of being active, the mental benefits of being surrounded by nature, and the skills we gain by challenging ourselves, the outdoor world has a lot to offer in terms of simple enjoyment. In some ways, being outside in winter is easier than in summer. There are few bears out in winter and keeping warm while active in -35ºC is easier than keeping cool while active in +35ºC. It is way easier to get away from the crowds in winter than it is in summer and even a paved road looks like wilderness if you hide it with a few feet of snow.
Fiona is the one we refer to as “Arctic Girl”, she will generally be the first to be taking off layers whatever the temperature.
We sometimes credit Fiona’s cold hardiness to the Scandinavian tradition of putting babies outside to nap. At first we thought it was so we wouldn’t be trapped in our house every day for nap time, but we soon realized that our baby slept better outside than in.
No matter the reason, Fiona’s cold-hardiness does not give her superpowers. She can get frostbite or hypothermia (at least we assume so) and so we take the same precautions that people in cold climates have taken with their children for millennia.
Tadhg seems to have colder extremities than most kids, so we need to pay close attention to keeping his hands and feet warm if he is to feel comfortable on any cold weather outing. When people tell me that their kids are too sensitive to cold to go on winter backcountry excursions, I often mention that Tadhg isn’t tough enough either, he is just well dressed.
So what the heck do I do to keep my kids warm? First, I listen. If they tell me they are feeling cold, I believe them and I look to do something about it. Before they could talk, I used to reach in to snowsuits and blankets to feel if hands and feet felt warm enough. I also watched for signs of discomfort – young kids may not shiver, but they won’t be comfortable, so if something is disturbing that placid sleeping baby face, it’s worth paying attention to.
Children’s snowsuits from better suppliers are generally warm, but that isn’t the same as designed for sleeping outside in -30º. Inactive people produce substantially less heat that active ones, so if the kids are standing around or sleeping, they need much more insulation. When the kids were smaller, I generally bough an extra suit, one size too big to put over the base suit. When they were in diapers, I tried to have the zippers on the snowsuit layers line up so I wouldn’t have to completely remove either suit. For naps and sleeping, sometimes a double snowsuit wouldn’t be enough to keep me (yes me, the caring parent) comfortable – for those occasions, I would put the kids onto a sleeping bag over the snowsuit layers.
A great way to keep anyone warm is to keep them moving. We try to keep moving until it is time to eat or get into a warm sleeping bag for the night.
A popular evening camp (in)activity is sitting by a campfire. While it is fun, it is also exactly the same as any other type of sitting – it produces virtually no heat. Couple that with the warmth from the fire tricking your body into shedding warmth and even sweating, and a fire with no shelter becomes a recipe for feeling cold. Lately, we have been going for walks or bike rides in the evening after eating. Instead of getting cold, the moderate activity warms us up so that we get into our beds comfortably and can relax right away instead of shivering for the first while. This is not to say that we never have campfires, we just limit the times we spend sitting around them.
Boots for kids are generally not as good as they should be. The problem is not the manufacturers, just the many demands placed on kids’ boots. Adults will generally spend hundreds of dollars on their own boots, but it is hard to part with as much when they are only going to be worn for a couple of months. Most waterproof boots will not allow water vapour from sweat to escape at -30ºC, while boots that aren’t waterproof will be wet and cold at temperatures around freezing since they will allow water in. For babies, my compromise was to put camp booties on them. I usually bought two pairs so I could put the pair that wasn’t being worn in my pocket to dry it out while the other pair was on the baby’s feet. The smallest kids didn’t wear them out, especially since they didn’t wear them on concrete in the city. Warm legs can help to keep the blood that reaches the feet warm If a kid is wearing shorts, they will tell you all about how their legs don’t get cold, but their toes will be like little ice cubes. Closed cell foam mattresses are a great way to keep the ground from drawing heat away from feet or bums that may be in contact with the ground. It is surprising how much warmer feet will be when standing on a piece of blue foam.
Mittens are another problem area for kids. They are constantly trying to pick stuff up but have small sensitive hands that lose their heat quickly. Around freezing, the only solution seems to be to have several pairs (as many as you can carry) and change them as often as you can without running out mitts before the outing is over. With Tadhg’s sensitive hands, he will often wear a pair of my mitts over his own liner and overmitt. Many people neglect the arms as part of the mitten system, but like feet, the hands depend on the blood reaching them being warm in order to keep warm. Warm arms go a long way toward keeping the hands at the end of them toasty.
On the bikes, I have pogies for everyone’s hands, but I also wrap the brake levers in foam packing material which I hold in place with heat shrink tubing. Metal poles (including ski poles) are really good at conducting heat away from hands. Insulation between the hands and the bars helps and of course so do carbon fiber bars.
Hot liquids can help greatly in warming up a child who is getting uncomfortably cold. By the same token, drinking icy cold drinks can really cool a body, and especially a small child’s body, quickly. Too many hot liquids can of course be a problem since a trip out of the tent in -40 is a good way to lose the heat that was gained by drinking a hot tea.
There is a lot of talk about how much heat is lost through the head, and in fact wearing an insulated hat is an important part of outdoor activity. Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the biggest source of heat loss, the lungs. The human lung has a moist surface area of at least 50 square meters which is 25 times the skin surface area of a large person. Imagine getting out of the shower and then blowing on yourself outdoors. The easiest solution to this is to wear a scarf in front of the face, which is great until it becomes a mask of ice and wet fabric. Most Northern peoples have developed some type of hooded clothing that places a pocket of still air in front of the face where it can be warmed by outgoing breath and facial warmth. This is great, though it allows no peripheral vision, it does keep the face warm. My preferred solution is a heat exchanger mask or balaclava. There are a number of them on the market, with the https://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=coldbikecom-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0091CC38A&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr“>Ergodyne (amazon.ca affiliate link) and the Airtrim being my favourites. I generally feel that a good heat exchanger mask will add 10ºC to whatever you are wearing.
Hot foods are warming as well, not just from the heat of the food, but from the heat released when the body uses the energy in food. There are many ideas about eating foods like cayenne pepper to warm the body, but I find that just eating a hot meal will work well enough.
When camping in the winter, there is often no heated building to take shelter in if things go poorly. It is imperative to be prepared. If things get out of hand, it may be necessary to simply get into the tent and snuggle the young ones to warm them up. Hanging out the door of the tent while making a hot drink may not be the preferred cooking method, but it allows a parent to get hot liquids into a child while helping to warm them. Hot water in a steel water bottle can be used as a warming pack inside a sleeping bag to help warm a mildly hypothermic person of any age. For that matter, rocks can be heated to use for warming purposes assuming care is taken not to melt any tents/clothing/sleeping bags or burn anyone.
One of the key elements for us being out in the cold is to have fun. If we are having fun, we can more easily deal with the troubles that come from cold. We also aim to be flexible and we are willing to shorten or cancel an activity because we feel it will stop being fun.
Away from the lights and noise of the city, I always sleep better in a tent. I do awaken frequently to check on the kids though – especially when Fiona talks in her sleep. Many of the cases of frostbite in winter camping happen from sleeping through the onset of frozen feet. There are also many cases of hypothermia that happen at night, so it pays to be extra careful. When the kids were young, we would put them to bed in a snowsuit, a large snowsuit (that either covered hands and feet, or with booties) and then pack the whole kid-snowsuit assembly into a sleeping bag. While this was heavy, it was warm and comfortable. These days, we have moved toward simplifying the system with Tadhg sleeping in a down/synthetic sleeping bag, adding a down jacket if it is colder, and with a down jacket of mine if it becomes absolutely necessary. Fiona is now using a down sleeping bag with a home made synthetic overquilt. Either the quilt or the bag is good to about -10ºC, but the combination should be comfortable down to about -40.
There is a persistent myth that people need to be naked inside their sleeping bags. The fact is, insulation inside the sleeping bag works (until it gets compressed) just as well as the sleeping bag itself. The only caveat is that wet insulation of any type works poorly.
In the same way that layers of clothing can help to keep people comfortable in a range of temperatures and activities, so too can sleeping bags be layered. Of course no one wants to carry three sleeping bags per person, but it is not too onerous to carry a sleeping bag/overbag combination in most cases. In our case, our overbags weigh only 800g, so the total weight is actually less than what a single -40º rated bag would be.
Sleeping bags only insulate the top half of a sleeper since the bottom of the insulation is compressed beneath them. A warm sleeping pad is essential, more so the colder it gets. I really like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm mattresses, but after having one spring approximately 500 leaks on me this summer, I will not trust them as my sole sleeping pad. In the past, I have used closed cell foam pads either alone or for extra insulation with an air-filled pad, and I have now re-instituted their use in winter. (note that my leaky pad was replaced, and Therm-a-Rest recommend a foam pad as backup)
Some kids roam in their sleep and this makes keeping them on the pad an extra challenge over simply putting them on a quality sleeping pad and letting them sleep until morning. I generally pile all of Fiona’s and my own packs next to her so that she would have to work to wander over them. Her new sleeping quilt attaches to her sleeping pad and helps somewhat to keep her in place on the pad.
People some times question the safety of taking your kids camping in the cold, but I have to defer to the the entire North of Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the First Nations from around here referred to winter camping as “life” and though they had occasional issues with extreme weather, they thrived in our climate even though they slept out in tents every night. While their teepees were much larger and heated by a fire, it remains that they did not live in thermostat-controlled heated houses. I feel that on our most daring adventures, we have always left a large margin of safety, so while we have occasionally been uncomfortable, we have never been at the threshold of physical danger.
For more practical information, check out this Play Outside Guide to Keeping Kids Warm in Winter.
[click pictures to enlarge]
There are 3 nights of the year that connoisseurs refer to as “amateur night” at the bar, Saint Patrick’s day, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve.
Even though we don’t go to the bar very often, we avoid those nights at all costs. This year I talked Tania into joining me and the kids for a fatbikepacking camp from the 30th of December to January 1st, thus putting us into our favourite place, the wilderness, instead of well, anywhere else.
Since Tania lacks my passion for bikes on snow, we decided on spot with a short ride in, the Spray River in Banff National park has just 6 km of trail before the campground. To make things even better, the trail is now signed and groomed for shared-use between fatbikes, walkers and skiers.
I foolishly decided to shoehorn our 4 fatbikes into our 3 fatbike minivan and so I had more work than I should have to assemble the bikes at the trailhead. I had all but two wheels removed from the bikes, and all the bags and pogies had to be installed as well as strapping on extra gear to my bike since this was our first winter bike adventure with the whole family and I was carrying more than usual. I ended up with a 25 pound backpack in addition to an 85 pound bike. While this could limit me if trail conditions were marginal, I was anticipating reasonable conditions and wasn’t worried.
Tadhg had his usual complement of gear, mostly mittens for his chronically cold hands, and of course his sleeping kit and the pole for the tent. I also snuck a toque of Fiona’s in there as well.
Fiona brought her backpack with chips for the family for the weekend, as well as a flashlight. I was impressed with her wise choices. Her bike frame bag contained her booties as well as one of her sleeping mats being strapped to the handlebars.
Other than the trail having been trodden by many people in (apparently high-heeled) shoes and more than a little bumpy, conditions were excellent. A fatbike was almost certainly necessary, but no heroic measures were required to be able to ride. As keen skiers, we were disappointed that at least one group had used the ski track preferentially as a walking track – the track was not usable for skiing.
We achieved our goal of getting to the campground in time to set up before the sun went down (at this time of the year, about 5:30pm). Fiona decided that we were sleeping in the tent with the rest of the family so I only had one structure to set up, but had carried an extra two pounds of tarp and groundsheet. After setting up, we went back to the campground eating area (about 200m up the trail) and set to building a fire and making dinner. As usual, we had fire-roasted burritos with home-made re-fried beans.
Sitting around the campfire is a sure way to slow down the blood circulation and get chilled before bed, so Tania had the great idea to go for a post-dinner walk. Not only did it get our blood pumping, but it padded out the time between our supper and a reasonable bedtime. We all got into the tent around 9 and after some reading, went off to sleep.
I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping under the tarp, so the warmth of the four of us in the tent was an interesting change. It was certainly warm, and I found myself removing clothes and pulling off a quilt to cool down. The morning temperature outside was -18°C so it wasn’t just the mild weather that had our tent so warm. There was no shortage of frost inside the tent though, so any jostling resulted in an indoor snowstorm.
For our second day excursion, we split up with me and Fiona bringing our bikes while Tadhg and Tania walked up the Goat Creek trail. Since Fiona is nine, and Tania can walk pretty quickly, a head start for the walkers left us pretty well matched for the uphill portion of the trail, and we met up for snacks so we could hang out together.
We saw very few people, and fewer still were on bikes. The snow cover was a little thin for skiing, but great for hiking and biking. We did see some tracks from someone with either over-inflated fatbike tires or 3″ plus tires that were clearly floundering on the trail and were sinking deeply, so the fatbikes were serving their purpose.
We also ran into Evil Moose Megan on the trail on her way to and from Banff while racking up over a hundred km for the day to exceed a 500km holiday challenge.
Our ride back to camp was mostly downhill, so even with several stops for putting clothing on or off, eating snacks, taking pictures, etc, we were substantially faster than the walkers and so we were well into melting snow and boiling water for dinner when they got back. Melting snow is definitely not the fastest way to get water, but the river access was a little treacherous near the campground so I opted not to get river water for cooking.
Another nice evening walk and an even warmer sleep led to another -18ºC morning. It had snowed overnight, so we had a nice coating of insulation on the tent and a bit of padding for the footprints on the trail.
Coffee is an important part of all our mornings, and I made Tania her usual cappuccinos and my own Aeropress espressos to start our day. I do not scrimp on the camping coffee since it makes for such a luxurious experience.
Our ride out was mostly downhill, though Tania found she was pedaling hard the whole way – mostly because we were moving pretty briskly. Our ride out was well under an hour, even with several stops along the way.
Of course I just put up a link to a podcast that mentioned me, which reminded me that I was the featured guest on the biketown podcast a few months ago. All their podcasts are worth listening to, they have talked to some brilliant people, I’m glad to have been a part of it.
This Podcast from bikepack.ca is well worth listening to if you are at all interested in winter cycling. It is both interesting and entertaining. They also spend several seconds talking about me, which made me very happy.
[This is the original writeup from our KVR trip in the summer of 2011, I have transposed it here to make it easier to access and to avoid accidentally seeming like I endorse Spot. In the years since this trip took place, I have lightened my setup substantially, but I would still consider the Cetma a viable option for a rail-trail tour like this]
We set out on July 30, 2011, our 17th wedding anniversary, from Midway BC, Mile 0 of the Kettle Valley Railroad (KVR) trail. My wife Tania and I had decided to bring our children on a bike tour of the KVR from Midway to Osoyoos, a 270km trip mostly on abandoned rail bed.
Our plan was to avoid most of the hottest parts of the day by starting our riding in the early morning. When we started from Midway, it was about 12C and so we started out in fleece jackets to keep us warm.
Our 7-year-old son Tadhg was riding his own bike, a 15 pound BMX race bike. In order to help him succeed, we had him carrying his water bottle and nothing else.
Tania was riding her own bike which I had fitted with 2.35 inch tires in anticipation of loose trail. She carried her own clothes and sleeping bag and her water bottle and things.
I was riding my CETMA cargo bike with our family food, tents, hammock, cooking equipment, fuel, 15 litres of water, sleeping pads, 3 sleeping bags and tools and repair equipment. In among our gear sat our 3.75 year old daughter Fiona (aka Finny).
I also had a Follow-Me Tandem attachment so that if Tadhg had trouble with the distances or the trail, I had the possibility of towing him on his bike.
The morning temperature in Midway was a pleasant 12C as we set out, making us glad to have brought some warm layers even though we were anticipating heat later in the day.
The trail doesn’t go far before detouring around a sawmill on a short singletrack trail. In spite of the lack of signage, we managed to keep on track easily enough. Early in the day we passed through a number of farm fields with gates and in one of them, a donkey and a horse befriended Tadhg. The donkey was particularly fond of Tadhg’s hydration pack and seemed to be trying to eat it, although it was probably just trying to extract salt from the fabric.
Much of the trail had very substantial weeds growing on it and at some points all that was visible of Tadhg was the top of his helmet moving through 4-foot-tall grass and weeds.
At one of the farms between Midway and Rock Creek, the farmer had plowed under the rail bed and there was a detour around the farm field. The detour consisted of soft soil and tall plants and an almost indiscernible trail through them. None of us were impressed with the rough ride.
Later in the morning, there were a few road detours (none of which were signed) and we passed by a large fairground style campground full of leather-clad bikers and their harleys. I had originally thought the Rock Creek campground might be a possible bail-out campsite if we were struggling on our first day. It made for a rather noisy road and we were glad to return to the trail a couple of kilometres later.
Conveniently for us, just as we pulled in to the Kettle River provincial park campground, we greeted the park ranger and he guided us to an available site. It was the last single site available and our other choices would have been half-double sites or continuing on and finding another alternative. Continuing would have been difficult since sore bums were starting to set in.
Fiona and Tadhg were thrilled to get to spend the afternoon swimming in the river. There was a fairly constant parade of people floating on inflatable stuff going by on the river and it seems to be the main pastime at this campground.
Tania was somewhat concerned that our first day had required substantial effort to reach only the 24km mark on the trail and it was definitely a substantial effort to ride the erratic trail surface.
For our second day we started out early with plans to stop for coffee and oatmeal sometime midmorning. Unfortunately, our breakfast break ended up being more than an hour long. We did get to eat some trailside raspberries and prepared some delicious coffee, but it wasted a great deal of precious cool morning air and by the time we reached Paul Lautard’s KVR cyclists’ rest stop, it was 11AM and we were into the heat of the day.
To compound the heat, the trail after the rest stop is loose, sandy and washboard from substantial quad use.
A family on motorcycles and quads passed us in this section. A shout of “get off the trail and out of my my way!” was what these folks though was a greeting as they blasted noisily past smelling of unburned gasoline, exhaust and raising a cloud of dust. The ATV association should find that family and thank them for setting their advocacy efforts back so effectively. We passed several gates clearly labelled “no motorized vehicles”, each of which had quad tracks circumventing it through the ditch. Many of these “no motorized vehicles” type signs throughout our trip had bullet holes decorating them.
As we passed over the Rhone canyon bridge, we started looking for the swimming hole which was listed in the guidebook as 300m after the bridge. A km or two passed and we ended up backtracking, convinced that we had missed the swimming hole. We were hot and cranky and we didn’t need to ride any extra distance.
Finally we gave up looking (after at least half an hour) and just continued down the trail. Several km later, an outhouse on the side of the trail marked the location of the swimming hole. The swimming hole was indeed a nice spot and Tania got all the way into the creek in spite of the cold water.
After a refreshing swim, we got back on the bikes and headed further up the trail before stopping at a flat spot where we stopped to camp for the night. The constant washboard, the riding in the heat and the long day on the trail had taken their toll and we all felt worn out. (and Tania felt like throwing up). We needed lots of food and a good night’s sleep.
We ate our supper and we were just getting ready for bed when Fiona announced that she had found a snake. I was very concerned that she was unwilling to back away from it until I could confirm that it was not a rattlesnake. I grabbed her and pulled her back until I could have a look and I confirmed that it was not a rattler, but Finny was very angry that I had grabbed her and I needed to have a long discussion with her about staying away from snakes.
As I was hanging our food bag to keep it away from squirrels and bears, the mosquitos came out. The quantity of mosquitos was astonishing, on par with northern BC and substantially worse than the Amazon. Of course the following day we found that our campsite was about 200m from a mosquito hatchery, a large swampy area ideally suited to mosquitos. Tania was feeling defeated after this long, hot, hard day with not a lot of mileage to show for it.
After the questionable trail on the second day, it was apparent to me that Tadhg was probably capable of riding the entire trail under his own power unless we had to deal with traffic or injury. We actively encouraged him to take pride in this ability, partially to avoid having to pull him but mostly to build up his sense of accomplishment.
In the morning, we deferred coffee again in order to make it to Beaverdell, our last food supply store before Penticton. We purchased the entire produce section from the Beaverdell store, consisting of 3 watermelon slices, 5 apples, 3 oranges and 2 pears. We had also hoped to find beer, but unfortunately the beer selection consisted of Canadian, Kokanee and a few other equally unpalatable choices. For either of us to carry it on a bike, beer needs to be high quality and flavourful – and not in heavy glass bottles.
After reading the chocolate milk chapter in “Mud, Sweat and Gears” by Joe Kurmaskie, we were eager to try out its magical energy-giving powers on Tadhg. Although we got him to drink some, it was definitely not something that he would ask for. It did give Tania and me a great energy boost. (Tania normally HATES chocolate milk but drank it to try out the magic – it was magical)
The trail out of Beaverdell is completely unlabelled and so it took a bit of asking for directions and some trial and error before we found the bypass around a small missing section of rail bed.
Once back on the trail, we made reasonable progress. The trail slowly climbed up a huge switchback and we travelled North, West and East at various times during the day. We witnessed the collection of stuffed bears attached to the shed and around the yard of the house where Carmi station once was.
Tania was feeling particularly good and so we stopped at Wilkinson Creek to fill our solar shower and she strapped it to her bike to warm up as we rode.
We decided to either camp at Arlington Lakes or to continue up the trail and random camp if we found it unsuitable.
The trail was climbing steadily and made a large switchback up the side of a mountain giving us great views of the valley below us whenever the forest opened up into meadows. We came across a huge field of daisies which stretched out in front of us like a beautiful carpet. The daisy field had a huge number of butterflies of several different types in it and I amused Fiona for a while by having her hold out her hand so that butterflies could land on it. Of course there were no butterfly landings, but there was one that touched her hand and that gave her a thrill.
Tadhg astutely observed that the air around us was hot, and when Tania asked how he knew, he said, “When I look across the field of daisies, I can see the air shaking.”
Our initial choice of spots at Arlington lake was nothing special but it was good enough for the night. Fortunately we asked Archie the ranger if there was a good place to access the lake for swimming and he pointed us to the walk-in sites on a peninsula in the lake. Once we moved, our campsite was secluded, quiet and surrounded by water. The lake was warm enough for me to get in for a swim and for a guy who needed a wetsuit in Hawaii, that says a lot.
Tania’s plan for showering worked admirably, the water was warm by the time she got off the bike in our campsite, and a bit of extra time in the sun topped it off enough to give her a truly hot shower.
Having made about 50km of progress in a single day, we were now ahead of schedule and we decided to sleep in and ride a mere 21km to McCulloch lake where we hoped to find as nice a campground. We weren’t sure if we could find many places to camp beyond McCulloch lake and before entering the provincial park at Myra canyon so it seemed the most sensible place to stop.
For a portion of the morning we had the privilege of riding through an area where the predominant ground cover was lupins. They were in full bloom and some of the sections were amazingly fragrant and smelled wonderful even from the seats of our bikes.
There were a couple of sections of the trail where quad barriers required me to unload my bike and portage it through, but it was a small price to pay for smooth, unchurned trail.
The main highlight of the day was finding a couple of patches of wild strawberries. Tadhg was absolutely thrilled and crawled along searching for more “jackpots” of berries. Few treats can compare to freshly picked wild strawberries.
Unfortunately, the campground at McCulloch lake was not as nice and could have used some tidying of cigarette butts. The lake itself was nice enough and we spent most of our time down there since there were far fewer mosquitos at the lake than at our campsite. The mosquitos at the campsite were serious enough for us to need our mosquito shirts to keep them off us. Of course, mosquito shirts are not so comfortable in the hot summer, so we traded millions of mosquitos for substantial heat.
When we first arrived at the campground we purchased some Gatorade from the campground attendant. I was thinking that it might be a great way to help keep Tadhg hydrated. Unfortunately, he liked it about not at all – oh well, good thing he likes water.
Back down at the lake, the kids decided it was time for some playground time. Since there was none, they did what kids do and built their own. A log that took both of them to lift and a rock that was on the beach made a fine teeter-totter and the kids were as happy as if the playground were made just for them.
The campground attendant very kindly provided us with some water (for free) from his personal supply. We were anticipating another night of wild camping and we thought it would be a good idea to have a full water supply as we made our way into the arid Okanagan valley. We were carrying a water filter, and by this time it had become apparent that we had enough fuel to allow us to boil our drinking water but it was a lot more convenient to just pour 10 L into our water storage bag.
We had planned the next day to take us through the Myra Canyon to a small backcountry camping spot just off the trail near the Bellevue trestle.
Morning at McCullogh lake was a little chilly and we started out around 7:30 with espresso in our bellies and fleece layers on our bodies. After an awful rough, rocky , sandy and loose first kilometre, the trail smoothed out and other than a few washed out sections and a 75metre long puddle, we made great progress.
Fiona was very much in the mood to take many breaks and so she asked to pee, poop or stop to eat every 30 seconds or so. Finally, I pointed out a sign (4 year olds conveniently can’t read) that said “no stopping”.
The Myra Canyon is frequently touted as the highlight of the trip and we were pretty excited when we came to a ridge that overlooked Kelowna and shortly thereafter the parking lot for the Myra Canyon. (Doug was pretty excited because in the Myra Canyon parking lot – the van that rented day trip bike rentals also sold chips – he bought a few bags of each flavour).
In order to keep the rail grade at 2.2%, the rails performed a series of contortions across trestles and through tunnels to get over and around the steep Myra Canyon and the creek below. Now a provincial park, the trestles are famous both for the trestles themselves and the views available from them.
Being a provincial park, it is actively patrolled and quads are kept off the trail. The trail surface is also regularly maintained. All of a sudden, our average speed doubled as we pedalled easily down smooth trails.
We were quite a contrast with most of the Myra Canyon riders. While we were carrying our camping equipment and food, most of the folks in the canyon were out for the day with a water bottle and lunch or even less. We could certainly see the appeal of the day trip as the scenery was breathtaking and the trestles impressive.
After the provincial park, the trail became shared with a logging road and there was occasional traffic but the trail conditions remained reasonable for riding. As we came to where we had intended to camp, we were feeling good enough that Chute Lake Lodge seemed attainable. We had heard from several trail users that beyond the Bellevue trestle, the trail deteriorated badly, but the promise of a lake and a campground with toilets and showers sounded like a good enough incentive.
As we rode the next section, the trail/road did in fact deteriorate into wheel sucking coarse sand, Tania discovered why I had insisted on replacing her perfectly good tires with ridiculously wide ones. Tadhg, unfortunately, had no such option and I was seriously considering hooking him up to my bike and towing him. Tadhg was really having to pedal hard even to make slow progress and he even had to dismount and push for 100m a couple of times.
In spite of Tadhg’s troubles, we were keeping up with some folks who were out for a day trip on their unladen bikes. They later admitted that they were pushing themselves to avoid being slower than a 7 year old and us with our fully loaded bikes. Little did they know that I could probably have doubled my speed and Tania could have tripled hers.
If we hadn’t been warned, we would have had a hard time coping with this section of trail. As it was, the bleak post forest-fire scenery and the evil trail surface were demoralizing and energy-sucking.
After a couple of hours of riding the road through hell, we came to the oasis. Chute lake is a small lake on the edge of the trail and beside it is Chute Lake Lodge. Although it has seen better days, the Lodge has a small restaurant which makes delicious pies and excellent fries. After a tasty meal of french fries, pie and beer, we set up our tent in the (expensive) campground. Tadhg made friends with a girl his age who was on a road trip with her family. We had encountered them on the trail earlier in the day. The girl had crashed her bike a little after we had met them and scraped her leg pretty substantially.
Tadhg’s friend and her family invited us to have marshmallows with them by the campfire. After supper we went up and met with them. Tadhg was pretty happy about the marshmallows until he tasted one. He said, “I like cooking them, but I really don’t like the taste.” Yet another junk food that he doesn’t like.
Beyond Chute Lake, we were expecting more rough trail. We heard from some people that there was a lot of walking for them going uphill. I dropped the pressure in everyone’s tires to see if we could gain a little more flotation in the sand. As soon as we left, we realized that we were not in for the same kind of trouble as the previous day. Although the trail was intermittently sandy, there was a noticeable downhill grade that had been missing the day before. Also, the landscape changed from skeletal burnt forest to actual forest.
Now that we were in the Okanagan valley, the weather warmed up quickly and it was approaching 30 C by 9 AM. Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourself immensely as we quickly rolled down through the forest in Rock Ovens Municipal park. The rock ovens were built for the railway construction crews by the same Italian masons that built the dry-stacked retaining walls and approaches to the trestles. The rock ovens allowed the camp cooks to prepare fresh bread for the railway construction crews. The ovens themselves were igloo shaped dry-stacked (no mortar) rock ovens similar to the type seen in pizza restaurants.
We rode through the small Adra tunnel but the large Adra tunnel (which makes a U turn through a mountain) is bypassed due to an unstable roof and water accumulation in the lower end. A project is underway to restore the large tunnel and they have opened the first 100m to the public. The approach to the tunnel is an impressive rock cut surrounded by forest, making it feel like approaching a cave through a canyon.
We were all feeling great as we rolled out of the forest into more arid scenery punctuated by vineyards and orchards. We had a great view of the Okanagan valley below us and the riding was easy enough that we kept relatively cool in the heat.
The last section into Penticton rolled through the middle of orchards and vineyards. Since the original rail bed had mostly been reclaimed by the farmers of the area, there were more hills and valleys than the usual rail trail. Still, the predominant direction was downhill and the riding was nice.
Once in Penticton proper, the trail transforms into a municipal multi-use trail. After wandering through the city for a few kilometres, the trail suddenly ends at a shopping centre parking lot. Suddenly we were left with major roads to navigate and traffic to contend with.
We hooked Tadhg’s bike to mine for the first time in the trip, not because he lacked strength or stamina, but because we needed to navigate significant urban roadways with abundant traffic. Fortunately, it was not for long and we soon found ourself on the canal pathway to make our way toward hotels where we hoped to find accommodation.
We arrived at the Ramada, which featured a pub with KVR memorabilia and so we checked in to a room.
Unfortunately, the pub was not opened to minors (even though it was calm, friendly and served food) and so we were directed to the poolside restaurant. We could not see any good reason for this since the poolside restaurant had a much bigger bar than the pub. Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived during Peachfest, when the town of Penticton is remade into a version of the movie “Animal House”. Several large, intoxicated, 19 to 25 year old men arrived at the bar just as we had ordered and proceeded to get loudly more drunk. We ate and went back to our room.
The kids immediately changed into their swimming gear and asked to head down to the pool. Although I was somewhat concerned about the drunks, I thought that the hotel would provide a safe enough environment for us to enjoy a bit of pool time.
The kids did indeed enjoy the pool, although I was chastised by one of the other patrons for protecting my children from the sun (they wear long-sleeve sunwear and hats). I however was somewhat traumatized when one of the drunks came up to the pool next to us and dove in to knee-deep water. Fortunately for him, the heavy steroid use protected his neck from breaking and he only bashed his head on the bottom of the pool. After getting him out of the pool and getting a towel to apply pressure to the bleeding, I asked the bartender to call an ambulance. The drunken friends talked the bartender out of the ambulance and one of them volunteered to drive the injured one to the hospital.
They were back in 15 minutes since there had been a long wait at the hospital and it would have interfered with their drinking time. They were very upset to hear that they had been cut off at the bar and they started to threaten the bartender loudly. They alternated between threats of lawsuits and violence until the police arrived to escort them from the hotel.
We were anxious to get away from Penticton the next morning. We started with a trip to Starbucks and a return trip to the hotel to retrieve forgotten items. At Starbucks we encountered a man who had cycled extensively in the area and who confirmed what the guidebook told us, that the trail out of Penticton was missing and that we needed to travel the highway until past Okanagan Falls. We took the municipal path South to the intersection with the highway and pulled out on to the highway. It was 8:30 in the morning and it was already over 30 C, so much for our cool morning riding.
As we pulled on to the highway shoulder, Tania got a look at the hill that we were facing. There were several km of 6-7% climbing ahead of us and Tania did not like it. We stopped for a while to discuss the alternatives, but it was obvious that what we needed to do was climb the hill. I hooked up Tadhg behind me so that he wouldn’t wander into the traffic lane and we set off. Tania quickly left us in the dust as she channelled her displeasure into climbing energy. We plodded along behind, the loaded cargo bike feeling like a bit of a whale on the steep hill.
As we reached the first crest, it became apparent that Tania was going to not only make it to the top of the hill, but that she was going to make great time. Many other cyclists were passing us on the road, but none of them was carrying more than 2 water bottles of weight on their sub-20 pound triathlon bikes.
We stopped at a roadside fruit stand for some peaches, apricots and cherries. We still had a long climb ahead of us, but it seemed less like certain doom and more like a challenge.
In order to make me feel better about myself, the BC provincial government placed a weigh scale at the top of the hill to measure just how much I had just lugged up. It turned out that my rig weighed 200kg (440 lbs) with our gear, food, (less 7 days that we had eaten) water, Finny and me. Tadhg and his bike were another 30kg (66 lbs). That meant that we were carrying over 150 lbs of gear and food.
After the weigh scale, we had a stretch of rolling hills, followed by a steep descent into Okanagan Falls. We stopped for snacks and to browse a shop. We moved on and rolled along the now much flatter highway toward the next section of trail which would take us through Oliver. We got held up by road construction part of the way there, and the heat was oppressive, but we made reasonable time. In a quirk of BC highway construction, (the other is misleading signage) the highway narrowed for every sharp curve, so that whenever there was a blind corner, there would be no shoulder and we would be forced dangerously close to speeding traffic who couldn’t see us.
We stopped at a gas station just before the trail to pick up some chocolate milk and Gatorade. We discovered that Tadhg liked lemon flavour Gatorade almost as much as he disliked orange flavour. From there on, he pointed out the Gatorade logo whenever he saw it. It’s probably a good thing for him to have at least one junk food that he likes.
Passing through the Oliver area from about half way between Okanagan Falls and Oliver to Halfway between Oliver and Osoyoos is a bike path that uses partly the KVR bed and partly alternate routes. The important part is that it is shady and flat and after the highway climb and descent, it was really nice to ride on dedicated cycling facility. We made great time to Oliver where we stopped at the former train station which has been converted to a tourist information office.
The super helpful folks at the tourist information office went out of their way to help us to find suitable accommodations for two nights in Oliver.
Somehow, in a stroke of incredible good fortune, we lucked into the Retreat By the Lake B&B near lake Tuc-el-Nuit. The room was huge and tasteful and for a modest price, a second room was available for the kids. Included in the room was wine, fruit and the use of the fabulous outdoor pool. The real gem though, was the couple who owned and operated the B&B. Patricia and Bob went out of their way to help us and make us comfortable. From driving us to get takeout from the local indian restaurant to inviting us to a barbecue with their friends and family, their hospitality was as good as it gets.
After a hearty breakfast, we set out on our last day of riding with mixed feelings about leaving, but with the confidence that we could make the 30 km remaining without too much trouble.
The ride through desert valley with vineyards surrounding us, was beautiful and fairly quick for the all-too-short rest of the bike path. There is more bike path under construction after the end of the existing bike path, but we were not at all sure if it would end in the middle of somewhere and it was not yet signed, so we did not take it.
The last 15 or so km to Haynes Point (campground in the town of Osoyoos) was on the highway again, and the ride was less enjoyable than path, but we managed the last few hills in reasonable comfort in spite of the heat. We unhooked Tadhg once we were off the highway so that he could finish his ride under his own power.
My parents had kindly offered to shuttle our car from Midway, so they arrived in the early afternoon for a swim and to visit.
The busy campground at Haynes Point, with its blaring televisions and generators was a big change from the peaceful quiet of the more remote campgrounds.
THINGS WE WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME:
It was dumb of me not to pack a bunch of toys for Fiona to play with in the bin of the cargo bike. For the next trip that we take, she will be big enough that we can put her on a tag-along type of bike so that she can feel like she is riding herself. We will also bring some toys along.
Sandy sections of the trail were difficult to navigate with Tadhg’s skinny-tire bike and he might be better off with wider tires, especially as he grows heavier. There is a lot to be said for his bike being under 20 pounds though.
The two man tent, three man tent and the hammock added up to a substantial weight, although this was not a huge problem on the shallow-grade rail bed.
Tadhg did not like the parts where we stopped to read the guidebook or the map, perhaps we will involve him more with the navigation process on future trips.
Ideally, we would avoid stopping in bigger towns during party seasons. Unfortunately, a bike tour such as this cannot be rigidly scheduled as it is difficult to adhere to distance and time schedules with children involved. The weather for our trip was ideal, but there was every possibility of extreme weather delaying us by a day or more.
Further research into the details of supposedly missing trail sections would be beneficial. Knowing that there was a trail along the shore of Skaha lake to OK Falls would have substantially changed our experience.
For various reasons, we decided at the last minute to take a holiday at the end of August. There are, of course, limits to what can be planned at the last minute, and so we decided to go bikepacking on another section of the KVR trail. I packed the food and we each packed our bike bags. We lined up possible itineraries with likely camping spots for the night. I built some wheels for Fiona’s bike (in the living room, much to Tania’s chagrin). I lined up everything so it was ready to go.
Tania went with Tadhg to Radium with her parents, I went bikepacking (can’t have too much bikepacking in your life) with Fiona and the Roberts family for Saturday night. When we got back on Sunday, I repacked and on Monday morning we were off to Radium. Until the pass coming down into Radium, everything was going more or less according to plan. Then my brakes started making a nasty grinding noise.
Fast forward to Wednesday morning, we were driving out to the Kananaskis in a borrowed truck with our bikes on the back and our bags in the luggage space. The kids and I have used the Elbow Loop as our stand-by route for a number of years. Tania had done the lower segments, but had not yet experienced the entirety of the loop. With our time now limited to three days and with the unknown of bikepacking with kids on a non-rail trail, we decided that it would be a good fit. Our “emergency vacation” was on!
The first day was a known quantity, 7km of easily rideable gravel. All of the 2013 flood damage on this part of the trail is repaired or re-routed. The campground is serviced by an ordinary pickup truck. As such, the campground had an ample supply of firewood and was cleaner than it had been last year.
Around 5AM, the wind suddenly picked up quite a bit and became gusty. This did not bode well for the following day as it was coming directly from the direction we were going to. I was hoping for the wind to die down a little while I served Tania her backcountry cappuccinos and we all ate breakfast.
The first few km were not too bad, fierce headwinds, but rideable terrain. Until we reached the first missing bridge, the trail was even fully repaired. I had worn my sandals with the intent of ferrying the bikes and people across the river so that no one else would have to suffer cold, wet feet.
Once across the river, we were fully exposed to the wind. I should explain, that Tania is not usually a mountain biker, this trail fell into the barely rideable category for her without the wind. When the wind started knocking her from her bike, she was not amused. I felt bad, I hadn’t predicted the wind would make things so much more difficult. Much worse, I was enjoying the extra challenge.
After the second river crossing, there were a few washed out sections of trail that required some hike-a-bike and even a bit of bushwhacking. Tadhg and I had been through here last year, so it wasn’t that new to us, though we usually did this section as a technical downhill in the opposite direction. I did a bit of ferry-pushing where I would walk back down steeper sections to retrieve Tania and Fiona’s bikes.
We took about 5 hours to cover the 14 km or so to the campsite at Tombstone, but we did make it. I like to think that Tania will forgive me one day. I did carry the beer and the tasty dinner to recharge after a long day.
Our last day was back in the comfort zone. We had a couple of km of pushing followed by 15km or so of mostly downhill. Fiona rode 90% of the pushing section, I alternated between riding and pushing, and we made it to the top soon enough.
Though it was threatening to rain, it was warm enough that we didn’t need to bundle up for the downhill. Tadhg and I made a game of doing jumps off the water bars. We paused frequently to allow Fiona with her smaller wheels to keep up with us, but we still had some easy riding.
Fiona did yell at me whenever we came to an uphill (all very small) since I promised that the day would be almost all downhill.
We (well, mostly me) were absolutely delighted to come down the steep embankment to the river to find that a temporary bridge was in place until the permanent one gets installed. I left my sandals right where they were and we all crossed the river with dry, warm feet.
A short couple of km and we were back at the car. Another family bikepack, more or less successful.
My buddy Scott at Porcelain Rocket has been several times to Fish Lakes, up the Mosquito Creek trail on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National park. He has consistently talked about it being one of the best hikes he has been on. We have been watching for vacancies in the campground that lined up with potential vacation days for a couple of years now, and this year we had the opportunity to try it.
Our first day was a bit of a warm-up with a short 5km hike to the Mosquito Creek backcountry campsite. It was pleasantly tucked into the woods near the creek, and the hike was easy, if a little muddy from all the rain we have had this summer. There are occasionally horses on the trail, so the trail does have numerous potholes that drain poorly.
The Perseid meteor shower was due to peak on our first night out, but there were some fairly persistent clouds that prevented us from getting much of a view of them. Fiona worked herself up over them enough that she woke up a couple of times in the night to ask me to check for “rocks falling in the sky”. Though we were under the tarp as usual, we had the bug net deployed, so I needed to move quite a bit further than usual to see the sky.
Our second day was much more ambitious, 13km over North Molar Pass. The kids have learned to be leery of the word “pass” since it sometimes means really steep climbing and equally steep descending on the far side.
After the first couple of kilometres of hiking, we emerged into a gorgeous alpine meadow with views of mountains all around. The meadow itself would have been enough to make most hikes worthwhile, but it turned out that this was only the opening act of a very impressive show.
The meadow went on for a couple of kilometres, and then gave way to the climb of the pass itself. The hike wasn’t easy, but at the same time it was not as arduous as many of the passes we have hiked this summer.
But what a view! It was spectacular on the way up, even better at the summit, and continued to amaze on the way down. I know why people come here.
It was only a few downhill kilometres to the Fish Lakes campground on the shore of upper Fish Lake. We got a laugh when we spotted the “no fishing” signs. The kids really enjoyed the irony. We set up our mid and our tarp in a couple of the cleared spots in the trees and started on making dinner.
As per usual, we met a few friendly and interesting campers. I increasingly believe the idea that time spent in the backcountry improves your sanity. It seems that the people who spend the most time in the backcountry are the easiest to get along with.
Fish Lakes has a number of options for dayhikes from the campground. Armed with a vague description and no map, we decided to try Pipestone Pass, with the idea that we would turn back if it turned out to be too far (I have a pretty good map collection, but not this one).
After passing the rangers’ cabin a kilometre or so down the trail from the campground, we followed the sign to Pipestone Pass. After a series of switchbacks through forest, we were ejected into a series of alpine meadows with lakes and mountains and glaciers to look at. We hiked on through the day in a wonderland of flowers and lakes that were breathtaking. The recent rains meant that the trail was quite wet and there were a couple of creek and bog crossings where we took off our shoes to cross. Neither this, nor the “horsed ” trail could dampen our enthusiasm for the surrounding scenes.
I did have to break out some stories on the trail to distract Fiona from working up to a trail conniption. I usually tell lesser known sequels to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. This time, it was one about the boy joining a civil service construction union. It took 4 guys, seven weeks to change a lightbulb – only a slight exaggeration. The stories are based around being long, literary merit is not given the least consideration.
As we came to the summit of the pass, we were a little disappointed when the trail died out suddenly. Only later, when we had read some trail descriptions. did we realize that this is how the trail goes. A bit of bushwhacking (rockwhacking?) would have gotten us through the pass to see the far side unimpeded. As it was, we had spent more time and gone further than we had intended. Our one-way distance was around 11.5 km and we still had the return journey to make.
Fiona was near the limit to her hiking, but as soon as we turned around, she perked up. (after we explained to her that she could still swim when we returned)
The time flew on our way back and soon we were back at the campsite to spend another night. The 8-year-old and the 48-year-old were pretty tired, but the hike was well worth it.
It was also our fancy dinner night and we had coconut couscous lentil stew, it was delicious, even though I added a little too much water to the lentil part of it. We cook up the lentil and spice part ahead of the trip and then dehydrate it since lentils cook very slowly at high altitude.
Of course when I woke up at 6 on Sunday morning, it was starting to rain. A thorough look at the sky showed me cloud from horizon to horizon, with a thunderstorm passing just the other side of the lake. It was clear to me that we were going to be packing up and hiking out in pouring rain again.
Just after our first coffee, I was proven wrong when the clouds moved off leaving a sunny sky in their wake. The hike out was actually very pleasant, other than the trail being somewhat wetter than when we hiked in. We did the entire 18km out in one day, with a couple of lunch and snack breaks.