Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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When we prepared our February family backpacking trip in Scotland, we expected beautiful mountains, unspoilt wilderness and, yes, questionable winter weather. I know. Winter backpacking and Scotland don’t seem like they should belong in the same sentence but here‘s a dumb challenge for you: we said we would go camping every month in 2017. Freezing temperatures and blizzards were not going to get in our way and I had always dreamed of camping in the Cairngorms National Park, this slice of Scottish Highlands with Arctic conditions. Though it may sound like bad parenting, rest assured that my girls (ages 11 and 13) love an adventure (and have a good sense of humor).
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Thanks to our little February Cairngorms expedition, I learned a few dumb lessons on winter family backpacking that I’m sharing below. Get ready.
Sleeping under the stars is awesome, but OMG winter camping nights are long! In the middle of Scotland in early February, the sun sets at 4.53 p.m. and rises at 8.01 a.m. the next day. That’s 15+ hours of very dark, very lonely, very remote night, y’all. Kind of a bedtime endurance test. How late can you stretch the evening fun when the sun’s been down for 2 hours, you’ve had dinner and it’s so effing cold (even in the tent) that you’d rather keep your hands inside the sleeping bag?
Yeah. 7 p.m. sounds about right to hit the sack. Mindfulness time.
This could be a textbook science experiment. “What is the minimum weight of a person who can stand in 75 mph winds?” As it turns out, 32kg + backpack is not enough. After our youngest was blown off course twice by gusts of wind (man, the Cairngorms are windy), we decided to hold on to her shoulder so that she would walk steady. Yes, we love her dearly.
That said, small kids are definitely not your best bet to walk straight on windswept barren plateaus. My vote goes to hippos as sturdy backpacking companions.
How difficult would it be to tie two sticks into knots? Very difficult. How funny would it be to tie frozen shoelaces on hiking boots with sausage fingers? Meh. It depends on who you ask. My girls burst out laughing when I showed them that my shoelaces were frozen stiff and poked straight in the air on the morning of day 3. Me? I grumbled.
For what it’s worth, putting on crampons with cold numb fingers is not half as funny. Go figure.
If there’s a book dedicated to how to shit in the woods (UK | US), there should be one about peeing in a snow blizzard. Blimey, it’s tricky. Imagine the scene. You’re out in the boonies and vegetation is ankle high at best. So much for good cover. You’re also wearing 5 to 6 layers of clothes that keep you warm, from head to toes. Last but not least, snow is blowing horizontal. It’s coming from the sky or from the hills, you’re not sure, but one thing is sure. Any liquid/solid will blow horizontal too.
Here’s the plan.
I know what you’re thinking. “Yum, I want some.” Well, you would be sadly mistaken. One of the joys of family backpacking, particularly winter family backpacking, is cooking food in the tent while everybody’s waiting (i.e. watching), guessing when it’s done and eating it before it gets cold. Turns out, there’s another layer of fun. In late January, your local store might have deals on Chinese meals for the Chinese New Year. Mine did and I felt totally inspired. That’s how I bought dry Chinese noodles with a ginger sauce and because I wanted to add a veggie, I also packed dry shitake mushrooms.
Do you know how long it takes for dry shitake mushrooms to rehydrate in simmering water in freezing conditions? Me neither. I have no friggin’ clue. That’s how we ate half-cooked Chinese noodles with half-rehydrated shitake mushrooms on the evening of day 2 and had a good laugh about the quality of the cooking. Dinner was very chewy, very bland and got cold very fast. Memorable, for sure, though not easy to digest.
We didn’t have a thermometer with us but when we pitched the tent in the snow at the end of day 2, we knew that it was cold. Even fully clothed with multiple layers, foot-warmers in our socks and bodies inside our sleeping bags, it was pretty nippy. Imagine our hilarity when we realized that we could see our breaths by the light of a headlamp.
What the heck?
Everybody loves a hot meal when it’s cold outside. Especially in the snow. Both my girls love soups and we’ve done freeze-dried soups before but on this trip, they wanted to try something new. When they found out that our supermarket sells powdered miso soups, that sealed the menu. Because I wanted them to eat protein for lunch, I added to my husband’s obnoxiously full backpack a silly-heavy pack of firm tofu.
When my girls were hungry at lunch time on day 2, I whipped out the JetBoil Zip from my backpack, heated some water, cut the tofu with my Swiss army knife and rehydrated the powdered miso soups. Needless to say, Andy, our mountain guide, got a good kick out of our cooking shenanigans. Under steadily falling snowflakes, it was slightly surreal but my girls loved it.
It sounds like common sense, but flat tents make very poor sleeping quarters. Since the Cairngorms experience some of the highest wind speeds of the British Isles, high winds were a risk. Indeed, when we first attempted to pitch our tent in heather moorland, it went flat in two seconds despite all the poles in place. Wow. Hold your horses, now. Obviously, we could not sit in our tent, let alone sleep in it, if it flapped on us all night.
We had no choice but to move. Fortunately, Andy recc’ed the area and found a good spot half a mile away behind a spur. We picked up our tent (literally, picked it up in our arms), crossed a stream (wet boots for me) and pitched the tent sheltered from the wind. Bliss.
Ice picks are totally underrated as tent pegs. Take my word for it. As we were camping in the Cairngorms National Park, we were surrounded by typical Scottish Highlands vegetation at lower elevations on day 1–heather. More heather. Lots of heather. It’s pretty, it’s comfy but what it ain’t, is firm ground.
Pitching a tent on rampant heather is a very interesting experience. Our regular pegs couldn’t reach the ground. Those that could bounced off–ground was acting like a trampoline. Never mind, we tied our tent ropes to heather branches but those weren’t strong enough and we were back to a super flapping-tent-fest. That’s when it hit us. Ice picks to the rescue! And presto, the tent was soundly pitched in the ground.
Another note on heather. It makes for very uneven ground to set up a camping kitchen. Don’t be shy, weed away.
If you’re sentimental like me, you want to return from a family backpacking trip with all the members of your family–preferably in one piece. Getting lost is not an option, nor is losing a family member over a cliff. That’s why a whiteout in a snow blizzard above treeline is so disconcerting. With no phone connection, no operating GPS, no visibility, no idea where is ahead or where is back, all that on featureless terrain, you’re in a pickle. Any direction could land you in deep trouble, further from a shelter and a hot cup of tea. Also, the wind is blowing too hard to even consider pitching and it’s cold, so you need to move it, move it.
Who you gonna call? Andy, your favorite mountain guide! He can navigate with a map and compass, count his paces, gauge distances and generally, lead you in the right direction safely.
Thank God for mountain guides. Their services are not cheap, but in extreme terrain such as the Cairngorms, they’re your best life insurance. When in doubt about your outdoor skills, don’t hesitate to ask for their help. There’s a reason it’s tough to become a certified mountain guide. These people know what to do in most circumstances. Humbly, I’ll admit that I don’t.
Winter backpacking with kids is great. It’s also a lot of fun if you’re reasonable about your expectations. I wanted snow camping. I got snow camping. I didn’t really want to be cold at night but that happened anyway. My girls were fine though, toasty little things.
What do you want? I hope that this piece helps a few souls plan their next winter adventure with kids in the best possible way.