Winter Family Backpacking and Camping in the Cairngorms
When we prepared our February 2017 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. Good thing my girls (then 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 am sharing a few fun highlights on winter family backpacking.
#1 | 7 p.m. is the new curfew
Sleeping under the stars is awesome, but OMG winter camping nights are long, particularly along the 57th North parallel! That’s the latitude of the Gulf of Alaska, Denmark and the Cairngorms. 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?
To us, 7 p.m. sounded about right to hit the sack.
#2 | A lightweight 11-year-old can be blown away by hurricane-force winds
This could be a textbook science experiment. “What should your minimum weight be to withstand 75 mph winds?” As it turns out, 32 kg / 70 lbs and a backpack is too light. After our youngest was blown off course twice by strong gusts of wind (man, the Cairngorms are windy), we decided to hold on to her shoulder so that she would walk steady.
In high wind conditions, it’s best to hold hands with small kids and make sure they’re well away from cliffs or unsafe terrain.
#3 | Tying frozen shoelaces is amusing (not)
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 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. For your next winter camping trip, expect to spend a few minutes “softening” your frozen shoe laces before tying them tight.
#4 | Peeing in a snow blizzard
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 this. I am out in the boonies and vegetation is ankle high at best. So much for good cover. I’m also wearing 5 to 6 layers of clothes to keep me warm from head to toes. Last but not least, snow is blowing horizontal. It’s coming from the sky or from the hills, I’m not sure, but any liquid/solid will blow horizontal too.
Here’s my plan.
- I could wait until dark. I could also ask everybody to turn the other way (if they hear me).
- On the chosen spot, I face the opposite direction of the wind and remove one glove and unzip my jacket as fast as possible.
- With my ungloved hand, I unbutton/zip snow trousers and trousers.
- I pull down all base layers and get on with it. By now, my ungloved hand is so cold it’s losing sensations on its extremities.
- To wipe, snow works fine.
- All done. I button up/zip all layers quickly.
- Never mind putting the glove back on, my snow gloves are a tight fit. I take cover asap and warm my hand in my pockets with hand-warmers (UK| US).
Hydration is essential outdoors, even during a snow blizzard, but know that it comes at a price. You can’t put off the call of nature forever.
#5 | Half-cooked food for dinner
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, my local store promoted meal deals for the Chinese New Year and I felt totally inspired. That’s how I bought dry egg 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. Ours didn’t make it that far. With my girls, we ate tough Chinese noodles with chewy 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. It sure makes for great memories — that and the time we ran out of fuel before warming up water for our freeze-dried meals.
#6 | When you see your breath by the light of a headlamp in the tent
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 lower 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.
#7 | Snow miso soup is the next cooking frontier
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 grocery store sells powdered miso soups, that sealed the menu. Because I wanted them to eat protein for lunch, I packed a silly heavy block 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. You could say this was ultimate hipsterness and you wouldn’t be far off. 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.
#8 | Pitching tents in high winds
It sounds like common sense, but flat tents make for very poor sleeping quarters. Since the Cairngorms experience some of the highest wind speeds of the British Isles, high winds were a risk. When we first attempted to pitch our tent in heather moorland, it went flat in two seconds despite all the poles in place. Good thing they didn’t snap too. 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. Deal done.
It’s really worth finding a quiet spot to pitch a tent when in an area famous for its high winds.
#9 | Ice picks as emergency tent pegs
Ice picks are totally underrated as tent pegs. 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. Too short, our regular pegs couldn’t touch 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 windy 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.
#10 | Navigating in a whiteout
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. When we hit a whiteout in a snow blizzard above the treeline, we could have been in a big pickle. With no phone connection, no operating GPS, no visibility, no idea where is ahead or where is back, all we could see was featureless terrain. Any direction could have landed us in deep trouble, further from a shelter and from a hot cup of tea. The wind was blowing too hard to even consider pitching and it was cold, so we needed to move it pronto.
Navigating in whiteouts takes skill, experience. That’s why we were so glad to be with Andy, your favorite mountain guide! He navigated with a map and compass, counted his paces, gauged distances and led us in the right direction to safety. We would never have made it without him.
Thank God for mountain guides. Their services are not cheap, but in remote mountain terrain such as the Cairngorms or mountains in winter, they’re your best life insurance.
When in doubt about your outdoor skills, don’t hesitate to hire a mountain guide. 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 get cold at night and that happened anyway, though fortunately my girls kept warm throughout.
What I’m saying is: plan your winter adventures with kids wisely.