Thursday, 26 July 2012

Kids hiking gear: Do they really need it?

Mack in Gore-tex and hiking boots.
Yesterday I snuck out for an early lunch to look at daypacks at MEC (I have a 28L, a 50L and an 80L, but I could use a 40L. Sometimes the 28L is too small, the 50L is too big and something in between would be just right...but that's another blog post). While I was looking quite nerdy bouncing around with a Spirit 40 loaded with some weight to see how it fit--how does it feel if I jiggle like this? How about if I lunge?--I ran into two women from work. The daughter of one needed kids hiking gear for summer camp, but the mom didn't know anything about packs, sleeping bags and all the rest of the stuff on the equipment list. The other woman, who hikes with her kids, came along to help her out.

All went well until the boot section. The one mom simply didn't have enough money to buy the "hiking shoes or boots" that were on the required gear list for a three-day backpacking trip that was part of the two-week camp. Her daughter would have to make do with running shoes. The other woman was aghast. Footwear with the word "hiking" in the name was absolutely required. She would bring a pair of kids hiking boots that her daughter had outgrown and "should" fit the camp which I quietly disagreed. Runners that fit would be much better than hiking boots or shoes that don't. After all, the list said "hiking shoes" would be acceptable, and most hiking shoes are just gussied up running shoes. Ill-fitting hiking boots lead to ill-feeling, blistered feet. In the end, the mom was confused, didn't know what to do, and took the cheaper route. Running shoes it was.

Michael: cotton & runners. Mack: cotton & boots. Both: survived the ordeal.
I bring this up because parents often ask me about kids hiking gear: what do they need. Already tapped out by school fees, sports fees, camp fees, you-name-it fees, the thought of shelling out for kid-sized Goretex, hiking boots, packs, dry fit shirts, hiking shorts, fleece and on and on actually prevents some from taking their kids hiking. It's not necessarily that they've bought into the hype, but they walk into MEC and, if they're aren't hikers themselves, they're overwhelmed. They don't know what all the stuff is or whether their kid needs it, but one look at the price tag says they can't afford it.

My response: get all that stuff if you can afford it, but don't worry if you can't. It can be helpful, but most of it isn't essential. Lo these many years ago when I was a kid in Scouts, we regularly went hiking, backpacking and scrambling in running shoes, jeans and cotton t-shirts and hoodies (kangaroo jackets back in the day). I don't recall anyone dying of hypothermia because their cotton clothes weren't wicking moisture away, or breaking ankles because their delinquent parents were too cheap to shell out for the heavy, blister-inducing all-leather boots of the day. When I take my kids out, sometimes they wear runners and sometimes they wear their hiking boots. It's up to them. I'll pack their rain coats (my 12-year-old does have a Goretex jacket; again, that's another post, but having the same gear as their parents can help kids develop a passion for the outdoors), but if they bring a cotton hoodie instead of their fleece I don't freak out.

The point I'm trying to make is that, like many simple things in life, we've made hiking more about the cost of the gear than the value of the experience, especially when it comes to kids. Aside from gas money to reach the trail, hiking is essentially free. Whether your kids have Northface hiking pants or blue jeans from Walmart, the important thing is to get them out.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Hiking with Kids near Canmore: Stoneworks Canyon (Extreme is a matter of perspective)

Stoneworks Canyon
I stumbled across Stoneworks Canyon while researching a scramble up Squaw's Tit (seriously, that's what it's called, probably due to the nipple on top), the high point on a ridge that leads to Mount Charles Stewart. Although the route to Squaw's Tit doesn't pass through Stoneworks Canyon, the route to the summit of Mount Charles Stewart does. One website led to another, and I found myself looking at photos of a canyon that narrows to a few meters across, lots of rocks to climb on and short approach up a dry creek bed.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

Stoneworks Canyon, or the Stone Works as rock and sport climbers call it, looked like the perfect place for a kids hike. It didn't disappoint. On the north side of the Trans-Canada and across from Canmore, it was less than an hour's drive from Calgary. Although "Jimmy's Trail" leads to Stoneworks, our group, a dozen or so parents and kids, hiked up the rocky creek bed, which is dry except during the spring run off. Within an hour we were at the entrance to the canyon.

After dropping our packs and eating a bite, we spent an hour exploring the canyon beyond. A narrow opening led directly to an even narrower twisty slot carved by thousands of years of water cutting through the limestone. Above, the rock seemed to close over us like a convoluted roof. In the imaginations of the kids we were on another planet. Although still on earth, we were indeed a world away from the iPods and cell phones back in the cars.

One mom, who'd joined our group while on vacation from Illinois, asked if I'd been to Stoneworks Canyon before. When I told her it was my first time, she seemed amazed. How did I know about it? The answer is easy: I always keep an eye out for places that I think would look fun and "extreme" to my seven-year-old and 12-year-old boys. Sometimes I come across those places while hiking or scrambling (that's how I found the boulder field on Little Lougheed and the fossils on Burns Ridge), and sometimes I find them while researching other hikes and scrambles.

While not every parent can do this, if only because they don't go on as many hikes as I do or they don't know what websites have trip reports of likely trails, often it comes down to remembering to stop, clear your mind and look at your surroundings from the perspective of your kids. This true whether you're at the off-leash park with your dog, walking through a park or driving along the river on the way to work. Even just looking at the ground under your feet or the rocks in your backyard with the eyes of a child can reveal a hidden natural playground.

Distance: 5 or 6 km round trip
Elevation gain: A couple hundred meters
Hiking/Exploring Time: 3 to 5 hours
Directions: Take the Trans-Canada west to Canmore. Take the second exit. Rather than staying on Benchlands Trail, turn left onto Palliser Trail. Approximately 2km from the Trans-Canada turn-off, on the right, there is a gated entrance to Stoneworks Canyon (Johnny's Trail). Go through the gate and either proceed straight ahead to the creek bed or watch for the trail entrance on the left at the end of the gravel pit.

Click here for a driving map

Heading back to the car on the dry creek bed.

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