SAFETY NOTE:Tiffany and I are both very experienced paddlers who had the right training and right gear in case we went for a dip; we also had a chat about risks and what-ifs before heading out, so we had a game plan in place should one of us fall in. Paddling in the winter definitely isn’t for the inexperienced or unprepared paddler, so if you choose to find open water this winter, make sure you know what you are doing and are prepared for the worst case scenario.
When you talk to someone about skiing in the Rockies, their mind undoubtedly goes first to downhill. And yes, downhill is fun. Obviously. But I also have a deep love for cross country skiing. I love cross country skiing for the lack of lineups, the ability to find solitude or to actually spend quality time with friends. One of my most memorable winter nights was spent xc skiing behind a lynx and watching the aurora dance overhead. These are the kinds of quiet, serene moments that you will never find on a ski hill.
I can remember my first time on cross country skis. I was AWFUL. It was in my grade 10 outdoor gym class, and I was skiing on a pair of wooden skis with three pin bindings that I had picked up at the local thrift shop just for my class. Those skis are probably still in my parents shed back in Ontario (sorry Mom and Dad!). All I remember was not being able to go up hills and how cold my feet were in the leather ski shoes that came with the set. I tried hard to love it at that point, but it wasn’t until moving out to the Rockies (and working for a ski shop) that I really fell in love with the sport. Since moving to Kananaskis, I have skied pretty extensively on the incredible network of (free!) trails that are groomed and maintained by Alberta Parks.
Right up until yesterday, when this damn Chinook blew in, the winter conditions out here in Kananaskis were spectacular. The snow was plentiful and all the ski trails were perfectly groomed. I wanted to share some photos from last Wednesday, where I was the first person out on the trails after they were groomed and track set. This was all along the Bill Milne trail here in Spray Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis, which while not overly exciting (its valley bottom, so pretty flat but gorgeous views), literally runs through my backyard so its super easy for me to hop onto it.
Lake Louise is an icon of beauty in the Canadian Rockies; however, most people only know it for its turquoise waters of summer. What about the other 6 months of the year? Lake Louise is actually a winter paradise for people who love being outside in the cold. Here are my favorite things to do outside at Lake Louise in the winter:
On the lake, there is a hockey rink cleared for playing shinny, as well as a large cleared ice surface for families. Just prior to the Banff Ice Magic Festival every January, a large ice castle is built on Lake Louise, in the center of the family ice surface. In years past, there has even been a throne in the heart of the castle, allowing everyone to be King or Queen of Lake Louise, even if only for a minute. Don’t have your own skates? Not a problem! Ice skate rentals are available in the Chateau. Click here for more details on rentals. Pro tip: bundle up, it’s usually quite windy on the lake.
I have wanted to XC ski at Lake Louise for as long as I’ve known there was a trail to ski. I finally got to check that item off my bucket list last week. I skied a couple laps of the lake and with it being my first real xc ski of the season, I was feeling pretty good. I didn’t fall, my technique was solid and I was in a good rhythm. It was a pretty chilly day, sitting around -20 with the wind chill. I have never had my eyelashes freeze before. I should try to pass it off as the latest winter look 😉
The XC ski trail on Lake Louise starts at the boathouse and is flat groomed and trackset all the way to the waterfall at the far end. I skied through powder so I could come back on the other side of the lake and to do it as a loop instead of a linear trail.Parts of the trail were severely mashed due to snowshoers and people walking on it, but the vast majority of the trail was in great shape.
The frozen waterfall at the end of the lake is definitely worth getting to and then hiking up to the base of.
If you’re not big into xc skiing or skating, then give snowshoeing a shot! There is a snowshoe trail that cuts across Lake Louise, as well as many kms of other trails around the lake and surrounding area. Always make sure to check that you are not going into avalanche terrain; check the reports and know what areas are safe. It’s pretty amazing to be able to snowshoe out into the middle of the lake, and to look back at the Chateau: the opposite of what most people see when visiting.
Other winter delights:
Go during the Ice Festival and look at magical ice carvings, have a drink at the outdoor ice bar, take a sleigh ride around the lake or enjoy a bonfire hosted by the Lake Louise staff.
My absolute favorite winter activity at Lake Louise is stargazing. The stars are always fantastic (as long as its clear) and you can set up a long exposure and skate around while you wait, or better yet, play with lights through a long exposure!
Originally designed by the necessities of living in a snow-covered world, nowadays, people mostly snowshoe for fun. Snowshoeing turns hiking into a year-round activity. Snowshoes no longer look like tennis racquets strapped to your feet; modern snowshoes are sleek and usually come equipped with ice cleats built in, making for incredible traction in even the most slippery of winter conditions.
Kananaskis is a haven for snowshoers, offering a long snowshoeing season and a huge variety of trails. By the Kananaskis Village, there are a couple of great loops for newcomers to the sport; the Village Loops leave right from the Village Centre, and have a 2.5km option or a 1.5km option, or you can do them both for a great 4km loop. This loop has a little bit of elevation gain but remains very family friendly.
Another snowshoe trail close to the village that is family friendly, is the Troll Falls trail. Leaving from the Stoney trailhead, this is an easy 4km loop when done in conjunction with the Hay Meadows trail. This trail features a beautiful wintery waterfall and fantastic valley-bottom views of the surrounding peaks.
If you are willing to drive a little deeper into Kananaskis for snowshoeing, then you need to check out Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. This park offers kilometer after kilometer of snowshoe trails, with a wide range of views. On our recommended list to check out are:
The Elkwood loop starts at the Elkwood amphitheater and travels across the frozen edge of Marl lake. At 3.4km in length, and with little elevation gain, this is another great snowshoe loop for families.
Hogarth Lakes is another Kananaskis classic. Starting at the Burstall Pass trailhead, you share the trail with skiers for about 200m, before the snowshoe trail meanders off into the woods. This trail takes you through beautiful spruce and pine stands before taking you over Hogarth Lakes. There are always lots of tracks and signs of wildlife along this loop and one of our guides has even spotted a lynx along the trail (from a distance!). Take a lunch or some hot chocolate along on this 4.1km trek to make the most of a beautiful winters day.
Looking for a bit more of a challenge? Then Chester Lake is for you. The cross country ski trail at Chester Lake follows the summer hiking trail, but the winter snowshoeing trail is a much steeper climb. The steep hike is definitely worth the reward! The trail deposits you on a frozen alpine lake, surrounded by fiercely beautiful peaks. Definitely take a lunch along: This 7km hike has 287 meters of elevation gain.
No matter how long you are planning on being outside while snowshoeing, be it a 2.5km loop or a 15km summit day, there are some very important things to keep in mind. In the winter, what may start as a simple backcountry emergency can get a lot worse very quickly. To make sure you are well prepared for any situation, there are some things that you should always carry:
- Emergency blanket/bivy. Make sure to account for group size
- Enough water and keep it thawed! Store it inside your pack or next to your body. It’s no good as ice
- Snacks and food – enough to get you through an accidental night in the outdoors
- First Aid kit
- Hand warmers – these little packs can help if some ones gloves just aren’t cutting it
- Spare toque, gloves and socks and an extra mid layer
- Headlamp or flashlight – winter days are short!
Before you go:
- Check the local avalanche reports. You can check it here. If you are in an Alberta Parks area, then the designated snowshoe trails are not located in avalanche terrain. If you are entering avalanche terrain, make sure you have the necessary training and gear.
- Let someone know where you are going and when to expect you back.
- Know the local emergency number: here in Kananaskis it is 403-591-7755, or 911 for life-threatening emergencies.
- Check the local weather and dress for it. Remember to dress in layers!
Snowshoeing is a great activity to keep you outdoors all winter long! There is always somewhere new to explore and fresh powder to plow through! Looking for a twist on snowshoeing? Check out our Stargazing Snowshoe tours!
Cross country skiers are infamous for disliking snowshoers because they wreck their trails; snowshoers think that cross country skiers are snobs. And fat bikers? Well, no one likes fat bikers. Don’t believe me that there is so much drama in the world of casual winter sports? Check out this blog post from Skier Bob. It is titled ‘Snowshoers would use the snowshoe trail if we started skiing on it.’ If you want to really see the tension, read the comments. They are way worse than the actual article.
So would you believe me if I told you that its actually really easy for everyone to get along and all just enjoy winter trails? As someone who does all three of the above winter sports, I promise you, it IS possible. Now that there is actually snow on the ground, and winter trails are opening, it is once again time to look at some winter trail etiquette.
Don’t Wreck The Tracks
Here in Kananaskis, we take a lot of pride in our cross country ski trails. They are world class, well-groomed and, best of all, free for people to use. There is a dedicated Alberta Parks team who keeps on top of grooming the trails, and you can even check a live grooming report here.
A groomed ski track may look like this:
(thanks Shutterstock for the photo!)
or like this:
(Photo by Crystal Mountain)
The first photo is of a ‘flat groomed’ cross country track. This track works great for classic and skate skiing. The second photo is of a ‘track set’ ski trail. The difference being the parallel grooves carved into the snow in the second photo. These grooves are specifically designed for the gliding of classic cross country skiing, and skate skiing will wreck those tracks. It is important to know what the trail is groomed for before going out. Most track set trails also have a skate lane, so if skate skiing, please be courteous and do not wreck the tracks.
You can imagine what these tracks would look like if a snowshoe-er or hiker walked through them and mashed them up; hint: They would look rough. If a cross country skier hits a mashed up bump at high speed (say at the bottom of a hill or something) they can fall or go flying. If a snowshoe trail cross a ski trail, it is best practice to step over the ski tracks, so as to avoid mashing them. If you are on snowshoes and need to follow a cross country ski trail for a bit, walk on the edge of the trail, so as not to ruin the tracks or the skate lane.
Who Has The Right-of-Way
Trails can get busy, especially on weekend with nice weather, so it is important to know who has the right of way so that nobody gets frustrated and everyone can enjoy their day.
- If it is a cross country ski trail and you are snowshoeing (even if you are on the edge of the trail), the cross country skier has the right of way. Since you know, its a ski trail and all.
- The person travelling downhill has the right of way. The assumption here is that they will be travelling at higher speed, and the person going uphill is probably going to enjoy a momentary break anyway.
- Ski on the right, pass on the left. Same as when you are driving in a car.
- Politely call out to let people know if you are approaching from the rear if you are going to overtake or pass them.
What About Fido
- In some areas, particularly on groomed ski trails in provincial parks, dogs are not allowed. Always check signage for where you are skiing.
- Always pick up after your pet
- If your dog is allowed on the trail, check the leash laws for the area.
- Whether you are in an on-leash or off-leash area, keep your dog under your control. They should not interfere with other peoples enjoyment of the day, or worse, cause injury to someone else.
As far as winter sports go, fat tire bicycles are the new kids on the block. Mountain biking used to be confined just to summer, but now that these bikes can be outfitters with super wide tires, riding in the snow just got a whole lot more fun. But since fat bikes are so new, really only having gained popularity in the last couple of years , sometimes it seems like people don’t know where they should be riding them. So lets cover the basics here:
- Fat bikes CANNOT go on groomed ski trails. Period. If the trail is track set, do not ride there. It is up for debate in some areas if fat bikes can ride on flat groomed trails, so err on the side of caution and don’t do it.
- Fatbikes are generally welcome on snowshoe trails
- Be respectful of people moving slower than you, and call out politely so as not to surprise or scare them.
Winter Leave No Trace Principles
Leave No Trace is a fantastic organization that educates people on how to leave the natural world as nice or nicer than they found it, as well as how to enjoy it safely. You can check out the winter LNT principles here.
So as you can see, its really not that difficult to all get along outside; whether you are on skis, snowshoes or a fatbike, we are all out there for the same reason: to enjoy nature.
Oh and by the way..
If you have to pee, don’t just stop on the trail and pee on the side. Everyone who passes that point after you will have to see the yellow snow you left behind. Take at least a few steps off the trail, find some cover, or cover it with snow. We all know it wasn’t a dog when there are snowshoe or ski tracks that stop directly in front of a pile of yellow snow… Don’t be gross.
This is what I woke up to this morning. Yup, you read that correctly -28 degrees celsius, feels like -36 with the wind chill. At that temperature, exposed skin can get frostbite in 5-10 minutes. But just because it gets cold, doesn’t mean that outdoor activities suddenly stop. Unless you can go into hibernation for the winter like a bear* , you are still going to have to venture out in this weather. There are right and wrong ways to dress for this, and it may surprise you that throwing on an arctic rated parka is not always the answer. So let’s take a look at the best way to dress for different activities at this temperature.
When is a good time to wear that parka rated for -50?
If you are going to be active, then the only good time to wear a parka rated for like – 50 is when you are at…- 50. If you are going to be doing a lot of standing around, or not physically exerting yourself, then that arctic rated parka will do just fine. But if you are going to be hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, etc (i.e. any activity that is going to make you sweat) than wearing a jacket rated for that cold is going to make you sweat, which is the body’s way of cooling down. So what do you think happens when it’s -36 and your body starts trying to cool itself off? It’s not good. There is a reason Les Stroud says ‘you sweat, you die.’
<Here I am in a Canada Goose Parka because it was -30 and I was standing around at Lake Louise photographing with the wind blowing off the glaciers at the end of the lake.
Now I’m not saying don’t buy a jacket that is rated for that cold, but know when to wear it.You definitely should not start wearing it at relatively warm temperatures. I have seen people walking around in Canada Goose jackets before the temperature is even below freezing. If you acclimatize your body to that so early on in the season, what are you going to wear when it is actually cold out?
From the Feet Up:
When picking out winter boots, do not treat a temperature rating like it is a set in stone fact. Temperature ratings are super subjective, depending a lot on the person and what the gear is paired with. The warmest boots I own are a pair of deer hide mukluks lined with fluffy sheepskin (these were a staple when you live in Northern Ontario). However, it is not always practical to wear them since I can’t put them in snowshoe bindings, ice cleats or damp conditions. So pick a boot that suits your activities. If you are going to be hiking, look for a waterproof boot, preferably with a removable liner (so you can wash it because let’s face it, feet stink.). The liner should be made of a dense, felted material for the best warmth. Soft and fluffy doesn’t always equate to warm, so don’t fall for that.While my Keen Elsa boots don’t have a removable lining, I find them to be incredibly warm and waterproof.
Now that you have a good boot, it’s time to look at a good sock. Wool is king when it comes to staying warm, and merino wool is the best wool on the market. Pick a thick merino wool sock, like these ones from IceBreaker and Darn Tough. I like wearing knee-high ski socks pretty much all winter, but there are shorter hiking options as well. Your winter boots should be big enough that you can wear thick socks in them and still have room to move your toes. If the boots are too tight, there won’t be any air in there and that will actually lead to colder feet.
All About The Base (layers):
If you are going to be outside all day, just throwing on super warm outwear isn’t going to cut it. You need to have good layers next to your skin. I LOVE merino wool baselayers and pretty much live in IceBreaker all winter long. Merino wool comes from special sheep in New Zealand and it is incredibly warm, yet breathable. It is moisture wicking and anti-microbial, so it doesn’t stink when you sweat into it. Try layering merino baselayer pants and a top, or a merino onesie (yup, they exist!) underneath the rest of your layers for an added layer of cozy warmth. There are different weights of wool for base layers; what you need to know is that the higher the number, the warmer they are. 260 weight merino from Icebreaker is the warmest that they make, and what I reserve for the really cold days.
Stuck in The Middle With You:
Mid-layers, or insulation layers, are where you get creative based on the temperature. A basic mid layer would be something like a fleece sweater. But on really cold days, jackets like the Patagonia Nano Air, or down sweaters may become your mid layer. On really, really cold days, you may wear fleece under a down sweater/synthetic jacket, along with an insulated shell over top. For fleece, I love my Patagonia Better Sweater and Snap -T pullovers, but I also have some really nice Cloud Layer fleeces from Eddie Bauer. I own a wide variety of fleeces, since it such a versatile layering piece, and key for being warm at these temperatures. The Patagonia Nano Air hoody is one of my favorite pieces of gear: it is perfect as a stand-alone jacket most of the time, but when the temperatures plummet, it makes an incredible mid-layer.
Topping it Off:
Now it doesn’t matter how good your mid and base layers are if the wind is going to cut through you the second you step outside. Wind chill is dangerous because it removes the ‘heat bubble’, or pocket of warm air, that we naturally have around us. A good shell will keep you warm and dry in windy and wet conditions. Materials like Gore-tex (or other proprietary versions of it) are sturdy, waterproof layers that will block the wind but still let your body breathe underneath. Getting a breathable shell is vital to maintaining good body temperature. If the shell isn’t breathable, then we are back to the original Parka problem. One of my favourite insulated shells is an old-y but a good-y. The First Ascent BC Microtherm is waterproof, windproof and insulated with 800 fill down. It has kept me warm through some pretty sketchy winter conditions. See below:
The Icing on the Cake:
Headwear. It’s so easy to get all dressed up and covered and to forget about your head and face.A good toque that blocks the wind is vital. Rumour has it that pom poms help too 😉 Just kidding, but I do love a good pom-pommed toque. Look for hats that have a good fleece lining. Keep your face covered with a balaclava or, my favorite, a merino wool buff. Buffs are super easy to throw on, put a scarf over and then pull up to cover your face as required. Also keep in mind the area around your eyes: goggles or sunglasses with good coverage are important. Get tinted/polarized ones for days on the snow, snow blindness is a real thing.
Other tips and tricks for surviving the cold:
-Pocket hand and toe warmers: don’t depend on them, but they are a nice added boost of warm
-Don’t drink alcohol to keep warm. It might make you feel warm, but it thins your blood and dehydrates you, making you colder long term.
-If you have to pee, then pee! Do not hold it in. A friend who spends a lot of time in the arctic taught me this. Don’t make your body waste energy heating the extra mass that comes from you holding in pee.
-Carry a spare insulation layer and spare socks/gloves
-Use glove liners and hat liners on the REALLY cold days.
-Carry hot drinks. This helps moral more than anything
Stay warm out there and adventure on!
*yeah, yeah, yeah, I know bears aren’t true hibernators but it made a better metaphor than comparing people to rodents.
Right up until this morning, winter so far here in Kananaskis has been…well…non-existent. The lakes were still all open and snowshoeing wasn’t even a little possible. However, this morning, everyone in a mountain town woke up to a world of white!
Once you’ve lived here (or anywhere that gets snow) long enough, you know if its snowed over night the second you open your eyes. The quality of light filtering in through your bedroom window changes and there is a hush over the world. Its a delightful, sleepy, feeling that leaves you wanting to cuddle into a fleecy blanket with a cup of coffee just a little while longer, before venturing out into the snowy world.
Everyone becomes a child again after a fresh snowfall; there are few things in life more fun than playing in fresh powder. As we grow older, we just change the way we play: some people ski or snowboard, and some people like to snowshoe. Now, while I love to ski, snowshoeing is just so easy to do! You can snowshoe literally anywhere, there are no lineups and you really get to enjoy the serenity of nature. So this mornings fresh snowfall found me outside, snowshoes strapped on for the first time this season! As of right now, there is about 4 inches of fresh powder at valley bottom here.
Last week, a very good friend from Ontario came out to visit. I have been friends with Bri since I was 16 and I was super excited to have her come out and visit me here in Kananaskis. This was Bri’s second trip out to the mountains, so we had kind of narrowed down where we wanted to visit. As you saw in a previous post, we went out to the Lussier hot springs near Invermere, BC but we also took a couple days and went up to Jasper. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and all the lakes are still open (pretty weird for this time of year) which made for some awesome photos. Here are some of the highlights of our time in Jasper:
Now, while I highly recommend spending more than a single day in Drumheller, sometimes busy schedules get in the way and one day is all you have to spare. If one day is all you have, then these are the things you absolutely must do:
Royal Tyrell Museum:
The Royal Tyrell Museum is a place I have loved ever since I was a little kid. I first visited this museum at the age of 4 and have been back several times since. Plan on spending a couple of hours here, exploring and reading through the incredible displays.
Horse Thief Canyon:
Horse Thief Canyon is a beautiful showcase of the badlands, and is definitely worth the short drive, followed by a little on-foot exploration.
The Giant Dinosaur:
This giant fellow is pretty easy to find, since its massive 😉
No trip to Drumheller is complete without a photo with the giant dino.
I have a friend visiting from Ontario, so yesterday we took a quick road trip out to White Swan Provincial Park to go for a soak in the Lussier Hot Springs. Despite the sketchy logging road that you have to take to get out there, the trip is well worth it! Just don’t take a rental car out there…