How To

Teaching Kids Photography

From early on our kids have been interested in photography and over the years their skills have steadily improved.  


Disposable Waterproof Camera - circa 2008

Disposable Waterproof Camera - circa 2008

When Anna and Josh were little digital didn't really exist.   They would each get a disposable waterproof camera when we went on a trip.  We would carefully monitor usage so that they didn't blow through the entire roll of film at once.  The lack of immediate feedback made it hard to teach them about things like composition, etc.

The advent of digital photography and the quality of cameras in iPods and iPhones opened up a whole new world when it came to teaching kids about photography.  


Ages 8 and Under

With our younger kids we tend to stick to the cameras on their iPods or our iPhones.  We know that more than likely the devices are going to get dropped, so we put them in Lifeproof cases and we haven't had one get ruined yet.  At this age we really just want photography to be fun, so we don't do a lot of formal teaching.  I've read a lot of articles online where the authors talk about the importance of teaching kids not to take "too many shots", however I have yet to find a way to stop kids in this age range from taking "too many shots".  Since we no longer have to worry about film, we let them take as many photos as they want.  Informally we will point out a good shot, talk about getting the horizon straight or not cutting someone's head out of the photo, etc., but for the most part we keep things fun and let them have at it.


Ages 7-10

Usually around the age of 7 or 8 our kids start to show an interest in shooting with DSLRs.  By this age they have the attention span for more "formal teaching", although the vast majority of the teaching is really done informally around the campsite. 

We put a lot of emphasis on proper care of the camera and the kids don't use the DSLRs unsupervised.  We teach them to keep the camera strap around their necks and to keep both hands on the camera.  We also emphasize little things, like latching the camera case shut as soon as the camera is taken out so that lenses don't get spilled out and dirt doesn't get kicked into it.  I used to worry about the cameras getting damaged or broken, but so far we haven't had any mishaps.

Dan spends a lot of one-on-one time with the kids reviewing their shots and talking about composition and framing, holding the camera level, how to pick a point of interest, the rule of thirds, direction of light, etc.  At this age the kids can understand the shutter speed, but grasping concepts like aperture, ISO, is a bit beyond them (especially at the lower ages), so Dan manages the settings or they shoot in auto mode.


Ages 10-13

By the time our kids reach this age they are typically ready for their own DSLR (the girls all have Nikon D3300s).  The instruction becomes more formal apprenticing where Dan will teach them about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.  He explains what settings they should be choosing and shows them how to set them.  When shooting on their own they aren't ready to go fully manual, but they can make use of the aperture priority and shutter priority modes.   

Ages 14+

This is relatively new territory for us, but so far we've found that at this age the kids can fully understand the basics of exposure, focal length, white balance, composition, etc.  Since Anna tells me where I've gone wrong with my settings, critiques my composition, and takes much better photos than I do, I'd say that by this age you can have a full-fledged photographer on your hands.

Probably the best thing about teaching the kids photography is that it gives us a chance to see the world through their eyes.  Really, how else would we have gotten shots like these?

This infographic from Katchup is a great quick reference that you can use to introduce the basics to your kids.


What are your tips for teaching kids outdoor photography?



Let's get the kids to make breakfast!

One of our goals on our trips is to get our kids as involved as much as possible.  This year Eva took it upon herself to become our breakfast cook.  In today's post she explains how she makes breakfast when we're in the backcountry.

When we are camping we have oatmeal for breakfast and guess what!  I make it!

I go under the tarp and make breakfast for everyone, even when it is raining.

It is really fun to see everyone's faces when I hand them breakfast.  Usually they are sitting under the tarp as I make breakfast.  Sometimes I even make breakfast for some of my cousins. 

It is so much fun.

Grace enjoying breakfast.  Photo and breakfast courtesy of Eva.

Grace enjoying breakfast.  Photo and breakfast courtesy of Eva.

So how do I make breakfast? 

The night before Mom and I put instant oatmeal packages in the breakfast cooler.  We also put in packages of hot chocolate and coffee.  Then we boil water and put it in the Stanley thermos.  

The next morning when I get up I get the breakfast cooler that has the breakfast food in it.  I also get the thermos.   Then I take out the day’s breakfast and ask the kids what type of oats they want, but before I make the oats I make the hot chocolate. I pore one package of hot chocolate in each cup then I add hot water and I mix it up.  Then I add a bit of cold water to cool it down. 

Then I make the oats.  We use instant oats and the flavours we have are peaches and cream, apples and cinnamon, maple and brown sugar, and regular.  I pour whichever type of oats, let’s say Josh wants, into the bowl and then I add hot water and mix it up.  Then I add cold water, so it’s not too hot, and mix that up and then give it to Josh.  That is how I make breakfast.

Eva enjoying her hot chocolate after making breakfast.

Eva enjoying her hot chocolate after making breakfast.

What About the Bugs?

One question we get a lot about camping is, "What about the bugs?"  I used to worry about how my kids would handle being out in the wilderness during bug season.  Would the bugs drive them crazy?  Would they end up hating the wilderness?  Would they refuse to come out of the tent?  Would we accidentally burn their skin off with Deet?  

It turns out that camping with kids during bug season isn't as bad as I thought.  For the most part the kids are on the move so much that they don't notice the bugs and the bugs tend not to follow us out onto the water.  We do however, have a few tips for wilderness camping during bug season.  

Tip # 1 - Suck it Up :)

If you are backcountry camping in Canada there will be bugs.  Since kids learn by example, if the adults can suck it up and have a good time in spite of mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ems, etc., the kids will too.


Tip #2 - Prevention

We keep the kids in river pants and long-sleeved shirts, socks and shoes or Bogs.  They wear Buffs to protect their necks and hats to protect their heads.  This means that there is very little exposed skin for the bugs to get at.  The odd time when things have been really bad they have worn bug shirts, but typically they find them too hot and don't like how they obscure their vision.

Dave and Chloe tried the vitamin B patches one year.  These are patches that slowly release vitamin B1 into the dermal layer of the skin.  The vitamin B is then slowly released through the pores and is supposed to produce an "invisible, odourless shield" that only mosquitos and black flies can smell.  Apparently the bugs don't like the smell and although they might land on one's skin, they will leave before biting.  Dave and Chloe spent the week walking around smelling like the cotton from the top of a vitamin bottle.  This attracted a lot of health conscious bugs, who apparently did not mind the smell of Vitamin B.  Unfortunately for Dave and Chloe, the health conscious bugs were not vegans.  


Tip #3 - Bring a Hanging Mosquito Net and/or Bug House

Onsight Hiker's Mosquito Shelter from MEC - photo from

Onsight Hiker's Mosquito Shelter from MEC - photo from

If you can justify the size/weight, you might want to consider purchasing a large bug shelter like MEC's Hootenanny, North Face's Homestead Shelter, or the REI Screen House Shelter.  We have had our eye on Cook Custom Sewing's Silicone Tarp Tent for awhile, but so far haven't been able to justify the expense.  

We always bring this mosquito net with us.  It's lightweight, but big enough for two or three kids to sit under and .  We have a couple of kids who really attract bugs and this net gives them a nice reprieve when they're eating, reading, or drawing.  We also used it extensively when we had babies, both for nursing under and for draping over the canoe or hammock during nap time.  


Tip #4 - Get Kids in the Tent Before Dusk

As much as possible we try to get our kids ready for bed and into the tent before the bugs come out.  This protects the kids and helps keep the bugs out of the tent.  


Tip #5 - Stop the Itch

Toothpaste is my secret weapon when it comes to dealing with itchy bites!  A small dab of toothpaste rubbed on a bite will stop it from itching more effectively than products like Afterbite or calamine lotion. 

Dave and Lisa use the Therapik with their kids and have had good success.  It works by increasing localized blood flow to the bite and neutralizes the venom by heat.


Luke and Noah - covered in bites and still smiling!

Luke and Noah - covered in bites and still smiling!

Tip #6 - Take Comfort

In the end, when all else fails, we take comfort in the fact that we're building character in our kids :)

Making a Canoe Yoke in the Wilderness

Ray Mears has said that, "one of the key skills if you're making a canoe journey is being able to replace a paddle if it gets lost or broken."  But what happens when you're in the backcountry and the yoke on your canoe breaks?  We found out this past summer.  Thankfully Josh was up to the challenge!

LittlBug Senior: A Wood-burning Stove for the Whole Family

By Uncle Dave

Over the last few years, our families have become very interested in fire cooking using wood burning stoves.  In this post we want to share with you the wood burning stove that we recommend for backcountry families.

The wood burning stove category has exploded over the last decade and there are all kinds of wood-burning stoves on the market. Most of them are geared to the solo hiker or hiking pair sharing a cook kit. The vast majority of these are too small to do any meaningful cooking for a group.

One stove that stands out from the crowd is the Littlbug Senior. The senior version of the Littlbug is large enough to hold a 4-6 L pot or even a 12” Dutch oven making it possible to cook meals for the whole family.

The Littlbug consists of 4 curved panels made from stainless steel, which stack together, and nest nicely around your pot set. Littlebug Enterprises sell a separate envelope style nylon pouch that is handy to keep soot off the rest of your cook kit and we recommend purchasing it with the stove.

The Littlebug can be used as is in an existing fire pit or with the optional fire pan to practice leave-no-trace and avoid leaving a fire scar. We have the old fire pan, which was basically a steel pie plate type unit. The old fire pan was heavy and prone to rusting, and we really can't recommend it. However, Littlebug Enterprises now have available a new fire bowl which appears to be modular and made of stainless steel. Once we've had a chance to test out the new fire bowl we will report on how well it works.

Besides the optional storage pouch and fire pan, there is available a chain for hanging the stove off the ground while cooking - an option which we don't consider viable with small children ambling around camp. There is also available a pot sling designed to lower your pot deeper into the stove for use with an alcohol burner - an option which we haven't tested.


Assembling the stove is easy and intuitive. For wood-burning mode, simply attach the pot supports to the upper closed slots in the stove sides, and then connect the sides together making sure all three edge tabs go inside the stove and all three assembly rivets enter their respective holes. 


When lighting the stove there are several options. Since the stove has no bottom one can simply light the tinder bundle, place the stove on top and then continue feeding it from the top. In case of a strong wind one can place the tinder bundle in the stove, light the stove while it is on its side, and then tip it upright once the fire has started (my preferred option). With a long match one can also light the loaded stove through one of the air holes along the bottom. In all these scenarios there is no need to stick your hand down from the top while lighting the stove - a definite plus.

The Littlbug will accept all manner of fuel collected from around camp from small twigs to pinecones etc. Our boys love splitting wood to make fuel for the stove and since the fire is nice and controlled we don't mind letting the kids get close to put sticks in to keep the fire burning.

Our main use for the stove is to boil water, purifying it for drinking, washing dishes, rehydrating meals, and, of course, for the required hot beverage on cold mornings. The stove is fast and effective at boiling water thereby saving a lot of fuel for our white gas and canister stoves as well as saving wear on our water filters.

With practice one can learn to control the heat output quite effectively and when I don't mind the extra work of operating the stove (vs. canister/white gas), I enjoy using it to cook my morning eggs. The stove is definitely capable of serving as your primary stove if your fire skills are up to the task. In practice, we use the Littlbug as a supplemental and backup stove to our white gas or canister stoves, and it fits that role nicely.


If there are any downsides to the stove they are the typical ones associated with this whole category. One must possess sufficient fire starting skills to light and sustain a small fire - no small feat when it has been raining for days and all available fuel is wet. The stove needs a steady source of fuel to keep it going but is considerably more fuel efficient than an open fire. Also, fire cooking is inherently messy as your pots will get blackened with soot and there will be a little soot on the pot support panels of the stove. In the event of a fire ban the stove would likely be classified as an open fire, relegating it to serving as a pot support for an alcohol burner. More specific to the Littlbug: since the top of the stove is open it is not possible to cook your day's catch directly on the stove without some sort of additional grill.


That said, the Littlbug is a joy to use. Besides its practical cooking capability, the Littlbug easily provides that uplifting campfire ambiance when there is no time to collect large quantities of wood for a larger fire, and it provides a surprising amount of heat on a cold and dreary day. We love the way the little bug engages the kids in meal preparation and how it provides a controlled environment to teach the principles of fire starting and fire cooking. At 585g (including storage sac) it can easily save you that much and more in white gas/canister stove fuel on a longer trip, and it provides a maintenance-free backup in case of gas stove failure. Over the years this stove has earned a permanent place in our tripping kit.

Stinky Sandal Solutions

By Auntie Shelley

Our kids love to wear Keen sandals, and Anna and I love our Vibram 5-Finger Shoes.  As a result, I know a thing or two about stinky sandals, and  I know a lot about long van rides with kids with stinky sandals.  Not good.  So this summer a few days before our first canoe trip I decided to be proactive and I ran all of our sandals through the wash and dried them in the sun.  

The day before our trip I sprayed them with this spray which is supposed to "break down and eliminate organic residues that cause odours."  I was proud of my foresight and that for once I was ahead of the game, but you know what they say about pride, it comes before the fall.

Later that day we put several pairs of those "clean" sandals into a dry bag and then sealed it up.  The bag was placed in our canoe trailer that night.  It spent the next day in the hot sun and by the time we got to the launch point it really should have had a warning label on it.  Like the ones on the bleach bottles that warn you not to mix bleach with ammonia because of the toxic vapour the mixture will give off.  The spray did NOT work and our sandals smelled like a nasty mix of the spray and some kind of stinky foot bacteria on steroids.  And the worst part, the stinky spray smell only got worse throughout the course of the trip.  

When we got home I conducted exhaustive and in depth research (i.e. I did a search on Google) and then tested out some of the recommended solutions.  Here are three of the solutions that worked for us.


Solution # 1 - Nikwax or Granger's

I picked up a bottle of Nikwax's Sandal Wash ($8.50).  I also got a bottle of Granger's Footwear Cleaner ($5.25) and their Odour Eliminator Spray ($5.50).  The Nikwax Sandal Wash bottle claims that it deodorizes.  Granger's Footwear Cleaner does not make this claim, which was why I picked up their Odour Eliminator Spray.  All of these products got decent online reviews, so I figured they were worth trying.  I took four pairs of sandals (at varying degrees of smelliness) and washed each of the left foot sandals with Nikwax and each of the right foot sandals with Granger's (I figured I might as well run a controlled experiment).  I followed the directions on the bottles for how to use the products and let the sandals air dry.  After washing and drying the sandals I found that the ones washed in Nikwax smelled better than the ones washed in Granger's.  The ones washed in Granger's still smelled a little bit, but after spraying them with the Odour Eliminator Spray I found the overall results were comparable to Nikwax.  I used about the same amount of each product.  4 individual sandals used up half a bottle of product (unfortunately by the fourth sandals the spongey applicators on the bottles were ripping off).  I still have more than half a bottle of the Odour Eliminator Spray (which can be used on bike helmets and other stinky gear).  Since the price of Nikwax's Sandal Wash is comparable to Granger's Footwear Cleaner and Odour Eliminator Spray together I would say that these products are about even in terms of performance and value.  The benefit of having the separate Odour Eliminator Spray is that, unlike the first spray I mentioned, I have been able to use it a couple of times to freshen up sandals when I don't have time to do a full on washing.  

So, how long did these sandals stay stink free?  About 2 weeks, regardless of which product was used on them.  By the end of our second canoe trip all of the sandals washed with these products were getting pretty stinky again.  

Apparently sandals and Vibram 5-Finger Toe Shoes should be washed about every two weeks, so I don't think these products really bought me any extra time in terms of keeping the stink factor at bay, but they did work.

**On a side note, I really owe my gym partner an apology because I can't remember the last time I washed my Vibrams, and I work out in them at least three times a week.  Sorry, Shannon.


Solution #2 - Mouthwash

While I was conducting my "extensive" research into this topic I came across a very old thread on a forum where someone said that Teva recommended that they mix 1 part Listerine Mouthwash with 2 parts water, soak the sandals in the solution for 15 minutes and then rinse them well.  This solution made sense to me since the stink in sandals is caused by bacteria and Listerine is antibacterial.  So I took our stinkiest sandals and soaked them in watered down mouthwash for 15 minutes.  I rinsed the sandals and the stinky feet smell was gone.  Now a word of warning about this, rinse the sandals REALLY well.  If you don't the next morning when you go to church you will be able to smell your son's nice minty sandals even though he's two pews over.  Sorry, Josh!  The mint smell did dissipate within a day or so, but it was pretty strong at first.   

So, how long did these sandals stay stink free?  Well, it's been over three weeks and they are still pretty much stink free.  And the cost of this solution?  The bottle of mouth wash cost me $3.49 and I still have half left.


Solution #3 - Vinegar and Baking Soda

There are a few variations for this cost effective solution.  Wash your sandals well.  While they are still damp sprinkle baking soda all over them.  Let this sit for a few minutes and then spray with a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water.  Let that sit for 15-20 minutes, rinse well, and then air dry (preferably in the sun).  I found that sandals washed this way stayed stink free for 2-3 weeks.  

Another alternative is to wash the sandals well and then once they are dry liberally sprinkle baking soda all of them.  Let the baking soda sit overnight and then dust them off in the morning.  The drawback to this solution is that if you don't get all the baking soda out, and this can be hard to do, you get baking soda all over your feet.  If this happens with a pair of Vibram 5-Finger shoes that you happen to workout in you will end up with a slimy baking-soda-sweat-paste all over your feet which really doesn't feel very good.

I read on another forum that if the sandals are really bad you can soak them in the vinegar water solution overnight, douse them with baking soda, let that sit for awhile, rinse and finally dry them in the sun.

These are just a few of the solutions that we've tried.  If you have any suggestions please share them below in the comments section.  We'd love to hear them.


The Five W's of Food Storage While Canoe Camping in the Backcountry

By Uncle Dan

Anna carrying the food barrel out of the forest on a sunny morning.

Recently, we received several questions about how we pack and store our food when canoe camping in the backcountry.  These questions have inspired us to write this post aimed at addressing the five W’s of food containment and storage in the backcountry.

1) Why should I be concerned about how I store my food in the backcountry?

There are two primary reasons why you should carefully store your food when you are in the backcountry.  First, anywhere you go, there will likely be various animals sniffing around, searching for opportunities to dispossess you of your food stores and to line their bellies with your jam, peanut butter and chocolate.  Second, some animals – bears in particular – might not be satisfied with consuming your jam and chocolate, and might decide to complete their feast by having you or one of your group members for dessert (actually a very unlikely event, but certainly worth mentioning).   

2) Who (or what animals) should I be worried about?

When discussing issues of food storage in the Canadian backcountry, the first animal that comes to mind for most people is the bear. Leaving exposed food in your campsite can attract bears and this can become a problem especially in places that are frequented by less than careful campers. Bears (like other animals) quickly learn where they can easily access human food and so they often look for food at specific campsites where they have found food before.  That being said, in all of my years camping in Canada, I have never seen a bear in our campsite nor have I seen any evidence of a bear trying to get at our food supply.

A rather cute chipmunk eating our breakfast!  Photo by Anna

While bears readily come to mind when discussing food storage, in most cases, food theft is far more likely to be perpetrated by much smaller, less scary and more common animals such as raccoons, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks and birds.  If you leave your food exposed or improperly stored, particularly at night, chances are that one of these little critters will help themselves to your food supply.  Sometimes I think that when squirrels and raccoons see (or hear) campers pull into a campsite they believe that animal Starbucks has come to town (again)!  I remember one time, as we pulled into a (highly frequented) campsite, we could see the beady little eyes of raccoons peering down from the surrounding trees, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on our food.  In my time camping, I have experienced a number of situations in which raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and birds have accessed our food – even in broad daylight while we were at the campsite!  These are the real thieves you ought to be worried about!

3) What food container should I use?

The answer to this question depends on where you are backcountry camping.  In some areas, such as the Bowron Lakes in northern British Columbia, each official campsite has a strong steel food box with an animal-proof latch.  In areas such as this, food should be kept in these steel bear-proof food caches at all times (unless you are eating).  This system is in place to prevent bears from learning that they can obtain food from campsites, which in turn discourages them from visiting campsites often.

In areas where steel bear-proof food caches are not provided, it’s up to you to bring the appropriate container.  I have seen many different containers being used for food storage during backcountry trips: plastic coolers, regular backpacks, and even Rubbermaid containers stored in backpacks.  While these containers are easy to come by, all of them are problematic when it comes to animals stealing food.  These containers are typically not scent proof, allowing animals to readily find them.  In addition, they are not very strong.  I have seen a group of squirrels easily chew through plastic Rubbermaid containers to get at the food inside.  It seems that squirrels in particular get their kicks from gnawing at Rubbermaid containers; its almost as if for them it’s a sport! Raccoons are also surprisingly dexterous and can open all sorts of containers or chew through cloth packs.  As such, we strongly recommend you try a different option.

A ring placed through the latch prevents even the most cunning of animals from opening the food barrel.

Our top choice in terms of food storage on canoe camping trips is the food barrel.   The barrel featured in the photo at the beginning of this post is made by Recreational Barrel Works, but other companies, such as Eureka, make them also.  The barrels typically come in two different sizes: 60L and 30L.  These barrels are optimal for food storage because they are pretty much scent proof, which means that animals will not be attracted to it by the scent of the food inside the barrel.  To optimally take advantage of this feature, it is advisable to avoid preparing or cooking strongly scented food on or around the barrel, as the scent will then be present on the outside of the barrel, thus undermining the scent-proof feature.  The barrels are also waterproof (which is useful in a downpour or if you tip your canoe).  The construction of the barrels also seems to deter animals from getting in to them.  To prevent those creative and skillful raccoons from opening the barrel, you can place a ring through the latch (see above photo)– with the ring in place, even the most prodigious of raccoons will not be able to open the barrel.  It is important to keep in mind that these barrels are not fully bear-proof, however, and a highly motivated and heavy bear sow could crack it open if she so desired.  This is why it is important to not only consider what you put your food in, but also were you place it. Which brings us to the next question. . . 

Our food barrels placed far away from our campsite.

4) Where should I place my food containers?

Choosing the right food container is only a part of the story.  A central component of proper food storage in the backcountry is choosing the right location to place your container.  Unless a bear-proof steel food cache is provided at the campsite, our main recommendation is to store your food well away from your campsite.  Some people recommend taking the food container(s) 200 meters from camp.  While it might be tempting to leave your sealed food barrel in your campsite overnight, this is decidedly a bad idea.  Although the barrel might be scent proof, and although you might have been careful to avoid cooking food near or on the barrel, placing the barrel in your campsite overnight might still be a problem, particularly in places where large animals are used to frequenting campsites to find food.  A bear might think the barrel is just another cooler (with which it might have had good success in the past) and give it a go. The outcome might be less than optimal for you and your food stores.  When you are in the backcountry, watching a large bear enthusiastically dancing on your food barrel right beside your tent at five in the morning might not be as humorous as it sounds right now. No matter what container you use, always store your food away from your campsite. 

Having taken your food container well away from your campsite, the next issue to consider is how to place the food container.  One view is that your food container ought to be suspended on a rope between two trees, high above the ground.  When I was younger, we would often spend hours finding the right two trees and trying to get our ropes high enough above the ground.  We tried various ways of attaching the ropes and numerous ways of pulling the food pack high up into the air.  The assumption was that bears would not be able to get the food packs if they were properly suspended.  You might be surprised to find out that suspending your food will not prevent sufficiently tenacious bears from getting your pack down.  Take a look at this video if you are not convinced. 

And, to witness how quickly a bear can scramble up a tree, take a look at this eye-opening video (not for young viewers as it contains a swear word, however if ever there was a situation that calls for an expletive, this would be it).  In addition, I have also personally witnessed suspended packs being torn open by several industrious squirrels.  So, hanging your food packs, though often recommended, is a tedious and somewhat ineffective solution.  Since we have begun using food barrels, we now just place them under some trees far away from our campsite.  And, I’m happy to report we have had no robberies thus far. 

5) When should I place my food in a safe place?

Finally, we come to the question of “when” to store your food.  We typically keep the lids on our barrels (sealed) when we are not directly using them.  This prevents little critters like chipmunks from helping themselves to our food when we are not looking.  Trust me, it only takes a moment of inattention and those little guys are in the barrels feasting away.  If you are planning to be away from the campsite for a longer period, it’s probably best to place your food containers away from the campsite.  In the evening, we typically take our barrels into the forest before it gets dark.  Going to place your barrels into the forest while it is still light ensures that you don’t get lost and that you don’t get discouraged by darkness from taking the barrels the full proper distance from the campsite.  If you are at a campsite that has steel bear-proof food cache containers, you should keep your food in them at all times except for when you are eating. 

As a final point, we suggest that you always do your research regarding the recommended food storage procedures in the area in which you plan to camp.  

Families Go Outdoors Begrudgingly?!? When Kids Don't Want to Go Outdoors

By Auntie Shelley

“I’ve tried to get my kids outside more, but they hate it.”  

“We’ve barely made it to the trail and already our kids are complaining.”

“It just takes so much effort to get them out the door.  They fight us the entire time we’re getting ready.”

Sound familiar?  You’re not alone.  

I have some confessions to make.  

Our children don’t always want to go outdoors.

I don’t always want to go outdoors.

There have been many hikes, canoe trips, bike rides, nature walks - insert any form of outdoor physical activity - where we have joked that it would be more accurate if we named our website “Families Go Outdoors - Begrudgingly”.  Our kids can drag their heels, fight about getting their gear on, and audibly express their displeasure with the best of them.  Just ask our neighbours.

The fact that our kids spend a lot of time outside doesn’t mean that they always like it.  We believe they need it in order to be healthy, so just like we make them brush their teeth, eat their veggies, and clean their rooms, we make them go outside.  It isn’t optional.

The thing I’ve learned (ok, I’m still learning it) is that once we get out there we always feel better.  The kids may whine and complain at the start, but a game of forest hide and seek, finding a salamander or snake, a good splash in a puddle, and everyone feels better.  If all else fails, the promise of a treat once we get to a certain point on the hike or on the way home can also help - just don’t forget the treat!

Over the years we’ve come up with a few strategies that help make it easier to get outside with positive attitudes:

  1. It’s not optional.  Once we say we’re going out, we’re going out.  No matter how much fussing, fighting, whining, complaining there is, we are going.  Yes, we have been spotted carrying a tantruming child out into the wilderness.  And yes, Dan has been spotted dragging a sour-faced wife into the forest ;)  Kids will pretty quickly learn that it’s not worth fighting if they never win.  This isn’t to say that we never battle to get our kids outdoors, but it is certainly less of a battle than if they thought there was a chance they could get out of it.
  2. Be prepared as much as possible ahead of time.  The quicker you can get out the door, the more your kids will enjoy going outside.  At some point we’ll share more about how we organize our house/gear to make getting out easier, but for now let’s just say that if a simple walk or day hike is preceded by hours of preparation, searching for gear, parent’s yelling, etc. then kids aren’t going to want to go. 
  3. Invest in the right gear.  No kid wants to end up soaking wet and cold.  They also don’t want to be told they can’t jump in puddles or mud.  Investing in good quality rain gear, proper base layers, comfortable footwear, etc. means that your kids will be comfortable no matter what the weather.  
  4. Be okay with gear getting dirty or damaged.  Proper nature exploration is a full contact sport and kids won’t want to explore if they are going to get in trouble for getting muddy or accidentally ripping their clothes.  We don’t allow our kids to be careless with their gear, but if something gets damaged that’s okay.    
  5. Be ready to explore nature.  A sturdy net, spotting scopes, containers to collect specimens, a nature bag, etc.  Make sure your kids have the tools they need to observe and explore nature and be willing to stop or change plans if they come across a great nature find.   
  6. Anticipate and prepare for challenges.  We know that on long canoe trips there will almost always come a point when the kids’ morale is low and they will need some serious encouragement and motivation.  Years ago we started the tradition of telling “legends” in anticipation of this.  The “legends” are stories that revolve around a group of kids in the wilderness that are facing a challenge.  In order to overcome the challenge they have to be attentive to clues along the way and work together cooperatively.  At the end there is always some kind of reward or treasure.  We prepare for these legends ahead of time and bring the reward or treasure with us so that when morale gets low, we can set up a situation or challenge just like the one in the legend.  When the kids start to see the clues from the legend they are motivated to improve their attitudes and work together, just like the kids in the story.  Of course knowing there’s a reward at the end doesn’t hurt either.

    I also try to remember to stick a lollipop or two in my lifejacket on long paddles so that if a little one has trouble coping I have something to distract them with.  Throwing in a chocolate bar for Dan doesn’t hurt either.

    When snowshoeing I have found that having hand warmers and pocket full of “magical warming jellybeans” can quickly head off a full blown “my hands are freezing and going to fall off wig out”.   
  7. Lead by example.  If we complain about getting ready, our kids attitudes quickly deteriorate.  When we exude enthusiasm our kids are more likely to get excited about being in the outdoors.
If mom's not happy, nobody's happy!

If mom's not happy, nobody's happy!

Finally, if all else fails and your kids still don’t want to be outside at least you can take comfort in the fact that you’re building their character ;)

Tips for Backcountry Canoeing with Toddlers

By Auntie Shelley

Lisa and I both agree that the toddler stage is probably the most challenging when it comes to backcountry canoeing with kids.  I think I have experienced every possible variation of toddler backcountry canoeing – canoeing with “just” a toddler; canoeing with a toddler while pregnant; canoeing with a toddler and a baby; canoeing with a toddler and older kids.  Oh! and then there was that trip where our toddler came down with the stomach flu in the canoe. 

Over the years we’ve learned a few important things about taking toddlers into the backcountry, so here are ten tips for canoeing with toddlers.


#1 – Have Realistic Expectations

A successful trip with a toddler is all about managing expectations.  I’m going to be straight with you.  If you go on a trip with a toddler and expect to spend hours paddling blissfully while your toddler quietly sits in the front of the boat, you are going to be disappointed.  If you go on a trip expecting that you will get to relax, read a book, sit and enjoy your morning coffee while watching the mist rise off the lake, you are going to be really disappointed with your trip.   If your idea of a great trip includes grueling 3km uphill non-maintained portages then you’ll be disappointed.

Backcountry trips with toddlers are not particularly relaxing.  Heck, life with toddlers isn’t particularly relaxing.  And toddlers just aren’t able to keep up with a grueling kid-free pace either.  This isn’t to discourage you from taking your toddler into the backcountry, it’s just that I’ve learned over the years that I have to have realistic expectations about what a trip with a toddler will entail.

So what can you expect? 

Expect that your toddler will spend a lot of time hanging over the edge of the boat.  This means that you will spend a lot of time grabbing the handle of the toddler’s lifejacket in order to keep him or her from plunging head first into the drink. 

You will be travelling at a much slower pace.  We typically plan our trips based on the assumption that the person in the stern will be soloing.  If by some chance our little one falls asleep and we both get to paddle, it’s a bonus, but this way we are never left trying to make up for lost time when the person in the front ends up holding the toddler instead of a paddle.  Sure we don’t cover the same distances we used to, but that’s okay because we’ve set appropriate expectations ahead of time.

Portages will take a lot longer.  Let me say that again - portages will take A LOT longer.  One of you will need to keep an eye on that toddler while the other gets a serious workout.  Or you will have to trade off on toddler duty.  I have found that our toddlers typically don’t share our fervor to get all the gear from one side of the portage to the next as quickly as possible.  Sometimes those sneaky little kids even try to return gear back to where we just carried it from.  Portaging with a toddler is a lot like hiking with a toddler – slow.  And inevitably they will fill their diaper right at the moment you’ve loaded the boat and are ready to push off.

Oh, and that bucket of rocks that everyone recommends you take so you toddler can throw stones one-by-one into the water as you paddle: be prepared for him or her to dump the entire contents into the water within the first 5 minutes of your trip. 


#2 – Keep A Life Jacket on Your Toddler Most of the Time

Of course it’s just common sense that your toddler will wear a life jacket when in the boat, but we recommend that you keep it on them most of the time.  It is not uncommon for toddlers to dart off towards the water.  This is particularly important if you are at a site with a steep drop towards the water.  Our little ones also keep their life jackets on when we are portaging and on many occasions it has protected them when they have fallen on rocky terrain.  It also provides an extra layer of insulation on cold rainy days.  


#3 - Let Them Have Their Own Paddle

Our toddlers love to “help” paddle.  Let them get involved and encourage them to paddle.  We have found that they are more interested in holding a paddle than a bucket or toy boat.  They want to be like everyone else on the trip.  Just be prepared to fish that paddle out of the water repeatedly (and to get whacked in the head a couple of times).  


#4 – Candy is Your Friend

While I’m normally a granola crunching, local whole foods kind of girl, candy does have its place on a backcountry trip with a toddler.  Don’t be afraid to pull out a lollipop or some Smarties in order to get your child to sit quietly in one spot if you need them to or to get them through the last leg of a paddle.  Just remember to put said candy in the pocket of your lifejacket before you start paddling.  If it’s in the bottom of your food barrel it’s of no use (don’t ask me how I know that).


#5 – Be Selective when Choosing a Campsite

Campsite selection is crucial when toddlers are with you.  Sites with steep drops or slick rock at the water’s edge should be avoided if at all possible.  At this stage our favourite sites are always ones where the water access is level without a quick drop off.  Ideally your site will be relatively flat with some open space for running around.  You don’t want a site that is going to require hyper-vigilance the entire time you’re there. 

In general I would also say that this is not the time to be checking out new sites.  Since I find trips with toddlers to be fairly challenging, I like to stick with places we are familiar with.  We have a few favourite spots that we know have good water access.  Since we’ve been there before, we already know where we will put our tents and tarps which makes setting up camp relatively quick and easy.

This is not the type of water access you want when you're out with a toddler.

This is not the type of water access you want when you're out with a toddler.


#6 – Bring a Hammock

Toddlers love hammocks.  Hammocks make naptime easy.  Easy naptimes make moms happy.  See this post for more details.

Tired Grace in her ENO Hammock

Tired Grace in her ENO Hammock


#7 – Bring a Kid Sized Chair

We have this Kelty Kids chair and our toddlers love it.  Having a little chair just for your toddler makes mealtime easier.  Usually in the morning I make hot chocolate first.  Then the toddler gets to sit in the chair and drink hot chocolate while I make breakfast.  I have also found it useful when Dan and I need to work on something together.  I can have the toddler sit in the chair, give them a snack or a treat, and they are usually content to sit in the special chair while we get our work done.

#8 – Let them Get Involved as Much as Possible

Toddlers love to help out with everything - carrying wood, stacking wood, washing dishes, carrying water bottles, filling stuff sacks, etc.  Let them get involved.   Sure it will take extra time and you might have to do things over, but you’re setting the stage for future trips and fostering their enthusiasm.  Before you know it they will be old enough to collect the firewood and start the fire on their own.  If you really do your job right at some point you’ll have older kids who can make you coffee in the morning and portage your canoe.   The extra effort when they’re young will pay off when they get older.

Caleb prepping a tent site.

Caleb prepping a tent site.


#9 – Make the Main Thing the Main Thing

Over the years I’ve found that it helps if I continually remind myself why we’re bringing our little ones into the backcountry.  We’re doing it to spend quality time together as a family, to instill a love of nature, to set the stage for future trips, and yes, to groom them into really good portagers so they can carry our stuff for us when we’re old.


#10 – Remember, this too shall pass

While trips with toddlers are crazy, remember that toddlers only last for a season.  By the next year they will be preschoolers, and then it's a whole new adventure.

Teaching Children to Use an Axe

By Auntie Shelley

In our last post Josh wrote about what to look for when buying an axe.  People are often surprised by the fact that Josh, who just turned 11, has had his own axe for several years now and that he is allowed to use it.  Caleb and Noah who are 7 and 5 respectively also have their own axes and have been learning how to use them over the past couple of summers. 

I think it’s safe to say that in our current day and age, most kids don’t know how to use an axe and many parents would shudder at the idea of their child wielding one.  I certainly had some major reservations when Josh first started using one.  Dan and Dave were taught how to use axes when they were boys.  Their dad, who had experience working in logging and is a wood carver, taught them and it seemed only natural that they would pass this on to their kids.  I think it’s important to point out that before the turn of the last century, chopping wood was a skill that boys learned early on.  While teaching a child how to properly use an axe might seem crazy by today’s standards, it’s really not that far fetched if your child has the right amount of motor coordination, the ability to concentrate, and a skilled instructor.

Knowing how to use an axe is an important survival skill if you are going to spend any significant amount of time in the wilderness, however we also fully acknowledge that axes are dangerous tools and not every child should be allowed to use one.   As well, the age at which a child should be allowed to start using an axe will vary greatly depending on the child.  In the end it is the parents' responsibility to decide if axe skills are something that they want their child to learn and whether or not their child is ready to safely use one.  This article is meant to be an explanation of how we assess our children’s readiness to start using an axe and how we ensure that they learn to use one in a safe manner.


Leave the Instruction to the Skilled "Woodsmen"

Among the adults in our family there are some who are skilled with the use of an axe (i.e. Dave, Dan and Grandpa).  There are some of us who have some basic know how and others who have never used an axe.  Those of us who fall into the last two categories don't teach the kids how to use and axe.  Personally, while I could prepare wood for a fire if I needed to, I certainly don't feel confident enough in my abilities to teach the kids.  We leave the instruction up to Grandpa, Dan, and Dave.


Appropriate Supervision

Appropriate adult supervision is an absolute necessity.  None of our children are allowed to use an axe without direct adult supervision and the axes are put away whenever they aren’t in use.  

4 year old Josh putting away his axe as soon as he's finished using it.

4 year old Josh putting away his axe as soon as he's finished using it.

The adult supervising the children must also know how to use an axe; this is not an activity that just any adult will supervise.  When a child is working with an axe, the adult supervising them is focused on this task and nothing else.  In addition, only one child uses his or her axe at a time.  The rest of the kids have to wait their turns.

4 year old Josh working under Grandpa's close supervision

4 year old Josh working under Grandpa's close supervision

When our kids are starting out, Dave, Dan, or Grandpa work one-on-one with them,  teaching them set-by-step what they should be doing.  As their skills develop Dan, Dave, or Grandpa still keep an eye on them to make sure they aren’t doing anything risky and that they are following all the proper safety precautions.

Don’t Start with an Axe

When it comes to preparing wood, none of our kids start out with axes.  First they start out by going on trips into the forest to help collect wood and observe their dads and Grandpa working.  

Anna is an experienced wood collector.

Anna is an experienced wood collector.

Eventually they graduate to using handsaws and bucksaws with direct adult supervision and help.  As their skills develop they start using these saws on their own and eventually, when the dads or Grandpa feel that they are ready, they move on to using the axe.  

Luke and Noah working as a team

Luke and Noah working as a team


Adequate Motor Coordination

Before we consider letting a child use an axe, we have to be convinced that they have the coordination necessary to handle it without hurting themselves.  With some of the kids, by 4 or 5 they were coordinated enough, but with others, at the age of 7 or 8 we’re still holding off because we don’t feel that they are ready.


Ability to Focus on the Task

In general our kids are able to pay attention, focus on a task, and follow directions consistently, however if a child is impulsive or doesn’t follow direction then they aren’t ready to use an axe.  We have been on trips where there were other children present who were very impulsive and who we couldn’t trust to follow our instructions.  On those trips none of the children were allowed to touch an axe.  We just felt that it was too risky to even have the axes out.  Furthermore, if our children are tired or cranky, the axes are put away.  We save this activity for when they are in a good mood, well rested, and ready to focus on the task at hand.  The same goes for the adults supervising the kids.  If we are overtired or worn out then we hold off.


The Child’s Interest

Josh, Caleb, and Noah all expressed an interest in using an axe very early one (i.e. age 4).  In Luke’s case, it wasn’t until he was about 5.  Anna, on the other hand, has never shown any real interest in chopping wood.  If our kids meet our requirements for coordination and focus, and they show an interest in learning axe skills, then we will teach them, but it’s not something that we force on them if they aren’t interested or don’t feel that they are ready to do.


Axe Selection and Safety Tips when Chopping

In general, a longer handled axe is safer, however with kids, longer axes are usually too heavy so we start our kids off with light, shorter handled axes like the ones Josh recommended.  These axes are easier for the kids to grip and they don’t fatigue too quickly when using them. 

As part of learning to use an axe, the kids are expected to learn how to care for and sharpen their axes.  Our axes are maintained appropriately and kept sharp.  A dull axe is a dangerous axe.

Uncle Dave showing the boys to how to maintain their axes

Uncle Dave showing the boys to how to maintain their axes


In this video, Ray Mears does a fantastic job of demonstrating some basic safety precautions that everyone should take when chopping wood.


We highly recommend following all the safety tips that he lists off (they start at 1:34).  One of my major concerns early on was leg or foot injuries, however as Ray demonstrates, if you assume a kneeling posture when chopping wood, you alleviate this potential danger.  This is especially important with the kids since they will typically be using shorter handles axes.  I also like his recommendations for placing the axe onto the wood and then bringing them down simultaneously (at 2:20).  His recommendations about choosing a chopping block that is the right height in relation to your axe and placing the wood at the back of the block will also prevent potential injuries.

Luke chopping from a kneeling position like Ray recommends.  This is much safer than working standing up.

Luke chopping from a kneeling position like Ray recommends.  This is much safer than working standing up.

My kids love to watch this video and we let them watch it over and over because Ray does such a great job of demonstrating the safe use of an axe, but also because his demeanor is so calm and controlled.  This is the type of behaviour we want our children to emulate when they are using an axe.  Which leads to my final point.

Lead By Example

Kids mimic what they see.  We make sure that we lead by example.  As adults, we never use an axe in a manner that we would not want our children to use it.  This means our actions are calm and controlled and the environment in which we are working is orderly, tidy, and controlled.


An axe can be an extremely dangerous tool if not used appropriately and must be respected.  It’s not for every child or adult.  As parents it is something that we have felt is important for some of our children to learn, but as I mentioned, we have also not taught these skills to some of our children because we are not convinced that they are ready for it. In the end it is your responsibility as a parent to decide if axe skills are something that you want your child to have and whether or not your child is ready to safely use one, but we hope this article has given you some insight into how we go about deciding whether or not our kids are ready to pick up an axe.



The Scrubba - Revolutionizing Laundry in the Backcountry

By Auntie Shelley

One of the challenges when camping with families as large as ours is minimizing gear.  Kids, especially younger kids, tend to go through a lot of clothes on a trip.  In the past we have tried doing laundry in the backcountry in an effort to save on how much clothing we brought.  It never worked out well.  It was always labour intensive and the clothes never really came out clean.  We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would just have to bring extra clothes for the kids.  That was until we discovered The Scrubba! 

Uncle Dave is the one who discovered the Scrubba earlier this year.  Dave is always up on new and exciting gear.  This summer on our 12-day trip we had the opportunity, actually several opportunities, to put the Scrubba to the test.  I think I can safely say that it has earned a place on our essential gear list.

So, what is the Scrubba?  According to their website, it is “the world’s first pocket-sized washing machine” and it weighs less than 5oz.  Imagine a dry bag with a see-through window and an internal washboard made of little nubbies – that’s The Scrubba.  It’s a modern, backcountry version of my grandmother’s old-fashioned washboard.

It’s quite simple to use.  You fill the bag with clothes, water, and a bit of soap, then close it up the same way you would a dry bag – roll the top down 4 or 5 times and clip the ends.  Next you open the air valve and push on the bag to remove the air from it.  Close up the valve then press down and rub the clothes against the internal washboard.  Depending on how dirty the clothes were we found it took anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes to get everything clean.  This is where the little window comes in handy.  It allows you to see whether or not the clothes are clean enough.

Once everything was clean we drained the water.  On their website, Scrubba says that you can rinse your clothes with fresh water in the Scrubba, or under a running tap or shower.  We tried rinsing the clothes in the Scrubba, and it worked well, however it was a bit time consuming given the volume of laundry we were dealing with (we had 9 kids on the trip).  Lisa came up with a system where she would wash the clothes in the Scrubba and then rinse them in her Sea to Summit portable kitchen sink.

One thing I would recommend is to start with a small amount of soap (i.e. just a few drops).  On his first load Uncle Dave added a bit too much soap and there were a lot of bubbles.  It took several rinses to get it all out.  Start with a couple of drops and then add more if you need it.

I will admit that I was a bit skeptical about how well the Scrubba would actually work, however after testing it out we were all really impressed.  I’m quite excited because I think it will really allow us to cut back on the amount of clothing we need to bring on longer trips.  I can definitely see how it would be a great item to bring when backpacking or trekking and have no hesitation recommending it as a great piece of gear.

For demonstration videos you can check out the Scrubba YouTube channel.  I think this one is my favourite.




Make Your Own Tubular Bandana

by Cousin Eva (Age 7)

One of my favourite pieces of gear is The Buff.  The Buff is a round tube of cloth that you can wear on your head as a hat or around your neck as a cowl.  It keeps your ears warm and it can keep them from getting mosquito bites. 

Cousin Eva wearing her Buff while camping in the backcountry.

It comes in different colours like blue, black, red, pink, yellow, orange, and patterns too.

After I found out about the Buff, I decided to try to sew one.  I bought some fabric that was soft and stretchy.  Then I washed the fabric to get it ready.  I cut out a rectangle and I folded it in half.  Then I sewed a seam down the side.  I tied off the threads so the seam would not come undone.  I pulled the seam flat and then I was done.  It was so easy that I decided to make some for my brothers and cousins too.

Cousin Eva cutting out her tubular bandana.

Cousin Eva sewing together her bandana on a serger.

Here is the tubular bandana!

Cousin Eva wearing the tubular bandana she made.


*A note from Eva’s mom:

The rectangle that Eva cut out was 19 inches by 19 inches, with the stretch running across the width of the fabric.  We used our serger, but if you don’t have one you can make this using a zig zag stitch on your sewing machine.