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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!

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.  

The Ultimate Survival Kit for Backcountry Moms

by Shelley

In this post we are going to talk about something very important – a survival kit – but not just any survival kit – the mom's backcountry survival kit. 

We all know that we need to be prepared in case of an emergency and if you do a Google search for “ backcountry survival kits” countless results will pop up.  They all contain slight variations of the same things.  Compass, knife, light, fire starter…you get the picture.

If you search for “mom’s survival kit” you will also get numerous links to kits that contain “fun” mom stuff like, baby wipes, nail files, hair elastics, bandaids, hand sanitizer, etc.

Do you know what happens if you search for “backcountry mom’s survival kit”?  You get nothing.  Zilch.  Zip.  Zippo.

I have decided to remedy this glaring omission.  After 5 kids, 13 years of canoe tripping with kids, and countless hours of research and product testing, I am happy to introduce you to The Ultimate Survival Kit for Backcountry Moms

The Stanley Thermos 
This is a vital component.  Boiling water takes time in the backcountry and it cools down far too quickly.  This thermos will keep water hot enough to make coffee for 24 hours.  If you fill it up when you are making supper in the evening the next morning you will have hot coffee within minutes of getting out of your tent!  Need a cup in the middle of the afternoon?  No problem, just pull out that thermos full of hot water and you’re good to go.  You can see my video review of the Stanley Thermos here.

The Aeropress
This handy little press makes the best coffee ever and is my favourite system for the backcountry (and at home).  Really.  It makes the best coffee ever.  See here and here for more information.

Before we head out on a trip I grind my beans and then package double servings in little Ziploc baggies.  Why double servings?  Because Lisa needs coffee too.  We mom’s have to look out for each other.

Starbucks Via Packs
For those times when you need a hit fast!

Hot Chocolate 
Hot chocolate is a dual-purpose item.  Almost any child in the backcountry can be bribed with a hot chocolate or you might need a café mocha.  Either way, you’re covered.

Insulated Mug 
Because coffee cools down way too fast in the backcountry and backcountry moms often get called away from their coffee.  

Good Chocolate 
No explanation needed.


Sometimes being a backcountry mom is really tough, but it's worth it!

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 ;)

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.



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.