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How to Weather a Wilderness Hostel with Kids in Winter

by Karen Ung
What you need to know before staying in a wilderness hostel.
Wilderness hostels are an attractive accommodation option for families who enjoy being active in the mountains, especially in winter. What is the difference between a hostel and wilderness hostel? The wild variety is short on electricity and plumbing, but huge on location. You get a backcountry experience without having to pack your gear long distances, and in most cases, have more creature comforts than what you would get in a backcountry hut. (Note that some wilderness hostels have electricity and hot water, but others are “off the grid” and have neither power nor water.)
HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park
Last weekend, I stayed at Hostelling International’s Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel with Tanya Koob of Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, Suzanne Burgman of RunBikesYYC, and their families. There were six adults and five kids in one dorm. It was my first time staying in a hostel dorm with kids and it went better than expected! The mountain air must have made the kids sleep well! To read more about the hostel, please visit Five Reasons to Take Your Family to Mosquito Creek this Winter by Tanya Koob.

HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park
Preparing for a wilderness hostel trip is not much more work than a hotel stay, but learn from my mistakes for a fun and comfortable stay! (We actually did well, but I really missed my hut booties.)

How to winter wilderness hostel with kids and have fun

  1. Before booking, confirm hostel amenities. Many wilderness hostels have appliances and solar powered lights, so you don’t need to bring a camp stove or lantern.
  2. Bring hut booties. The hostel floors are very cold! If you don’t have booties, bring warm slippers.
  3. Plan activities your kids will enjoy. Pick trails that suit their skill level, bring treats, play games, and bring a sled. Some ideas for snow fun are here.
  4. Bring a headlamp for each person and pack extra batteries. If there is no electricity at the hostel, you will also need a lantern and extra batteries.
    Kids love having their own headlamp for evening exploring!
  5. If anyone in your family is a light sleeper, a) bring earplugs, b) commit to only one-night in a dorm (one sleepless night won’t kill you, but two will make you feel like the walking dead), or c) book a family room/cabin.
  6. Pack simple meals that the kids will eat. Full kids are happy kids, and simple meals mean less dishes. Do as much meal prep as you can at home as hostel kitchens can be very crowded on weekends and holidays. I pre-washed our fruits and veggies and brought homemade meat sauce for pasta; it made for a quick and healthy supper!
  7. Bring thermoses and your favorite cocoa/tea/coffee for your daytrips. Most people, especially children, tend to dislike cold drinks on a cold day and won’t drink much if that’s all they’re offered. A warm bevvy will not only warm you up, but keep you hydrated, and being hydrated helps with temperature regulation, so it’s a win-win. If you’re doing a big ski or snowshoe day and don’t want to pack a lot of water, bring a light camp stove, waterproof matches, hot chocolate mix, and a small pot so you can melt snow and make hot chocolate on the go. Don’t forget cups for sharing and stay away from yellow snow!
  8. Pack plenty of warm clothes and ensure you have extra mitts, socks, base layers, and footwear.
  9. Bring a fleece toque (not the same one you skied in!), warm pajamas or base layers, and thick socks to sleep in. Even if your cabin is heated, heaters can malfunction (ours didn’t work the first night), or your roommates may set the thermostat lower than you’d like.
  10. If articles of clothing get wet, change them immediately. Check your child’s gaiters regularly to ensure that they are keeping snow out of your child’s boots. Dry wet clothes and footwear as soon as you come indoors.
    Snow + Kids = Happy Kids (and wet clothes)
  11. Pack fun stuff for the kids. Books, coloring books and crayons, and some favorite toys are good for when you are inside preparing dinner or winding down for bed. For outside, a sled with a tow rope is a must! My trip companions also brought Strider bikes with ski attachments. So much fun!
    Ski biking on a Strider balance bike!
  12. Don’t drink too much before bedtime. It’s hard to warm up if you have a full bladder (fact!), and I know from experience that it takes a while to warm up after a late night walk to the outhouse.
  13. Stay on schedule. If your kids usually go to sleep at 8 pm, put them to bed at 8 pm because they will wake up at their usual time no matter what. Getting enough rest ensures they will be refreshed for whatever adventures you have planned. Bedtime tip: If your child needs a nightlight, a headlamp on low will work well (just remember extra batteries!).
  14. For comfort and warmth, sleep on top of a folded blanket and keep an extra blanket close to you in case you get cold in the night.
    My oldest tucked in snug as a bug
Would I do it again? Yes, if I could get a family room or cabin. I am too light a sleeper for dorm rooms, but loved sleeping in a prime location in the mountains!

For More Information

 Five Reasons to Take Your Family to Mosquito Creek this Winter by Tanya Koob, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

Winter Camping With Kids Part Two (no tent!!) by Tanya Koob, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

Hostelling International – Canada Wilderness Hostels along the Icefields Parkway

More Winter Fun

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Play Outside Gal December 16, 2014 - 5:11 PM

Thanks Tanya and thank you for inviting us! It was such a great trip. I still can't believe all the kids slept through the night (with the exception of M coughing Sunday night)!! Maybe it was the 5 km ski… : )

You've turned me into a winter camper! I just need to bring hut booties next time, like you recommended.

Tanya Koob December 16, 2014 - 4:31 PM

Great piece. Informative and full of great tips. Loved the part about putting the kids to bed at the same time – even on a "vacation" away from home. Agree completely. My son definitely wakes up at the same time every morning and 1-2 hours less sleep makes a big difference the next day.

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