Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Family Activities for Bad Weather

Whether you head out or stay in, don't let bad weather put a damper on family fun. Photo: Scott Livingston

By Ethan Hipple

January ice. February snowstorms. March rains. April mud. Winter and spring weather can make it challenging to get motivated for family adventures outdoors. And since we all want our kids to have the most positive experiences possible, sometimes when it rains or snows, we bag our plans and stay home instead. But wait! Hold that rain check! Below are some ideas to keep your kids playing in less than optimal conditions. And for when the truly nasty weather hits, we’ve got indoor ideas, as well.  

Just go out in the rain (or snow or SLUSH)
We often forget is that skin is 100-percent waterproof. Once we get over the discomfort of slightly soggy clothes, being outside in the elements can be fun, especially if we keep warm by keeping active. One of my favorite family memories is a trip in the Vermont highlands: a day full of muddy trails, wet clothes, bushwhacking, misty vistas, drizzle, and fog—and adventure and exhilaration. A few tips:
  • In rainy or snowy weather, make sure you’re adequately prepared with good rain or snow gear, plenty of warm layers, umbrellas, and a change of clothes in the car. The number-one factor in staying upbeat on cold and wet days is wearing the right gear.
  • Keep bad-weather day trips short. Kids can endure less than optimal conditions and keep spirits high—but only for so long. After a couple hours, it’s just a slog. No one wants that.
  • Bring a tarp and a backpacking stove. Go for a day hike in the rain or light snow, set up a tarp for lunch, and fire up the stove to make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup—a recipe for happy campers.
  • Hot cocoa in a thermos. Essential.
  • Backup pocket chocolate also helps. My wife’s favorite childhood memory is of her father pulling out chocolate-covered marzipan on the ski lift. It kept them warm and brightened their spirits.
  • Watch the weather. Never go out in lightning storms, blizzards, or strong storms of any kind. You can have a great time in a drizzle, but there’s never a need to put folks in danger.

Indoor Options for an Outdoor Adventure

When the weather is too rough to go out, you can still embrace the indoors with an outdoors mindset. Here are some of our tactics:
Indoor camping. Round up a couple of couches, coffee tables, chairs, blankets, or tarps and build a massive indoor fort. Set up pads and sleeping bags inside then read a book, take a nap, or watch a movie on the laptop inside your cozy nest. Top it off with a picnic in the fort while it pours or snows outside.

Sardines. Hands down, the best rainy day activity, ever. Just like hide and seek except only one person hides, and everyone else breaks up and goes looking for them. When a seeker finds the hider, the seeker hides with the hider and waits for the rest of the seekers to come looking. One by one, the other seekers will eventually discover the hiding spot, and everyone ends up hiding together in a cramped space while one last seeker tries to figure out where everyone went. Great times. We usually play that the first person who finds the hider gets to hide next.

Climbing gyms. Rock climbers hit these indoor training grounds to keep in shape during the off season or just during bad weather. Most climbing gyms have great kids programs and introductory lessons for beginners. A quick web search will help you find you a climbing gym within about an hour of most locations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Science and childrens museums. There are so many great examples of these—and what better time to visit than a rainy day? Some of our personal favorites:

Watch SHOWS about the Outdoors
Some of our family favorites include:
  • “Planet Earth.” a TV show featuring mesmerizing cinematography of wild places and animals. You think you’ve seen everything, and then you see something on this show that blows your mind. We prefer the original British version hosted by David Attenborough, although there is also an American version.  
  • “Life,” a great BBC series from David Attenborough, similar to “Planet Earth.”
  • “Man vs Wild,” in which Bear Grylls gets dropped into wilderness locations without gear and has to find his way out to civilization.
  • Outdoor sports videos on YouTube. From biking to rock climbing to freestyle skiing, there is something here to inspire every child.
  • Guide You Outdoors. A YouTube channel full of educational videos about camping, knot tying, canoe camping, gear reviews, and general outdoor skills. 
  • AMC’s own YouTube channel features lots of great how-to advice and breathtaking time-lapse videos.

Trip Planning
Rainy or icy days are a great time to plan your next trip. Get out the maps, read a guide book, plot a route, buy tickets, and start organizing your gear. When the sun comes back out, you’ll be ready to go! 


Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Great Kids, Great Outdoors and find more trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families,

Thursday, January 7, 2016

How to Enjoy Sledding Season

One of winter’s best, and cheapest, thrills has to be flying down hills on a sled. My Boston neighborhood hasn’t seen much snow yet this year, but we know it is coming any day now! When it does, all the kids will be ready to head out to the Arnold Arboretum for some of the best sledding hills in the area.

Before anyone races out the door though, make sure to go over safe sledding strategies with your kids, such as waiting for other people to clear out of the way before taking a turn, avoiding overcrowded areas, and dressing appropriately. Layers are the key. While it may be a freezing walk to the sledding spot, once you’re repeatedly climbing back up hills, it’s easy to get overheated.

Many parents like to have their kids, especially younger ones, wear helmets as a wise precaution to avoid head injuries. Along the same lines, kids should never sled where there are lots of obstacles like trees and fences. Don’t forget to pack water---sledding can be thirsty work!

Where to Go
In the Boston area, favorite spots for sledding include Arnold Arboretum; the Sugar Bowl next to Jamaica Pond; and Larz Anderson Park in Brookline. Fallon Field in Roslindale is usually packed with people sledding down its big hill that ends in a large field. It’s a wide open space quite safe for younger kids.

Millennium Park in West Roxbury is another great open space with plenty of hills to sled down safely. Franklin Park has lot of options for sledding and many people head straight to the public golf course there. Boston Common also has some hills to sled and the Frog Pond ice skating rink can add to a fun day. Popular spots close to Boston include Borderland State Park in North Easton; World’s End in Hingham; and the Crane Estate in Ipswich.

Nashoba Valley's Snow Tubing Park
While you can swap out your sled for a tube at any of the above spots, there are some great places that take tubing to another level. Try tubing at night for a different experience.

Ski Ward in Shrewsbury has eight lanes, with 200 tubes and two lifts. Many people go to Ski Ward for its nine groomed ski trails, but the tubing area is also quite popular. Two-hour tickets let you ride as often as you like down the TubaSlide hill, and since lifts bring you back to the top, you can pack in a lot of rides. Riders must be older than age 6 and at least 42 inches tall. It also has snowmaking equipment on hand, when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

Nashoba Valley’s Snow Tubing Park in Littleton offers 18 lanes and more than 600 snow tubes. Four easy tow-handle lifts take you to the top. Parents who want a break may enjoy the full-service restaurant with views of the action. Timed two-hour tickets let you tube as much as you want. Kids have to be age 6 or 42 inches tall to tube.

Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Great Kids, Great Outdoors and find more trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families,

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cross-Country Ski Through Rolling Hills in Wolfeboro, NH

By Ethan Hipple

This could be the perfect beginner cross-country ski or snowshoe trail for kids and families. It is a mellow 1.7 mile loop trail that rolls through hemlock birch forests and a large open horse pasture, complete with grazing horses. And perhaps the best part is that it starts and ends at the vintage Abenaki Ski Area, run by the Town of Wolfeboro, which has a new lodge at the trailhead complete with a crackling fire, hot cocoa, and snacks! The lodge serves the bustling little downhill ski area and also is a major access point to the 30km of groomed cross-country ski trails that meander through Wolfeboro. To top it off, there is also an indoor ice arena adjacent to the lodge and trailhead, so if you time it right, you can drop in for their Public Skating Session and do multiple winter fun activities in one day!

Read more about this trip here...

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find more tips and trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families, 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Homemade Gear: DIY Pulks, Lanterns & Beyond

This winter, try making your own pull-behind sled, also called a pulk or pulka. Photo: Sarah Hipple

By Ethan Hipple
We all know good gear can make your life easier in the outdoors. It can also set you back hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Crafting your own homemade, or “do it yourself” (DIY), outdoor gear with your kids can be a fun solution. Options range from simple projects using household or campsite items you probably have on hand to more complicated endeavors that require preplanning. Some of the projects below lend themselves to hands-on help from kids; others lead to kid-friendly results but require adult assembly. Have fun and get creative!

There are a couple of easy methods for creating homemade fire starters, and the first is a great introduction to DIY, especially with kids. Simply dip cotton balls in a jar of Vaseline and store them in a plastic bag. When you’re ready to make a fire outside, just fish one of the greasy wads from the bag and use it to start your fire. (Adults, this part of the job is for you.) The starter will burn bright for more than a minute, giving you plenty of time to build a fire, even with wet wood.

A second and more elaborate method (read: more parental supervision required) is to take an empty cardboard egg carton and fill the wells with sawdust or small shavings. Melt some paraffin wax on the stove over low heat in a disposable aluminum pan liner and pour the wax over the sawdust in each egg well. Let this cool then tear off the individual wells of the carton for homemade fire starters. Bonus: This is an excellent chance to teach the kids about fire safety and LNT. Read more about building low-impact fires.

Based on old Scandinavian designs, these pull-behind sleds make wintertime backcountry travel with kids easy and fun. They're also great for carting gear or firewood. Even better, you can make them for less than $20 with parts from your local hardware store.

Starting with a plastic winter sled (flat bottoms work best), drill approximately 10 holes around the perimeter sidewall of the sled. Starting at the front corner, weave a sturdy rope through the holes, working your way around the rear of the sled and back toward the other front corner.

Take the two ends of the rope at the front of the sled and guide them through two pieces of 1-inch PVC pipe, cut to 5- to 6-foot lengths. Once the rope is threaded and hanging out of the pipes, tie a loop in each end and clip a carabiner on each loop. You can clip these right onto the waistband of your pack. Voila, a snow trailer!

For increased control, cross the pipes in an "X." Your kids can sit on a foam camp chair in the sled, or you can sew up a custom sled cover to keep the elements out and add extra insulation. Our kids spent dozens of hours in these sleds as infants and toddlers, and even heavy snowfall and high winds couldn’t dampen their spirits as they glided over the snow, safe and snug. You can find more detailed instructions in AMC's Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping.

Dry campers are happy campers. Instead of buying expensive dry bags for $20 or more each, just line a stuff sack with a trash compactor bag. And there you have it: a dry bag for pennies! Compactor bags are extrathick plastic bags—at least 2mm thick for long-lasting strength.

When packing clothes or sleeping bags in compactor bags, we usually use two compactor bags in a stuff sack, pack the items in, press all of the air out, then twist the tops of the compactor bags shut, tucking them in between the stuff sack and compactor bag to stay sealed. We’ve done three-week river and backpacking expeditions with this method and have always had dry gear. The only drawback is that compactor bags are increasing hard to find in stores; buy from online retailers instead. Want to learn how a garbage bag can save your life? Find out in Equipped.

One of the oldest tricks in the book: Just strap your headlamp onto a 1-quart clear water bottle so the light shines through. You’ll have an instant lantern to cheer up your backcountry kitchen or tent.

Before heading out car camping, simply freeze water ahead of time in a couple of 1-gallon milk jugs or 2-liter bottles. Throw these in your cooler to keep your food cool—no melting ice to get your food soggy! Over the course of your camping trip, as you need less ice and/or you need more water, set out one homemade ice pack at a time and let it thaw.

Heading out on a bike camping trip? Rather than buying expensive nylon panniers for $100 or more per set, try bolting 5-gallon square buckets to your bike rack. You might be able to pick these up for free from a local restaurant, or your can use empty kitty litter buckets. The advantage of square buckets is that they fit perfectly against the side of a bike rack and they're 100 percent waterproof.

You will need a sturdy rear bike rack if you don’t already have one and some U-bolts, as well. Size the U-bolts so they’re just big enough to fit around the vertical support posts of your bike rack. Line the buckets up next to the frame of the rack so the bottom of the top flange of the buckets rests on top of the rail of the rack. Mark and drill holes for the U-bolts so there are at least three connection points. Bolt them on nice and tight so the nuts are on the outside of the rack, not in the bucket. I keep a bucket permanently connected to my rack for transporting clothes when commuting to work and ice cream on runs to the store. My son has even bolted upright sections of PVC pipe to the back of the bucket for fishing-rod holders. (Want more tips on bike camping with kids? Read on!)

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find trip ideas in AMC’s online community for families,

Monday, December 7, 2015

How to Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Kids

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

The shortest day of the year, signaling the beginning of winter, has been celebrated throughout the world in any number of ways: with music, prayer, bonfires, and other festivities. This year, the solstice falls on December 22.

Since the solstice is on a Tuesday, which may not be ideal for kids, many places are celebrating a bit early. You can also celebrate in your own way. Why not bundle everyone up and head outside for a bonfire, take a walk in the winter night to look for animals, or make a bird feeder to hang in your yard? It’s nice to take time out from all of the commercialism the season can bring and reconnect with your kids in a natural setting.

Below are a few places you can celebrate with your family; call or check the websites for registration info.

4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015
Woodland Winter Solstice Stroll, Ravenswod Park in Gloucester, Mass. This candlelit stroll at twilight celebrates
cultural diversity and the winter solstice in a woodland park setting. The stroll will be followed by a fire, hot chocolate, and s'mores. Lanterns will be provided, but bring your own if you have them.

5:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015
Illumination Night, Governor Hutchinson's Field in Milton, Mass. Mark the winter solstice with a campfire and treats, followed by a tree lighting to help illuminate the darkest days of the year.

5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015
Winter Solstice Celebration at the Old Manse in Concord, Mass. Join staff members for a walk through the Old Manse, one of the nation's most significant historic homes. Experience the house on a late winter's afternoon and hear impressions of Concord winters recorded by the Hawthornes, Emerson, and Thoreau. Outside, on the back lawn, there will be candles, torch-lit pathways, singing, a ceremony, and light snacks.

4 to 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21, 2015   
Solstice Stones Soiree at the Ward Reservation in Andover, Mass. This candlelit solstice soiree starts with a trail walk followed by a gathering around the solstice stones with a warm fire, hot chocolate, and s'mores.

5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015
Winter Solstice Tree Lighting at Francis William Bird Park in Walpole, Mass. Grab a cup of hot cider or cocoa and circle around for a tree-lighting ceremony celebrating the arrival of the winter season.

Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Great Kids, Great Outdoors and find trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families,

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Scouting Out New England Base Camp at Camp Sayre

The more you think you know a place, the more likely you are to be proven wrong. I've written about New Englandespecially Massachusettsfor years, and while I feel like I know every nook and cranny, I'm always delighted to find a new piece of the outdoors to love. 

Such is the case with Camp Sayre, in Milton, Mass. Located adjacent to the Blue Hills Reservation, the camp has served almost exclusively as a Boy Scouts of America facility for more than 50 years, with some access allowed to private groups, such as the Girls Scout and churches. Recently, however, the venue decided to open to the general public for weekend programs under the name of New England Base Camp at Camp Sayre.

Offerings at the 108-acre facility include an outdoors ropes challenge course, plus classes in archery, edible plant identification, building with hand tools, cooking outdoors, starting a fire without matches, and introductory ice climbing.
There’s also an indoor Olympic-sized pool and an ongoing project to build a traditional wigwam. (Visitors can pitch in!) In winter, options expand to an outdoor ice skating rink and sledding on hills on the property. Most programs are either half- or full-day and frequently sell out, so advance registration is recommended. Campsites and cabins are also available by reservation.
Specialty programs include high ropes leadership training for all skill levels and ages, guided canoe trips, and an outdoor leadership training program. Some offerings are ideal for kids' birthday parties; some are clearly aimed at adults; others are open to anyone hoping to master a given skill. See the website for the full menu. 
I can't wait to get my own family there, especially when that ice skating rink is up and running for the season (weather dependent; call ahead: 617-615-0004).

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find more trip ideas in AMC’s community for families,

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Something To Be Thankful For: Keeping a Family Trip Journal

By Ethan Hipple 

Ten years ago, when our kids were 4 and 2 years old, my wife, Sarah, and I bought a simple 5-by-8-inch artist sketchbook. It’s the kind you find in art supply stores, with the hard black cover and stiff paper inside. It is a good, sturdy little book, and we decided to make it a family trip journal that we would all write in during family adventures.

We got the idea for keeping a group trip journal when we led trail crews for the Student Conservation Association (SCA). One of the defining parts of SCA was that the crew leaders—us—would provide a journal in which the teenage crew would write during the 30-day trail-work hitch. Journal writing was part of the daily rotation of chores, along with getting drinking water, packing up our trail lunches, and doing dishes in camp.

The journals were filled with daily impressions from all of the crew, as well as drawings, maps, inside jokes, lists of books to read, bands to get into, and places to go. When the experience was over and everyone was safely back home, we would make a copy of the journal and send it to all of the crew members as a holiday gift. We treasured our SCA trip journals, so once we had kids of our own (our own little trail crew), we decided to continue the tradition by starting a family trip journal.

Now, that little sketchbook we bought 10 years ago has some stories to tell. It has worn in and softened after years of paddling and backpacking trips, getting dropped in Central American markets and on countless beaches, toted along on bike trips in Maine and North Carolina. The edges are frayed; there are more than a couple of coffee stains; and the binding has started to come loose. But the memories contained within are rock solid.

Here’s a little gem of an entry from our son, Jackson, then 13. It was the first night of our family’s first bike touring trip in Maine. My memories of that day have been a little whitewashed, as I only remember the rocky outcroppings, the blue water, the abundant sunshine, and the sense of freedom of being on the road under our own power. Jackson’s realism brings me back down to earth.

Starting from the parking lot of the carwash yesterday I felt excited to start our trip. It took Papa and Tasha a while to find a parking spot where they could leave the van for five days, but they asked around and we parked behind a dumpy carwash, one of the only places we were allowed to park. It took us a while to get going due to some crying and grumpy attitudes. Once we got going though, everybody had smiles on their faces.

I thumb through the journal on this cold and blustery November day, and my heart is warmed with memories of time spent outdoors with my family: impressions of a loon calling out over our campsite on Umbagog Lake; a timeline of our hectic first three days travelling through Nicaragua; long lists of foods tasted in Peru; hand-drawn maps of islands we camped on in Maine; lyrics from songs we wrote together while deliriously passing the time on bike touring trips; jokes we told around countless campfires. There are packing lists, menus, card game scores, pressed leaves, and lists of things to do. There are travel itineraries, bus and ferry tickets, and scavenger hunts.

Which brings me to today. As Thanksgiving and the holidays approach, we’re all planning trips to the store to stock up on provisions and packing our bags to see friends and family. Soon we’ll be gathered together to celebrate the holiday season. It’s a nostalgic time, when we pause life’s hectic pace to name what we’re thankful for and what matters to us, to pull close the ones we love.

Beyond this usual season of reminiscence, I’ve found myself a little more nostalgic lately. As I turn 40 this month, I’m taking stock of my first 40 years and making plans for my next 40. You reach this arbitrary, yet symbolic, halfway point in life and you can’t help but begin to ponder the big things, the connections between us, the goals accomplished, the dreams yet to come, the things you’ve been meaning to do, the meaning of it all. I don’t have any answers to the big questions of life, but there is one thing I do know: The memories in this little journal are the most valuable and prized possessions I could ever ask for.

Your family’s own trip journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just a simple, sturdy book that will travel well. Write with a good pen; keep it in a ziplock bag when you’re outside; similar to cats and fire, journals don’t like water.

Most importantly, have the kids write in it, even if they don’t want to. Have them draw a map to their favorite swimming hole or write down the funny thing Mom said at the campfire. Make a list of the foods you taste on a trip. Write down your accidental-but-awesome backcountry recipe. Make a list of the hikes and the paddles and the climbs you want to do together—then go check them off. Later, when the kids are older and Thanksgiving comes around again, you’ll have much to be thankful for.   

Our own well-loved journal is thick, filled with ten years of memories. I feel its heft in my hand, the weight of something solid I’d like to keep with me. I flip through the pages again. The writing and drawings and maps take up the first three-quarters of the book, but the last quarter is blank. These just might be my favorite pages: unwritten, ready, and waiting for the adventures yet to come.  

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find more trip ideas in AMC’s community for families,

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