Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Month: March 2017

The Realities of Adventures with my Son

Don’t believe everything our photos would have you believe, adventures with Finn rarely involve a smiling, happy mother-child combination for long. There are moments of absolute joy, but those are interspersed with many more moments of frustration, exasperation and tears, a little like the everyday journey of parenting really.

I was recently asked in an online interview  if our adventures always go to plan. I gave a vague response along the lines of “well, none of our adventures really go to plan but that’s the reality of adventuring with kids”. True, but I honestly couldn’t come up with any concrete examples, just this vague feeling that things never quite happened as I would have liked them to. It was only a few days later, still pondering the question that I recalled some of the minor disasters we’ve had.

It would appear that when it comes to our adventures I develop temporary amnesia. When we return from an adventure and friends ask how it went, I always reply that we had an amazing time. I’m not lying, I just think my memory must block out all the little things that didn’t quite go to plan. Such as how I’ve cried for the first four days of a week long trip, wondering what on earth I was doing, how I’ve nearly exploded with rage on many occasions and have had to battle to keep my own anger under control (with various levels of success) while Finn expressed his, how exhausted I’ve been listening to Finn’s chatter and stories of ancient Greek and Roman battles for close to three hours of walking because I knew as long as he was engaged in a story he’d be happy to keep going. My untrustworthy memory had replaced all the challenges with a sort of warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment.

Finn’s introduction to camping, aged 6 months was at a beach camp site in north west Scotland for a friend’s wedding. On the journey up I started to feel ill and spent the night in an exhausted stupor between the tent to breastfeed Finn and the toilet block to throw up. The selective amnesia kicked in and we returned home from that trip thinking about how much fun it was camping with a little one. So, the following year we were camping again, in the north of Scotland. We’d been at a friend’s house party and had not long retreated to sleep in a field in our tent when Finn woke us up with a spectacular vomiting extravaganza. We mopped up as best we could with any spare clothes and a couple of borrowed towels and were then promptly treated to a repeat performance. His sleeping bag was covered, along with the sheepskin he slept on. Now after midnight, packing up and driving over four hours home was not an option so there was nothing to do but try and get some sleep amidst the stink.

When Finn was two, I must have had a flash of misguided enthusiasm and decided it was time for our first camping trip together, just the two of us. On our first night I pitched up in Ullapool, ready to take the early ferry to Stornoway the next day to camp on the idyllic white sandy beaches of Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. I won’t go into details (it involved a lot of tears), but we lasted all of a night. I couldn’t cope and retreated to my mother-in-law’s house a couple of hours drive away. During our camping trip to Orkney last year, there was no such easy escape. After our trip I wrote “at times, our trip felt like I was stuck in a social experiment or reality TV show. One where two strong willed and stubborn characters were thrown onto an island in a tiny tent to see what chaos ensues. There were highs and there were lows. There were several meltdowns a day. There were ample opportunities for me to practice mindfulness and patience. There were moments where the experiences I was seeking were at odds with what Finn wanted”. Eight months on and the despair I surely felt at the time has been replaced by fond memories of our experience.

By now you’re probably wondering why on earth I bother at all? It’d be a lot easier to stay at home and watch the telly would it not? Well, I often question my zeal myself. On our recent trip to Hadrian’s Wall, hiking in cold, wet and windy conditions and Finn and I arguing over some minor point, I snapped and told him that was it, I couldn’t do this adventuring any more, no more trips just the two of us. In that split second I meant it, but the minute the words were out of my mouth I knew it was a lie. I knew that as soon as we returned home I’d be hatching plans for our next mini-adventure. Finn knew it too. “But you’ll forget mum” he said, recovering himself and smirking, “you always do”. Back to why I persevere with our adventures… Last week as I was hurrying Finn to the bus stop (and he was idly observing something in the roadside ditch) he stopped short. “Mum” he pondered, looking me in the eye, “I love everything we do. Everything we do is such fun isn’t it?” “Absolutely!” I replied with only a blip of a hesitation. Well, maybe that’s all the encouragement I need. A childhood full of fun is surely worth a few parental tears and frustrations along the way? Although it would appear that Finn suffers from the same affliction of temporary amnesia that I do.

So if you’re feeling disheartened by your own less than joyous outdoor family experiences, remember, in all those happy smiling photos, we were probably arguing passionately with each other not five minutes earlier. Take heart, you’re creating some wonderful family memories and your kids are probably actually having a lot of fun, even if you aren’t.

Couchsurfing in Canada with a Family

I first heard of Couchsurfing several years ago when my son was tiny but got the impression that it catered only for young, solo backpackers. It’s probably true that the majority of Couchsurfers fit this category but I discovered that families can Couchsurf too, there’s just far fewer of them doing it and a more limited choice of hosts.

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a social networking website that provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at someone’s home or to host travellers (there are also options to meet other members for a social activity or join an event). So basically you can search for free accommodation on a stranger’s couch or spare room while travelling.

The concept of Couchsurfing is so much more than just a free bed though. By staying with a local resident in their own home you get a real flavour of how people where you’re visiting live, as opposed to a tourists-eye view (although we did plenty of ‘touristy stuff’ too!). Couchsurfing  offers you the chance to to meet interesting characters and an opportunity to learn about the culture, local traditions and places of interest in the area you are visiting.

Last Christmas we decided to do something we’d been talking about for a couple of years, to visit friends in Canada. We opted to stay in Vancouver before heading to our friends in Calgary for Christmas. With a modest budget and a desire to experience a more authentic glimpse of Vancouver than the typical tourist lodgings would provide I decided to investigate the possibility of Couchsurfing with a family.

I registered with the Couchsurfing community, created my profile and then searched for suitable hosts in Vancouver. There are several filters you can set to specify the number of people in your family, if a host is “kid-friendly” and whether a host has “kids at home”. It was important for us not only that our host was willing to accommodate a child but that they had a child or children at home themselves. Unfortunately, this reduced the number of potential hosts considerably. A search for hosts in Vancouver lists 3,130 hosts accepting guests and many thousands more who “may be accepting guests”. Applying filters for kid friendly and with kids at home reduced our potential hosts to a mere handful (11 to be precise!), which included several people who hadn’t logged in to the site in over a year so were unlikely to be actively hosting.

The Vancouver skyline from our host’s apartment

Although our choice was very limited we were lucky to find a wonderful and suitable host with several glowing references left by previous Couchsurfers who’d stayed. Not only did she have a daughter just a year older than my son but they were vegetarian too. I sent a request asking if she would be willing to host us for a couple of nights along with a detailed message introducing our family and travelling plans. I was surprised to receive a response in just a few days inviting us to spend three nights in her home in the week before Christmas. We corresponded in the time leading up to our departure and our host not only suggested that we take our children to the annual Bright Nights Christmas Train in Stanley Park together but was kind enough to purchase tickets for us in advance.

Bright Nights in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

When we arrived in Vancouver I received a message that our host could no longer meet us at her apartment as planned but that her building manager would let us in and that she’d leave us a set of keys. I admit, it felt a little awkward to be let into the home of someone we’d never met, but it felt even more strange when our host and her daughter arrived later for us to welcome them into their own home! She then gave up her bedroom for us to sleep in while she moved into her daughters’ room for the duration of our stay. I couldn’t get over the trust, kindness and generosity of this woman who we’d just met or that she willingly offers strangers a bed or couch in her home on a regular basis. At the same time I thought how wonderful it was for her daughter to meet such varied and interesting people from all over the world. Our host had Couchsurfed herself while travelling in South America before having her daughter and although she was not in a position to travel just now, she was happy to bring the world to their apartment and give something back to the Couchsurfing community.  It was a lesson for me to be more open minded and reminded me of similar incidents of kindness and trust I’d experienced on my solo long-distance walking trips and of tales of the kindness of strangers I’ve read about in the travel writing of others. Yes, there is a risk that you could have a negative experience Couchsurfing or find it difficult to connect with your host, but the majority of Couchsurfers have a positive, culturally enriching experience.

What we loved about our Couchsurfing experience

  • Couchsurfing gave us the chance to stay in a neighbourhood of local residents rather than the overpriced tourist area downtown. We got to experience a part of the city we probably wouldn’t otherwise have visited and to eat at the cafes and restaurants visited predominantly by locals. Our host was able and willing to give us recommendations for some lovely local veggie and vegan eateries too.
  • As we were staying with a family there were plenty of suitable toys on hand to keep Finn occupied and having a daughter a similar age, our host was able to suggest family friendly activities and the whereabouts of local parks and walks.
  • Our host and daughter were at work and school during the day so we had plenty of time to ourselves and this avoided us feeling like we were getting under each others feet. On the other hand, our host was so busy with the lead up to Christmas that there was little time to get to know her and her daughter better!

Sampling the local cafes…

…and the local parks…

…Local walking trails…

…and the local market…

If you’re someone who prefers not to share a bathroom with strangers then Couchsurfing may not be for you, but if you have an open mind, are flexible, happy to embrace someone else’s house rules for a couple of days and pitch in and help with the household chores a little, Couchsurfing can be an enjoyable, rewarding and affordable experience. It certainly was for us.

March Microadventure: Woodland Bivvy

I was afraid that last month’s freezing bivvy had put my son off as yesterday he woke in a miserable mood and spent the morning complaining that he didn’t want to go bivvying. By afternoon, after getting hold of some marshmallows and meeting up with our friends who have committed to participating in our Year of Microadventures with us, he had cheered up a little and by evening, while sat around the fire in the evening the boys were declaring how amazing bivvying is.

For each month’s microadventure we are planning to bivvy in a different environment; beach, forest, riverside, hilltop, island. This didn’t quite work out for January and February when we went no further than the neighbour’s garden, but last night we kicked off with somewhere completely new for our first woodland bivvy. Part of the attraction of microadventures for me is that it presents an opportunity to explore your local area and discover somewhere beautiful you never new existed less than ten miles down the road. Being so close to home also makes it easy to get back home for a morning coffee.

We left the boys playing in the stream, pushing each other out of the hammock and building a den while we set up camp and lit a small fire.

The boys whittled sticks for their sausages and we cooked corn cobs in foil in the ashes, followed by tea and hot chocolate and the previously mentioned marshmallows.

Being a person who generally prefers wide, open spaces, I was worried I’d feel a sense of claustrophobia hemmed in by trees, but with the light from the candle lantern and the glow from the fire our camp spot felt cosy and inviting and a safe space rather than a threatening one. It’s also surprising how much darker it is in the forest, with the advantage that Finn thought it was a lot later than it actually was and was persuaded to go to bed earlier than usual.

Unfortunately he can’t be persuaded to sleep any more soundly. Twice he sat up talking in his sleep to himself and a couple more times I found him half out of his sleeping bag and upside down. I didn’t think it was possible to feel too hot out in the woods in early March but the temperature was probably a good ten degrees warmer than on our February bivvy and I was so warm in the night that I woke up and had to strip down to just two thermal layers! After the birds settled down to roost and the owls ceased their hoots and the boys ceased their chatter, a calm silence descended. The trees helped to muffle the sounds outside of our little enclosed space and there was just the gentle tinkling of the small burn a few metres away to lull us to sleep. Being outside enlivens rather than desensitises the senses, and it was easy to appreciate the smell of the damp earth and dried pine needles, the whiff of woodsmoke, the feel of the cool drizzle on my face at intervals during the night, and the occasional gentle gust of cool, unpolluted air.

The boys were full of energy in the morning even if the mums weren’t and there was just enough time for a quick explore down by the river until that well earned (and very much appreciated) cup of coffee back home.

 

 

 

 

10 Tips for Winter Family Microadventures

It might not be an obvious choice to camp or bivvy out with your family in the cold and dark of a Scottish winter but it can be done, even with just a small amount of organisation. It may or may not be fun but it’s certainly an experience! If you’re thinking of trying it yourself I’ve come up with a few tips that I’ve found useful to get you started.

1. Pair up with another enthusiastic family. It helps both morale and sticking to your plan if invite another family along and prevents any ‘oh it looks a bit wet/cold/dark tonight, let’s do it another time’ thinking.

2. Stay close to home. There’s no need to head far to have an adventure, especially in winter. Any location feels different in the dark so it’s still exciting for kids even if you go no further than the back garden (or a neighbours’ garden). This requires a lot less organisation and preparation, makes it easier to go back and forth if you forget something and means that if anyone ends up really miserable they can just pop back home.

3. Hot water bottles. If you’re close to home take advantage of it and issue everyone with a hot water bottle or two. Especially good at keeping toes warm.

4. Take a bin bag. You can keep everyone’s things together, including extra clothes if you need to put more layers on during the night and it’s a good idea to keep your boots undercover so they won’t get wet if it rains or snows in the night.

5. If you’re bivvying close to home arrange for someone to bring you a cup of tea in ‘bed’ in the morning! What a way to wake up!

6. As well as plenty of warm thermal layers, wear a buff and hat (and even gloves) to keep otherwise exposed places warm though the night. Finn always pushes off his hat after about 20 minutes asleep but on our January bivvy he still didn’t notice it was snowing until he woke up in the morning. I wonder if a balaclava would work?

7. Make an evening of it. Go on a star gazing night walk before settling down, make a fire or drink hot chocolate while tucked up in your sleeping bags telling stories…

8. …Or, if you’re pressed for time or less organised (as we were for our February microadventure), stay inside doing whatever else you’d be doing for the evening then grab your things and head out last minute ready to bed down and sleep.

9. Accept that you’re probably not going to have the best night’s sleep of your life. I find my son wakes a lot more when bivvying and in my mother protector role I’m always half awake checking that he’s not out of his sleeping bag or suffocating in it, that he’s not too cold, that he’s still breathing etc. etc. It helps if you can schedule an early night for everyone the following night. Then just think how much you’ll appreiciate a warm cosy night in a proper bed!

10. Make a commitment, tell others about it (so it’s more difficult to back out) and just give it a go! If anyone gets too cold, wet or miserable though the night you can just pop back home and wait until summer (but then you’ll have midges to contend with!)

You’ll need a bit of kit to comfortably sleep out in the winter but if you’re going no further than the garden the essentials are;

  •  Something to sleep on such as a foam or inflating camping mat (you’ll want to use a couple together unless they’re winter-specific mats)
  • Something to sleep in. As warm as possible. (Use two lighter weight sleeping bags together if you don’t have a super warm sleeping bag)
  • Lots of warm clothes, including a hat. (For our February microadventure I wore a couple of pairs of warm trousers, a vest,  long sleeved thermal top, a fleece, an insulated jacket, a buff, hat, thick socks and my slippers.
  • A bivvy bag or orange survival bag
  • Torch
  • Fluffy pillows and hot water bottles!

A more detailed year round kit list can be found here

8 Books to Inspire a Family Microadventure

For those families who would like to try out a microadventure but aren’t sure how or what or where to start, or for families who just want a little push to get them outdoors more I’ve compiled a short list of books that offer both inspiration and advice on the practicalities of cooking and eating out of doors. Get in touch if you’ve any suggestions of inspiring books that I’ve missed!

1. Camping and Walking by David Watkins and Meike Dalal

First published in 1979, I had to put this book first on the list as it was THE book that inspired me when I was younger. I spent many hours pouring over the pages dreaming of the day when I could go off camping alone. After I started taking my son on microadventures I sought out this book online to give to him and although he can’t read it yet, he too loves to look through it’s pages.

2. Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys

This was the book that inspired me as an adult to try a microadventure. I had this book for a year and read it several times before I psyched myself up to take the family on our first microadventure last summer. Although not specifically aimed at families, it’s packed full of good ideas for adventures with minimal time and cost outlay and most of Alastair’s ideas can be adapted to family situations. There’s also a great section on microadventure practicalities including how to find a wild bivvy spot and what essential kit you need when starting out.

3. 100 Family Adventures by Tim, Kerry, Amy and Ella Meek

I love this family who are so enthusiastic about spending time in the outdoors together and their book provides inspiration for all sorts of family adventures. After reading it, it really gave me the confidence to think ‘I can do it!’ Some of their ideas are expensive and require some prior knowledge and expertise or to go with an organised group like sea kayaking and skiing trips buts there are plenty of ideas for lost cost microadventures too. Some of my favourites are the ‘midweek eat outs’ and the snow and scooter safaris. There’s also information about different ways to sleep outside.

4. Swallows and Amazons and Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome

The quintessential kids adventure story. I never read it as a child and didn’t realise that Swallows and Amazons was just the first of a whole series of books following their adventures. Winter Holiday is an great story and inspiration for a winter microadventure.

5. The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan

This guide hadn’t been published when Finn and I undertook our 5 Bothies in 5 Weeks with a 5 Year Old adventure but we’ve been using it to plan some bothy trips this year. There is an element of fun in finding a bothy for yourself and this was the prevailing attitude for a long time when bothy locations were a well kept secret. If planning for a family bothy trip, however, this is invaluable because of the good advice on how far the walk is, how big the bothy is and how busy the bothy generally is (i.e. the bothies to avoid with your little ones!)

6. Wild Guides by various authors

I really like the format of the Wild Guides and their beautiful and inspirational photography and although they’re not specifically aimed at families, most list family friendly options or just general inspiration to plan your own family microadventure. Choose from titles such as Wild Swimming, Wild Ruins and area guides such as Wild Guide Lakes and Dales.

7. Cool Camping Guides by various authors

Good if you’re not quite ready for a wild camping adventure, we’ve  used the Cool Camping guides to direct us to a number of campsites, one in Wales which we love so much we’ve camped there for 4 years in a row. There is a Cool Camping Kids edition specifically listing family friendly sites which include both basic camping and glamping options and ideas for campsite games and recipes.

8. Books by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks including The Den Book, The Wild Weather Book and Go Wild!: 101 Things To Do Before You Grow Up

Lots of child and family friendly ideas of activities and things to do on a microadventure. They are all well written and packed full of fun, simple ideas and I highly recommend them!

Hostelling in Hadrian’s Country

Finn and I don’t always brave it in the bivvy bags. Sometimes we fancy a bit of luxury, which is when a Youth Hostel fits the bill! Far from the hostels of old, modern hostels mostly boast en-suite rooms, bed linen, towels and private rooms. Unfortunately, with the increase in facilities comes an increase in prices and a family room doesn’t always come as cheap as you might expect. Child protection policy at hostels run by the Youth Hostels Association and Scottish Youth Hostels Association makes it obligatory to book a private room if bringing a child under 16 (although you can stay in a dorm room with a child over 12 of the same sex). For us, this rules out the most affordable beds in a dormitory room and requires you to book further in advance as private rooms generally book up quickly, months in advance in the more popular hostels.

Last April we shelled out £70 for a night’s stay for the three of us in a family room at a Youth Hostel on the Isle of Arran. This wasn’t an en-suite and didn’t include towels or breakfast. I’ll be honest, it would have cost us the same to stay in a more comfortable bed and breakfast. However, a bed and breakfast or hotel just doesn’t replicate the ethos and atmosphere found in a hostel where a dedicated lounge encourages social interaction and conversation with other travellers.

In that same hostel in Arran, we met a lovely family of five from outside of London who we ended up camping right next door to for a week in rural Wales that summer (we’d recommended the camp site when we met them in the hostel and they coincidentally happened to book in for the same week as us!) Most hostels have a communal space to lounge out in and meet other families and you’ll often find games and books on loan for free as well as full kitchen facilities that are invaluable for travelling with selective (i.e. fussy) eaters. Yup, we’ve one of those.

This February, Finn and I spent a few nights in a characterful hostel in the North Pennines for a more reasonable £35 per night for the two of us for an en-suite room  including bedding and towels. Affiliate and independent hostels often have a more flexible pricing policy whereby they’ll put you in a room sleeping four but only charge for the number of people sleeping in the room (rather than the number of beds in the room as had happened on Arran). This was our second visit to Ninebanks Youth Hostel, a renovated 18th century cottage in former mining country, complete with rural views, flagstone flooring, log burner and an extremely well-stocked bookshelf. We had returned because my son has a long standing obsession with Roman History and Ninebanks is easily commutable to that most important monument built by the Romans in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, and it’s associated forts, milecastles, turrets and earthworks.

Last year Finn forged some wonderful friendships with children he met and played with at the hostel in the evenings, while parents sat and chatted around the log burner, supping a locally produced beer. This year I was alarmed on arrival at the hostel to hear that there was a woman in residence who had chosen to stay in the hostel with it’s quiet, peaceful environment to facilitate some writing she was doing. I immediately sought her out to apologetically explain that Finn doesn’t ‘do’ peace and quiet particularly well. There was no need to worry. The lady in question enthusiastically led the evening’s entertainment featuring Twister, giant Jenga and imaginative game playing.

Sadly, our daytime adventures were far less cosy and comfortable. Hadrian’s Wall traces the contours of the wild and exposed Northumbrian landscape and we’d timed our visit with the arrival of Storm Doris. We didn’t let the unfavourable wet and windy conditions scupper our hiking and explorations along the Wall or our al fresco picnics but it certainly made our excursions more challenging, reducing both mother and son to tears (for quite different reasons). And so to reveal the pièce de résistance of a hostel… The Drying Room. It’s worth paying any price to have dry boots in the morning.

The conditions were a little soggy but thanks to the hostel drying room Finn’s walking shoes were bone dry the next morning!

Following the Wall from Steel Rigg to Housesteads

Picnic at the Sycamore Gap (of ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ fame)

Two Wee Wet Adventurers

Outside the Hostel during our stay last year…

…And this year

 

 

 

February Bivvy Microadventure

We’d done it again and managed to serendipitously time February’s bivvy microadventure with a dump of snow. We’d postponed bivvying in a local wood with our friends for the previous two Saturdays because of heavy rain. We didn’t want to dishearten our wee ones with such a wet night so early in the year. However as the last day of February rolled around rather quickly it was now or never.

To vary the view a little I asked my neighbour if we could use her garden instead of our own. Thankfully I have a very understanding neighbour who didn’t bat an eyelid at my strange request and not only offered to leave her back door open for us but presented us with chocolate to keep up moral too. Thanks Ashleigh!

When I stepped outside after dark I knew it was the perfect night. Crisp, cold and clear, snow below, stars above. There are no street lights where we live and little light pollution so we had quite a view. I helped Finn into his sleeping and bivvy bags, then attempted to shimmy into mine. It takes time when you’re wearing so many clothes, still, I warmed up a bit from the exertion of it. Then I laid back and gazed at the stars. Perfect (except for son’s constant chatter). We tracked satellites, saw a couple of shooting stars and spotted constellations. Then I turned over to sleep, Finn still muttering away.

An hour later he was shifting in his sleeping bag and sitting up. Mother mode kicking in I coaxed him back under cover and tucked him in to keep him warm. This repeated about every hour until 5.20am when he needed the toilet. We laboriously extracted ourselves from our protective cocoons and walked around to our own back door. Of course as soon as he was in the house, he wasn’t exactly keen on heading back out into the freezing night again so I returned alone, with a silent sigh thinking that now I might get an hour or two of interrupted sleep before dawn. I did have that chocolate to earn after all. (Alas, it was not to be, by then the rooks in the nearby copse of Scots Pine were waking up). Recent scientific research found that camping out can banish insomnia by resetting the body’s natural clock. Clearly the research was not carried out on bivvying families.

The morning after. Looking a bit tired and worse for wear!

After a dry but bitterly  cold night (I could barely feel my toes by morning), a shower of sleet on my face persuaded me to abandon ship and head inside for a cup of tea and hot shower while the boys continued their slumber, softly snoring away.

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