Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

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May Microadventure: On the importance of being flexible

Sometimes even the best made plans fall through. Most of the time if there are children involved. Our plan was to hike up a path beside one of the UK’s highest cascading waterfalls and bivvy by the side of an upland loch. Wild. Tick. Dramatic. Tick. Excellent views. Tick. But when we woke yesterday on the morning of our planned May microadventure (sleeping out one night a month as part of our Year of Microadventures) it was raining. It rained. And it rained. And it hailed. And it rained some more. With each torrential shower, my mind conjured up a new plan, from Plan B (postponing), to camping in a tent (Plan C) all the way to Plan E. By the time we left the house, together with another mother and son, we still hadn’t decided where we were going to sleep that night. But as I’m sure you’ve heard adventurers say before, the most important action is to take the first step, or in our case, just get in the car and figure it out when we got there. Wherever “there” might be.

“There” turned out to be a valley leading into rolling, uninhabited hills down a quiet no-through road that I’d always wanted to explore, despite being barely ten miles from home. We scanned the valley sides for a suitable camp spot and parked up, neatly timing our arrival to coincide with a heavier than ever downpour. Reluctant to leave the warm, dry confines of the vehicle we arrived at a new plan, Plan F. Just in time, as the boys were ready to explore NOW! And they were off, straight into the squall.

We scouted out a spot, only just level and wide enough for four, in a coniferous forestry plantation, sacrificing views for shelter. Not my first choice for a bivvy but with the benefit that we didn’t have to venture far from the road to feel like we were deep in the heart of the forest. The trees were so densely packed we couldn’t feel a drop of rain despite the persistent downpour “outside”.

Having earmarked our bed for the night, we fought our way back out through the impenetrable firs and the boys raced up a small hill to explore (the mums wheezing behind). Reaching a grand, old sycamore we were rewarded as the sun lit up the valley below (for all of ten minutes). We made a meal while the boys made a fire and swung each other from the tree.

As the cloud thickened once more and darkness descended, we too descended, collected our bags and entered the forest, where under the trees it was already dark. What we’d neglected to consider was how different a once visited place will appear under the cover of night. We had trouble locating our intended site. The situation became farcical as the four of us scurried around and around in circles, head-torches scanning this way and that. We had underestimated the distance in the dark but eventually found the spot (then had to backtrack to find the various baggage we’d put down while we were searching). Setting up the sleeping bags and getting the boys ready for bed was a task not made any easier by one of the boys who wasn’t able to settle down (mentioning no names!)

I was woken early, for once not by F, but by a vocal and persistent cuckoo, joined in a crescendo by a wood pigeon and pheasant. This however is one of my most savoured times of day on a sleep out under the stars; to enjoy the emerging light, stirring wildlife and awakening of a new day.

In conclusion, on microadventures with children it pays to be flexible. In my mind’s eye I’d envisaged a wild bivvy in the uplands of Scotland, with sweeping views and far from the road. But then there wouldn’t have been the boys’ delight of the fire or the swinging from the trees or the satisfaction not only of surviving a bivouac out in the rain but actually enjoying it.

 

Read more about our January microadventure here

Read more about our February microadventure here

Read more about our March microadventure here

Read more about our April microadventure here

The Benefits of a “Nature Spot”

For the past couple of years my son and I have spent regular time at a small stony beach on a stretch of riverbank about a 15-20 minute walk away from our home. It’s a peaceful place, punctuated only occasionally by fishermen and the odd dog walker. It’s been a regular destination for us since we moved to this area, but a couple of years ago I intentionally adopted it as our “nature spot”, which we make a habit of walking to at least weekly. We might pack a picnic to eat there, take the paints and sketchpads to do some drawing, collect some seeds, cones or feathers for our seasonal nature display at home, spend some time just sitting quietly and observing, paddle or throw stones in the river or collect and take home litter discarded by others. We’ve visited for the past two Harvest Moons to see our nature spot after dark and at the Spring Equinoxes for a celebratory fire. Sometimes we’re down there a several times a week although if we’re away or have other plans we might not make it for several weeks at a time.

Collecting leaves, berries and seeds for our indoor “nature table”.

Finn paddling in the river with hundreds of tiny fish stranded in a shallow spot as the water level decreased.

Spring Equinox picnic at our nature spot.

Before having children I would preferentially walk somewhere new and different but not always being able to walk far or fast with a wee one in tow, I began to appreciate the benefits of getting to know our local surroundings in a more intimate way and to enjoy anticipating what we might see on regular walks to the same place. As we observe the exact same wildfowl we saw a couple of days previously we start to form more of a connection with them. We often observe our resident heron, the same pair of swans, a male and female mallard. With more of an awareness of our local geography we’ve started to name and map the different locations we walk through to get to our nature spot; kindling wood, the old Beech, watercolour bay, disappointment wood. We now know where the wild plum tree is hidden, where to find crab apples and a tiny lone gooseberry bush. We’ve become more observant and in tune with the seasons, knowing when to expect the first snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, when the hawthorn, beech and ash leaves come out and when we can first expect elderflower or rowan to blossom. And occasionally I’ve been rewarded with something really special that I never expected to see like the otter who I chanced upon floating down the river a couple of metres away from me when the river was highly swollen last winter. He stared at me inquisitively as he floated past then dived under and swam slightly upriver of me where he floated down to scrutinise me once more before letting the river carry him on his way. On our latest visit to our nature spot last week we spent some time identifying and observing a Dipper that would dive in the river then surface and fly to feed one of it’s young left squawking on a tree branch on the other side of the riverbank.

Creating minibeasts from beeswax plasticine based on our observations of bugs found at our nature spot

Finn’s observational drawing of a daisy found close to our nature spot

Exploring Nature With Children

Something which inspired us to incorporate an intentional nature spot into our weekly rhythm was reading Lynn Seddon’s e-book Exploring Nature with Children. I’ve found this to be a practical, comprehensive and inspiring resource for becoming better aquainted with our local natural environment. Although we’ve not followed Lynn’s curriculum as intensely or regularly as I would like (particularly in the summer when we’re away on other adventures and with Finn still being quite young) we’ve found it helpful to use Lynn’s suggestions to give a purpose to even a short walk or winter picnic. Last year we participated in an organised nature swap, which involved being paired up with a family living on the outskirts of London and sending them a selection of natural objects and information about our own nature spot. In return we received a parcel from our paired family containing pressed flowers, cones and sticks from their local trees. We were particularly surprised to compare the difference between the sparse pollution tolerant lichen on a stick from a London plane with the richly lichen covered branches from our local oaks.

What’s special about a nature spot?

Our nature spot is similar to the concept of the “sit spot”, which I first came across in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Evan McGown and Ellen Haas, inspired by the American wilderness awareness schools in the tradition of Jon Young and Tom Brown and their mentors. They highlight the importance of a sit spot as a location where you go regularly to observe and study what you see on a day to day basis. Going regularly is important as it means you’ll get to know this spot at different times of the day and through the seasons. Ideally you would visit every day, but realistically I know our family would never manage that! Even just visiting once a week you’ll get to know the trees, the plants and when they flower or when you can expect to see migrating bird life. After a year you can compare from season to season and with the previous year and begin to form a connection between climate conditions and the animals’ behaviour.

Our children are taught about caring for the environment in an often abstract way, in relation to far away places like the Amazon rainforest or to endangered species like Arctic polar bears, yet have next to no understanding of their own local environment and what wildlife they might find there. Environmental awareness and stewardship should really start on our own doorsteps as observing, forming connections and understanding our local wildlife and environment makes us more likely to want care for our own local environments as well as further afield.


How do I choose a nature spot?

Ideally your nature spot might comprise an area of open grassland with woodland or trees and a river or lake to take advantage of maximum biodiversity. More importantly though your nature spot should be close enough to home where it’s not too much trouble to get to on a regular basis, so a spot in your local park, wasteland or back garden is just fine.

When you’ve chosen your nature spot, it’s really just a matter of observing as attentively as possible. Observe any wildlife and what they do and keep a journal which you describe your observations and further questions. Encourage little ones to draw or paint what they see as this encourages them to observe them even more carefully. Draw and measure any animal tracks you find. Pay particular attention to the birds who react most visibly and audibly to anything going on in the area and learn to recognise their calls. Encourage young children to sit and listen quietly, even if just for a few seconds at first! For inspiration get a copy of Lynn’s e-book and integrate some of her ideas and suggestions into your week. Or if all this seems too much, just use your nature spot as a habitual excuse to get outside, even if just for a short while to immerse yourself or your family in nature on a more regular basis.

Observational drawing and painting of autumn leaves found at our nature spot.

Our nature spot in winter. Still ideal for picnics but we do most of our drawing inside!

April Microadventure: Beach Bivvy in Photos

Another month, another microadventure. Each month, joined by another mother and son (or father and son on this occassion), Finn and I plan to bivvy in different environments as suggested by the boys. Last month we slept in a wood. This month we had been invited to a wild camp out to celebrate the birthday of a friend of Finn close to the beach, so it was a perfect opportunity for a beach front bivvy.

Our room with a view for the night. You can just about make out Bass Rock in the distance.

Who needs a Theme Park when you have the freedom of the beach and woods? Sliding down the dunes, rock pooling, paddling, climbing trees. No opportunity for boredom here!

A discussion of the best fire lighting technique between the boys.

This wagon kept Finn occupied for, literally, hours.

The campers had already set up camp in the woods while the bivviers got organised and made up the beds on the beach to save doing it in the dark. Top tip from Mark to fold over the top of the bivvy bags to prevent the sleeping bags getting wet in the event of rain. Although in the end this was the driest bivvy of the year so far.

All together around the fire in the evening.

The hypontic effects of fire.

The birthday girl gave us a wee light show with her new poi.

 

And a couple of the adults treated us to a bit of a fire show.

 

After an exciting afternoon, we finally persuaded the boys to their bivvy beds at 11.30pm.

As usual I was woken up by Finn several times during the night and woke again to the sun rising.

A fine show of “bed hair” by the boys.

Popcorn for breakfast!

And back to play in the wagon again for a few hours more.

Another successful microadventure and two happy, if tired, boys already looking forward to the next one.

 

Camping and Camaraderie on the West Highland Way

Although all of my long distance walking exploits to date have been solo affairs, they’ve been consistently characterised by the people I’ve met. Walking the West Highland Way (WHW) was no exception. In fact it was even more so. It’s a deservedly popular trail, attracting around 40,000 walkers a year, from all over the world and of all ages and abilities. In fact the trail felt so busy, even at the beginning of the season in early April, that there were times I found myself longing for a bit of solitude!

Enjoying a spot of solitude on Rannoch Moor

The West Highland Way traverses 96 miles from Milngavie, a short distance out of Glasgow, to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. It’s well signposted, easy to navigate and follows maintained paths, old military roads and forest tracks. Despite the dramatic mountain scenery, it’s a mostly lowland route. But although there are only a few hills and high passes to negotiate, the route’s challenges shouldn’t be underestimated; underfoot the conditions are solid and rocky all the way, so although you barely get your boots dirty, your feet and legs take a constant pounding. As my feet developed multiple blisters, despite my well worn-in and normally extremely comfortable boots, I dreamt of nice soft grassy sections to cushion my feet (which never materialised).

Rocky Road: Crossing Rannoch Moor on the military road.

Looking back from the top of the Devil’s Staircase, the highest point on the WHW.

I walked the route over six and a half days bedding down in a mixture of official camp sites and wild camping spots. The first afternoon’s walking, from Milngavie to Drymen passed in a gentle ramble with just one minor incident as I leaped down an embankment to pop for a toilet stop, not realising it was choked with old brambles. My legs got badly scratched, I got a thorn embedded in my finger and it took me a good ten minutes to extricate myself from the tangle. Toilet breaks presented a continual hazard along the way. The route was so well used that I’d be about to jump behind a bush when another walker would appear over the horizon or startle me from behind. Even when there were no walkers in sight there were instances where I’d be surprised by a mountain biker or trail runner materialising from the ether.

Beach front wild camp on the “bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond”

A wet and windy wild camp on Day 5

Local dog walkers from Milngavie stopped me to ask if I was ‘doing the whole thing’. On other long distance walks people have enquired about what I was doing or where I was walking but whereas usually, from afar I just assumed the identity of a Small Girl with a Big Rucksack. Now I was singled out as a West Highland Way Walker, like having been accepted into membership of an exclusive club. Given that you could be 99.9% guaranteed that anyone else you passed sporting a large backpack (as well as many of those carrying smaller backpacks) were also walking the WHW, it was easy to start up a conversation with a fellow walker which often turned into a couple of hours of chat if they were walking in the same direction.

Small Girl with a Big Rucksack transformed into West Highland Way Walker.

I pitched up my tent the first night on a tiny patch of sorry looking grass at Drymen Camping, alongside a father and teenage son walking the Way. Most people walk a similar average distance each day and congregate at the same centres of accommodation in the evenings so you tend to reconnect with the same people throughout the week, which definitely lends a spirit of camaraderie to your walk.

The relative peace and quiet of early mornings and evenings are usually my favourite times for walking and it’s often a couple of hours before I meet other walkers. Not so on the WHW. Day 2 and less than a mile into the walk I’m passed by several Way Walkers with small packs. I pass a group of guys from Germany wild camping, brushing their teeth in the middle of the trail. A mile on and I passed a group of Nepalese guys camping in the forest. They’d overtake me as I stopped for a break, then as they stopped, I’d overtake them. I met a fit talkative retired lady walking it for the second time, a mother and her 14 year old son visiting from Australia and a Scottish gentleman who had wanted all his life to do the WHW, had been training since last August and lost an amazing four stone of weight in the process. I passed a guy from Quebec walking to Africa and a John O’ Groats to Lands End Walker called Pete, who grew up just a few miles away from me in South Wales. It wasn’t just walkers on the West Highland Way either, it’s also a popular route for running and biking. On day 2 as I reached the first hilly bit of the Way, the summit of Conic Hill, I met a couple of cyclists. Not rugged looking mountain bikers that I was to meet later along the trail, but a couple of world travellers, originally from California and most recently living in the Netherlands. They already looked weary pushing up their heavily loaded touring bikes along the trail. I thought of them over the next couple of days and how they would have transported those bikes down the steep steps on the other side of Conic Hill or over the craggy walking hugging the east side of Loch Lomond. Trail runners out training for longer races stopped to chat and I fleetingly (and only fleetingly) thought it might be a fun challenge to run the West Highland Way one day. With such a variety of interesting people to meet, on more than one occasion I got waylaid by the side of the trail chatting for over an hour. The only group of people conspicuous by their absence were solo female campers. Where were all the single ladies??!

Single lady. One of the only ones!

Stopping to check out the Doune Byre Bothy, where I ended up spending an hour by the fire chatting to Mike who was on an extended walking trip.

Hanging out with a group of well spoken, retired bikers in front of the Buachille Etive Mor.

The lovely Pete from Wales, a week into his walk from John O’ Groats to Land’s End.

Recent regulations forbid wild camping on the shores of Loch Lomond and at the National Park visitor centre I was advised I required a permit (£3 per person per night) to camp in a designated wild camping area (an area with no facilities what so ever, it’s ‘authentic’ wild camping but you pay for the privilege) and warned that a park ranger would be out on patrol in the evening so to keep my permit number accessible. I camped alone and didn’t see a soul the entire evening, ranger or otherwise, and later I spoke with others who had camped at a spot in the area, suggested to them by the local policeman. As long as you’re away from the road a bit, I suspect no-one will bother you providing you follow sensible wild camping etiquette and leave no trace. With nowhere flat and clear in the designated wild camping area to pitch even my tiny one person tent I spent half an hour removing small pieces of glass from the shore, rigging up a pitch with the guy lines held by stones. I watched the moon drift over Loch Lomond and settled down to a quiet night.

Trying to pitch the tent with stones on Loch Lomond. Thank goodness it wasn’t wet or windy overnight.

It was a bit of a gamble with the weather to walk at the beginning of April, and most nights I was togged up wearing all my clothes to keep warm, but at least evening camps were blissfully and gratefully midge-free. After a few days of nothing more sinister than cloud, the forecast for Day 5 predicted a wet and windy afternoon and overnight, which coincided with my crossing of Rannoch Moor. The magical reputation of Rannoch Moor had entranced me for some time and was the stretch of the Way I had been most looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint. My guidebook described it as “a point as far away from civilisation as anywhere else on the Way, and in poor weather conditions it can be one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland”. So on the day when a storm was forecast I decided to wild camp right in the middle of it. Well, actually I was persuaded by a guy who worked at the camp site at Tyndrum (who was an experienced winter camper and mountaineer). He advised me on a good spot to camp and assured me that my good quality tent, yet to be tested in high winds, would hold up just fine. I spent the morning’s walking in a state of mild anxiousness about the night ahead but as the day wore on the excitement about the prospect of a solitary wild camp at “one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland” eclipsed any of my earlier disquiet. I failed to reach my intended camp spot before the onset of heavy rain and as the storm whipped up I caught up with the father and son team I’d ‘relay tagged’ throughout the week. They were thoroughly fed up, despite being destined for a dry, snug night in a camping pod at the Glencoe Mountain Resort and looked at me in disbelief when, reaching my proposed camp beside an isolated ruin of a sheiling, I waved them goodbye with a smile and a cheer as they continued, hoods up and heads bowed into the wind. I wasted no time in pitching my tent (double checking the security of the guy lines) then performed the difficult manoeuvre required to extricate myself from my waterproofs and limbo into my tiny tent without soaking everything else. I was thankful for the of the flask of hot tea I’d prepared that morning as I snuggled down into my sleeping bag with a good book to warm up and wait out the storm, accompanied by a rather noisy soundtrack provided by the wind, rain and turbulent river.

Interesting looking weather brewing up ahead.

A wet afternoon walking but still with a smile on my face.

Storm clouds passing overhead.

What a view to wake up to after a stormy night on Rannoch Moor.

After a stormy night of tossing and turning (due to pain in my legs and feet as much as the weather conditions), I awoke to a calm, bright morning, the most spectacular of my walk. There was the small personal achievement of surviving the night but this was eclipsed by Rannoch Moor laid out in all it’s splendour before me. I savoured an hour or two of silent activity, washing in the river, brewing tea and reading a book before the first of the new day’s walkers appeared on the horizon. An hour later and the now steady stream of walkers made me anxious to get going and cover the distance to Kinlochleven via the ascent of the Devils Staircase, the highest part on the WHW.

Beautiful Buachaille Etive Mor.

Head down through the Lairigmor pass.

I woke to heavy rain on my final morning, which poured consistently for the entire day. I kept my head down, now focussed more on finishing than on appreciating the dramatic mountain scenery of the exposed Lairigmor shrouded in mist. After the descent into Glen Nevis and the dispiriting trudge alongside the road and through the pedestrianised high street of Fort William I realised I couldn’t spot a single other walker and felt the panic of sudden separation from my tribe. Arriving at the sculpture of a weary walker that fittingly marks the end of the Way I was somewhat downcast to find myself alone. At the finishing line of a race there’s fanfare and family waiting to congratulate you and other competitors milling around with whom to share the experience. At the finale of a long distance walking trail there is nothing except a small plaque if you’re lucky. I wandered around, forlorn, looking out for another Walker to materialise and to share our achievement, or even perhaps a loitering tourist whom I could ask to take a photo to commemorate the occasion. But failing that I turned on my heel and walked away, already mourning the fact that I was a West Highland Way Walker no more.

The only other Walker around at the end of the West Highland Way.

Memories of sunnier days when I was still a WHW Walker.

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

 

 

 

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