Paddling the Phalen Lake Chain

This summer we’re trying to see the land o’ lakes from the lake’s perspective, rather than just the land’s. On our maiden voyage in the Coleman Ram-X we paddled the Phalen Lake chain, in Maplewood, MN.

Captains log: Discovered strange lily pad formations and met bald eagle with glowing eye on Kohlman Lake. Caught in heavy downpour, tornado sirens sounding, no shelter in sight, on Gervais – youngest of crew nearly lost at sea. Soaked to britches, waited out storm under tunnel between Gervais and Spoon. Authorized children to pee their own pants – mutiny averted. Ordered crew to swab deck.

Bald eagle on Kohlman lake

Rain on Spoon Lake

Rain on Spoon Lake

Being a Good Parent: Having Kid Cred

dad on dirt bike

Though I still feel and act like a child, I guess I would consider myself a dad. My kids are going on 0, 2, 4, and 6, so that gives me like 12 combined years of experience raising infants and toddlers. I can change a mean diaper. I can also impress my kids by jumping over a fire hydrant. But as they get older I’ll have to think of newer, better ways to convince them that I’m cool, and worth listening to.

In high school I taught gymnastics to preschoolers every afternoon. As with my own kids, I could get their attention and get them to try a new trick by doing it myself and making some kind of rocket laser-beam noise as I went. Then, I started working with 6-year-olds. To keep them from poking each other to death, especially toward the end of class, I had to do an occasional back-flip.

Finally, my senior year I taught 12-yr-olds, boys, who didn’t actually want to be there. No trick was cool enough. But, I think they learned to listen and to trust me when I said things like “keep trying, you can do it,” or “leave him alone or I’ll pull your ear off,” once I told them about my dirtbike wrecks and recent paintball battles. Once I established my kid cred, I wasn’t just their teacher or coach, I was in the club.

Unfortunately, parents and kids often establish separate clubs – the old fogies and the little whippersnappers, each having its own definition of what’s cool. So, we never really understand our parents, and what they did for us, until we put on their shoes – the parent shoes. In a similar way, we might not understand how cool they were, looking back, until later, when we redefine the term to include “makes ridiculous sacrifices for ungrateful brats.” But this isn’t about appearing cool after the fact, as important as that may be. It’s about being cool during the fact, and getting in the kid club while it still exists. Actually, it’s about my dad, and the outdoors.

The outdoors bring the fogies and the whippersnappers together like nothing else can. With dirt, sticks, rocks, bugs, and creeks the activities and the adventures are unlimited. As kids get older, they might need some encouragement and some structure, some equipment or something motorized. But, regardless of age, playing outside is the coolest of family activities – there’s no better context for establishing our kid cred. We’ve got to find something that our kids think is cool, learn to do it, and share it with them.

And so, with father’s day approaching, I want to highlight, and thank, my dad, for mastering this principle of parenting – for our monthly trips to the beach, or into the Sierra Nevadas, hiking, camping, and exploring; for road trips to Yellowstone, Banff, Glacier, Zion’s, the Grand Canyon, and everywhere in between; for teaching me to dirtbike and for still being faster and getting more air; and, most importantly, for being someone I’ve always looked up to. You’ll always have cred on my street.

Bike Trailer Buyer’s Guide

Our Schwinn bike trailer, in stroller mode

Bike trailers are essential to the happiness and unity of the urban/suburban outdoor family. But, as with most gear, they vary widely in price and quality. This post includes all of my trailer research and recommendations, with a summary of the more popular makes/models.

Recommended Options

  1. Max capacity – The single-passenger trailers weigh less and are more aerodynamic but are less practical, as you can’t pick up hitchhikers. There’s no limit to the things you can tote – groceries, picnic supplies, library books, pets and other wildlife, camping gear, furniture, and, of course, kids – with a two seater you can carry twice as much.
  2. Strollability – Avoid trailers that can’t be converted to strollers – they’re like multitools with only one tool, an icepick, of limited use. Stroller kits are usually sold separately, with detachable handles. A jogging kit is best, with a 20 inch front wheel and a bommer handle that bolts to the frame – these are the two things I’m looking for in our next ride (more below).
  3. Foldability – Just about every trailer can be collapsed and packed down into the trunk of a car, some easier and more quickly than others. Exceptions include the tot-tote and the ones people handcraft out of old wagons and go-cart frames (see your local craigslist posting).

Optional

  1. Terrain – The high-end trailers have cross-country ski, off-road, and other add-on packages, maximizing versatility and price. Someday they’ll have a rock climbing kit with a pulley system and maybe a watercraft kit with a tow rope and scuba option.
  2. Wheel type – The low-end trailers come with plastic rear and/or front (stroller) wheels that will get thrashed when you hit a jump or go off-road. Inflatable tires and metal spokes let you boonie crash and Tokyo drift with peace of mind.
  3. Material – Most trailers consist of some kind of nylon/vinyl stretched across a aluminum, steel, or alloy frame. The only exception, to my knowledge, is the Burley Cub, with a plastic basin for a base. Aluminum will lower the weight and boost the price, as will waterproof fabrics, tinted windows, and 5-point padded harnesses.

Makes and Models

The three prominent bike trailer manufacturers, in order from least to most serious, are Schwinn/InSTEP, Burley, and Chariot. The chart below (updated June, 2011) gives an idea of price per tier. Prices are either MSRP or averaged from what I found through Google shopping searches, and dashes mean I couldn’t find the info.

Bike Trailer Comparison Chart
Make Model Price Capacity Weight Frame Harness Kits
Schwinn/InStep Spirit $129 2 None
Trailblazer $199 2 24 lbs Steel
Joyride $399 2 43 lbs Jog
Take 2 $ 99 2 25 lbs Steel
Quick N EZ $124 2 33 lbs Steel Stroll
Rocket $229 2 Alum Stroll
Burley Bee $249 2 18 lbs Alum 5-point None
Encore $399 2 24 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
D’Lite $579 2 28 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
Solo $529 1 21 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
Cub $589 2 34 lbs Alum 5-point All 3
Chariot Cheetah $465 1 or 2 21 lbs Alum 5-point All 5
CX $950 1 or 2 31 lbs 5-point All 5
Cabriolet $425 2 24 lbs Alum No Ski
Cougar $620 1 or 2 28 lbs All 5
Side Carrier $525 1 18 lbs Alum Bike

If you’re looking for affordable but functional, and you only anticipate occasional, maybe monthly use, make sure it can at least accommodate a jogging package – this indicates the trailer isn’t fooling around. Remember – you’re going to hitch this to the back of your bike and drag your kids around town in it, maybe even hit up a slalom course or bmx track. A bommer trailer is worth an extra $50 to $100.

If you’re a weekend warrior and you hope to keep your trailer for 10 years or more, using it with multiple cohorts of kids of various ages, consider the Burley and Chariot lines. Both are dedicated solely to making cycle-pulled kid containers.

Burley has been around the block and costs substantially less ($300 to $600), but they offer fewer features by default and fewer add-ons. The three conversion kits are stroller ($65), 2-wheel stroller ($89), and jogger ($140). All are all sold separately.

Chariot makes the ultimate sport utility trailers – for a hefty sum ($500 to $1000) you’re kids will tow in comfort and style, with cup holders and adjustable suspension (not a joke), from garage to summit. Kits include 2-wheel stroller ($75), jogger ($100), hiker ($110), and skier ($250). Prices vary by trailer model and most are also sold separately.

Conclusion

Our first and current bike trailer, a Schwinn, cost $140 and has taken a beating, over street and dirt, hiking and biking, for about 3 years. But, it doesn’t accommodate a front jogging wheel and the handle has too much play, as it clamps, rather than bolts, to the frame (see photo above). Excessive wheeliing (think bike-trailer X-games) and frequent strollering over rocks and tree roots have worn out the handle connections and destroyed the plastic front wheel. So I’m on the lookout for another trailer, probably a used Chariot Cougar or Burley D’Lite.

Happy towing!

Ann Lake Parts I and II

three hikers

This month we nearly got the entire family of five, with one on the way, into the woods for a campout. It wasn’t until we pitched the tent and set up camp at Ann Lake, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, that we realized we had forgotten one of the most crucial items – pullups. Crap.

I was ashamed to call myself a boyscout. So much for my 5 kid-camping essentials.

What to do? Our two oldest are potty trained, but only by day. I was willing to get up every two hours, all night, to avoid an accident in the tent, but we had also brain-lapsed on the baby’s diapers. Could I fashion some out of leaves and sticks? Does mother nature provide nothing that’s waterproof on the outside and absorbent on the inside? Moss? Lichen?

What did parents do before pampers? After 20 minutes of debating with myself I reluctantly struck the tent and packed the gear. We had dogs and s’mores and sat by the fire until 10 before returning home.

The next week we were back for a sequel – the Batman Begins kind, not the Batman Forever or Batman and Robin kind. We had a stockpile of pullups and diaps, enough for Jon plus Kate and 8. But this time my wife couldn’t join us, so it was just me with the three kids.

Total chaos, hoards of ticks, lots of fun.

Kids’ Camping Gear List

Most kid camping gear lists, including my first draft, seem to focus on what the parents should bring for their kids. Instead, here are seven basic items that every camping kid can learn to pack and utilize, on their own. They’re based entirely on the two principles of camping enjoyment.

Download the checklist: pdf

Personal Effects

  1. Gear bag – Kids need their own personal pack, whether a grocery sack or an old Jansport. Even when car camping, they can learn to manage their own stuff. Start small (clothes) and increase the load (sleeping bag, food, etc.) as they grow. My son, who’s 5, carries his own clothes and water. My daughter, who’s 3, carries all the snacks and treats.
  2. First aid – In addition to the comprehensive kit for the group, kids can carry their own personal items. Again, start small, with things they might occasionally use, like band-aids, lip balm, and a sphygmomanometer. Build the kit together ahead of time and discuss the importance of each item.
  3. Extra Clothing – For the cold, precipitation, or to replace an outfit once it’s covered in mud. This is partly for your own sanity, as kids tend to enjoy getting wet and filthy. Inclement weather can spoil a campout if you’re not prepared for it. A rain poncho is a step in the right direction – youth sizes are easy to find, but for young kids a garbage bag is perfect. [Our winter camping adventures]
  4. Sustenance – Kids can learn to be responsible for their own nutrition. A disposable water bottle, cheap and light, may suffice for H2O. On long hikes, teach about bringing the right amount of water – not too much, as it’s heavy (8.35 lbs/gal, 2.20 lbs/L) – and making it last. Plan meals together and let them carry their own snacks.
  5. Flashlight – Young kids rarely get to explore the outdoors in the dark, which may be one of the reasons they’re afraid of it, and one of the reasons camping is such a unique activity. Nighttime is more fun, and safer, with some lighting. The cheap or free keychain type is prefect, though maybe not very luminous.
  6. Sleeping gear – Good sleeping bags for young kids are hard to come by, as most are designed for youth and often weigh as much as the adult counterparts. Tailoring your own bags is feasible and fun. Liners add versatility. Around 40° and below my kids use closed-cell foam pads, which can be obtained for under $7 and cut down to child-size to make them more portable.
  7. Mess kit – This last personal item is perfect for teaching a kid to take care of their gear since losing it or failing to wash it can have an immediate consequence, i.e., hunger. [More on mess kits for kids]

Camping is also a great opportunity to teach about service, teamwork, and group responsibility. In addition to personal items there are many things to be shared – food, shelter, toilet paper, whatnot. Here are a few simple things that kids can oversee.

Items to Share

  1. Marshmallows – The true essence of the marshmallow is its cookability over a fire. It can be replaced with anything which burns or heats and is afterwords still nearly edible, but s’mores make for a nice camping tradition, and mallows are the critical ingredient. They’re cheap, light, and indestructible – perfect for a kid’s pack.
  2. Topicals – Sunscreen and bug spray. These are also items a kid can share and learn to apply themselves, with some supervision. [Beware of ticks]
  3. Activities – Last but not least are camping games and activities. As far as preparation and responsibility go, we should always include the kids in our campout planning. Discuss what they’d like to see and do, and what they’ll need to make it happen. Talk about costs, feasibility, and required equipment. Examine the trail map or research the destination online together.

Please share your comments and suggestions!