Every adventure-loving family needs some good adventure-loving friends. For us, those friends are Son and Heidi plus their adorable two-year-old, Josh. We’ve traveled domestically and abroad with these guys (Canada, Honduras, many a camping trip) but for some reason they didn’t invite us along on this one. Go figure? At least they shared their story with us though. Read on for their adventures exploring Canada this summer in an RV.
Written by Son Cao, world traveling dad
It sported a full kitchen, full bathroom, a slide-out bedroom, and eight cylinders of Detroit’s finest to grind up mountain passes. It had a TV, an antenna and possibly its own satellite. Hungry for both food and adventure, we secured our toddler son into the carseat, cranked up the ipod, and peeled out of the RV rental parking lot. Just two hours before, we had landed in Calgary airport, were picked up by a driver from AlldriveCanada.com and delivered to our new home for the next two weeks. After stocking up at Safeway, we pointed Beast westward and lumbered toward the Canadian Rockies.
In the Canadian Rockies, an RV was an ideal way for us to travel, allowing us to take in many of the contiguous national parks while still providing a consistent environment for our toddler. Accommodating for small children may take some creativity but it’s possible. Some lessons learned about reserving an RV when traveling with kids:
Before you book, spend a few minutes on the phone with the rental agency to get a clear understanding of the floorplan and seatbelt configuration. Unlike the passenger car market, the RV market is very segmented and a wide variety of floorplans exist. Information on websites only provide a brief description and often leave out information important to parents. Ask where a carseat could go during the day and where a pack-and-play could fit in the evenings. Even though our RV was a 2005 model, it had seat belts a la 1964 lap-style in the back. We secured the carseat to the bench seat but it was not within reach if we wanted to hand our son a snack. In the evenings, we set up a pack and play on what would have been a twin bed (we slept in the fold-down couch that turned into a queen bed).
Ask about the specific model of RV and if time allows beforehand, visit an RV dealership to check it out. This helps you plan and also gets the kids involved in the anticipation of the trip.
If you plan on parking your RV at the site and not moving it until you leave, then the size of the RV is less relevant. We wanted to drive to trailheads each day so we opted for a smaller vehicle that can pack up quickly and that was not a nightmare to park. Another option for those who like to leave the RV and take excursions is to rent a truck and trailer combination, also available from most RV rental places.
When you pick up the RV, a technician will spend about 20 minutes going over the operation with you. Unpleanstries like emptying the sanitation tank are discussed. As far as I can tell, all RVs have the same type of hookups – electrical, water, and sanitation. If you get confused while on the road, ask a fellow camper at the site. The main systems on an RV include the fresh water tank, the sanitation tank, and an electrical system you can plug in at a site. The tanks lasted about 3 days before needing tending.
Traveling with children inevitably means traveling with an abundance of “stuff”. Since the RV doesn’t have much storage space, we unpacked into the RV while at the rental lot and stored our empty suitcases at the agency, saving us lots of room in the RV.
My son is used to 3-hour drives in his carseat but even he was starting to fuss toward the end of the trip. Fortunately, my wife had the foresight to pack a bag of surprises, which she doled out every few days to keep his interest. It can be anything from small books to toy cars or trucks that he hasn’t played with in a long time. A DVD player also helped pass the time as a last resort.
The Canadian Rockies
If you’ve been to majestic Glacier National Park in Montana, you got a glimpse of what the Canadian Rockies are like. However, in Canada, this scenery expands over a couple hundred miles. An RV is ideal because it allowed us to take in 6 national parks in the vicinity within a two-week period. When not parked at the camp-site, we searched out trails to enjoy the incredible scenery. Here are some things that worked for us.
We used an Ergo Baby Carrier that Beth and Steve lent us. It was incredibly comfortable and, best of all, easy to pack. Our son quickly grew attached to it.
We got into a routine of downing a quick breakfast and getting to the trailhead no later than 10am, for two reasons. 1) We beat the crowds and tourbuses and 2) we could get back to camp in time for a mid-afternoon nap. Seriously, the trails we recommend below were popular (and rightly so because they were beautiful) and an early start made a real difference in the enjoyment of the hike. It was also easier to find a place to park the RV.
We used the Moon Canadian Rockies: Including Banff and Jasper National Parks (Moon Handbooks)as our guide. While it pointed out some great hikes, specific hours and prices of amenities were not reliable. Whatever book you use, confirm information at the visitor center.
If you plan on spending more than a week in the national parks, consider purchasing an annual family pass at the first gate you enter for about $140. This pays for itself after about 6-7 days.
Tunnel Mountain Campground has full electrical, sanitation, and water at each campsite. This was by far the toniest campsite we found. Ask for a spot in the 100 row for a view of Mount Rundle. Avoid taking the RV into town after 10AM because parking will be difficult to come by. We recommend hiking the Hoodoos Trail and also stopping by the Fairmont Banff Hot Springs to view a real luxury hotel. The town of Banff is super-touristy but has any amenity you might need. We also recommend the Johnston Creek Canyon Trail if you get there early. If you pack a lunch and start early, take this trail to the Ink Pots for a gorgeous 360-degree mountain valley view.
Tea House at Lake Agnes above Lake Louise
From Banff, we drove to Lake Louise along the Bow Valley Parkway, which is much more scenic than the TransCanada Highway. Odds are high that you’ll spot bighorn sheep, elk, and bear along this stretch.
Our favorite hike experience by far has to be the Lake Agnes hike starting at the famous Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel. The climb is steady enough to deter the D&G-sunglass-toting crowd spilling out of the tour busses. A few kilometers up the trail is a tea house overlooking a waterfall and Lake Agnes. Plan your hike to arrive at 11AM when they open their doors. Sure, you pay more but how often are you going to have soup and tea in the midst of gorgeous mountain peaks next to a glacial lake?
Heading to Jasper from Lake Louise takes you over the Icefield Parkway. We visited the Columbia Icefield, home to 5 (shrinking) glaciers that empty into the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. Standing on the shrinking icefield brought home the impact global warming on our water supply.
Jasper itself is a vibrant small town in the same vein as Bozeman, MT and Boulder, CO. Dining options and greenspace for kids are widely available. Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park offered incredible scenery. Here you can spot elk and even herds of caribou. An additional bonus is that most of the crowds encountered at Banff and Lake Louise do not make the trip north to Jasper.
Overall, we had a great time absorbing unbelievable scenery of the Canadian Rockies. Our son loved the mountains and waterfalls and came to expect them daily. The RV added to the adventure, while providing comfort and consistency.