Skoki is one of the most popular backpacking areas in all of Banff National Park and usually you have to book months in advance if you want a chance at grabbing a spot in one of the crowded campgrounds. Unless you go in October, that is. After the warm days of summer have turned crisp & cold and before the ski lodge opens in December, you might just have this famous trek all to yourself. That’s what Sil and I found on our 4-day hike & snowshoe last weekend.
After an exciting backpacking trip through the Beartooths in Montana, we were eager to do another early winter trip. The Skoki Loop seemed like the perfect choice – easy to get to, short days, no avalanche risk, and beautiful scenery.
There was snow already in the parking lot but it stayed shallow enough all day that we didn’t need to use the snowshoes we’d brought. It’s been a long time since I’ve camped in winter but I was happy that the ground wasn’t quite frozen yet, so I could still get the tent stakes in (getting them out in the morning after a night at -10C was a bit trickier).
It didn’t take long the next day before the snow was 2 feet deep and we decided to switch to snowshoes. With the trail buried in snow, I enjoyed the navigational challenge, looking for hidden clues like a detective in a mystery novel. Sometimes I could see nothing but I managed to follow the right path by feeling for the hard surface of the trail with my poles, knowing the surrounding area was soft grass.
Skoki Lodge was built in the 1930s when skiing was just emerging as a popular sport across Canada. Back then, there were no chairlifts or gondolas. Skinning up and over two passes and gliding down through deep powder to the warm wooden lodge was a privilege. Skoki has only grown in popularity since. It’s a rare thing, indeed, to have the lodge (or at least the picnic tables in front of it) all to yourself.
We managed to stay warm at night by using a winter sleeping bag inside a down quilt large enough for two people. I’m pretty sure we would have frozen with just the quilt, despite it being rated to -12C. I made hot water bottles for each of us and that made all the difference. Once the sleeping bags warmed up, we were both pretty toasty.
If anything didn’t work well it was our shoes. We were both wearing “waterproof breathable” shoes (there’s no such thing) and they did a great job of keeping the snow out but got soaked from sweat. And I do mean soaked. I’m used to hiking with wet feet from walking through creeks and bogs but it’s not so pleasant waking up to frozen shoes in the morning.
We both really enjoyed the challenge of backcountry travel in early winter. In a way, there couldn’t be a better time to go backpacking. The world is blanketed in fresh snow and everything jumps out at you, yet there’s not so much that you need to worry about avalanches (in this area, at least). Up high, there’s no worry about bears and the snow lets you make even the bumpiest campsite flat and level. Best of all, you have it all to yourself.