Last week we skied into the Spruce Hole Yurt in southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains. The yurt sits two and a half miles up an unplowed forest road, and with two daughters, ages two and four, we needed to figure out a way to carry both gear and girls. So we converted a couple of bike trailers, the Burley D'Lite and Chariot Chinook 2, into strollers-on-skis and put them to the test.
Burley and Chariot are the leading designers of multisport adventure carriers that function as strollers, joggers, and bike and ski trailers. We bought our top-of-the-line Burley D'Lite used on Craigslist a couple of years ago, and have used it as a bike trailer ever since. Last fall, we purchased a stroller kit and have used the D'Lite for winter walks into town when the roads are too snowy or slick to ride. It's wide enough for a preschooler and a toddler to sit comfortably side by side and has a roomy cargo area in the back for groceries, library books, and the like. Burley sells a ski kit to fit D'Lites made from 2007 on, so we figured it'd be a no-brainer for ferrying our little ones over snowy trails.
The Chariot Chinook 2 is the latest addition to the Chariot fleet, a nimble, slightly more compact two-kid carrier that's designed to shine in a variety of conditions, from snowy trails to urban streets and suburban soccer fields. If the Chinook was anything like the rest of the Chariot line—we have lots of friends who rave about their Cougars—I knew we'd be in good hands for the snowy slog in to Spruce Hole.
As is turned out, getting there wasn't the only challenging part. Setting up our ski kits was pretty tricky, too. Steve spent a couple of hours one night trying to decipher instruction manuals that inexplicably didn't quite match the many moving parts: harnesses, handles, skinny XC skis. By 8 p.m., he'd rigged the handle and harness on the Burley but couldn't attach the skis; on the Chariot, he'd managed to affix the skis, but the handle wouldn't slide into the fitting. With only a week to go before our trip, we had two half-functioning ski trailers. Thankfully, the next day a couple of mechanics at our local REI helped us make sense of the directions and, with a little elbow grease, both Chariot and Burley were good to go.
(To avoid the set-up hassles we had, you’ll need to fold the Chinook’s handlebar up and over to release the safety latch inside the insert tubes in order to attach the tow bars. Depending on what model year D’Lite you have, you may need to take the quick release off the trailer tires and reassemble them on the skis.)
A few days before we left, we took the trailers and the girls out for a dry run on Aspen Vista, a snowy forest road at 10,000 feet that's the closest local approximation of the Spruce Hole trail, which starts at a similar elevation and gains 500 vertical feet over a couple miles. It was after 4 p.m. by the time we'd loaded Pippa and Maisy in the sleds, attached the waist harnesses, and clicked into our telemark skis, and the few skiers still out on the trail gave us dubious looks as we skied off with our loads. Maybe because I had 25-pound Maisy and no gear and the trail was wide and well-skied, pulling the D'Lite was much easier than I'd expected. Except for a gentle tug on my waist, I could barely feel it behind me. Steve had the heavier burden—43-pound Pippa—but he, too, was surprised by the ease of pulling the Chinook.
Pretty soon, we'd skinned a mile with minimal effort. The sun was sinking fast, so we decided to call the maiden voyage a success and head back to the car. I followed Steve's lead and left my skins on so it'd be easier to climb up the two short inclines, and I was glad I did. Skiing down, I felt the full weight of the Burley pushing me downhill. It wasn't exactly an uncomfortable sensation, but it seemed like if the snow was any slicker, the trailer might try to run me over. The outing had eased my mind—maybe pulling our entourage into Spruce Hole wouldn’t be so taxing after all.
On the morning of our trip, we pulled into the parking lot at La Manga Pass on US 17. It had snowed nearly a foot the day before, and there was only a faint outline of ski tracks leading up to Spruce Hole. We would be breaking trail—or at least Steve would. Our plan was to load all the gear in the Burley, which has a larger interior, including the rear cargo compartment, and the girls in the Chariot, which has a more structured interior designed for child safety and comfort and no rear storage area.
Thankfully, the Burley is even bigger than it looks. We managed to load a large dry bag of clothing, a smaller bag of food, and Steve's personal gear bag into the Burley, and proceeded to cram an embarrassment of smaller food items— strawberries, tortillas, Tupperware of leftover Thai noodles—willy-nilly into the storage area, alongside Pippa's cross-country skis. Into the Chariot we strapped Pippa and Maisy. Granted, they were bulked up to nearly twice their normal size in their ski gear, but it was a much tighter fit. The five-point harnesses were difficult to latch under puffy snowsuits, and they squirmed at first, looking cramped in the ride, which, unlike the Burley, has two distinct bucket seats rather than a bench.
Loaded down, the trailers felt impossibly heavy, nothing like they had on Aspen Vista. Two and a half miles stretched before us like an eternity. I snugged the Burley's waist belt to its smallest size and began skiing, very slowly. Fortunately, the waist harnesses on both are well padded—the Chinook even has a mesh water bottle pocket on the back, nice!—and while hip chafing was unavoidable given the ridiculous weight of our loads, we both escaped mostly unscathed.
After the girls' second potty break in half an hour, we gave up strapping them into their harnesses, and just zipped the mesh cover shut, with the plastic rain shield on top of it, like a miniature mosh pit on skis. It was no more than 25 degrees outside, with a stiff, cold wind, but the Chariot's interior was almost cozy, and I could stop stressing, sort of, that Maisy had abandoned her mittens to the pile of soggy banana chips that lay scattered across the floor. There would be no frost nip in the Chinook today.
I had no idea if the six-pack of beer and bottle of wine were comfortable in the Burley or not, but nothing fell out, so I took that as a yes and kept skinning at my turtle's pace, just out of earshot of Steve and the girls. I'd like to think Steve had the lighter load on account of his quicker pace, but I don't think that's the case. Both trailers rode low and steady in the fresh snow. Only once did it feel like the Burley might capsize, when I was awkwardly trying to ski through a narrow opening between a tree and a gate, and didn't give it enough room to clear so had to reverse and go forward several times to squeeze past. But I'd just watched the Chariot clear the same feature, and, though canted a little to one side, it seemed nowhere close to going over, so I took it as reassurance that both the Burley and Chariot are even more stable than they appear.
Two hours after we left the trailhead, we rounded a bend and saw the yurt, tucked into a small meadow at the base of a steep hill. The final pitch to the yurt was an insult, steeper and more demoralizing than anything the Burley and I had previously tackled. I contemplated unyoking myself right there and walking the last 100 feet to the yurt and asking Steve to come and retrieve the Burley, but Pippa had climbed out of the Chariot to ski on her own and wasn't complaining, so I figured I ought to set a good example and finish the job myself.
No sooner had we freed ourselves from the trailers and begun unloading everything into the homey yurt than we'd all but forgotten the sheer, demented hassle of what we'd just done. Two days at Spruce Hole completely erased the torture of skiing in under all that weight. The next morning, we went out for a ski tour, with Steve pulling Maisy solo in the Chariot and Pippa skiing behind. With only one girl again, the Chariot was light and breezy on the rolling, powdery surface, and breaking trail was no biggie. At the foot of Pinrealosa Ridge, Steve decided to go straight up and Pippa opted to climb in, so I began pushing the Chariot from behind. It wasn't pretty, but we nearly made it to the top and learned that ski trailers, no matter how light and bomber they are, probably aren't meant for the steeps. (Lesson: If you want to earn your turns, probably best to leave the kids—and trailer—at home.)
That night, we did the same, skiing out under a full moon into Spruce Hole, a large open meadow completely ringed by forest. Pippa skied, and Maisy nestled under a heavy comforter. Pulling the Chariot had become second nature to Steve and he skinned so fluidly and gracefully that I lagged well behind, out of range of Pippa's blazing headlamp where I could scan the sky for falling stars.
The next morning, when it was time to ski out, we loaded everything back into the Burley and Maisy into the Chariot and strapped Pippa into her skis. This time I was towing the Chariot, and Maisy promptly fell asleep in the warm greenhouse dome of the plastic cover, slumped comfortably in her bucket seat for nearly the whole way, with her baby doll tucked into the mesh pocket beside her. The trail was mostly downhill, and the weight of the Chariot pushing me from behind was all the speed I needed. When Pippa tired of skiing, she climbed into the back of the Burley's cargo area—no doubt a safety no-no—and rode standing up, until they got to a large wind drift and the trailer actually tipped over, probably on account of being top heavy, spilling only Pippa, unhurt and laughing, into the snow. She climbed right back on for more.
We made it back to the truck in 90 minutes, record time! Only to find that the battery had died. While we waited for help, we de-rigged and debriefed. The D'Lite had been the workhorse of the trip, bomber for carrying gear (too much by far), and roomy enough to ferry kids comfortably. In a pinch, we probably could have squeezed some equipment and both girls in, and lugged the rest on our back. If we could only bring one into the wilderness, we'd choose the Burley for it's bigger cargo space, but the Chariot was its perfect complement, a smaller, more nimble child carrier that can handle the backcountry but excels in town as a bike trailer or stroller without being obnoxiously big. The Chariot's bucket seats are probably best suited for toddlers rather than big-for-their-size preschoolers, but our girls managed without mauling each other—well, maybe only a little. And it’s perfect as a parking lot shuttle for our daughters and all our ski gear when we head up to the local ski resort.
Last year, when we skied into a yurt at the Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Center, we borrowed a couple of their kids' ski pulks. Designed like sleds, pulks don't ride on skis but on grooves molded into their flat, plastic bottom. Wilderness Engineering makes the super light, 12-pound KinderShuttle, which is designed to fit two kids in the zippered main compartment (one can even ride standing up in the back, musher-style) plus whatever gear you can smoosh in. Not surprisingly, they are always in high demand, and this year's inventory was already sold out when I called, just after Christmas. KinderShuttles are far less versatile than the Burley and D'Lite trailers, as they're designed solely for snow travel. But if you are lucky enough to live in a place where you can cross-country ski all winter and don't want to bother converting bike trailer to skis and vice versa, they're definitely worth a look.
While we waited, we watched as the next group was packing up to go into the yurt. A trio of older snowshoers, they'd rigged small, manageable duffles of gear onto kids' plastic sleds, which they'd attached to a rope and tied around their waist. When we last saw them, they were trudging through our tracks, the gear sleds trolling obediently behind them. Oh, to travel so light! When our girls are old enough to ski in on their own, maybe we'll try their system, but that's at least a few years off. Next year, on what I hope will become our annual Spruce Hole trek, we'll be yoked once again to the Burley and Chariot. It's a small price to pay for two days of backcountry bliss.