Getting to the snow line, in the Western Cape, requires one of two things: a drive to the Koue Bokkeveld plateau north of Ceres, or a hike up a mountain. The former is easier, but can be time consuming for residents of Cape Town and its surrounding towns. The latter is theoretically quicker and a lot more fun. But when you add little adventurers to the mix it does become a bit more tricky. Especially when the wind is howling and the rain is falling, as was the case during the first snows of winter 2024.

When the last day of school holidays coincides with the first snow of winter you have to share your snow adventures with the kids. Doing so requires substantially more planning, a bit of patience, and some common-sense caution.  I certainly learnt a thing or two organising a trip up Mont Rochelle for a group of my friends and their children. This is how it went and what I’d do differently next time…

Mont Rochelle Snow Days

There’s nowhere better, within an hour of Cape Town, to hike up a snowy mountain than Mont Rochelle. Located at the summit of Franschhoek Pass the biggest benefit of starting your snow chasing there is the fact that you start at 750 metres above sea level. That means the usual snow line, of 1 000 metres, is just 250 metres of elevation away. On Mont Rochelle’s Uitkyk Trail that’s a 2.6 kilometre (on-way) hike. To reach good snow and a beautiful look out, over the Wemmershoek Valley, it’s another 1.2 kilometres and 200 metres of climbing. (Download the GPX/KML/TRX for this route here.)

Entry to the reserve is R70 per person (older than 12) and free for kids. You can find out more about the reserve here: www.montrochellehiking.co.za.

Mont Rochelle

Located at the summit of Franschhoek Pass, Mont Rochelle is a great place for a hike year round, but particularly when its snowing.

Planning for a Snow Hike with Kids

The children are probably the easiest part. Mainly due to the fact that they are enthusiastic and do none of their own admin. Getting four to six sets of parents organised is a whole other story. Then you add the curveball of winter weather and it becomes a near impossibility. We had planned to head up the mountain on Tuesday, but when the weather window shifted we had to make a call on Monday morning to go as soon as we could. A last minute to head up on Monday at lunchtime meant two families couldn’t make it and two of the four who did joined later. As luck would have it for the late arrivers, the weather was actually better when they set out than it was for us.

With the cold being our primary concern, we wanted to hike between rain squalls as much as it was possible to do so. Kids, with their smaller bodies, aren’t as good at retaining body heat as us larger humans. So, your window to get up and down the mountain before hypothermia sets in is narrower the younger the youngsters you’re taking with you. The buffer between enthusiasm and complete melt down is also directly linked to the size of the kids, and we found that 4 is probably the lower limit for a 6 kilometre hike in near freezing temperatures. And even that is only possible if you carry said 4-year-old for 85% of the trip.

My back disagrees slightly, while writing this two days later, but doing so was still well worth it!

Snow Day

Be prepared to carry kiddos.

Preparation: Dress and Eat Warm

We ticked the first box, but didn’t consider that a warm lunch – rather than peanut butter sandwiches – would be a good idea too. Ensuring they start the hike warm, happy and brimming with energy helps offset the cold. Bjorn and I wrangled his two kids, Ella (5 turning 6 in November) and Fynn (turned 4 in June) as well as Max (6 turning 7 in October) another friend’s son between us. Bjorn’s nanny had prepped a flask of hot chocolate, plus I packed a flask of rooibos tea and honey, as did Max’s mom. They wolfed down the sarmies and gulped at the hot chocolate, happily, as we got them wrapped up in their warmest jackets, beanies and buffs.

Then we set out up the mountain.

Dress Warm

Wrap them up warmly against the cold. And remember the waterproofs!

Leigh and Mark followed with their twin girls (8 turning 9 in December) with Llewellyn, who carried his daughter (4), and Tracey an hour later. This helped them avoid the first of two hail storms and also allowed them to ride out the second at a lower, warmer, elevation below the snow line. Llewellyn definitely aced the snow day with a 4-year-old. His approach is thus one to learn from.

Little Legs

Little legs vs big steps make for slow going.

Little Legs Taking on Big Mountains

As I don’t have kids myself I was blissfully ignorant as to how slowly they move. You don’t want to stress them out by hurrying them along, but you must remain aware that the fun clock is ticking every second that you’re out in the wind. If rain starts to fall it ticks at double speed. Llewellyn’s use of a child carrier backpack ensured that his daughter, Ruby, was able to ascend the mountain at the speed set by Lilly and Isabell, the 8-year-olds. And this along with their luck with the weather helped them get to the lookout point, while we had to turn around earlier when Fynn became inconsolably miserable.

Well-built hiking trails are designed to prevent erosion and funnel water off the track at regular intervals. Sadly, this is more a theory than a practice; because humans naturally walk down the middle of the footpath, creating an indentation which water then runs down. When we went up Mont Rochelle water was flowing steadily in places and pooled in others. In both instances the water was near freezing. Leading to wet shoes, sodden socks, and cold feet.

Happy kids

Happy kids make all the difference. Keep them fed, warm and entertained.

Now you might have heard the old wives’ tale pertaining to cold feet and warm hearts. But I can assure you the truth is actually: cold feet, miserable children.

Though the first issue we faced with Fynn was simply that the stairs were too big for his little legs. Bjorn had to help him summit each step and it soon became clear that he would have to be carried. There are longer sections between the steeper, staired, pitches were he was able to walk, but with Fynn being carried we were also able to move faster.

Near the snow line Ella began to slow too. Before she became too tired and lost enthusiasm, I picked her up and we were able to cover the final kilometre to the snow pretty quickly.

Ice Water

They are going to get their feet wet and dip their hands into ponds of slushy ice.

Hail Fail

Then, for the second time, we got hailed on. The wind whistled down from the Uitkyk neck and tiny hail stones were driven into our faces by 40 kilometre per hour guts. It was miserable. Even I was less than happy, but the kids really took strain. We pushed on to a little drip in the trail and found shelter from the storm in a natural lee.

While Bjorn was shepherding Fynn and Ella up to our hide out I poured piping hot tea into tin mugs for the kids. A dollop of icy snow in each made the tea drinkable and we surveyed our options. With Fynn on the verge of tears – asking for his bunny, a hot bath and his mummy – we knew the trip was over.

Snow Day

Not crying, just moaning a little bit.

Ella would later tell me: “Fynn was crying. I was only moaning a bit.”

Fortunately, I had packed spare gloves, a proper waterproof jacket, and extra buffs in my backpack. We replaced Max and Ella’s wet gloves with dry ones, and put the jacket on Fynn. He was almost completely lost in it. But at least not much of him was exposed to the wind, rain and cold!

Snow Day

4 might be on the young side for a snow hike. But it’s manageable with the right gear and a lot of carrying.

Eight is Great

At our lowest ebb the other group caught up to us. Lilly and Isabell were in high spirits and I was pelted with a snowball before anyone could even say hello. While Max was an absolute champion, and walked the whole way himself, he did have little moan or two. The year difference between him and the girls clearly made all the difference. Just being bigger and more physically able allowed Lilly and Isabell to enjoy the experience rather than just endure it.

Max, his mother told me, was on an energy high all evening and struggled to calm down at bed time. So, he clearly loved the experience. Perhaps it was his introduction to Type 2 fun. Lilly and Isabell had Type 1 fun, which made their parents time a lot better.

4 is thus the lower limit. I’m assuming. 5 needs support. 6 is good for 6 kays. But 8 is great.

Snowman

There’s nothing like building a hurried snowman to perk everyone up.

The Right Gear Makes All the Difference

Keeping kids warm and dry is the hardest part of hiking to the snow. Even if the weather is near perfect there is going to be icy runoff from the snow melt. More likely however, given the realities of Western Cape winters, is wind and rain. You’ll thus have to dress your kid(s) appropriately.

Mont Rochelle

Knowing where you going helps reduce everyone’s anxiety when dealing with all the unknowns when chasing snow with kids.

I’d suggest the following (from toe to top):

  • Gumboots: Not the most comfortable footwear for a long walk, but you try keep kids out of icy puddles.
  • Thick Socks: Two pairs, with a spare dry pair to put on in the car.
  • Thermal Long-Johns: Skin tight thermals are one of two keys to staying warm in the cold.
  • Wind Proof Trousers: Jeans and fleece tracksuit pants just absorb water and thus make the wearer cold. You need to wear something water-resistant, or at least wind-resistant. A wind-proof shell is the other key to staying warm. Though that’s hard to find for kids. Decathlon does waterproof over trousers, which are perfect for wearing over thermals and a pair to tracksuit pants.
  • Thermal Base-Layer: A thermal base layer top will help keep their core body temperature up. Which then ensures that warm blood circulates to their fingers and toes.
  • A Fleece Jacket: A fleece jacket, or perhaps even a jersey under a fleece jacket with a hood will help lock in the heat. A hood is essential because it covers the back of their necks, so only their faces are loosing heat to the elements.
  • A Waterproof Jacket: A fully waterproof jacket is a must. Most kids’ jackets are water-resistant rather than waterproof. But that means it’s only a matter of time before they get wet, and then cold. The problem of course is that they will outgrow any jacket by next winter and they won’t wear a fully waterproof jacket too often. Which is why a poncho is a good cost-effective alternative.
  • A Poncho: A cheap poncho, cut to little human length, will help keep the rain off them and bulk out the waterproofing of a cheaper water-resistant jacket and even keep their legs dry. It will make hiking harder, but if you’re carrying your kid, this is the best way to lock their body heat into the carrier with them.
  • Wool Gloves: They will want to play with the snow. So, pack a second pair. They can bury their hands in their pockets to keep them out of the wind when they’re not moving. Cheap wool gloves are R17.99 at Pep, so this is an easy win.
  • A Beanie: You don’t actually lose 50% of your body heat from your head, but still, a beanie helps a lot.
  • A Buff: A buff or a scarf will help keep their necks and faces warm. Though getting a small child to pull a buff up over their mouths to cover their cheeks appears to be virtually impossible.
Lunch

Trail snacks and energy bars for the win.

Feeding Cold Kids

You’ll need to prepare for when you get home too, because they will be cold and hungry, even after a snack in the car and a drive home with the heater on full blast. A warm bath while you heat up some soup should do the trick. But also remember to pack trail snacks, to accompany the hot drink on the mountain side. I fed Fynn, Ella, and Max the energy bars I’d usually eat on bike rides. They seemed to like the idea of eating proper sports nutrition, rather than a normal chocolate. And this added to the adventure.

Carrying

Being able to carry all the kids in your group out, if you need to, should be part of your emergency exit plan.

Responsible Adventuring

The responsibility of taking people up a mountain is never to be underestimated. It’s always a bit sobering to see how quickly you move beyond some people’s comfort zone in the mountains, which is why it’s so important to introduce kids to hiking in bad weather at a young age. You help them build competencies and confidence, which helps them become more capable adults. But at the same time, you have to ensure it’s a safe experience and one they look back on fondly.

To avoid creating traumatic memories you have to be cognisant of how they’re doing, how they are feeling and primarily how warm and dry they are. If things go well don’t be too suborn to pull the plug, turn around and chalk it up to a learning experience. The aim after all is to manage the snow day adventure and create a happy, lasting, memory.

Fun

See, it’s fun! Even if my back disagrees, slightly.