A couple weeks ago I asked colleague Jonathan Shefftz to chime in on a subject I am very new to… skiing with kids. With 5 solid seasons of skiing with his adorable daughter Micayla he has some excellent advice to share! Thanks Jonathan for all the great tips, Alex & I will be keeping this all in mind for our next day out on the slopes!
Skiing with Kids: A How To … and How Not!
Cautious turns down a frozen Left Gully in Mount Washington’s failing daylight, skiing around gaping crevasses off the summit of Mount Rainier, traversing above deadly fumaroles on Mount Hood, and of course avalanche danger in many places. Sure, I’ve stared down some tricky skiing situations, but all of the foregoing is mere child’s play compared to … teaching your wife how to downhill ski!
A blanket prohibition applies to teaching a spouse how to ski, yet it still commonly takes place. (Kind of like cooking in your tent?) I got away with that during the early years of our relationship, when I must have been held in higher esteem. Fortunately, my wife is now interested only in nordic skiing, and she last downhill skied when she was a week or so pregnant with our daughter.
The ensuing fatherhood has of course been accompanied by all sorts of emotions, desires, goals, and dreams. But for a skier, one overriding concern is always: how can I encourage my child to become a fellow skier? I know my father certainly had that priority for his two sons – and he certainly succeeded. (Thanks Dad, and I know you’re eating that pastrami sandwich in some ski lodge up there in heaven looking down on your two boys out there skiing now!) By contrast, Mom’s priority was to enjoy the peace and quiet with all three of us away from the house, but hey, that worked out too.
Taking our daughter out skiing at first was very easy, especially since she didn’t have much of a choice in this (or anything else for that matter). When she was only four days old in late December, I put her in a Moby wrap on my chest, wore a jacket over both of us, and nordic skied onto the golf course behind our house, while she promptly fell fast asleep. (Note that this is far better than isolating your child in a typical external frame baby carrier backpack, as the various “baby wearing” options keep your child warmer, and also make the load more stable for skiing.)
The second winter was also fairly easy, for a total tally of 32 ski outings with her. And at the beginning of the season, when she was only 11 months old I even got her to balance by herself – however briefly – on skis and poles, before she ever walked or stood on her own.
Jonathan & Micayla
Then in the spring, once she could walk, I got her out on skis again, although she mainly just played with her ski poles.
The third season was more difficult, as by then I had to carry her on my back, which meant I couldn’t keep her warm with an oversized jacket over both of us. (I also had to buy xc skate skis sized for the combined weight of both of us.) And often when I skate skied down a hill, at the bottom she would be laughing, for some reason unknown to me … until I realized that she had tossed away her hat and gloves way at the top of the hill. She also liked to exercise her newly found two-year-old independence by insisting on getting out of our Beco carrier to use my carbon fiber race pole for – as we call it in the avalanche world – snow penetrometry.
Yes, ski pole time! Has 145cm of high-modulus carbon fiber ever provided so much amusement for a toddler?
The fourth season started off okay, and I had high hopes for her to ski on her own. But after we tallied up seven ski outings on my back, she didn’t want to go out anymore after mid-February. Although my own ski season was going strong, and would eventually crack over half a million earned vertical feet, I was distraught that I seemed to have lost my little ski buddy. With hindsight, one factor is that although her snow jacket and pants still seemed to fit okay when standing up, when fully flexed on Daddy’s back the jacket arms and pant legs shortened up significantly, so she might have been too cold on a few days, and kids can be slow to shed bad memories. I also capitulated to her demand to wear only thin knit gloves, when I should have insisted on bulkier mittens.
Yet then one day she accompanied me downstairs to the ski work/storage room, and inquired about a very small pair of skis (amusingly adorned with high-end adult race ski graphics). “Those are *your* skis!” She proceeded to shuffle along the basement rec room floor. Hope!
Then, as if on cue, we received a late-March snowstorm in southern New England, just enough to shuffle around the neighborhood. Victory!
Micayla looking stoked!
This fifth season has been going well, at 11 ski outings under her own power as of January 12.
Always more fun with friends!
Partly we’ve been fortunate with decent snowfall in southern New England – at least by southern New England standards – while northern New England suffers. And partly maybe I’ve figured out what I’m doing? So here are some tips … although remember that despite all my PSIA, USSA, AIARE, NSP, and AAA credentials related to skiing, I have no qualifications whatsoever to dispense parenting advice!
Start them off nordic: Even if your ultimate goal is lift-served downhill skiing, start your child off with nordic skiing. Your child will immediately be able to shuffle along a little bit, and nordic skiing will build great balance skills for downhill skiing. And since the typical “magic carpet” beginner area at a downhill area has less pitch and length than a nordic ski area, all a downhill resort really offers for a little kid ski outing is more expenses, more crowds, and more general hassle.
Use “real” boots and bindings: Those “universal” bindings that “fit” regular snow boots are fine for a few strides in the backyard, but that’s about it. Your child needs regular ski bindings for more than even just a few minutes of skiing. Otherwise, you are setting up both of you for long-lasting memories of frustration.
Dress yourself inadequately: If the temperatures are cold, dress yourself so that you’re on the verge of shivering. If the weather is very snowy or otherwise possibly wet, wear only marginally water-resistant clothing. This way you’ll be more in tune with what your child is experiencing – which will always be colder and wetter than you, no matter how well you try to dress your child.
Achieve economies of scale: We have only one child (though her independence streaks sometimes seem to cause enough trouble for a family of many more). To my pleasant surprise though, I’ve found that bringing along her nearly identically aged cousin from the next town over is in many ways if anything easier, not harder. (Well, except when they fought over space in their snow “castle” though a hastily built addition solved that problem.) Some aspects, like getting dressed, of course take twice as long. But once they’re out there interacting with each other, the burden on you can be easier.
Protect your back: This is potentially death by a thousand cuts. Or rather, back pain by many dozens of improper lifts. A kid down on the snow just looks so cute – unlike, say, a storage crate – and therefore is so easy to skip out on proper lifting techniques (especially if you’re fortunate enough to be free from any chronic back issues and therefore not worrying about such matters at the time). Fortunately I learned my lesson from some early warning signs this season. So for each fall – and your kid will have many, often deliberately, since that’s part of their fun – get down low with flexed knees, and no bending at the waist.
Think snowplay, not skiing: When I go on real ski tours, I’m admittedly rather intolerant of partners who want to fumble around. Skiing with our daughter is the exact opposite, as any amount of skiing is mission accomplished, no matter how brief. A typical snowplay outing starts off with skiing, then quickly digresses into general snow play, including making snow angels, digging in the snow with my perfectly kid-sized rando race shovel, hiding in the snow “castle” from monsters, and anything else that either of us can think of (even a Jay Peak roundtrip tram ride). Plus no matter what you think of the high prices and/or low nutritional content of ski cafeteria food, it will be worthwhile if it buys your child happy associations with skiing!
Insist on going out … but capitulate to going back in: About half our successful 11 ski outings so far this season have required some initial cajoling. Although I’ve given up on a few other planned outings entirely when she seemed to be a bad overall mood, otherwise I’ve persisted, on the idea that once she got over her initial reluctance, then she’d enjoy our skiing/snowplay outing. And indeed, that idea has proven correct. However, once we have been out for a little while, even it’s been only a *very* little while, and *then* she wants to go back in, well, in we go – often with no warning! (Especially on cold days, as she seems to go immediately from perfectly warm to “freezing” – and sometimes even both “freezing” and “chilly”!) Even though I want to encourage, push, nudge, cajole, etc. her if necessary into each ski outing, once it’s no longer fun for her, then I don’t want to create any bad memories.
Now what about the absence of sled/pulk recommendations for before your child is ready for self-propelled skiing? Until I learned about “baby wearing” I used a pulk for many outings with assorted nieces and a nephew. A pulk with a completely sealed canopy will shield your child entirely from wind and snow. For cold temperatures, the child will not benefit from your body heat, but you can easily pile on the blankets inside the pulk.
The disadvantages include being sealed up inside a little isolation unit, which some kids will dislike. In ungroomed snow, a pulk can be difficult to maneuver, even if you’re up to the workout. And a pulk can be yet another thing to pack into your car.
That said, the best pulk I’ve ever seen is the discontinued Ziffco model. The harness and crossed poles are excellent, and the pulk tracks exceptionally well, even on off-camber groomed high-speed turns. (Yes, I tested this when empty!) Search on eBay and Craigslist for used models. The Ziffco design has now been inherited by Kifaru (via an interim ownership period by Mountainsmith). Kifaru’s focus is on hauling gear, not kids, but a child canopy is still available.
Alternatively, some bike trailers have winter adaptation kits that essentially substitute skis for bike wheels. The advantage over a more traditional pulk would appear to be better glide, given that the entire pulk body is not being dragged over the snow. The disadvantage would appear to be the higher center of gravity, and hence compromised handling. However, I don’t any personal experience with these models. Probably best to try before you buy – too bad you can’t do that with the kid, also so far no desire to return her for a refund!
Jonathan Shefftz is a PSIA certified ski instructor (both alpine and nordic), U.S. Ski Association alpine race coach, avalanche instructor for AIARE and the National Ski Patrol, and governing board member for the American Avalanche Association. Jonathan patrols in Western Massachusetts at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock, as well as in his background in Amherst. He and Dave took their Level 3 avalanche course together almost ten years ago in January 2004, along with USFS Mount Washington avalanche forecaster Jeff Lane. Jonathan also organizes the NE Rando Race Series – both those in lycra and those more sensible are welcome!