Skiing with Small Children

Many families go skiing. Skiers want to share their love of this
insane sport with their offspring, with their spouses, and even with their friends.
Maybe its like most other crazy behavior: if you can get others to do it, then
maybe you’re not so crazy after all?

How do you go about taking a small child skiing? If no one took
you skiing when you were 3, you might not know where to begin. I have taken
my kids skiing for some years now, and both are good skiers, both race, and
both have some good memories of our times together on the snow.


The author's son at age 4 on Horstmann Glacier at Blackcomb, British Columbia (photo R.E. Love)
The author’s son at age 4 on Horstmann Glacier at Blackcomb,
British Columbia
– now is this a happy kid, or what?! (photo R.E. Love)

This feature will deal with the really little ones, and discuss the basics
for making your day successful. We’ll cover fostering the right attitude, using
the right clothing, and techniques for turning your child into an enthusiastic

You need to employ a slightly different approach than you would to a "normal"
day of skiing. Skiing with a little one who is just learning is not what a competent
skier would call "skiing." You won’t be ripping up the groomed or
bashing bumps for a while. You will, however, have a great time playing with
your child.

It helps if you have the luxury of a partner. If you can afford
a “ski with me” private lesson that will help, too. Although ski school programs
have their place, I am not an advocate. (I’ll share those stories later.)

The first ingredient is a willing child. The child must be excited
and must share your enthusiasm for playing outside in the snow. You can do a
lot to foster this, starting with the right clothing and creature comforts.

Children have a large surface area compared to their mass, which
means that they get cold more quickly than an adult. They also have amazing
will-power and will deny being cold if they are having a good time. “Mom, my
nose is not blue.” You therefore need to protect them from the cold. Three layers
of good insulating clothing is best. It should not be cotton or silk, but wool
is fine, and clothing made of Thermax, polypropylene, or other insulating man-made
fibers can be found in sizes that fit small children.

Get good socks. You really only need one pair, but don’t skimp.
They need to fit without wrinkles. Over this layer use a combination of a fleece
pull-over and a fleece one-piece suit. The pull-over protects the upper body
and the one-piece takes care of the legs and seals the waist. The pullover goes
on first, followed by the one-piece suit – this minimizes bathroom problems.

Over the top of this goes any one of a variety of waterproof and
wind resistant garments. Here you have to know your child. My daughter was not
a kid who rolled around in the snow, so absolutely water proof wasn’t necessary,
but she got cold quickly – insulated and wind proof was therefore important.
My son was the opposite. He rolled in the snow like a cat in a dust bath. Waterproof
everything and a long jacket was a must.

I didn’t use one piece suits for my children. They cost too much,
cause too much trouble in the bathroom and the lodge, and although they look
like they are technical garments they are often made of less than the best materials.

Pay attention to the mittens. Little children should be in mittens,
and if your climate is cold they should have a glove liner worn underneath.
Mittens keep all the fingers together in a single nice, warm pocket. Keep checking
the insides of the mittens and the wrist of the jacket. Is it wet? If so, go
looking for something else. I have found that the very best mitten for a child
who is going to spend the day out in the snow is the Chippewa from Columbia
Sportswear. It has a very long gauntlet, like a powder glove.

A few more things about mittens: Always take spares. No matter
how good they are your child will find a way to get them wet, including spilling
your coffee on them. If you go to a small ski area, everything can stay in the
lodge, but when we go out West I wear a lumbar pack for food, water, sunscreen,
mittens, a few first aid items and my camera. Clips that hold mittens to the
jacket or a string that keeps them attached are also a good idea. If you are
like me and you insist on helmets, then the helmet is a good mitten carrier,
but it’s only as good as the kid carrying it. (Helmets make excellent buckets
for carrying snow, rocks, sticks and pine cones. But your hand gear will jump
out and run away in the parking lot.)

I didn’t trust my kids to take care of their stuff. The reasons
why I do not subscribe to the "children should carry their own gear"
philosphy are numerous: Ski gear is heavy and awkward. It’s important not to
lose any of it. Who wants to start the day with an angry parent and an upset
child because something was lost, or frustrated because it’s exhausting carrying
the stuff? Why bother, why let yourself get aggravated? When we first started
skiing at the local hill, in order to get all of the stuff to the lodge I drove
up to the passenger pick-up area and parked. I unloaded everything: kids, boots,
skis, and (big) backack. If the weather was comfortable I sat the children on
the backpack and told them not to move. There was always a mountain host there
and I would recruit him, advising “I’ll be right back, they know to not run
around and get in the way.” I would then go park the car and walk back quickly.

The children were usually chilled a bit by now as they were not
dressed in their ski pants, so they would happily help me carry things up. First
went the kids, boots and the backack. Everyone into the lodge, where I could
settle them at a table and produce two treats from the backpack. They would
stay put while I went and got the skis.

When my children were small it wasn’t very difficult to carry
all three pairs of skis and the two pairs of poles. (Really little kids should
not have poles.) Now its a different story – they carry their own things.

The skis went on the rack and I went back in. If I had to buy
lift tickets, now was the time. Once I was finished with everything the children
were warm and had a snack, everyone went to the bathroom, and we all got dressed.
I found that it was better to dress them first in all the lower body garments,
leaving the jackets, helmets and mittens off until the last minute. It’s too
hot to stand around and wait fully dressed in all of that. As the children got
older I could send them outside once they were dressed.

Off to the slopes. Teach your kids to ski by finding an instructor.
The instructor can teach them some basics and show you where to ski with them.
Then take them “skiing.” It’s fun for all, but it won’t last more than an hour
at a time for a little one. If your mountain has affordable and flexible day
care, take the little one inside to someone else when he or she gives up skiing
and starts to play.

We managed with two lessons for my smallest child during his first
year. He was two and he was psyched to ski! The biggest challenge was to get
him to understand that skiing was all about turning. He has natural downhiller
instincts and he was hard to convince. The year that he turned three was the
year that he really "got it."

We made two trips that year: one to a Canadian resort, and one
to Colorado. Canadian ski schools are wonderful with little kids. My son left
those three days in early December with incredible pride in his ability, and
it was appropriate, too. They took them skiing with lots of time to stop and
play. Our Colorado trip was in March, and in between he had been alternating
skiing with me and day care – ussually an hour skiing with me in the morning,
and then into day care. Lunch with me was followed by more skiing before we’d
leave for the day. Obviously, we had season passes – it would have been harder
if we had the problem of purchasing an 8 hour pass to ski for only a few hours.
Many hills have flex ticketing systems now, so it’s possible to buy a 4 hour
pass. Search out deals, too – at our mountain, my son skied for free until he
was 7 years old.

The ski school at Vail was well established for little kids, and
they function well with children who have had at least some experience on the
snow. On our first day at Vail he fell asleep at 10:00 a.m. and awoke at 2 p.m.,
only skiing a little . On second day he skied off the summit, practiced jumping
off things and then he put his head down into his pizza at lunch. They didn’t
wake him up until I came to get him, after which he skied with me for an hour,
the happiest kid in the world. I noticed, though, that the downhiller tendencies
were getting even worse with the larger vertical.

That night my daughter and I bribed him. I was ordering pizza
for dinner and they were looking in the ski shop window next door. They came
back and told me about the blue helmet with stars. “Mommy might get it for you
if you can learn to turn and stop,” commented his worldly 8-year-old sister.
“Well, I don’t know,” replied the cunning Mommy.

We ate our pizza and took a stroll, stopping to admire the helmet.
On the way back to our room I announced that if he could learn to turn and stop,
I would buy it for him. The next morning he got up, stood on the bed and announced
that today he was not going to sleep – he was going to the top, and he was getting
that helmet. When I left him at Ski Schoo,l the first thing he told the instructor
was that today he was going to learn to turn and stop, and get a helmet. When
i picked him up I was greeted by two broadly grinning males: the instructor,
and the kid. “You owe him a helmet.”

Skeptical, I took him for the last run of the day. What wonderful
turns, what controlled stops! That night he wore his helmet to dinner.

The moral of the story is that bribery is a wonderful child-rearing
tool. Proper clothing and a benign, non-competitive attitude will get you through
the first couple of years with a small child on skis. It’s all about teaching
the child about snow sliding, about mountain sense and the rules of the road.
You have to protect your child from the elements, and from the adults who sneer,
“What are you doing here little girl? This is an expert slope.” You have to
shelter the child from adults who barrel down the hill and can’t see your kid
because he is carefully skiing the bumps that are bigger than he is. Calling
out, “Don’t run over my kid!” is perfectly appropriate, as is standing in the
middle of the slope with your poles and skis every which way, taking up as much
room as possible in order to slow people down and protect your child. If you
pay attention to things like comfort, hunger, fear and weariness you will spend
a lot of time in the lodge or the shelters on the hill, but you will have happy
children who just might learn to love the sport as much as you do. You will
also invent games, play tag, watch them acquire skills that they will use for
the rest of their lives, and make a bond with your kids that you will not regret.

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