Family travel tips: How to get kids ready to downhill ski

As we get ready for a long weekend of skiing and other fun at Smugglers’ Notch I thought this would be a great time to continue my series of posts focusing on the “how-to’s” of family travel. Today I share tips on preparing your child for downhill skiing from Harley Johnson and Shelly Schaffer. Both of them work at Smuggs; Harley is director of the award-winning Snow Sport University for children and Shelly is director of the TREASURES Child Care Center. They are also both moms (Shelly has three daughters and Harley has a son and a daughter) busily engaged in raising their children to be avid skiers. So they’ve got lots of great ideas about how to successfully introduce children to the slopes.

I wish I’d had this information handy when I started Teddy in ski school last year (we didn’t have great success – he spent more time in the daycare than skiing). I’m looking forward to seeing how he enjoys his experience at Smuggs where he and Tommy will both be participating in age-appropriate daylong programs. And happily, he will be better dressed and prepared than he was last year thanks to these expert tips!

Harley Johnson skiing with her daughterIf you’ve never gotten gear for your kids before, what do you need to know? What should you buy and what should you lease?

You’ll probably want to invest in some ski clothing, including ski mittens (not gloves) that have an outer shell made of slippery, water-repellent fabric. Kids’ hands get really cold and they play in the snow, which means that fleece mittens or knitted mittens get wet and heavy. If you can, get mittens with a zipper pouch for hand warmers.

As far as clothes are concerned, bibs are better than ski pants – they help keep kids from getting any snow close to the skin. We recommend sweatpants and turtlenecks underneath with a fleece or sweatshirt over top. As a general rule it’s best is to layer clothing and make sure it wicks moisture away from the skin.

Any time it’s snowing or cold we recommend goggles, which help protect the eyes and keeps kids warmer. You might want to purchase these because children usually can keep them for more the one season. Helmet covers aren’t a necessity, but they offer a way for your child to customize his or her helmet and also can make it easy for you to recognize him or her from a distance on the mountain.

With regard to the actual ski equipment it’s always better to rent or lease when you have children since they tend to change sizes every year. If you can, lease equipment where you live before you go on vacation; this gives children an opportunity to play around with it before you leave. If you will be renting at the ski area, pick up the equipment the night before you ski. Your child’s first experience with the gear shouldn’t be when you arrive at the mountain.

You’ll want to rent skis, boots, and bindings. Most areas include helmets as part of rental package as well. You probably don’t need to lease poles, which can give kids too many things to think about as they are learning. They tend to get distracted by the poles when they really need to focus on their feet and legs. We generally don’t introduce poles until children are mostly skiing parallel.

Shelly Schaffer and daughters on the mountainWhat’s the best way to introduce skiing to your child?

Talk about skiing and how much fun it is. Read books and watch TV shows or movies with skiing in them. Explain that your child will need lessons to learn to ski well and talk about your own experiences with skiing and how you learned to ski.

One thing you should do is make sure your child isn’t suiting up in equipment for the first time right before starting the first ski lesson. Get the equipment ahead of time and let children walk around in the boots to get used to the feeling. You might encourage your child to do a few simple exercises like running and stopping, marching in place, or standing with feet together then feet apart. Have your child practice these exercises without ski boots and then with the boots on to get used to the difference.

What are some ways to get kids (both younger and older) physically ready to ski?

The best thing you can do to help prepare kids to ski is encourage them to be active: Go outside and run around with them. Playing soccer or tag are a fun ways to practice changing directions and shifting weight. Ice skating and inline skating are also both great ways to help children get their legs in shape and also to teach them some of the skills that they’ll need to ski like moving from one foot to another or pushing off. But any kind of outdoor activity helps to get them fit and also used to being outdoors.

Stretching is also always helpful. Yoga promotes flexibility and strength and can be fun for kids of all ages. Playing simple stretching games with toddlers is also a great idea. Before you go out to the mountain, try a rousing game of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Not only does this warm them up by having them are bend and reach, it also helps make sure they know what different parts of their body are called (which is a great skill to have mastered before a ski lesson).

And this may seem obvious, but try to make sure that your child has a good night of rest and a healthy and filling breakfast before you drop them off for a day on the slopes.

What if you’ve got a child who doesn’t like cold? Or one who is timid?

Be as positive as possible and don’t push them. It’s hard to win over kids and skiing needs to be a fun experience.

If you’ve got a little one, try to find a ski area that has programs especially for young children. At Smuggs three to five year olds start the day inside where it’s warm and there are toys. During the day, they have multiple opportunities to go inside and warm up.

It’s important to know your child. If he or she is really shy or doesn’t like new experiences without you there you might want to try a private “mom-or-dad-and-me” lesson. Sometimes having a parent is there helpful to children who are timid or uncertain. To do this, you’ll need to be at least an intermediate skier, but this can give you tips for teaching your child and sometimes this helps children get over their fear or anxiety.

Generally we tell parents not to have any expectations and to follow the lead of their children. The whole day can feel strange for them and we try to acknowledge that. Sometimes we let them just linger indoors and gradually will take them outside. Some of them are drawn to the snow, others not so much. In a child’s first day he or she may spend just ten minutes outside.

And if the first day is horrendous it’s worth it to step back and try again later. Sometimes children need a year before they come back and try it again. We’ve seen kids come as three year olds and it didn’t work out, only to return the following year and pick it right up.

Thanks for the great tips Shelly and Harley! Want more tips? Visit the Smugglers’ Notch website to see Shelly and Harley in the Children Snow Tips video series.

Photos of Harley and Shelly courtesy of Smugglers’ Notch

Reader Responses

4 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Wonderful post with lot of information! I have to admit that a lot of this information I can really use for myself as well. :) Being from tropical climate background, skiing is not something I have many experiences. But this year I’m determined to at least attend a skiing lesson. :)

  2. Great advice and I think that the first and most important stage when skiing is to ensure that your kids have the right kids ski clothing. Sometimes this may mean spending a bit more money than buying whatever is available on the high street but it is peace of mind knowing they’ll be warm, dry and comfortable whatever the conditions.

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