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Teaching Children to Ski

My heart fills with joy when my teenage daughter asks to join me on a backcountry ski adventure. But having successfully raised her to love a less-than-glamorous sport, a sport much less “cool” than resort snowboarding, doesn’t give me a license to claim I have a “patented method” for success. Certainly one point is statistically poor data. Nevertheless my story has value. Repeatedly stated is the underlying premise that the most important of all things you can do is make every experience memorable and generate a desire to return.

Image of skier on tour to Azalea and Flora lakes

Sophie was three years old on her first ski trip. That day she skied about 100 yards. The rest of the day was spent playing in the snow and pulling her in a sled. Each successive year the tours grew longer and more difficult. One spring day at Badger Pass Ski Resort one telemark turn linked to the next, to the next and to the next. The next week Sophie packed her gear into Ostrander Ski Hut in the Yosemite backcountry and skied the ridges in deep powder during a freak spring snowstorm. She was 11 years old and I haven’t been able to keep up with her since.

Image of daughter carrying pack into Ostrander Hut

The lesson is a simple one – a child’s parents play a major role in molding a child’s love for the backcountry. But simply dragging them along on “your” trips is not the road to success. Success requires sacrifices on your part, but in the end the rewards greatly outweigh the sacrifices.

Think of the process as a very long backcountry tour. Thinking in advance about the distance and all the difficulties along the route can be daunting. But taken a short distance at a time, through a patch of dense woods, across a creek or over a difficult ridge, one step at a time brings you piece-wise closer and closer to your goal. Eventually all that remains is to look back in awe of the journey and the accomplishment. The journey is well worth your effort and the accomplishment will make your child a very special person.

Image taken along route from Tragedy Springs to Plasse

Here are eight tips on making the journey with your child a wonderful experience for all.

Plan every trip around your child. It goes without saying that the length and difficulty should be appropriate. The biggest turnoff for a youngster is being pushed beyond their limit, which might not be their physical limit. Over time your trips will become more challenging.

It is okay to ask if a child wants to go farther. If you do, take “no” seriously. The worst thing you can do is belittle them for wanting to turn around. In time they will want to go farther because they can and they know that they can trust your judgment.

Remember that children “don’t tire gradually,” they “hit the wall.” You need to continually assess their level of energy and turn around sufficiently early to make it back to the car with a smile. The last thing you want to happen is for your child to poop-out with a mile remaining ahead.

Image of daughter having fun in the backcountry

Plan fun things to do on your tour. Snacks and lunch are good reasons to stop, but building a snowman and a snowball fight are definitely the best. Let them cream you with a snowball and they will surely have memories of a good trip. This is one time that you don’t want to think like an adult.

Always have contingency plans for your trip. What are you going to do if the weather is poor or something else goes wrong? What else is there to do in the area? This might be a perfect time to treat the family to a few hours of inner-tubing at a downhill ski resort. Many resort areas have great shopping, and hours can be spent looking for the perfect hat “for them.” And sometimes it’s a perfect opportunity for the family to cozy up in front of a fire and enjoy a board game or video together.

Image of daughter sleding

Kids don’t deal well with being cold and hot. They also don’t think about the consequences of getting totally wet while playing in the snow.

More often than not, having the right clothes and spare clothes will make or break a trip. Waterproof bibs, gaiters and warm socks are a starting point. Carry at least one spare pair of socks and spare layers for their upper and lower body. Spare gloves and mitts are the most important items you will be carrying – two spare pairs sound like plenty, but consider carrying a third!

Food means energy and warmth. Most children don’t eat a big meal and then exercise for hours on end. They tend to snack, and you need to be prepared for this. Having food and water easy for your child to get is a must. Make sure they have some tasty morsel in their pocket that they can snack on. If your child is carrying their own pack, have them carry their own food and water. Outfit them with a hydrator so that they can sip whenever they want. Most important, cater to their palette; bring foods that you know they like and will want to eat. This is also an opportunity to have them participate in the trip planning – have them plan their own food for the day.

Providing your child with good quality skis, boots, bindings and poles may be the single most important step you can take to ensure that they have a wonderful trip and ensure that their skill level grows with each new trip. Unfortunately, time and again I see children on inappropriate equipment while their parents have the best of everything.

The number one mistake parents make is taking their children out with skis that are the wrong size – usually too long. You can’t expect a child to have fun on skis that are a foot too long. I doubt that you would enjoy a ski trip on 215 cm skis if you should be on 190s. Boots that are too small lead to sore and cold feet while boots that are too large reduces a child’s control of their skis.

It is easy to find short skis for children that are suitable for touring on modest terrain during their early years. As your child’s ski ability increases you may be challenged by the task of finding metal-edged skis for them if they require less than 160 or 170 cm. Be aware that most of the shorter skis on the market are very wide and designed for adult weights.

My solution to outfitting Sophie with 120 cm metal-edged skis with plenty of side-cut was to purchase the correct size downhill skis and router-in a no-wax pattern. Doing this is a lot of work, but putting out the time and energy will allow your child to reach a new plateau in their skiing ability.

Image of daughter along creek

You might be lucky and get a couple of years of use out of your child’s skis or boots before they have to be replaced. Look for slightly used equipment to hold down expenses. You might also be able to rent equipment, but from experience I know that my daughter thrived knowing that she had her own equipment just like her parents.

Downhill skiing is good practice. Downhill skiing can be an important tool in a child’s progression from beginner backcountry skier to carving turns in the backcountry. Downhill skiing gives a child the opportunity to learn how to control their speed and basic turns that can be transferred to the backcountry. There will be an obvious right time for them to begin to practice telemark turns at the resort; it’s the ideal place for them to learn by mimicking your turns.

Image of daughter telemark skiing

Ski often. The more often they ski, the better your child will ski. The better your child skis, the more fun they will have. The more fun they have, the more they will want to ski with you. Close your eyes and imagine you and your child reveling in the snow on your favorite tour. It’s worth every sacrifice you have to make!

Marcus Libkind

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