Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about how I got my kids into skiing. After posting videos of our recent trip to Okemo on my Instagram stories, I got even more questions, because Mazzy and Harlow are actually pretty good skiers now! After years of work, we can now ski all together as a family. THE SKI FAMILY DREAM, if you will.
Before I give you all my best tips for making your regular old family into a “ski family,” let me tell you why being a “ski family” is the best.
1) Skiing is one of the few sports that your whole family can do together for years. You are not watching your kids in the stands or accompanying them to meets, you are skiing alongside them, all together.
2) You spend equally as much time skiing down the slopes as you do going up the chairlift, which provides some stellar opportunities for tech-free, quality conversation time. There is nothing to do but talk, unless you just want to sit there, freezing in silence, which your kids most certainly DO NOT.
3) Skiing is a great confidence-builder if you start early. Any kid can learn to ski if they put in the time, so they will go from not even being able to stand, to getting off the chairlift by themselves, to skiing steeper slopes, and in the end, feel like they really accomplished something. Mazzy told me over this last trip that skiing is her favorite thing to do. She said that she likes ski vacations more than any other kind of vacation. I firmly believe this is because skiing is something that Mazzy spent time learning, remembers when she could barely ski and feels proud of herself that she’s gotten so far. She’s good at it and she knows it. Looking back, that’s why I always liked skiing so much too.
4) Even when your kids get older and want less and less to do with you, they will STILL want to come on your ski vacations. Why? Because you’ve made them into people who love skiing but they cannot yet afford to take ski vacations on their own.
This last point brings me to a big drawback of skiing— it’s an expensive sport. If you go away skiing, you have to pay for clothing, gear, lift tickets and lodging. Eating at the lodges on the mountain are usually very expensive because they know you have no other options. But there are inexpensive ways to do it. For instance, when I skied as a kid, my mother always packed sandwiches and drinks, put her bag under a table and prayed it was still there when we took a break for lunch. Yes, there are lockers but my family didn’t want to pay for those either. We also usually skied in upstate New York or Vermont, so it was a road trip as opposed to a flight. We stayed in share houses with friends that were a car drive away from the mountain, as opposed to the more expensive ski-in/ski-out lodging options. When I was little, I remember these houses being especially crappy, to the point where you couldn’t shower there because the water smelled like eggs. We also never went out for dinner; we rented a house with a kitchen so we could buy groceries and eat in. My point is— if you really want to ski, there are ways to make a ski vacation more economical.
So, how do you raise kids that eventually like to ski?
1. Have Patience
The key word is “eventually.” If you start young, your kids will probably not like it on their first try. Most definitely not on their first run. They probably will start to revolt in the ski rental shop before they’ve even seen the mountain. The boots are uncomfortable and it’s COLD OUTSIDE. Then, once you are out on the slopes, you’ve just taken a toddler who recently learned to walk, stuck sticks on their feet and put them on a hill. What did you expect? Your job for the next hour or so (because you will not make it longer than that without hightailing it back to the lodge to get hot cocoa so you can see your kid smile again) is to pick them up over and over again as they whine louder and louder and with more conviction. Did I mention all the hard labor involved? Because all this whining is right after you just carried all their crap through the parking lot, to the ticket booth and up a hill to the magic carpet, in addition to carrying your own stuff. Skiing with little kids is WORK.
You do not want your kid’s first time on skis to be the first day of a five day ski vacation in Colorado. Because, if they hate it the first day, they are really going to make your life miserable when they find out that’s what they’re doing every day after. I would start small. Find a local mountain and drive up for the day. These mountains are typically cheaper too. The other reason I recommend this option is because there is nothing worse than being stuck with your crying toddler on the bunny slope at the bottom of a hill, when you are at a beautiful resort with tons of terrain you can’t wait to tackle. At the smaller local mountains, I can stick with my kids without feeling like I am missing out. We typically do at least one day trip or ski weekend at the beginning of the season and then a week long resort vacation out west towards the end of season. That weekend goes a long way for preparing our kids for the bigger trip.
You need items that are warm and water resistant. Keep in mind that your kids will be falling down and playing in the snow a lot more than the grown-ups, so staying dry will help keep them warm throughout the day. I think a lot of parents test skiing out once to see if their kids like it, but don’t invest in the right undergarments and then everyone hates it because they are freezing. A quality under layer changes everything! Layers are important but if you have the right items, you shouldn’t need too many. Most importantly, only wear one pair of socks. I spent years wearing tights and then two pairs of socks on top because my feet were always freezing. Finally, I had to go to first aid because they started to get frostbite and learned that all those socks were cutting off circulation to my feet. Now I wear one really good pair of socks meant for skiing and my toes are so much happier! Our kids wear one pair of base layer leggings and long sleeved undershirt, one pair of ski socks, a fleece, ski pants, and a ski jacket. Proper ski jackets are warm, water and wind resistant, have hoods, have elastic, drawstrings, zippers or velcro to close or open up any openings (on your wrists, waist and neck) and have lots outer and inner pockets.
When the kids were really little, we used a one-piece ski suit. These were necessary because if your kid falls, the worst possible thing would be for snow to go up their jacket and on their bare back. For gloves, I recommend waterproof mittens. I even use mittens as an adult. You don’t need your fingers while you ski and they stay way warmer when they have each other. One of the most important pieces of your ski outfit is the one parents often forget— the gaiter or buff. My mom always called it a necker, but after doing research for this post, I have determined she made that word up. It’s basically a tight fitting piece of fleece you put around your neck. A buff is the same thing but longer, so you can opt to put it over your head as well. It’s like having a thin hood that fits under your helmet. As an even warmer alternative, your kid can wear a balaclava which covers their whole neck and face, just leaving openings for the eyes and mouth, but then your toddler might look like they are about to rob a convenience store. We always travel with a regular “necker” and one that has a piece that also goes over your head (underneath your helmet). The kids choose which to wear depending on how cold it is outside. You also need to get your kid ski goggles and a helmet. Both are used for safety and for warmth. Goggles are great for the sun and especially necessary when it is snowing or windy. It can hurt to have icy snow falling on your face while you are traveling at high speeds. If you don’t want to invest right away, most ski rental shops have helmets but make sure that helmet fits correctly.
I couldn’t find Mazzy and Harlow’s exact ski clothes, but here are some brands and items I recommend. These are the colors that Mazzy and Harlow like, but if you click the links, there are lots of different options. I will say though, I highly recommend getting bright colors so your kids are easy to identify on the mountain. I wear a bright purple jacket too so my kids can easily identify me as well. Mike wears a navy blue jacket and I can’t tell you how many times I realized I was following the wrong person when I got to the bottom of the hill.
4) Teaching Your Kids to Ski Yourself Can Be Done, but It’s Not Easy
If you want to teach your kids to ski yourself, there are a few tools you can use— a harness with a leash to make sure your child doesn’t pick up too much speed before they have the skills to slow down, an edgie wedgie to keep your kids skis in the snow plow position when they are first learning, and even a hula hoop, which you can put under your kids arms and hold onto the back as you ski down together (acting similar to the harness and leash). I do want to note that I have never used any of these things, although I know people who have and highly recommend them. I always just kept my kids on the bunny slopes until they were ready to move on, and then almost had a heart attack when Mazzy plummeted down the trail, past the magic carpet and headed straight for the parking lot. One other technique I often use when Harlow feels a slope is too steep is to put my poles together in front of her so that she can hold onto them like a bar, with my arm around her back as support. It’s similar to the hula hoop concept, but you know, without having to carry a hula hoop around.
A few other great ski accessories for families are foot and hand warmers (for obvious reasons) and a Camelback hydration backpack, so your kids can drink water throughout the day while they are on the mountain, through a straw attached to a pouch in the bag. This is great for hydration, issues with altitude and also super fun for kids. Mike has always carried one that the kids use when they are with us, and Mazzy was beyond excited this year to get her own kid’s size pack.
The other thing I will say about skiing with your kids as they are first learning is that slopes feel way more flat to you than they do for your kids. There have been so many times when we swore to them that they would be able to ski something that felt easy to us, but we very quickly realized that they were picking up a level of speed that they weren’t comfortable with. It’s scary watching your kids feel out of control. It’s equally scary watching a kid ski recklessly without fear of consequences, who thinks they are in control. My kids were both overly cautious which is good but also frustrating when we were trying and failing to get them to advance to the next level. All of these scenarios are why I can’t recommend highly enough…
Harlow and Mazzy both started skiing at four years old. After trying with Mazzy on her own a few times and failing for all the reasons explained above (heart attacks, whining, etc.), we decided ski school was the way to go. With Harlow, we skipped the heart attack phase entirely and went straight for ski school. That’s really where they both learned. It’s expensive, but in addition to professionals teaching your kids, picking them up over and over again when they fall, helping them get their gear on after breaks, etc; it also means the grown-ups get a real vacation. This is an AMAZING thing. Ski school usually starts at 9am and ends around 3pm. Mike and I use this time to ski wherever we want on the mountain.
We’re big fans of bumps, black diamonds, tree skiing and powder trails on the outskirts of the map. Things that our kids won’t be able to do for a few more years. But I’ve also known other parents who use that time to go to a spa or hang out all day reading in the lodge. Or you can use that time to take your own adult lessons. Even now that the kids can ski, we still put them into ski school for a few days during a week long vacation. We also always put Harlow in for one extra day, so we can ski with just Mazzy for a day, since they are currently at different levels.
Mazzy loved ski school right away because she loves to be around other kids. Harlow, who has always had separation anxiety, had a tougher time. One thing we did that helped is buy her a little stuffed kitten as a reward for going. She named it Brave and takes it with her on every ski trip now. Brave is small so she sticks it inside her jacket when she goes to ski school and skis with him all day.
Another option is to arrange a private family lesson. We all took one once in Mont Tremblant the first time we skied there. The instructor gave us each individualized attention and acted as a guide around the mountain, showing us what we could ski together and what Mike and I should tackle later on our own.
This goes two ways. We always tell Mazzy and Harlow before the trip starts how many days they will be in ski school and which days we will be skiing all together so that they know what to expect. This also means that as parents we have to keep our kids needs in mind when we ski as family. When the kids were first learning, we always had family ski day on the last day of the trip, when the kids were at their best with a few days of lessons behind them. They got to show us what they learned and we got to test their skills on slightly trickier trails. Everyone going up on the lift together was a very big deal. Lifts were very scary for me to get comfortable with. For years, I would make sure I had my arms firmly wrapped around my kids in case they slipped underneath the bar. But as the kids have gotten older, I have learned to trust them more. Mazzy can now ride a lift with other kids, no adult present. I still always ride next to Harlow, but I don’t keep a death grip on her anymore, and she can get on and off all by herself. It took her telling me that she does it on her own at ski school for me to back off.
I also was a little worried when I saw her making very wide turns while going down the slopes, because it took her close to the edge of the mountain. But when I instructed her to make shorter turns, she got upset because shorter turns means picking up more speed. I realized that my cautions were conflicting with what she was doing to be cautious and her comfort comes first. “This is how I was taught,” she told me. Another thing we have learned, while they kids are still at different levels, is that it often makes sense to split up. Mike skis with Mazzy, I ski with Harlow. Then we meet and trade kids.
We’ve also learned that ski school offers the kids way more breaks than Mike and I typically take when we are skiing alone. The kids need a bathroom break or a hot chocolate break and if you make them power on, it’s really not going to be fun for anyone. Mike always feels like if he doesn’t ski the whole time, he is wasting his money, so I usually take the kids for additional breaks, because I really don’t mind. Having hot chocolate on an Adirondack chair in the snow with a beautiful mountain view is AWESOME. My goal is that the kids have fun and enjoy ski vacations. And sometimes that means stopping for a waffle at the Waffle Cabin or checking out the cookie offerings at the slope-side yurt.
For skis and poles, we rent Mazzy and Harlow’s gear at a local shop for the full season. It’s cheaper to do that than to rent each time we go skiing throughout the year, plus it saves that really annoying trip to the ski rental shop when you’ve just arrived at your destination. There is also a company called Ski Butlers which will bring rental options straight to your hotel and claims to be cheaper than the rentals on most mountains. Some ski schools have deals that include ski rentals and lift tickets. Kids typically learn without poles and then incorporate them in later as they advance. Mazzy just started using poles last year. Shorter skis are easier to learn on. The kids skis are small enough so that we can pack them in our gear bag and put it on a plane. You don’t really want to buy skis or boots for your kids because they will change in size and level quickly. You don’t want to borrow either, because it’s really important that you get your kids boots that are sized correctly. Mike and I own our skis and boots, but leave our skis at home when fly out west. We do take our boots.
Once your kids advance from the bunny slope, make sure to pick a mountain with a good range of beginner and family slopes. On some mountains, beginner skiers have very few options, particularly at the summit. Or you could take them down a trail that starts out easy and then get yourself into a situation where you have no other options but to ski something harder. Most mountains have a least one long winding beginner trail that will take you from the top to the bottom. What you are looking for is a mountain that has a variety of trails for beginners and intermediate skiers, that won’t leave you stuck in one part of the mountain.
At Okemo, we noticed that at the top of almost every lift, there was a clearly marked family slope option which was perfect for us. I loved that even though Harlow is still a beginner, we could take her all over the mountain. She could ride all the lifts and eat at the Summit lodge. At Squaw Valley in Tahoe, they have a learning area that is way bigger than your typical bunny slope. It had two slopes, two lifts, a nice lodge with a view and a beginner ski/snowboard park for people who are just learning jumps and tricks. The other great thing about the area is that the terrain curved up at the edge of the slope instead of there being a danger that your beginner could fall down off the edge . There are mountains that are known for more advanced skiers and mountains that are known for families. Do your research.
9) Be mindful of logistics that can be particularly tricky for kids
When picking your lodging, there are many things to keep in mind. Obviously, it is easiest for everyone if you select a hotel/condo/house that is ski-in/ski-out (which means you can exit your front door, walk right over to a trail or the lift, put your skis on and start your day), but know that those options are usually the most expensive. And since sometimes these are literally on the mountain instead of at the base of the mountain, if your kids are first timers, they might not be able to ski-in/ski-out from your exact location. When we skied last year in Lake Tahoe, our condo was right on the mountain, but we still had to drive the kids to another part of the mountain where ski school was located. At Okemo, ski school was right at the base in front of the lodge we stayed at, so that was super easy. When we go to Park City, we usually stay in a condo in town. This means we take a free shuttle from our condo to the mountain, but we are in walking distance of all the restaurants at night. If we stayed at a ski-in/ski-out place, we’d be Ubering to dinner and going out to eat would be a bigger to-do. Park City also has a lift that goes right into town to use instead of the shuttle, but until recently, the kids were not advanced enough to ski the trails leading up to it.
All this is to say, when you book your ski vacations, you must keep logistics in mind. The condo with the free shuttle means we don’t need to rent a car. When we used to stay in a nearby house with a larger group of people, we had to rent cars big enough to take everyone and their gear to the mountain. Which then meant we also had to be ready to leave and come back at the same time, whereas if you are staying right on the mountain, everyone can see ski more on their own schedule. Another thing to take note of is the distance to the mountain from the airport. We have yet to take the kids to Colorado (even though I like the mountains better) because we don’t think the kids will do well on a long car ride after a long plane ride. And, since they wouldn’t be able to ski the majority of the mountain, they wouldn’t appreciate the upside of the longer trip. Whereas Park City in Utah is about a half hour from the airport.
Know your list of amenities that you need. We need a kitchen (because we always have breakfast in our room so we can get to ski school by 9am) and we need a resort with a hot tub. It can be private or for the whole lodge, but we must be able to walk there in our bathing suits! For my family, no hot tub is a dealbreaker.
When I was a kid, we skied, ate dinner back at the house, played board games and went to bed. That was all that was offered. Now, at many ski resorts they have tubing, alpine coasters and ice skating. Nearby, we have been able to find activities like dog sledding (Mont Tremblant), ice castles (Park City), mini snowmobiling (Lake Tahoe) and horse drawn sleighs (Park City). If you want your kids to love ski vacations, my advice is to build some of these activities into your trip. My kids look forward to riding the alpine coaster and tubing every year, just as much as they look forward to skiing. It’s all just part of what makes winter vacations wonderful.
11) Keep your ski bag packed and ready at all times!
When we get home from our ski trips, we take all our clothes out of the bag, wash them and put them all back in. That bag houses the socks, the undergarments, the ski boots, the ski jackets, the “neckers,” etc. so that we don’t have a hard time putting it all together the next time we go on a ski trip. Can I tell you how happy it makes me that Mike is in charge of bringing all the ski gear while I just focus on regular clothes? I don’t even check the bag. I know everything is always in there.
I know this is all a lot to think about, particularly if you did not grow up skiing with your family. Becoming a ski family is a commitment. But for us, it has proved to be totally worth it.