Kids and skiing

Downhill skiing is a lifelong sport. While you can learn at any age, kids have the advantage of being flexible, nimble and relatively fearless. Most ski schools will teach children as young as age 3. With good instruction, many kids can ski independently on a beginner slope in just a few days.

This article will help you to maximize their odds for success.

Rule #1: Keep Them Warm

Never underestimate the weather. A bluebird day can turn into full-on winter conditions in the time it takes to ride the chairlift. The beauty of downhill skiing is that you're always close to a lodge—but with a beginning skier, getting down the mountain can take time.

A proper ski outfit consists of the following:

REI Timber Mountain 3-in-1 Parka

Jacket: The goal is to be warm when riding up the chairlift, but not sweaty while skiing down. An insulated, waterproof/breathable jacket with a removable or tuck-away hood is best—the hoodless collar seals in air around the neck. If the jacket has an integral hood, make sure it fits over a ski helmet or else it just gets in the way. Look for a hip-length jacket to prevent snow from getting in at the waist.

Pants: These should be insulated, waterproof and breathable. Ski pants usually have interior ankle gaiters that keep snow from getting into ski boots. High-waist pants or bib-style pants with detachable straps are the best choice for young children.

Tip: Got young ones? One-piece ski suits should be reserved for kids who are well beyond the potty-training stage.

Long underwear: Either synthetic or merino wool base layers (make sure there is no cotton content) both do the trick. If you are going to buy only 1 set (top and bottom), go with a midweight model. This next-to-skin layer shouldn't be too tight or restrictive—kids will end up wearing their "long johns" as a stand-alone layer before and after they ski.

Insulating layer: On colder days, kids can wear a lightweight fleece or wool top and pants over their long underwear. Again, avoid cotton. Alternatively, one trick is to have your child wear 2 sets of long underwear (one a size larger than the other) under his or her insulated jacket. In warm weather, you have a spare—and a set to grow into.

Turtle Fur fleece neck gaiter

Neck gaiter: Often overlooked, this handy item (right) protects the neck, ears and lower face from wind and sunburn. Merino wool or polyester fleece are best for soft, no-itch warmth and minimal odor after long-term wear.

Tip: Wash neck gaiters frequently and let them air dry.

Socks: Stay away from cotton socks and anklets. Ski socks should extend to just above the calf and be made of a blend of wool and synthetic fibers. Kids should have 2 pairs of ski socks but wear only 1 pair at a time. Rotate the pairs to prevent blisters; keep the extra one in your pack in case of wet feet.

Goggles: Medium-tint styles are best for all-condition wear. Children's goggles generally start around $25 and last for 2 to 3 seasons if kept in a soft sack when not in use. Alternatively, buy goggles and a helmet as a package—many are designed to work together so there's no "gaper gap" on the forehead.

Mittens: Mittens are better than gloves for warmth. Look for a waterproof, well-insulated pair, ideally with a rip-and-stick type closure pocket for warmers (below). Wrist cuffs should be long enough to either extend under or over jacket cuffs by a couple of inches.

Handwarmer packet

Warmers: These air-activated heat pouches can be a kid's best friend on the slope. Some styles of gloves have "warmer pockets," so you just shake the warmers and insert them into the pouches for all-day warmth.

To ensure you don't leave anything at home, make a checklist to keep in the top pouch of your gear pack.

Shop REI's selection of kids' clothing.

Ski Gear: Rent or Buy?

While it's usually more convenient to own gear, renting and season-long leasing are both smart options for kids.

If you are just getting started (or plan to ski only a few times a season), consider renting. Ask your local ski area or rental shop about a season-long lease for skis, boots, poles and even helmets (generally such packages can be found for under $150). The best programs allow you to trade-up in size if your child outgrows any of the gear. Another advantage of leasing or renting is that you usually get state-of-the-art gear that is tuned, waxed and ready to go.

Most kids can get 2 seasons out of skis, boots and poles, so it makes financial sense to buy gear if you have a child who is enthusiastically involved in the sport or if you plan on handing down the gear to another child.

Ski Gear Shopping Tips

If buying gear makes sense for you, then consider this when shopping:

Giro Rove snow helmet

Helmet: Kids should wear ski helmets. They offer protection from falls and collisions with other skiers or boarders. Helmets are much warmer than hats, and the venting is so good they don't get sweaty on warm days. Look for youth helmets with an adjustable internal "harness" that can be dialed in for a custom fit. You can rent helmets at most ski areas—but owning one is a good investment as you know its history.

Tip: Pack a pocketful of stickers for your next day on the slopes. Dole them out as rewards for good turns; your child can then decorate the helmet as he or she improves.

Shop REI's selection of kids' ski helmets.

Skis: Today's relatively wide skis allow easier learning than in years past. Beginners' skis are soft (flexible) for all-mountain terrain. Ski length should be chin to nose high, with shorter skis being easier to turn. Junior skis run from 80cm to about 120cm or 140cm in length. Skis are measured at the tip, waist (middle) and tail. (An average entry-level junior ski measures about 104-67-92mm.) Skis designed for tricks have a wider platform—meaning a wider waist—for more stability. Intermediate and advanced skiers will gravitate toward race skis (slalom or GS), powder ("fat") skis and terrain-park skis (called "twin tips" as they have a turned up tail for skiing backwards). Fun graphics help get kids excited about the sport.

Shop REI's selection of kids' downhill skis.

Bindings: Many skis now come with integrated bindings, so shopping is easy. If buying bindings separately, make sure you get a youth-specific model—don't put a child in an adult binding. If you have hand-me-down skis or buy used, have the binding tested at your local ski shop to make sure it's in proper working order. Always make sure a ski technician adjusts the DIN setting for the child's weight, height and ability. The proper setting is critical for safety.

Shop REI's selection of kids' downhill ski bindings.

Lange RSJ kids' boot

Boots: Young skis should start with a rear-entry model with 2 to 3 buckles. Older, heavier kids might be able to flex a 4-buckle boot, but only if they are more advanced skiers. The ability to flex the boot is key for developing technique. Whether buying or renting, have the child put on the boot, bend his or her knees and push forward. If the boot won't flex (allowing the child's knee to move forward over the toe), the boot is too stiff. Try on multiple shell styles to be sure. For a recreational fit, pull out the liner and have the child put his foot in the shell—with the foot pushed as far forward as it will comfortably go. You should be able to insert 3 fingers between the heel and shell. Any more and the fit is too sloppy; any less and there's not enough room to grow. Make sure a child tries on a boot with the ski socks he or she is planning to wear on the slopes.

Tip: After a day of skiing, pull out the liners and let them dry. Feet sweat—and even on a cold day, liners absorb moisture. A wet liner won't dry while inside of a boot unless you use a boot dryer.

Shop REI's selection of kids' downhill ski boots.

Poles: Beginning skiers should not use poles. Poles used too early in the game will take away from a child's ability to make turns. Once a skier can make a wedge turn with a parallel finish, reward him or her with their own poles.

Shop REI's selection of kids' downhill ski poles.

Teaching tools: A few helpful accessories include "edgie wedgies" that connect ski tips, making it easier for the child to hold a wedge or snowplow shape; a harness with long leashes that extend from the beginner to an experienced adult to help a child develop confidence and control speed; or wooden poles that allow the beginner to ski to the side of you, not between your legs.

Shop REI's selection of kids' downhill ski accessories.

Tips for Starting Out

Kids skiing
  • Make learning fun. Hot chocolate or French fries in the lodge are great incentives for a full morning of skiing. Pack snacks in your pocket for the chairlift. Treats go a long way when encouraging children to make good turns.
  • Practice moving around on skis. Find a gentle snow-covered slope at the resort for walking around in downhill boots and skis. You don't need a chairlift to practice walking up and skiing down.
  • Bring a pack. When skiing with small children, carry an extra pair of underwear (or diapers), baby wipes and mittens. Even older kids tend to get their mittens wet by lunchtime. You can leave the pack in the lodge but keep a tube of sunscreen in your pocket.
  • Play games. The "I-Spy" game makes time on the chairlift go faster. If the weather is cold and you need a diversion, try singing a few favorite songs. Or practice rhyming words or addition tables.
  • Focus on turns. Stopping is important, but turning will get kids skiing. Turning happens from the feet, knees and hips. A common mistake is telling kids to put their weight on one ski to initiate a turn. Instead, work on an athletic stance and getting skis on edge.
  • Follow the leader. To help children initiate turns, play follow the leader. The leader can pretend to be a favorite animal, and each child picks a different animal. When turning, make noises to imitate that animal. The bottom line is making it fun—whether there's the roar of a tiger to announce each turn or the reward of an M&M for each zig-zag they make on the slope.
  • Talk with lift operators. They are on high alert for beginning riders. If you are riding with a child (or any beginner), let the lift operator know. They can slow down the oncoming chair and help you board (and dismount). To assist small children, lift them by the armpits. Teach them to always put the safety bar down.

Kids' Skiing FAQs

Q: Are ski clubs an option for families?

A: Yes. There are hundreds of ski clubs across the country. In addition to fun and camaraderie, you enjoy group discounts on travel, lodging and lift prices. Sites like www.snowskiclub and www.skisite.com list many clubs and councils (who represent multiple clubs) across the country.

Q: My child loves competitive sports. Can children ski race?

A: There are racing opportunities at most ski mountains. Children can start alpine racing at age 6 or 7. Ski racing focuses on safety and skills, with fun being the main emphasis. See www.ussa.org for details.

Q: Isn't skiing an expensive sport?

A: Skiing with kids can be surprisingly inexpensive. Many resorts let children ages 5 or 6 and under ski for free. At some others, buying an adult lift ticket may qualify you for a free kids' pass. If you live near a ski area, consider a season pass—they are relatively cheap for junior skiers. Ask about family rates, too, and check the internet for lift ticket specials at your area. If you are traveling and staying in a hotel near a ski area, check for deals on gear and tickets. Airlines may offer "kids fly free" programs to ski towns. Lastly, look for on-the-slope demos by manufacturers where you can try out gear for free (www.snowlink.com).

Q: What can I do with the ski gear my child outgrows?

A: Most REI stores offer the Junior Snowsports Trade-In Program to help you save money on new gear. This program allows REI members to trade in old kids' ski gear (skis, boots and bindings) for 20% savings toward new kids' or junior snowsports gear. Used gear should be no more than 2 years old. The discount does not apply to sale or clearance gear nor ski packages.

Q: I've never skied, so I'm nervous about having my child learn. How do we get started?

A: Ski areas across the country offer discounted (or even free) ski lessons for first-timers of all ages. Sign up your child and yourself. Generally, rental gear is included in the introductory package. Most resorts make an effort to be family friendly, with areas to eat if you pack your own lunch, infant care facilities and often a free "bunny slope." Many states designate January as "Learn a Snowsport" month (www.winterfeelsgood.com). Look for Kids Ski Free promotions (you can Google Kids Ski Free and the name of the state) that allow children to ski free with the price of an adult ticket (some areas have a blanket free-ski offer for a specific age group, generally kids 10 to 12).

Q: Does it matter where my child learns to ski?

A: Some ski areas offer better beginner terrain than others. Do some online research first. Don't discount "ma and pa" ski areas which tend to have flatter terrain than famous resorts, fewer crowds and better deals. Many resorts offer kids lessons on multiple weekends that are much cheaper than a private one-time class.

Q: Should I teach my own child or put them in lessons?

A: You don't have to be an Olympic-caliber skier to teach your own children—just taking multiple runs on a beginner hill builds a great platform for further progress. The first priority is fun—technique inevitably follows. (For some kids, the secret to a good day on the slopes is gummy bears, hot chocolate and games.) Ski lessons are terrific for developing confidence and skill, plus most kids love to ski in groups with friends of the same age. Consider taking a family lesson to brush up everyone's technique. Multiple-day lessons are best for developing skills, and they cost less than a single day. Check with your local ski foundation or resort for learn-to-ski programs that work with kids on a weekly basis.

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