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, most children can ski independently on a beginner slope in just a few days.
So how do you get them started?
Don't 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 ski outfit consists of the following:
Jacket: Kids should 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 coat has a 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. Interior ankle gaiters that fit around the cuffs of the ski boots are a must to keep snow from getting into boots. High-waist pants or bib-style pants with detachable straps are the best choice for young children. One-piece suits should be reserved for kids who are well beyond the potty-training stage.
Long underwear: Wool and synthetic 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.
Neck gaiter: This protects the neck, ears and lower face from wind and sunburn. Merino wool is best for 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 cost around $30 and last for 2 to 3 seasons if kept in a soft sack when not in use. Ideally, 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.
Warmers: These air-activated heat pouches can be a kid's best friend on the slope. Many 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.
While it's generally more convenient to own gear, renting and season-long leasing are both smart options.
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 equipment 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.
If buying gear makes sense for you, then consider this when shopping:
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 skis are relatively wide and have a shape that assists in turning, so learning is much easier than even a decade ago. Ski length should be chin to nose high, with shorter skis being easier to turn. Junior skis come anywhere from 80cm to about 120cm or 140cm in length. Beginners should start with a soft (flexible) ski that is designed for all-mountain terrain. 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.
Boots: Children should start with a rear-entry model with 2 to 3 buckles. Older, heavier kids might have the weight and muscle development to flex a 4-buckle boot, but only if they are 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.
Bindings: Manufacturers make youth-specific bindings—so don't put a child in an adult binding. If you have hand-me-down skis or buy used, have the binding torque tested at your local ski shop to make sure it's in proper working order. Shops have a machine that runs the binding through a variety of tests to ensure that the values on the DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung) indicator are what they say they are (dirt and grit can cause a binding to not properly release). 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.
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.
Q: Are most ski clubs family friendly?
Q: My child loves competitive sports. Can children ski race?
A: There are racing opportunities at almost every ski mountain. Children can start alpine racing at age 6 or 7. Many mountains offer in-house races with no required travel, so it is a fun opportunity to learn skills and compete with friends. Ski racing focuses on safety and skills, with fun being the emphasis of youth development programs. See www.ussa.org for more information.
Q: I've always considered skiing an expensive sport. Am I right?
A: Skiing with children can be surprisingly inexpensive. Many resorts let children ages 5 or 6 and under ski for free. At others, if you buy an adult lift ticket, you qualify for a free pass for kids under the age of 18. If you live near a ski area, consider a season pass—they are relatively cheap for junior skiers. Family rates can also offer a good deal considering the ski season in the U.S. runs from November to May in many areas. Check the internet for lift ticket specials at your area. Costco and regional supermarkets and gas stations often run promotions with discounted lift passes. If you are traveling and staying in a hotel near a ski area, check for deals on gear and tickets. Many airlines offer "kids fly free" programs to ski towns. Manufacturers and retailers often conduct on-the-slope demos where you can try out equipment 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.
Skiing images provided by Jeanne Olson.
By Nancy Prichard Bouchard Ph.D.
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Last updated: Thu Aug 16 13:01:09 PDT 2012
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