Never Too Young to Ski

WRITTEN BY Felicia Schneiderhan

IT’S AN IDEAL WINTER DAY: The temperature hovers near twenty, the wind is calm, and two inches of fresh powder cover the deep snow. The groomer has just come through; perfect corduroy awaits. It’s a bluebird kind of day for cross-country skiers.

When the conditions are ideal—and even when they’re not—my husband Mark Schneiderhan and I load up five sets of skis and poles, pack a bag of snacks and a thermos of hot chocolate, and announce to our three kids (ages nine, seven, and five): “Get in the car!”

It always takes extra incentive to get them out of the warm house and into the woods. We started them on skis young. However, it has only been recently that they hit their stride and have learned to love cross-country skiing as much as we do. Those early years of crying, whining, endless gear-loading, and hauling? Totally worth it.

I started skiing in my early thirties when I met my husband. He was and still is an avid downhill and cross-country skier. I fell in love with cross-country skiing and when we started having kids, Mark bought the little snowman skis to strap on their boots. Our kids had a lot of exposure to the trails at a very early age. Before they could walk, we packed them on our backs with extra hand warmers stuck in their snowsuits. When they got too cumbersome to haul in the pack, Mark built what we dubbed “the chariot,” a homemade evolution of our bike carrier on skis.

Mark’s theory has always been that kids need to learn to glide their feet first, then they get the poles. This infuriated our two-year-old daughter, who refused to budge unless she had all the gear. But his theory is supported by ski instructor Chris Pascone, who volunteers as a kid’s ski coach through the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club. Pascone also teaches downhill skiing at Chester Bowl, a local park, in Duluth. His biggest piece of advice for starting kids out: “Don’t bother with ski poles for beginners and intermediates. Cross-country poles are used for power only, not balance. No need to have them
in the beginning. Keep it simple.”

Those early years of crying, whining, endless gear-loading, and hauling? Totally worth it. (Photo by Felicia Schneiderhan)

By the time our kids were five, three, and sixteen-months old, all three were upright on skis. But let me tell you, those early years were not exactly family ski outings. It took three hours to pack everybody up with all the gear, clothing, snacks, and bathroom breaks. By the time we got to the trail, people were crabby and tired (mainly me), and three of us didn’t know how to ski. A lot of times, Mark and I would take turns doing a loop or two at adult speed, while the kids hung out at the chalet. Not what you would exactly call skiing, but at least we all got outside as a family.

Warm kisses for chilly cheeks. (Photo by Felicia Schneiderhan)

And then suddenly, as if by magic, last year everybody—kids at ages eight, six, and four—suddenly knew how to ski! Our winter afternoons transformed into family outings of gleeful gliding and happy herringbones. Lucky for us, last year was a winter of snow perfection. 

Finding the right course is important. “The right kind of course includes some hills,” says Pascone, “otherwise the children will find it boring.” In his ski classes, the instructors set up cones in a weaving pattern on the downhills so kids can slalom around them. 

And in Lake Country, there are plenty of ideal places to take kids out for a fun jaunt through the snow. Northland Arboretum’s trails range from beginner to moderate, kindly winding along right in Brainerd. Almost 5 kilometers of the trail is lit—kids love the excitement and novelty of skiing at night. In Crow Wing State Park, you can ski more than 10 kilometers of trails; rated novice to intermediate through the woods along the Mississippi River. No Achen Bicentennial ski trail (also known as the Tank Trail) curves around lakes and through woods in Aitkin, ranging from novice to advanced. 

We have found it’s important to find a fun trail with not a lot of climbing and plenty of easy bail out points. We also have to be prepared to go at a slow pace, which can be a problem for adults who get cold if they’re not moving fast enough. Hand warmers, foot warmers, and insulated jackets are a must to keep everyone happy and warm when skis aren’t moving so fast.

Overall, not having too many expectations is key. Going out for ten minutes can be good enough, especially in the beginning. Which may seem like a lot of effort to get out there for only a few minutes of real gliding, but in a short time, it’s worth it.

Nothing beats coming home after a satisfying ski with a van-load of happy kids regaling tales of the hill they flew down, the deer they saw in the woods, and how they can’t wait to go again. 

Siblings learning to ski together. (Photo by Felicia Schneiderhan)

Chris Pascone taught himself to cross-country ski as a teenager and was on the Macalester College ski team. He’s now raising his three daughters to be skiers and volunteers as a KidsSki coach through DuluthXC Ski Club. His make sure points for starting kids on skis:

“Make sure other kids are involved. Most of all, the kids love playing with each other on skis. It’s clumsy, but the kids love that aspect. They like to fall!”

“The right attitude to have is simply to disguise the lesson into one big game. We play soccer on skis, we play tag on skis, we do mini races on skis. Doing drills all class will not appeal to kids.”

“Surprise them with creative games on skis. As long as they’re out there having fun, they’ll grow a love for the sport.” 

Be in the Know:
Cross-Country Ski Terms

Slalom: A downhill skiing technique in which you ski between spaced poles.

Herringbone: When making your way up a steep hill (or even a not-so-steep hill), it may be easiest to point your toes outward, in a V, and clomp your way up.

Chalet: A Swiss style house, usually made of wood with a steep roof. For cross-country skiers, a chalet can mean any kind of shelter. The best chalets have a fire or wood stove. There’s usually a bench where folks can sit to put their boots on, a table or two where they can sip coffee and soup, and an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie.

Corduroy: The pattern on a freshly-groomed cross-country ski trail, which looks—you guessed it—like corduroy.

Pizza: Not an official term, but used a lot by parents and ski instructors when describing how to stop. “Pizza!”, “Pizza!” means to point your toes inward (like a triangular slice of pizza) and push your skis down to put on the brakes.

Snowplow: Applying pressure on the skis, toes pointed inward, to come to a stop.