How to get kids interested in cross-country skiing

Winds whipped the frigid peaks above Woodstock, Vermont, and I braced myself for potentially ruining my young daughter’s day. Although she loves downhill skiing, that just wasn’t going to happen – hitting the slopes felt like risking frostbite to most of our toes. Closer to sea level, the conditions were calmer and warmer, but I doubted she would appreciate the slower speed and greater effort of cross-country skiing.

Still, she and I went to the Woodstock Nordic Center. A golf course outside winter, the snow chases golfers away and the links lend themselves, with the surrounding woods, to nordic skiers. Despite his initial surprise at heelless bindingsshe was thrilled to stab the snow with her poles – tools most young skiers forego in downhill skiing.

Our goal was to complete an easy, mostly flat 1 mile long trail that looped around the golf course. The path started on a hill which meant it would have little control at the start of our journey. I was worried that my daughter would hate the fact that she couldn’t stop pizza so easily and dread using her strength to cross flat ground. Much to my delight, however, she loved it, enjoying the sport both for the quality of the exercise and for the fun. Even the pleasure of falling.

“I could have done this for an entire year without stopping,” she said after we returned to the Woodstock Inn, where a few artifacts from the sport hung on the wall. She studied the old skis, as a young puncher might marvel at a Babe Ruth bat in Cooperstown.

In the end, my change of plan paid off, but if you’d rather introduce a child to cross-country skiing, there are a number of ways to inspire them to try this invigorating sport.

When kids should start cross-country skiing

I decided to introduce my eldest daughter to cross-country skiing at age eight, but refused to take my five-year-old daughter. Reese Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, recommends the sport for children as soon as they can walk. A few years ago, I had a philosophy similar to Brown’s, but for downhill skiing. When my youngest was two years old, I put her on alpine skis and it took five instructors equipped with pool noodles to bring my crying toddler down. She shunned winter activities — from sledding to making snow angels — for the next three years.

But cross-country skiing is very different from alpine skiing: “The barriers to entry for cross-country skiing are very low and the experience is much more user-friendly,” says Brown.

Ski right outside the door

On a snowy day in my neighborhood, I often choose to ski out the front door instead of loading my skis into the car to find better terrain in the woods and on the nearby golf course. There is a small window between when the snow is packed into the streets and when the plow passes to reveal the asphalt. But I try to venture into the neighborhood on skis so my kids can see how accessible and new this sport can be. Now that my daughter is a fan of the sport, she can’t wait to join me for a ride around the neighborhood once I buy her a pair of skis.

Use alpine skis more

Last winter, when lift tickets sold out due to COVID restrictions in most mountains, I realized I wasn’t going to get my money’s worth for my daughter’s downhill ski rentals. To avoid feeling like I wasted the rental fee, I took her downhill skis to our local golf course, tied a long rope through the belt loops of my ski and towed it, venturing deep into the park. Together we raced down hills and through untouched powder – his first experience on fresh snow.

If you’re towing a child behind you, make sure the rope is twice the length of your poles, as you don’t want to spear your offspring. For better protection, children should wear their ski goggles and parents should never back up their poles, which for the most part stay low and pose no real danger.

Get a pulka

If you’ve ever seen a parent jogging with their baby in a runner stroller, a pulka is the equivalent of cross-country skiing. This carrier attaches to the skier, usually their hips, and is pulled like a horse-drawn carriage. It’s a good way to instill in toddlers the joys of sport.

Buy appropriate gloves

While most gear that works well for downhill is suitable for cross-country skiing, things get a little trickier with gloves. A bulky mitt can prevent children from gripping the poles properly, so it’s best to use gloves that are comfortable, warm, weather resistant and allow for good dexterity. If you’re not ready to splurge on quality gloves that are suitable for cross-country skiing, stuff extra pairs of inferior gloves in your pockets for when your child’s hands get soaked.

Choose interesting terrain

Golf courses offer both flat stretches and the option of a course that rolls and dips straight into snow-covered bunkers. Crossing wooden bridges without railings over a partially frozen river can make the sport an epic adventure. Venturing into the serene and scenic woods can transform the experience exponentially.

Create a treasure hunt

In Stowe, Vermont, the Spruce Peak Outfitters are hosting a winter forest scavenger hunt for kids, asking them to search for gnomes and other unnaturally placed objects. While you don’t have to scour the forest to set up winter gnomes and snowballs before a cross-country ski outing, you can create a nature-based scavenger hunt map and have kids tick off interesting finds, like red cardinals on a snowy branch, evergreen or that elusive mitten.

Be inspired by a quest

The day before a cross-country excursion, sit down with a Tolkien tale or stand in line for an exciting film. The Empire Strikes Back, for example, features Luke Skywalker riding a woolly tauntaun on the ice planet of Hoth. A few minutes of this film before a ski outing can turn any snowy, arid landscape into a search for the Rebel Alliance’s Echo Base.