The skiing experience involves much more than simply carving turns on steep grades. A ski holiday means snowy peaks and spirit-expanding vistas, lunching on rib-sticking fare in panoramic mountain huts, hiking or sledding through silent winter forests, drying wet hats and mittens on a warm tile stove, hot chocolate and wood fires and bundled coziness and all things winter wonderlandy. It means improving your balance and coordination, facing fear and physical limitations and overcoming them, feeling the the burn of tired muscles but wanting to get out and do it all over again. Skiing is an all-encompassing experience, a rich sensory adventure that many of us want to share with our kids. And there’s the rub.
We’re in the perfect position to offer advice on skiing with kids, because we just returned from a family ski holiday in Slovakia. All I need to do is take everything that we did, and advise the precise opposite. Our boys are two and six, first-time skiers both, and we made mistakes. We screwed up. Mitigated, this disaster was in any way not. It was a really bad wipe-out from start to finish, and here’s what we learned.
- Go someplace you either know well from personal experience or you’ve been able to get very, very detailed information about. Ours was a last-minute decision to take a holiday, and because we chose Slovakia as our destination, we weren’t able to get a ton of info about it. With young children in tow, intimate knowledge and detailed planning are key.
- Look into smaller, less expensive ski areas for your holiday. Even if the kids are in ski school for part of the day, you’re simply not going to have time to explore those 140 km of pistes, so don’t waste your money on a massive mountain. As long as they have good infrastructure and kid-friendly facilities, smaller places are fine and often have shorter lift lines, easier access, and less-crowded slopes.
- Stay either on the mountain or very close to it. You get the kids all bundled up and ready to go, load the skis, boots, poles, snacks, cameras, this, that, and the other, and then have to drive 30-40 minutes to the slopes. Chances are, by the time you get there the kids are going to be sleepy, hungry, and the initial excitement will have all but dissipated. You want to spend as little time in the car as possible. Ski in/ski out places are great, and with children I’m sure they’re worth the extra expense, but think about things like how you’re going to get the kids from your accommodation to their ski school. If they can’t ski there themselves, it’s a bad idea.
- Make sure there is short, easy access from parking areas to lifts. At the ski area we chose, we discovered that available parking was several kilometers from our destination, necessitating a wait for a shuttle bus. Now, ski boots – even good ones – are heavy, awkward, and uncomfortable for walking. If your kids have to wait 20 minutes for the ski bus, they’re going to be whiny and grumpy before they even get into the damn thing, and the ride in a crowded bus in full ski gear will not improve their mood.
- Get the kids in lessons from the get-go. You don’t want to try to teach your kids to ski. You want trained professionals to do that, for a number of reasons. One, they’re trained professionals. Two, your kids will probably be in an area reserved exclusively for lessons, so there won’t be other skiers and they’ll be able to use those easy conveyor belt-type surface lifts rather than chair lifts, which are a bit frightening and tricky to master when you’re just starting out. Three, the kids are far less likely to whine, moan, or completely melt down when they’re with an instructor and a bunch of other children than they are with you. Which brings us to four – you simply don’t want the pain and aggravation. Trust me on this. (I watched a father literally growling at his son, “Yes, you CAN snowplow, everybody can snowplow, it’s EASY dammit!” I watched him from a very short distance, because he was me.)
- Reserve a space in ski school before you get to the mountain, either by phone or online. You don’t want to get there and discover, as we did, that the classes are full. An added bonus is that there are often discounts on instruction when you book it online.
- Go someplace that has a children’s fun park with sledding, tubing, and the like. Young kids simply can’t handle the physical demands of being on skis for a long period – I’d say two hours is about the max for the very youngest, but that’s two hours you and your spouse can get away and enjoy the mountain. After that, you want some place to be together and have fun without the ski boots and the frustrations of learning something new, so a fun park is just the ticket.
- Check beforehand if you can either get a half-day pass or a partial refund on lift tickets if you leave early. If things go pear-shaped and you decide you need to leave, you don’t want to be out a big chunk of cash. We spent 70 Euro on two lift tickets for myself and my wife, then took one run – one exasperating, teary, hair-tearing run – before packing it in for the day. We had read that you could get a partial refund if you left after only a few hours, but hadn’t read that you needed to purchase a special ticket to enjoy that option. Know before you go.
- Don’t try to overdo it. Until your children are older and reasonably good at skiing, you’re not going to be having the same skiing experience that you enjoyed before kids. If you get a couple of hours in while your little ones are in lessons consider it a blessing. If they’re older and you’re skiing together, go slowly, take frequent breaks, and never push them to take trails that are too difficult or make them in any way uncomfortable. You want them to love skiing, after all, and taking it at a relaxed pace will avoid frustration, fear, and resistance.
- Relax. Tension and irritation should have no place in a ski holiday, so avoid situations that lead to them. On our last holiday I was not relaxed. In my defense, the circumstances didn’t really allow for it, but I could have, should have, done better in terms of maintaining a positive attitude. If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it.
Taking the kids skiing is a great idea. Skiing is a sport that everyone can do together pretty much regardless of age, and it interweaves so many wonderful threads of shared experience, from the appreciation of the natural world to the appreciation of mulled wine. But it’s also a demanding sport, and with kids, especially with young kids, it’s absolutely imperative to be well-prepared. On this last holiday we were not. And we paid the price. Will we do better next time? For the sake of our sanity and the very survival of ourselves and our children, we’d better.