Cross-country skiing is a lot of fun, but it sometimes takes a little while for kids to get into it.
Our first couple of years as a ski family were a bit shaky. After one bad outing several years ago, I even threatened to give my son’s skis away—I lost all bargaining power when he asked, “Is that a promise?”
Somehow, we persevered. By the end of that season, my preschooler had skied a three-kilometre loop all by himself (which even had a fair number of hills on it, as I recall). Today, my son—now 11 years old—actually likes cross-country skiing. He even reads trail maps with his breakfast, and plots out future routes he wants to ski.
After eight years of skiing as a family, we have learned a lot of tips and tricks to lower the frustration factor while kids learn to ski. Here are five ways you can make cross-country skiing more fun for kids.
1. Games, games, and more games
Everything is more fun when playing games. These some of our favourite ski games:
- Ski golf: Put a brightly colored golf ball in the ski tracks, one per track, and have your child kick the golf ball as they ski, shuffling as fast as they can to the next ball. My son’s technique really improved with this game (along with his speed). Note that you’ll need firm ski tracks for this one, so that the balls don’t jump out and roll away.
- Fun races: If you have a set of parallel tracks, two kids can race each other (or Mom or Dad). Just make sure nobody is coming from the other direction so you aren’t stealing their tracks.
- Tag: This one is always fun. It’s best played in a big snowy field.
- Red Light, Green Light: This is played the same way as the field game. The leader calls out, “Green light!” and the kids ski. When they hear, “Red light!” they stop. The goal is to make it to the finish line where the leader is. This game is best played in a big open area outside the tracks.
- Football: Throw a football (or any ball) and have your child ski to retrieve it. Keep throwing the ball in the direction you want your child to ski. You’ll want to choose a quiet trail for this so that you aren’t throwing a ball towards oncoming skiers. This game could be played in a big field as well.
- Alphabet games: You can also play word games while you ski together, or during breaks. We’ve come up with a few fun ones over the years but a new favourite is this: One person says, “I forgot to bring…” and each person continues with items you “forgot” to bring with you on today’s ski trip (in alphabetical order). You get bonus points if you can string several words together all starting with the same letter. For example, “I forgot to bring my amazing, awesome, apple cider.”
Related read: Cross-country ski tips for newbies
2. Creative motivation
Motivation is an individual thing and what works for one child, might not work for the next. Below are some of the ideas I’ve used to keep children happy while skiing:
- Candy junctions: This one is pretty simple. The children get a small piece of candy at every trail junction. I like skiing at Nordic centres, where you’ll never ski more than a few hundred metres before arriving at another junction. (It’s helpful to carry a small bag of candy in your coat pocket for ease of access.)
- Build a snowman, do some sledding: In other words, take a break! We like to bring a sled with us and find some fun little hills to play on after skiing. Other times, we take off our skis and build a snowman or have a snowball fight away from the trail. (Yes, we have pulled a sled behind us while skiing so we can stop and toboggan when we see a promising hill!)
- Pack good lunches and snacks: My son loves hot lunches, so I’ve started packing a Thermos of pasta with us when we go skiing. We find a picnic table for lunch and he’s blissfully happy. I also pull out all the special treats (sugary fruit roll-ups, Goldfish crackers, Halloween candy, etc.) I’d also suggest a Thermos of hot chocolate or apple cider. For long trips, I sometimes package up individual fun snacks for each kilometre on the trail. (This works well for overnight trips, such as when skiing into a cabin.)
- Ski for screen time: My son once skied to earn weekly tablet time, and it was amazing how many kilometres he could ski when motivated! We told our son that he would earn 20 minutes of tablet time for the week per kilometre skied. He skied 10km and so earned 200 minutes to play Minecraft for the week (which isn’t a lot when you spread it out over the entire week).
- Plan a special outing to look forward to afterward: We wanted to tackle a 10-kilometre loop with our son. To give him something to look forward to after accomplishing this feat, we promised we’d take him out for dinner when we finished the loop. He crushed that goal! It was a fun treat for us parents too. We also love ending our ski days at a local coffee shop for cookies and hot drinks.
- Tell stories on the trail: My friend memorizes legends and stories to tell on the trail. She tells her kids, “If you keep skiing, I’ll keep talking.” My son likes to make up his own stories and will tell them to us as we ski. When storytelling, you’ll usually have to ski side-by-side, so when we do this I often end up skiing outside the tracks.
3. Think about where you ski
Would you enjoy skiing on old ice-crusted snow across a playground? I know I wouldn’t. Yet somehow, we think kids should be able to ski anywhere. I like tracks and nicely groomed trails. Children are no different. Here are some tips for choosing a beginner-friendly spot to ski:
- Avoid hills when you’re starting out with beginner skiers.
- Look for a trail with interesting features. We have a golf course here with little bridges and a good sledding hill. It’s our favourite place to ski during the week. It also gets tracks set during the winter, and often has plenty of golf balls to dig up and kick around.
- Choose a quiet place to start out. A popular trail on a Saturday afternoon can get frustrating when faster skiers come up behind you, as they expect you’ll step off to the side to let them pass.
- Choose your trail wisely, with your child’s preferences in mind. Most children will dislike gradually climbing for endless kilometres. Choose rolling trails with short climbs, alternating with downhill sections.
4. Bring a friend
This one often works for us, depending on the dynamics of the kids involved. When you get the right match in terms of speed and ability, it’s perfection. Kids can happily chat as they ski along the trail together!
Give your child a friend on the trail, and you’re giving him or her a superhero cape at the same time. Kids will generally ski faster, longer, and more joyously if they have friends along.
Related read: How to cross-country ski without a track
5. Set realistic expectations
This one is all about you, the parent. What are your expectations? I know I’ve set myself up for disaster at times when I pushed my son too hard or chose a loop that was too long. It’s always best to start easy, go slow, and manage your expectations. When your child says they’re done, it means they are done. Don’t push it. Call it a day and move on to something else for a change of pace.
Finally, I recommend having different options in mind for your ski day. Choose a network of trails with a variety of short and long trail options so you can adjust to your child’s mood or energy level. You’ll usually know what kind of ski day it’s going to be in the first ten minutes on the track.
Photos courtesy of Tanya Koob.