There’s still time to sneak in another winter adventure with the kids before spring hits: Nordic skiing. Parents often hesitate to take kids out on the track too early, but as soon as kids can fit into the skis and boots (definitely by age 5 or 6, and younger if you use starter skis), it’s time to get them out there: “Kids are simple,” says Midnite Scholtes, director of the Telluride Nordic Center. “You get them in the gear and you let them go.”
Typically, Scholtes starts kids with a classic set-up just to get them used to the feel of skinny skis. Often, though, by the second or third time cross-country skiing, kids are anxious to try skate skis. “They see adults racing around the track, and they want that speed,” says Scholtes. Unlike adults, most kids aren’t afraid to fall, and when they do, they’re so low to the ground that the consequences of a tumble are usually pretty minor.
Scholtes recommends not trying to give kids formal instruction like you would with adults. “You’re not teaching these kids anything; they just want to go,” he says. They don’t need to know about ankle flex, stance, weighting, or various poling techniques. Instead, he suggests playing games with children and letting them learn by doing.
In his spare time, Scholtes helps coach the Snow Leopards, a local Nordic ski group for school-age kids. The only drill he’ll sometimes run is one in which kids remove one ski. This helps them to build balance and to learn how much power they should get out of each glide. Otherwise, during practice, they usually just organize avalanche beacon searches, play hockey games with a stick and a soccer ball, and play games of tag, all on Nordic skis. One time, they even did a mini-biathlon with Nerf guns.
Ashley Boling, assistant director of the Center, says that when you make it fun, kids don’t know that they’re learning how to Nordic ski. “They’re outside, they’re skiing, they’re wearing a mask and shooting a Nerf gun—that’s what they remember.” Says Scholtes, “The hardest part is getting kids into their bindings.” Once they’re in, they’re off and running.
And the benefits of introducing kids to cross-country skiing early are clear. They learn balance and coordination, and they gain strength and endurance for other activities such as alpine skiing, hockey, ice-skating, and running. Plus, they learn a whole new way to experience nature. My husband, Andy, and I are looking forward to the day when we can tour into a backcountry ski hut with our kids.
And cross-country skiing can be a great alternative to downhill skiing, whether you're on the annual family ski trip and little legs need a break from the bumps or you live in a mountain town like Telluride, where, says Schultes, "alpine skiing is king." Lance Waring, a Nordic ski coach who works with Telluride High kids, recalls the story of Cory Page a track runner who moved from Atlanta to Telluride last fall. “In November, Cory was like a newborn colt,” says Waring. “He could barely stand.” By February, he was competing in the Butch Cassidy 15K Ski Chase, a local freestyle race. “The smile on his face as he crossed the finish line said everything.”
Practical tips for cross-country skiing with kids:
- Call around to find a shop that rents gear for little ones; there are skate skis and boots for kids as young as 5. And for younger ones, simple plastic binding, edgeless Lucky Bums skis work well, paired with a set of winter boots.
- Start on groomed trails. Even if kids aren’t skate skiing, the smooth, even track is a great place to learn.
- For the first few sessions, ditch the poles; bring a hockey stick and a soccer ball instead.
- Keep it short; keep it fun. As Waring says, “Nordic skiing, at this age, should be about joy, not competition.”