How Young is Too Young for Backcountry Skiing?

Taking your children out of bounds means facing a whole different class of hazards than you see at the resort.

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    Photo: Michael Lanza

Every Wednesday during the winter, a group of friends and I rise in the dark and drive the 30 minutes to our local resort. We skin up an hour to the summit, then rip our skins and bomb back down in five minutes flat. By 9 a.m., we're back in town, our faces flush from the cold wind and thrill of beating the sunrise to the summit. My daughters have gotten so used to this ritual that my four-year-old’s been begging for her own climbing skins so she can go on dawn patrol too.

I love her spirit, but, needless to say, I'm not going to take her with me just yet. She’s too young to start skinning, much less skiing the backcountry, where there are objective dangers like glades, tree wells, and avalanche-prone slopes. Before she's ready to come out of bounds, she has to master skiing inbounds under control, navigating powder and bumps, and riding the chairlift without spazzing out. We have a ways to go.

That begs the question: when is a child old enough to start skiing out of bounds? Obviously, it depends on the kid, but 12 seems to be a conservative age to start. Younger than that, and most won't have the strength or stamina to ski 1,000 feet up a hill and back down. From a safety perspective, a 12-year-old isn't realistically going to be able to save anyone who gets buried, so it goes without saying that you'll definitely want to choose low-angle, low-risk terrain and bring along some capable adult friends. Each time you go out, you can teach him more about avalanche safety, so that by the time he's 14 or 15, he'll have mastered basic snow safety skills.

My colleague Michael Lanza recently took his son, Nate, backcountry skiing for the first time on Freeman Peak in Idaho's Boise Mountains. On his website, The Big Outside, Lanza writes about Nate’s first foray into the winter backcountry, and the risks and rewards of skiing off-piste with kids. Here’s an excerpt:

The sun burns atomically from a sky polished to a flawless blue. Heat reflects up at us from the snow covering this mountainside in southwest Idaho, making March feel like June. New snow cloaks the boughs of the ponderosa pines and blankets the ground, powder light enough to scoop into your hand and blow away like feathers.

It’s a perfect day for any beginning, especially for a first time doing anything outdoors. My 12-year-old son, Nate, 85 pounds of expectation, clicks his boots into bindings and grins at me, displaying equal parts eagerness and curiosity for his first-ever day of backcountry skiing.

We shuffle up the bottom of a creek valley, following a track set down by my friends and regular backcountry-skiing partners, David Gordon and Chip Roser, who have set off ahead of us. They will dig a snow pit to assess the avalanche hazard (we’ve deliberately chosen an uphill route that will be free of any such danger) and get in one downhill run before Nate and I reach the top of this 1,100-foot climb. I’m following Nate, letting him set the pace as he figures out how someone makes any uphill progress at all with nine pounds of boot and ski anchoring each foot. 

It’s a ludicrous proposition, really, that we should climb this huge hill under our own power in order to ski back down...

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