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Backcountry Skiing with Kids: How to Get Started

Between the safety considerations, fitness requirements, and sheer scarcity of small-enough gear, backcountry skiing with kids can feel like a daunting task. But once you’ve fallen in love with the wide-open landscapes and winter solitude, it’s natural to want to share it with your child. We can say from experience that there’s nothing more rewarding.

One of the founding goals of Bluebird Backcountry was to create a ski area that was safe and accessible for new skiers and riders to learn their craft—and kiddos definitely fall into that category. After seasons of working with guides, parents, and experienced instructors, a few common themes have emerged. 

Here are some of the most important steps for staying safe, having fun, and fostering a lifelong love of backcountry skiing with kids.

Bluebird has provided a safe, beginner-friendly environment for the McLennan girls. Photo: Rob McLennan

1. Go Hiking Together 


According to dad and Bluebird regular Quentin Schappa, getting his son proficient on skis started a long time ago—and a long way from snow. 

“The first step is to get the kids interested in hiking. You can do that in the summer. My kids have been hiking since they could walk,” he says. By the time Schappa’s son Brody was seven years old, he’d summited four Fourteeners. But the climbs weren’t about building fitness, Schappa says.  

“When you go up to elevation in Colorado, every day in summer there’s a thunderstorm,” he explains. “So I had to teach them, ‘Is it safe to go up? What time is it? How high do we want to go?’ And of course when you have to turn around 200 feet from the summit, that teaches you an important lesson, too—that the victory is in the journey.” 

All those learnings became invaluable as the family ventured into snowshoeing and, later, backcountry skiing. 

Baby Rhea has become a regular at Bluebird even before her first days on skis. Photo: Molly Fales

2. Get the Kids on Skis

Little kids learn fast. Take advantage of the learning years and put them in ski school early if you can, says ski guide Kyle Judson, whose son first stood up on skis when he was two years old. (It’s OK if you don’t have that kind of access to ski resorts—even annual family ski trips can give kids a huge boost.) 

Getting a head start on ski skills will ease the transition to ungroomed snow later on. And there are other skills kids can have fun learning when they’re young, too, Judson says.

“I guess we’ve been preparing him for backcountry skiing his whole life, whether he knew it or not,” Judson says. “We would play hide-and-go-seek with beacons when he was four or five years old. He always thought that was pretty cool.” 

3. Foster the Stoke

When you introduce your kid to a new sport, it’s important to make sure the excitement is coming from the kid, not projected by the parent, says Schappa. For his family, watching Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research ski movies has been a fun source of inspiration. He says his kids love having pro athletes to look up to. Plus, ski movies provide valuable insight behind the scenes.

“At the resort, the kids are doing 18 to 25 laps a day,” says Schappa. “When you have to hike a bunch and just do one or two runs, that’s a different mindset.” For Brody, now 11, watching his heroes hike up ridge lines definitely brought that message home. Schappa says it prepared Brody for switching gears when he learned to uphill ski. 

Finding gear that fits can be one of the biggest challenges of backcountry skiing with kids. Photo: Rob McLennan

4. Get the Gear

Finding the right gear can be one of the biggest limitations to backcountry skiing with kids.

“You just can’t find touring bindings small enough for really young kids,” Schappa says. That’s one of the main reasons his children had to wait until they were 9 years old to start touring.

Brody Schappa currently uses Marker F10 touring bindings, which come at a low enough DIN setting to accommodate a kid’s light weight. He also uses Hagan Z02 skis and skimo skins (which don’t have clips in the back) that Schappa cut to size himself.     

Kyle Judson’s son, who’s now 14, has had luck fitting into women’s gear, which comes in smaller sizes. Judson adds that consignment stores, used gear shops like the Wilderness Exchange and Confluence Kayaks, and even Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist have been invaluable for tracking down small gear at an affordable price. 

Bluebird Backcountry’s mellow, accessible terrain has made an ideal early stomping ground for the Judson family. Photo: Kyle Judson

5. Pick an Easy First Objective 

When picking a first backcountry ski objective for kids, the key is to start small.

One example: Bluebird staff member Rob McLennan first took his oldest daughter backcountry skiing when she was 14. “Our first uphill outing was literally out the back door of our condo, across the golf course, and along a bike trail,” he explains. “It gave us the ability to turn around at any point and be home in minutes.” Heading out without a set objective or turnaround point helps keep things relaxed. That way, your kid can choose to tour at his or her own comfort level. 

Similarly, Judson took his son out on a groomed road pretty close to the house. It was a zone with zero avalanche danger and just enough uphill to get used to touring gear. 

After that, the next step for both McLennan and Judson was coming to Bluebird. There, patrolled boundaries, avalanche mitigation, and base-area amenities all help provide a safe learning space that puts young minds at ease, they say.  

Whenever Judson and his son ski together, safety discussions are a constant. Photo: Kyle Judson

6. Focus on Safety

In 2018, despite extensive avalanche education and years of professional ski guiding experience, Kyle Judson was caught in an avalanche. He was carried 1,000 vertical feet and sustained serious injuries. For his son, the incident brought avalanche safety very close to home.

“Education became a big thing for us. So, teaching him why avalanches happen in certain terrain versus other terrain, and teaching him what can be done to prevent it,” Judson says. “I started trying to shed light on those big unknowns.”

Having fun is important, says Judson, but for his family, safety always comes first in the backcountry. It’s a frequent point of discussion whenever he and his son ski together.

As for kids venturing out on their own? Education is the first consideration, Judson says.

“I think 16 or 17 is probably an appropriate age to take an AIARE course,” he explains. “Eearlier than that, the seriousness of it might be lost a bit. But once they’re understanding the risks and responsibilities around driving a vehicle or watching a sibling, I feel like they’re able to absorb more of that information.” 

Both Schappa and Judson say they feel 18 is an appropriate age for beginning to think about letting their kids go backcountry touring without mom or dad. That is, as long as they have a demonstrated understanding of the terrain and a solid tour plan in place. 

Giant s’mores from the Bluebird Snack Yurt make a great post-tour reward. Photo: Quentin Schappa

7. Keep it Fun 

“You want to make sure your kids understand what’s happening and that they feel like part of the team,” Judson says. “And you also want to make sure it doesn’t feel like a burden or something they don’t want to do.” 

Judson tries to balance educational moments on the mountain with plenty of breaks, goofing off, and check-ins to make sure everyone is comfortable.

For McLennan, snacks are another key ingredient to keeping the stoke high. Gummies like watermelon Clif Bloks, gummy bears, sour gummy worms, and Swedish fish are among his daughters’ favorites. Whenever they stop to discuss snowpack, everyone gets a treat.

“The key is to focus on safety, fun, and learning—in that order,” McLennan says. 

Bluebird Opening Day Crowns Nerf Biathlon Champion

After months of clearing deadfall, grading roads, building yurts, and mapping 4,200 acres of uncharted terrain, Bluebird Backcountry opened the gates at Bear Mountain to skiers and riders for the first time. To celebrate the inaugural tours—and to ring in the New Year—the Bluebird team threw a serious party. 

Searching for Champagne

One of Opening Day’s marquee events: a beacon search contest with a fizzy twist

Round after round of heated competition ensued. Couples faced off. Family members competed against one another. By the final round a clear victor emerged: One of our youngest competitors located the buried champagne a full seven seconds faster than anyone else despite a (socially distanced) crowd of determined hecklers. (He was under 21, but his dad was pretty stoked.)

 

The beacon search contest had some New Year-themed surprises.  Photo: Justin Wilhelm 

Introducing Your Nerf-Gun Biathlon Champion

Next up: Friday afternoon saw Bluebird’s first-ever nerf-gun biathlon. This one was just as tight a contest. Competitors showed off their gun-slinging flourishes, traded some serious trash talk, and, eventually, Steve Goodman pulled ahead, his lighting-fast touring skills making up for his under-polished marksmanship.

After three laps and three rounds of shooting, he reached the final challenge: Spinning around in a leather office chair and hitting a cowbell. He executed this task flawlessly and was crowned champion. 

 

It’s all in the breathing. Contestants let fly in our first annual Nerf Gun Biathlon. Photo: Kathryn Ciamaichelo 

Music and Voodoo 

Meanwhile, instructors taught $5 clinics on everything from gear repair to winter navigation, and founders Erik and Jeff led tours around the mountain. And, at the end of the day, guests enjoyed a rousing game of Kick the Grump, which involved a sturdy kickball and a snowman with “2020” painted on its side.  

On Saturday, Steamboat Springs’ Morningside String Band came to play. While cold temperatures and high winds forced them to play in the lodge for the first part of the afternoon, the weather eventually broke. The set moved outside, and dozens of skiers and riders gathered to listen.

For many of those present, it was the first time they’d heard live music since March. 

“It was a really special moment,” says Kat Chiamaichelo, a Steamboat local who was present throughout the weekend.  

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry 

And what’s a party without refreshments? Guests chowed down on giant s’mores, locally made breakfast burritos from Moose Cafe, free BBQ, and, of course, a champagne toast by the fire pit. (Got FOMO? No fear—s’mores and Sunday BBQs will be available on the mountain all season long.)

 

Dark chocolate salted pretzel s’mores? Dreamy. Photo: Kathryn Ciamaichelo.

And, of course, there was plenty of skiing and riding. To make sure everyone had the right equipment, the team cut the ribbon on our brand-new fleet of Weston Backcountry and Black Diamond rentals. 

Six inches of powder left left skiers and riders plenty to work with. There were buttery turns, playful tree-skiing, and miles of touring to be had. 

It’s been a long year of preparation, but this weekend, Bear Mountain delivered. We can’t wait to see what the rest of the season has in store, and we’re looking forward to hitting the slopes with all of you in the coming weeks! 

 

The first turns of the season did not disappoint. Photo: Justin Wilhelm.

7 Snow-Day Rituals to Pray for Powder

Whether it’s wearing your pajamas inside out or tucking a spoon under your pillow, there are dozens of snow day rituals out there. While the scientific community hasn’t weighed in on exactly how effective these methods are, one thing is certain: You’re never too old to pray for snow.

 

Putting a spoon under your pillow is an old tradition to get a snow day.

The spoon-under-the-pillow trick is a classic snow day ritual. Photo: Dstudio BCN via Unsplash

1. Put a spoon under your pillow.

This is one of the older snow day rituals in the US, and it’s a common one throughout the East Coast. You can use a teaspoon or soup spoon—it doesn’t matter too much (Bluebird Backcountry Storytelling Lead Corey Buhay says she sometimes made do with a wooden spoon growing up in Georgia.) But why not throw in the whole cutlery drawer just to play it safe?

2. Wear your pajamas inside out.

This is another common East Coast tradition (some suspect it originated in New Jersey) and a tried-and-true method for coaxing enough snowfall to cancel school. Want to go the extra mile? Some recommend wearing your PJs both inside out and backwards.

 

Throwing ice cubes in the toilet is one folk method for ensuring a snow day.

Eh, just throw in a whole pitcher. Better safe than sorry. Photo: Tomas Listiak via Unsplash

3. Flush ice cubes down the toilet

This snow day ritual is a Midwestern classic. “Growing up in Ohio, our tried and true method was flushing ice cubes down the toilet and then doing a snow dance,” says Bluebird Ad Wrangler Erin Moeller. Some recommend flushing a cube for every inch you want. Some say a cube for every snow day. (Maybe flush 18 or so just to be sure?)   

4. Do a Snow Dance

People have been dancing to manifest weather since time immemorial, but the American version of the snow dance may have its roots in Native American tradition. In fact, traditional dances have been followed by significant snowfall both in the Lake Tahoe region and in Vail, Colorado.

 

Putting a white crayon on a window sill is a classic snow day ritual.

When was the last time Junior actually used that white crayon, anyway? Photo: Kristin Brown via Unsplash


5. Put a white crayon in the freezer.

The crayon trick has some interesting regional variations. Some recommend leaving it in the freezer overnight, while others swear by tucking the crayon under your pillow just before bed. Others say you’ve got to put it on a windowsill. Regardless, we recommend waiting for the kids to fall asleep before pillaging their school supplies.

6. Stack coins on the windowsill.

Some folks swear by taping a quarter to the window or stacking pennies on your windowsill. We’re not sure where this one originated, but we like the quantitative component: Legend has it that you’ll get an inch of snow for every penny you stack.

 

Some say eating ice cream the night before will guarantee a snow day.

Ice cream is never a bad idea. Photo: American Heritage Chocolate via Unsplash

7. Eat ice cream the night before.

We had a hard time confirming the regional origin or the success rate for this snow day ritual. But what does it matter? We’ll always take another excuse to eat ice cream.