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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.