by Amy Whitley – Downhill (Alpine) skiing together has always been one of those core fibers of my family, an activity we all do together that is woven into the fabric of our shared history. I grew up skiing with my parents and sister high in the Eastern Sierra Nevada in Northern California, back in the days of long, skinny sticks strapped to your feet and fashionable neon headbands. You know the days, when we had already learned how to ski and were as free as birds.
When my own boys were small, my husband and I taught them how to ski, too. Now, my teenaged sons out-ski and out-snowboard us, but we still look forward to logging as many family ski days per year as possible together.
If teaching kids to ski seems intimidating to you, or if you’re not sure where to start in terms of how to layer for skiing, which are the best family ski resorts, and how to manage the expense, the gear, and technical knowledge needed for teaching kids to ski, I’m going to break it down for you. There are many ways to learn how to ski and there’s no wrong way to ‘do’ a ski day. Every family can find the way that’s right for them.
1. The Right Age to Learn How To Ski
We started teaching our kids how to ski at about age three. I won’t lead you astray: hauling a three-year-old around on the snow in full ski gear with (adorable) but heavy skis on his or her feet is no picnic. At first, you’ll feel more like a human pack animal or like you’re wrestling a limp noodle on the snow. But, then the magic happens: after collapsing like a rag doll on the bunny slope most of the morning, your child suddenly ‘gets’ it, planting his skis into a ‘pizza’ wedge and actually skiing down the hill, a huge smile on his wind-chapped face. Just like that, he’s hooked.
If you know how to ski yourself, and feel comfortable supporting your child on skis, age 3-4 is the perfect time to begin teaching kids to ski. Simply let your child experience the sensation of skiing and get used to the gear and conditions. Personally, I think it’s just fine for mom and dad to teach kids this age the foundational aspects of the sport. If you don’t know how to ski, this is a good age to get out together and enjoy the snow: go sledding for an afternoon, build snow forts and maybe pull your child in a pulk sled while you snowshoe.
| Related: Family Snowshoeing 101 |
Around age five is a great time to put your child into ski lessons. Yes, even the best family ski resorts will allow you to sign them up earlier, but trust me, these programs will mostly consist of babysitting your kid in the snow (nothing wrong with that, but the serious ski instruction starts later).
What to look for in ski school instruction:
Your child’s ski school experience will vary, depending on whether you’re lucky enough to live near enough to a ski resort that your kid can sign up for a weekly program, or if you plan to take one or two main ski vacations per year.
2. How To Ski Local
- junior race programs (many are not ‘race-centric’ meaning that ski instruction is valued over entering competitions)
- weekly ‘progression’ lessons (in which your child has the same instructor every week)
- women-only ski clinics for mom (they are almost always staggered after kids’ lessons start, so you will have time to drop off the kids first)
Pro Tip: Look for the option to take a family ski lesson at major resorts. Listed under ‘private lessons’, many parents assume these lessons are costly, but when broken down, a family lesson (usually with up to six people allowed to join) can be less than signing up all the kids for group lessons, and the whole crew can stay together and learn together.
3. Choosing The Best Family Ski Resorts
There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy a family ski day. If you live within easy driving distance of a ski resort, the answer of where to go might be obvious. If you’re looking to enjoy a family ski vacation of four-seven days, the type of resort you choose will set the tone of your vacation. For instance, you could opt for a smaller, ‘hometown’ resort where you’ll be rubbing elbows mostly with locals.
At these resorts, families often rent a ski vacation cabin or condo, cook many meals for themselves, and can save money on lift ticket prices. But in exchange for this cozy local feel, you’ll probably be driving yourself to and from the ski resort parking lot each day (carrying skis and dealing with gear) and may have limited options for lessons. If you opt for a large destination ski resort, you’ll pay more, but will enjoy the convenience of multiple lodging and dining options, more ski instruction variety and more terrain to explore.
Pro Tip: Book your family travel through Booking.com. They guarantee the best prices for any type of property and no booking fees!
For your first family ski trip, especially with young kids, I highly recommend opting for a major resort known for family-friendliness, with a pedestrian-friendly ski village, ski-in, ski-out lodging (in which you can put your skis on right outside your door…no carrying, shuttling or driving needed), spacious village condos with kitchens and laundry facilities, extras like tubing hills and ice skating rinks for family fun off the slopes and first-rate instruction. My top recommendations based on our own firsthand experiences:
The Top 6 Best Family Ski Resorts
1. Northstar California Resort
Name by Travel + Leisure as the premier family destination, boasting an elite ski school experience, an array of family-friendly activities and events, diverse shopping, and an extensive selection of fine dining options. Book this resort now!
2. Solitude Mountain Resort, Utah
Resort managed Solitude Resort Lodging offers the largest selection of accommodations in the village base area. Their professionally-trained instructors provide personalized attention and have the skills, knowledge and passion to kick your skiing and riding up a notch. Book this resort now!
3. Big White, BC
At Big White, “It’s the Snow” is our motto, with over 750 cm of light, dry, fluffy powder falling annually and is Canada’s largest ski in ski out village. They offer a wide range of programs designed to give first time skiers and riders of all ages a fun, safe, and encouraging learning experience and an introduction to the sport. Book this resort now!
4. Big Sky Resort, Montana
Located in the Northern Rockies of southwest Montana between Bozeman, Montana and Yellowstone National Park, Big Sky Resort is the Biggest Skiing in America with 5,800+ acres. Big Sky has created one of the finest Snowsports Schools in America with a diverse staff of instructors, all certified by Professional Ski Instructors of America. Book this resort now!
5. Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Vermont
What makes Smugglers’ Notch a unique resort is their complete commitment to making your stay the family vacation of a lifetime. They are the only resort with specially designed kid-friendly programs that divide age groups by small increments, based on the learning capacity and developmental stages of children — with fun at the heart of every program. Book this resort now!
6. Keystone Mountain, Colorado
Keystone Resort offers a huge variety of fun outdoor activities and adventures, comfortable lodging accommodations and award-winning dining, all nestled in the breathtaking Rocky Mountains. From their one-of-a-kind Camp Keystone and Family Private Lesson options, to traditional group lessons; full-day, half-day, Ultimate 4 small group, or women only, they have a lesson to meet your unique needs. Book this resort now!
Pro Lux Tip: If your budget allows, a luxury ski hotel does more than pamper with spa treatments and fine dining. Many elevate your ski day with ski concierge services (let the hotel staff whisk your skis away when you check in and store them for you, then keep your boots and gear in a dedicated ski locker room with quick access to the slopes), or look for hotels like Vail’s Sonnenalp, which offers a childcare service which will drop your kids off at their morning lessons) or Northstar’s Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe, which has a ski school drop-off location at their front door.
If you’re going to sign up for lessons on a ski vacation, look for:
- Age level distinctions as well as ability level distinctions
- Options for half-day programs for young kids
- Fun elements like snow castles to play in or snow slides to ski to (Whistler-Blackcomb has a great snow fort to explore, and Keystone Mountain’s snow castle is epic!)
- Start times that work for parents (early drop-off options or staggered start times work well if Mom and Dad also plan to take a lesson or join a clinic).
4. Why Planned Down Time Is Important
If you’ll be visiting a major ski resort for an extended time, you probably already have a ‘down day’ built in. A day off the slopes doesn’t have to mean staying indoors, however. Look for outdoor activities and adventures at resort ‘adventure zones’ such as dog sledding at Squaw Valley in California or snow tubing at resorts across North America.
You can even seek out a local-centric destination off resort property, such as an ice skating rink (there’s an incredible indoor rink in the heart of Vail Village in Colorado) or a sledding hill in a neighboring town (check out Granlibakken in North Tahoe). You’ll still be on the snow and out in nature, but everyone will get a break from ski lessons.
5. How To Ski Safely
When your kids are very young and still learning how to ski, the main safety lessons to instill in them revolve around making sure they stick near you on the slopes. Teach them early and often that speeding straight down the hill (with skis pointed downhill without turning) is reckless and could cost them their lift ticket safety (and could cause you to lose sight of them). They should know to stop (to the side of the ski run) to wait for adults at every juncture, and you should consider setting a meeting place should you get separated (the bottom of the lift the child rode most recently is a good choice).
When kids get older, however, and more competent skiers, more safety factors come into play. If you have ‘big mountain’ kids who love to explore every side-country (technically in-bounds) gate, every tree glade and every jump, it may be time to sign them up for a class specifically dedicated to teaching them how to perform aerial moves safely, how to navigate terrain parks and powder, and how to stay safe in the backcountry.
Sign teens who are very adventurous up for avalanche safety courses at home. These courses are usually only a few hours to get the basics, and will teach kids what to look for in unstable snow conditions. Teens who are actively skiing backcountry terrain (not monitored by ski patrol or in-bounds) definitely need to know how to use a beacon and probe, and carry avalanche safety gear in a dedicated ski backpack.
6. Tips For How To Ski With Teens
Look for half-day or day-long ‘hidden tracks’ clinics at ski resorts and sign up your adventurous teens! Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah has a lot of gated, side-country terrain, so they offer this class for families who want to learn where all the good powder stashes can be found. The side benefit: you get a guide to the mountain, so you can know before you slip through that gate what may be in store (think cliffs, boot-packing, and possible need of avi gear).
A second side benefit: older kids get a bit of instruction without feeling like they’re in a lesson!
Once you know how to ski and you’re ready to elevate your ski experience to include more backcountry (typically out of ski resort boundaries and not patrolled) or side country skiing (typically gated areas still maintained by the ski patrol), go with a guide first. The aforementioned hidden tracks offerings can get your feet wet, and programs such as Ski Utah’s Interconnect, which connects up to six ski resorts in one day by skiing back and side country) can give you a guided experience that teaches you the basics of feeling comfortable off-piste.
Family Ski Day Clothing & Gear Packing List
Everyone in the family will need the following for any ski trip or ski day:
- Base layers (tights and long-sleeved shirt, preferably wool): this is the layer that goes against your skin, so you want it to wick away sweat (no cotton!). Merino wool is a great bet that can be found at ski shops and outdoor stores for all members of the family.
- Wool ski socks: Yes, again with the wool! We love Darn Tough Vermont and SmartWool brands, but any wool sock that comes over the calf will work nicely.
- Ski or snow pants or bibs: Waterproofing is a must, but if the snow pants you already own aren’t fully waterproof, you can add waterproofing spray or wash-ins. Make sure ski pants flare at the base to allow for bulky ski or snowboard boots.
- Mid-layer (a down puffer jacket or a fleece half-zip are good choices): Your mid-layer is the piece of clothing that’s easiest to peel off or on as weather dictates. We like puffer jackets because they’re light (we always look for sustainable down).
- Ski jacket: As with the pants, make sure your ski jacket is waterproof. You can opt for a lightweight shell (usually made of Gortex) and add another mid-layer as needed, or opt for a 2-in-1 thicker jacket with build-in mid-layer (Columbia makes affordable ski jackets for kids).
- Ski goggles: Goggles are crucial, and while you don’t need to break the bank buying the top-of-the-line version, you need it to be anti-fog and UV-protectant. Goggles should fit snuggly with use of a helmet. Check out our guide for the 10 best ski googles under $50.
- Ski helmet: Get yourself and your children sized for a properly-fitting helmet. Kids not involved in ski racing do fine with helmets featuring soft ear coverings (these tend to be more comfortable than the hard-shell ear coverings used in racing).
- Waterproof gloves or mittens: If you find a deal, consider picking up a few extra pairs to stash in your backpack…your kids will lose one eventually.
- Ski mask, bandana or balaclava: You have many choices here, based on personal preference. Two of my kids prefer lighter bandanas they can adjust in many different ways to cover their faces, while our youngest likes a fleece hood with face mask attached (balaclava).
- Ski boots (or snowboarding boots): It’s important to get properly fitted for boots at a ski shop with professional boot fitters. Ski boots are notoriously uncomfortable but should never hurt.
- Skis or snowboard: Again, definitely shop in person in a reputable ski shop. Generally speaking, you’ll want the ski or snowboard to come to your chin when standing it next to you.
7. How To Layer For Skiing
When getting dressed for your ski day, start with socks. I know this sounds silly, but layering socks under your base layer tights reduces that bulky crease that might annoy you once you’re in your ski boots. After your base layer comes your midlayers, then your outerwear (ski pants and jacket). Grab a beanie hat or knit hat to keep your head warm before donning your helmet and goggles.
So, you want to learn how to ski, but you don’t know how go about collecting this long list of stuff, right? The clothing can usually be procured at second-hand clothing stores (or Goodwill has an abundance of abandoned ski wear), or you can join a local ski club or attend a ski swap. Look for a ski exchange program at your local ski shop: these programs allow you to buy into a 3-5-year program in which you buy your kids’ skis once, then can exchange them for bigger sizes for the subsequent years. If and when you do buy ski wear brand new, go for quality brands like the ones linked above, as they’ll last for years and allow you to pass them down the line.
Family Ski Day Pocket or Backpack List
Every ski day, we place the following items in our kids’ ski jacket pockets, so they’re always at the ready:
- ski day snack (Honey Stingers energy bites, energy bar or even a candy bar)
- hand warmers (the kind you shake to activate)
- ski bandana (to cover the face when the wind picks up)
And every ski day, we parents carry one small backpack with a few extra supplies:
- extra gloves (just a few pairs, in case someone loses one)
- a extra pair of kid-sized goggles
- collapsible, empty water bottles for everyone (we fill these up at lunch, saving an average of $20 on every ski lodge lunch bill)
- a photo ID and credit card
- a cell phone
8. How to Ski & Not Break The Bank
Downhill skiing has become very expensive, but there are ways to off-set the cost. Start by always looking for lodging-lift ticket combination deals at the resort of your choice early in the season (before Thanksgiving, even). You don’t have to go early in the season, but simply booking early can help save cash. Look for ski lodging with a kitchen, and plan to eat two meals in, one meal out, per day. We like to eat breakfast in our ski cabin or condo, lunch out on the mountain, and dinner back in our lodging (just something simple like spaghetti or chili).
Next, look carefully at lift ticket options before your trip. (Never, ever buy your lift tickets the day of, at the ticket window, if you can avoid it. You’ll pay the max every time.) Do the math: if you’re staying for more than a few days, you might save money buying season passes to the resort instead of day tickets. Or, you might find a collective pass (to multiple mountains) that makes sense for your family, like Vail’s Epic Pass or the Mountain Collective Pass, or even the MAX Pass, which gives you ski days at over 40 mountains!
Lastly, look for the family lesson options mentioned earlier that will give you a better lesson and allow you all to have fun skiing together instead of apart. If you already know how to ski, look for free guided services offered at many resorts, such as the snowshoe tours the Forest Service offers at Mt. Bachelor Ski Area, or the ‘ski with a local’ program at Northstar CA.
No matter what type of ski vacation you decide works for your family, or what type of clinics, lessons or programs you pursue, remember that the best recipe for enjoying skiing together is consistency. If you get your kids on the snow as much as possible, they’ll eventually learn how to ski, grow as skiers or snowboarders, and once everyone is comfortable, the real fun begins! Enjoy making memories downhill skiing together!
Amy Whitley is a family travel writer, editor, and columnist based in Southern Oregon. An avid traveler, backpacker, skier, and hiker, Amy has written about family and outdoor experiences for local and national publications since 2009. Amy authors the NWKids column in OutdoorsNW Magazine, is the Southern Oregon ambassador for Travel Oregon, works as a gear reviewer for multiple outdoor brands, and is founder of family travel site Pit Stops for Kids.