Let's engage in a little guided fantasy: imagine for a moment a winter sport in which your kid can just step out into the snow and be naturally proficient. No lift tickets to buy, not much technique required, and only a minimum of specialized gear to acquire. We're clearly not talking about skiing. This could only be. . . snowshoeing.
I'll put my cards on the table right up front: I've never been a big fan of snowshoes. As a skier, the idea of trudging uphill, only to turn around and trudge back down seemed a bit pointless. Where's the fun in this?
As she often does, my daughter changed my mind.
The beauty of snowshoes is that they are a no-brainer. If you can walk, you can snowshoe: you step in and go anywhere that it is white. For a kid, this freedom is a delight. It is also a respite from post-holing up to their crotch when they attempt to walk in the woods.
On a sunny day last winter, I headed out into the Vermont hills with my daughter Ariel and her friend Kalie Schneider, both five years old at the time. The twosome charged off into the nearby forest, marveling and giggling at the strange contraptions on their feet. Ariel would instinctively herringbone when the trail headed uphill, anticipating that the snowshoes might backslide like her cross-country skis. She was psyched when she finally discovered that the crampons attached to the snowshoes allowed her to charge the hill as if she were hiking. The two girls continued bounding through the pine trees and across a frozen marsh.
We were dragging several plastic sleds and heading on this day for a popular local sledding hill. That is a typical part of our outdoor formula: we try to build in interesting destinations for our outings. We managed to work in some high-speed downhills into the day after all.
As a family activity, snowshoeing has a variety of advantages over other winter sports. Dave Mayette, the father of daughters aged 15 and 11 in Montpelier, Vt., says that"snowshoeing is now our dominant winter sport. We're a family of four, and I can't rationalize the cost of downhill skiing anymore."
Laura Parette, a graphic designer in Vermont, has been snowshoeing with her 5-year-old son Colin for two years. "Snowshoeing on snowmobile trails works nicely," she says. "It's more like walking, but still different. And rather than going downhill skiing, which takes a half-day and costs 50 bucks, we can just go out our door." She recommends outings of about one hour, and suggests pulling a plastic sled along in case the tykes get tired and mom and dad still want to press on.
Part of why snowshoeing has become more popular and practical with kids is the technology revolution that has overtaken this venerable sport. The new small snowshoes (see sidebar) are easy for kids to maneuver, and they are sufficiently lightweight so that kids have the leg strength to walk in them for a while. My one gripe is that no one has made a foolproof kid binding. I have used kid snowshoes from Atlas and from Tubbs, and we had to stop several times for each kid to re-secure their feet in the showshoes.
The same pointers that apply to hiking with kids applies to snowshoeing. Choose terrain that is accessible to all the kids in the groupremember this is for fun, not endurance. Orient the hike around points of interest. Secret caves, nice overlooks, and weird natural formations are all bonuses. Animal tracking is also fun, as is snowshoeing to a picnic or hot chocolate spot. Hydration and fuel are critical in winter, so push fluids and snacks often.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication