We had been on the cross-country ski trail for only a few minutes before I got the first of many smiles and curious looks that day. I was skiing up the Cold Creek Trail at Snoqualmie Pass, towing my 3-month-old son, Owen, in a sled behind me. "Lucky him," one skier said. "I wish someone would pull me," said another. While I was working up a sweat with each kick and glide, Owen was snug in the enclosed sled, bundled in layers of down and fleece and busily gnawing on his teething toy. The sled was a hand-me-down, and one of the best gifts we had gotten from other veterans in our introduction to parenthood.
The sled, sometimes called a pulk, resembles a child bicycle trailer but is mounted on two skis rather than two wheels; two lightweight bars connect the trailer to me via a waist belt. With the belt cinched snugly around my waist, towing Owen behind me proved easy, particularly as I got into a good swishing rhythm. The fresh mountain air and exercise were a welcome relief that morning, after being cooped up in the house for the first months after Owen was born.
For some parents, the idea of taking along a baby or toddler on a cross-country trip seems more trouble than it's worth. There's the question of how to keep your child warm in the winter. Add to that the fear of falling and dragging down baby, and it's tempting to stay at home and watch the Norwegians dominate the sport on TV. But with some planning, preparation and the right attitude, cross-country skiing with a baby or toddler can be an immensely rewarding experience. It's a great way to get exercise, experience the outdoors with your child, and sow a future interest in a winter sport that you can do with the entire family.
The author out on a cross-country skiing trip with her son, Owen, getting a ride in the pulka
Kristin Jongejan, a Seattle middle school teacher, began cross-country skiing with her 6-year-old daughter, Sonja, and 4-year-old son, Olin, when they were both infants. "It's been a great way to get them outside," she said.
She and her husband met playing outside and bonded over a mutual interest in the environment. "We wanted to share the outdoors with (our children), and to teach them to be stewards of the outdoors," Jongejan said. In the early days, the two would carry Sonja and Olin in a baby carrier or backpack. As the kids got older and could ski, Jongejan and her husband would bring along a sled, and the kids would ski part of the way, ride in the sled the other part.
Parents have a short window, from about birth to about 18 months, when they can enjoy skiing at an adult pace, said Eli Holmes, who directs the Junior Nordic Program at the Summit Nordic Center, which teaches kids from 4 to 19. "If you like to cross-country ski or snowshoe, you'll want to take advantage of that window," she said.
Getting them out when they're 2 or 3 helps them to get used to the snow and to associate that powdery stuff with having fun, she added. She and her husband have been teaching cross-country skiing since 1989 and have two kids. Holmes first started skiing with her oldest daughter in a Baby Bjorn when she was only 2 weeks old.
However you take your baby or toddler out, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Keep the trips short and flat if you're just starting out. Holmes recommends a one-hour maximum. Babies will fall asleep, but don't keep them in the sled for hours on end. And kids will get restless. Keep toddlers entertained by letting them get out for an occasional snowball fight or give them a book to read or favorite toy.
Lower your expectations. Remember that unless the child is very young and falls asleep in your baby carrier or the sled, he won't be able to go for long stretches of time without getting restless. If the toddler is on skis for part of the trip, Holmes advises, then put him on for about five minutes and then take him off and build a snowman or sled a little hill. If the toddler is interested in skiing some more, put the skis back on for another five minutes. Take the skis off while he is happy and call it a day.
Time the trip with their nap. "The best way is to time the trip with their nap time, give them a big lunch, and then head out," Holmes said. "If you are lucky, they will be the type of toddler that will nap in the sled. We were lucky with our first and not lucky with our second."
Remember snacks. "Moms know you have to have your snacks," said Jongejan. "I would say a snack is more important than a new diaper."
Share the load. Taking turns towing your kid between you and your spouse is good, but trading off between multiple friends is even better. On a recent trip in the Methow Valley, four of us took turns pulling my son.
Know when to fold and try again. "Even the best planned outing will end in a meltdown sometimes – that's just part of being a toddler," Holmes said. "So if the trip devolves into a cry-fest, just call it a day, go get some hot chocolate, and try again another day."
Wear the right clothing. Holmes recommends getting a one-piece suit to eliminate a lot of the dressing tantrums. But at any rate, have spare gloves and socks, and change them if they get wet and cold. "Toddlers really hate snow on their backs, wrists and necks," she said. You can find dressing tips at www.juniornordicprogram.org.
Reserve gear ahead of time. The advantage of using a baby carrier like a Baby Bjorn is that you can keep the infant warm and close to you, but you should be an excellent skier who is not likely to fall. If you plan to use a ski pulk or sled, rather than a baby carrier, call ahead and make sure ones are available for the days and times you need. Most shops stock only a few sleds and once rented, they can be gone for hours.
Phuong Le is a Seattle writer whose son has been on more miles of cross-country ski trails than she can count.
Where to Rent Pulks/Sleds
It’s best to rent a sled/pulk (and other gear) at a shop or ski center closest to your destination. Here are a few:
Marmot Mountain Works in Bellevue, $30/day
Winthrop Mountain Sports in the Methow Valley (Winthrop, Wash.), $12-$15/day depending on type
Stevens Pass Nordic Center, $25/day
Leavenworth Mountain Sports in Leavenworth, Wash., $12/day
Where to Go
These settings offer flat green trails, which are best when you're starting out with baby.
The Nordic Center at Snoqualmie – www.summitatsnoqualmie.com/Activities/Nordic-Skiing-And-Snowshoeing
Leavenworth Nordic Trail System – www.skileavenworth.com/nordic
Methow Valley – www.mvsta.com/winter/
Stevens Pass Nordic Center – www.stevenspass.com/Stevens/nordic/nordic.aspx