START ‘EM YOUNG: A guide to snowboarding with a toddler

 

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PRETEXT: A Day for Jake

This Friday, March 13, Aubrin and I will travel to the Summit at Snoqualmie to participate in the global ‘A day for Jake’ event, celebrating the life and legacy of Jake Burton Carpenter, whose contributions to snowboarding helped pave the way for the lifestyle our family loves. I say lifestyle, because while having all of the prerequisites of a sanctioned sport, now in the Olympics, the roots of snowboarding that I hold onto are far deeper and more personal; an omnipresent life shaping force I will forever be thankful for.

I grew up on the East coast in a suburb of Buffalo, NY. My introduction to snowboarding is a familiar anecdote; snow sledding on the family farm turned into stand-up sledding as we felt the the same thrill those who invented the ‘snurfer’ discovered decades prior. When we got our hands on the plastic boards with slide in foot loops we began going off jumps and at least one of those early freestyle sessions ended with my brother snapping his collarbone after being the test pilot.

I began lift accessed snowboarding pre-2000, around 13 years old, when my dad bought me a (now defunct) ‘Type-a’ snowboard manufactured by ‘function snowboards’ in a basement down the street from our little mom-n-pop ski resort of Kissing Bridge. Situated on the side of a small valley and  named after the bridge crossing the adjacent river tells you all you need to know about its lack of impressive stats but it offered daily skiing until 10 pm and provided a much needed creative outlet to balance my more structured public school and team sport existence until that point. I spent some of my most formative years with friends snowboarding at Kissing Bridge and I even put in a handful of years as a liftie alongside my brother, getting to sneak turns in almost daily.

We made up for our regions lack of favorable geography with brut determination and creativity, going to elaborate lengths like spending a week after school hand building a 10′ quarter pipe in the front yard or using four wheelers and snowmobiles to tow us into corn field jumps, flat land road gaps and even to slide across the top of the high schools soccer goals, all of which is chronicled in the grainy 15+ year old footage above.

For the most part, and thanks in large part to Jake, my generation had missed the era in which strapping on a snowboard was a truly novel action to be met with stares, judgement and even prohibition, but it still felt like we were a part of something small, something special. I felt connected and lived vicariously through the content on the pages of Transworld Snowboarding coming out of other worldly places like SUMMER camps on Oregon’s Mount Hood, unbelievable road gaps near Washington’s Mt Baker and the massive ‘Chad’s Gap’ in the back country of Utah.

This now two decade infatuation with snowboarding took me to a college near the mountains where I met Samantha, to our chairlift accessed mountain top wedding ceremony and ultimately out here to the wild and wonderful west where, 20 years after riding my first chairlift, I get to spend my days riding chairs and lapping powder with my wife and daughter in the Cascade mountains of Washington State.

I never met Jake and I’ve never ridden a Burton snowboard, but I have no reservations saying that his actions, determination, business savvy and love of surfing snow heavily influenced the positive trajectory of my own life.

Ride on, Jake.

Teaching Toddlers to Snowboard

Now that it’s Aubrin’s second season of snowboarding (at the grand old age of two) we are getting a ton of questions on our INSTAGRAM  about her gear and our methods. Spoiler alert: That title to this blog post is probably inaccurate. Just like when we designed and built our tiny house on wheels, I’m not a fan of saying ‘ this is how you should do it to be successful‘ and instead prefer to say ‘this is what we are doing in our particular circumstances and here are the results.’ It is also worth noting that our experience of teaching Aubrin to snowboard is shaped by the fact that we are already avid snowboarders looking to integrate our daughter into our passion rather than also learning along side them and while we are not pretending to be experts, we are thoroughly immersed in the trial and error process so hopefully many will find helpful tips from our experience.

While AUBRIN’s FIRST CHAIR and subsequent front carry snowboard descent happened before she even turned one year old, her story on a snowboard more accurately began at 18 months old when she got her very own tiny shred stick and seasons pass, marking the beginning of weekly trips to the mountain during the 2018-2019 season.

While 18 months old is a bit unrealistic to expect much ‘technical learning’ to take place it served two very important functions; it allowed Samantha and I to keep doing what we love as a family, instilling strong feelings of pride and happiness into this whole first time parenting endeavor and it conditioned Aubrin through experiential learning. Those first few months were important to test the waters and see how she reacted to the process, the gear, the weather, etc… and allowed us to adjust and learn what worked best for us, from how to best time the hour drive to how well her gear was or was not working and the expected length of time we could spend out at a given temperature.

Lucky for us, or perhaps by shear persistence, she handled the long drives, copious amount of gear, probable temperature discomfort etc…really well and was quickly conditioned to ‘the new normal.’ We were going to keep doing what we love, and she was going to fit in just fine. Sooner than later Aubrin wasn’t just surviving (putting up with) these frequent excursions, she was thriving. As that first season progressed and she turned 20 months old, Aubrin began to constantly ask to go snowboarding and we split our time between lift served slopes in the mountains and backyard skill building sessions that really helped her build balance and of course become used to falling. Check out these two video compilations from that first season and we’ll chat gear and technique below!

 

 

GEAR:

Board: Aubrin rides an 80 CM Burton ‘After school Special’ that we purchased used. It has served her well for two seasons  which is about all you can hope for with kids that grow like weeds, so it will be time to upgrade to a 90 CM board next season. One bonus of this board is the retractable pull leash mounted on the board that can be used to pull her across the flats or over to the lift and can also be installed on the tail if you want to use it as a leash while riding behind the child. (But our next piece of gear makes that unnecessary).

Backpack/Harness: I would venture to say that this piece of gear is the single most important thing we have acquired. I don’t now how I would have accomplished all of the things in the last two seasons without the MDXone. (Not an ad, paid full price, just thankful it exists: https://mdxone.com/).

The backpack has a chest strap, waist strap and two leg loop straps, fully securing Aubrin and allowing me to grab the top backpack handle to get her on and off the lift as well as to comfortably cruise behind her while holding the handle. It comes with a retractable leash and multiple backpack connection points to aid in practicing different techniques and turns as needed. The last 24″ of the leash is an elastic material to help absorb and buffer any incidental jerk-shock that may happen when riding. The back pack also functions as the perfect snack holder and stuffed friend carrier while shredding.

Safety: Who cares what brand you get, just be sure to put a proper fitting helmet on your child. Aubrin currently wears a Giro helmet which has an adjustable thumb scroll that can cinch up the fit of the helmet perfectly to her head size, and evolve with her as she grows.

SnowsuitAubrins rocking a Burton onsie snow suit. At this age the onsie is the way to go to eliminate drafts and harbor as much warmth as possible. Burton’s kids cloths run large so despite being a big toddler, Aubrin still comfortably fits in the 2T (with layers underneath) and will even when she turns three.

Gloves: Aubrin started with some adorable tiny Hestra mittens and just upgraded to a pair of Burton size 4T mittens. They work well but with enough time outside a kids hands are going to get cold so its important to keep an eye on them. Its important to remember that even though you may be comfortable or even hot with all of the work it takes to shuffle a kid around a ski resort, they are doing little to no physical work and therefore are not producing warmth like you are. Every time we bring Aubrin in we feel her hands, nose, etc… and compare those quick observations with about how long we have been out riding and at what temperature. This has allowed us to build a mental library of stats so we have accurate expectations and preparations for how many runs we can do before making a stop at a lodge.

Boots: Aubrin started out at 18 months old in some size 8 Burton Boots (thanks so much for the gift Dan and Caroline!) and then stepped up to size 10 Burton boots when she turned two. A good rule of thumb for Burton boots is to get them two sizes larger than your kids current shoe size.

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Co-riding Techniques:

In the large scheme of things, we have barely worked on any technical snowboarding skills with Aubrin and instead just focus on getting out on the board frequently. Like I mentioned above, getting out together keeps family moral high and imparts that ever so important experiential learning to happen through simple repetition and persistence of being on the slopes, or in the backyard. To Aubrin, mom and dad build fun drop-in’s and bumps in the back yard but subconsciously she was having to contend with disorienting moments and loss of balance and silly falls that became teaching moments both in direct communication and explanation while also building an improved reaction time and increased experiential memory; ‘if this happens then I need to try to correct it in this way to stop from falling.’

Below are some more focused tips we have for those wanting to get their toddler on the slopes:

1: Watch Redbull TV snowboarding channel or snowboard videos to ‘get stoked’ (not the first priority but sometimes the first thing we do before heading to the mountain).

Aubrin doesn’t get a lot of screen time but there is something about watching action sports, like snowboarding that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the other crap on TV and I think it stems from the seemingly positive impact it has on her. Aubrin seems to gain inspiration from seeing the little hobby she enjoys on ‘the big screen’ as almost a way of validating that snowboarding is cool. It seems to hype her up and mentally prepare her for snowboarding. Add in the occasions in which kids and girls are snowboarding and there is a palpable connection.

2: Shred around or with other kids: In all honesty there are not many other kids riding at Aubrins age and none that we personally know (although Sophie and Addie are right on her heals) but Aubrin’s personal motivation increases dramatically when she sees another kid doing something. We have been alone on a trail and she was very hesitant or scared for me to let go of her and let her coast completely on her own until she saw another kid fly past on ski’s at which point she began requesting that I ‘let Aubrin ride all on her own.”

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3. Subdue reactions to them falling. Keep a positive tone, help them up, and continue on. This is a good strategy throughout their entire childhood. Often times at least 50% of the child reaction to a situation is influenced by the way their parent reacts. Its important for them to normalize the act of falling as an integral part of the process and not a departure or failure of it.

 

4. Keep it fun: As a related note to the last bit about falling, I intentionally goof off and fall in front of Aubrin to aid in the process of normalizing falling as well as to be silly and make her laugh. Even more importantly though, keep it fun by keeping it unstructured. Only now, after nearly two full seasons, am I starting to work on some simple stopping and turning techniques and they are only sprinkled in a tiny bit at a time when it seems appropriate making sure to avoid having the act of snowboarding associated with the burden of over zealous practice.

We’re not out here trying to groom the next olympian, we’re out here spending time together as a family and making memories.

5. Have the will to progress come from her, not you: I don’t ever want snowboarding to feel like redundant repetition so I try to just incorporate learning moments into already occurring things, with a quick explanation about why we may have fallen or how we could avoid it the next time around. Other than that I try to let her request to do or try something, often times instigated by what she sees another kid doing. If moral feels high and I think I can make it fun I’ll sprinkle in a micro lesson at the end of a run or end of the day with a couple laps on the bunny hill talking about turning shoulders and hips to stop while lifting toes or zig-zagging across the slope on heel side and then toe side.

6. Take Snacks: Are you even parenting if your day doesn’t revolve around snacks? Snacks are currency to be used as bribes, distractions, goals, etc…

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7. Take a (stuffed) friend: Toddlers love their stuffed animal friends and Aubrin always chooses to bring one along to ‘show them how she snowboards’ while benefiting from the secret powers and confidences that comes with having a best friend on board. Snowboarding is for everyone, even the animals.

8.Take Breaks, Keep them warm: like I mentioned above in the glove segment, it’s important to remember that even though you may be comfortable or even hot with all of the work it takes to shuffle a kid around a ski resort, they are doing little to no physical work and therefore are not producing warmth like you are. Every time we bring Aubrin in we feel her hands, nose, etc… and compare those quick and crude results with about how long we have been out riding and at what temperature. This has allowed us to build a mental library of stats so we have accurate expectations and preparations for how many runs we can do before making a stop at a lodge. Little special traditions are sure to emerge like ending the day with french fries or a hot chocolate.

9. Learn and utilize a variety of co-riding techniques: Variety is the spice of toddler happiness and I utilize four different co-riding techniques depending on the situation, Aubrin’s request, my muscle pain, etc…  [all of these can be seen in the ‘DAY IN THE LIFE’ video below]

Carrying: I see a lot of skiers carrying their child in back carriers but as a snowboarder the physics are completely different and I decided on a front Ergo carrier for the one time we took Aubrin up at 10 months old. You can read more about that experience HERE.

Under Arm: Aubrin calls this the ‘fly like and eagle’ method because it is used when we need to/decide to go fast, which she loves. When I am riding on Aubrin’s heel edge and holding her sides or under her arms I have the most control over her and depending on our speed I may almost pick her up just off the snow to ensure her edges don’t catch or do anything funky. I do this when we need to get from one place to another and speed is necessary to get across a relatively flat section. This is also what I often do when we are riding in the powder as I often need to take a majority of her weight off her snowboard to prevent her from sinking and burying herself.

Top Handle: Riding on Aubrins heel edge and holding onto the top handle of the MDXone harness and backpack is my favorite because it is the most comfortable and natural feeling. When my back and legs start to ache after riding under her arms I often transition to this technique at lower speeds to get some relief while still being able to hold her up easily if she catches an edge or falls. I also love to let go of Aubrin and let her ride completely on her own for a bit and then let her catch up to me, grabbing the handle in stride and continuing on co-riding (like the second clip in the powder video above).

Retractable Leash: Having Aubrin on the leash is a perfect combination of control and freedom. It allows her to feel responsible for herself, needing to navigate the bumps and adjust her balance and edge control to stay up right while allowing me to have full control over her speed and proximity to myself as I snowboard behind her. It’s also the easiest way to lower her down really steep terrain if needed because I can just snow plow behind her, lowering her at a controlled pace.

9. Getting on and off the lift: This is probably the hardest and likely most intimidating part of taking very young children snowboarding. Step 1: get and MDXone harness Step 2: grab on to the top handle firmly and transport your kid onto and off of the lift like a heavy suitcase. 🙂

I have tried a variety of strategies and they are still evolving as Aubrin gets heavier (and more capable) but currently I stand on her heel side and use the top handle to lift her right off the ground and set her on the chairlift seat. When it is time to get off I transfer Aubrin from the seat up onto my thigh and knee before lifting and holding her up as I ride away from the chair and let it clear behind me and then set her on her snowboard to ride away.

Results:

I think its important to revisit the title to this blog post to remind us that I am not here to tell you how to teach your child to snowboard, I am here to share the strategies we have used to co-ride with our very young toddler daughter for two seasons so far. Just get out there as much as possible with them at an early age, the skills will begin to come naturally.

Its hard to put into words how amazing it has been to watch Aubrin Sage become as enthralled with this lifestyle as we are. Days snowboarding together are pure magic, full of unforgettable moments of calm in a sun dappled forest, moments of laughter laying in deep fluffy powder, moments of bonding during chairlift rides, moments of quite contemplation of nature and moments of learning and progression after both the successes and failures experienced on every trip to the mountain.

Snowboarding is just the winter variant of us trying to raise a happy, competent outdoor child; one with the skills and drive necessary to live a life full of independent, daring, fun and fulfilling outdoor pursuits. If you want to see some of our past over ambitious adventures and stay up to date with ones in the works as a family of four head over to our INSTAGRAM.

Yes, you read that right. Soon to be family of FOUR. Looks like things are going to get a bit more challenging…:) See you out in the mountains!

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OCTOBER 2020 UPDATE: Getting Some Pre-Season Practice!

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