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

“Do you have any tips for getting a young toddler on a snowboard?”

This post is a long winded answer to the above question, which we are asked almost every single day and we’re here to tell you that not only is it possible but incredibly rewarding. Our daughter started riding the chairlift with her own board at 18 months old and is now in the midst of her third full season at three years old. The best part is, she is the one requesting to snowboard every week and we’re now riding more than we did before having kids.

The 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 remove any sort of authoritative tone on the subject matter and speak in a way that says ‘this is what we are doing in our particular circumstances and here are the results.’ We too are just fellow parents trying our hardest and we hope you find some nuggets of information you think will be useful and incorporate them into your family dynamic as you see fit. 

It is also worth noting that our experience of teaching our daughter to snowboard is shaped by the fact that we are already avid snowboarders looking to share the experience and our passion for snowboarding with her. We are not expert but are currently and thoroughly immersed in the trial and error process so hopefully many will find helpful tips from our experience.

Our first suggestion is to get rid of your expectations as they can be incredibly damaging to the process. If there was a ‘correct’ way to do this the answer would already be out there and we wouldn’t be writing this. Every child will and should discover snowboarding at their own pace and everything we’ve done revolves around the goal of cultivating a passion for snowboarding within our daughter that is self-driven rather than expectantly applied from an outside source (us as parents). 

Before strapping our daughter to a snowboard we knew this was going to be a two stage process. Learning HOW to snowboard, and learning what snowboarding is are two profoundly different things; one develops a skill and the other introduces you to a way of life. With enough patience and dedication, anyone can learn the skill of riding a plank down a slope, but if you don’t discover the magic and develop the passion, you’re missing out on the most transformative aspect of snowboarding. [If you read the ‘notes from the author’ blurb at the bottom of this post, you’ll become more familiar with the importance of snowboarding to me and perhaps better understand my use of terms like ‘transformative’ and ‘way-of-life’.]

STAGE  1: An intro. to what snowboarding can be 

While AUBRIN’s FIRST CHAIR and subsequent dad-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, shed began to constantly ask to go snowboarding and we split our time between lift served laps in the mountains and backyard skill building sessions that felt more like fun obstacle courses to her and really helped her improve balance and of course become used to falling, both illustrated in the two video compilations below.

We will speak more in depth below about some particular suggestions we have to ease into this process but it should go without saying that no matter what activity you’re approaching with a toddler, it’s bound to be a better experience if you make it fun. consider viewing the process from a toddlers perspective; a couple long car rides to the mountain only to stand in line, be cold, and repetitively fall on your butt on the bunny hill while having instructions shouted at you would be a quick no go for me as well. 

Leading by example and sharing the experience have been the most impactful methods of introducing our daughter to snowboarding and we spent the first two seasons doing just that. We were in no rush to begin any sort of structured practice that would make snowboarding seem like a chore and instead spent it turning the winters into one big mountain wide co-riding adventure so that she learned first hand that snowboarding is as much about exploration, creativity, the beauty of our surroundings and time with friends and family as it is about getting from the top of the hill to the bottom.

While we never practiced any particular techniques during these first two seasons, they were incredibly important as she began crushing the process of coming to the mountain every week, putting on the gear, riding the lift, experiencing variable weather, and working through any unexpected adversity faced in over 40 visits. That’s a lot for an 18 month old toddler to process and she did amazing while continuing to improve her balance, coordination and reaction time under the guise of simply having fun with mom and dad. We really cherished this stage and are thankful to have begun it at such a young age because it made the process easier due to how small and light she was, which helps with getting her on and off the lift, around the mountain and of course when carrying her through waste deep powder during over ambitious choices on deep days. 🙂

For us, The goal of stage one was to show Aubrin the incredible world that snowboarding unlocks with the intention of making it so fun and memorable that she developed a personal interest and drive to want more. We’ll pick up on the success of this strategy in STAGE TWO after discussing the gear and techniques we found successful during our first to seasons snowboarding with our daughter.

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[tiny]GEAR: 18-36 months old

Check out the ‘KID SNOWBOARD TRADER’ group on facebook and follow other families on Instagram to get used toddler gear once their kids grow out of it. (that’s what we did!)

  • Board: Aubrin rode an 80 CM Burton ‘After school Special’ that we purchased second hand and it worked perfect for these first two seasons, which is about all you can hope for with kids that grow like weeds. One bonus of this board is the retractable ‘riglet reel’ 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. Pulling a child around this way on flat snow is a great way to introduce a child to standing on the board for the first time. The burton toddler boards are nice because they have a ‘rocker’ profile in both axis meaning the base has a sort of dish shape in order to reduce the chance of catching an edge.
  • 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 we would have accomplished all of the things in the last two seasons without the MDXONE Snowboard Harness. The harness has a chest strap, waist strap and two leg loop straps, fully securing Aubrin and allowing us 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 started with 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 adorably 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 no matter what so keep an eye on them. 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 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 8c Burton Boots (thanks so much for the gift Dan and Caroline!) and then stepped up to size 10c Burton boots when she turned two. A good rule of thumb for Burton boots is to get them one, if not two sizes larger than your kids current shoe size to compensate for Burton sizing and the thickness of winter socks. Burton boots also have a second, removable sole to provide more room as the childs foot grows. They refer to this as the ‘room-to-grow’ system and it adds a foot size to the boot when more room is needed.

motivational 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 childS 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. Consider getting a seasons pass the year you want to teach your toddler to snowboard. I know this is an [expensive] commitment, but commitment is exactly what is needed here and you’re probably already invested in toddler gear and their pass will likely be free and it will remove the stress caused by trying to ‘get your money’s worth’ on that day pass you bought, likely leading to over extended days and unhappy kids. I’m thankful for our willingness to do the 2 hour round trip to sometimes only do two top to bottom runs, eat some french fries and laugh on the lift before she was clearly starting to be over it for the day, and head back home. Toddlers have very poignant short term memories that weigh heavily on their feelings about any particular activity or experience. Leaving before a breakdown can mean a request to come back sooner than later, and everything is better when the interest incomes from with-in rather than applied by parents.

If possible dedicate and commit a full season to the process and re-evaluate at the end. Worst case scenario is that you’ve spent more time outside with them in the winter than you ever have previously and that’s still a huge win.

co-riding TECHNIQUES

It will be helpful to learn and become comfortable with a variety of co-riding techniques. Variety is the spice of toddler happiness and we utilize four different methods 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 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.
  • 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 the MDXONE Snowboard 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.

STAGE  2: Learning how to snowboard

So here we are in our third season riding with Aubrin Sage and she just began asking about ‘snowboarding all on her own.’ It’s great to see the interest in progression coming from with-in her and that means it’s time to start inching into ‘stage 2,’ in which we begin trying to introduce her to the more technical skills of snowboarding that will eventually lead her to independence on the hill, like stopping, heel side turns, toe side turns, etc…

Slightly complicated by our beloved new addition, Torin Cade, and the pandemic that has removed access to our lodge from the equation, we’re still determined to make our third season riding with Aubrin the best yet so we’ve began calling our little Subaru Forester home when visiting the mountain and taking turns heading up the lift with Aubrin while the other parent hangs at the base or in the car with Torin. [except for last week when super mom hiked Torin up to the Terrain park so he could be part of the action!]

We’re only 7 riding days into the season at the time of this writing but I am already thankful that we spent so much time becoming familiar with all of the other aspects of being on the mountain so that now her and our focus can be on the act of learning how to snowboard, freed from the mental baggage of everything else involved in getting to and onto the mountain, which is now second nature.

Honestly, we really don’t have a strategy for ‘teaching’ her and plan to go with the flow each day until good moments arise for opportunities to work on a particular skill as I think its still super important to always put fun first and keep the heart and soul of snowboarding as our focus. I consider the fact that we are out here with our toddler, and that she loves it, a 1000% success, anything beyond that is just a bonus.

As Aubrin progresses and we figure out what works and what doesn’t we’ll be sure to update this blog post, but you can watch it unfold in real time on our instagram @CHASING.SAGE which is also a great place to ask any questions you may have. Check out Aubrin deciding to work on her stops for the very first time this week and dedicated the progress to her momma. [with with sound!]

 

[still tiny]GEAR: 3+ years old

We wanted to quickly mention the gear that Aubrin is wearing this season as a three year old for those with similar aged kids to reference sizing.

Board: This season she has been riding a 90 cm Burton Chicklet and size 10c Burton boot.

Harness: Still wearing the tried and true MDXONE Snowboard Harness

Helmet/Goggle combo: Shes trying out the Anon ‘Define’ integrated helmet and goggle system which is an interesting idea and seems to be working well. Rather than a separate pair of goggles sliding over the helmet, the goggles are integrated right into the helmet so there is a seamless fit and no chance of them falling off and getting lost.

Snowsuit: 4t Burton retro suite that is a season or two old.

Balaclava: That little blue face covering that she now wears every day (because of its comfort, warmth and Covid face covering requirements in lift lines) was actually a resort gear shop impulse buy on a really cold day last season and has been an awesome peice of gear. It’s made by ‘Turtle Fur’ and has a thinner elastic head covering that fits easily under the helmet and then a thicker even warmer fleece neck gator portion for maximum warmth.

mini-shredder RESULTS

I think the photos and videos throughout this blog post convey more than words ever could but Aubrin is doing better than we ever expected at this age and I think I’m most impressed with her all-around comfort level with being up on and around the mountain, like it’s her second home. 

I don’t think she is any more talented than the next child. If you get them out there as much as possible at an early age while making it fun, the skills will begin to come naturally. Toddlers are far more capable than many of us give them credit for.

It is also 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.  Skills are learned; passion is be cultivated.

At the end of the day the snowboard is just our tool of choice to get outside as a family all winter long and snowboarding is the winter variant of us trying to raise a happy, competent outdoor child; one with the skills, passion 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.

And we can’t wait to do it all over again with our 8 month old son, Torin Cade, who’s birthday is six days before Aubrin’s so his timeline to snowboarding should mirror his big sisters, starting next season. 

retrospective NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR

This spring, Aubrin and I were planning to travel to the Summit at Snoqualmie (cancelled days prior due to COVID) 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 that 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 old, 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, twenty 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 personally 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.

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