A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

How to backcountry ski with a baby

Emilie Phillips updated March 31, 2019

An outdoorsy friend, who is expecting, asked me how I took Isaac skiing when he was a baby. Here is the advice I gave her.

These suggestions come from my husband and my experience cross country skiing and Telemark skiing in New Hampshire with our one week to four month old baby, Isaac. We enjoyed bringing Isaac with us. The best quote comes from when Tyson took Isaac skiing with him up Amonoosuc Ravine on Mt Washington. Another skier, on seeing Tyson carrying Isaac said,

“Three months old, that’s nothing,” the other skier said, “I saw someone at Bretton Woods skiing with a four week old.”

Tyson and he compared notes and concluded that he had seen Tyson skiing at Bretton Woods.

“The baby is still alive!” another skier exclaimed, “I have to tell my wife.”

What expertise do you need?

There’s no threshold for “good enough” to take your baby out skiing. Just remember to dial it back from what you would do solo. I encourage you to take adults-only backcountry skills classes and skiing classes. They will help with your tamer adventures with your baby.

I found taking care of Isaac took 80% of my brain. This limited me to trips where I could handle the trip logistics on autopilot — trail following, keeping myself fed and warm, tracking time and weather, and monitoring the rest of the group. As an experienced skier, this left me with a lot of trips I could do: places I know well, on days above 10F, with moderate terrain, and competent friends to help.

The other useful skill is knowing how to sew. We have been able to buy most of Isaac’s equipment, but a few things we have had to sew ourselves.

What kinds of trips?

Tyson, Isaac, and Grandma skiing around the neighborhood

Isaac’s and my first ski trip was a 3/4 mile cross country ski trip around the neighborhood. He did several more neighborhood cross country ski trips. Then we moved farther afield to lift serve skiing. Isaac’s biggest trip was as a three month old when Tyson skied Isaac in with him to Amonoosuc Ravine on Mount Washington.

Ammonoosuc Ravine on their tour

All our trips the first year stayed near a lodge or were only a half day long. Sometimes we went out just for the afternoon, other times we stepped onto the snow around 10AM, ate lunch on the trail, and returned by 3PM.

Gear List

The biggest concern when bringing a baby skiing is keeping them warm. With the right equipment, it’s not hard.

Shared Equipment

For short trips

  • front carrier with a waist band, e.g the Ergo Baby
  • extra large jacket to wrap around parent and baby
Isaac is the lump in Tyson’s jacket

Even better than an extra large jacket is a panel that can be zipped into a regular jacket. We used a home made insulated soft-shell panel that zips into a regular parka. A number of places online now sell “baby wearing” jackets. Mountain Marsupial, Lenny Lamb (though many of these are non-technical), and Liliputi. WrapYourBaby has advice on baby wearing in the winter.

The features  we found critical for the jacket were

  • somewhat insulated. The bunting wasn’t enough to keep Isaac warm on his own.
  • long enough so the baby is completely enclosed
  • a cinch to snug the bottom of the jacket against the parent, preventing drafts around the baby’s toes. As Isaac grew, we had to take care to tuck his feet inside the parka so they wouldn’t get cold.
  • a top that can be opened up on nice days, especially when the baby is older and front facing, and can be closed up for cold or inclement days.
We tried several carriers

Falling on Isaac wasn’t an issue. Tyson always skied within his limits when carrying Isaac. The few times he fell, he safely cradled Isaac.

For longer trips

  • shelter
  • foam sleeping pad(s)
  • adult friends/grandparents
  • spare baby clothes
  • diaper changing kit: water proof diaper pad liner, a few wipes, plastic bags to contain messes, spare onesie
Valley Igloo and pulk

The shelter is important if there isn’t a lodge on your trip. This is the key piece of equipment that let us do longer trips. We started with a Valley Igloo, but downsized to a lighter 4 person Terra Nova Bothy.

Seated inside on your foam pad, you can nurse or change a diaper in comfort. Compare that to these folks trying to change a diaper under a jacket.

My parents’ participation also made longer trips much easier. Extra hands and minds to take care of Isaac. Or as non-parenting adults who can watch the map, the weather, and the time.

Baby clothes and jackets

We dressed Isaac using much the same guidance as how we dress ourselves for a winter trip — layers, and no cotton. Since he was inside a jacket with a parent, we didn’t dress him as warm as you would a toddler in a pulk.

Tyson and Isaac after a hike
  • synthetic or wool wicking onesie and pants. We bought ours from REI and LLBean.
  • a fleece layer. I think we used fleece pajamas
  • bunting
  • warm hat with a chin strap
Isaac in his fleece bunting

We custom sewed Isaac a bunting from scrap Polartec wind block fleece.  It had a giant velcro opening at the bottom for diaper changes and no openings for hands or feet.  That way you don’t have to keep track of mittens or booties. REI and LLBean advertise buntings with diaper change access and fold over mittens and booties.

Hats aught to be easy, but no hat would stay on Isaac’s head without a strap. A wide fleece flap with velcro worked best. I had trouble finding good hats that were small enough. I made the first hat out of the same scrap fleece as the bunting. For the next one,  I altered a store bought hat. 

Hike It Baby has some other good gear suggestions.

Food

These instructions are for a nursing baby and mom coming on the trip, so no extra food is needed. The one time Tyson went solo with Isaac, Isaac stuck his nose up at the bottle and waited until he was back with me to nurse.

What About a Pulk?

You have probably read about or seen parents towing their kids in a modified gear sled called a pulk. Why am I not suggesting a pulk?

For a kid to ride in a pulk, they need to be able to sit up for the whole duration of the trip. Yes the pulk supports them, but it’s a bumpy ride and they need to actively hold their head up and engage their core muscles. You also can’t hear them or check in on them as easily as in a front, or back carrier.

Isaac spent his first winter in the front carrier and we continued hiking with the front carrier through mid-summer. For the rest of summer and fall, we transitioned to a back carrier. By the time it snowed again in December, Isaac was walking. He was obviously ready for the pulk.

Concerns and what to watch out for

Tyson and I used the same skills and techniques managing Isaac as we do adult participants on our AMC trips.

Make sure you have food, water, and warm clothes for yourself. Small issues with the baby can take a while to deal with, so you need to have extra layers for a stop. Don’t let taking care of the baby get in the way of taking care of yourself. It’s like the oxygen masks on an airline. If you are cranky because you are hungry and cold, you’ll miss all the cues from your baby. 

Tyson checking on Isaac

If the baby is happy (awake or asleep), then everything is going well. If the baby is upset, now you get to guess the problem.

  • if your baby has a regular schedule, keep that in mind. Is it time for food, sleep, or diaper change?
  • stick your fingers in their jacket to check if their hands and feet are cold or their whole body is cold.

For Isaac, sharp crankiness meant he was hungry. A never ending whimper or wail meant he was too cold.

Some babies don’t like being carried for hours. Isaac didn’t complain, so I can’t advise you there.

Other people’s approaches

These parents cross country skied with their kid in a back carrier. When we put Isaac in the back carrier his first autumn, he got too cold. Once a kid can sit up on their own, I suggest moving to a pulk where you can keep them warmer with a sleeping bag.

The folks with the diaper changing incident, above, skied with their baby in steeper terrain out west.

If you aren’t sure about going backcountry skiing yet, you can start with some front country advice from BraveSkiMom.

Mom goes solo

As a nursing mom, you’ll need to bring extra equipment when you go on your own adult trips.

  • oversized jacket or poncho
  • hand pump
  • foam pad

I would pump at the trailhead and store the bottles in a cooler full of snow. Then at lunch time, I excused myself to the bushes to pump just enough to relieve pressure. A small hand pump doesn’t add much to your pack. The poncho is for protection against the elements and for modesty. And the foam pad to sit on.

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Comments

  • I think that you need to give more details on the pulk. The pulk really was necessary once the weight of the child plus pack stops being fun.

    • I plan to write a later post about taking toddlers and little kids out skiing. There I will definitely go over the pulk.