The toddler years are defined by the pulk, a sled like a gear sled but with a seat and protective top. The pulk lets you cover distance, but your kid will also want to get out and have fun. Over three years, we worked our way up from local cross country trips to big adventures in Yellowstone.
This is the second post in my series on Backcountry Skiing with Kids.
Come ski with us
I am a skiing trip leader for the New Hampshire Appalachian Club. We run family skiing trips every year. The trips are free. We do it for the fun of bringing people out into the woods. It’s a great way to meet other families and get advice from expert parent skiers. Check out the AMC NH Family Skiing page for more details and how to sign up.
If you want to head out on your own with your baby, here is my advice.
What does a typical day look like
1 year old
A one year old will spend most of the day in the pulk. Keep trips short so they don’t get bored. Plan for breaks where they can get out and wiggle.
I suggest eating lunch at a cabin or bring a shelter. I really liked our portable shelter and z-fold foam pad. We could get out of the weather and sit anywhere. Isaac could take his mittens off to eat without his hands getting cold. And I could diaper or nurse him when needed.
Some example trips we did when Isaac was 1
- 5 mile ski at a conservation area in town
- Longer but flat tour near Pitcher Mountain
- Three day weekend trip to Orford in Canada
2 year old
At two years old, you can get cheap strap on skis for your kid. They won’t cover any distance on them, but they will want to get out of the pulk and stomp around. Plan for frequent play stops. As an adult, this means you need clothing to transition from pulling the weighted sled at adult speed, to standing still for a half hour. Kids at this age are coordinated enough you can give them a bag of snacks to eat in the pulk.
We did many of the same trips when Isaac was 2 as when he was 1. This time he got out of the pulk more.
- The closed road near Pitcher Mountain
- A different local conservation area
- Our local cross country ski area, Windblown
- A few lift serve trips to work on downhill technique
3 year old
At three, a kid can actually cover distance on skis. Isaac could go several miles at a stretch. He was still in and out of the pulk. The pulk became reserved for resting and snack time, and for long uphill stretches.
We bought Isaac proper cross country skis when he was three. Other parents opt to keep using the strap on skis. We thought the more expensive cross country skis were worth it. The stiffer bindings let him ski steeper hills. The less aggressive scales glided better, which probably helped Isaac cover the distances he did.
We weren’t dealing with diaper changes or nursing anymore, but we still brought the shelter for cold lunch stops or incidents.
Some example trips we did when Isaac was 3
4 years old?
A lot of families continue with the pulk at 4 years. We wanted to do steeper terrain, and we had some friends with a baby. So we gave our friends our pulk and moved on to the next phase. Next year, I will write advice for kids 4+.
What kind of terrain can you ski?
No mater what age your kids are, start off small and work your way up.
When Isaac was one, we did half day trips at local conservation areas. The next year, when he was two, we did full day trips, but still on rolling terrain. By the end of his third year, we were tackling wilderness trails with substantial vertical in Yellowstone.
It is easier to tow a pulk on a groomed trail, but the sled-bottomed ones travel off groomed too. You may want two people up front breaking trail side-by-side to pack the snow down wide enough for the pulk.
The pulk works best on gentle terrain. We did see one family tow their older kids up the old access road on Watatic, then the kids skied down on their own.
We have towed Isaac through steep stretches when needed:
- use skins when going uphill. You save a lot of effort by not slipping backwards.
- tie a rope to the back end of the pulk and belay it down steep hills. Both the front and back skier should be side slipping or slowly wedging. Look up videos on ski patrol rescue sled technique.
What gear to bring
We dressed Isaac similar to how we dress — layers of wicking synthetic clothes and a trio of fleece, synthetic down and shell jackets. My How to Backcountry Ski with a Baby post lists vendors of toddler outdoor clothes. Unlike us adults, we put Isaac in a full snow suit. Chalk it up to parent paranoia about him getting cold.
As with any backcountry ski trip, bring food, water, ski scraper, first aid kit, map, headlamp, and a bivy for emergencies.
The things we brought which were kid specific were
- a shelter (Terra Nova Bothy)
- a large foam pad
- full change of spare clothes, jackets, hats and mittens
As I mentioned above, the shelter made a nice place to eat lunch. It also gave us somewhere to deal with diaper blow outs, potty training incidents, and hot chocolate disasters.
Speaking of hot chocolate. Kids love hot chocolate. Except they mean tepid chocolate. We spent many exasperated lunches waiting for a cup to cool off. About a year ago, I smartened up and put Isaac’s hot chocolate in our least insulated thermos.
Equipping the pulk
We led an AMC family ski trip to Gunstock in 2014. One family rented a sled for their daughter. She skied a bit, then decided to rest in the pulk. Once in the pulk, she got whinier and whinier until we realized she was seriously cold. We wrapped her in our spare jackets and returned to the lodge.
When a kid is resting in the pulk, they aren’t exerting themselves, so they need a lot more layers than the parent pulling them. If you know winter safety, the pulk needs to be set up just like a burrito for an immobile person.
- foam pads on the bottom
- thick synthetic sleeping bag
- kid wearing full snow gear
How to pick a pulk
My top criteria for a pulk
- good control. It should be towed by stiff poles connected to a harness.
- stable/low center of gravity so it doesn’t tip over.
- wide bottom so it doesn’t sink into fresh powder
- cover to protect the child from wind/snow/etc
Other useful things
- a spot to attach a rope at the back
- extra room to stow gear
We owned an old hand me down whose closest living relative is the Fjellpulken. It didn’t have a roof, but that only mattered on wet snowy days. We stored all the spare baby gear in the long foot space.
On our trip to Yellowstone, we rented a Kinder Shuttle. It didn’t have as much space for gear, but otherwise worked well.
Convertible Bike Trailer
The Burley convertible trailer is bottom on my list. It might work well on level groomed trails, but it doesn’t have much flotation and it looks awfully tippy. These people claim to have made it work.
Are there alternatives to pulks?
This family says they go big mountain skiing with their kids on their backs. We always had trouble keeping Isaac warm in the backpack carrier during the winter. We much preferred the pulk where we could wrap him in a sleeping bag.
Or you could go lift serve skiing for a few years until your kid is older.
Go out and try it
- Start simple and short
- stay near a lodge or bring your own shelter
- buy or rent a pulk
- plan fun-time stops along the way.