Embrace the Winter
by Katie Beltramo
When cold winds blow, most of us want to curl up in a blanket by the fire to hibernate. But you'll greet the chill with joy if you and your family embrace winter activities in the great outdoors.
You probably already sled and play in the snow, but many sports that appeal to young and old are made for wintertime. Snowshoeing, skiing, and ice skating are all terrific group activities, and starting kids early offers them plenty of opportunities for fun and activity in the years to come. Even better, all offer you and your family a workout while you're having fun together. Try one (or a few) and you won't spend February wishing the winter away. Instead, you'll be trying to pack in activities before it gets too warm.
One of the easiest winter activities to learn is snowshoeing. It's basically walking, and many state parks offer free lessons and affordable rentals. Older preschool children can walk with snowshoes, and younger children might enjoy being dragged in a sled. The trick for building enthusiasm among the very young is to keep the walks short. A guided children's tour with a naturalist is a wonderful introduction, or plan a destination with hot cocoa or a camp fire and s'mores at the end. Here's a list of places that offer snowshoeing.
Older children and adults will enjoy snowshoeing especially if they are hiking enthusiasts. If you've hiked quite a bit, revisit a familiar trail and notice the differences in the winter landscape. Looking for a completely magical experience? Try snowshoeing on a clear night with a full moon. It will take your breath away!
Cross-Country skiing offers a relatively easy start as well. Choose an area with level ground and groomed or well-used paths. Many cross country skiing areas offer beginner day trips, which are ideal. Once you've gotten the hang of it, you can cross country ski around your neighborhood or a local park when conditioners are good, making this a thrifty option. Experienced cross-country skiers can pull a sled or carry a child in a sling if the children are still too young to ski on their own. Here's a list of places that offer cross-country skiing.
Skating can be intimidating, especially if you are an adult who is just beginning. Most rinks offer skate rentals as well as classes for ages 4 or 5 to adults. Classes are busiest in January and February, so if you're considering skating, signing up for a class that begins in the fall (or at least before the holidays) will mean far fewer classmates and more individualized instruction. If you're trying on your own without lessons, ask if there are any accommodations for new ice skaters. PVC pipe trainers or buckets are sometimes available to give a wobbly new skater some support. Although you might start out at a rink, ice skating on local ponds and lakes is a great way to see nature from a whole new perspective. Here's a list of places that offer ice skating. Or build a rink in your backyard.
Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding
Our family loves downhill skiing. It's our favorite winter activity by far. Starting a skiing or snowboarding tradition requires a bit of cost and effort up-front. But resorts understand that to know skiing is to love skiing, so they'll often offer beginner packages of rentals, lessons, and lift tickets to entice you to try it. For example, many places have specials for January to encourage people to learn to ski and snowboard. Here's a list of places that offer downhill skiing and snowboarding.
If you're starting out with young children, look for ski school programs that emphasize fun and offer plenty of breaks, dress warmly, and pack extra snacks!
Tips for Enjoying Winter Sports
Commit to Equipment
Seasonal equipment rentals that run from November through March often cost about the same as renting for three separate day trips, and they also mean that you'll save time, have equipment that's consistent all season, and you'll always be ready to get out there! Most equipment retailers who rent allow for trade-ins if your child has a growth spurt, too. Secondhand shops, Craig's List, and appeals to friends or "buy nothing" groups via social media can yield skates, snowshoes, and skis at a fraction of the cost of full-price or rental fees.
Dress appropriately for the weather
You know what they say: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." Layering is always recommended, since you'll be warming up with all the activity. If you are new to cold weather, a good outfit for outdoor fun might include extra-warm ski socks, two layers of long underwear and ski pants on the bottom, and two shirts, a cozy sweater, and a coat on the top half. Waterproof mittens and a balaclava are great for warmth, and whenever it's appropriate, consider a helmet and goggles instead of a hat. They're not only safe for high speeds, but they're super-warm. And keep in mind you've got layers for a reason: if your child complains that they're hot after some activity, let them remove a layer!
Don't Overdo It
Especially if your kids are very young, plan brief outings. If weariness or frustration starts to set in, don't push your children, because even if you get more time outside today, they'll be less enthusiastic next time. If you are snowshoeing or cross country skiing, keep your distance short enough that your destination is always in sight for the first one or two outings. A ski instructor I know recommends just letting young children try to move around and climb up and down small slopes by the lodge at first or even wear only one ski at a time to get a feel for skiing the first time.
Don't Underdo It
If you or your children are trying an activity for the first time ever or even for the first time this season, it can be tough to get started. You'll inspire real love of a sport if your kids get a chance to do it regularly. Enroll in a weekly class or take a few days off for a sports-centered vacation and you'll be amazed by how much everyone will improve. That means your kids will see their effort pay off quickly. So they'll get a valuable lesson along with more fun for the future.
Relax and Enjoy!
Remember that you don't have to do it all or learn it all in one day. Try to end on a high note, and then talk about what fun you had and what challenges you faced together. Even the most uncommunicative teenager will be bursting at the seams to report Mom's wipeout to the rest of the family over snacks later, and that's all part of the fun.
Katie Beltramo, a mother of two, is Communications Director at Kids Out and About-Albany and blogs at Capital District Fun.