Backcountry Skiing with Kids in the Northeast

Backcountry skiing is growing in popularity, but what do you do when you have kids? If you backcountry skied before kids, you might think it’s not possible now. If you never tried this aspect of the sport, can you start with your kids? And if you live in the northeast and are only finding advice about the west, then what? I’ll answer your questions about gear, safety, and where to take your kids ski touring so that you can have safe and fun adventures in the backcountry, even in the northeast.

Family standing by picnic tables in front of a snowy alpine landscape.
One reward for skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is the amazing views of the ravine from Hermit Lake Shelters.

As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Gear for Backcountry Skiing with Kids

This is a brief overview of the gear you’ll need to go backcountry skiing with kids. Definitely check out our longer post on alpine touring (backcountry skiing) gear for kids.

Skis, Boots, and Bindings

You and your children will need skis for backcountry skiing. Unless you already know that you will do a lot of backcountry skiing, I definitely recommend just using their regular alpine skis, boots, and bindings. The only exception would be if you are interested in doing backcountry touring on the more cross-country type trails in the Northeast (more on that below), in which case, definitely get edged cross-country skis and appropriate boots for your child.

If you are serious about doing a lot of backcountry skiing that requires downhill type gear with your kid and want to invest in backcountry specific gear, check out White Mountain Ski Company for recommendations. They are super knowledgeable and carry skis, boots, and bindings in child sizes. We also highly recommend Skimo.com for great gear for the whole family and recommendations.

We have had some luck with strap on plastic play skis, but don’t recommend them. It wasn’t the best decision we ever made to have our then 6-year old hike 7 miles on plastic strap on skis for our kids’ first winter hut trip. (But the sled situation for our then 4-year old wasn’t that much better. She spent as much time in the snow as on the sled.)

Dad backcountry skiing with kids with  across a frozen pond.
We used a sled and plastic strap on skis for our first tour with the kids. We recommend investing in better gear.

Adapters

If you go with the approach of using alpine gear for your kids for backcountry skiing, you’ll need to get them adapters for their bindings to go into hike mode. The alternative is hiking in snowshoes and carrying skis, which is much less pleasant. We have and recommend Contour Start Up Adapters.

Contour start up adapter
The Contour Start Up Adapter keeps us from having to buy new in bounds and touring skis every year.

The Contour Start Up Adapters are simple but effective at their job. They are basically two plastic pieces with a hinge between them. The upper one has adjustable metal attachments (like a step-in crampon) for a boot to go in and the bottom one steps into the ski binding like a boot; it also adjusts to the binding size.

The simplicity of the system and the adjustability means that your child can use the same adapter from sole length 245 to 305 mm. It’s relatively easy to use and lightweight enough (just under 1 lb per adapter), meaning that it’s pretty simple to remove the adapters and throw them in a pack for going downhill.

I have two main complaints about the adapter. The first is that the metal bindings for the boot can get loose over time and pop out without notice. The second is that my kids seem prone to a twisting fall when climbing, which can easily release the entire set up from their skis due to relatively low DIN settings on kid skis. Neither of these are deal breakers but it can be frustrating for the kids.

The low cost of entry, ease of use, adjustability, and growth with child for the Contour Start Up Adapters far outweigh my complaints about them. They are an easy way to introduce a child to backcountry skiing without investing in yet another set of gear they will quickly grow out of.

Skins

If you are using alpine skis or touring skis (not the edged cross-country ski variety), you’ll need climbing skins. We bought narrow skins on eBay, cut them longer than the kids needed, and bought skin clips from White Mountain Ski Company to attach them to the kids’ skis. We also used bailing wire to make the tips one year. This worked pretty well, but I don’t recommend doing it at the start of the hike. It’s much easier to get this accomplished at home. We made the skins purposefully too long, even though they stick slightly less well, because the extra folded over material can be used to lengthen the skins with ski size upgrades.

Clothing

When you’re backcountry skiing, you need to be dressed for hiking (being warm), sitting (getting cold), and skiing down (potentially either very warm from working in deep snow or very cold from an easy ski out). This is true for both you and your kids. For lots of details on getting kids dressed for outdoor activities, check out these posts on Affordable Family Ski Gear and Best Winter Gear for Kids.

We tend to dress the kids in long underwear and ski pants on the bottom. They won’t be taking their ski boots off so avoiding changing pants in useful.

On the top we have them layer long underwear and their ski jacket. Usually they skin up with their jacket open, but they can zip it up for longer stops. If it gets really warm, sometimes they take their jackets off. 

We usually take a thin beanie and thin mittens gloves for going up and pack their helmet, neck warmer, mittens, and fleece in their packs for the way down. TMM posts on Kids Winter Hats: Beanies to Balaclavas and Best Kids Gloves and Mittens will have lots of ideas on these accessories.

Don’t forget a helmet just because you’re not in bounds. We carry helmets up and wear them for the way down. Our kids have Smith Glide Jr MIPS helmets and really like them.

Avalanche Beacon

There are more details about this below, but you and your child(ren) should always wear beacons when touring.

Boy skinning up a trail.
Sometimes the kids get warm skinning, so we have to dress them in layers. His beacon is under his fleece and you can see the Contour Start Up Adapter on one boot.

Headlamp, Shovel, Probe, and Other Safety Gear

If you are skiing at a ski area before opening or after closing, it is likely to be dark, so a headlamp for everyone is a must for safety. In addition, you should always carry gear for safe backcountry travel. See the TMM post on Hiking Safety for Kids.

Safety When Backcountry Skiing with Kids

We teach our kids that safety comes first through fifth. Once you’ve covered safety first through fifth, you can know that any fun you have will be safe. Here are some tips for keeping your family safe when backcountry skiing with kids. Of course also be sure to brush up on 8 Ski Safety Tips for Kids.

Wear Transceiver (Avalanche) Beacons

We always wear transceivers, even the kids, even though they have not been in any areas with significant avalanche danger. This is partly about teaching kids to be safe so that they don’t question whether or not to wear the beacon as they get older. If you always do it, then you don’t have to make those choices. Beacon practice in a field can be a fun way to pass an afternoon early in the season before there is enough snow for touring.

We have Black Diamond Guide Transceivers for the adults and older BCA Tracker transceivers (link is for newer one than we have) for the kids. We feel ok having the kids wear two-antennae transceivers rather than the more modern three antennae transceivers because even if we were in avalanche terrain, we make decisions about ski order that should never leave a child being the sole person digging an adult out of an avalanche. The transmit part of the older beacons still works completely fine and is compatible with modern three antennae transceivers.

Check Avalanche Forecasts

In the Northeast the only avalanche center is the Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC). Their forecasts are specific to the Cutler River Drainage, on the Pinkham Notch side of Mount Washington. Obviously the further you are from their forecasts, the less reliable they will be. However, it is still a good habit to check the forecasts regularly and to read the analysis about storms. The snow rangers at the MWAC have told me that that with the explosion of backcountry skiing in recent years, more avalanche centers are in the works. The Backcountry Touring in the Northeast Facebook group is an additional crowd-sourced place to find informal avalanche reports and trip reports.

When we are in the White Mountains and planning to backcountry ski, we check the forecast with our kids every day. We discuss what the forecast means and how that translates to where we want to ski. We also model good decision making by changing plans if the forecast looks potentially risky. For example, if there is a high chance of wind-loading on east facing slopes near ridge tops, we will change our plans to ski a west facing slope well below ridgelines.

We have also taught our children how to dig snow pits and look at snow layers. We did this as part of a Winter Unit Study one winter. The process of observing snow is good for both their science and their backcountry skiing skills.

Hike Safe Cards

If you are going to do any backcountry skiing in New Hampshire, it’s a good practice to buy a family Hike Safe Card every year. These cards act as a bit of an insurance policy for NH Fish and Game and mean that, except in cases of extreme negligence, you will not be charged for any backcountry rescues.

Where to Go Backcountry Skiing with Kids in the Northeast

The two best resources I’ve found for backcountry skiing in the northeast are the Backcountry Touring in the Northeast Facebook group , the book Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, and Granite Backcountry Alliance. The ski shop, White Mountain Ski Company, also has tons of resources (and good coffee).

As you look for an area to ski, remember that your kids having fun is going to make them want to do this again but if you bite off more than they can chew, they might hate the experience and not want to try again. Learn from my mistakes (some of which are outlined below, and the plastic ski experience described above) and choose modest goals for your kids.

I have organized the options for backcountry ski locations roughly by commitment and difficulty.

Girl in pink pants and teal jacket skiing on a driveway.
We practiced skinning in the driveway before going on any of the tours I describe below.

Skinning at Operational Ski Areas

Currently operational ski areas is a really great way to introduce you child to ski touring in a familiar, safe environment. If you go to an area that you already ski at regularly, they will be on familiar terrain and not have quite so many new things to learn. This makes it easier to focus on the new skill: skinning up the hill.

We happen to mainly ski at Mount Sunapee, and consequently, other areas on the Epic ski pass. The Vail Resorts’ policy is that you can ski uphill before opening or after closing. They typically have a large sign near the parking lot with a clearly posted uphill ski policy that states when you can ski uphill (aka skin) and on what trails.

Normally the easiest trail to the summit is the designated uphill trail. Early in the season uphill skiing might be restricted because of snow making operations or because the uphill ski route is not yet open. It is important to follow these policies so that uphill skiing continues to be allowed.

Everyone in the group should wear a headlamp when skinning and skiing back down before or after normal operating hours. Groomers and snow makers work during these times and it is important that they be able to see you.

Some ski areas allow uphill skiing even during the day. I know that my sister skins at Killington during regular operating hours. Amelia skis locally at Snow King Mountain which amazingly allows uphill travel at any time on designated trails. If you are able to do this, be sure to stay to the far edge of ski runs for the safety of both you and others on the slope.

As an example, here is a compilation of uphill policies for NH ski areas. Be sure to check the ski area website before heading out to make sure that the policy hasn’t changed. Some areas require a regular ski pass to ski uphill while others sell uphill tickets that are much cheaper. The key is to check the rules for area you wish to ski at.

Closed Ski Areas

One of the best places to backcountry ski with kids in the northeast is at closed ski areas, some of which are now community run backcountry locations. Our favorite is Ascutney. Ascutney closed in 2010 and the chair lifts were sold to other local ski areas.

The local community created Ascutney Outdoors, which bought a pommel lift and runs a small ski area and tubing operation on the bottom half of the mountain. The new Ascutney opened in 2015.

Ascutney Outdoors also maintains trails on the upper parts of the mountain cleared for backcountry skiing. There is a clear uphill skin track to the top. If you want to get some assistance, you can take the pommel lift halfway up the mountain. There is a small shed (the top of a former chair) at the top and a basic base lodge at the bottom.

Ascutney was the first place we took our kids ski touring and we highly recommend it and similar locations for others looking to introduce their kids to backcountry skiing.

Girl in pink pants and teal fleece skiing up a snowy trail with two people ahead.
Ascutney is a community run ski area that has backcountry skiing on the upper parts of the mountain. It was a great first tour for our family.

Ungroomed Cross-Country Ski Trails

The Zealand Trail, trails in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, Wildcat Ski Trail, Wildcat River Trail, and the Avalanche Brook Ski Trail are a few of the extremely popular ski trails for light weight, edged, cross-country skis. They are relatively flat ski trails that take you past gorgeous terrain at a higher speed than walking.

With the Pemigewasset Wilderness and Wildcat River Trail, you can add in an overnight to one of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts open in the winter and accessible by skis: Zealand Falls Hut and Carter Notch Hut. (Lonesome Lake Hut is also open in the winter but the trail to the hut is not ski accessible because of large rocks.) Other options for winter hut trips with skiing include the Maine Huts and Trails and the AMC Maine Ecolodges. These trails are written up in Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.

Dad and child skiing across a snowy bridge.
The Zealand Trail to Zealand Falls Hut makes a great introduction to backcountry cross-country skiing with the option for an introduction to winter cabin camping at Zealand Falls Hut.

Old CCC-era Trails

During the 1930s, one of the New Deal projects was the Civilian Conservation Corps. This group built some extremely high-quality ski trails in the White Mountains that are still operational today. Several are written up in Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.

The old CCC trails are kind of narrow and windy, but usually not much steeper than a blue trail in bounds. Because the trails are fairly popular and have people going both up and down, the trails don’t hold lots and lots of powder, making it easier for kids. This is especially true for New England skiers who are more used to manmade snow and groomers than natural powder.

We have taken our kids to the Tucker Brook Trail on Cannon Mountain and Sherbourne Ski Trail on Mount Washington. I have also skied the trail to the Gulf of Slides, which is similar.

Tucker Brook Trail

This trail goes from the top of Cannon ski area (and the mountain) to the back side of the mountain among the cross-country trails south of Franconia, NH. It’s several miles long and descends over 2000 feet. It was used as a race trail in its early days. There is a great description of the trail and its history in Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.

If you are otherwise skiing at Cannon, it’s possible to end the day taking this trail down to the base of the mountain. If you do this, it’s smart to move your car to the end of the trail because it’s easier to get someone to help you with the ride back to the Cannon base area when you are starting in the ski area parking lot then when you end at the more remote cross-country ski area.

We have only skied this trail once, and because of a late start and long drive, we only made it about halfway up. That being said, the kids loved it. The trail was manageable for them but the twists, turns, and narrow-ness made it quite an adventure.

Two children and their dad on a ski trail.
We loved the CCC-era Tucker Brook Trail on Cannon Mountain.

Sherbourne Ski Trail (aka the Sherbie)

This is the trail up to the famous Tuckerman’s Ravine. It’s one of my kids favorite backcountry ski trails, partly because we can see it from Wildcat, one of their favorite in bounds ski areas.

The uphill route for this tour is the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail, which goes from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to Hermit Lake Shelters (aka Hojos because the old caretaker hut looked like a Howard Johnson). It’s just under 3 miles and ~2000 feet of vertical for the climb. This took us ~3.5 hours the first time we went with the kids.

Boy standing in front of a wooden railing in a snowy landscape.
The amenities at the Hermit Lake Shelters, including covered picnic tables and outhouses, make it a great tour destination.

The Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail is popular with skiers and climbers, so it is generally well traveled and a packed in trail, making it easier to navigate on skis. With the Hermit Lake Shelters at the top, you have a clear destination in mind that has picnic tables and outhouses. There are usually US Forest Service Snow Rangers from the MWAC and the Hermit Lake Shelters caretakers around too.

When the caretaker is around, there is a small store with fun patches and pins as well as safety items like headlamps and warm clothes. If you are feeling adventurous, this could be a fun place to introduce you kids to backcountry winter camping as well.

Hermit Lake is about a mile below the floor of Tuckerman’s Ravine and outside the avalanche zone for the Ravine, but it is squarely in the avalanche forecast area of the MWAC. If you do not have beacons, you should not travel uphill beyond the rescue gear cache above Hermit Lake.

We have always started our ski down the Sherbourne Ski Trail (the Sherbie) from Hermit Lake because you cannot skin from Hermit Lake to the floor of Tuckerman’s Ravine and the added boot pack time has never been attractive to us with our slow uphill speed (and bad weather on our last visit). We plan to spend a night at Hermit Lake Shelters on our next visit so that we have more time to go up and look at the Ravine.

The Sherbie is a really fun, fast trail that goes all the way back to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. There are short steep sections, but mainly it flows nicely and is easy to navigate. As it melts out in the spring there are several places that you can connect back to the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail to walk the rest of the way down. On our first trip, which took 3.5 hours up, we skied down in just 11 minutes.

Two kids in ski gear sitting on a picnic table bench with a snow field behind them.
From the Hermit Lake Shelters you have a great view of Tuckerman’s Ravine, one of the most famous extreme skiing locations in the East.

Gulf of Slides Ascent Trail

This is similar to the Sherbie and the Tucker Brook Trail, but it has a pretty long, flat runout, making it a bad choice for snowboarders, even with a split board. Once you are in the climbing/skiing parts, it’s a fun trail partly because there are no summer trails to this bowl. I found it really neat to visit an area that is open only in the winter.

Granite Backcountry Alliance Glades

The dense New England forests don’t lend themselves to tree skiing particularly well. In recent years the Granite Backcountry Alliance has been working with landowners to develop backcountry ski areas with thinned glades throughout New Hampshire. These are much steeper and more challenging trails than the CCC-era trails.

We tried the Maple Villa Glade area, basically right in North Conway, the first year our kids were backcountry skiing. I thought that doing a section of the area described as being good for “lunch laps” was far too easy for us since we were going out all day. So we proceeded to hike to the furthest reaches of the area. The hike up was hard. The kids kept falling over in the heavy snow and it took us into the early afternoon to get to the ridgeline.

Father and daughter skiing up a steep slope.
Sometimes on steeper slopes we have to ski right behind the kids to keep them from sliding backwards.

Once there, the slopes were much, much steeper than they had skied before and the snow was untracked. Making matters even worse, it was late March and although the snow fall was recent, it was extremely heavy (think mashed potatoes). Both kids and my husband, who had recently transitioned to skiing from snowboarding, spent a lot of time upside down in the snow. Our daughter, then 7, started with saying it was a triple black diamond, then eventually settled on it being “a pyramid of black diamonds”.

Two children fallen over in the snow among trees. Their dad is standing between them.
Maple Villa Glades was a bit more difficult than we anticipated. My daughter described it as a pyramid of black diamonds. Don’t be deceived by the upright dad in the photo – he was in the snow just seconds before I snapped the photo.

We safely made it back to the car but it was already sunset by the time we got there. I still regularly hear about the pyramid of black diamonds as the toughest ski run she has ever done.

I think that we can try a glades area again, but I want to be more careful with choosing one that adults can do during their lunch hour or at most in a short half-day. If we finish quickly, then a mug of hot chocolate in town will be a great way to cap off the day.

Mountaineering

With older and more experienced kids, venturing into Tuckerman’s Ravine and the Gulf of Slides can be a great way to test their ski skills. These are mountaineering areas though, so definitely make sure they have more avalanche gear (shovel, probe) and the knowledge about how to use it. An ice axe is really helpful in these settings as well.

The hazards go beyond avalanches though, as late in the season there is a stream hole that opens up in Tuckerman’s Ravine (MWAC calls it a crevasse since there aren’t glacial crevasses to worry about).

The best information I have found on these test-areas is the Backcountry Touring in the Northeast Facebook group and the book Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast,, plus of course staying up to date on MWAC recommendations.

We hope to take our kids to the floor of Tuckerman’s Ravine (Tucks) this coming winter, when they will be 9 and 11. We will encourage them to ski some shorter runs but will not push them to ski any of the chutes before they are ready. I was nearly 37 before I skied Tucks, and I don’t see any reason to push the kids to try the chutes before they are ready. That being said, both kids are super excited to see Tucks and to be in such a famous ski area.

Man starting a snowboard run into Tuckerman's Ravine.
To redeem my husband from the ski photo above, here is he dropping into Tuckerman’s Ravine. Tuckerman’s Ravine is the premier extreme ski location in the East and not to be taken lightly with kids. But, it is a great goal to work towards.

Fun Backcountry Skiing with Kids in the Northeast

In conclusion, don’t be intimidated by the lack of wide open slopes in the northeast. Skiers have found great opportunities for backcountry skiing even in the dense forests of the region. We have taken our kids on ski areas (former and current), old CCC trails, ungroomed cross-country trails, and glades. When they are older, we will take them to mountaineering areas.

Related Articles

Backcountry Skiing with Kids in the Northeast

© 2024, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.

Author

    by
  • Amanda, her husband, Josh, and their children, Colby and Lua, live in Oberlin, OH where Amanda is a Geosciences professor at Oberlin College. Amanda's parents live in New Hampshire and so they spend a lot of time there as well. They take advantage of homeschooling to maximize outdoors time for everyone. Amanda grew up in Hong Kong and spent summers in New Hampshire, where she found her love for nature. Pursuing a PhD in geosciences to study why Earth looks the way it does and how people change those processes was a natural outgrowth of her love for being outside. Their outdoor sports sort of follow seasons: the winter they love to ski, in the fall they race cyclocross, in the spring they ride bikes on day trips, and in the summer they rock climb, bike tour, take overnight canoe trips, and backpack.

1 thought on “Backcountry Skiing with Kids in the Northeast”

Leave a Comment