My husband bought our son his first snowboard when he was three months old. It wasn’t a toy or novelty replica – it was a legit, tiny Burton snowboard with a little tow rope and proper bindings. He could have ridden it in a competition. This is not to say my husband is Andre Agassi’s dad, who taped ping-pong paddles to his son’s hands while still in the crib. Or Tiger Woods’ dad carting him around to TV shows as a two-year-old golf prodigy. He was just excited to take his kid snowboarding and those tiny boards are super, super cute (and some winters, hard to get).
We got him on the board the following winter – in the carpeted hallway of our condo. We’d put him in the bindings in his socks and tow him slowly up and down the hall, allowing him to feel his balance. The next winter, at two-and-a-half, we assumed we were in business. We’d seen tiny people zipping down the hill on skis, in giant helmets and bright snowsuits, with oddly serious expressions on their little faces.
Unfortunately, our son wanted nothing to do with it for more than one slide down the bunny hill holding our hands, and it didn’t take us long to realize that our ambitions for “family snowboard day” needed to be tempered slightly. Although we were desperate to resume our former, kid-free snowboard weekends, we settled for towing him around on flat ground or the little mound of park space in front of our condo.
Three-and-a-half years old: This is it. Right?
Not so much.
My husband and I are very experienced riders, but the reality of teaching a toddler or little kid snowboarding without guidance became quickly apparent. “Heelside” and “toeside” proved hard to explain to a small person, he hated the magic carpet and only wanted to ride the chairlift, and most kids don’t love to fall.
We needed help.
There isn’t an agreed-upon “right” age to start a kid snowboarding. Ski lessons start as young as 2-years-old, but skiing is a well-established sport with decades of evolution and teaching practice in place. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is just entering middle age. If you Google “kids and snowboarding,” you’ll find all a wide range of information, from dogma and ill-informed opinions to inspiring-yet-terrifying videos of fearless three-year-olds doing tricks. In real life, the experience of getting a toddler or little kid snowboarding is likely going to depend on a variety of factors unique to them.
Until the mid-to-late Oughts, it was thought that a child couldn’t learn until they were 7 or 8 years old. Vermont-based Burton Snowboards led a change in the industry by not only putting dedicated R&D into children’s hard goods (boards, boots, and bindings) but also working with resorts themselves on learning programs designed for young children. The company’s signature “Riglet Parks” are custom-designed areas and teaching staff where kids can learn the basics of riding and terrain parks, which are the areas in ski resorts filled with jumps, rails and other features for snowboarders to do ride over or do tricks on. Their Riglet board features a “Riglet Reel,” which is a small retractable tow rope you can use to pull a child around the snow or your condo hallway. (Check out their blog for a great video on starting your child indoors.)
Toddler & Little Kid Snowboarding Gear
Today, the combination of kids gear, instruction techniques, and special areas at resorts mean kids can learn freestyle basics right off the bat (making the sport more fun for them) and families can put their kids in programs built for – not adapted to – the sport. Families interested in snowboarding should be sure to go to a resort that has rental gear for very small children – a board that is too long is a fast-track to a bad experience. The initial output for buying equipment is roughly $300 CDN, so if you plan to go every weekend, it could be worth it and it avoids the hassle of rental lines. But on the other hand, renting is great for trying it out and avoids the constantly-buying-new-stuff challenge of fast-growing kids. The used market for kids’ snowboard equipment is red-hot, so if you see something, grab it quickly and ensure it’s not damaged or worn out. Don’t forget a helmet. Hockey helmets won’t cut it – proper ski or snowboard helmets with ear flaps are a must.
Proper outer and innerwear are also essential. A cold kid is a miserable kid. Technical-fabric long underwear (Uniqlo has affordable good-quality first layers), a warm sweater and a waterproof snowsuit is key, as are insulated nylon-outer mittens to which the snow won’t stick.
We thought we had okay mittens, but ended up spending $30 on long-gauntlet ski-specific kids Kombi ski mittens (critically, in the shape of penguins) on our first family trip because they were so much better.
Once you’re geared up, you may be able to put your child into a lesson if the resort you are at offers them for young children. Burton Riglet programs, which are offered across Canada, start as young as two. However, many snow schools do not offer snowboard programs for children that young and you may be on your own.
In that case – which is the boat we were in – one option is the MDXOne harness-backpack. We found ourselves in somewhat of a pickle in trying to do family snowboard days at resorts. We would buy lift tickets but spend our whole time trying to hold our son’s hands on the bunny hill, which we all hated. A friend of ours, former pro snowboarder and King Snow magazine editor Jesse Fox, told us about the MDXOne, a para-trooper style backpack and harness with a leash specially adapted for kid snowboarding. It has a handle on top, a retractable pet-style leash, and a strong bungee cord connection to the backpack, which provides gentle give.
For us, it was a total game-changer.
Sylvain Matte is the founder and owner of Ontario-based MDXOne. He found himself in a similar position, wanting to teach his 3-year-old son Maddox to snowboard but not wanting to spend the entire season on the bunny hill. A former snowboard instructor and competitive rider, he took inspiration from the harnesses used for another “sideways sport,” kiteboarding, and built a prototype harness with a child’s backpack, top-mounted grab handle, and dog leash. It worked. A decade later, he says the company receives videos of 14- or 15-month-old children using it to learn. (If you are wondering if a traditional ski harness will work, it won’t. The MDXone is designed to allow a child to stand sideways, with multiple configurations for progression.)
It does help open the mountain experience up for the whole family. There is a learning curve for the adult as you learn how to ride with the leash, but very quickly, you can start going on bigger runs. Equally important is the grab handle, which allows you to pick your kid up as easily as a shopping bag to get them on the chairlift or after they fall. The chairlift is the highlight of our son’s day, so being able to use it confidently and safely was huge for our family.
Sylvain has now expanded his brand with a book and accessories and says he is still thrilled to hear feedback from families. “We just wanted to teach our son to snowboard in a safe way, so we are very happy that now so many parents get to experience what we experienced when we taught our little guy. Family snowboarding is the best!”
For our family, the backpack bridged the gap between family snowboard days and the start of lessons, which we are starting this January. However, another couple we know, Laura and Jim Brace, (also former competitive riders and qualified instructors) have three kids who have all learned to snowboard under the age of 5. Three harnesses and two adults wasn’t an option, so their focus was on preparing the kids to get around independently, and get up after a fall, and they’ve been working on those skills for a couple of years.
Each child – their daughter is almost 6 and their twin boys are 4 – can now push their board up to the magic carpet, board it, dismount, and ride down the bunny slope. The angle of the bunny slope at Blue Mountain in Ontario is ideal for this – a gentle incline – and the kids also know now to fall when they get going too quickly and get back up. With three kids in the mix, our friend Laura said that was key to surviving and having fun during a family snowboard session. Two other tools they used are a book Eli and Mort Learn to Snowboard, and occasionally, a hula-hoop, which helped Laura and her husband Jim control the kids speed while simultaneously creating the room for the child to stand sideways.
Jesse Fox and his wife Laura took yet another tack, giving their son Archer, now 5, the chance to try both skiing and snowboarding and letting him pick. He consistently chose snowboarding, so they invested in gear and took an admirably strategic approach to not just teaching Archer but helping him learn to love a day at the hill. Fox says the following tips have helped foster such a love of snowboarding in Archer that he now gives Jesse a hard time about leaving the hill, not going to it.
Here are his top toddler and little kid snowboarding tips:
- Ensure you have hand and toe warmers for colder days (these little pockets can be purchased at most ski hills and at any outdoors shop).
- Have fun snacks on hand. A pocket full of jellybeans goes a long way. Give them one per run, and you’ll get more runs than you expected.
- Leave the mountain before they get tired or over it.
- Sometimes a Timbit on the way there gets them out of the house. Sometimes hot chocolate is a treat on the way home. It’s all about the experience.
- Kids will listen to anyone else more than their parents. Lessons were a huge help.
- Riding with other kids close to his age helped too.
- Encourage, praise, and set small goals. We try to do one or two little things to become better and more independent every time we go out. And will try to laugh about when it didn’t go the way we hoped.
- Early on, the MDXOne pack was a key tool for edge control, speed management, and confidence. We would place the harness in different places to concentrate on toe edge one day and heel the next.
- Consistency was key. We’d go for a couple of hours every week, rain or shine.
- Temper your expectations early on, especially when they’re younger than 4. But once they get it and can rip laps on their own, you’ll both forget about every time it felt like a struggle.
The Fox family’s experience and advice are something I wish I’d ask for two years ago. So, don’t repeat my mistake and be sure to ask trusted friends or social media contacts what their experiences have been, where they’ve gone, or what shops they’ve frequented for gear. At the end of the day, what I have always loved about snowboarding the most is the time spent with friends – there’s nothing better than a sunny day, a well-built terrain park, and a good crew. We can’t wait to rebuild that weekend routine again with our son a part of it.