The coolest family vacation

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An abridged version of this ran in SKI this fall, but the part about the guy I almost killed got cut. So here’s to you…well, you know who you are.

“Can I ski this?” The question, asked with a smile that belied terror, came moments too late. A friend and I, on our first multi- family ski vacation together, had just crossed a knife-edged ridgeline traverse, and dropped into an unexpectedly steep chute. Above us, the sun ducked behind dark clouds. Below us, our kids were already a pack of distant, hooting specks, accelerating from view. Beside us, a snowboarder careened past in freefall, cursing his friend. Without even looking back I knew retracing our route on the goat path was not an option, so I gave my companion the only answer possible:

“You can now!”

An expert skier was born, as another vacation moment was cemented in memory.

I hadn’t planned on scaring the pants off anyone here. In fact for this vacation on my California turf I had envisioned (ok, even promised the New Englanders in tow), perfect days of sunny skies and cruising on velvety corn snow. Instead, every day we awoke to some form of inhospitable snow or weather conditions. Nonetheless up the mountain we went, at the opening bell, sometimes through a fogbank or into a pelting snowstorm. And every day, four families came off the mountain exhausted, having followed each other through powder, down steeps, over jumps, or into some unexpected situation. Instead of being ready to kill me by apres ski, they were ready for more.

Skiers don’t expect to show up and be entertained. They seek their own unique outdoor adventure, something beyond the well paved trip to the Magic Kingdom, or even the plush 5-star “resort experience” where the more you pay, the more isolated you are. Families that ski together embrace not only a sort of egalitarian social interaction but also an element of uncertainty. They are not averse to cold temperatures, inclement weather, sore muscles, rides with strangers, an entire season of bad hair days and the occasional lost bout with gravity. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty easy to have a good vacation with people like that. And as one friend on that trip observed, “If you start taking your kids early, you very well may still be going on vacation with them when they have kids. “

Of course, any family trip presents challenges. After two successive years of getting stranded with toddlers, first in Atlanta and then in Minneapolis, and spending the first day of each vacation at the Coca Cola Museum and the Mall of America respectively, my husband and I swore off holiday travel. But if you have kids, and they eventually go to school as the authorities insist, you too will be faced with the choice: Travel during high season, or don’t travel at all.

With family (and big snowy mountains) across the country the latter was not an option. And so, we have figured out ways to ease the pain. Whenever possible we fly the carrier with no baggage fees. Of course, to make up for the fact that said carrier also has no entertainment or food, we bribe the kids with unlimited and often inappropriate movies for their iPods and enough snacks for three days. Most importantly, we leave expectations behind and bring a healthy bring-it-on appetite for the unexpected. I even started routing ourselves through Las Vegas, hoping we’d get stuck and have to stay at the really cool giant pyramid we see from the air. Since then, we’ve never hit a snag.

To be sure, we have made our share of mistakes in reaching this point. We’ve lost children  long enough to initiate an APB with ski patrol, tumbled off cornices together, walked 2 miles home in socks, violated the last run rule (see below) to the point of tears, crammed into tiny rental cars, booked a condo with no pool or hot tub, and visited urgent care facilities across ski country, for everything from dog bites and head bangs to hot tub injuries and altitude sickness. But we have also been rewarded with unexpected and unique experiences, together as a family and now as a larger family of skiing friends. There is no better vacation for fostering both togetherness and independence.

You never know what memories are going to stick in family lore. The greatest crash ever by a person under 80 lbs, and the consequences of putting a firecraker in an egg in a snowbank were two of my personal favorites. Will “double ejecting at the top of North Bowl” or “hanging with the liftie until my parents found me” make the life list for my kids? Time will tell. I already know who won’t forget “the time you almost killed me in that chute.” That’s the kind of treasure you just won’t find in the Magic Kingdom.


Getting there is not half the fun. Pick the most direct route, and whenever possible do not take the last flight of the day into your destination. See Coca Cola Museum and Mall of America reference, above.

Just add water: When in doubt, book the place with the best pool and hot tub.

Pick a meeting spot: This can be in case of getting lost, or as kids get older a way to set them free until the appointed time. Ideally this is somewhere easily visible and fun. (Kids always find the cookie cart)

Down Time: Don’t push kids too hard, especially the first day, and expect to take at least one day off. Typically Day 3 is when fatigue catches up with everyone. Take a break and enjoy it.  Some of the best discoveries are accidental ones.

East Drink and be Happy: Heed the advice on coming up to high altitude and hydrate hydrate hydrate! Feed kids early and often. From breakfast, to breaks on the hill, to apres ski snacks, to early (and quick) dinners, remember that energy and mood go hand in hand.

Get Schooled: Good lessons from enthusiastic ski instructors can do wonders, especially if everyone is at different levels. Get the kids off in their lessons before you even think about getting your equipment organized.
Location location location: If you can afford it ski in ski out takes the stress level down several notches. If not, look for a place close to shuttle bus routes.

Buddy up: If you are lucky enough to travel with friends  and/or family – do it! The kids get motivation from their peers and  may find a little independence  while the parents may get a break in the action. And remind the kids that on the hill the buddy rule is in effect at all times. Stay together!

Scout it out: Explore new parts of the mountain with your kids before letting them go it alone.

Start Slow…: Don’t push your children to exhaustion day 1…But start early: Get out on the hill as early as possible and enjoy the day before trails get crowded and kids get cranky – whichever comes first! A hot cocoa break early may buy you more skiing time in the end. Once you stop for lunch, all bets are off.

Be realistic: Don’t have a fantasy about a family ski day during the vacation. Hope for a good day, and perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised with an epic one.

Quit before the last run: If you are on the fence wondering whether or not to take that last run of the day—don’t. End on a good note, with enough in the reserve tank.

Use phones judiciously: Cell phones are great for keeping track of everyone, especially in an emergency but you’ll miss the good stuff (and annoy those around you) if you’re on the electronic tether. And leave the electronic games off the hill.