Cross-country skiing attracts all ages Exercise: Whether you go to a resort or find enough snow near home, this is a sport for the whole family.

Taking the Kids

February 25, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Their first time out on cross-country skis, Linda Hanna and her two kids got lost on the trail, eventually slipping and sliding back to their car. But even the aching muscles that followed didn't dim their enthusiasm for the sport.

"Getting lost just added to the adventure," said Ms. Hanna, a single mother from Boston. "The kids didn't want to quit at the end of the day. They can't wait to go again."

Ms. Hanna had brought Taija, 9, and Jikado, 7, to Vermont for a weekend of outdoor fun away from the city. She opted for cross-country touring rather than nearby alpine skiing because the kids had never been on skis before, and this was half the price.

More families around the country are taking up the sport for the same reason, report cross-country touring centers from Vermont to Colorado to California. It's possible to rent Nordic equipment and ski the centers' groomed trails for $20 a day (and considerably less for kids), according to the Cross Country Ski Areas Association. At many alpine ski areas, an adult lift ticket alone costs more than $45.

(For a directory of the nation's cross-country areas that will tell you which offer the most amenities for families, send $3 to the Cross Country Ski Areas Association at 259 Bolton Road, Winchester, N.H. 03470. You can also access the latest snow report and ski area information on the Internet at www.xcski.org )

Look outside

Of course, when there's a lot of snow, as there has been this season in many parts of the country, families can ski right out their back doors, at a nearby golf course or park.

After the January blizzard, some hardy New Yorkers were skiing down Broadway. Some in my Connecticut town put on their skis to go to the grocery store.

"Go out late in the afternoon around the house and have some fun," suggests Barry Smith, the head of the Professional Ski Instructors of America Nordic Education Team. "It doesn't have to be a big expedition."

Even if you've only got time to head out for a couple of hours -- that's probably as much as many kids can take -- the sport offers a good way to get in some family time away from the phone and television set.

Another plus is that this is something everyone, whether they're 7 or 70, can do together.

The sport isn't all work and no play either, enthusiasts promise. With new sleek equipment -- skis are half the length they were in the past -- and the chance to get away from the crowds at downhill ski areas, there are plenty of adventures to be had.

"People don't realize how much fun it can be going down hills on these little skis," says Barry Smith. Cross-country skiing can help a child become a better alpine skier by improving his balance and coordination. Growing numbers of families enjoy both sports during the same winter vacation.

"The popularity of cross-country goes along with the popularity of mountain biking and hiking," adds Jacqui James, a spokesman for the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Area above Lake Tahoe in California, the nation's largest. "People want to get out of the city and have a wilderness experience [with their children]. It is more low-key and spiritual than downhill skiing."

Appealing offers

Cross-country touring centers, for their part -- there are more than 500 in the country, including many guest ranches -- are working to entice more families. They are offering child care, children's trails and pint-sized rental equipment, including lightweight fiberglass sleds called pulks that parents can use to pull children too young to ski.

That all has definite appeal to aging baby boomers who are raising families.

There are now more than 3.6 million cross-country skiers. The majority are over the age of 35 and nearly half have children under 18.

"People want to do things with the kids that are good for them physically," observes Bob Schapp, who is host to many young families in the winter months at his Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Mont.

But even if you start the kids off when they're babies, many parents warn, their enthusiasm may wane when they get older, preferring the speed of downhill skiing.

"You have to work a little harder to make sure they have fun," says Denise Harnly, a community organizer from Seattle who has been out on the ski trails with her college-age kids since they were preschoolers and brought them up to enjoy both cross-country and downhill skiing.

Jim Chase, who publishes Cross Country Skier magazine, has shown his kids how to get Canada jays to eat right from their hands. (Call [800] 827-0607 to order the magazine.)

Make it fun

Remembering the thermos of hot chocolate helps, too. So does carrying a collapsible shovel so the kids can dig snow caves, adds Ms. Harnly.

Opt for sunny days and don't push the kids to go too far, suggests her daughter Heather, a senior at Princeton University. "Make it half skiing and half playing in the snow," she adds.

"As long as you've got some hills the kids can go down, they won't get bored," promises Mr. Chase.

That's provided the kids are dressed properly, of course. Rather than a bulky parka, they should wear layers starting with long underwear, a turtleneck, sweater and waterproof windbreaker and snow pants. The idea is that once they start generating their own body heat, they can easily peel off layers. Ski socks, a warm hat and mittens are essential.

They still may gripe along the way. But they'll remember the adventures years later.

Just ask 21-year-old Heather Harnly. She's got fond memories of skiing in to the family's remote cabin, digging elaborate tunnels with her brother and exploring spots they would otherwise never have seen. "Whenever I think about my childhood," she says, "winter times were special."

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