by Bruce Butterfield
Over the years, I’ve been asked for, and given recommendations, on kid’s equipment and techniques to many parents trying to get their kids involved in skiing. I thought it would be helpful to compile a somewhat comprehensive list of what we’ve gone through, what worked and what didn’t for the benefit of anyone interested. This is by no means the only or best set of guidance – it’s just what worked for us.
For reference, my daughter is now 17, a solid 3 eventer, and excels at tricks. My son is now 14, also a solid 3 eventer and absolutely loves to jump!
I’ve found that success depends on many things. Obviously each child’s basic athleticism, desire to improve and personality are at the top of the list. Often the make or break factors are parents’ attitude, equipment, and learning strong fundamentals before moving on. These make or break factors are all within the parents’ control!
So now for some free advice! I’ll attempt to use chronological order and try to explain rationale and offer some do’s and don’ts along the way.
A great thing I did with both kids was use a pair of “traditional” trainers – 48” long, regular width and tied together in both the front and rear. (In hindsight, I think the U shaped skimmers are probably easier to use.) Tie a 10-15’ section of ski rope to the crossbar and a short handle section from the crossbar to the skier's hands. Put them on the platform facing the left side, grab the towrope with your right hand about 3’ from the crossbar and the kid’s vest with your left hand. Have the driver put the boat in gear and lift the kid from the platform to the left side of the boat while pulling the towrope with your right hand. Hold the vest as needed to keep them stable and they are skiing! Really all you are doing is gradually getting them comfortable on the skis and over the water – the kid doesn’t have to do a thing except stand there and try to be still. For a 2yo, a few seconds of this, then lift them back on the platform and you’re done until next time.
As they get more comfortable, gradually release the vest with your left hand and feed the rope out until they are a few feet back from the boat. If they get scared or are ready to stop, just pull them back in and lift them back on the platform. If they start to fall, just release the rope and let it go back in the water. Be sure to laugh and cheer if they fall. It’s critical that they get the idea that this is fun and not something to be scared of. I cringe at the helicopter parent that worriedly exclaims “Are you alright? You didn’t hurt yourself did you?”
Having the boat in gear at idle is fast enough to start, and as you let the skier back, you may want to increase the boat speed from “just in gear” to a fast idle. Just enough to keep them on top of the water.
When each child is ready for this varies a lot. My daughter was doing this consistently when she was 2, but my son really didn’t like it and he was around 4 before he started to think it was fun and we didn’t push him. Now the very cautious one is a jumper. Go figure.
As they get comfortable behind the boat, the next step is to do deepwater starts with the rope still tied to the front crossbar. As they are behind the boat at a fast idle, have the driver go to neutral and let the kid slowly sink, then back in gear for a deepwater start. As long as you keep tension on the rope, they should be able to maintain some enough balance to start up again. Next is to have the skier start to hold the rope. Untie the rope from the front crossbar and have the skier hold the handle while you are still holding the rope in the boat. This is mainly so you can let go in a fall instead of having the rope on the pylon. This is the phase that you really have to adapt to child. There are no hard rules here and use of a boom may help for a set or 2.
Get REALLY good on 2 skis.
Once you separate the trainers (or wide shaped skis – more on those later), encourage the kid to cross the wakes and pull up as far on the boat as they can, then cross back to the other side.
One fun thing that my daughter did when I tried to circle the boat on the end of the lake and keep her skiing, was right as the boat was finishing the 180 turn, she would pull to the inside and drop right in the middle of the 3’ high wakes just to bob up and down. It drove me nuts since it meant extra time for stopping, going back and another start, but that was one of her favorite things to do. Another important lesson I learned in parental patience and not to take things too seriously!
The boat speed at this phase should be 10-14 mph. Be sure to use a lightweight rope!
At the speeds you will be going when progressing on 2 skis (10-14mph), the wake even on a good slalom boat will seem like they are about 3’ high! A traditional slalom rope is very heavy and will drag in the water and catch on the wakes as the child crosses. If you don’t have, or don’t want to spend the $ for a junior slalom rope, go to Home Depot and get 100’ of ¼” nylon rope and cut to 75’. I did this and even added loops for 15, 22 and 28 off for later.
My daughter used the separated trainers and learned to run the course from 10mph to somewhere in the high teens before learning to slalom. This is a fundamental basis that I believe is critical to longer term success.
However, when my son progressed to crossing the wakes on 2 skis, we ran into an unexpected problem. Did I mention that the wakes at 10mph are 3’ high? When he crossed the wakes, the skis would be slightly flat and would submarine in the trough and send him faceplanting out the front. Fortunately the slow speeds didn’t hurt, but it was very frustrating. Remember its important to keep kids having fun and avoiding frustration as much as possible.
At the time, wide shaped skis were becoming available, but I had always dismissed them as being for very overweight and/or unskilled people. Not something any serious skier would ever think about using! Another skier had a pair of the Obrien Junior Vortex that were not being used and offered to let us try them. WOW! They stayed on top of the water and rode over the wakes with ease. They are also surprisingly controllable. He progressed to running the course starting at 10mph and finished close to 20mph on 2 skis before transitioning to slalom.
I’m now a full believer in the wide skis!
Age 6 on the wide pair!
The transition to slalom
The old ways are still the best – ride on 2 skis and do the “skier salute” lifting one ski out of the water for as long as you can. If your child can do this comfortably, dropping a ski will be a snap. Once they can drop a ski and ski around the lake several times, they will be ready for the deepwater starts.
Probably the most important part of starting to slalom is the equipment. You have to keep in mind that the normal ski size vs skier weight and speed recommendations are way off the map when you are talking 50 lbs and 12-15mph. For little kids, the more surface area the ski has, the easier it will be. The typical “junior ski” from many manufacturers is 59-60”. The kids I’ve seen on that size ski really struggle to generate speed and sink in the turns. The kids on high surface area skis are the ones that seem to be out there all day long! My daughter went from the small trainers to a 64” Kidder Supreme and used that until she was getting to max speed of 30mph.
Age 6 - the 64” “adult ski” has lots of surface area for slow speeds.
My son went from the pair of wide shaped skis to a single of the pair up to somewhere around 20mph, then to a 64” KD 3000.
Age 7. The wide shaped skis work great for learning the course. I saw a G1 run into 25mph on a wide ski at Nationals a few years ago.
Once they hit max speed (30-32mph) and start to shorten the rope, now the more traditional size rules start to apply. I think each was somewhere around 70 lbs and went to a 62” D3 RCX. That particular model is an awesome kid slalom ski.
Age 10 on a “real” kid slalom ski
So bottom line when learning to slalom is either a wide shaped ski or a forgiving adult ski (D3 or Radar are the best) in the 63-65” range. Stay away from the “higher performance” skis that tend to be more radical and hard to ride.
Tricks are for kids!
Absolutely, positively, one of the best things you can do for an aspiring skier is to get them to trick. Tricking has a major impact on the skier’s balance on the ski and will really improve slalom and jump, as well as a big increase in the fun factor. As soon as the skier can do a deepwater slalom start and comfortably cross both wakes, its time to start tricking.
When we started, we asked several parents who had recently gone through that phase, as well as some reputable coaches. The advice was very consistent: 1) go straight to 1 ski and 2) go straight to a hardshell. When you think about this it makes a lot of sense. Two trick skis are really unstable and the falls can be painful with the splits or a ski whacking the other shin. You save all that with 1 and really don’t sacrifice any learning opportunity. For tricking having a snug binding that connects you to the ski is important, even for beginners. Getting a rubber binding to fit kid’s feet is a challenge to say the least.
For kids under about 90 lbs, a 40” ski is the right size. If you happen to have a 41-43” on the ski rack gathering dust, that’s fine to get started. Again the key here is surface area – more is better. More surface is easier to get up on and more stable. You really aren’t concerned with turning faster that a smaller ski would theoretically allow. If you have 50lb kid tricking 3000 points, then maybe a 38” would be the right size.
For the hardshell, there is really only 1 choice: Reflex
Learning to trick is one situation where a boom is really helpful to get started. You can learn sideslides and backwrap on the boom, then repeat with a 5’ handle section off the boom. Then its off behind the boat to repeat those and jump the wakes and have fun. Speeds in the 14-16mph are typical depending on weight.
Surprisingly, pretty much as soon as a kid can cross the wakes on a trick ski, they will be ready to start riding with the toestrap and learning the basic toe tricks. At this stage, you won’t even need a release – just hold the rope in your hand and let go if the skier falls.
Age 11. For those of us that learned to trick later in life, it’s amazing how fast kids can learn tricks.
Of course kids need to have fun to maintain interest, even more so than adults. So take the time to let them play around with other kids. Double or triple skiing is a big favorite and can help kids of varying ability levels get on the water together.
Its also great to get their non-skiing friends around to see what its like. I have a pair of the 67” shaped Obrien combos that I use to teach the kids’ friends. They are awesome and make learning much easier than equipment of years past. Most kids get up in just a few tries behind the boat. These are great for anyone over 100 lbs and any adults. For kids under 100 lbs, the 54” junior vortex wide combos work great.
What would skiing be without a little controversy and difference of opinion? Many of us who have been around remember the old days when the most common coaching for jump was “Wait later!” Fortunately for us parents, the changes in equipment, coaching and overall philosophy have improved tremendously since the days of waiting for either a huge jump or a major crash.
Age 9. Short skis and the mini-ramp!
The good news is that most parents shouldn’t even think about jump until the child reaches 9-10yo. Prior to that the kids simply don’t have the strength to control large jump skis or land from a 5’ drop and they will be better spending time on the slalom and trick skis. If you have access to cut down skis and a mini-ramp, that’s a plus, but I think physical maturity and time on the skis is just as good. When they are ready, most will want 72” jumpers and spend as much time as you can just riding the skis.
When you look at the prices of used jumpers on ski-it-again, you may think twice before getting out the sawzall and taking a foot off the tail of any jump skis! If your 8 or 9yo is really itching to jump, spend the time to go to a ski school that has cut down jumpers and a mini-ramp. Usually a few times over the mini ramp and they will be ready for the real thing.
Once they get semi-serious, probably the most common question is what size jump skis should they use? The absolute overriding rule on jump ski size is that child must be able to fully control the skis. The more control they have, the more confidence they will have, the more they will be pushing the skis for every bit of speed they can get. The less they can control the skis, the more scared they will be, they will be timid and more likely to have a major crash. Above all else, resist the well-intended advice to get bigger skis. Yes, the kid may gain a few more feet in distance, but will be at higher risk of a crash. Is getting 82” skis really worth going 56’ vs 52, but much higher risk of a crash?
I keep coming back to the simple fact that guys were going over 200’ on 72” skis. Recommending 80” skis for a kid going 70’ just doesn’t compute.
So my rules of thumb on jump ski size:
Starting out plopping through aggressive single cuts (50-60’): 72”
¾ to double cuts (28mph) up to around 100’: 76”
After that, seek expert advice, but remember the absolute rule above!
The absolute overriding rule on jump ski size is that child must be able to fully control the skis.
Other important points.
Before your child is ready to start skiing, I believe its important that they be very comfortable in the boat and think of it like home. I know many times its more convenient to leave the baby or toddler with someone else on shore while you ski, but that may turn out to be shortsighted. I’ve seen 4 and 5 year olds who have never been in a boat freak out when riding for the first time. I’ve also seen a correlation between kids who were left on shore and loose interest in skiing as teenagers. Kids who rode in the boat when very small tend to stay with the sport and are more likely to enjoy it in the long run. Yes, its anecdotal, and everyone’s situation is unique, but like many other things in life, the younger you start, the easier it will be. Its easy to put a baby in a carseat on the floor or use the belt from an old lifevest as a seatbelt once they are out of the carseat. They don’t need to be in the boat every time, but you do want them to be completely comfortable and happy in the boat.
Its never too early to start. My daughter had her first boat ride at 10 days old. My son had to wait a little longer – his first ride was at 3 weeks old.
I also believe its important they learn to drive the boat as soon as possible. Any kid older than a year or 2 can sit in the drivers lap and help steer (without a skier of course). Take the time to let your 7-10 yo putter around the lake. Let them steer while you control the throttle. Let them dock the boat (with your hands close by). Once they are ready to drive for a skier, start out with trickers if you can. By 10-12 they can be ready to drive for a skier in the slalom course if they have spent enough time driving around the lake and pulling trickers. Of course, you have to judge when your child is ready and NEVER ask them to do something they are not comfortable doing.
None of this is intended to be the Holy Grail to make your kid the next Nate Smith or Regina Jaques any more than private baseball coaching will make him the next Nolan Ryan. Many parents have had success with different methods and equipment, so be flexible. If you find something that works, go with it. The key is to make it fun, exciting and enjoyable so they will have the foundations to enjoy a lifetime on the water.