14 Winter Skills Every Kid Should Know, According To Adventurers

From learning about layers to building snow caves, these are the skills these adventurous dads make sure to pass down.

by Doug Schnitzspahn
Brother and sister walking through forest in the snow.
Getty Images

Winter transforms the outdoor world into a playground. But the season and its activities require more knowledge and preparation than the warmer months. Those fun hikes can fall apart in a hurry when fingers get cold and the wind picks up. Worse, cold weather and snow can turn a fun day into a disaster in a hurry with the threat of exposure, frostbite, and even avalanches suddenly very real. And more advanced winter pursuits for older kids require training and smart decision-making. That’s no reason to be afraid of getting out there. It just means you need to be informed and well-prepared — and you will want your kids to understand how to keep themselves comfortable and safe, too.

So, what are the essential skills kids should learn to stay safe and have fun in the winter? For answers, we talked to a wide range of outdoor professional dads, from arctic explorers and mountain guides to adventure photographers with kids of all ages, and asked for the skills they’re sure to teach their kids. From learning about layers to identifying avalanche corridors, here’s what they told us.

1. Adapt To The Temperature

“My kids are outside all the time Nordic and alpine skiing, sledding, ice skating— in Crested Butte even recess for a middle schooler is an intensely cold winter sport. The big thing I try to emphasize with my kids — and, quite honestly, with my expedition clients as well — is to take off layers when they get too hot, and put on layers when they get too cold. It seems like a simple thing but being comfortable no matter the temperature or conditions is paramount in my professional life. It also makes any winter activity more enjoyable and fun—especially for the kids. The better you can moderate your body temperature, the more comfortable you are, the happier you are, and the more fun you have.” — Eric Larsen, Polar Explorer and Guide, Crested Butte, Colorado

2. Take Advantage Of The Season

“The biggest skill I am trying to teach my daughter about winter is to love it and appreciate it when it is here; to mourn it and be ok with crying and being sad when it is gone; and that, regardless of the conditions outside, we can have fun — snow or no snow.

The winter in Michigan has been frustrating this year. We had two record snowfalls and 100 inches of snowpack by early January in an area that averages only 120 inches a year—only to have all that snow melt off in a hurry because of cold rains and warm nights.

Snow is the priority when it is here. So we work on layering, staying warm, and dry—and going to enjoy the snow as soon as it falls for as long we can. We laugh, play, sled, ski, and build snowmen. But also, we sit in the stillness and enjoy the feel, the sight, the smell, and the sound of snow falling. Rosy cheeks and just the first tinge of what might be frostbite on our toes are the signs to come in.

We love blizzards in this house, but what they produce is not sticking around, so we are learning to mourn, to cry, and to be okay with playing in the mud and cold rain. We can have fun in that too. We are living in a transition.” — Stacy Bare, Executive Director, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Michigan

3. See Your Phone As A Tool

“The best thing, sadly, has to do with the one thing that hurts us the most these days: the smartphone. I think people should have some map/navigation app on their phone and be able to drop waypoints to, for example, the trailhead or their car. Then they should be able to find their way back to that waypoint. At the same time, they should understand that the battery is a limited resource that must be managed outdoors. I find the idea of limited resources is lacking with a lot of the young people I teach.” — Ívar F. Finnbogason, Special Ops. Mountaineering, expeditions and skiing, Icelandic Mountain Guides, Reykjavík, Iceland

4. Keep Your Socks Dry

“The number one winter skill that fathers can teach their kids is the importance of dry socks—and how they should always be worn with boots. I have found the only way to teach the importance of keeping your feet dry and warm is to let your children make a mistake in a low-consequence environment — maybe walking to the bus or sledding in the backyard.” — Eric Henderson; Owner Meteorite PR, and former Jackson Hole Resort Mountain Resort backcountry guide, Boulder, Colorado

5. Learn The “Language of the Mountains”

“I try to teach my kids the ‘language of the mountains,’ which is the concept that Mother Nature doesn’t hide anything from us humans — it's just up to us to see, feel, and hear all the signs and signals that are all around us at any given moment. Fluency is the goal: See all the things so you have all the data to make the right call. We talk about that type of thing a lot to the point I think they don’t really want to hear it anymore. But we’ve lost so many friends in the mountains I have to try and do my best to make sure it’s not one of my boys in the future.” — Chris Davenport Professional Big Mountain Skier, TV Commentator, and Guide, Aspen, Colorado

6. Stay Calm

“The key skills are the same for youth as adults: slow down, don’t panic, don’t make it worse, etc. As the saying goes, ‘Your best survival tool is in your head.’ If there was one thing, it might be to always be prepared to spend a night in the snow, which means physically with the right gear, and mentally accepting your reality. When our kids were younger the advice we gave was: Stay put, don’t wander, stay near the trail. With my kids now expanding their range into backcountry and side-country skiing, I focus on the mental/social dimensions particularly relevant to youth: Choose your adventure partners thoughtfully, keep track of each other, be aware of decision-making and peer pressure in the woods, and practice self-advocacy around risk-taking. Of course, that is essentially an extension of the same talk everyone gives kids about drunk driving, drugs, et cetera.” — Malcolm Daly, Founder of Paradox Sports and Great​​ Trango Holdings, Hailey, Idaho

7. Never Just Take

“Above all, I want my children to be comfortable moving and living in the mountains. More so than making the US Ski Team, I hope my children grow to understand and appreciate the nuances and privileges of mountain culture. Living in a mountain town isn’t about what you take from it. It’s about what you give back. My family and I intend to volunteer for clean up days and donate gear. I want them to learn the skill of empathy. It’d be great if they knew how to throw a mute grab on skis as well.” — Mike Rogge, Owner, Mountain Gazette, Tahoe, California

8. Dress And Drink For Warmth

“The best thing that I’ve imparted to my kids is how to dress and stay warm. Wear layers of non-cotton clothing. Know the value of a wind garment. If your feet are cold, put your hat on. If you have to, use heat packs, then you need to re-address clothing and hydration—or go back inside/get out of the wind to warm up. And hydration, too, is essential to your warmth.” — Jonathan Waterman, Author of National Geographic’s Atlas of the National Parks, Carbondale, Colorado

9. Control Your Fire

“Fire is elemental. All kids are curious about its power and mesmerized by its comfort. As a survival tool, every kid should understand both how to create it and control it. As wildfires become more prevalent across the American West, it’s become somewhat of a responsibility to pass on the knowledge of fire and its control.” — Luis Benitez, Vice President Government Affairs & Global Impact at VF Corporation, President of the VF Foundation, and former Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Denver, Colorado

10. Be A Part of Nature

“This is the thing about an essential winter skill, and I want to put it in the context of every season, but specifically winter: The most important and fundamental skill is to be able to spend some quiet time in a winter setting, whether a park, the forest, or anywhere void of all the things people have made, so we can feel what that ancient connection has been with our bodies and the outdoors through every sense. Through sight, smell, and just that sixth sense of being in nature and having your body feel it, everything else spins off of that. Being in this constructed environment we have has detached us from what it really feels like for our bodies to be a part of nature. Take some quiet time to just sense.” — Mike Carey President and CEO of Seirus Innovation, former NFL referee

11. Pack Like A Pro

“Whether way out there in the great outdoors or close to home, the key challenge to anticipate is exposure. And the best way to prepare for possible exposure is to dress accordingly and to keep ready access to any additional clothing and equipment. This means being prepared for changes in the weather. For the kid or the adult, the best and most fun action is to pack your daypack with all the cool stuff you can add to your outfit in case the weather — or your plan for the day — changes. Pack your favorite sunscreen and hat, in case the foggy morning turns into blistery heat by mid-day. Or stuff a compact but warm jacket into your pack in case you stay out longer than anticipated and suddenly face near-freezing temperatures.” — Dieter Tremp Senior Associate USA of Munich, Germany-based tradeshow ISPO, Bolinas, California

12. Bike In The Snow

“Kids love to ride bikes and they can do it all year long. Just keep the bike as straight as possible. Don’t make any sudden turns. Ease into the turn when you do. And remember: studded bike tires make it much easier. (And be sure to crack a lot of jokes when it’s -20.)” — Mike Horn, Founder and Creative Director at Noble Machines, Crested Butte, Colorado

13. Identify Avalanche Corridors

“When your kids have grown to the point that they can ski in the backcountry and sidecountry at a resort, it’s essential that they know how to identify avalanche corridors. Look for a lack of trees on slopes on the leeward side of mountains, a lack of trees of the same height and age in steeper areas on slopes, bent-over trees in the downslope direction, and a lack of branches on the uphill side of the tree. It’s a skill that’s valuable even if you don't backcountry ski since even winter hikers should be aware of avalanche dangers.” — Ross Carty, Managing Director at NOASC Adventure Tours, Niseko, Japan

14. Build A Snow Cave

“Building and sleeping in a proper snow cave is something we've been working on most every winter since our girls were just a few years old. It's great fun, too, both the building, and the sleeping. Exploring the backcountry on skis is another skill that comes to mind, including all that goes along with it—navigating the forest and mountain ridge lines, crossing stream beds and negotiating steep/ledgy terrain features, and then safely skiing down. We make this extra fun by seeking out rock and ice caves for snack breaks or to simply explore up close.” — Brian Mohr, Professional Photographer, Athlete, and Conservationist, Moretown, Vermont