It's all downhill...
November 17, 2013 4:30 PM   Subscribe

How do you make sure your kids have a good time sledding?

A few years ago my family moved to a climate with honest-to-god snowy winters and we're trying to enjoy what snowy winters have to offer. However, every time I go sledding with my kids (now ages 9 and 13) it ends in total disaster, with at least one miserable crying cold kid.

We're headed toward winter and today my younger mused about the suitability of a certain hill for sledding, and I thought: Jesus, there has got to be a better way than what we've been doing. Metafilter, I turn to you for help.

Obviously I dress the kids suitably for the weather (boots, snow pants, warm coats; scarves, hats, waterproof gloves) and try to arrange things to keep snow from getting up inside clothes as much as possible. I pretty quickly realized that I needed to teach them that hustling back up the hill will keep you warmer than plodding along, and that seems to prolong the fun a little bit, til they get tired and don't want to hustle. I keep a thermos of hot chocolate in the car to thaw kids out and lighten spirits with something warm and tasty once we are back in the car.

I'd just love to get back to the car one time without someone having a total meltdown first!

How to cold-climate-savvy parents do it? Do you just decide you're only going to be out there for 20 minutes and then end the sledding session before it gets ugly? Is there some gear that helps things go more smoothly (hand warmers? rocket-powered long underwear??) Hope me!
posted by Sublimity to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a parent, but hand warmers are inexpensive and all kinds of awesome (also the sticky toe warmers that go in your boots), and long wool underwear (long-sleeved shirts and long-johns) is an absolute must! Seriously, those two things have converted me from someone who hated being even a bit cold to someone who loves winter ascents, can't stop thinking about the next snowshoeing trip ("it's been four days without snow, and I'm getting antsy") and can't wait for skiing season to begin. Get them balaclavas instead of scarves, and coats with hoods that go over their hats.

And remember that it is essential to re-waterproof all gear and treat all boots with Sno Seal or something similar regularly so everything functions as intended.
posted by halogen at 4:44 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a Wisconsin-raised kid, I dunno. Maybe your kids just don't like sledding as much? I know that for some of my peers and their families even today there's not much that's a real deterrent to a good sledding outing. For myself, sledding isn't the problem, it's all the logistics of it, of course mostly the trudging back up the hill dragging a sled. But still, your problem here isn't gear. Maybe it's attention spans, but I hope not. Maybe your kids grew up without and didn't get into the thing. Maybe you need to go with friends or church groups or something where they have more kids they know. I think mainly your hot chocolate thing is a great idea, of course (the sort of thing that costs in prep but pays off in those first moments of steamy liquid warmth). I guess I'd suggest trying to anticipate more aggressively how soon someone's patience is going to run out and cut things short, using a keep 'em wanting more approach. Maybe try to make the actual sledding more of a thing, gamification of it, by having sled races or some sort of capture-the-flag goal to sled toward. Or build it into some sort of outing like ending at a favorite kid-friendly restaurant (or offering that as long as nobody whines).

I honestly thing psychology is your weapon here rather than technology. We didn't need no stinkin' hand warmers and all. Having the right level of fun, in my experience, was more than enough to get me to ignore even incipient frostbite.
posted by dhartung at 4:46 PM on November 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My kids sledded enthusiastically from age 2 in mid atlantic and midwestern cold places.
Honestly, I think the main thing might be to make *less* of a big deal about it. No cocoa in the car, not so many worries about the gear. It's more fun when it's cold and just kind of casual. The thrill going downhill is the whole fun. You hustle back up because you can't wait to fly again.

Over the years we've had a couple of disaster/crying times, but only because the sled hit something or someone got run over, and there was actual pain involved.

With kids aged 9 and 13, I'd basically sit in the car with a book and let them just go do it. I think the more your parent is trying to make it fun, the less you hustle on your own, or nonchalantly shake the snow out of your hat. At least, that was my own experience sledding as a kid -- then, parents certainly never were around for it -- and it's the way people here do it too -- let it really be the kids' thing. If anything: have them each invite a friend -- they'll be much more likely to hold it together and try to have fun if they're not just with a sibling and parent probably!

As for time: my own want to be out there for hours. Other people's kids often just want to go for a short time. Totally OK either way.
posted by third rail at 4:49 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Snow bibs are far superior to snow pants w/r/t keeping snow out of your pants. Also, if you're bundling them up too much, they're going to look (and feel) like Randy from A Christmas Story. Thin layers like UnderArmor or wool long johns will go a long way to keeping them warm without making them look like marshmallows; avoid cotton/fleece as they'll just get wet and stay wet. Wool is far better.

And yeah, sledding never really lasts more than 20 or so minutes before we're just done.
posted by cooker girl at 4:51 PM on November 17, 2013

Maybe the hill is not steep enough and it's not fun? How fast are they going?
posted by scose at 4:56 PM on November 17, 2013

We're headed toward winter and today my younger mused about the suitability of a certain hill for sledding

When I was growing up, there was always THE HILL that everybody went sledding on. There were always tons of other kids sledding, so there was always someone to play with. A big part of the fun is that you're playing with other kids. Are you just bundling up your kids and sledding down random (although potentially awesome) hills? Find THE HILL or invite some more kids out to play. Let them do their thing, no one wants to be the kid whose parents are hovering over them "making sure they're having fun." (Yes, they might get hurt; try to teach them how to not be dumb before you get to THE HILL.)

Also, seconding snow bibs over the snow pants without bibs. Long underwear might help, but in my experience, the cold wasn't as big a deal as long as you stayed dry.
posted by Weeping_angel at 4:58 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe stop sledding sooner while the kids are still having fun, so when hustling back up the hill turns to plodding call it quits, drink cocoa, discuss the runs they did have, get back in the car and come home. 10 minutes of fun is better than half an hour of fun and 10 minutes of bitching. I say this as someone that moved to the cold sledding climate from sunny Australia, 10 minutes of "fun" snow based activities are all I really enjoy before I'm cold wet and grumpy.
posted by wwax at 5:06 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Extra hats, gloves, and so on so they can be swapped if snow gets inside. This has made a big difference for my kids. I basically just throw everything we have into a bag and hand them dry ones as needed.

And accepting that some kids aren't going to be all-day sledders. I have friends whose kids can be out there for hours but my kids are good after a few runs most times.

Going with a group of friends is more fun than just the family. We have a park near us with a pavilion that is enclosed in the winter to be a warming station and that makes it nice-- kids who are done or taking a break can hang out there.
posted by not that girl at 5:09 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of things one could possibly do, but--ages 9 and 13? Really? At those ages, they're old enough to tell you which bits they don't like, whether they'd rather not go sledding at all, etc. I also say this because I grew up just a few minutes away from our good sledding hill and I'd personally mostly stopped enjoying it by the time I was eight or nine. Especially if they aren't big sporty types, a lot of running back up hills might just not be worth the trips back down.

That said, if you don't live particularly close, the one thing I can think is that bringing dry socks and gloves might help, even just to change into for the ride home. A whole ride home with soggy, cold feet would make me very cranky even now.
posted by Sequence at 5:10 PM on November 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Handwarmers for sure, if they get cold.

A shovel, so you can build ramps to jump off of.

The right sled for the conditions- sometimes the plastic are fastest, sometimes the old school flexible flyer, sometimes the innertube work best.

I usually wear snowshoes or xc skiis, and help the kids haul the sleds to the top- that's the part they hate most.

Really good hats and waterproof mittens - NOT GLOVES!
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:11 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Warm clothes, friends to sled with and cheap ass plastic sleds that go stupid fast. That's what keeps my two happy.
posted by Cuke at 5:14 PM on November 17, 2013

I agree with dhartung that this seems mostly psychological--I was an incredibly wimpy little sister (the whiney kind who was regularly beaned in the face with a softball) and yet never once remember having a meltdown during sledding. Our mom, who did not enjoy sledding, would never accompany us--she'd sit in the car or at the top of the hill with other moms keeping warm. Sometimes our dad would, but his whole attitude about the endeavor was, "gee whiz fun!"

I wonder if this might be the case where, if it makes sense in terms of neighborhood safety and culture, you let the kids go at it themselves, having the older one keep an eye on the younger. Personally, my best sledding memory is taking a walk to the grocery store with my sister when I was 10 and she was 15 in the middle of a blizzard late in the evening and us impromptu deciding to take off down our favorite sledding hill on plastic bags. That kind of fun can't really be manufactured by parents--in fact, the less parents have to do with it, the better.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:24 PM on November 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think the answer is probably that your kids aren't up for sledding in such long durations. There's nothing wrong with calling it a day while everyone is still having fun.

Granted I grew up in the South, but when it comes to outdoor snowy winter fun, I've got a solid half-hour in me, and then I'm liable to become a literal wet blanket.
posted by Sara C. at 5:48 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sledding was an All-Day event growing up, and the key elements I remember:

* strict Sled Hill rules (DON'T WALK UP THE RUN omg you want basically a sheet of ice so you can fly down as fast as possible, if you crossed the sled run halfway up the hill you were banned from the sled run for the day, seriously, this was a Big Deal in my family; we also had a no racing rule (too many collisions, competitions were mostly who could slide further @ the bottom of the hill), and ramps were allowed on the small hill but not the big hill)

* variety of devices (toboggan that grandpa or dad would happily lug up the hill after grandpa/dad + 2-4 kids sled down, I got a sled for Christmas one year that had a LIGHT that MOVED with the steering wheel OMG, grandpa would normally wax one toboggan and not the other, so we had a fast toboggan and a slow toboggan, lots of saucers and a few other sleds)

*Downtime OK (I had a habit of taking a sled or saucer, trying to slide as far as I could, and then faceplanting and eating snow for a while before trudging up)
posted by worstname at 6:51 PM on November 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up in major sledding country, and it sounds like you're probably doing much of what you can, but sledding is just not one of those things that you can necessarily do for hours and hours without freezing your ass off. Having a change or two of gloves can really help, though, since they tend to get wet the fastest, even if they're waterproof.

What kinds of sleds are you using? I don't know what high end sleds look like these days since my sledding days were in the 80s when the GT Snow Racer was ne plus ultra. The good thing about them was that they kept you from being in body contact with the snow so you didn't get nearly as cold and wet. Something that keeps the kids up off the snow would probably help.

Of course, the granddaddy of all parental contributions to the sledding experience was to bring your snowmobile out and pull the sleds and kids back up the hill so they didn't have to do all that plodding and pulling, but that's a high dollar commitment and not necessarily even legal depending on where your sledding hill is.

At the end of the day, though, if your kids only like to go sledding for an hour, take them for an hour and then take them home again -- that might be all they are up for.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:00 PM on November 17, 2013

I grew up with a medium-size hill behind my house, so I mostly sled down it with my siblings and neighbors on whatever piece of plastic we could find. (Usually, it was just those cheap plastic saucers that spin you around. In college, on a steeper hill, I learned that plastic cafeteria trays and even trash bags are also decent sleds!) Whenever my family went to the big sledding hills in our city, I actually hated the sledding experience. They were too crowded! The walk back up was too long! It was too slippery and required too much effort for 10 seconds of fun! Really, to me, it just wasn't fun anymore after about two rides down. I didn't hate sledding, I just liked it better when it was with fewer kids, and I had more, shorter runs. So I guess my advice would be to try out a few different sled types and hills. Remember, it doesn't have to be the longest or steepest hill, because then they can get the thrill more often and, importantly, quickly try out different methods to improve their speed or distance each run until they get it perfect.
posted by ilikemethisway at 7:32 PM on November 17, 2013

Bring friends along if possible, find a good hill that's nice and steep and has a nice long flat at the bottom and where other people will be sledding too, and get some good sleds that go really fast. My favorite sled types as a kid were the sno tube, the classic disc, and the swiss.

All are cheap, stupid fast, and let you go either feet-first or face-first as desired.

But honestly, your kids are 9 and 13? That's old enough that you can just ask them what's up.
posted by Scientist at 8:05 PM on November 17, 2013

Best answer: I have a hard time understanding this, too. I can personally recall continuing to sled enthusiastically long after I had lost the feeling in my hands and feet and my socks were festooned with ice dingleberries. However, I should note that even at its maddest I probably did not sled for longer than two hours at any one time. An hour is plenty.

It has to be fun enough to be worth it. I agree that finding the really excellent hill with the perfect slope is important. The presence of a lot of other kids makes it festive. Too many other kids, on the other hand, makes it scary and frustrating.

One thing that is different from my childhood experience is that, well, you are there. Having parents along for sledding was a relative rarity for me - parents took little kids sledding, but didn't hover with big kids like yours. We went in our neighborhood, in packs with other kids. There was really nobody to whine to, so we didn't, we just agreed to go home when we were wet and cold. It could be that geography won't let you do that, or our general fear of letting kids roam in their town won't let you. But I feel sure my personal behavior would have been different with parental observance. Maybe give them more space.

They have to know it's going to be cold and be ready to deal with it.

A big, big tip that I learned not as a kid (wished I did) but as an adult teaching outdoor education all winter -- and staying outdoors in New England snow for 3-4 hours at a time - is to put your socks on, then put your socked feet into plastic grocery-store bags or bread bags (which are even better), and then put your feet in your boots. This keeps feet insanely warm, but they don't get too sweaty because the plastic is over the socks.

Another thing is making the apres-sledding fun. The time after sledding made for some of my happiest childhood memories. Shaking off the chunks of wet snow, hanging up all the outwear, stripping down to long johns (they are wearing long johns, right? right?), jumping under a big blanket on the couch, having some hot chocolate...this was a great reward for putting up with the cold. IT's what makes just "sledding" into a "day of sledding."

The snow has to be pretty right, too. The lousy secret of sledding is that there are only a couple really sled-perfect storms a year. Too wet and sticky, and you go slow and get stuck. Too thin and dry, and it blows off the track. Too deep, and you snowplow and can't gain momentum. Too shallow, and you scrape dirt. You want to head out early in the day after a fresh snowfall to test things out. A snow track takes a first phase of several good runs to get it packed down well. Then there is a honeymoon phase of awesome runs. Sometimes it even gets a little better as the top surface melts under sleds and gets icier. The temperature has to stay below freezing. At some point, melting or wind or scraping degrades even the best sledding surface. A lot of what makes it a good experience depends on what time you hit the hill. You just have to keep trying - maybe every 4th or 5th sledding day is a truly awesome one. The others are filler, but at least you all got outside for some fresh air and used your bodies and exercised.
posted by Miko at 8:46 PM on November 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Just so they make it back. . .do not let them sled head first. Otherwise, sliding down a slippery, snowy hill almost guarantees a great time.
posted by Danf at 9:04 PM on November 17, 2013

When I was your kids' age, my sledding days did not involve my parents dressing me, directing my hustle up and down the hill, or telling us when it was time to finish. We just decided to go sledding, put on our winter stuff, went out and did it. If a parent had hot chocolate ready for us when we came back into the house, it would be awesome, but usually we made it ourselves. I don't ever remember a sledding outing that ended in tears - even the ones where we careened accidentally into the brambles or whacked into hidden-under-snow rocks and got ejected. And I tend to be the type of person whose extremities get cold extremely fast when out in the snow. However, these were New England winters where the winter temps are generally twenties and thirties - if you're in the upper Midwest with -20 windchill, I think you need to choose your sledding days carefully and consider hand and foot warmers.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:17 PM on November 17, 2013

Also I second that scarves and gloves are not the best cold weather gear for the cold-blooded. Either balaclavas or fleece neck gaiters for the head and neck and mittens for the hands (they should be true ski mittens with waterproof outer lining) will work better. They make mittens now with little pockets that you can slip the warmers into which are really handy for skiing days.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:20 PM on November 17, 2013

Do you just decide you're only going to be out there for 20 minutes and then end the sledding session before it gets ugly? Is there some gear that helps things go more smoothly (hand warmers? rocket-powered long underwear??) Hope me!

20 minutes? My brother and I and our friends would spends hours and hours and hours outside sledding. We only stopped because the stupid sun was setting and my stupid mom said we couldn't sled in the stupid dark.

Snow pants, boots, gloves, and a hat are all you need. Frankly, if the issue is the cold then your kids just don't like sledding or something. Because while those things keep you warm, I would take off the gloves a lot of the time if it was not far below freezing out. Because if you make the snowballs with your bare hands the outer layer of snow melts and then refreezes and you have ICEBALLS for causing bodily harm to your friends and loved ones.

Really, I think you're making it too big a thing. You just find a steep and tall hill and sled on it for as long as you want, preferably on a really fast and dangerous sled with a nice ramp at the bottom to go flying in fast and dangerous fashion. Bonus points if there is a street involved. At least when I was a kid, these days you probably are forced to pass on the street sledding.

(on preview)

I disagree about the mittens. Mittens are not effective tools for crafting winter warfare snowballs. Gloves are where it is at.
posted by Justinian at 12:26 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, one last thing; Have you considered the possibility you are sucking the fun out of it by being a bit of a overmanager? I know that sounds harsh but its kinda the vibe I get from your question and the kids' reactions. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times I wore a scarf as a kid. If the temperature isn't like -20 you don't need a scarf. The kids may be bundled up so much they can't actually experience the outdoors.

Really, sledding except on rare occasions wasn't a big event that had to be planned. When it was it was because we went to a special park with a really giant hill and a lake to skate on and the whole family was involved. But usually it was just my brother and I throwing on a coat and a hat and running down the street to a house with a big hill for the front yard and sledding the day away with no parents involved. Which was more fun because it was our thing and not a managed affair.
posted by Justinian at 12:36 AM on November 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think a big thing missing in this question is: why are they crying? Are they getting overexcited and not watching sled paths and crashing into other kids? Or is one sibling pushing the other past the tired point when they'd rather take a break and make a snowman? Are they cold? Or maybe sledding is not their particular thing. Does the same thing happen if you go skiing or fort building or on a hike?
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:05 AM on November 18, 2013

Came in to say that it's too long. Sledding is really fun for about 30 minutes. It's not an all day thing.

Make a morning of it. Head out after a breakfast of pancakes. Listen to Car Talk on the radio on the way to the hill. Let them sled for 30 minutes, 45 tops. Back in the nice warm car. Stop at a cute place for cocoa on the way home. Done.

My parents drove us from San Jose to...I dunno, some place with snow. We slid around on garbage can lids for a bit, drank some cocoa and went home. Done. The drive was longer than we were out in the snow.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:09 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions and perspectives.

I think it would be awesome to turn my kids loose with a pack of friends and let them sled til supper time at will. Unfortunately when we moved we didn't end up in a location with an awesome hill right nearby and a ton of kids on the street to be insta-friends. By my reckoning the nearest really decent sledding hill was about a mile away including a long stretch along a road without sidewalks that no pedestrian in their right mind would travel alongside even in summer. So there's that.
Long story short, sledding was (is, will be) an outing.

The kids do dig it for at least a while, and I have fun with it too--we all have fun together, actually--so it's not like some forced march thing. My younger is the one whose tolerance is least, and it was her who mused about the suitability of the hill we passed for sledding which prompted this question. So I rankle a bit at the overbearing mama suggestion. (I will also note that the other day there was a MeFi question from a grown up adult about dressing for winter in Seattle--totally legit, but hey, no-snow Seattle! I reserve the right to inquire about helping my children learn how to enjoy the new experience of hurling themselves in the snow.)

When we go, we do go to the place with the long awesome slide and the flat bottom (Larz Anderson Park, for Boston area folks.)

Getting a bunch of buddies together would make it more fun for all involved, so will definitely keep that angle in mind. And thanks for the reminder about bread bags, a feature of my own snowy youth I'd forgotten about entirely!
posted by Sublimity at 8:05 AM on November 18, 2013

If it's the younger kid who is melting down first (heh!), yeah, you're probably staying out too long.
posted by Sara C. at 8:53 AM on November 18, 2013

Do you have an actual sled? Plastic goes okay, but for speed and maneuverability, a sled with metal runners can't be beat. Going fast is really fun for older kids. Do you take a few runs? The example of someone else enjoying a fast run, falling off, giggling, etc., can be inspirational.

Teach your kids to walk up the side of the sledding hill. We used to go to a popular hill where kids just walked back up anywhere and it was stupid dangerous.
posted by theora55 at 9:24 AM on November 18, 2013

I love metal-runner sleds; I have two, I still use them (without even the excuse of kids!) The only thing with them is they have trouble in more than 4 inches of fresh snow, because they're so low. It's good to have both kinds in your toolkit - saucers and plastic sleds are good for flattening new snow down into a good track. But Theora55 is right that there's no thrill like the greased lightning of a runner sled. They are nicely steerable as well.

In fact, if I could indulge myself to the maximum, I would have in my sled inventory:

short and long (2-person) runner sleds
a tobaggan (awesome fun for 3 or 4 kids at once, and you can get a really good run with enough weight)
a plastic saucer
an inflatable snow tube or tire tube

All are a little different and each has its own set of conditions in which it does best.
posted by Miko at 10:12 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in a place where we only get one snow day every other year-ish, so I'm not an expert, but one of the best things I have ever slid down a hill on was a huge sheet of aluminum that you get at an auto parts store. It's for putting on the floor of your garage for catching oil drips under your car. If you are careful, you can bend it up in the front without making a hard crease, and that keeps the snow off it. Otherwise, just lay it down at the top of the hill, sit down and go. Super fast, and plenty of space for several to sit together.
posted by CathyG at 1:57 PM on November 18, 2013

I grew up in an area that had a decent amount of snow during the winter. One of my greatest memories as a kid is sledding with my the woods, on someone's yard, even down snow covered streets! Loved every second of it. And anybody here saying the kids are too old...we did it straight through high school. Make sure the kids are wearing thermals, and that they have high quality socks, insert liner gloves under their main glove...all cloths should be high quality. While warmers work, if the cloths are well made they should really do the job. Talk to a specialist at your local winter sports store. Tell them your problems...ask them what they recommend. As far as sleds, the plastic bullet looking things always worked the best. Don't use the old school wood with metal bars on the bottom and steering thing in front. It's a harsh ride. The round plastic saucer also is pretty good. You want the sled to be comfy, aerodynamic, yet simple. Just have fun...and at the end of the day your kids just may not be sledders....but I don't really know anybody who doesn't enjoy sledding.
posted by ljs30 at 2:33 PM on November 18, 2013

oh, I've sledded at Larz Anderson. That is a pretty big hill. Like, I sledded on it as a 30 year old and found it a little intimidating. By adult standards, it's definitely a terrific sledding hill, but I would suggest that you go to a place that has a more modest hill in a less exposed place so there is less windiness and less issue with potential for cross-sled traffic/collisions. I think that will reduce the anxiety levels. Also, the only nearby indoors there is at the ice rink, which is a bit of a walk from the hill.

I don't have a great suggestion for where might be a better option (here's a list of 40 great places to sled around Boston), but if you could find a place that's within walking distance of a new friend's house or someplace that one can go indoors quite easily if desired, you might be better off - it'll be closer to the experience of others here like myself who grew up with a sledding hill in the backyard.

One other thing to consider would be sledding at one of the drivable ski resorts to the north - if you're going to make it an outing, you could really make it a day trip and do it in style, and at these locations one could easily go into the lodge and sit by the fire if getting cold. It could be a fun family weekend thing.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:16 PM on November 25, 2013

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