We just returned from a four-night winter trip to Deep Creek Lake, MD and it may have been our most successful family trip to date. We shared a rental with good friends from our UVA days (and their three children), and the main objectives were to ring in the new year in relaxation, get our children onto skis for the first time, and catch up with friends. A few thoughts crossed my mind as we returned:
01. It is a gift to get out of the house so soon after Christmas Day. I know many families routinely travel this week, and I now see not only the functional side (e.g., kids are often still on school break) but the wellness-related slant, too. It was delicious to close the door on the post-Christmas mayhem — the tree up but dry and sad-looking; miscellaneous bows and parcels still strewn about the house; toys dislodged from their appropriate homes, or without a permanent home yet. There were Christmas cards on the table, leftover bundles of treats in the cake dome, ominous stacks of “counter papers” that needed to be dealt with some time in January (school forms, returns, misdelivered mail!). A peculiar kind of joy to leave all of that behind for a few days and settle into a space that I did not need to constantly strain to keep organized. It was also a nice bonus to look forward to after the apex of Christmas excitement. (Sometimes I find the day after Christmas such a comedown!) On the drive home, Mr. Magpie and I agreed that we want to make this New Year’s trip (hopefully skiing) a family tradition from here on out.
02. Rental homes make travel with young children comfortable. We found it so much easier to say “yes!” when our children asked to play a board game, or color, or go outside in the snow because we weren’t shouldering the weight of household tasks at all times — and yet we were in the comfort of a home, with lots of space to roam and meander, and a full kitchen to prepare the endless stream of snacks requested, and a snowy backyard to explore. We also appreciated the extra room because of all of our bulky gear (ski / snow), and generally needed the “home base” for down time between ski / snow sessions. We have occasionally evaluated the benefits of staying in a hotel on some of our excursions, and it still feels like rental homes are the most comfortable for this season of life, even though our children are beyond the napping years.
03. Traveling with kids does get easier. I’m writing this specifically for the Magpie who has just returned from a nightmarish trip with little kids and asked herself, “How, and why, do people do this?!” (I was that mom.) A few years ago, I wrote about “the magic and mayhem” of traveling with young children — and the trip that spurred the musing fell more in the “mayhem” category. But it also taught me a few things that have changed my perspective on this matter. First, it may be that the effort and strain of getting kids to the beach, to the slopes, to Disney is just not worth the payoff at this time. You are an expert in yourself, so trust your instinct: you know whether the juice is worth the squeeze. It may be that you are drained from the holidays / from having two young children / from recovering from an illness / from a stressful move / from a confluence of things, and the thought of moving mountains to get to a family vacation is just too much to contemplate this season. That’s OK. There is always next year. There is no right or wrong time to do these things. You are not forfeiting core memories, or losing out on family time. I strongly, emphatically, believe that you know what is best for your family and that this is a situation where you must put up blinders and reflect on your own capacity. Because trust me when I say it is miserable to force your own hand and then find yourself a coiled spring, white-knuckling it through a beach day. At the same time, if you do undertake the trip, I can’t tell you how much the following insight changed my outlook: my children will need me more when we are traveling. This is a challenge when you are still equating vacation with relaxation (as I stubbornly continue to do), but the fact of the matter is that my children are adjusting to new places, new experiences, new routines, new bedrooms, new family friends, and they are accordingly seeking my constant reassurance and attention. I do try to bring as much of “home” as I can on the road (white noise machine, Tonies box, same bedtime routine of toothbrushing-prayer-book-song, their favorite blankets, our standard at-home snacks), but they still cling to my skirts. I have learned that I need to dramatically adjust expectations when traveling. I know so many families that travel (heartily, heavily!) with children younger than mine, and I think the through-line is: “Lower expectations. Do the small thing. Expect that someone will get sick, have a tantrum, etc.” I’ve been able to head into subsequent trips with a better outcome because of this mentality. But, finally, and most auspiciously, traveling does get easier as the kids get older and need less (e.g., no naps, no strollers, no diapers) and can do more on their own. They are also more accustomed to the general experience of travel — e.g., they know they will be sleeping in a different space; they know what it feels like to sit in a car for four hours; etc.
04. Travel mates are a critical element of a successful trip with young children. A few years ago, a Magpie wrote that, when children are young, traveling with just your immediate family is the way to go. It is draining and occasionally catastrophic to jigsaw puzzle your family’s schedule around those of others! I was astounded at how much easier it was to travel as a family of four last spring for the first time. If one kid was melting down at the mini golf course, we’d just wrap up and leave. If one was hangry, we’d stop our hike and have an early dinner. The days felt fluid and stress-free. However, this trip we learned that traveling with one other family that has similar patterns and perspectives can be just as wonderful. In the case of this trip, we’d usually split up after breakfast and join one another back at the house for apres-ski around four in the afternoon. Sometimes we’d cross paths on the mountain / at the lodge, but we’d usually just be off doing our own respective things, since our children were on the bunny slope (and much younger) and theirs were more advanced. May I also say that traveling with a family who has older children than yours is a ridiculous blessing? My kids were obsessed with theirs, and they generously indulged our children in hours of ping pong and other games, which freed us up quite a bit. It was also fun for us parents to put the kids down and then enjoy dinner and post-prandial games just the four of us. It can be hard to test for this in advance, but it was also amazing that this family shared our cleanliness expectations. We were all proactive about tidying up the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher, keeping belongings out of common areas. I have been on other trips (with and without children) where the kitchen chaos is a major stress!
I had a few questions via Instagram about Deep Creek Lake and skiing with young children in general. I am by no means an expert on the latter, especially since I am not a skiier myself, but will share a few observations and learnings on both fronts.
On Deep Creek Lake…
01. We’ve been going to Deep Creek Lake for years and years. Mr. Magpie grew up spending large sections of his summers there, and his aunt still has a home on the lake that we visit at least once a year (usually in the summer). We also made a lot of ski trips to Wisp in our college/post-college years, and have borrowed a neighbor’s home here, too. It is easy to get to from DC (2h45m for us) and a “good” drive in the sense that the trip is broken up into a few easy-to-manage stretches (vs. one long drive on 95 or something). We usually stop for lunch at Curtis Famous Weiners in Cumberland, MD, which is about two hours into the trip. It’s a divey walk-up window spot that sells chili dogs, fries, shakes and it is always busy with locals walking by for a quick bite (in our mind, always an auspicious sign). The kids love it, and it’s a great way to break up the trip, especially since we only have an hour or so to go after we get back into the car.
02. The two major home rental companies in the area are Taylor-Made and Railey Realty. I don’t have any strong opinions on specific houses we’ve rented, or the differences between these two companies, so I would just scour both based on your parameters for price and number of beds. I will say we were close to Wisp (the ski resort) this time around, which I’d strongly recommend for a skiing trip (worth extra money to be within a few minutes of the slopes, especially when you have little kids and might be going to/from often or needing to get back to house quickly), and we’ve stayed right on the lake during the summer months, which is fun for obvious reasons in warmer weather. (My kids love to jump off the docks straight into the lake water!) In general, DCL is a no-frills destination. The houses are all somewhat similar — standard-issue, wood-heavy, lodge-types. In other words, this is not the place to visit for architectural digest type lodging. This is, in my opinion, part of the charm. Somehow, despite its proximity to DC, it remains a stalwart, old-fashioned, low-key lake town. We treasure that about it. Think Griswold Family fun, not Vail/Beaver Creek.
03. Related to that point: there really isn’t much good dining to speak of in DCL. We always get Brenda’s pizza once (quite good, but you can’t have pizza for four days on end), and then Arrowhead market has a decent rotisserie chicken. Instead, we usually pack everything we’re going to eat. This time, we brought up one dinner; our friends brought up another; we had pizza from Brenda’s the third night; and then did a kind of smorgasbord / snack dinner (cheese, charcuterie, dips) the last night for NYE. We’d eat lunch at the ski lodge (chili is OK; I usually just eke by with a soft pretzel, aka a vehicle for yellow mustard) or tuck into leftovers. Strongly recommend packing a full cooler with everything you need (we use this one). You can even pack a few frozen items (soups / ground beef for tacos / prepared lasagna) and cook as you go. Landon and I try to pack absolutely everything we’ll need, down to cereal and milk for the kids, because we’d prefer not to spend any measure of our precious trip time at the grocery store and worrying about meals. This means more upfront planning, and a more packed car (more on that below), but then we’re able to enjoy the entire trip.
04. There is no good coffee in DCL. There is one coffee shop (next to Brenda’s) that somehow turns a thriving business but if you are a coffee lover, you really must bring your own coffee gear! I’ve started writing up “trip notes” after we return from different destinations with top insights / what I used versus did not / what I overpacked or underpacked on and my number one insight from this trip was that it is worth it to bring all the coffee gear (beans, scale, pourover stuff). Details on our coffee setup here. We did just upgrade to a Fellow kettle (I bought the matte white with the wooden handle), but we brought our old one for this trip — less precious. We actually looked up “Travel Kettles” on the return trip because it is pretty bulky and cumbersome to bring all of this gear with us, but then again, we used it and treasured it daily. I also used the tea kettle for tea every afternoon and we again used it for hot toddies in the evenings! So, net-net, worth the bulk for us!
05. There is so much to do in DCL all year round, but for a winter trip, you might consider snow tubing (right by the ski slopes on Wisp) or a frosty hike at Swallow Falls (we did this and the kids loved it, seen below! We went in with the Scandi perspective “there’s no such thing as bad weather” and dressed for snow and slush and we had the best time. It’s an easy hike with well-worn trails and beautiful vistas of the waterfalls). There is also a movie theater in case you really need a slushy-day distraction.
On Skiing at Wisp with Little Kids.
For context: this is an accurate depiction of the difference between Mr. Magpie and I when it comes to skiing. Ha! The TL;DR: Mr. Magpie is an advanced skiier. He was on the UVA ski team and has been skiing his entire life. I am not a skiier (have only been a handful of times starting at the age of 21) and am fairly skittish about it, especially after a beloved colleague died in a skiing accident two years ago. However, this trip made me realize I’d like to get comfortable enough to competently make it down greens/maybe blues with my family and enjoy myself. I think I’ll miss out on too much if I don’t, and I feel a strange and strong need to model my own gameness to take on physical challenges like this for my kids. Plus, logistically, I think it will be very challenging for Landon to manage both kids on his own once they’re ready for the lift. (Our friends pointed out that their kids, who are seven and up, still find it difficult to get off the lift because of the height.) We are planning to go back for another ski trip this season and I want to take private lessons myself. But, for this trip, I didn’t rent skis — I just wore regular snow boots and stood at the bottom of the bunny slope, helping the kids onto the magic carpet and then “receiving them” when they’d ski down while Mr. Magpie would collect them at the top.
Some other thoughts/notes:
01. Mr. Magpie strongly endorsed renting the skis / ski boots the night before the first day of skiing. This means you have one less stop/step before the slope — sometimes the rental process can take a long time and kids can get fussy while waiting. We prefer to rent from High Mountain Sports (the Sang Run Road location), which is about one minute from Wisp, rather than from Wisp itself. They had a good deal where you can pick up skis at 4 PM on Friday and rent for the full weekend. This was a perfect arrangement for us. The kids gear was brand new and everything worked out perfectly. They also make really easy returns — we drove off the mountain the last day and Mr. Magpie ran it all in. Took two minutes.
02. We signed both children up for several hours of private ski lessons the first day. I firmly believe this was critical to our success this trip. The kids are less likely to whine and tantrum when they’re learning from a “cool” instructor (why are they always cool?!), and Mr. Magpie was able to get in a few runs himself while I hung out in the lodge reading. We loved the instructor we had (Logan Stewart, in case you’re headed that way and can request him!), and he told us that his only goal for our son (4 years old, first time on skis) was “to have him associate snow with fun.” Success! Some fine-tipped notes on this: children over five can participate in “ski school,” which is less expensive group instruction. I think mini would thrive in this setting, and we’ll sign her up for it next time. However, we felt that for the kids’ first time out there, it would be beneficial to have them both learning from the same instructor at the same time. It simplified everything and ensured both would get high-touch attention. Micro will still need to take private lessons next go around since he’s under five, but if they’re both being looked-after, Mr. Magpie and I can peel off for our own runs / lessons. I believe children must be at least three in order to be eligible for private lessons. It was not clear whether we were supposed to tip the instructor at the end, but we did — I Venmoed him afterward. Based on our quick research, it seems that 10% is the standard rate for tipping instructors. Not sure if anyone has better intel on proper tipping protocol, but this was how we approached it!
03. The instructor said that children usually last about 40-45 minutes before needing a break. Good to keep in mind! Our friend (whose kids have been skiing for years) told us that he liked the cadence of “ski for an hour, warm up with hot chocolate, ski for an hour, warm up with snack / more hot chocolate.” He also said that it’s critical to take the break and/or stop for the day before whining sets in. So, on the second day we were out there, Hill wanted to stay on the mountain but Emory was starting to flag, and we decided to call it — better to end on a high than risk a bad experience for one of them.
04. Mr. Magpie was particular about their ski attire. He said there’s nothing worse than being cold all day while skiing — a surefire way to cloud their opinion of the sport. We had them wear thermals*, a long-sleeved tee, a sweatshirt and sweatpants, snow bibs**, snow jacket (mini has this one; micro has this one***), snow gloves, ski socks, ear warmers. They seemed very comfortable and we heard no complaints about being cold, so I think this layering formula worked well. It also gave us leeway to remove a layer if they were overheating, but we didn’t run into that issue. I’ve heard from moms whose kids are in ski school day after day that Reima’s full body snowsuits are excellent investments because no snow can get inside, and they stay warm for hours and hours.
*I went the inexpensive route as I wasn’t sure how much skiing we’d be getting into / if the kids would even enjoy skiing, but given how much they loved it, and the fact that we’re planning to return this year and hopefully all subsequent seasons, I think I will invest in a warmer, higher-quality sets from Reima or Helly Hansen.
**Run generally true to size, maybe a touch big. I’m really impressed with quality. I think you could go a size up and have them stretch two or even three seasons. I bought them the white pairs thinking purely of how easy they’d be to match with any color coat / the fact that they were unisex (e.g., how to make them stretch/work for both kids), but I wouldn’t advise this. I’d go with blue, navy, red. White shows dirt so easily and my kids were playing in pretty patchy snow. I will say that I was able to clean them pretty easily, though. I used a little of this stain remover mixed with liquid detergent and this small scrub brush to pre-treat and then tossed in the washing machine on gentle. Then just hung dry. Good as new!
***Reima is running a 25% off sitewide sale right now (at time of typing this), so I purchased my son one of the Reima snow parkas. These run intentionally big. My daughter is typically a size 7-8 but was wearing this one in a size 6 this weekend and it’s still roomy. I bought my son this jacket in the 5Y size (he’s typically a 4-5 right now) for next winter season, in the fun radiant orange color.
Finally, traveling and ski gear shopping thoughts —
01. This trip, our car was so packed that Mr. Magpie had to leave his skis and ski boots at home and just rented when we got there (!), which was a bummer for him. Big topic of conversation as we learned that this might become more of a regular family outing: buying a Thule ski tram and rooftop cargo box.
02. I like to keep one tote bag at my feet full of kids snacks and fresh activities. I dole these out strategically in the car ride. Above: using a cheeky little LL Bean tote (medium size, long handles) a girlfriend gave me for Christmas!
03. We of course used to have them in Chicago, but we no longer have our car WeatherTech floor mats! I was thinking it would have been nice to have these when we’d clamber into the car with ice and snow all over our boots.
04. Mr. Magpie needs some new ski goggles. From my research, Smith seems to be the top brand, and these ones come highly recommended. Also love these helmets/goggles by the brand for the kids. Also in my cart for the kids: these $13 beanies.
05. It was handy to have a big waterproof bag (ours is similar to this) to toss the kids’ snow boots / ski boots / gloves / etc into while schlepping to/from the mountain. The first day, we got the kids into their ski boots at the car but the second day, we discovered it was better/easier to have them walk onto the mountain in their snow boots and change in the little cafe just before clipping into skis. (The kids found the ski boots understandably uncomfortable/difficult to walk in.) I also saw a mom using one of these totes for this purpose.
06. I am so glad I tossed this little sherpa belt bag into my suitcase! I layered it beneath my parka every day so I could keep my key, wallet, phone, and Kindle on my person at all time.
07. My Sorel boots have seen better days. Eyeing these.
08. I of course am already scouting out good ski gear for myself. I found a few fab base and mid- layer tops: this, this, this, and this. For pants: these and these, or this jumpsuit. Splurge: anything from Goldbergh.
10. Not skiing, but my Canada Goose parka has seen better days and I’d love to switch things up. I’m torn between a high-end Herno or this chic but less expensive Aritzia (which I have heard is SUPER warm!). Would also like these waterproof snow mittens from Hestra (but these Goldberghs are also really fun).
11. I bought my son a few of these striped tees and matching joggers while on sale. They can be good for skiing but also mixed and matched for every day wear. This brand is excellent — the quality is insane. I bought a few of their striped tees for mini and they’ve now been worn by mini, micro, my nephew, and my cousin’s daughter, and will be returned to my sister, who is expecting a second child! Is that not insane?! Five children will wear them?! And they’re still in great condition?!
12. We had so, so much fun playing Codenames with our friends. We’d switch up the teams and the dynamics were so fun and interesting — for example, sometimes easier to play with your spouse for a little “inside baseball.”
I organized a lot of these finds into this section of my ShopMy site!
Any thoughts / ideas on any of these points welcome, especially from moms who are more tenured in the skiing-with-kids domain!
P.S. Three nights in Calistoga, CA.
P.P.S. A crowd-sourced guide to better travel days.
P.P.P.S. Activities for kids in cars here and here. My typical M.O. is to try really hard to avoid iPad use on the ride up/to the destination — this is because I have more energy on the way out, I have a fully stocked bag of surprises/snacks, and I’m never sure how much screen time we might want upon arrival. I mean, sometimes everyone is out of steam the first night, and it’s luxurious to put on a movie while you eat pizza, but I’ll be disinclined to do that if the kids have been watching iPads in the car all afternoon. On the return home, all bets are off. I usually let them have their iPads much earlier / as soon as they want them. Everyone is tired and needs to just coast in! How do you manage that?