How to Dress for Cold Weather Activities

How to Dress for Cold Weather Activities

You may be counting down the days to spring, but you don’t have to wait for the warmer temperatures to arrive to enjoy the outdoors! While the chilly, wet weather can make us want to curl up inside next to a fire with a mug of hot cocoa or coffee, there are benefits to getting outdoors in the colder months.

There are fewer crowds at popular hiking and camping spots. You won’t be battling the hordes of insects and other critters that arrive in warmer weather. And possibly most important of all, you are teaching your kids resilience by showing them that the extra effort and preparation required won’t stop you from doing the things you love and value.

So, what is it that prevents many people from stepping out in the cold to enjoy time in nature with their families? Generally speaking, it’s the fear that they won’t be able to keep their family warm in the cold (especially families with little ones). Here’s the thing though. With the right clothing, you can get out in almost any weather conditions. As Alfred Wainwright wrote, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”.

A snowy landscape with a  trail leading through bare trees

The Basics of Dressing for Cold Outdoor Activities

First things first, STAY AWAY FROM COTTON! There’s a reason that the term “cotton is rotten” is well-known in the hiking world. Cotton soaks up moisture and holds onto it, which can cause you to get cold fast and even cause a drop in body temperature (especially in babies and young children). Choosing the right material and number of layers is key to keeping everyone warm and comfortable. Here’s how layering works during the colder months:

Base Layer

The base layer is arguably the most important layer since it’s in direct contact with your skin. Its purpose is to wick moisture away from the skin to keep you warm and dry. That’s why it is so important to choose the right material for your family’s base layers.

By far the best material is wool (especially merino wool) since it is excellent at wicking moisture while also being super soft and easy to take care of. However, wool can come with a heftier price tag. For a more affordable option, look for synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon. Just be sure they fit well (they should not be super loose) to prevent chilly air from sneaking under to cool the body.

For babies and young kids, I would suggest investing in merino wool from a company that specializes in base layers for children. We like iksplor because their quality is fantastic, and their layers can be passed on to younger siblings. You can also resell or buy used layers straight from their website.

Two young boys standing against a wall with Ella's Wool base layers on

Middle Layer

The middle layer goes right on top of the base layer and is generally thicker and “fluffier”. The main purpose of the middle layer is to insulate your body heat to keep you warm. I prefer polyester fleece since it is both affordable and comfortable, but down-insulated, synthetic-insulated, and thick-knit wool are other great options.

Fleece buntings and footie pajamas work well as a middle layer for babies and toddlers. Just be sure that you size up if you plan to babywear so their little feet don’t get scrunched in the footie portion of the onesie.

A woman holding a young child in a fleece sleeper inside a warming hut

Outer Layer

The main purpose of the outer layer is to protect you from the elements (wind, snow, rain, etc.). It should be weather-resistant and able to stand up against low temperatures, wind, and possible precipitation. The level of “weather resistance” will depend on the conditions you will be facing. For example, if there is wet snow or rain in the forecast, choose a fully waterproof outer layer.  Waterproof down buntings are a great option for babies and toddlers.

If the temperatures will be mild, but there is rain in the forecast, you can likely get away with a waterproof rain suit to layer over your base and middle layers. This is also a great option if you live in an area that doesn’t receive much snowfall and you don’t want to invest in a snowsuit that will only be used a handful of times.

Two young boys laying in the snow wearing Oakiwear Rain Suits

Don’t Forget the Accessories!

When temperatures drop, our bodies focus on keeping most of our warmth in toward our core to keep us safe. While this is essential, it can certainly get uncomfortable for our extremities! That’s why, even with the body layered with quality materials, the accessories you choose can make or break your cold-weather adventure. Here are some suggestions for choosing quality accessories for the whole family.

Socks

Wool or wool/synthetic blends are the way to go to wick away sweat and keep little toes nice and toasty. As I stated before, stay away from cotton and cotton blends. They will hold the moisture right next to your skin and turn little toes to ice remarkably quickly.

For the littlest adventurers (especially those that aren’t walking), I recommend doubling up or layering a quality bootie over wool socks. You could even layer youth-sized or adult-sized wool or synthetic socks over baby one’s to keep their feet toasty.

Hats and Scarves

Not to sound repetitive, but wool or synthetic blends are the way to go with hats as well. We tend to lose quite a bit of heat from our heads, so hats are an important (and easy) way to retain body heat. They also help protect against the elements, such as wind and snow. I highly recommend getting a winter hat with ear flaps or a Velcro chin strap for younger kiddos since they tend to stay on their head better. Wool or fleece scarves, neck warmers, or balaclavas are wonderful options for added insulation. Just make sure they are loose and not constricting your child’s airway.

Gloves

The type of gloves you choose will depend on the weather conditions along with your child’s affinity for anything wet. Fleece is a great option if the conditions are not wet and you or your child prefer a bit more dexterity. They also layer well under waterproof gloves for some added warmth and protection. For wet adventures, look for a pair of truly waterproof gloves or mittens (such as those marketed for winter sports).

Also, I HIGHLY recommend choosing gloves with longer cuffs for children (especially those that attempt to remove their gloves the second your back is turned). This not only makes them harder to remove, but it also keeps out the snow and moisture that try to sneak in the top.

A woman holding a young child on a sled while wearing a Smart Wool had, Arcteryx jacket, and Columbia Snow Boots

Footwear

When finding the proper footwear for your chilly adventures, warmth and traction are key. This is especially true if you are hiking on wet or icy terrain or babywearing. If you live or adventure in a location that sees rain/snow, you will want a truly waterproof shoe or boot (and yes, there is a huge difference between water-resistant and waterproof!). For frigid areas, you will want a more insulated boot with a lower temperature rating. Other than that, the type of footwear is largely a personal preference regarding height and style.

Proper footwear for your tiny explorers will depend on outdoor temperatures and the mobility of your little one. Warm fleece or wool booties may suffice if they aren’t walking yet. Winter boots may be a better option for little walkers, so they keep their feet dry and clean while traipsing around the campsite or trail.

Winter boots lined up on a mat including women's Lowa Renegade boots, kids Bogs boots, and kids Merrell boots

Staying Warm Through the Night While Camping

Once the sun sets, the temperatures tend to drop significantly in the colder months. You can keep your family warm by choosing the right sleeping bag based on temperature rating. The temperature rating indicates the lowest temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep the average person warm. For example, if the lowest temperature expected is 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 40 degrees would suffice.

It can be tricky to keep younger children warm at night, especially if they move around a lot in their sleep. That’s why we created our sleeping bags with wiggle worms in mind. They are guaranteed to not get kicked off in the middle of the night, while the adjustable sleeves give them the freedom to move their arms and use their hands. With two sizes (Big Mo and Little Mo) and two temperature ratings (20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit) to choose from, your littlest campers are sure to stay cozy through the night!

In addition, make sure everyone has some sort of pad or mattress to sleep on rather than sleeping directly on the floor of the tent. This provides some insulation from the ground on cold nights. For babies and toddlers, a camping crib/pack-and-play can also be used to help them sleep more soundly.

A baby wearing a red Morrison Outdoors Little Mo Sleeping bag in front of a tent

Photo Credit: Rilee Fields

Helpful Tips

Still a little reluctant to get outside in cold weather? Check out these extra tips for keeping your family warm and adding a little fun to your cold-weather adventure.

  1. Bring Hand and Foot Warmers: These are always great to have on hand (pun intended) when the weather drops. You can put them between sock or glove layers to keep fingers and toes toasty. Just be sure you don’t put them directly on the skin unless they are chemical-free (like these reusable ones from Aurora Heat).
  2. Wear Your Baby/Toddler: Having your child strapped to your front or back in a soft-structured carrier, wrap, or sling is like carrying around a portable heater. Both you and your child stay warm by sharing your body heat. You may even need to shed a layer (usually the middle layer) to keep from overheating.
  3. Bring Warm Beverages: Looking to warm yourself from the inside out? Carry along a thermos of hot chocolate or another favorite warm drink to share while you’re enjoying the chilly weather.
  4. Buy Used Gear: Let’s face it, kids grow out of their gear WAY too fast. Seek out some quality used gear from places like REI garage sales, Facebook Market Place, local hiking clubs, etc. You can even find gently used gear or trade-in deals on your favorite gear brand websites (like our trade-in program!).
  5. Bundle in Stages: Rather than getting one kid ready at a time (which inevitably leads to meltdowns and sweaty child-wrangling), stagger your bundling by layers. You can get your own base and middle layers on before tackling the kids. Start by having everything laid out so older kiddos can get themselves ready. For smaller kids, start with base layers for everyone. Add the socks and gloves with the middle layers. Then get the jackets, snowsuits, etc. on last and top it off with the hat.
  6. Start Slow, Brief, and Close to Home: This helps you get used to the process and figure out what works or doesn’t work for your family. Even snowy backyard adventures are a great place to start! As you get quicker with the preparation, you can lengthen your trips and venture further from home.
A woman hiking in the snow wearing Columbia snowboots with a toddler on her back in an Onya Outback carrier

Head Out on a Chilly Outdoor Adventure with Your Family Today!

Nature is best explored in every season, not just the ones with favorable weather conditions! It’s amazing to watch the earth cycle through the seasons firsthand, and it can help inspire a love of the outdoors for even the littlest explorers. So layer up, get outside, and then come back here and let us know how it went in the comments below!


A family with two young children hiking in a mountainous landscape

Rebecca is a transplant Coloradoan living in Virginia with her husband (Derek) and their two boys. She’s a teacher turned freelance writer/ homeschool mom working towards exploring as much of the east coast as possible before the next move takes her family elsewhere. You can follow her family hiking, kayaking, SUPing, geocaching, camping, and all things outdoor adventuring on Instagram @frazzlednaturemom .


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