“They didn’t go outside; it was just too cold for them today,” the substitute teacher responded matter-of-factly when I picked my daughter up from school and asked if she had been outside for recess. Deep inside I already knew what the answer would be, but my heart still sank when I heard the teacher’s words. It was 16F and very little wind that day. Chilly, yes. But too cold? Not even close.
Many Americans who are my age and older may remember playing outside at recess in all types of weather, and biologically speaking, children’s ability to endure cold temperatures hasn’t changed since then. (Let alone the fact that the outdoor gear available today is more advanced and better at keeping kids warm than it was when we grew up.) It is our willingness to accept cold weather that has decreased. That’s a shame, because there are many good reasons why we should let kids play outside in the cold as well.
What’s the magic temperature?
I often get asked how long a child can stay out in a given temperature and there’s no simple answer to that. It depends on so many factors – humidity, wind chill, gear, activity level and the temperament and age of the child. For example, younger kids generally have a harder time moving around in heavy gear and get cold quicker than older kids. (Check out Yes, Kids Can Play Outside When It’s Cold for more tips and things to consider.) I lived in Montana and Indiana for a total of 15 years and in that time there was never a day that I considered too cold to get outside. We even played in the snow for 45 minutes during the Polar Vortex a few years ago, when the temperature with wind chill was supposedly -40F in our area, and I was the one who got cold first!
So how do we do it? Well, there’s a method to the madness and I decided to show you how to dress for cold weather by creating a little video. Watch it and then find a handy list with links to all my recommended picks for cold-weather gear below.
How to Dress for Cold Weather – Kids
The role of the base layer is first and foremost to transport moisture to keep the wearer dry and comfortable, but base layers made of wool and some micro fleece materials provide warmth as well.
Non-itchy and comfy, this is not your grandmother’s wool! Merino wool is soft, warm and naturally anti-bacterial and anti-odor. Since wool is a warmer material, it is great for the coldest days and for less intense physical activities. There are many brands selling Merino wool base layers but I like Smartwool and Reima for the quality, warmth and softness. While some wool long underwear can cause kids to complain about the fabric being itchy, I haven’t had that issue with these sets.
Smartwool is also my go-to brand for socks and we have a number of different varieties. Once again, quality and warmth are the main selling points for me.
The role of the mid layer is to insulate against the cold, and wool, fleece and down or synthetics like polyester are excellent choices for that.
Onesies are a good option for a mid layer for the youngest explorers and this one from Reima is made of a nice and soft Merino wool.
When it comes to fleece jackets I prefer those with a removable hood, since they’re easier to layer with. We’ve used several brands over the years but I keep coming back to Didriksons, the leading Swedish brand for kids’ outerwear. In terms of mid layer pants, we only use those on the very coldest days. Most winter days, I find that a base layer and outer layer are enough for bottoms.
I always try to look for fleece garments that are made of recycled polyester. This LEGO Wear jacket is made of 20 PET bottles – how cool?!
While the specific coveralls that my daughter currently wears are not available anymore, the Bjärven Kids Coveralls are very similar, and havs won Best in Test in Scandinavia. Didriksons is one of my favorite Swedish brands both for kids’ and adults’ outdoor gear and I’m stoked that they’re now available online in the US as well. They are one of just a few brands that make one-piece coveralls that fit older kids as well.
The Björnen snow pants and jacket are another favorite from Didriksons’ product line. It is a perfect fit for older kids who may want a more grown-up style than the coveralls.
Of all the mittens we’ve tried since my first daughter was born, these have by far been the best for the deep cold. Not only are they exceptionally warm, but the long cuffs that cinch tight over the arms keep snow out and stay in place better than any other mittens we’ve tried. As a bonus, the thumbs are fleece-covered so that kids can wipe off their nose without getting a rash.
Didriksons Trapper Winter Hat
Trapper hats are a great option for really cold days, since they come down over the ears but really, any hat goes as long as it is warm!
Kavat is another favorite Swedish brand that makes warm, waterproof boots that are sturdy and have good traction. The fact that they easily wash off makes them super functional since they can be used outdoors in almost any type of winter weather.
How to Dress for Cold Weather – Adults
For very cold days, I usually choose a wool base layer but for everyday winter wear, I absolutely LOVE my Terramar set. They’re by far the softest base layer I’ve ever worn and fit well even under fairly tight pants. Amazingly, I’ve had my set for nearly a decade, even though I’ve used them heavily in the winter. I even wear them as jammies sometimes when I travel, to cut down on packing.
I have several brands of Merino wool socks but like the fit and feel of these. For very cold days, I choose a taller pair.
I love fleece jackets for really cold weather and Mountain Hardwear makes them about as warm as they come. Although I’m wearing a hoodie in the video, I typically choose a fleece jacket for my middle layer in the winter.
The brand isn’t really important here, as long as the pants are warm and comfortable. I wear my Puma sweatpants around a LOT in the winter, since they make for a perfect middle layer, but in really cold weather, fleece will provide more warmth.
The North Face Insulated Snow Pants
Snow pants aren’t just for skiing in my book; in the winter I use them almost daily when we go outside to play if the temperature is below freezing. I’ve had my snow pants from The North Face for 20 (!) years and they’ve withstood the test of time.
Columbia Women’s Insulated Jacket
I initially bought my Flylow down jacket for skiing, but it quickly became an all-round coat that gets a lot of use in the winter. This particular model is no longer available but there are many other brands that have jackets with the same features, including this one from Columbia.
When I set out to buy new mittens a couple of years ago, I went for the warmest rated ones that I could find. Swany’s Arctic Mitt has done the job since then. Besides being warm and high quality, I appreciate the zipper and inner glove with touch screen compatible index finger and thumb.
These boots have been a game changer for me this winter. I think they’re the first snow boots I’ve had that are perfect both for outdoor activities in the backyard and for wearing with jeans around town. I love how they look and the fact that they’re super warm and keep snow out.
Columbia Winter Hat
While it is an urban legend that most of your body heat escapes through your head, a hat is a must in cold weather since any skin that is exposed will leak body heat. I like this simple beanie from Columbia but keep a few different ones on hand (for some reason hats always seem to go missing, along with mittens…).
Last but not least: If you or your kids are prone to getting cold hands or feet, HotHands really help!
There are MANY other good brands out there and you don’t have to pick these to stay warm, but this list gives you a good idea of how to dress for cold weather. What favorite outdoor gear would you add to the list?