Surviving (and Thriving) Below Zero with Kids
There is a lot of great information out there about how to handle and dress for winter, but I find that when we start talking about subzero weather many families feel it’s just easier to skip it. I’m here to convince you otherwise.
Subzero temperatures require more work from the parents, that’s a given. You have to pay more attention to layers, to snacks, and to activities. But here are some tips to help you ENJOY these temperatures if you’re faced with them regularly.
Surviving and thriving in the cold topics discussed include:
- Attitude (and hopefully motivation for embracing the cold)
- Gear (layers and accessories for subzero)
- Bonus layers (sleeping bags, using what you have)
- Tips and tricks for extra warmth (hot water bottle trick, hot liquids, etc.)
- Activities (aim for movement!)
- Other considerations (don’t always dress all children the same)
Note: I’m talking about below zero Fahrenheit, but for those of you who aren’t inclined to love any sort of cold, these tips will be useful for below 0 Celsius also ;).
I’m talking about YOUR attitude here, because you set the tone for the outing. Talk positive, and get excited about bundling up and talking about which snacks to bring to help keep you toasty. Even (and especially!) when you aren’t feeling it… make the effort to exude excitement.
Yes, it’s cold. But it’s also beautiful! Below zero you usually have hoarfrost, and I can just get lost in a pile of hoarfost, it’s just incredible to look at. Endless amazing snowflake structures.
Snowy trees you can get at any temperature and it’s always beautiful, but hoar frost adds a whole new dimension. Sometimes you can find it coming off only in one direction, inches off the downwind side of a tree or bush.
The magic of this kind of scenery is captivating, and worth the extra work you need to put in to get out and experience it.
Gear for Subzero temperatures
The most important part of keeping everyone happy in the cold is the gear. For subzero weather, this can seem like an expensive and daunting process. But you can mostly use your regular gear with a few modifications and tricks.
We love wool. We love Sloomb because their wool layers are very thick knit and they last. For budget options you can find terrific woolies upcycled on Etsy (myEcoBaby), or you can sew your own from old felted wool sweaters or go thrifting to find some deals.
These are baselayers, so you can use the most hideous old sweaters you can find and make something great! You do want to stay away from scratchy wool, and find something merino. You can also lanolize or condition to soften the wool.
If you find some thrifted cashmere, you can use that too and it’s even warmer than wool so it can make some seriously warm layers; however, it is less durable so expect to have to patch it.
I love Patagonia down hoodies, down sweaters and down vests. They pack down so small so it’s an excellent “extra layer” to bring to put under the snowsuit if you need it. We use them year round because they’re also a backpacking essential due to their warmth and packability.
Patagonia is also a favorite because it really holds its value, when we buy it used we can resell it for around what we paid for it. It’s easy to patch and just an awesome piece of gear to have for each child. Patagonia’s Worn Wear is a great place to look for pre-loved gear. REI has a used site also, and there are Patagonia BST groups on Facebook that often have down sweaters listed (they sell fast!).
We also love Disana boiled wool, which comes in buntings for young kids and jackets and bibs for older kids. We wear this a lot on it’s own in shoulder seasons, and layer with it when it’s really cold. It’s heavier for it’s warmth than down, so we do usually try to choose down when we’re adding layers to go underneath a snowsuit.
You’re probably going to prefer a onepiece snowsuit in subzero weather, we definitely do. The Reima Stavanger is our go to this winter, and it has needed a LOT less underlayers than anything we’ve worn in previous years.
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Both my girls run cold, and they’ve both been toasty in these suits down to -2F with no midlayers, so when we get into our subzero these suits will make it a lot easier. Also see our Reima winter roundup for more great winter options from Reima.
I can’t recommend the faux fur hood enough either. It keeps wind and snow out of little faces so well. It’s removeable if you don’t like or need it, but it’s not just for show! Only complaint, they aren’t helmet-compatible.
Another great subzero suit is made by Oaki, it’s very warm and exceptionally waterproof. It doesn’t breathe well so we would never choose it for winter sports, but it’s the go-to for our friends who spend most of the winter ice fishing because of the waterproofing.
This suit boasts a waterproof rating of 29,000mm; to put that into perspective, the waterproofing on the Reima suit is 12,000mm (and that’s plenty for even the slushiest wettest snow), and Burton and similar suits usually come in at or below 10,000mm.
We had Burton suits last year, and we layered down sweaters under those for the girls pretty regularly as they just weren’t warm enough for subzero by themselves.
Cold weather accessories
Balaclavas are great for subzero. Our favorites are ones that run long so they create a nice seal in the snowsuit and don’t come untucked.
We own a bunch because they really like to hide on us, the camouflaged grey mélange of the Smartwool and Joha we have are so hard to spot in the “junk mess” of the van gear storage. TevirP merino knit balaclavas come in lots of bright colors so we don’t misplace those as much (yay!) but they do stretch out quite quick (especially if you kids pull on them like mine do), but they’re still a favorite.
There are many varieties of great cold weather fleece balaclava options which are also very affordable. These are nice because they can be easily pulled up or down, and have drawstrings and excellent coverage.
We also use lanolin on cheeks and noses when it’s really cold. We buy this lanolin in bulk because it’s also great for lanolizing wool, moisturizing skin (apply directly or a lanolin bath during the really dry winter months), and covering small cuts. You can also use Vaseline.
Unless your child runs really warm or you have really amazing specialized gloves, always choose mittens over gloves. Most mittens have plenty of dexterity for winter pursuits, and they’re much warmer.
We love the Reima Ote and Stonz mittens best, and you can layer a merino liner from Smartwool and stick a toewarmer on it if you need it (we usually don’t). I think the Reima mittens are warmer, but like the second upper arm drawstring on the Stonz.
Keeping Babies Warm
A babywearing jacket is an excellent investment, and it makes layering so much easier. My favorite coat was a Twiga Softshell, and living in a cold climate I got year-round use out of it. It’s fleece lined and cuts wind while keeping all the body heat you and baby generate inside the coat.
Keep your child facing towards you. This is always best practice babywearing, but it’s more important in cold temperatures; their face will be much more protected from cold nipping temperatures facing inwards. Always monitor your child’s breathing when they’re layered up like this, it’s easy to do when they’re looking right at you.
Layer your child keeping in mind they aren’t moving. But they also get to share your body heat, and you likely will be moving. Wool layers for you both will be great to keep you dry and warm if you’re sweating.
If you’re using snowsuits with feet covers, make sure there is plenty of extra room for their knees to bend, if the feet are too tight it will cut off circulation.
We sometimes get a little creative trying to maximize our subzero time. Take some of these ideas, and challenge yourself to repurpose whatever you have lying around that could add warmth too. You may need to “sell” your kids on some of this stuff, a “we’re bringing some extra special gear today!” can really help encourage them to see the fun in it.
We bring synthetic sleeping bags most places we go. They usually live in the sleds, for cushy comfort to sit on even when extra warmth isn’t necessary, but the option to crawl inside is always there.
The kids synthetic bags they can really do what they will with them. Sometimes they like to slide around in them, or have sack races.
I also have some Kammok down quilts I bring with us, though I’m a bit more picky about what happens with them. They’re usually dedicated to snuggles with mom or warming up kids who are done while the others play.
I love that Kammok quilts have so many snaps, and drawstrings on the top and bottom. You can easily put this quilt around yourself, or around multiple kids, and snap/drawstring it to stay secure and trap oodles of warm air inside it’s lofty baffles. Enlightened Equipment also makes great down quilts that are customizable.
Before we found the capes I mention below, we used an old ExPed Wallcreeper sleeping bag. This is a discountinued bag meant for climbers so it has a drawstring bottom, but I always wore it for northern lights viewing. I found that if I folded it over I could use it for my then-2yo as an extra layer, always be on the lookout for things you can repurpose to make unique cold weather layers!
Something amazing we found last season are Columbia’s down capes. These aren’t made anymore, but you can find them on ebay or other sites (though usually at quite a bit above their final selling price).
This is the sort of thing I’m always on the lookout for, and they’ve been even more awesome than I had imagined. We say that we are “winter superheroes” when we wear them.
If you’re crafty, it wouldn’t be hard to whip up something like this out of an old sleeping bag. Down is best for warmth, but it could be made out of a number of different materials and still add warmth and fun.
You could also use oversized gear over snowsuits in a pinch, but it’s going to restrict movement. The girls have worn these jackets over their full snowsuits before, and they enjoy it because these are their “big kid jackets” when they grow into them.
In addition to the gear, these things will help add warmth and prolong happiness outside.
Reusable warmers are my favorite because they don’t end up in the landfill, but they don’t fit in boots, and don’t really fit well in mittens either. They can go in pockets or in sleeping bags, and are mostly good for a quick warmup and then putting back on your mittens.
You can also use these large warmers in your boots and mittens on the drive to your destination, or put them in a few minutes before you go outside. They get hot right away, and will make your extremities toasty warm right away and then it’s easier to maintain that heat with your body.
Always be mindful of where you’re keeping your gear between outings; there’s nothing worse than putting on cold boots and if they’re cold your feet may never quite warm them up. But if the most convenient place to store your gear is an unheated garage, the warmer trick will work great and you just boil the warmers after use and they’re ready for the next time.
It’s good to have some disposable toe warmers on hand also. I prefer the toe warmers to the hand warmers because they have the sticky part, the hand warmers can fall out by accident and be left behind as trash. When we use toe warmers inside a mitten you can stick them to the inner mitten as you always want to separate them from the skin.
Electric pocket warmers are available also, but we haven’t used them. TMM member Sarah recently reviewed ActionHeat heated clothing; they make rechargeable battery operated vests, socks, and other gear.
Hot Water Bottle Trick
Whenever we have sleeping bags in sleds, we boil water and put them in our nalgenes before we leave the house. The bottles stay hot for quite a while, and really warm the interior of the sleeping bags.
When my daughters are done playing, they take their boots off and crawl into their sleeping bags and put their feet on the water bottles. It gives us at least another half an hour outside, and I pull them along while my son who never gets cold continues doing whatever he’s doing.
A nalgene works for this, but a dedicated hot water bottle is great too.
Thermos of Hot Liquids
Our two favorite ways to warm up from the inside out are SOUP and HOT CHOCOLATE. We make it easy and share the thermoses, but older kids would probably prefer to have their own. We love the Stanley soup thermos for soup, it comes with a bowl to pour it on and an attached spoon, and the giant Stanley thermos for hot chocolate.
You could also bring any sort of hot meal in an insulated container, a hearty casserole would probably be lovely also. And tea or honey lemon water works instead of hot chocolate.
“Dry” snacks don’t really add instant warmth, but they do boost morale. Snacks that don’t require removal of mittens is the clear choice for subzero. Leave the sandwiches at home if your kids need to eat those with bare hands, or convince them that they can eat them with mittens on.
Jerky is a great option, the longer the better since it’s easier to hold in covered hands.
Energy bars are another good option, and baking up a hearty bar with some salty bits and some chocolate can be a fun activity. Bottom line is bring things your kids ENJOY. These are morale-boosters as well as energy-givers.
You probably don’t want to plan an evening sitting still listening to the birds at -20, unless you’re doing it on camp mats in sleeping bags by a fire. You want to choose something where you’ll be moderately active, or at the very least MOVING.
Sledding is a great choice because there is some work involved every few minutes when you need to walk back up the hill, but it’s interspersed with the fun of going down the hill. Snowball fights, hide and seek or chase games, all types of skiing/snowboarding are great choices.
Of course, the goal to keep moving may end in tears for small children, so have a backup plan and extra layers for them since they’ll probably end up in a sled. We always bring our sled in the winter, to carry our warm gear and food, and to carry a reluctant walker when they need it.
We have a host of awesome winter activities in our new book Outdoor Family Adventure Guide: Journal + activities for every season and is a whole section dedicated to activities and games to keep you moving. Also available in an e-book version here.
When it’s within budget, always go for the thickest wool and lightest down layers. The weight of layers is especially important if you have lots of them, and you don’t want the kids feeling weighed down.
But you can absolutely make synthetic layers work. Polypropylene base layers and fleece midlayers are great options too, and can be found on any budget.
Dressing Children Differently
Different children need different levels of warmth. When it’s really cold I always have my two youngest who have always run cold in at least one extra layer compared with my oldest who runs hot. Often he will have his light snowsuit and a down vest, and the girls would have balaclavas, high loft down hoodies, and their light suits.
Some rare children will take being cold as a challenge to run around to keep warm, and my oldest has always delighted in this, so he needs less clothing; but most children who start getting cold will become miserable fast. Be mindful of how many layers your children actually need, and don’t bulk them up unnecessarily.
Sometimes an outing has children doing different activities. Don’t dress the child that’s going to be doing something active the same as one doing something more sedentary.
Can it be “too cold”?
Sure, and this is going to be a different temperature for every family. I’m encouraging you to challenge the notion that below zero Fahrenheit is too cold, but when we get to very cold temperatures below -30 or -40F, yes it might really be too cold for an outing.
- Winter for Outdoor Families: All Links
- Layering up Kids for Cold Weather
- How to Keep Feet Warm in Cold Weather
- How to Keep Babies Warm
- How Cold is Too Cold to Take Kids Outside
Surviving (and Thriving) Below Zero
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