Layering Kids for Cold Weather

One of the most common questions I get as a winter loving mom is, “how do you dress kids to stay warm for winter play?” Luckily, I have the answer for you here, and also luckily, it’s not that complicated. Layers are the answer, and getting the right fabrics for those layers is key.

Layering- the MVP of Winter

While the techniques may change just a little depending on the age of the kids and how well they are able to keep themselves warm, the basic idea is the same: Layering.

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Why Layering for Cold Weather?

Layering kids for cold weather allows pockets of air between clothing to help trap heat and keep kids warm. Of course, layering also allows kids to remove a jacket or fleece when they are too warm to avoid sweating.

The quality and quantity of your layers DO matter. Too many layers may cause sweating which in turn makes kids more susceptible to the cold and wind in their now-wet clothing.

4 Kids sit bundled and smiling in the snow

How Do We Layer for Winter?

Winter layers for kids generally consist of a base layer, a mid or insulating layer, and a waterproof outer layer. Hot tip, this concept works for adults too, so you should be applying it to yourself as well!

In this article, we’ll break down exactly what the most effective layers and fabrics are to keep you and your kids comfortable, and we’ll also give you links and discount codes to our favorite products!

Layering for Babies

Two babies sit side by side in a stroller, bundled in down buntings.
Babies will stay nice and toasty in down buntings, paired with wool or fleece underneath!

Make sure you put babies and small children in one more layer of clothing than an adult would wear in the same conditions, since they’re not as easily able to control their body temperature and usually aren’t moving around as much.

Paired with wool under layers and socks, babies stay cozy in down buntings. There’s not as much of a need for water proof layers unless it’s raining or very wet out, since they generally don’t end up in the snow much.

The Great Layering Sandwich

  • The first layer, and most important to invest in fabric-wise, is the base layer. It should fit snug and wick moisture. It should NOT be cotton.
  • The second is the insulating layer. Thick wool, fleece, or down works well. This layer is the most flexible- you don’t need to spend a ton on these and there are lots of budget friendly options. Think thick fleece, vests, thin puffy coats, etc.
  • The third layer is the outer layer, which should be able to keep wind and moisture out. Typically called a ‘shell”. Think snow/rain pants and jackets.

Layer 1- The Base Layer

This might be the most important piece of the layering system, simply because it is next to the skin and if it holds moisture, kids will be cold. You want to make sure it’s made of the right fabric to wick away sweat.

Avoid Cotton

I know, we all grew up with those cute, nostalgic waffle cotton thermals. But we also all came in from sledding soaked and needing hot cocoa, am I right?

Cotton is cozy, but for active pursuits, it’s not ideal. It holds in moisture, sweat, etc, and when it gets wet, it gets cold. If your’e doubting this, I’ve got a fun experiment for you. Get a wool sock and and cotton sock, get them wet, and put them on. Which one feels more comfortable after 10 minutes?

It is wiser to choose fabrics like wool or polyester that still insulate when damp or wet. I’ll never forget the winter in college when someone told me to buy polypropylene thermals for skiing. It literally changed the way I thought of winter! I just thought it was normal to get home from skiing and be wet and cold, but it doesn’t have to be!

Wool is King

Our favorite base layers are definitely wool, and there are so many great companies who make awesome kids wool base layers. They’re often a bit more spendy, but if you plan on being out a lot, it’s worth the investment.

Wool is a more sustainable fabric, as well as temperature regulating. It also still insulates when wet, and doesn’t hold odors, which is why it’s our favorite base layer. Merino wool contains the softest, finest fabrics that generally don’t itch. It’s less durable however, so often companies will combine it with other fabrics to add strength.

A more budget friendly, non cotton option is bamboo, silk, polyester, or other synthetic materials. Another plus for synthetic fabric is it’s durability.

You can read about all our favorite baselayers in our other article, Best Kids Base Layers.

Layer 2- The Mid (Insulating) Layer

A boy stands outside in a fleece outfit with a puffy vest.
Thick fleece paired with a vest is a great mid layer option.

This is the layer you can customize, depending on temperatures and kids sizes. For kids who run warm or temps that aren’t too cold, you can use a thin fleece layer, like these Burton fleece sets. You can also use a pair of fleece pajamas for a budget friendly option.

Fleece, Wool, or Down? Oh My!

We love fleece because it really holds in warmth and doesn’t absorb moisture, so if it gets wet, you don’t feel it. It’s also flexible and easy to move in, as well as very cozy! It can add a lot of warmth without the bulk.

Another less bulky option is thick wool leggings, like these tube leggings from Ella’s Wool. These are so cozy, and you can buy them big and just roll up the legs, making them last longer. My kids love using them for pajamas as well as ski layers.

Do your kids get cold easily, stay out for extended periods of time, or it’s just really cold? You can use a thicker insulating layer, like a down or synthetic jacket or vest, or even down pants. I like something like a down sweater for cold days, which can be worn on it’s own as a casual jacket as well. This down jacket from REI is a great option, and often on sale!

For babies, a puffy down bunting is really helpful, like this Patagonia Hi Loft Down bunting. And since babies are usually not running around getting wet, it’s usually a sufficient layer, with a wool or fleece base under neath.

Correct Fit is Key

It’s not as big a deal if you don’t want to invest in expensive stuff for this layer, because it should really only have to insulate, and generally stays dry. Just make sure it’s comfortable, and the kids can move around easily in it.

If it’s too tight, it won’t create air pockets to hold warmth. If it’s too bulky, you’ll get “A Christmas Story” situation, and it’s pretty tough to play when you feel like a Stay Puff marshmallow!

Layer 3- The Outer Layer

A boy skis through the snow in colorful outerwear.

This layer needs to be quality- you want it to be water proof and wind proof, so a shell-like fabric is ideal. It’s tempting to use the big insulated, waterproof coats, but the downside to those is they can get too warm with a fleece underneath, and if they take it off then they’re exposed to the elements and cold. My kids tend to get too sweaty in those.

You want an outer layer that fits big enough to have comfortable layers underneath, without adding too much bulk.

Many ski and snowboard companies are making coats and pants that make layering easy, like Akova (Shred Dog) or Burton. They add a little bit of insulation where you need it, but use thin, flexible fabric that still protects from the elements.

Many times, if it’s not wet out, my kids will use a puffy (down) coat as their outer layer, and that works too. A lot of them have light waterproofing, or are at least water resistant enough. However, if you’re doing something like downhill skiing, a shell is nice to block wind and keep powder out.

We have another article up on the blog with lots of gear recommendations, so be sure to check out Best Winter Gear for Kids 2023.

Accessories – Don’t Forget Hands, Feet and Heads!

One of the biggest complaints kids have in winter is cold hands and feet. And everyone knows, you lose lots of heat through your head! Having the right combo of gloves, socks, boots and head wear can make a huge difference between a cold kid or a happy kid.

Head Wear

Make sure your kiddo wears a hat, especially if it’s actively raining or snowing. Wet heads are no good. For kids who hate wearing hats, keeping a hood on is a good alternative.

For windy days, or really cold days, we like to wear balaclavas, neck gaitors, or snoods. Call them what you want, but they are nice for keeping necks, chins and faces covered and protected from biting wind or snow reflecting sunburns. They fit under hats, hoods, and helmets nicely too. Ones made of wool or fleece are our personal favorites, like the Turtle Fur Shellaclava or Iksplor Neckie.

A baby in a balaclava looks up at the camera.
Balaclavas keep babies extra warm, especially in windy conditions.

Helmets Make Great Winter Head wear

Another way to keep heads warm- wear a helmet and goggles! Obviously for skiing and boarding, but also handy for sledding (avoid those black eyes!). My kids like to wear their helmet and goggles in snow play, especially if they’re digging around or jumping/rolling, because they keep their heads warmer and dryer and don’t fall off like hats.

Hands

Finding the right gloves can be tricky. Ones that don’t let snow in the wrists, and that actually keep hands warm can be different depending on the kid. My kids like mittens better than gloves, because their hands stay warmer, but some kids prefer the finger dexterity.

Make sure they are waterproof, not too tight fitting, but not so big that their little hands can’t heat the space. It’s also helpful to have hand warmers you can tuck inside for added warmth.

You can buy a box of disposable ones, or get super cozy and get the reusable fur ones from Aurora Heat. If using disposables, make sure you don’t put them directly on the skin– have a thin layer in between to prevent burns!

The Mountain Mama team favorite is the Reima Ote mittens. They have a nice long wrist that fits over coats and keeps snow out. They last through several kids and lots of aggressive snow play. My kids have never complained of being cold in them.

We have an entire article dedicated to our favorite gloves and mittens for every age, so make sure and check it out! Best Kids Gloves and Mittens 2023.

Keeping Feet Warm in Winter

Socks for Cold Weather

As we’ve mentioned before, it’s important to avoid cotton for base layers, and that includes socks. Feet get sweaty, sometimes snow gets into boots, and any moisture will make for cold feet.

There are lots of companies that make great wool socks for play, and you can even find packs of them at Wal-Mart. It is worth investing in wool for the sake of your feet. There’s no excuse for cotton socks in winter! Darn Tough is a favorite, and they have a lifetime warranty!

We like to get them tall enough to go above the boot, so they don’t slip down and around the ankle or heel. Making sure they have some spandex helps them stay in place as well, and bonus, wool is anti-odor, so they don’t get stinky!

Boots and Shoes for Winter

Like gloves, recommendations on these are tricky and a little different depending on preference, size of kids, and temperatures in your area. But getting quality winter boots is a worthy investment.

They should fit with enough room to have airflow but not too big. Their body is generating the heat to keep their feet warm, and the boots keep that heat in, so if they are too big, the body won’t be able to keep a bigger space warm. Also, putting warmers in boots can help supplement a heat source if those little feet can’t keep up. Just don’t put them next to the skin- have a sock layer, or use those cozy Aurora fur ones.

Three pairs of winter boots all in a row.

We have an article all about this if you need some recommendations, Best Winter Boots for Kids 2023. Check it out! And if those fur foot warmers have piqued your interest (they really are SO COOL), here’s a review and instructions on how to use them: Aurora Heat Reusable Hand Warmers.

Other Tips for Staying Warm

Gear can do a lot to keep us warm, but so can our bodies. If there is a lot of standing or sitting around, you’ll get cold even with all the best gear. So either stand or sit on a foam pad that will insulate you from the ground, or move your body!

A mother and toddler son drink hot cocoa in the snow.
Hot drinks- guaranteed to keep kids out longer!

Another tip- stay hydrated! In winter, this can mean keeping a thermos of hot chocolate or tea handy, or even a soup to pack along for longer outings. Hydrated bodies have better circulation, which means warmer bodies.

And finally, keep your gear clean. Dirty fabrics lose waterproofing and insulating qualities, so make sure they stay clean and working properly. Unfortunately regular laundry soap and especially fabric softener can be terrible for outdoor gear (specifically the outer shells and snow pants), so wash properly.

Nikwax has a whole line of products and instructions on how to keep gear clean without destroying their waterproofing and other technical functions. I highly recommend using their products at the end or beginning of the winter season.

Need a Discount?

If you are feeling overwhelmed thinking you need to spend a million dollars to get outfitted, you don’t. Look for sales, used gear, or get creative with what you already have. And if you do need to purchase a few key pieces, we have a whole list of discounts on our favorite gear. Just click the button below to access our gear discounts!

Layering Works!

Two boys sit in the snow outside a house, dressed in winter clothing.

Keeping kids warm during winter play is often a matter of staying dry. This handy dandy layering system helps keep kids from getting too hot or too cold. They have the freedom to add or take off layers as they need, so they don’t get too sweaty. Pair that with moisture wicking fabric, waterproof layers and the right accessories, and you can be comfortable for hours of winter fun.

Related Articles:

Layering Kids for Cold Weather

© 2023, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.

Authors

    by
  • Amelia lives with her husband and five young children outside of Jackson, WY in Grand Teton National Park. As a mom, she quickly learned that the secret to sanity was to spend more time outside where tantrums don't see quite so bad. Amelia started TMM in 2012 to help encourage all families (including her own) to get outside, no matter the weather. Due to the necessity of having to keep so many kids warm and happy, she has become an expert in kids' gear and loves being able to share it with others.

8 thoughts on “Layering Kids for Cold Weather”

  1. We’ve been really happy with our OakiWear rain/snow suits. I think it’s the same idea as the Ducksday ones but we found them to a be less expensive. They aren’t as cute as the Ducksday ones though 🙂 And I had a question on the Stonz soft sole boots….ours keep getting our sons feet wet on the inside. Should we just triple layer? Or did we get a defective pair? I’m excited to check out some of the other stuff you mentioned in this post!

    Reply
    • Hi Brittany – yes, they are similar. The DucKsday are a little softer and easier to wear and have a better brim to keep rain off faces, but Oakiwear has great stuff too!
      And as far as the Stonz booties- good question and I have no idea! I realized most of the time we have worn ours in colder drier weather, but have never noticed any leaking at all….maybe contact them and ask. I will do some testing and see what I find too!

      Reply
  2. Hi Amelia,
    I know this post is old, but I love what you wrote about layering and all the suggestions for gear. I’m including a link to it in an email to parents in my preschool classroom. We need all the layers here in Minnesota too! Thanks for all you do for families and getting kids outside!!

    Reply
  3. Thank you for this helpful article! What I struggle with is that I tend to run hot sometimes, so I don’t always trust myself as a comparison to how many layers. should put on my kid. Is there any way to know temperature wise how many layers your toddler should have? We have a Reima snow suit for our little one…but I’m always worried I will either not put enough layers, or put way too many.

    Reply
    • So every kid is different….but checking their extremities and back of their neck can help you see how warm they are. The general rule is one more layer than you would put on yourself.

      Reply

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