Dressing Like an Onion and Other Tips for Keeping Kids Warm

How do you dress a kid for 20 below? That’s been the question around here the last couple of days. Even though the temperature is heading back into the teens (“practically a heat wave,” said one dry wit at carpool this morning), it’s a good time to consider how to dress children for warmth and safety in the winter. As it happens, I recently spoke with an expert on the subject.

Deb Williams has led trips to northern Quebec for more than 20 years for the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont, spending several weeks at a time in temperatures than run even lower than our recent cold snap. But, she told me with a laugh, her “first claim to fame” is raising three children in chilly Vermont with husband Andy. She shared her advice about keeping kids warm, safe, and happy outside in the winter.

Dress like an onion.
Williams reminded me that clothing itself doesn’t make us warm. Our bodies do that work. Dressing in layers — like an onion— creates the insulation, trapping body heat in channels of dead air space.

- Start with a wicking layer next to the skin. Tops, bottoms, and feet should be covered with a layer of polypropylene or other synthetic, silk, or wool. These fabrics wick moisture away from a child’s body, retaining very little dampness.

- Next comes an insulation layer of medium-weight wool or pile to retain body heat. For colder temperatures, add another layer of insulation, such as a down or fiberfill jacket.

- The final layer is an outer protective shell or jacket to protect against wind, water, or snow. This layer is extremely important, Williams explained. “If you’re letting the wind in, it’s like having no layers at all.”

- Outer layers shouldn't be too snug — you want enough to create pockets of warmed air — but should close off airflow around wrists and waists or hips to keep the warm air in.

- Finally, cold winter weather is an occasion to lose a layer as well: Williams suggests having kids take off any jewelry they might be wearing. “It’s easy to forget, but earrings can generate real cold in ears. They’re metal, after all, which is a great conductor of cold.”

Give an extra hand.
In cold weather, choose mittens over gloves for warmer hands. Mittens work on a “five musketeers” principle (all for one, and one for all), warming each other more effectively in one air pocket than separated. But don’t stop there: After an hour on the sledding hill or half a day on the ski slopes, even the warmest pair of mittens is likely to be soaked from the inside or the outside. Pack an extra pair or stick back-ups in coat pockets.

Start cool, stay dry. Wind is one enemy of warmth, but another enemy comes from within: sweat. Damp clothes next to bare skin will chill a child, even one dressed in multiple layers. Williams recommends starting out cool and dry in winter activities. She teaches children to take the time to stop and remove layers if they get hot. Taking off a hat and stuffing it in a side pocket for a few minutes helps kids avoid overheating.

Another way to stay dry is to avoid wearing cotton next to the skin. “The saying used to be, ‘Cotton kills,’” Williams said. “We can be kinder than that.” Cotton works so well in towels because it soaks up moisture and holds onto it — up to 60 percent of its weight. The fabrics used in wicking layers typically retain only 1 to 5 percent of their weight.

Dry feet are warm feet. Williams has learned to pay special attention to feet. If boots or snowshoe straps are too tight, circulation is restricted and feet become chilled. It’s better to wear an extra pair of socks in roomy boots, in Williams’s experience, than to risk frostbite in tight ones.

Felt boot liners should be pulled out and dried every night after children have worn them. Simply bringing boots inside to dry isn’t enough, because rubber around the bottoms of the boots traps moisture. “Damp liners are the source of many cold feet,” Williams said.

Protect face and eyes. Williams always carries extra ski goggles in her pack. Children being carried in a backpack or sled feel wind on their faces, too, without the extra warmth that comes from doing the work of moving. Williams recommends goggles to protect their eyes and balaclavas or face masks to protect their faces.

"Dressing a child for winter isn’t all that hard," Williams said. However, “You do have to pay attention.” Around here this week, a lot of parents were paying attention.

Learn more

• More advice on dressing for warmth from AMC: “Cold Comfort: How to stay toasty in winter’s chill” (Matt Heid, AMC Outdoors)
• Advice from medical professionals on winter safety and avoiding and treating frostnip, frostbite, and hypothermia

Photo courtesy of Hulbert Outdoor Center.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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