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Kids and Cold: a Few Tips on Winter Outdoors

January 10, 2017

People often ask me how I get my kids to go out camping in the winter with me. The truth is, when they were young I acted like it was normal (and it is), so by the time they noticed that no one else was with us at the backcountry campground, they were hooked. Now they vie for the privilege of going to the backcountry in all seasons.

Getting outside in the winter is our way to enjoy the inevitable. Staying inside is simply not an option for us, we are unwilling to put our recreation on hold for an entire season. Aside from the physical benefits of being active, the mental benefits of being surrounded by nature, and the skills we gain by challenging ourselves, the outdoor world has a lot to offer in terms of simple enjoyment. In some ways, being outside in winter is easier than in summer. There are few bears out in winter and keeping warm while active in -35ºC is easier than keeping cool while active in +35ºC. It is way easier to get away from the crowds in winter than it is in summer and even a paved road looks like wilderness if you hide it with a few feet of snow.

Fiona is the one we refer to as “Arctic Girl”, she will generally be the first to be taking off layers whatever the temperature.

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Fiona at -27ºC

We sometimes credit Fiona’s cold hardiness to the Scandinavian tradition of putting babies outside to nap. At first we thought it was so we wouldn’t be trapped in our house every day for nap time, but we soon realized that our baby slept better outside than in.

No matter the reason, Fiona’s cold-hardiness does not give her superpowers. She can get frostbite or hypothermia (at least we assume so) and so we take the same precautions that people in cold climates have taken with their children for millennia.

Tadhg seems to have colder extremities than most kids, so we need to pay close attention to keeping his hands and feet warm if he is to feel comfortable on any cold weather outing. When people tell me that their kids are too sensitive to cold to go on winter backcountry excursions, I often mention that Tadhg isn’t tough enough either, he is just well dressed.

So what the heck do I do to keep my kids warm? First, I listen. If they tell me they are feeling cold, I believe them and I look to do something about it. Before they could talk, I used to reach in to snowsuits and blankets to feel if hands and feet felt warm enough. I also watched for signs of discomfort – young kids may not shiver, but they won’t be comfortable, so if something is disturbing that placid sleeping baby face, it’s worth paying attention to.

Children’s snowsuits from better suppliers are generally warm, but that isn’t the same as designed for sleeping outside in -30º. Inactive people produce substantially less heat that active ones, so if the kids are standing around or sleeping, they need much more insulation. When the kids were smaller, I generally bough an extra suit, one size too big to put over the base suit. When they were in diapers, I tried to have the zippers on the snowsuit layers line up so I wouldn’t have to completely remove either suit. For naps and sleeping, sometimes a double snowsuit wouldn’t be enough to keep me (yes me, the caring parent) comfortable – for those occasions, I would put the kids onto a sleeping bag over the snowsuit layers.

A great way to keep anyone warm is to keep them moving. We try to keep moving until it is time to eat or get into a warm sleeping bag for the night.

A popular evening camp (in)activity is sitting by a campfire. While it is fun, it is also exactly the same as any other type of sitting – it produces virtually no heat. Couple that with the warmth from the fire tricking your body into shedding warmth and even sweating, and a fire with no shelter becomes a recipe for feeling cold. Lately, we have been going for walks or bike rides in the evening after eating. Instead of getting cold, the moderate activity warms us up so that we get into our beds comfortably and can relax right away instead of shivering for the first while. This is not to say that we never have campfires, we just limit the times we spend sitting around them.

Boots for kids are generally not as good as they should be. The problem is not the manufacturers, just the many demands placed on kids’ boots. Adults will generally spend hundreds of dollars on their own boots, but it is hard to part with as much when they are only going to be worn for a couple of months. Most waterproof boots will not allow water vapour from sweat to escape at -30ºC, while boots that aren’t waterproof will be wet and cold at temperatures around freezing since they will allow water in. For babies, my compromise was to put camp booties on them. I usually bought two pairs so I could put the pair that wasn’t being worn in my pocket to dry it out while the other pair was on the baby’s feet. The smallest kids didn’t wear them out, especially since they didn’t wear them on concrete in the city. Warm legs can help to keep the blood that reaches the feet warm If a kid is wearing shorts, they will tell you all about how their legs don’t get cold, but their toes will be like little ice cubes. Closed cell foam mattresses are a great way to keep the ground from drawing heat away from feet or bums that may be in contact with the ground. It is surprising how much warmer feet will be when standing on a piece of blue foam.

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Fleece costumes count as insulation

Mittens are another problem area for kids. They are constantly trying to pick stuff up but have small sensitive hands that lose their heat quickly. Around freezing, the only solution seems to be to have several pairs (as many as you can carry) and change them as often as you can without running out mitts before the outing is over. With Tadhg’s sensitive hands, he will often wear a pair of my mitts over his own liner and overmitt. Many people neglect the arms as part of the mitten system, but like feet, the hands depend on the blood reaching them being warm in order to keep warm. Warm arms go a long way toward keeping the hands at the end of them toasty.

On the bikes, I have pogies for everyone’s hands, but I also wrap the brake levers in foam packing material which I hold in place with heat shrink tubing. Metal poles (including ski poles) are really good at conducting heat away from hands. Insulation between the hands and the bars helps and of course so do carbon fiber bars.

Hot liquids can help greatly in warming up a child who is getting uncomfortably cold. By the same token, drinking icy cold drinks can really cool a body, and especially a small child’s body, quickly. Too many hot liquids can of course be a problem since a trip out of the tent in -40 is a good way to lose the heat that was gained by drinking a hot tea.

There is a lot of talk about how much heat is lost through the head, and in fact wearing an insulated hat is an important part of outdoor activity.  Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the biggest source of heat loss, the lungs. The human lung has a moist surface area of at least 50 square meters which is 25 times the skin surface area of a large person. Imagine getting out of the shower and then blowing on yourself outdoors. The easiest solution to this is to wear a scarf in front of the face, which is great until it becomes a mask of ice and wet fabric.  Most Northern peoples have developed some type of hooded clothing that places a pocket of still air in front of the face where it can be warmed by outgoing breath and facial warmth. This is great, though it allows no peripheral vision, it does keep the face warm. My preferred solution is a heat exchanger mask or balaclava. There are a number of them on the market, with the https://rcm-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/cm?t=coldbikecom-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0091CC38A&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr“>Ergodyne (amazon.ca affiliate link)  and the Airtrim being my favourites. I generally feel that a good heat exchanger mask will add 10ºC to whatever you are wearing.

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Hot foods are warming as well, not just from the heat of the food, but from the heat released when the body uses the energy in food. There are many ideas about eating foods like cayenne pepper to warm the body, but I find that just eating a hot meal will work well enough.

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When camping in the winter, there is often no heated building to take shelter in if things go poorly. It is imperative to be prepared. If things get out of hand, it may be necessary to simply get into the tent and snuggle the young ones to warm them up. Hanging out the door of the tent while making a hot drink may not be the preferred cooking method, but it allows a parent to get hot liquids into a child while helping to warm them. Hot water in a steel water bottle can be used as a warming pack inside a sleeping bag to help warm a mildly hypothermic person of any age. For that matter, rocks can be heated to use for warming purposes assuming care is taken not to melt any tents/clothing/sleeping bags or burn anyone.

One of the key elements for us being out in the cold is to have fun. If we are having fun, we can more easily deal with the troubles that come from cold. We also aim to be flexible and we are willing to shorten or cancel an activity because we feel it will stop being fun.

Away from the lights and noise of the city, I always sleep better in a tent. I do awaken frequently to check on the kids though – especially when Fiona talks in her sleep. Many of the cases of frostbite in winter camping happen from sleeping through the onset of frozen feet. There are also many cases of hypothermia that happen at night, so it pays to be extra careful. When the kids were young, we would put them to bed in a snowsuit, a large snowsuit (that either covered hands and feet, or with booties) and then pack the whole kid-snowsuit assembly into a sleeping bag.  While this was heavy, it was warm and comfortable. These days, we have moved toward simplifying the system with Tadhg sleeping in a down/synthetic sleeping bag, adding a down jacket if it is colder, and with a down jacket of mine if it becomes absolutely necessary. Fiona is now using a down sleeping bag with a home made synthetic overquilt. Either the quilt or the bag is good to about -10ºC, but the combination should be comfortable down to about -40.

There is a persistent myth that people need to be naked inside their sleeping bags. The fact is, insulation inside the sleeping bag works (until it gets compressed) just as well as the sleeping bag itself. The only caveat is that wet insulation of any type works poorly.

In the same way that layers of clothing can help to keep people comfortable in a range of temperatures and activities, so too can sleeping bags be layered. Of course no one wants to carry three sleeping bags per person, but it is not too onerous to carry a sleeping bag/overbag combination in most cases. In our case, our overbags weigh only 800g, so the total weight is actually less than what a single -40º rated bag would be.

Sleeping bags only insulate the top half of a sleeper since the bottom of the insulation is compressed beneath them. A warm sleeping pad is essential, more so the colder it gets. I really like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm mattresses, but after having one spring approximately 500 leaks on me this summer, I will not trust them as my sole sleeping pad. In the past, I have used closed cell foam pads either alone or for extra insulation with an air-filled pad, and I have now re-instituted their use in winter. (note that my leaky pad was replaced, and Therm-a-Rest recommend a foam pad as backup)

Some kids roam in their sleep and this makes keeping them on the pad an extra challenge over simply putting them on a quality sleeping pad and letting them sleep until morning. I generally pile all of Fiona’s and my own packs next to her so that she would have to work to wander over them. Her new sleeping quilt attaches to her sleeping pad and helps somewhat to keep her in place on the pad.

People some times question the safety of taking your kids camping in the cold, but I have to defer to the the entire North of Europe, Asia and North America. Many of the First Nations from around here referred to winter camping as “life” and though they had occasional issues with extreme weather, they thrived in our climate even though they slept out in tents every night. While their teepees were much larger and heated by a fire, it remains that they did not live in thermostat-controlled heated houses. I feel that on our most daring adventures, we have always left a large margin of safety, so while we have occasionally been uncomfortable, we have never been at the threshold of physical danger.

For more practical information, check out this Play Outside Guide to Keeping Kids Warm in Winter.

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2 Comments
  1. andrea (uaz95 on flickr) permalink

    I seem to remember a few pictures of Fiona in a playground, barefoot and with a summer dress while all the people around were wearing duvets at least…

    She seems impervious to cold.

    • Yeah, she’s tough alright. She could get frostbite or hypothermia though, so we pay attention when it gets cold, we just don’t make her put on extra clothes when we feel chilled.

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