How to Dress Kids for Outdoor Activities

Spending more time outdoors with our families is our goal. Proper layering if often the key difference between a successful and failed family adventure. Comfortable kids are happier outdoors!

Many of us have learned the basics of dressing for weather. Dressing in layers may be common knowledge, but the types of layers can make a world of difference in comfort and safety. The following is a simple-to-follow guide to dressing kids for outdoor activities in either cold or warm weather. A three layer system is fundamental regardless of temperature:

  • Base Layer
  • Middle Layer
  • Outer Layer

Cold Weather Layering for Kids

Let’s start with the cool weather layering. Again, layers are essential and the types of layers matter. Synthetic and wool fabrics are best. Synthetic blends typically consist of polyester, nylon, and spandex. Synthetics are commonly found in workout clothes. You want to avoid cotton, as it is a poor insulator and does not dry quickly. Staying dry is critical. Even excessive sweat from bursts of activity can lead to hyperthermia later.

Cold Weather Base Layer

This is the layer to wear underneath all your other clothing. It should be synthetic (polyester, nylon, spandex) or wool to provide proper insulation and moisture wicking. Moisture wicking is especially important in a base layer, the layer closest to your skin.

Wool can sometimes feel scratchy, which can be bothersome to kids. To combat this problem. look for merino wool. Ultra-fine merino wool is soft, itch-free, breathable, moisture-wicking, and dries quickly. You will want a top and bottom base layer that is form fitting and comfortable to allow for layering and mobility. Include warm socks. Merino wool blend socks are perfect as they are both warm and non-itchy! Merino blends can provide many of the benefits of 100% merino wool at a reduced price.

Merino wool base layers tend to be more expensive than synthetic base layers. Adult backpackers often choose wool over synthetics for its ability to resist odor on longer trips. In our family’s experience, younger kids are less likely to get as stinky, so you may want to save some money and choose synthetics. Synthetics are also easier to clean than merino wool. Just be careful to choose a synthetic base layer that is recommended for the temps that you expect on your trip. The synthetic base layer warmth tends to be lower than merino warmth and varies quite a bit.

Cold Weather Middle Layer

This is the layer that keeps your kids warm and comfortable. For pants, your best options are fleece, fleece lined pants or synthetic hiking pants. Depending on the expected temperature, you will use different middle layer tops.

For cool weather, choose a light-midweight fleece jacket. Fleece creates a comfortable layer of insulation by trapping air in the pockets between its fibers. This helps to keep warm air, created by your natural body heat, next to your body. Fleece tends to retain much of its warmth. The soft texture of fleece is also comforting.

For cold weather, you will need a warmer mid-layer top. Choose a down or synthetic down insulated jacket. Down creates high-loft clusters that trap air and body heat. Down is also incredibly breathable, allowing it to wick unwanted moisture away from your body to evaporate. Because of its high warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility, it is easy to pack.

Synthetic insulation does a better job than down in wet or humid weather. Synthetic insulation is designed to replicate the qualities of down but retain them even when wet. It’s made with polyester fibers that mimic down’s lofty clusters. The ultrafine polyester fibers in synthetic insulation trap warmth in air pockets, providing good warmth, though not quite as good as down. In addition, synthetic insulation has a slightly lower warmth-to-weight ratio than down. Synthetic down needs to be heavier to achieve the same warmth as down. Synthetic insulation is more affordable and naturally hypoallergenic.

Cold Weather Outer Layer

This is the layer that keeps you dry in rain or snow. There is nothing more important than keeping dry outdoors. The outer layer consists of waterproof rain jacket and pants (or snow jacket and snow pants) and waterproof shoes or boots. In cool weather, waterproof hiking shoes / boots are ideal. In colder weather, insulated snow boots may be needed.

Don’t forget to include mittens (or gloves) and hats. Mittens are generally warmer than gloves, but can fall off or reduce dexterity. If possible, bring extra gloves or mittens, as most brands tend to get wet (sometimes from the inside out) as kids play in the snow. Liner gloves (typically worn under mittens or gloves) can provide added warmth, moisture wicking and a more dexterous option when needed.

In the hat department, merino wool beanies are nice in cooler weather for their breathability. Fleece or fleece-lined beanies are better for wind resistance in colder conditions. Thinner synthetics can be a good option in cool temps or under helmets for their moisture-wicking. In the coldest and windiest conditions, a scarf, neck gaiter / buff or balaclava can cover any exposed skin. Our kids like to wear silk balaclavas or thin merino wool buffs when skiing or snowboarding.

While you may choose to stay indoors on a bad weather day during your trip, it is best to be prepared in case you are caught by unpredicted rain or snow. With good preparation, even the coldest and windiest days can be positive experiences.

Warm Weather Layering for Kids

Proper layering is also important in warmer weather. You will not need as many items in warm weather, but you should still choose synthetic over cotton materials. Synthetics such as polyester, nylon, and spandex are sweat resistant and quick drying. Cotton will take much longer to dry and can lead to more chaffing. Hot, wet and chaffed kiddos are not happy campers!

Warm Weather Base Layer

Synthetic regular underwear, synthetic short-sleeve T-shirt, and lightweight socks specifically made for hiking. Hiking socks are designed with extra cushioning in the heel and ball of your foot. Merino wool blended socks are ideal for long, hot hikes, as they keep odors to a minimum and provide wicking properties to keep feet dry. Perfect for all that puddle jumping.

Warm Weather Middle Layer

Quick-dry nylon hiking pants or synthetic blend active pants or shorts. Stick with what is comfortable, breathable and moisture wicking. Hiking pants offer more sun and scratch protection than shorts.

Warm Weather Outer Layer

Long-sleeve quick-dry sun shirt and lightweight rain jacket. Pack waterproof hiking shoes for older kids (or non-waterproof hiking shoes if conditions will be extremely hot and dry) and sneakers for toddlers. Don’t forget extra socks for the littles. Always include a wide brimmed sunhat as part of your warm weather outer layer. Finally, pack an insulated jacket just in case, especially in dry, higher elevations where Summer temperatures can drop quickly at night (e.g. Yellowstone or the rim of the Grand Canyon).

Following this easy 3-step layering guide you can be assured that you will be prepared for all weather conditions on your family camping adventures. Get properly layered for some epic family fun!

John Olsen

John Olsen is a seasoned adventurer with 20 years of writing, public speaking, team leadership, analytics and project management experience.

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