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“Was it indoor recess today?” is a common after-school question at my house. I live in Thunder Bay, Ont., where schools and daycares keep the kids inside if it’s colder than -25°C with the wind chill (and it's not rare that it's colder than that). Otherwise, the kids are outside at recess and many families, including mine, will head out after school and on weekends too, to ski, sled, skate, ice fish, snowshoe or just play in the snow.
I don’t think we’re hardcore either. Simmering inside in the germ pit of mid-winter, without fresh air and sunlight, makes everyone a little bonkers. While I like to tell my daughter that we are tough northern girls, it’s true that we’re all tough Canadians. Winter is long and cold for most of us, and kids are heartier than we think. It’s OK to take your kids outside when it’s freaking cold! (Use common sense, of course—frostbite is no joke, so dressing right, having warm-up breaks, taking extra care with babies, making sure small bits like toes, fingers and ears are protected and throwing a dance party inside when it dips below -25°C are all the way to go.)
Here are some winter-tested ideas to help get your kids—and you—out of the house.
Base layer and middle layers Long underwear is your base layer, worn next to the skin to wick away sweat that leaves you chilled. Soft microfibre or merino wool is ideal. Skip the cotton, because it gets damp and then you get cold. Top that off with your middle layer, a fleece hoodie or merino wool sweater, and it’s ok if it’s a little big. (Merino used to be hard to find, but it’s more widely available now. Look for small adult sizes at reduced prices at lots of retailers now, even Winners, Old Navy and the Gap. I promise it’s not scratchy.) A vest or undershirt helps keep your core warm, which in turn means warmer hands and feet.
Snowsuits Snowsuits are important, obvs., but I wouldn’t get too hung up on brands because I think the other gear in this list actually has a bigger impact. You can usually find one-piece snowsuits in sizes up to 6, and they're awesome because they're so warm and kids can do up the zippers on their own, even while wearing mitts. When kids move into two-piece snowsuits, keep them in the bib-style pants that go up over the chest and back as long as you can (I lost this particular battle this year).
Neck tubes and hats Also called a neck gaiter, neck tubes are long stretchy neckwarmers made of soft merino wool or microfibre. They keep you surprisingly warm just worn around the neck, but can also be pulled up over the ears, head and lower half of the face for extra coziness. I find that fleece hats are the warmest and fortunately they are inexpensive too.
Mitts Gloves generally don’t keep small hands warm enough. Gauntlet-style mitts that go part-way up the arm, made with a fleece liner, nylon exterior and elastic wrist, are toasty and keep the snow and wind out. For extra warmth, have your kiddo put them on before they put their coat on (drawback: they might need help zipping up their coat).
Boots and socks Boots with felt liners tend to be the warmest, and I roll the dice and buy the expensive ones on sale at the end of the season, even if I don’t know what my daughter’s shoe size will be in six months (so far I’ve been lucky). A good way to beef up so-so boots is with merino wool socks. I keep a couple pairs with the winter gear rather than risk them disappearing into the sock drawer vortex. I’ve never had luck with doubling up socks—usually it makes the boot a little tight and the circulation to your feet isn’t great. Again, don’t choose cotton socks for frosty outings.
Cold-weather gear can be expensive, especially if you’re outfitting multiple kids. Because I have one child and she’s pretty easy on her stuff, I tend to buy new and then partially recoup the costs by selling it at a local gear sale the following fall. Check your neighbourhood for gear swaps and sales. MEC has a page that lists gear-swap events in different parts of Canada, and has an online buy and sell page for used items too. On a local Facebook page where members can buy and sell kids’ active clothes, I recently snapped up two sets of lightly used youth long underwear tops and bottoms, a merino sweater and two pairs of hiking pants all for $80, which would have set me back $250 or so if they were new.
New winter gear tends to go on sale in late January and early February. For older kids, check the adult department too—my 10-year-old is currently on her second winter with good gauntlet mitts in women’s extra-small, 70 percent off. I also have a friend who swears by a Canadian outlet site called The Last Hunt, which offers deep discounts on brand names. It’s a bit of a gamble because the items aren’t returnable, but she has three kids and figures stuff will fit one of them at some point. Connect with other active families too—this same friend has daughters a year older and a year younger than mine, so we will sometimes trade stuff back and forth.
Food helps keep you warm, so pass out snacks like nuts, granola bars and dried fruit. Just keep them in an inside pocket so they don’t freeze! It’s also easy to stash a thermos of hot chocolate, or mint or berry tea, in a backpack.
I love handwarmers and buy the inexpensive charcoal kind in bulk at Canadian Tire. You just open the package, expose the handwarmer to the air and tuck it into your mitts for toasty hands. Because they’re activated by oxygen, if you only use them for a short while you can reseal them in a small ziptop bag and use them later that day or the next day.
Sometimes it’s not so much the cold as the effects of the cold that make a kid cranky about being outside. Have extra tissues or a hanky to clean up that snotty nose, or hand your big kid a pack to keep in their pocket. Applying sunscreen and lip balm before you head out protects and soothes the skin. It really makes a difference if you can find a spot out of the wind, like a wooded trail or in the valley of a hilly area.
By the way, grownups need good gear too. Wearing a thin pair of wool gloves under your mitts is a lifesaver when you’re buckling kids into car seats or helping them with their snowshoes or ski bindings. And not to brag or anything, but I have had the same sets of microfibre long underwear and tank tops for decades. (Elita Warm Wear…they are so old I got them at Eaton’s!) Hang them to dry instead of putting them in the dryer and they will last for a long time. Sheepskin mitts and hats are a pretty big investment for kids but hey, the grownups deserve them, and again, I have had mine for 20 years in the north and they’re still going strong.
Lots of snow definitely offers lots of playtime, but if you have cold without the white stuff, there are still fun things to do outside. Our driveway is the meeting spot for three families to get on the school bus, and while we’re waiting, we go old-school and play Mother May I, Simon Says, dig into our repertoire of camp songs with actions, pretend to explore a tropical island…pretty much anything to keep us warm and distract us from the fact that it’s pitch dark and dang cold at 8 a.m. (kids do tend to echo you when you’re moaning and groaning about something, right?).
Listen, maybe you love winter and maybe you don’t, but there’s no point in being cold—or housebound. After all, we’re tough Canadian girls (and guys) and our kids should be too.