There was a time when I thought that being out in the cold meant below snow-covered ground, below freezing temperatures, and icicles hanging from the rooves, but when I lived out west in Washington State, everything changed. At first, I thought, "Wow. How amazing is this, I'm living in a temperate rainforest." I hindsight I think all I heard was the word "rainforest," thinking of my younger days spent in the Costa Rican rainforests, sweating and soaking up all the mid-afternoon rainstorms and starfruit juice I could get. However, my rose-coloured glasses were frosted over with grand delusions of what a temperate rainforest is. You see living on the temperate west coast does mean lots of lush green ferns, big trees, and berries beyond your wildest dreams. It also means that from October to May you see the sun about as many times as you see your dog groomer in a year, and as the temperatures drop the rain does not stop. The combination of moderately cold and wet creates one of the most hazardous climatic/environmental conditions for humans, and when not managed well, can lead to hypothermia, aka "exposure." So it was, that in my misty, but mostly rainy days spent outside in the Pacific Northwest mentoring children, that I learned the art of staying warm.
So what is it about the mixture of cold and wet that chills us to our bones? Cold on its own isn't so bad, being that we're warm-blooded creatures, capable of generating our own heat when we are well-fed, hydrated and able to move our bodies. The challenge for us as humans comes when we have moisture on our skin, and our bodies begin to cool more rapidly. Any moisture on your skin will absorb the heat of your body until the water has reached the same temperature as your skin. Simply put, it's the second law of thermodynamics in effect (GOOGLE it). This effect can cool you down very rapidly, leaving you shivering on the dock in the middle of July. The cooling effect of the water is compounded further when you add a light wind or breeze into the mix. (FOOTNOTE: (It's the power of convection folks, another word worthy of Googling, especially before cooking a holiday meal in the oven, makes excellent table talk, just saying).
Children (generally speaking) are naturally resilient, born risk takers. I cannot count the number of times I have watched children, (especially young ones, who don't know better yet) begin to wade into the water in a November rain shower. When I see this happening and depending on my ability to help them manage their risk-taking, I will either watch them do it, fully knowing that in twenty minutes we will need a fire and a few good, "what did we learn from that?" moments, or I will intervene and say, "maybe not today." Being outside in all types of weather is great for humans, as long as we know how to get warm and have the resources to do it nearby. It's great because it helps condition us to be psychologically and physically more resilient and to learn how to self-manage our healthy tolerance for risk. An essential element to self-management in the outdoors is properly preparing ourselves to be outside for long periods of time by dressing appropriately. Again, I cannot tell you how many times I have watched parents bring kids to programs in cotton sweatshirts and sweatpants in that cold November rain, shaking my head as the child toddles up to a giant puddle with a massive grin on their face.
A testament to the use of clothing to keep humans alive are the people living in the far north, where temperatures are for but a few short weeks below zero. To the people of the north, clothing was referred to as the first shelter, and their incredible skills and knowledge of the land helped them create beautifully handcrafted caribou parkas and waterproof sealskin boots, that kept their people alive and thriving for generations. Here in Ontario, we live in a different environment, with its unique challenges and when it comes to dressing appropriately for the fall and spring weather, when its cold and wet, here's what I tell parents. Wool is your best friend. Your second best friend is synthetic materials, like nylon and other fleeces. Your worst enemy is cotton, and in a whispered voice, I refer to it as "death cloth." Each group of material has its pros and cons which I will now get into.
Why wear wool?
Thank goodness for our wooly animal friends. I once bought an alpaca wool sweater in Ecuador for ten dollars. To this day I consider it one of the best pieces of outdoor clothing I own. It doesn't look as clean as it did 15 years ago, but it sure does the trick of keeping me warm. Wool fibers differ from cotton in many ways. One reason why wool fibers are useful, is they do not collapse on each other when wet. This means that the wool fibers keep a little pocket of air between them which your body heats up, its the same reason why down jackets and sleeping bags are so effective at insulating you from the cold.
Wool also wicks water away from your body whereas cotton absorbs the water and collapses on to your skin, cooling you down more rapidly. Wool is also more fire retardant than nylon or other synthetic materials which will melt away when even small sparks land on them, and after standing around a few crackling fires you will have swiss cheese for clothes. The only downside to wool is its coarse fibers that irritate some people's skin, which I can understand, but on the other hand, would you rather be cold or slightly itchy. You can also manage the itch and irritation by first putting on a soft merino wool or nylon undershirt, so the wool is not in direct contact with your skin (more on layering later). Just do something really fun outside and forget about your wooly woes.
Synthetic materials like nylon fleeces and polyesters (not blends of polyester and cotton) are suitable as well and have many of the same positive qualities of wool. The only drawbacks of most synthetic materials (like nylon) are that they melt when a spark hits them (not good for us wilderness types who love a good fire). These fabrics also tend to be loud when the person wearing them brushes up against anything (not good if you are engaged in a very sneaky game of capture the flag, or stalking up to a majestic mossy-backed deer). Synthetics are often a more affordable base-layer option when dressing you or your child to be outside.
I realize that up to now I've been giving cotton a hard time, so I'll do my best now to be respectful and provide cotton cloth some credit. Cotton is good because it is lightweight and breathable. Good for fun times in the summer sunshine, or if you live in a desert. In crisp cold weather, a thick cotton anorak (think poncho) as an outer layer is both fashionable and functional, for its breathability and lightweight, but in damp and cold conditions a cotton anorak would be a poor choice. In wet conditions cotton becomes known as death-cloth because it absorbs water instead of wicking it away, and then sticks to your skin absorbing your body heat, causing your body temperature to drop. So don't wear it if you are going to be outside in the fall or spring, not even as a base layer. Not even if your child comes to you insisting they wear their favourite cotton tee with the unicorn on it. Politely agree with them that unicorns are very magical, but an elf wizard once told you how much unicorns hate getting wet, since they melt away and die a slow agonizing death when they come into contact with water. Maybe leave that last part out. Cotton is cool, cheap and lightweight, good in warm temperatures, but not in the fall, winter or spring. Two words: "death cloth."
Layering clothing: wicker, warmth, weather
Now that you've received a download on why never to wear cotton in fall, winter or spring when spending a day outside (hopefully that not all you got out of this so far), it's time to get down to the art of layering clothing. An excellent way to remember how to win with weather is, wicker, warmth, weather. Let's work from the inside out. The first layers to put on you or your child should be a base layer of synthetic or woolen material to wick away the moisture. Don't try to sneak in a cotton layer as a base layer, even if you plan on putting wool on next because the cotton will absorb sweat too, and if you are active outside, you will sweat, and the damp cotton will slowly suck your body heat away from you. So stick with a nylon or woolen undershirt to start.
The next layer should be a thicker wool sweater or synthetic fleece to insulate and provide warmth. If you know that you or your child is particularly sensitive to cold or that it is frigid out that particular day, then repeat another round of thin to thick layers. Switching from thin to thick clothing helps keep the heat your body is generating, trapped in those little pockets of air between the fibers and layers of clothing.
The outermost layer of clothing is weather specific. When it is a crisp/dry cold outside, then a winter coat made of a more breathable and somewhat windproof material is best as an outer layer. The breathability of the outer layer allows any moisture created by our body sweat to escape. This way moisture from our sweat doesn't become trapped in between layers and freeze. If outside it looks a little like you may be in Ireland or Vancouver, damp and cold, a water-repellent outer layer like a raincoat or rain poncho is best to keep out the moisture. The challenge is that waterproofing is often a two-way street, meaning nothing gets in (rain) and nothing gets out (sweat). This means your raincoat can trap in your body heat and sweat, causing you to lose your body heat into the trapped moisture from the sweat. The good news is that some raincoats are made of a more breathable waterproof material like Gore-Tex, which keeps the water out and allows moisture trapped inside to escape, kind of like a one-way valve. Coats that use this type of technology tend to be pricier, so a good trick is to teach your kids to find a sheltered place open their raincoat periodically to allow some moisture to evaporate.
Clothing for our legs follows the same wicker, warmth, weather layering pattern. Choosing the right clothes for our legs in the shoulder seasons of fall and spring can be tricky though because it's not quite time for snow pants, and most of the common types of legwear, like jeans and sweatpants, are made of cotton (except for those Lulu Lemon yoga pants). For the base layer, you can start with something classic, like long underwear made of nylon or wool. Again check to make sure the underwear are cotton with a stylish Batman print on them to draw your attention away from how utterly useless they are in the cold and wet. The tricky part is what goes on after the long undies or leggings because jeans and sweatpants are made of cotton, which leaves most of us with few options since all that is left may be our fancy wool dress pants. This is where most of us might have to invest in some wool or nylon fleece pants, and I would suggest wool if your child will be spending time around a campfire. A good place to search for some wool pants are thrift stores, because yes a thick pair of wool dress pants will do, or army surplus stores, but you got to be a fan of the colour green, and there won't be much in the way children's sizes. Finally, pull on the rain or snow pants (weather dependent of course), but don't forget to check-in about taking a quick trip to the bathroom for a pee first.
Feet should be adorned with wool socks. Again you can go with a layered approach of a thin wool sock to wick away moisture, and then a thicker one (those super thick and juicy, hand-knitted socks from Grandma are great for this). If it's mild out or you have a more fiery composure a single layer of wool socks will suffice. For rainy weather with tons of puddles, go for the rubber boots folks. Don't bust out the winter shell-toed sorels too soon, save them for those crisp cold mid-winter days. Most kids that I've worked with don't have a good sense of when the water is going to creep past the water-proof toe and creep over into the full-on soaker zone. Wet feet are no fun. Wool socks help. Cotton. You know how I feel about this. :-(
Heads and hands are the last on the list in this flurry of fashion. Hats for heads, and by hats I mean toques, that's French for a wooly non-cotton hat (not actually). Pretty simple, but I have noticed that thicker and tighter knit hats are warmest, and a hood always helps keep out the wind and rain. For the hands, fingered nylon or wool gloves are good on their own for a little extra warmth in the fall and spring. When it starts to be winter time, and the temperatures really drop, creating that layered effect with a thinner pair of fingered gloves and a thicker pair of mittens on top works well. I highly recommend packing an extra pair or two of mittens for children because they seem to have a gravitational pull to pooling water where they can float their sticks and chunks of ice. You can probably guess how the rest of the story goes.
Dressing for the weather may seem like a significant task at first and a bit of a learning curve as you tweak your systems, but once you get this down, you and your children will be better for it. A comfortably warm child is a happy child and will gladly stay outside to enjoy all that the book of nature has to share, whether at a day of forest school or a family trip. So head out to your local thrift stores and value villages and buy up all that woolen garment gold ((or buy shiny new things). Please don't hesitate to comment below if you have any other questions about best practices for dressing you and your child for endless hours of fun in the rain or the sun.