I’m going to talk a bit about layering the family, and am going to do it in two parts. First let’s talk about layering kids, because I have a lot more pictures of the layers my kids wear than I do my own layers. I’m going to break it down by seasons too. This is Alaska-specific, because that’s where we live, and is mostly focused on layering for longer hikes, but we use these guidelines for every time we go out to play because I never want gear to limit the time we’re able to spend outside. First I’ll talk about layering basics and budget options, and then I’ll go into the specifics of what our favorite gear is.
- BASELAYERS: Any baselayer you choose should be able to wick moisture, and be snug-fitting. It should allow freedom of movement, and it shouldn’t get heavy or cold when wet. I prefer wool always, but synthetic baselayers can often be found a lot cheaper. If you do go with a polyester fleece, you want to make sure that the kids don’t overheat if they’re being really active as synthetic fibers don’t breathe and regulate temperature like wool does. I cannot stress enough how good of an investment wool baselayers are for an active family, see more about this in the wool section below. If cost is an issue, you can find stuff with stains, or holes.. we have had a lot of repairs to our nicer wool, and own a lot of baselayers that I’ve just sewn holes shut in (and I am NOT a proficient sewer so it looks bad but it still works!). You can also find wool upcycled from old wool sweaters, or you can do this yourself and that keeps the cost way down. If you choose to use footie PJs (synthetic or wool options), be sure they have extra room (next size up) if babywearing so as not to be too tight against feet, when kids are in a carrier their knees are raised above bum and this uses up an extra inch or so of fabric, so a next size up sleeper ensures that their toes are not constricted.
- INSULATING LAYERS: Wool, down, fleece, synthetic poly fill (puff). This layer is between the baselayer and the outer layer. Sometimes it’s built into the outer layer, but often we use an additional insulating layer. You want this layer to fit looser than your baselayer, but not as snug to your body. Extra space allows hot air to be trapped and keeps you warmer, while also allowing greater freedom of movement. Boiled wool is generally my favorite, but we use down jackets a lot too, and synthetic puffs can be found at very budget friendly prices and often do better than down in wet conditions (though our Patagonia down is stellar in even the wettest snow).
- OUTER LAYER: The layer on the outside that is waterproof, and blocks wind. Protects from rain or snow. Waterproof is great, but breathability is good too for active kids, materials like GoreTex, eVent, etc let vapor pass out so you don’t overheat inside them. Oakiwear rainsuits are not as breathable as they used to be, but they’re still an excellent option for a full body suit. The Tuffo (Muddy Buddy) suits are a good budget option but we haven’t tried them. Another great rain option are rain bibs by Playshoes or Polarn O Pyret. The Polarn ones are thicker and we like them better, but they don’t breathe as well and would get hot on an elevation hike. Snowsuits can be one piece or two, and I prefer the one-piece for kids especially as they’re easier to get on and off and help keep snow out when rolling around. Next best to snowsuits are overall style snow bibs, which we also use often and pair with down or wool jackets. Last option is snowpants that come only waist-high, and we have some for backup that I would only use in an emergency because you’re going to have a kid with snow down their butt.
- FOOTWEAR: Waterproof rain boots, waterproof and insulated snow boots. Make sure boots are the right size, if they don’t have extra room in them with thick socks, there will not be enough room for warm air to circulate and toes will get cold (and cramped). It can be hard to tell if a boot fits, but removing the insole (another reason I love removable insoles) is a great way to tell! Packing an extra sock into a boot trying to make it “warmer” could end up filling in that warm air space and may actually make them colder. Wool socks, ALWAYS. Wool socks aren’t expensive and they are the only socks we wear, you can find a lot of very budget friendly options on amazon that are about half wool and those will work great.
- NOTE ABOUT COTTON: “Cotton is Rotten” “Cotton Kills” OK, maybe dramatic, but if you’re going outdoors on a hike in Alaska, it’s best to avoid it. Cotton absorbs moisture and if it gets wet it will be cold next to your skin. Especially avoid cotton socks.
MORE ABOUT WOOL
Our baselayer is almost always merino wool, it’s 95% of the clothing we own and wear regardless of season. Wool is hygroscopic meaning it wicks moisture away from the skin better than any other fiber, and it insulates when wet. Many synthetics mimic these properties, but they don’t do it as well as wool. Wool also doesn’t need to be washed as much because it’s naturally antimicrobial and won’t build up a “stink” like synthetics do. For tops we love smartwool baselayers, sloomb merino rib shirts, nui wool, Ella’s wool, Mabli, and a whole bunch of Australian brands that it’s impossible to find new but show up on the BSTs if you know where to look. For bottoms, it’s almost always basewoolies by Sloomb, but the brands Yooki or Rox+Rumble have similar styles. We wear wool knit pants year round. We get them dirty, we play hard in them. We regularly need to get them repaired, and they come back with fun animals and mountains on them (thanks Anna!!). They are easy to move in, so they’re ideal for hiking or tumbling or whatever activity active kids are doing. They’re also great for babywearing and cloth diapering. They keep kids comfortable and take a lot of the guesswork out of layering. They are expensive.. and at first it seems crazy to spend $50+ for a pair of kid’s pants. But then you use them for 2 years per kid, times three kids. And they’re always warm and dry and can move easily… their pants never bunch up under snowgear and if they do facedive into a puddle and get water inside their rainsuits, you know the warm will insulate them when wet and you don’t have to run back to the car for dry clothes.
WHAT WE USE, BY SEASON
*Summer* Basewoolies or Sloomb tankers/hikers on bottom, if the weather is warm and sunny it really doesn’t matter but we are usually prepared for rain/wind/cold by just wearing wool at all times since most of the year that’s what’s necessary for us; lightweight wool shirt (short sleeved or long), often a merino cardigan or light sweater if it’s morning or evening or going up the butte or a mountain where it’s more exposed/windy and an extra layer is needed. FOOTWEAR: Wildlings shoes (especially the ones lined with boiled wool, we call those our “hiking shoes”), soft star mocs/ramblers, or Crocs rainboots.
*Fall* Basewoolies underneath Disana boiled wool overalls (bunting for small kids but the biggest they make is 12-24 so the overalls for bigger kids up until about 5yo when they stop making those too). Long sleeve wool shirt or sweater, with a Disana boiled wool jacket or sloomb wool cardigan over. If it’s wet or has been wet, or the hike takes you in or around water/mud, add Polarn O Pyret rain bibs (and/or Oakiwear rainsuit). They also provide a windproof layer to keep all the woolie warmth in underneath. Playshoes brand rain bibs are lighter weight so for hot climates those are probably better. FOOTWEAR: Usually Crocs rainboots, which work even down into the 30s paired with thick wool socks and active kids. We also like MyMayu rain boots, but we only use those when I want to get the kids dressed and when we’re not going to be IN a lake, but they work excellent for mud play (and laying down in mud).
*Winter* Basewoolies on bottom, long sleeved wool shirt and/or wool sweater on top. Next come Insulating Layers (if needed): Patagonia Down Sweater, Disana boiled wool jacket, Disana boiled wool overalls are all great options. Outer Layer: Snow bibs (any kind is usually fine but I will only choose full bibs, getting snow in your pants is no fun) and down jacket (Patagonia or similar down/high loft down or synthetic puffy jacket), or one-piece (I prefer one-pieces, Burton snowsuits or Oakiwear snowsuits [we are reviewing the Oakiwear snowsuit soon but I expect to like it!], namuk winter overalls also look pretty great but we haven’t tried those either). For babies and young toddlers the Columbia snuggly bunny down bunting is amazing. If it’s really wet snow and the weather is warm, we’ll sometimes layer a rainsuit over boiled wool. FOOTWEAR: We switch to our Baffins as soon as it snows. I love Baffins with removeable liners, and this is the one instance where I don’t typically reach for wool! We’ve owned Soft Star Phoenix boots in the past and they worked really great, but they are really expensive (especially after the price shot up from $90/pair to $135/pair for kid’s). Baffins are clunkier and I do prefer minimalist shoes, but we are outside so much that I buy boots in every size (so if a kid wears size 11, their spare pairs are the 12s and even the 10s in many cases). Baffins dry out quick when you take the liner out and keep their feet warm, and I’ve been able to find almost all our pairs for $20-30 during off-season sales. ACCESSORIES: Disana boiled wool mittens are great and the kids love them even for extended snow play, and they’re great to layer with Polarn O Pyret gloves. But our favorite winter mittens are Stonz mittens, they have a high wrist gaiter with two drawstrings, cozy fleece inside, and completely waterproof. We have liked the Veyo Mittyz for young kids, because they’re spacious and soft on little cheeks, and the lack of a thumbhole is really nice (I hate playing the “thumb! In!” game with little kids every 5 minutes), but they aren’t fully waterproof. For balaclavas we use the thin Smartwool ones, but my favorite are the Joha Merino Fleece, it’s a thicker boiled wool and are so cozy with the perfect size face-hole (technical term). There are a lot of thick fleece balaclava options on amazon, and the kind that are adjustable work really well and can be pulled up over the mouth on really cold days or down under the chin.
*Spring* Sloomb basewoolies underneath Polarn O Pyret rain bibs, merino cardigan/hoodie, rain jacket; or oakiwear rainsuit over the top. If it’s really really wet and they’re playing in say the pool of standing water that forms over our sandpit, we’ll often do an Oakiwear rainsuit with Polarn rain bibs over the top! Add insulating layers if needed. Very similar to dressing for fall, except they spend more time in Puddles (I usually refer to spring as “Puddle Season” and we get extremely wet and sandy!) ACCESSORIES: Polarn O Pyret Rain mittens, with boiled wool mittens underneath if necessary. Outdoor Research Seattle Sombreros are also nice if it’s pouring, but the newer Oaki rainsuits have a nice visor that helps keep rain out of little eyes.
Have any questions? Have stuff you love that I didn’t mention? Drop it in the comments!
- LINKS to WILD Gear reviews mentioned in this post: