Playing Safe in Winter. How Cold is Too Cold?

by - Friday, September 26, 2014

First time parents often ask, "I want to take my baby outside in the winter, but how cold is too cold?" Do a Google search, look on Outdoor group forums, and you will be advised that 0C or -10C is the absolute coldest you should take kids out in, while hard core folks tout -30C (-22F) as safe.  For the majority of people, up to -15C (5F) is manageable, provided you are dressed appropriately (exceptions: babies, people whose airways are affected by cold air). 

If I remember one thing from the Climatology courses I took, -18C (-0.4F) is the temperature at which flesh freezes. I like my nose and digits, so I pay close attention to the weather in the winter. Even with mild frostbite, damage is permanent. Once you've frozen your nose, cheeks tips, and/or fingertips, the frostbitten parts hurt when mildly cold and they are excruciatingly painful in extreme cold. Not worth the risk if you want a lifetime of winter sports enjoyment.

Winter is Wonderful When You're Warm
If it is a perfectly calm day and you are going out for a short time (1 hour) mid-day and don't expect the weather to change while shovelling the walk, sledding, or walking to Starbucks, -15C is probably ok to take small kids out in. Since we don't usually get those ideal conditions in the middle of winter, besides temperature, you need to consider windchill, precipitation, time of day, and duration and location of your outing:
  1. Windchill: If it is -10C, or warmer with high windchill index, and windy, you might have to take precautions against frostbite (see below).
  2. Precipitation: If wet snow or sleet is falling, or the kids want to play in the slush, limit your time outside. I let the kids get wet making a snowman in our yard or park across the street, but would not let them do this when we are in the mountains for a half day ski or snowshoe because they will get too cold too fast and could get hypothermia. "Your body temperature can drop to a low level at temperatures of 50°F (10°C) or higher in wet and windy weather, or if you are in 60°F (16°C) to 70°F (21°C) water." Source: http://www.webmd.com/first-aid/tc/hypothermia-and-cold-temperature-exposure-topic-overview
  3. Time of day: If your kids are late risers like mine and you don't tend to head out until the afternoon, be aware of when the sun will set and be prepared for it to set a bit earlier if you are in the mountains. As the day goes on, the temperature will drop, so you should plan to be back at your shelter/home/vehicle before it gets too cold. Conversely, for you folks with early risers, don't head out too early. A couple hours can make a big difference in temperature and comfort level.
  4. Duration: The colder it is, the shorter your outside playtime should be. I have taken my kids outside in -20C and colder, but I take frostbite precautions (see below) and limit playtime depending on how they're doing. In milder temperatures, half-day outings may be feasible, but take regular breaks so kids can warm up. This not only ensures everyone's safety, but ensures the kids have fun and want to go out and play in the cold again. : ) We played 20-30 minutes in -20 when they were toddlers, and 2-4 hours when they were 3 & up. 
  5.  Location: Stay out of the backcountry when it gets too cold. You may plan to only be out for an hour, and aren't worried about your baby because she's bundled up in the Chariot, but what if you come back to a car that won't start? This happened to my hubby in our pre-kids days. (They had to light a fire under the car to warm the oil pan.) Or, what if you hurt yourself? My friend's friend broke her arm cross country skiing, was in too much pain to ski out and had to wait a few hours in -20C for a helicopter. Those are challenging enough situations for the toughest of us, but being outside for hours in extreme cold could be dangerous for small children.
  6. Pre-existing health conditions: If you have Raynaud's, you will have to take extra care to dress warmly to avoid Raynaud's spasms. See Surviving Winter with Raynaud's for my tips on keeping warm and pain free. Asthma can also be triggered by dry, cold air. Be sure to carry your rescue inhaler, don't over do it, and protect your airway (a mask with breathing vents is recommended). More tips in Staying Active With Exercise Induced Asthma.
Although activity level can increase your body temperature, it does not reduce your risk of frostbite when the mercury dips low. Please take the precautions below to avoid frostbite if you must head out in temperatures below -18C (-0.4F).

A scarf / neck warmer doubles as face protection when the weather changes

 Frostbite Precautions

  1. Carry extra layers, mitts, face masks / neck gaiters, hand warmer packets, and toe warmer packets. (Kids often misplace these items, even when they're school age!)
  2. Cover all exposed skin: wear ski goggles to cover the top of your face, and a balaclava, scarf, or neck warmer to cover the rest of your face. If not wearing a balaclava, a hat with earflaps will help protect your ears. Mitts are better than gloves at keeping hands warm; get waterproof mitts for your kids since they always want to play in the snow. *For severe weather, I recommend transporting babies and toddlers in a Chariot or similar stroller with a cover to protect them from the elements.*
  3. Do hand checks every half hour (feel their fingers and make sure they're not red) to make sure your child's hands are warm and dry. 
  4. Check your child's body and feet regularly to ensure she is warm and dry. Change any wet articles of clothing immediately.
  5. Carry hand and foot warmers for very cold weather and use them before pain sets in. A hot water bottle or rice/wheat pack in the stroller bag (not too hot or full) is an affordable, reusable heat pack.
  6. If the temperature or wind is severe, take shelter. Go indoors if possible. Otherwise, get out of the wind, then set up a tarp or build a snow shelter if necessary. If you are towing a Chariot, close it up completely to protect your little one.
  7. Bring extra clothes: mitts, hats, fleece layers for the kids, heavy down jacket (I usually wear a light down jacket for activity and pack the heavy down for break time). We always carry extra mitts and socks in case they get wet.
  8. Keep matches and candles handy in case you get stranded. They can keep a car or snow shelter slightly warmer but be sure to make an air vent or crack the window slightly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
This may seem like overkill, but keep in mind that I used to lead hikes and backpacking trips for adults, experienced all sorts of weather/trail conditions, and am pleased to say no one needed medical assistance or an emergency evacuation on my watch.

Winter is wonderful if you are dressed for it. Play safe! For recommendations on keeping kids warm in winter (what to wear), see this post. Some of our favorite children's snowsuits are in this post. For more tips on keeping warm (keep moving, stay hydrated and fueled, dress appropriately), see this post.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks a lot for this great and very informative article! Especially young kids and babies cannot really tell if they are cold or not. I will definitely have your tips in mind when playing outside with the kids in winter!

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  2. You're welcome! My kids would play outside without jackets if I let them, then cry later that they're cold. The onus is really on the parent(s) to make sure kids dress properly and stay dressed (my daughter likes to leave hats and mitts places).

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  3. Thank you! I posted it on my facebook wall for my family to read! Lots of little ones here and this is so important to know! God bless you and yours! <3

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing! Stay safe this winter! :)

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