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Playing Safe in Winter. How Cold is Too Cold?

by Karen Ung

Tips for avoiding frostbite when playing outside in winter

kid-playing-in-the-snow
Winter is wonderful when you’re warm!

When the mercury dips in the dead of winter, parents often ask, “How cold is too cold to play outside?” Do a Google search, look on outdoor forums, and you will be advised that 0C or -10C is the absolute coldest you should take kids out in, while some tout -30C (-22F) as safe.  For the majority of people, up to -15C (5F) is manageable, provided you are dressed appropriately (exceptions: newborns, people whose airways are affected by cold air). Below -15C is totally doable as well, provided you take precautions to prevent frostbite. Learn more about how to avoid frostbite.

What factors increase the risk of frostbite?

If I remember one thing from the Climatology courses I took back in University, -18C (-0.4F) is the temperature at which flesh freezes. I like my nose and toes, 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 whenever they get cold. Not worth the pain if you want a lifetime of winter sport enjoyment. This said, we’ve gone on many a cross country ski or snowshoe trip in -20 C with no adverse effects because we were dressed for the weather. If you’re covered up and warm, you won’t get frostbite!



Besides temperature, you need to consider windchill, precipitation, time of day, duration of time spent outside, and location of your outing:

  1. Windchill: It is possible to get frostbite in mild temperatures if the windchill index is high. For example, if it is -10C and the wind is 20 km/hr, it feels like -18 C! In these conditions, you should take precautions against frostbite.
    • Safety tips: Cover up all skin. Dress in layers. Do frequent skin checks (see if your child’s skin feels cool to the touch). If your child won’t keep a face mask or mitts on, limit time outside. See more tips 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: WebMD
    • Tip: Save snow play for AFTER skiing/hiking/snowshoeing, play near the trailhead, and keep extra clothes in the car, so the kids can quickly change out of wet clothes when they get cold. We keep down blankets in our car too. 
  3. Time of day: If your kids are late risers like mine and you don’t hit the trail until midday, 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 vehicle/cabin/tent before it gets too cold. Conversely, for you folks with early risers, don’t head out too early. Waiting a couple hours can make a big difference in temperature and comfort level. The aspect of the trail (west facing is better than east facing) also affects how much sun you get and how warm it is. It’s usually a few degrees warmer in the sun!
  4. Duration: The colder it is, the shorter your outside playtime should be. I have taken my kids outside in -20C and colder, but we bundle up, take breaks as needed, and take frostbite precautions (see below). 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 -20C 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 – I don’t recommend this!) Or, what if you hurt yourself? A 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 young children. Another good reason to pack extra clothes.
  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 facemask with breathing vents is recommended). More tips in Staying Active With Exercise Induced Asthma.
snow-play-kid-and-snowman
A scarf / neck warmer doubles as face protection when the wind kicks up.

Although activity level can increase your body temperature, it does not reduce your risk of frostbite in extreme cold. Please take the precautions below to avoid frostbite if you must head out in temperatures below -18C (-0.4F). Also, it’s important to remember that babies in backpacks or strollers are not as warm as you because they aren’t moving, so you must do hand/feet/body checks regularly and limit time outside in extreme temperatures.

How to avoid getting frostbite

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  1. Carry extra layers, mitts, face masks / neck gaiters, hand warmers, and toe warmer packetsFor product recommendations, please see our story: The Best Winter Gear for Kids.
  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. 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. The Magic Bag (oat bag) is an affordable, reusable heat pack you can keep in the stroller at your child’s feet.
  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, fasten the cover securely to keep heat in (but leave a side vent partly open to prevent condensation buildup).
  7. Bring extra clothes: Mitts and socks tend to get wet, so extras are a must. Pack an extra toque in case one gets lost, and an extra fleece/down jacket per person. We always put on the extra layer at snack time (you cool down fast when you’re not moving).
  8. Keep matches and candles handy in case you get stranded. They can keep a car or snow shelter slightly warmer but remember to maintain air flow (make a vent in the snow shelter, or keep the car window open a bit) to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Winter is wonderful if you are dressed for it. For recommendations on keeping kids warm in winter (what to wear), see 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

faewings25 December 5, 2016 - 7:55 AM

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

Playoutsidegal December 22, 2017 - 2:57 PM

Thanks for sharing! Stay safe this winter! 🙂

Playoutsidegal December 5, 2016 - 7:14 AM

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).

matschbar December 19, 2015 - 6:31 PM

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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