SEATTLE – The temptation to stay indoors rises as the mercury falls, all the more so when young children with needs like diaper changes and bottle feedings enter the equation – but winter doesn’t have to translate to hibernation.
While a snow season outing requires more planning and gear than its summertime counterpart, on the right day the rewards outweigh the rigmarole, especially if you aspire to set your little ones up for a lifetime appreciation of winter as a season to embrace, not endure.
“Like anything, the more positive exposure they get, the more likely they are to have fun doing it and want to keep doing it,” said Erika Kercher Halm, the outreach and access coordinator for recreation nonprofit Methow Trails and the mother of a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old.
With a hearty snowpack and plenty of frigid temperatures to go around this winter, there have been ample opportunities to bundle up a baby and go outside. In February, there are still a solid couple of months left to fine-tune winter adventuring with little ones, whether based on your own trial and error or pro tips from seasoned parents like Halm.
What holds true for adults braving the cold also holds true for little ones: dress in layers. While my wife and I don’t have any seal fur clothing for our 8-month-old, Lena, like the ones I once saw wrapping up Inupiaq babies on a reporting trip to the Alaskan Arctic, we cobbled together a winter kit from hats and gloves hand-knit by family and friends, plus baby shower gifts, hand-me-downs and the Madison Valley children’s clothing consignment store Sugarlump.
Adults dress for the cold but also anticipate warming up through body movement. For a baby, remember that not only do their tiny bodies retain less heat, they will also be immobile and thus need even more layers than adults do.
On a December day in the Methow Valley when the thermometer hovered in the single digits, that meant gloves and socks underneath a onesie underneath a sweater and pants underneath a puffer jacket underneath a snowsuit, topped off by a hat with a built-in neck warmer. Needless to say, take care of a diaper change before transforming your little one into a pint-sized version of the Michelin Man, where it takes three zippers and a set of snap buttons to reach bare skin.
Once we stepped outside for a short walk or snowshoe, the cold was of the take-your-breath-away variety. Our nostril hairs froze and the three of us – my wife, myself and Lena’s grandmother – made frequent checks on each other and especially Lena for white spots on the skin that signal the onset of frostbite. Infants typically don’t take kindly to anything covering their nose or mouth, so the baby-sized balaclava we sourced was of no avail. While our little one emitted a few gasps against the bone-chilling cold, she never cried. In the end, we threw in the towel before she did.
One reason? Body warmth. For snowshoeing and walking, strap your little one into an ergonomic baby carrier on your chest. Then either attach a fleece cover or zip into a maternity parka. As the saying goes, keep them snug as a bug in a rug.
On a day when temperatures warmed up into the more manageable teens, we rented a cross-country ski pulk at $30 per day from Winthrop Mountain Sports. The model, a Thule Chariot (MSRP $1,575), broke down into parts and fits easily in a trunk. At the Chickadee Trailhead, I found it fairly intuitive to reassemble the pulk, which consists of a small enclosed cabin on two skis that attaches to a harness via long poles.
While the added weight of hauling your kid around feels like a boat anchor dragging on your speed as skate skiers zip past you, the harness can also help improve your form.
If your kid is lulled to sleep by a car seat, the pulk is liable to do the same. That propensity is both a blessing and a curse for Halm, the Methow Trails coordinator and mother. She has to be careful about timing her family ski outings, lest she mess up nap schedules.
“If you have the resources to get a Chariot, you can zip them into a little bunting and they’re cozy,” said Halm, who bought hers used. “And if you don’t, there are cheaper options. You can get a plastic pulk or I’ve seen homemade versions.”
With built-in storage pockets, the Chariot makes it easy to bring Halm’s suggested kid outing essentials like treats, hot cocoa, hand warmers and extra gloves, though she keeps as much as possible in a hip pack to avoid unstrapping from the pulk more than necessary.
She also swears by a foam pad for trailside diaper changes and to keep little ones from sitting directly on the snow during breaks, which can quickly lead to wet snowsuits.
But Halm, who spent 10 years as an instructor and director at the Northwest Outward Bound School, didn’t wait until her first child was pulk-sized.
“She was born in November and we went skiing when she was 6 weeks old,” Halm said. “She was in a carrier on my chest zipped inside my jacket, and her whole first winter that’s what we did.”
Halm’s oldest has since graduated to skiing on her own, but the pulk makes for a convenient hybrid day: She can ski solo, and when she gets tired, she can hold onto the back of the pulk with a tow strap.
“At any age, you can ski with them,” Halm said.
As for outdoorsy parents preparing for their first baby-on-board winter adventures, Halm has one final piece of advice: “Set your expectations lower than you think you would ever need to set them for distance and speed. But it gets easier the more you do it.”
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