Seattle's Child

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Making friends on the banks of Lake Washington. This raingear keeps kids dry — and also visible! (Photos by Molly White)

Winter survival guide for Seattle-area families: How to stay warm and dry (and have fun!) outside

What to wear (and not wear), what to bring, what to put in the thermos.

The struggle is real.

We all benefit from time in nature, but it’s often challenging to pack up all the gear, feed and dress the kids, and heave the whole team out the door.

When it’s cold and raining outside, this task can become downright grueling. Strong winds, muddy trails and icy sidewalks add additional dimensions of difficulty. As a Seattleite and mom of three young children, I have to admit the following: Yes, there is such a thing as bad weather, and Seattle has a lot of it between the months of October and March. Here are some tips for making it tolerable for everyone, so your family can get that outdoor time that’s so crucial for mind and body.

[ Related: Outdoor safety tips for babies ]

Winter outdoor fun: setting a mission

Give your kids a mission for the outing: anything other than enjoying the weather! Pick a fun task or goal, announce it with pizazz and confidence, and don’t apologize for the weather. In all likelihood, your kids will happily focus their attention on the mission. Some of our favorite missions include fishing (real or pretend), building a rain shelter (spread an old towel under a cedar tree and you’ll be halfway there), and hiking to a neighborhood park.

winter outdoor fun tips

Kids who are dressed for the weather will have a better time playing out in it.

Winter outdoor fun: What to wear

Even if you are pretending to hardly notice the downpour or frigid temps, bad weather outings are only successful with some thoughtful, if covert, preparation by the grown-ups. Our family was educated in the fundamentals of layering by some seriously hard-core Waldorf teachers, and I will here relay this precious knowledge:

Base layers on top and bottom: Wool or silk is the best, but poly works well too. Avoid cotton or cotton blends because when cotton gets damp it does not hold warmth, but instead causes evaporative cooling. In the mountains, the alpinist’s saying is that “cotton kills.” Even when temps are not life-threatening, wet cotton kills the fun. Also, be sure to check labels on hats and gloves and skip those that have any cotton content.

Wooly layer on top and bottom: Wool or thick fleece materials work great. Find ones with a comfortable, elastic waistband. Polyester sweatpants work fairly well as a lighter-weight option. Don’t be tempted by jeans or corduroys, even ones that are lined with flannel or fleece — the waistbands are typically uncomfortable and a huge hassle for young children, and these styles also generally contain cotton.

Feet: Wooly socks made of actual wool. Wool/poly blends work fine too. Really thick is good, but be sure your kids’ boots are big enough to accommodate these (squished toes are cold and painful toes). For boots, get insulated Bogs. The back of the boot will show the temperature rating. Get ones that say “-30°F” or a colder temp. For snow, really cold temps or to compensate for insufficiently insulated boots, use toe warmers on the outside of socks. When in doubt, use toe warmers! Get the Costco box.

Hands: Really simple knit wool/poly blend gloves and mittens are my favorite. They are not waterproof, but when they get wet and caked in mud they nevertheless keep busy hands warm in non-freezing temps. What I love about them is that they allow children enough dexterity to accomplish all their hard “work” outside, and perhaps even more importantly, they can be washed and dried with the rest of our household laundry. They come in multipacks and generally cost only a couple of dollars per pair. For toddlers, I double up the thin mitten version. For bigger kids, I use a single pair of the thicker glove version. For all ages, I bring extra pairs on all our outings and switch them out for fresh ones as needed. For serious snow, ice, or cold-weather water play, when a waterproof layer is needed, I use a pair of thick knit mittens under a true waterproof mitten, with hand warmers between the layers. The Polarn O. Pyret Waterproof Rain Mittens are an example of truly waterproof (nontoxic) mittens.

Waterproof layer for top and bottom: We skip the lined rain suits (they take longer to air dry) and the breathable DWR coatings (most are toxic and/or ineffective). I rely on healthy, eco-friendly non-PVC and non-PFAS options. Some of our favorite waterproof layers are the fishing bib pants and hooded fishing parka from Grunden’s. These are ultra-durable and completely waterproof. Kids can climb trees and slide down muddy hills all day long, and you can throw them in the washing machine when they get home and they come out looking brand new.

Tucking top, bottom, hand and foot sections together: This part is the most critical. The wooly socks should be tucked over the wool/fleece pants, to hold the pants down when they go inside the boot. The waterproof pants/bibs then go over the boots. Secure the waterproof pants/bibs over the boots so they can’t ride up: This can be accomplished by placing the stirrup strap under the bottom of the boot, or by tightening the pants around the circumference of the boot using the snaps on the pant cuff or a cyclist’s strap. If pants are inside boots or on top of boots, the tiniest bit of snow or rain will instantly wet a sock, and that will in turn ruin your plans. Button the jacket over the pants/bibs. Put the hood on over a wooly hat. Make hats and hoods nonnegotiable. Dry kids are warm and happy kids.

Winter outdoor fun: managing moods

Half of the battle getting outside in the gloom is managing kids’ moods and expectations, and keeping spirits high. Bring what the kids will need, not what they are willing to wear, hold or carry. For children under 12, do not be tempted to use a hike as a learning experience. Avoid saying “I told you so” when they refuse to wear their coat and they are freezing cold halfway through the hike. Instead, take out the puffy you stowed in your bag and cheerfully exclaim how great it is to be prepared. Kids do not thermo-regulate well until they are at least 8 years old, and it takes them even longer to learn how to predict what they need to stay comfortable on a long outing. Just bring the gear and avoid the heartache.

Warm drinks

The importance of warm drinks in thermoses deserves its own section. Here is our no guilt, high-calorie hot cocoa recipe to pack in your thermos for your next cold-weather hike. Make double what you think you need, and leave a second thermos in the car for a post-hike, pre-nap snack, because it is so delicious.

Whole cow milk or oat milk
Organic cocoa powder
Organic maple syrup

Heat milk on stovetop over low heat, or microwave in Pyrex pitcher. Whisk in cocoa powder and maple syrup to taste. Cool to “kid temp” and pour into thermos.

Rain in Seattle can often mean snow in the mountains. This family likes to avoid the crowded sledding hills and head to the forest instead.

Winter outdoor fun: excursion ideas

Snow hike: If it is cold and raining in Seattle, it’s often snowing in the mountains. Sometimes it’s even snowing in Seattle. Grab a sled and head on a snow hike. Skip the risks of popular sledding hills and make the adventure about the hike. Don’t expect to go far, and bring the sled to carry children and gear. Plastic shovels are extra fun, for building ditches and forts in the snow. Bring a mix of gear and let the kids try things out: cross-country skis, snowshoes, downhill skis, Frisbees (great as snow shovels). We have a cargo-style sled (the Paris Company Pro Expedition Sled) that we got from REI for about $60, and we use it to carry all this stuff.

Forest survival games: Play survivor games in the forest. Pretend you and the kids are stranded and need to make a shelter. Tall evergreen trees provide substantial natural shelter from the rain, but you can also build forts with materials you find in the woods and bring from home. Search for forts other families have made and add to them.

Your favorite trail might be much less crowded on a damp day.

Fair-weather favorites in the offseason: It can be hard to have an authentic experience in nature when everyone and their nanny seems to be headed to the same trailhead. As long as trail conditions are still good, awful weather provides the fantastic opportunity to visit ultra-popular destinations without the full parking lots and overcrowded trails. The Chirico Trail to Poo Poo Point is a one example: This first-class hike is only a short drive from Seattle, but the parking lot is so tiny that it is nearly impossible to nab a spot on a clear day. Plus, if I’m constantly maneuvering my kids past other hikers along a narrow trail, it starts to feel like I have not really left the city. Hiking in the drizzle, we usually have the trail mostly to ourselves.

Soggy beach romp: Golden Gardens, Richmond Beach, Magnuson Beach and Matthews Beach are all great destinations for a beach exploration day. Missions can include a scientific observation of duck behavior, learning to make a fire in a designated fire pit, or building a series of irrigation channels in the sand. As long as the kids are bundled up and waterproofed, sand play is so much fun even when it’s freezing cold.

Dry city trail hikes: Sometimes I’m not in the mood to have the kids get knee deep in mud, or have my shoes suctioned off my feet while I try to rescue one of them. On these days, we head to one of our favorite mud-free trails. Several great options can be found at the Washington Park Arboretum (where the main 2-mile loop is a wide asphalt path), or at University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture (the quarter-mile boardwalk trail through the Yesler Swamp is especially magical).

winter outdoor fun

Playgrounds are fun in any weather!

Wet playground mischief: In wildly wretched weather, your neighborhood playground becomes an exotic destination! Just be careful about how fast kids will fly down the slide when they are in lubricated rain gear! Saint Edward State Park is one of our favorite “bad weather” playgrounds. Bring plenty of snacks and special adventure items and it will feel like an adventurous and thrilling destination. Missions can include feeding the birds and squirrels, drying off the slides and swings with towels, hiding fairy presents around the playground (small painted rocks, treasures made from sticks and leaves), and setting up a mud factory. Bring an umbrella for the storefront and you will have somewhere dry to sit while you pretend to eat mud pies and they play exuberantly in the rain.

Visit the zoo: Woodland Park is my all-time-favorite dreary weather activity. It comes complete with a playground and a latte stand. (Related: 8 reasons to visit Woodland Park Zoo on a rainy day.) There are other wonderful zoos including Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, and Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah.

Winter gardening: Enjoy an outdoor shopping trip to your local nursery, and then as soon as you get home, grab the trowels and stay outside to plant what you bought. Create potted arrangements of evergreens, add a winter-blooming daphne or camellia to your garden, or bury bulbs for an explosion of color in the spring.

Windy backyard puddle exploration: Sometimes it’s best to keep the outing simple and close to home. There is a lot of nature in the backyard. Create a competition, do a windy photo shoot, or try a simple activity outside in the rain. It can be an art project (watercolor painting, weaving branches, etc.), or it can be more scientific (leaf collecting, puddle water examination, etc.). Taking any simple activity to the backyard on a rainy day can create an exhilarating and meaningful experience in nature.

Finally: Be adaptable!

If, when you finally make it outside, the kids are freezing cold … retreat, fix the gear and try again. You can’t change the weather, but you can change the clothing.

Yes, this is hard, but it’s worth it because kids need to be outside. In fact, we all do. Even when the skies are gloomy and low, they are guaranteed to raise your spirits.

Originally published Feb. 28, 2022

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About the Author

Molly White

Molly White is a biologist and writer. She grew up in Washington, Alaska and Scotland. She currently lives in Seattle, where she and her three young children enjoy spending an uncivilized amount of time outdoors. On their adventures through the wild landscapes and waterways of the Pacific Northwest, they learn together about all the important things.