Layers and Blankets and Toques – Oh My!


Updated November 2018.

Winter is here…brrr! No matter what part of Canada you live in we want to help the whole family be safe and warm in the car. With a few tips, some explanation around why it matters, and no need for fancy or expensive gear, your whole family can be riding safely no matter what Mother Nature has in store.

Keep the harness (or seat belt) close to the body

By close we mean close…super close! When car seats are crash tested there are strict rules around exactly what the test dummies wear, and it’s not much. Remove bulky layers that interfere with the harness being close to the body. With bulky layers removed make sure the harness passes the pinch test, and for booster riders and adults ensure the lap belt is under any coat or sweater, and then snug up the shoulder belt and place it against the chest.

What defines “bulky?” That’s a bit tricky. Anything big, lumpy, thick, oversized…will it interfere with proper harness placement or positioning? That’s the ultimate question. At the end of the day it’s a judgment call and requires some common sense and critical thinking. It’s notoriously difficult to gauge simply from a photo whether something is “too bulky” or “poorly fitting.” It can help to buckle a child in regular clothing, undo the harness without loosening it, dress in whatever layer is in question, and attempt to rebuckle. If you can – carry on! If you have to loosen a hair – probably also carry on, because that layer doesn’t disappear like magic in a crash! If you have to loosen quite a bit then it’s not a good choice because the looser the harness, the further away it is from the body. Make sense?

How to keep the harness (or seat belt) close? Thin, insulating, well-fitting layers

We don’t want anyone half naked, or under-dressed, because that would be…well, cold. You can be smart with your layers and here’s how: choose items that retain heat, such as fleece, down, wool, and other performance synthetics. Cotton does not keep you warm if it gets damp (if you’re sweating for example) but wool and fleece will keep on doing their thing. They’re also quite dense so if they fit well and aren’t overly thick, they won’t get in the way of how the harness (or seat belt) sits against the body, and they won’t disappear or compress much in a crash.

Do you prefer the convenience of a full body suit?

  • Many brands now make thin, warm fleece suits (typically avoid the lined ones, and certainly avoid any with filling or padding).
  • Look for something that is trim in cut (avoid the wide boxy ones).
  • Don’t size up because you don’t want it to be lumpy and bumpy and get in the way of the harness.
  • Try your child in it to make sure you can still get an excellent harness fit! What works for one child in a particular seat may not work for another. Babies and kids come in different shapes and sizes.

Same goes for “car seat safe” coats. These are not parkas, rather they are paper-thin compressible down jackets or suits that are handy for in and out of the car while running errands but won’t likely cut it for serious winter play. More brands than ever are making it affordable to go this route – look for something labelled “packable.” If you shop at Costco (in August!) look for packable down coats  for around $35 (available is kids’ sizes 4 to adult XL). Other options include the Cozywoggle coat (sadly discontinued now but maybe you’ll luck out on a swap site), something like the “Road Coat,” or a car seat poncho that you can make yourself without any sewing skills.

After a child is buckled, put their coat on backward, or a blanket over top for added warmth.

A visual demo because we like pictures.

Thin, packable coat (in blue on the left) or a fleece jacket (in pink on the right), fleece pants, mitts and a toque – safe and warm. Layer up with a blanket or bring along the winter coat. Note: five year olds make awesome fashion choices.

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NOT okay. With a bulky parka and snow pants the harness can not be properly positioned or tightened. Furthermore this child would overheat very quickly and can’t remove layers as the car warms up. Note: grumpy face was not at our direction. She really did not like this one bit.



How about boostered kids (or adults too)? Same principles apply. Always put the lap belt under any top layers. Dress in thin, well-fitting layers such as the blue packable jacket, open bulkier coats so the lap and shoulder belt can touch the body without interference, or remove bulky coats and cinch the belt tight over thin-to-medium weight snow pants.

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NOT okay – the belt is sitting much too far off the body. Note: self-inflicted grumpy face here too. “Mom, I’m squished, let me out!”



Why does it matter? What’s the big deal?

Air is the enemy here! Avoid puffy, bulky items that are warm because they’re full of air. Great for the toboggan hill, not for the car or booster seat. You know those vacuum pack bags to store clothing or extra bedding — how you can make a previously gigantic piece of clothing quite tiny by sucking all the air out? That’s basically what is going on in a crash. Crash forces are extreme and compress the bulk and air so much so that suddenly your child’s harness is really loose, no matter how much you tighten the harness to begin with. Loose enough to cause injuries, or allow partial or complete ejection. Bad stuff you don’t want to experience.

Parents worry that if they are in a crash and their child is dressed only in a fleece they’ll die of hypothermia before help arrives. Remember that your child is not dressed only in a fleece, but rather thin, warm layers, and that the first goal is to survive the crash. Injury from ejection is immediate — hypothermia is not. Survive the crash, and then worry about the rest.


Keep Warm Stuff in the Car

Keep a fleece or wool blanket in the car, permanently. Thrift shops are great places for really warm stuff for cheap as chances are you’ll get snow, winter slush, and other assorted kid detritus on the blankets so they don’t need to be fancy — just warm. Kids will toss them off once they warm up.

If you are going somewhere to play outside bring the bulky layers with you! Is it a pain to try to dress a squirmy kid anxious to get sledding? Why yes, yes it is….such is life with a toddler (dang, someone should have told us that before we had kids!).

What if you break down and have to walk? Have an emergency kit that stays in your car, and includes spare layers. While half of us are based on Vancouver Island, we have all lived, or live, in places where -40C° happens. We are not supermoms, just regular parents like you. We can do it,  and so can you.

A sample outfit for any age: tights or leggings, topped by fleece pants. Wool socks (tip: Bass Pro has thick wool socks in kid sizes in their “Red Head” line, for a reasonable price). Undershirt or tank top, long sleeve thermal shirt, thin fleece sweater, topped by a trim fleece jacket. Or a super thin down jacket (compresses to basically nothing, often called “packable”). Toque, mitts, and a blanket in the car? Presto chango, warm and comfy.