I know what you’re thinking: Brigit, what in the actual heck does this have to do with photography? Quite a lot! I’ve been planning an outdoor gear guide (along with other just general recommendations for everything from organizing your house to bento boxes for lunches) for quite some time. This is the gear I use when I’m out exploring new locations with my littles, whether that’s evaluating what might be a good spot for photos or just finding new spots to go to recommend to people. If you follow me on insta, you know I’m always finding new places to go and love recommending them in my stories. You also know my whole brand is centered around adventurous families, so it works. Just go with it, ok?
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Why You Should Trust Me
The hardest part of buying outdoor gear from any outdoor gear guide is deciding — oftentimes sight unseen — what’s best for your family. You can get tons of personal recommendations but most times, that doesn’t include their background or how they evaluate things.
So here’s my background: I grew up only semi-outdoorsy. I played for hours in the snow in Wyoming and New Hampshire as a kid. As a teen in South Dakota, I would spend all day in the forest behind my house or be out fishing in the local state park with my neighbour. But I never would’ve considered myself outdoorsy. My first hike in Montana with my Eagle Scout boyfriend at the time/now husband, I had the entirely wrong footwear. Not a great start.
But everyone starts somewhere, and that’s where I started. I wanted to spend more time in our beautiful outdoors in Montana, whether that was floatin down the Madison with friends or hiking with my husband and our Springer Spaniel. So I started learning. And you can, too!
I now spend tons of time outdoors with my two littles (5 and 3 as of this writing) in all kinds of weather, teaching them the things my husband learned growing up that I didn’t. I also love helping people learn how to be outdoors as safely as possible, from evaluating rain gear to driving safely in the snow.
How to Choose the Best Gear for You
There are a few things to consider when you start to buy outdoor gear.
- What do I want to do outdoors?
- How long will I be out when I’m out?
- How far afield am I going?
- Just how long do I want/need this gear to last?
- Do I have any accessibility or mobility needs or concerns?
Anyone can go to REI and buy a grip of gear, but that doesn’t always mean it’ll be the right gear for you. And what works for me might not work for you. So let’s get into how I evaluate my gear so you can compare and contrast with your needs.
Gear for Myself
To start, I’m 5’4″ and I have giant Irish childbearing hips. This makes it incredibly difficult for me to find gear that will fit me. I also hate shoes. Just. Can’t stand closed-toes shoes. On long hikes in the wrong shoes or socks, my feet will feel like they’re sous vide-ing. So everything I buy has a lot more stretch and give and is focused on breathability and comfort.
Gear for Littles
My children are feral. Well, that’s not entirely true; they’re only semi-feral. But they’re perfectly at home in the outdoors, so all our gear needs to be of thicker material that can stand up to all the running, jumping, and climbing trees that they do. They’re also incredibly wiggly (again, semi-feral) so finding gear that can go on and off quickly is an absolute necessity.
We’re also big proponents in fostering independence. The work we put in now helping them learn to do things for themselves is less we have to do later. As far as choosing gear, we always choose things they will be able to get on and off themselves with minimal help. This is vital for two reasons. One: less stress for the adults (ever dressed multiple kids for snow at once?). Two: it’s vital to their development.
The more we teach our kids to do things for themselves, the more confident they are. They also learn both fine and gross motor skills, coordination, and patience. All these things are huge as we choose gear for both our typically-developing 3 year old and autistic 5 year old. We can take the things he does in occupational therapy and practice them in the real world when we’re outdoors. And all of that starts with the right gear.
What We Use: Kids Gear
The gear that gets the most use in our house is our rain gear. From outdoor hikes to school days to just walking from the front door to the car, we’re almost always in rain gear. This makes sense as we live in Seattle. (Though I do just want to state for the record that it doesn’t rain as much as people think! Most times it’s just misting, not pouring!)
Here’s everything you need to play safely outdoors in the rain:
- Rain jacket with a hood
- Rain pants
- Rain boots
- Base layer (wool or synthetic only)
- Thick socks (preferably wool)
- Light mid-layer (t-shirt and pants like jeans or leggings)
A lot of what you wear in the rain is what you wear in the snow, only lighter. And we do use our rain gear in the snow, just for shorter periods of time (usually under an hour).
- Polarn O. Pyret Classic Swedish Rain Jacket: The jacket our 5 year old wears every day. The inner fleece lining helps him stay warm both at recess on pouring rainy days and on 3+ mile hikes.
- Reima Vesi Raincoat: As I explore more Scandinavian brands, I chose this Reima coat for my youngest when he outgrew his brother’s old Hatley raincoat. There’s no inner lining on this one, but on a colder day, that just means we put on a sweater for a mid-layer instead of a t-shirt over his base layer.
Both of these coats have waterproof outer layer that make them essentially wash-and-wear. We can rinse off any mud that gets on the coats (and they love playing in mud). Worst case, we use some stain remover and wash it away. Most days we just hang them up to dry and they’re good the next day.
A Quick Note on Care
For rain gear like this, I just need to note that you really don’t want to toss them in the wash. If you need to wash off any surprise or stubborn stains (we’ve all been there), wash it by hand in the sink or tub and hang to dry.
If you live in the PNW, you see a lot of kids in zip-up rain suits like Tuffo or Oaki. I just want to state that I do not like these. Not only do they look and feel like colourful garbage bags, they’re not the best for independent dressing. We had a Tuffo for about a week before I got frustrated and resold it. Why? Wiggly children who can’t stay still while it goes on and too difficult to get on and off for both diaper changes and potty training.
That said, if that kind works for your family? Go with God. They absolutely do not work for us. If you do want to buy a zip-up suit, I recommend Villervalla or Reima. If you need something cheaper than that, then I recommend Oaki over Tuffo. The material is much stronger.
We currently use:
- Polarn O. Pyret Waterproof Suspender Rain Pants: Both kids wear these. The suspenders are, of course, adjustable, and we’ve worn them for three (3) seasons. My youngest will be done with his 1-2 year size this season. For reference, he’s worn them from 18mo (2T regular clothes) to 3 years (4T).
A Note About Purchasing
One thing I tell myself when it comes to buying gear (and kids clothes, for that matter) is that is has resale value. On the local Facebook mom groups, there’s always someone reselling their gear and plenty of people ready to buy them. We always like to buy secondhand first but when we do buy new, we know we’ll get a good price for them when we do outgrow them.
Another good thing about buying secondhand is there’s less guilt if the gear doesn’t work for you. It’s much easier to try things out (especially things from this here outdoor gear guide) if you buy them secondhand than if you were to drop a ton of coin on new things.
We live in our rain boots. Not only are they the easiest footwear to get on and off, but there’s always going to be a puddle to jump in somewhere; thus, rain boots.
I’ve bought several kinds of rain boots and I keep coming back to these:
- Hunter Original Kids First Classic Rain Boots: Simple, minimal, adjustable. These have a thick sole and a waterproof outer that stands up to literally everything we’ve thrown at it from rain to mud to snow.
The reason I like Hunter boots over every other kind of boot is their construction. As I said above, we usually always buy secondhand first when getting gear. Every pair of Hunter boots we’ve bought secondhand has lasted for years. That construction means we can also then resell our boots at a reasonable price to another family.
I’m not a fan of boots like Bogs that are more fabric-y than structured. In my experience, that’s just inviting little toes to get wet and possibly frostbitten. That said, I do have a pair of Bogs for myself, but they’re structured, unlike Bogs’s toddler boots.
From an OT standpoint, rain boots all the time isn’t the best of ideas. Think about how you clomp around in boots — are you using a fluid foot motion when you walk or are you clomping and stomping? This is part of the reason I’ve added a new set of shoes to our gear:
- Reima Waterproof Shoes – Patter Wash: These shoes aren’t as waterproof as boots but they’re perfect for semi-rainy days or those days when there’s still lots of puddles. They’re also just as wash-and-wear as our boots.
I chose these shoes both because they’re waterproof and for the OT benefits. They give much more foot control when climbing, especially at the playground or running in PE. Plus, they’re just as easy to get on and off with the velcro.
Mittens and Gloves
Consider this section my bridge to my snow gear recs. When buying gloves for kids 5 and under, you want to choose ones that are adjustable at the wrists. Why? They’ll grow with your kids but they’ll also stay on their hands. It’s so hard to get kids to keep things like hats and mittens on. Gloves and mittens with adjustable straps help get them used to wearing them and after a while, the fights will stop.
Here’s what we use for rain and snow:
Both of these hold up to both rain and snow. They’re adjustable and easy for kids to get back on when they inevitably do fall off after a particularly exuberant snowball fight.
That said, you always want to keep an eye on little fingers and warm them up periodically. I personally use this USB rechargable hand warmer that has multiple settings so I feel safer about using it on little hands.
Base layers are the layer closest to your body and the one I personally consider most important. They keep you warm and wick moisture away from your body. This is especially important if you’re out doing something that requires a lot of movement, like skiing or trail running. It’s also going to be the layer that’s on you the longest.
For this reason, you need to be sure you’re choosing the right base layer. Of particular importance is the material. Cotton as a base layer is a bad idea because it doesn’t wick moisture away from your body, it only keeps it there; same for fleece. The materials you want to look for in a base layer are merino wool or a synthetic blend. Yes, I did just bold and italicize that. It’s important, especially for littles. They can’t pick out the right materials or recognize the signs of hypothermia; you can. And you should learn them.
All that said, we use/I recommend:
- Smartwool (merino wool) — also the only brand of socks we wear outdoors
- Uniqlo HeatTech (synthetic blend)
The brand isn’t as important as the material, so don’t feel you need to spend a ton. I also recommend having a couple pairs for daily adventures so one can go in the wash.
Winter Gear: Coats, Snow Suits, Snow Boots
This is one thing we don’t actually own, at least for the littles. Why? Because we live in Seattle and it doesn’t snow enough to make it worth buying one, even secondhand. If my kids are just going to grow out of it in five (5) minutes, I don’t feel like spending that money.
That said, if we had gone back to Montana for winter break, I absolutely would have bought them snow gear. You can absolutely get away with rain gear in the snow, which is what we do when it snows here. However, your time outdoors will be more limited because you’ll be doing a lot more insulating on your mid-layers to compensate. You also won’t really get the same level of insulation you would from heavier coats. So if you’re going to be doing a fair bit of snow play, invest in good gear.
Here are some brands I recommend for snowsuits:
- Polarn O. Pyret
For jackets, we’ve used and liked Uniqlo. It did well keeping my then 18 month old warm his first winter trip to Montana when it barely got above 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
For snow boots, I recommend:
Both are well constructed and well insulated. They’re also incredibly easy to find secondhand.
What’s With All The Scandi Brands?
Ah, you’ve noticed!
That’s for two reasons. One: my husband’s family is Norwegian and he grew up in Montana. Did you know one of the first stories he told me when we started dating was the time he went camping when it was 22 below? I could never. They are built different.
Two: they know what they’re doing when it comes to kids outdoor play. Is that to say that American/Canadian brands don’t? Absolutely not. But I also know that Scandinavian kids spend a ton of time outdoors in every kind of weather for hours on end and so they need the gear to go with that. So if I’m evaluating gear and trying to buy the kind of gear that matches what I want (think: aspirational), then I’m looking to the Scandi brands. And then after the Scandinavians, it’s the Canadians. But we’ll get there.
Also, if you haven’t read Linda McGurk’s book on raising kids with a focus on the outdoors and the differences in child-rearing philosophies between the US and Scandinavia, you should go check it out.
Gear For Adults
Now that we’ve gone through how I buy gear for my kids and what I like for them, let’s get your butt geared up and out there. This will be a much shorter section (I hope. This is already too long. Please send help (or an editor) (maybe both)).
As I said, I have a lot of trouble buying gear that fits. Most brands from the US (looking directly at you, Columbia) are made for people who do not have any curves anywhere. This makes it hard to be outdoors for long periods and moving about! I need my clothes to stay put!
My husband also has some troubles buying clothes but only because he is tall — a full foot taller than me, to be exact.
The good news is we can shop mostly at the same places and find quality gear for both of us. Brands we like for rain jackets are:
My same criteria for boots for when I buy for my kids applies here. I like stuff that is sturdy and that I can clomp around in but that’s easily washable.
Brands I like for rain boots are:
- Bogs: I recommend the ones that are rubber all over vs. the ones that have the soft uppers for staying both warm and dry
- Hunter: I like these because the calf size is adjustable. It’s very nice for those of us who have Chun Li calves from walking Seattle hills.
The closest I got to a pair of rain pants that fit was by Marmot but unfortunately the ones that fit my waist did not fit my hips. So if anyone has a recommendation for rain pants for curvy folks, please send it my way.
As it stands, we both just wear our jeans when we’re out. Or I wear my base layer and leggings.
When it comes to base layers, again, the brand isn’t as important as the material. My current base layers are from Kari Traa. I went with theirs for two reasons. One: they’re made by women for women. I can trust they’ll fit (and they do!). Two: there’s different types you can choose from depending on what you’re doing or if you run hot. I haven’t really found that with other brands. I used my first pair for aurora spotting in Alaska last year (and then at home in Seattle when my heater blew). My second pair I’ll be using for photo sessions in the snow this winter.
For winter coats, just like for kids, you really want to evaluate what you’ll be doing out in the snow and cold. I haven’t gone snowboarding since my ACL surgery, so most of what I’m doing is either walking with my kids or standing around. My husband wore his coat to class and to go hunting (again, Montana). What I’m saying is your mileage may vary, so I’m including brands I’ve worn in the past, too.
Winter coat brands I like are:
- Columbia: Full disclosure that my husband’s jacket is so old I don’t know that they make it anymore. But this is about the same and I’ve stolen it on many an occasion to stay warm. It did wonderfully aurora spotting at 2AM in snowy Fairbanks, Alaska. For women, this is not my favourite brand, but again, your mileage may vary.
- Eddie Bauer: My current coat, it’s essentially like wearing my bed outside. If you’re in Seattle, go to the outlet in Woodinville.
- Burton: These are about the best-performing jackets I’ve found for winter sports. They’re also better for a wider range of body types and shapes.
- Fjallraven: Big fan of Fjallraven. All our backpacks are Fjallraven. The construction on these coats is fantastic.
- Uniqlo (Ultra Light Down): A good friend of mine in Canada wears a Uniqlo jacket and loves it. She’s also extremely picky if something isn’t quite to her liking, so I trust her judgment here. If I were more of a puffy jacket guy, I would probably buy one.
Most of the time, we just wear our rain boots in the snow. But when we’re going to be out in it for longer, we go with one of two brands:
Everyone in Montana owns a pair of Sorel boots, I swear to God. Kamik is a Canadian brand so I trust the construction on them.
Is that it? I think that might be it? I was going to add warm weather gear to this here outdoor gear guide but this post has gone on long enough so stay tuned for Part II. I’ll also be writing up a guide sometime on how to get out with kids more (spoiler alert: keep your gear handy and ready to go and just go outside. Don’t fall victim to the doorstep mile).
If you take nothing else away from this, I hope it’s a different idea of how to evaluate what you buy. I choose what I choose for very specific reasons after doing a lot of comparisons, both online and in person. My gear needs to do a lot of different things so I need it to hold up over time and handle whatever I throw at it. Your needs might differ from mine and you may choose entirely different things, but I hope this gave you a new way of looking at what you buy and considering why you’re buying it.
Speaking of buying, let’s go back to secondhand. A couple great resources for buying gear secondhand is REI’s garage sale and their used and good department — it’s where I got both my rain and snow boots. If you’re local to Seattle, Wonderland Gear Exchange in Ballard is the hottest club in town — it. has. everything. It’s also a great place to resell your used gear and give it a new home.
Now stop reading this post and go outside.