In early 2017, we took our kids on a hike across the newly constructed T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge over the James River in Richmond. It started raining on our way back, and after more or less running to the car, Billy and I looked at each other and decided it was time to invest in better gear. If we wanted to get outside more during the cold months, we were going to have to find it in our budget to buy clothes that would keep us warm and still allow us to move comfortably. And that’s not a superfluous purchase; spending time outdoors in the wintertime is associated with better health and stronger immune systems, on top of being something we just flat out enjoy.

Outdoor and performance gear have hefty price tags, but in the end, you’re paying for something that lasts longer, and makes it easier to get out no matter the weather. Even on our tight budget, we plan for what we need so we can save to buy the right gear the first time, rather than having to replace something because it either didn’t suit our needs, didn’t last, or simply didn’t work. And while a lot of times off-brands are just as good as the big-names in outdoor gear, if you are looking to support smaller companies this year it can be hard to know where to start.

As a photographer for Hike It Baby, and a Ranger for The Dyrt, I have been exposed to a lot of great brands this year, and I’ve been even luckier that I’ve been able to test out a lot of this gear for free in exchange for reviews or photography. So just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, here are my top 5 gear recommendations of 2018 for outdoor families:

  1. Oakiwear Rain Suits. I cannot say enough good things about these suits. People love to throw out the buzzword “game-changer” but these suits really are. Their waterproofing is not an exaggeration. My kids have played in puddles up to their thighs, and come out of their suits with nothing but their socks wet. The one-piece nature of the suits mean you don’t have to worry about pants falling down, jackets riding up, or water splashing in at the waist. And they cinch down in three places–at the wrists, ankles, and an inner band at the waist to ensure a snug fit, which means you can buy 2-3 sizes over what your child is currently wearing. If the price intimidates you, just remember you’re buying a piece of gear that will last the next several years! Plus the wide range of jewel tones look SO CUTE, especially if you have several kids in their suits all playing together. And even if your family are more fair-weather-hikers, Oaki suits mean the kids can play outside to their hearts content on rainy days, and they zip well over warm layers for snow play, so you can send your kids outside and watch them play while you sip coffee from the warmth of your kitchen. 

  2. Sunday Afternoons Hats. This is a multi-age recommendation! We have a set of summer hats and winter hats for the whole family, and I love them for every season. This company has so many styles and designs it will be easy to match a hat to everyone on your gift list. We had the Kids Play Hats for summer for our kids, which even our two year old liked wearing (most of the time, at least). And I am one of the pickiest people I know as far as winter hats go–I have one hat that has been the only one I’ve liked for going on a decade now, so I was skeptical about how much I would wear a new winter hat. Well–I like this one. I have the Aurora Beanie in mixed purple, and it is so comfortable, and incredibly warm. Billy loves the sunglass holders built into his, and I think Kairi’s winter hat was custom-made for her; she put it on as soon as we opened the box, and wanted to sleep in it. 

  3. KidOrca Boots. A new company, these adorable boots have BUILT IN GAITERS. Remember how I said in the Oaki-suits, my kids socks were still wet? If you combine an Oakiwear suit with a pair of KidOrca boots, that won’t be the case–and I have tested this combination on a cold day on the river. They have a limited number of colors, but the over-the-knee gaiters cinch down, and can be worn over or under a rain suit/rain pants. These are admittedly a bit cumbersome for hikes, but if you are looking for something to wear on the playground, around the neighborhood, or in the backyard, where your kids will be doing more playing and puddle-jumping than actual walking, these are
  4. LuvBug Company. LuvBug, for us, solves a couple of problems we have frequently run into. The first: how to pack a towel when we know there’s going to be water play. Towels are heavy, bulky, and collect every stick and leaf you lay them down on. LuvBug’s Sunscreen Towels are the perfect solution to this: they are super lightweight, wicking, and quick-drying, and have 50+ UFP protection, so they make perfect coverups as well! LuvBug’s snack bags are just as useful: one thing that has ALWAYS bothered me about hiking is how many single-use plastic bags hikers use. My previous workarounds were reusable containers (which again, are heavy and bulky), or to just reuse Ziploc bags, which is hard if you have anything other than dry snacks in them. I have now used LuvBug’s snack bags for everything from sandwiches to fresh mozzarella cheese, to pre-mixed oatmeal for backpacking–and a DIY first aid kit! As with the towels, they are lightweight and easy to clean (machine washable!), and come in several adorable patterns. 

  5. VivoBarefoot Shoes. I didn’t realize that “barefoot” style (or zero-drop) shoes were popular until I got my pair of VivoBarefoots and had people start asking me about them! This is kind of a cheat item since I only have a pair for myself, not my kids, but as they make a variety of kids sizes, if you are looking for shoes for your littles, they are definitely worth checking out. When I first got mine (I have the Gobi 2.0’s) I was skeptical–the shaft of the boot felt really stiff, and as someone with extremely high arches I was not confident in how comfortable a shoe that mimicked being barefoot would be for me. As as far as being on them for long periods of time–they aren’t great. I’ve worn them on 2 mile hikes, and I’ve worn them on marathon errand-running days, and the errand-running days definitely left my feet sore and wishing for more support. But they were great for the trail–once I got used to being able to feel roots and rocks more clearly through my shoes! They are warm, comfortable, and that initial stiffness has gone away now that I’ve broken the shoes in. With all the research being published right now about the benefits of going barefoot, these shoes are a great solution for wintertime and indoor activities, in addition to little (and big) feet on the trail.

Bonus Stocking Stuffer! 

Wild Zora Meat Bars

Want a hiking-and-outdoor minded gift you can stick in a stocking and know it will get some use? Food. If your kids are anything like mine, snack time is their favorite part of any hike, and getting a special hiking snack will guarantee they want to get outside as soon as all the presents are opened. Healthy hiking snacks though…well, they aren’t always easy to come by unless you spend a lot of time trying to make your own. Wild Zora uses real meats and veggies in their bars, making it a snack that is high in protein and vitamins, low in carbs and processed ingredients, and has an almost melt-in-your-mouth texture. I have only had the BBQ Beef flavor so far, but am planning on trying out some of the others because I was so impressed.

With these recommendations, click on those links and start ordering! While I was able to get a lot of these products free, there is nothing on this list I would not be willing to pay full price for–I am actually planning on Wild Zora bars in everyone’s stocking this year, and will likely buy a new LuvBug towel next year so both of my kids can have their own. If you have outdoorsy kids or adults to buy for this year, make sure at least one of the above companies is on your list!

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