Kayaking with kids can be fun for the whole family. You can teach your children new skills and confidence and provide them with experiences that will last a lifetime. Once you understand the how-tos and are properly prepared with the best kayak for your kids, you can look forward to a great outing!
This guide will teach you the basics of kayaking with kids, helping to keep your outing safe, fun and exciting.
Planning the Trip
Kids of all ages, from infants to adults, can enjoy a kayaking trip if properly supervised and the trip is scheduled correctly. Use these simple tips to make sure that your outing is the best!
Who Should Go?
Almost anyone, from infants to grownups can enjoy a kayaking trip, but you want to make sure that you have the right mix of adults and kids. REI suggests that you should not bring the kids along unless you are an accomplished kayaker, or have one along with you. Even then, you should have one adult along for every child, until you are comfortable with the experience levels of all paddlers, even the kids.
Use your initial outings to gauge the abilities of your young paddlers and, when they are ready, have them bring a friend along. Fun outings with friends can help build comradery and teach kids interpersonal skills.
Just remember, mishaps can happen, so always make sure that there is a strong swimmer in your group.
Where to Go?
You should carefully choose the waters you will visit on the first few trips with your kids. Starting out on slow, shallow, tranquil waters will make your first kayaking adventures safe and enjoyable for every member of your family. Remember that beginners, particularly kids, that feel safe will want to come back for more fun.
Small protected lakes are places to learn and teach your kids how to paddle. Smooth waters will help you and your junior paddlers familiar with the kayaking gear and techniques in a safe and comfortable environment.
Local lakes can be crowded, so you may want to stay away from the main public beach, or visit on a weekday or early in the morning.
Once you are comfortable with lakes, you can work up to gently flowing rivers. These are great because they provide constantly changing scenery and a sense of adventure around the next bend. Just remember to check out the water first; you don't want to be surprised to find white water, or ever a dam in your path.
Rivers are best taken in one direction; downstream with the current. Consider having a second car waiting at your finish point.
Save the white water for later. It can take years of experience to navigate fast-flowing or broken water, and even the pros often have trouble. Again, take it easy and don’t put your young ones in an unsafe situation. But as your experience grows, you can reach out for longer trips and more adventurous waters.
There are a wealth of sources of information on where to take your trip. Locally-based outdoor stores often have experienced staff that can both help you gear up and provide tips for their local outing spots. Online forums, local paddling clubs or even the local visitors’ bureau can also be helpful.
What Kind of Boat Should I Get?
There are many types of boat that you can get for your first few trips. After you and your kids gain more experience, you can consider moving them up to more sophisticated models. Here are the basics.
Kayak or Canoe?
The first and most fundamental choice is between a kayak and a canoe. Our friend Kayak Ken recommends a canoe for children ages 1 to 7. With a canoe, you have plenty of room for two or three little ones and a couple of adults.
The added benefit of a kayak is that they also have room for some toys to keep small children occupied and are a little more stable, ideal for little wigglers.
You should consider your kids’ safety and comfort the highest priorities at all times. Even if you already have a kayak for your personal use, you might consider investing in a canoe or a kayak that is more suitable for family paddling. That way you can have the kids ride with you, which Paddle Pursuits recommends for children ages seven and younger. When they are that small, they easily fit between your legs as you paddle along.
If you will be paddling in more chilled water or early and late in the season, consider a canoe with a spray deck or a decked kayak. REI recommends canoes with a spray deck made of waterproof fabric that fits over the bow (front) of the canoe and keeps spray away, keeping the younger crew dry and out of the elements.
You can have your little ones sit in the front or center of the canoe, while you paddle from the stern (back) of the boat. When they get a little older, they can paddle from the back and take you along for the ride! This is a great alternative until your kids get old enough to handle a boat of their own.
If you do decide on a kayak, you will want a decked kayak for colder temperatures. Decked models have a covering that is integrated with the boat to keep legs and feet dry and comfortable.
If your kayak seats multiple people, put your young one in the middle of the bow and paddle from the stern. Often, multiple-person kayaks have an equipment well in the center that can accommodate a young child.
Even though, as Kayak Ken notes, these wells are designed to hold equipment and not people and have no spray hood, they are suitable for short distances with young ones.
Decked kayaks also provide more security for the kids. Because they are more fully surrounded by the boat, it is harder for them to slip out and fall in the water.
In the heat of summer, or in warmer climates, you can't beat the airy feeling of a sit on top kayak. As the name implies, these are boats that you sit on, rather than in. The free and open feeling that these boats give kids a greater sense of adventure and are less constraining than their decked cousins.
Paddle Pursuits recommends says that these are great alternatives to an enclosed cockpit designed kayak. It allows the kids freedom of movement and makes hopping on and off the boat for a quick swim easy. Just remember to pack plenty of sunscreen!
Sit on top boats do have their limitations. They are not recommended for traveling long distances over open water or far away from shore.
Inflatable kayaks also fit into the open kayak group. REI reminds us that these boats are perfect for those with limited space or who do not want to invest in a trailer or car-top carrier. Again, these are great boats for light duty, but not recommended for calm waters only, not exposed water or long trips.
Duff or Paddle? Single or Double?
Kayak Ken has some good recommendations for these options based on the child's age. Duffing, or sitting in the middle of the boat is ideal for eight on younger. The "duffer" can paddle if they want to or just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Placing a child in the duffing position will help them build their skills and stamina while not putting any pressure on them.
For ages eight and above, Ken recommends the bow position for your youngster. At this age, they will be contributing a little more to the paddling effort, but you can still keep an eye on them until they are ready to solo. With a more experienced paddler in the stern, you have the ability to easily see your young paddler and provide them with coaching when needed.
When your young paddler reaches age fourteen, they are probably ready to solo, if they have gained the experience at a younger age. For children in this age group, Ken recommends a single kayak of medium size or a small canoe.
Paddles are your child’s connection to the water and should be chosen carefully. They come in a variety of styles and are constructed from a variety of materials, so their price can vary widely. Choose a good-quality paddle, but remember that you will be replacing it as your child ages, so watch the price.
Both Kayak Ken and REI have the same recommendation for kayak paddles: about 200 cm long and have a narrow shaft to fit small hands should be right for you kid. For canoe paddles, they recommend a narrow-shaft model that, when placed on top of your child’s foot, just reaches up no nose height.
How long should the trip be?
Young kids can get bored or tired quite quickly, so keep your journey on the shorter side. Be open-minded when choosing a destination and concentrate on calm waters that your kids will enjoy. After all, this is their journey so that you can save big waters and long expeditions for later.
Kayak Ken suggests that a voyage of as little as 30 to 60 minutes will be good to start. A lake is a good option because you can make several "loops" around the water, but never be too far from home. Rivers should have plenty of places to step ashore and stretch your legs or and maybe do a little bird watching or sightseeing. Just keep mindful of private property.
When on any body of water, get familiar with the area first. Be careful of wind and water currents, as well as the traffic patterns of other boats, especially fast-moving power boats that can approach quite quickly.
Remember that kayaking is a physical sport. Build up to longer trips and consider some form of physical conditioning, such as running or weight lifting to make your paddling easier when you do venture out.
REI suggests that you can find destination information from your local paddling club, state parks commission or the experienced paddlers on their store staff.
The folks at Paddle Pursuits reminds us of the shorter attention spans of youngsters, and that you should build time into your trip for snack and bathroom breaks, as well as activities to do while in route or once you meet your destination.
Build Skills Beforehand
Before setting out on your first voyage, you will want to work on your, and your kids’ skills a bit. There is nothing worse than that the feeling of getting out on the water and not knowing what you are doing.
Before you venture out, become familiar with your boat and your gear. Take the time to learn how the boat works and how to maintain your craft and its accessories properly. Find out how to get into and out of the kayak, how to paddle and turn the boat and what to do if you get separated from our craft.
Teaching you kids to swim before they take up kayaking will help with their confidence and provide a measure of safety while on the water. Paddle Pursuits suggests you check with your local YMCA, college or swim club for swimming lessons.
As for as learning to paddle is concerned, have your kids practice their skills even before they get on the boat. Placing a paddle in your child’s hand and showing them a few basics while still on shore will make for more confidence and a better first outing. Remember, paddles are pretty long, so watch out for the furniture!
That’s a lot to remember when first starting out. REI has a great article that can help you with the basics of setting up a boat and mastering basic paddling.
Packing for the Trip
When you go out for your first trip, you will be packing for both you and your little ones. Here are some of the basics that you will want to bring with you. On a short trip, these items will be pretty light and should not affect the sailing qualities of your kayak.
Food and Hydration
If you are going for a short trip, you won’t need to bring full meals with you. But, being out in the sun and wind, and exerting paddling efforts, you will get hungry, as will your kids.
Pack snack items such as fresh fruit and vegetables, cookies or granola and other small food items. Many of these can come pre-packaged for quick use, but please pack all your trash out with you.
Remember that you will probably need more water than you think, particularly when you are out in the sun. Stay away from glass bottles that can break and cause a hazard ashore or in the boat. Kayak Ken notes that specially designed "water pillows" that can fit under the seat of a kayak take up virtually no room in your boat.
Another great suggestion is to fill a plastic disposable water bottle most of the way up and place it in your freezer the night before the trip. Once on the water, the water will gradually thaw, providing for an iced drink for a long time.
Avoid drinking lake or river water at all costs. In urban areas, local pollution can cause sickness, and in more remote locations, bacterial infections can be a grave danger.
Dress for the weather. For warm sunny days, the folks at Paddle Pursuits suggest light, breathable clothing that will act as a sunscreen and protect you and your little ones from harsh rays of the sun. They also recommend a wide-brimmed breathable hat that will protect the head, neck and shoulders and sunscreen for any exposed skin.
For colder weather, consider dressing in layers and wearing a waterproof outer layer. This will keep you warm and dry, plus allow you to shed layers as the day warms or your paddling exertions heat you up. REI discusses more options for cold-weather dressing in their online article.
Spare clothing is a excellent idea, in case someone takes an unexpected spill or, particularly for the very young ones, the bathroom breaks are a little too infrequent.
The rays of the sun, while providing warmth and comfort, can also be quite damaging. Kids with sunburns can become quite cranky and may not want to come back for another trip. Always apply sunscreen to yourself and your young paddlers for their safety and comfort. A good source for information on protecting your kids from sunburn can be found from the Centers for Disease Control.
The right footwear is a must, both onshore and while in your boat. Launching areas, rocky beaches, and other shore-side facilities can be rough on the feet, so you will need footwear that can take the punishment. You need to get to the water to get in your boat, so mid-calf waterproof boots are a great idea. Sandals or other open footwear are also a good choice in areas free from walking hazards.
Unexpected events can happen, and you can get wet, but you don't want your spare close or valuables to get dunked along with you. Both Kayak Ken and REI suggest placing any articles you want to keep dry in a waterproof bag. These should be made specially for the purpose; you will be surprised how non-waterproof plastic garbage bags or zip-lock food storage bags can be.
Other Packing Suggestions
A kayaking trip can be a great adventure for you and your kids. It can be made even more special by bringing along a few extra items, such as binoculars, bird spotting cards or books, fishing gear, or your child's favorite small toy.
A notepad and pencil can help you or your kids chronicle the event and have a keepsake of their outing. Just remember that anything you bring can get wet, so electronic games or mobile phones should be kept in the dry bag or at home.
Safety is your first concern while afloat. Here are some suggestions for safety gear that you will want to bring along.
PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices)
PFDs or Personal Flotation Devices often called life jackets should be worn by all paddlers at all times, even adults and active swimmers. Don’t assume that even though you are in a boat or are a good swimmer that you don’t need a PFD.
For older paddlers, specialty paddling vests are available that allow for more freedom of movement around the neck and shoulder area. For the youngsters, the choice may be a little more limited.
REI notes that children’s PFDs are available in multiple sizes for infants (8-30 lbs.), children (30-50 lbs.) and youth (50-90 lbs.). Infant PFSs have a neck pad that to keep the child’s head above water and a crotch strap to keep the young one from slipping out of the vest.
Make sure you are purchasing an approved PFD. All approved life jackets will have a United States Coast Guard approval label on the inside of the device near the back of the collar. If the jacket you are considering doesn’t have one, put it back on the shelf. When considering a PFD, listen carefully to the sales staff and follow their recommendations.
Lines and Floats
Lines and floats come in two varieties, plain rope and those with a float attached. Each adult in your party should have ready access to both.
A line can be used in a variety of situations, including tying your boat to the shore or towing a kayak when the younger paddler tires. Lines with floats can be used to throw to a person in the water in case of emergencies. This type is often packaged in a specially designed bag that can be deployed for quick use.
First Aid Kits
Most of your kayaking adventures will be fun and happy, but the rare first aid situation can arise. Minor cuts, scrapes, and insect bites will usually be about the worst you can expect.
You should always have a first aid kit, equipped with band aids, antiseptic ointment, insect sting treatment and other small items. Kits are available in waterproof sealed boxes that can easily fit in your kayak. It's also not a bad idea to throw in some eye wash and some soothing ointment, in the case of sunburn.
Other Safety Items
Several other small items can help round out your safety gear. Whistles can be attached to life jackets to help locate paddlers when the visibility is poor or to gain others attention.
Clip on lights flashlights or chemical lights are a must for evening hours or foggy conditions. A high-powered flashlight should also be carried in each kayak during low-light hours.
A folding knife can come in handy for any number of tasks. However, these should be carried by adults only.
Have an Emergency Plan
Having an emergency plan is a must for your trip. This plan should be discussed with all adults and children old enough to grasp the plan's details and who can act in an emergency. You should review the plan before you get on the water and make sure everyone knows their roles.
Your plan should include what to do if a boat tips over (capsizes), someone gets hurt, falls out of their boat or gets separated from the fleet. Procedures should be established and understood by each adult for each of these situations.
Make sure somebody knows where you are going and when you expect to return. If you’re not back when they expect you, they can notify the proper authorities. Also, multiple boaters can become separated, particularly in rivers, where the current may carry some boats faster than others. Make sure you have a rendezvous point that represents the end of your trip. The first ones there can wait for the others to catch up.
Day of the Trip
Before you set out on your journey, you want to make sure everyone is on the same page. Review your itinerary and safety procedures. Check your boat, its equipment and other items you are bringing along. Check your safety equipment, including making sure that everyone in your party has a PFD.
Review with all parties what can happen on the water and ensure that everyone is clear on their role should a difficult situation arise. If they are unsure of what to do for a capsize, someone falling in the water or a first aid issue, go over the plan again. It's much safer to have any issues cleared up before you hit the water.
Weather can change in an instant. Check the local weather forecast and make sure that the weather will be favorable for your journey. Pay attention to the forecast for wind and thunderstorm conditions. If you hear thunder or see lightning in the distance, get to shore immediately.
If you are transporting your kayak on a car-top carrier, make sure that you have followed the manufacturer’s instructions for attaching the carrier to your auto. Also, make sure you securely tie you kayak down to the top of your car. Kayaks are meant to glide through the water, not fly through the air!
What to Do While on the Water
The first thing to do when you are on your outing is to relax and enjoy the ride. If you have allotted enough time for your journey, you shouldn’t need to hurry. Slow down and observe the little things. You would be surprised how much wildlife and scenery you can take in even on a short trip.
Take the time to teach your young ones the art of paddling. This includes not only how to use the paddle and the boat, but also safety precautions and what to do when things get a little rough.
You will also need to set some limits on your youngsters. Too much hijinks or wild play while on the water can quickly lead to an awkward situation. But, as your paddlers gain experience and confidence, let the to a little further afield, empowering them to take responsibility on their own. This is, after all, the path to their adulthood.
Sharing kayaking with your young ones can be one of the most enjoyable times that both you and they can have. The great outdoors, the adventure, the scenery can all add up to unforgettable memories that will last a lifetime for all of you.
But more than that, teaching kayaking skills to your children will give them confidence, develop their physical and mental skills and instill in them a sense of responsibility and trust in others.
The skills you teach them today can stay with them their whole lives and give you, as a parent a great sense of accomplishment. What can be more enjoyable?