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Whether you already enjoy canoeing or you’re new to the sport, canoeing with your kids can be a fun family bonding experience. It’s great to unplug and spend some time together exploring the great outdoors. As you may expect, canoeing with kids is a little more involved than going off on a solo paddle or canoeing with your friends. It will take a bit more planning and patience, but it’s well worth your time.

Getting Started

If you are completely new to canoeing, try paddling without your kids on your first trip. Canoeing is more difficult than it seems, and it’s best to go into a family canoeing trip with some experience under your belt.

Alternately, plan your trip with a reputable guiding company that specializes in canoe trips for novice paddlers. Many of those companies will provide the equipment you will need for the trip, and the guides are there to handle any problems that arise. 

When planning your first family canoeing trip, whether on your own or with a guiding company, take these tips into consideration. The more you plan in advance, the more fun your trip will be. Nothing takes the fun out of an outing like surprise stress. So reduce your stress by planning ahead and go make some fun family memories!

Top 10 Tips for Canoeing with Kids 

When taking kids canoeing for the first time, it’s helpful to think through the trip in terms of safety and in terms of fun. Safety should always be your primary concern when canoeing with kids, but you also want to have specific plans to make your first paddling trip go smoothly. This list starts with safety concerns and tapers off to advice for making your trip fun and low-stress. 

1) Buy a properly fitting PFD 

When selecting the right PFD for your kid, there are a few things to consider. The primary consideration is your child’s weight. Kid-sized PFDs are sold in three categories:

  • 8-30 pounds: Infant
  • 30-50 pounds: Child
  • 50-90 pounds: Youth

Youth sized PFDs look very similar to adult PFDs, just a little smaller. Many Child sized PFDs will have an additional crotch strap to ensure that the PFD stays on if they fall in. Most Infant sized PFDs will have a crotch strap, a handle, and a padded head support.

Most of the Child and Youth sized PFDs will be a Class III flotation aid. The Infant sized could be a Class III or a Class II. 

2) Be ready to respond

Bring a first aid kit appropriate to your level of first aid training. At a minimum, bring some bandaids and anything else that you or your kids typically need (Ex: inhalers, Epi-Pens, etc.). If you’re going out with a guiding company, they will likely bring a first aid kit along on the trip. Just double-check with them beforehand if you don’t want to bring your own.

If you intend to start doing a lot of outdoor adventures with your kid, consider taking a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder class for backcountry-specific training. 

3) The sun is not your friend 

Whether it’s a sunny day or it’s overcast, protect your kid from the sun. Even on overcast days, the glare from the water can create an unexpected sunburn. Make sure that your youngster is wearing sunblock and sun-protective clothing. Long sleeve shirts with SPF built-in are great for kids. If they’ll wear a hat, it’s a good idea to buy them a baggy-brimmed sun hat. 

Spray sunblock tends to work well for kids and is easy to pack. If your kid is especially prone to sunburn, you could also buy some of the colorful zinc oxides like Zinka for their nose, cheeks, and ears. Kids tend to enjoy the colors (kind of like face paint). It’s also waterproof, and it blocks UVA and UVB rays.  

4) Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

If your first canoe trip with your kid is on a hot day, bring plenty of water along with you. Dehydration can make you and your kiddo miserable. Being dehydrated can cause headaches, fatigue, nausea, and can even be dangerous if left for too long. Fortunately, it’s really easy to stay hydrated. Just drink water! 

A lot of kids aren’t used to drinking much water though. If your kid is used to drinking a lot of sodas and sweet drinks, you’ll need to make a specific plan for keeping them hydrated.

Kids who usually drink a lot of sweet drinks don’t typically like drinking water. If that’s the case, you can bring something like Pedialyte for them to drink throughout the paddle. It’s got a sweet flavor, but it contains electrolytes to help keep them hydrated. 

5) Bundle up

If your kid’s first canoe trip will be on a chilly day, bring some extra layers to help keep them warm.

Kids are notorious for saying they’re not cold while they’re having fun. As the trip goes on and they start getting tired, they will likely start feeling a little chilly. Come prepared with extra warm layers packed in a dry bag in case they get cold as the trip goes on. 

Just be sure not to bring any clothing that you don’t want to get dirty. This includes the outfits that you and your kiddo will wear for the trip. If you would be bummed if it got dirty, don’t bring it canoeing.

6) Don’t let your kid get hangry

Hungry kids are cranky kids. Bring extra snacks with you for the trip in case your kid starts to get hungry.

Canoe trips can end up taking longer than you intend, especially if you’re somewhat new to canoeing or you’re paddling in a new area, so make sure you have enough food with you.

Try not to plan your trip during your kid’s typical mealtime unless you’ll be able to pull onto shore to eat. Planning a picnic on a known sandbar can be a lot of fun and can add an element of adventure to the trip. If you’re unfamiliar with the area though, don’t count on there being a great lunch spot available. If you’re canoeing in a new area, don’t go out during mealtime. 

7) Keep your valuables with the boat

Put your valuables (keys, cell phone, etc) in a dry bag and clip that bag to your boat’s thwart. Even if you’ve never fallen in while you’re paddling alone, be prepared to fall in while canoeing with your kid for the first time. Kids sometimes act irrationally, especially in new situations, and there’s an added chance that your boat will flip. Make sure that your valuables will stay dry and won’t float away if you capsize. 

8) Leave dry clothes and a towel in the car

Bring dry clothes and towels for you and your kiddo and leave them in the car. If you do fall in the water, it’s not fun to drive home wet. If you pack the dry clothes in a plastic shopping bag, you can use the plastic shopping bag for your wet clothes to prevent them from making puddles in your car. 

9) “Why is the water so heavy?” 

During your first family canoeing trip, your kid will get tired faster than you’d think. Typically, kids are very excited to try canoeing because it looks like fun and they’ve seen it in movies or TV shows. Canoeing is a lot more challenging than movies and TV shows make it look, and kids don’t realize that. It’s often a shock to them to learn that water is heavy and paddling requires effort.

Don’t plan to be on the water very long during your first family canoeing trip. Be ready to take a lot of breaks and to do most of the paddling. Plan some fun games to play during the breaks to keep the mood upbeat (think of typical road-trip games). When you take breaks, set a specific time limit to keep things moving.

10) Crew not cargo

Give your kid some responsibility for the trip. If they feel like a valuable member of the team, they’ll buy into the trip more and will remember it more. Make sure they feel like they’re not just along for the ride. 

Before you get in the boat, give them specific safety rules to follow. Also, give them a specific role appropriate to their age and ability. 

Some examples include: 

  • Put them in charge of a certain piece of gear.
  • Let them help carry gear to and from the car.
  • Call them the “Hydration Monitor” and have them remind everyone to drink water.
  • Make them responsible for keeping themselves centered in the boat.
  • Have them look for certain landmarks.
  • Give them a watch and let them keep time for the breaks.

Depending on the age and ability level of your kid, you may need to adjust some of these tips. Plan ahead based on your individual situation to meet your family’s needs. When taking your kid on their first canoeing trip, planning ahead is key to a low-stress, fun-filled experience. 

Paddle On!

Heather West

Heather West

Heather West is a professional outdoorswoman from New Orleans who loves sharing her passion for the outdoors with others. After Hurricane Katrina, Heather transferred to a college in Tennessee and went on her first camping trip. She fell in love with the outdoors and decided that she wanted a career in the outdoor industry. Two weeks after graduating, Heather began working for Outward Bound leading 14-28 day canoe expeditions for teens in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, and Maine. Heather currently works for a local nonprofit leading day-trips for students of all ages.

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