Paddling With Kids

Real world advice from the author of Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids


Photo by Paul Villecourt


It was Oct. 27, a little late for such a trip in the Rockies, but warm enough to pull our inflatable kayak out of its premature hibernation. Throwing rocks in the river, my 2-year-old daughter blurted out 10 percent of her vocabulary: “I wanna go rafting.”


She had learned the word a year and a half earlier when we took her as a 9-month-old on a three-day trip down the Colorado River’s Ruby/Horsethief Canyons. On that trip we’d realized that—aside from the scorpions, rattlesnakes, cactus, fire ants, poison ivy, sunburn, cliffs and rapids—paddling with kids is one of the best things you can do as a family. Whether you go with an outfitter or on your own, it will float your spirits as much as your craft.


Paddling with kids is not without its pitfalls. Diaper changes, pacifier cleaning, cry arbitration and crib packing will compete with everything else you need to do on such a trip. But when you’re making mud pies and skipping rocks, you’ll realize that there’s far more to a paddling trip than meets the grown-up eye.


Armed with these experiences that October day on the Yampa, Brooke and I set off for our final voyage of the year, leaving the baby jogger and her stuffed camel at the takeout for shuttle. Our Year of the Flatwater Trip evolved every year thereafter, and now we make paddling—be it on rivers, lakes or the ocean—an annual activity for our family. Add water to your children’s upbringing and they’ll remember it when they’re well down the river of life on their own. Here’s how.


Equip Thy Brood


The number one rule when paddling with kids: make sure you and your child wear a properly fitted life jacket at all times on the water. Sear this into your skull like the pancakes you burn after distractedly cleaning up a glass of spilled milk. Today’s U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type III life jackets are more comfortable than ever, and there’s no excuse not to wear one.


There are as many crafts to choose from as there are birthday presents at Toys R Us. In Colorado, we often take to waterways and lakes in rafts, canoes and inflatable kayaks. In the Midwest and along the coasts, families break out canoes, sea kayaks and rec kayaks. Even inner-tubing a slow-moving creek instills the magic of water.


Craft chosen, there are two ways to get your feet wet: on your own, or with an outfitter. For those unfamiliar with the discipline, it’s best to go with an outfitter. They have the gear and skills to ensure your indoctrination doesn’t become an indunktrination. Unsure? Take an outfitted trip first and then play Huck Finn later. Better safe than soggy. Either way, realize that paddling with your kids is a way to come together on a medium that’s responsible for all life itself—which means it’s bound to help your family life as well. If that’s not enough to stop your kids from squabbling, perhaps it’s time for Dr. Phil.

Photo by Brett Hochmuth

Inflatable Kayaks and Kids

Inflatable kayaks, or duckies, are the perfect family craft for mellow river use. I’m not sure who gave them the merganser moniker, but it’s an apt analogy. You bob around on the water propelled by web-like paddles, conjuring images of the rubber duckies floating with Ernie in a bathtub. The nickname alone should make your kids start putting their swimsuits on.

Nomenclature aside, they’re perfect for introducing your young’uns to paddling. In the first place, they’re not fragile like that heirloom canoe. They’re made of rubber or PVC, just like most indestructible toys. They also bounce off things rather than go thunk.

But their best attribute comes in how they handle. They are wide enough to make them stable, narrow enough to be maneuverable, and just fast enough to get you back to shore for snack time. All this creates a versatile craft that gives your kids a more intimate connection with the water than a raft, yet are more stable than a traditional kayak or even a canoe.

They also have advantages off the water. When you’re through, simply deflate and roll for easy storage back home—which you most definitely need, now that your garage is littered with mounds of kid gear. Your kids can even get involved in the deflating process, sitting on the tubes and giggling at the errant fart sounds emanating from the valves.

How much do kids like duckies? On a five-day raft trip down the San Juan, young Henry, 3, summed up his sentiment succinctly. “I want to go chicken,” he said, pointing to the inflatable kayak. “Quack, quack!”

Canoeing with Kids

Canoes have a major advantage over inflatable kayaks and rafts: you don’t need to inflate them. Simply pop it off your car, throw it in the water, and play Lewis and Clark on your local lake. For younger kids, they even offer playpen-like walls to keep your brood in the boat. These same sidewalls also give them grocery cart-like carrying capacity. Even a simple 16-footer can fit a family of four, as well as Rover the dog.

While I don’t profess to be another Grey Owl when it comes to canoeing, I can vouch for the craft’s family practicality. Our perfect family craft manifests itself as a 16-foot Royalex Old Town Osprey, as forest green as our canoeing skills. When we first got it, it was big enough to fit 3-year-old Brooke five times end-to-end, with room left over for newborn Casey, and our dog, Java.

At first, Casey was affectionately known as what friend Mike McCrae calls a “bow baby,” riding shotgun and inevitably falling asleep. If there were a way to bottle the droopy-eyed feeling canoeing evokes and sell it at bedtime, I’d be a millionaire.

Eventually, your child will graduate to the middle, where she falls under the stern paddler’s jurisdiction, and become a midships munchkin. Though she won’t get a boat-shaped hat for the milestone, it represents a coming of age for aspiring canoeists. Now, she’s part of the team, especially if you outfit her with her own pint-sized paddle.

Once your kids actually start paddling, they might want to move back to the bow. When this happens, and there’s just one grown-up along, turn the boat backward and place your child up front and you in the rear to give the canoe better trim. When your kids get old enough, the last transition is to turn the canoe back around and paddle it normally, taking turns between bow and stern. As my canoe-crazy friend Mike McCrae notes, however, this configuration is short-lived; by the time most kids are big enough for this, they’ll want nothing to do with mom and dad—they’ll want a boat of their own.

Photo by Eugene Buchanan

Sea Kayaking with Kids

Brooke was giddy with excitement all morning. She was only 4 and we were heading out for a day-long sea kayaking tour of British Columbia’s Barkley Sound. I put her up front in a double, a nylon sprayskirt with suspenders rainbow-ing over her life jacket to keep splashes at bay. No sooner had we put in when she started singing, “Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow,” a Raffi favorite.

Brooke’s strokes didn’t really help, but they didn’t need to. She was having a blast—especially when she figured out how easy it was to splash me in the stern. Seals poked their heads out of the water, as curious as children in a classroom. Then they’d disappear like kids come dinnertime, Brooke craning to see where they’d surface next. But as we pulled into a rocky shore, it was the starfish, in all shades of purples and orange, that stole the show. “Look, Dad!” Brooke exclaimed. “They’re all over the place! Just like in the sky!” I didn’t need any more of a lesson to understand how valuable sea kayaks can be for family forays into the wilds.

Unlike canoes, sea kayaks are easily propelled by one person, and put your lower half out of the wind and rain. As you know from the kids’ toys littering your family room, plastic boats are tougher, heavier and less expensive, while fiberglass is lighter, faster, more fragile, and more demanding on the pocketbook. Tandems work best for younger kids. You can man the stern, putting your child in the bow. In the odd event you ever get a babysitter (hallelujah!), you and your spouse can even escape for a romantic retreat together, if you remember how.

A rule of thumb: until your kids are capable swimmers, stay close to shore instead of playing Pippi Longstocking on the high seas. Also make sure your craft has bulkheads or float bags, and that you have a rescue plan should things go awry. Some parents store gear in front of children’s feet so they won’t slide under the deck; others use a drybag or pad as a booster seat. The added height helps their paddles clear the boat and makes them feel like they’re not gophers poking their heads out of a hole.

When it comes to paddles, don’t get one sized for Yao Ming. Several companies make children-specific paddles, or those for small adults. Teach them the proper paddling technique by having their hands shoulder-width apart (a lot of kids put them too close together), and show them how to rotate the torso with each stroke. Then rotate sea kayaking into your list of family friendly activities.

Rec Kayaking with Kids

Rarely will you find a better craft for getting your kids out on the water than rec kayaks, whose wide, flat bottoms make them stable enough for even the most torrential tantrum. Think of them like a sea kayak with training wheels. They’re so stable your grandmother could hop in one and paddle away, shirking her babysitting duties.

Like kids themselves, they come in a variety of styles and sizes. Two types work best: sit-on-tops, where you and your child sit on top of a depression in the kayak’s hull; and rec kayaks, which have large, open cockpits for ease of entry and exit. Without claustrophobic cockpits to cram into, both let you and your kids paddle away on the first try without fear of tipping, and both are perfect for paddling as a family, whether your child is still in Pampers or on her way to a Ph.D.

In warmer climates, sit-on-tops make the perfect choice. Your bodies are out in the open, and your child can even jump in the water to cool off and climb back aboard. Self-bailing holes near the seat keep the water out, and in the rare event of a capsize, you can simply flip it over and climb back aboard—just like climbing back on a bike.

Rec kayaks have the same wide, stable bottom, but come with an enlarged cockpit. This keeps you and your brood out of the elements, and keeps water from puddling around your derriere. Most single-cockpit rec kayaks are big enough for you and your child, and some come with cockpits so large they can fit your mother-in-law as well (though that might be too close for comfort). When your kids get older, position them in the front of a two-person craft while you steer from the stern.

The learning curve for each is akin to riding a tricycle. There’s no leaning, and most importantly, no rolling. Simply hop on and go get your children’s feet wet in the world of paddling.

Paddle Boards

Paddleboards are a sort of extra-buoyant surfboard that you paddle standing up with an elongated paddle. This makes them the kid equivalent of a paddle-able, floating dock. Of all paddlecraft, they’re the easiest to cannonball off of and climb back on, and are the most conducive to massive, water-plunging games of King of the Hill.

I became sold on them when camping with my family and heading out on mist-covered Pearl Lake early one fall morning with Casey balancing on the bow, hands outstretched in a perfect Big Kahuna surf pose. Between us, perched atop the board, rested my cup of Kona coffee, its steam mirroring the morning mist.

Without even getting our feet wet, we climbed aboard and shoved off, the mist up to my shins and Casey’s waist. The board knifed across the lake completely under the wispy, early morning fog, our feet disappearing below. Occasionally, Casey would poke her head under and vanish, only to reappear beaming.

Their position in our paddlecraft lineup became clear quickly. We’d brought every craft under the sun—a canoe, sea kayak, inflatable kayak, rec kayak, even a kid’s kayak. But they all could only look on with envy as the paddleboard commanded the kids’ affection. They were on it—or rather, on it and off it—eight hours a day, while the other boats barely got wet. We had to chide them back to shore for dinner.

Born as a Hawaiian surf tool, standup paddleboards have become the quintessential family craft, suitable for lakes, oceans and even mild river travel. Sure, they require a modicum of balance. You’ll feel like a toddler taking his first steps the first time you try one. But once your kids try it, be prepared for homework to take the back burner. Casey and I even used one to surf the Yampa River through town, her playing Kelly Slater up front while I steered from the stern. If the going ever got rough, she’d simply jump down to all fours and then pop back up once the river settled down. We even received applause from diners on the riverside deck of the Yacht Club restaurant as we surfed by.

Rafting with Rascals

Rafting is a great way to open your kids’ eyes to the world of water. At a recent baby shower, I talked to a gentleman whose friend’s daughter, Katia, already had a whopping 1,000 river rafting miles under her Barbie-sized belt by age 6. That’s a lot of time that could’ve been spent watching Barney.

But there are concessions to consider. The first is where you take it. You’re not going to have much fun taking it on a windswept lake or bay. Rafts need current, so the parent doesn’t blow a gasket. This means they’re relegated to rivers.

Make sure you know what hazards might be present. For the most part, these will be rapids. Until your kids are comfortable swimming in a PFD, forsake rivers with whitewater for those offering a more leisurely float. Rapids are rated on a class scale from I to VI. Think of it as the difference between raising one kid and a half dozen, and stick to Class I for starters.

Whether you’re going for a day-trip or overnight, with one kid or a gaggle, have another adult on board to tend to their needs while you’re behind the oars. If you’re bringing gear, put it in the rear so the kids can be up front where you can see them. A few other tidbits we’ve learned: It’s okay to pee in the raft if it’s a self-bailer; a pail and a shovel are as important as a pump; and don’t try to rig and babysit at the same time. Also, keep half an eye on them at camp. Once Brooke slipped out of view only to knock down the entire stove and a 20-person vat of chili when trying to get some water. It didn’t land on her, but plenty of hungry eyes did when we had to make do with tortillas.

On easy water, you can attach your craft to each other to create a floating barge, allowing kids to intermingle. This is also a great time to dole out snacks (and see what the other parents brought). Also keep rain gear and warm clothes accessible, and be prepared to pull over and wait out a storm as you would a tantrum. In small rapids, scoot everyone toward the center and point out appropriate anchors to hold onto. Explain what to do beforehand if you anticipate a bump, and illustrate how to hold on to a perimeter safety line and/or look for a hand, extended paddle or throw rope in event of a swim.

Above all else, have fun and don’t stick to a pre-ordained itinerary. Go with the flow and accommodate your kids’ needs, whether it’s potty breaks, snack stops or pulling over for a game of tag on a sandy beach. A final word to the wise: pack an extra box of fruit snacks.

Photo by Paul Villecourt

Whitewater Kayaking and Kids

Whitewater kayaking isn’t one of those sports kids are likely to take to at a young age. There’s something about being trapped upside down, under water that goes against their innate sense of Darwinism. And that’s probably a good thing. Nevertheless, if you can instill a love for paddling in other craft, your kids might graduate to whitewater kayaks in their own sweet time.

Companies like Jackson Kayak are making it easier by manufacturing pint-sized boats, paddles, sprayskirts and even helmets, most of which look like you could hang them from your rearview mirror. If you have the expertise to get them involved—or better yet, access to certified instruction—and your kids have the desire, by all means do so.

We got Brooke a Jackson Fun1 kayak for Christmas one year and her eyes lit up like the sledding saucers next to it. Then she quickly launched into her spastic, high-pitched “I got a kayak” dance. If it had fit under her pillow, it would’ve been there that night.

She can fit inside it without feeling dwarfed and can feel how different strokes affect the boat. A wide sweep turns it, as does a rudder. In a bigger boat, such strokes would have the effect of a kid punching an elephant.

Still, don’t jump the gun in getting them out on a river. I made that mistake with Brooke, then 7, while testing a two-person whitewater kayak called the Topo Duo. Before putting in on our local town run, we headed to the pond, where I fitted her in a sprayskirt and we paddled around flawlessly. I even performed a practice roll, having her hold onto the sides while I rolled up. It worked perfectly, and she emerged dripping and smiling.

From there it was on to the river. Unfortunately, in the midst of idle chit-chat, I failed to see a submerged rock that hit our bow, prompting Brooke to reflexively lean upstream. Over we went before I had a chance to brace. Despite our practice roll, I bailed, thinking she had already done the same. She hadn’t (social services, stop reading here). While I righted the boat instantly, now I was the one swimming while she was still in the kayak.

Paddles long gone, I scissor-kicked us to shore where she got her next lesson: How to hitchhike shuttle. She was more than deserving of a chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cone on the way home afterward, and I was equally deserving of the tongue-lashing I got from my wife.

—Eugene Buchanan is a Canoe & Kayak contributing editor, and the father of two very active outdoor children. This story was adapted from his second book, Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids, available from Heliconia Press in March 2010 (helipress.com).

Paddling with Kids

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  • Shari Yee

    Posted on Thu Dec 23, 2010, 8:31 AM by Paddle Dad
    Great article, but for a paddler’s magazine you might have gone a bit deeper. My youngest is already 4 but it’s been tough to find an outfitter willing to let us transition into even the most mellow whitewater. Maybe a follow-up article could mention kid-friendly rivers or outfitters? Maybe a link to resources for different state regulations about age limits. I understand there is a minimum age on the Nantahala for instance, but I can’t find it in writing… Still, it’s nice to see families are not overlooked in C&K, thanks for thinking of the kids!

  • Pingback: Article: Paddling With Kids | NEK Kayak and Canoe Club

  • Mike Stanton

    This article brings back countless fond memories of canoeing with our kids. Our three (2 sons and daughter) paddled a blue We-no-nah Spirit II canoe while my wife and I floated downstream next to them in our burgundy Spirit II. We spent countless days exploring the rivers of Southern and Northern Wisconsin, and then tent camp at night… telling scary stories while seated around our campfire, laughing, and feasting on s’mores (our sons were officially the “Keepers of the Flame”). And never did simple camping dinners taste so exquisitely delicious than after a day on the water or (or hiking in many of our gorgeous State Parks). Well, our kids are grown and gone, but they still fondly talk about those magical moments and all that we saw/experienced. Now, my wife and I have graduated to our own kayaks and are carving our own paths, but well never regret — nor forget — those special times that we spent on the water with our children.

  • Mary Robbins

    My husband and I are taking our 1 yr old daughter on a lake trip (so flat water only) and we want to take her with us in our rec kayaks. Obviously we’ll have a properly fitted PFD for her, but she’s at that stage now where she loves to pull up on things to stand and cruise along. Any suggestions for keeping little ones seat? The only thing I have right now is letting her have her pacifier the whole time so she’s more mellow.

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