Log into just about any kayaking facebook group, and you’ll see posts from parents asking for tips on kayaking with kids. At what age did you first take your child kayaking? What kind of kayak do you recommend for my child? Where is a good place to launch with kids? There are SO many questions!
As an avid kayaker and a mom, kayaking with kids is a special topic for me. My husband and I have been taking our son kayaking with us since he was 2 years old. He’s now 7 and we’ve experienced lots of trials and tribulations over the last 5 years, so I thought it was time to share some of our tips and experiences.
First and foremost, when kayaking with kids, always follow all basic safety tips. Virginia Water Trails has an awesome page full of safety information here.
When purchasing a life jacket for your child, take your child to the store so you can try them on. Always adhere to the weight limits (both minimum and maximum) and stick to life jackets that are U.S. Coast Guard-approved. I was surprised to find out that many brands and models are NOT USCG-approved, so read all labels and tags to find out.
The life jacket should fit very snugly, with all zippers and clips fastened. If the jacket comes with a strap that goes between the legs – use it! Once it’s fastened up, pull up on the shoulder straps. If the straps come up above the ears, the life jacket is either too loose or too large.
When you’re kayaking with kids, YOU, the parent, need to wear a life jacket as well. This ensures your safety, maximizes your ability to help your child should you both fall in the water, and it models a safe habit for your child.
Types of Kayaks
In general, I feel safer if my child is in a sit-on-top kayak, rather than a sit-in. If he falls out, or the kayak tips over, it’s a lot easier to get back into a sit-on-top kayak.
When my son was 2, we took him out kayaking for the first time. He was so small, my husband actually had him sit in his lap in his sit-on-top fishing kayak. I paddled alongside in my sit-in kayak and was available to help if they needed it. We weren’t sure if my son would be super wiggly (he always was and still is!), but he stayed put! After a while, we even switched him into my kayak and he did great.
Until he turned 4, he was able to sit in our laps for all of our paddling adventures. However, when he was 4, he was a bit too large to be able to effectively paddle with him in our laps, so my husband started putting him in the back of his fishing kayak. We got a little cushion for him to sit on, and that’s how we kayaked for two more seasons.
We finally purchased a tandem sit-on-top kayak when my son was 6, and too large to sit in the back of a fishing kayak. He was a little spastic with the paddle, which slowed us down, so we opted not to give him a paddle. I struggled to paddle the tandem alone, so I really depended on my husband to get him out on the water.
Now my son is 7 and this is the first season we have started to put him in his own kayak. I purchased a cheap kids kayak from the facebook marketplace that works great for him. While he has shown an interest in paddling on his own, his strength and coordination are not quite there yet, so we don’t expect him to paddle any distance. We have, however, towed him behind our kayaks which works surprisingly well, but we still prefer to use the tandem if we plan to go a longer distance.
Aside from typical safety tips like having a float plan, wearing life jackets, checking the wind forecast, and wearing sun protection, the main tip I can provide is to always have another adult in another kayak when you’re out on the water. Whether you choose to paddle a tandem, or your child is small enough to sit in your lap, having another adult in a separate boat is important. If both you and your child accidentally end up in the drink, that second adult can paddle over to assist in a rescue if needed. While I have taken my son out kayaking without my husband, there were too many “what if” scenarios running through my head, and I don’t have any plans to take him out alone until he’s much older.
Tips to Maximize Fun & Minimize Headaches
Kayaking with kids is rewarding, but it’s no picnic! There are annoyances that are sure to occur, that you never even considered when paddling without kids.
First, make sure your kiddo uses the restroom (or goes behind a bush) before launching. I can’t stress this enough! We had some awkward situations that had my husband stabilizing my son as he stood up in the kayak and went over the side – not sure what we would have done if we had a girl!
Next, bring snacks. All. The. Snacks. If your kid is anything like mine, they’ll want a snack as soon as you leave the boat ramp. Have snacks readily accessible, not in a dry bag or packed in a hatch. I usually keep granola bars in the pocket of my life jacket. We also keep our backpack cooler within easy reach. Note that my son is holding a bag of goldfish in the adjacent photo!
Always choose a location that you’re already familiar with. This allows you to know of any potentially tricky or dangerous spots, but it also helps to answer the “are we there yet” questions when the littles get antsy. “Yes buddy, the beach is right around this bend, we’ll be there in two minutes!”
And finally, always remember to make it fun and engaging. My son would sometimes get bored, so we had to come up with ways to keep him entertained. Sometimes we would bring a small net for him to drag through the water. When he was learning to count, we would count the number of strokes it would take to get to that log up ahead. My husband usually brings a fishing rod and it’s super cute to see them reel fish in together. This year, my son is really getting into maps, and although I haven’t done this yet, I want to print and laminate a map for him to follow along on our next trip.
Above all, set low expectations. That sounds horrible, but when you set the bar too high, you’re undoubtedly going to experience an on-the-water toddler tantrum, you might only paddle half the distance you had hoped, or, heaven-forbid, you run out of snacks! If you set the bar low, you’ll be far more likely to succeed!
Happy Water Trails!
About the Author: Laura Scharle lives on the Eastern shore of Maryland and is a frequent paddler in coastal Virginia. She is a Virginia certified ecotour guide and is an independent marketing contractor with a focus in ecotourism and heritage tourism. Laura can be reached through our Eastern Shore ecotour guide listings.