Kayaking with Kids

Canoes are great for younger kids

When you go kayaking, bring the kids along. With some forethought and organization, you can create a rewarding experience. Just remember to start small and keep stress levels down by ruling out surprises—except, of course, those of discovery.

Planning the Trip

Who Should Go

The spectrum of people “right” for paddling is as wide as the sea. However, be cautious. Never take a child on the water unless you are well experienced—or you have an experienced paddler with you. Plan on 1 adult for every child until all paddlers’ levels are determined and you know and trust all members of the group. If you have enough adults, then your child can invite a friend or two.

Where to Go

You generally want to find calm water and minimal current unless you are very experienced and have the appropriate boats for the situation. Start on protected small lakes, bays and slow rivers in order to develop kids’ skills and reduce stress levels. With every additional trip, your options broaden.

Destination tips:

  • Choose places with lots of variety.
  • Know what you are getting into. Study tides, currents and boat traffic with the kids ahead of time. When these conditions are encountered, your kids are proud to call them out and you all feel safer together.
  • Know to the best of your ability where bathroom breaks will be. This is especially important with young children.
  • To find a kid-friendly paddling destination, talk to experienced paddlers. You might also try your local paddling association, as well as for your state parks commission or park service websites.

Length of Trip

Be conservative when deciding how long to be out. This way, if you exceed your expectations, you all win. Half an hour to an hour is sufficient for all first trips regardless of age. For babies and toddlers, it may mean just a few moments of sitting in the cockpit at the water’s edge.

One rule of thumb is to plan your trip in short loops about one-third the usual distance you would travel with your adult counterparts. Generally, the older the child, the more time you can spend on the water. Also, consider the child’s:

  • Familiarity with water
  • Experience with boats and paddling
  • Age or level of maturity
  • Swimming ability
  • Physical strength
  • Coordination level

Build Skills Beforehand

Is your trip months from now? Consider signing yourself and the kids up for swimming and kayaking lessons. Swimming lessons are often offered at community pools. You’d be surprised how quickly kids learn to feel comfortable scrambling in and out of a boat practicing a wet-exit or roll.

For another layer of training, try fun workouts with your kids. Go for some long runs (we call them “crossings” by pretending we’re paddling from one island to the next). Back at home, lift weights or do pull-ups and push-ups together to enhance the push and pull of your paddle stroke.

Family Boat Options

Kayak or Canoe?

To decide, consider where you’ll be paddling, the age and ability of your child, and the trip goals. Other variables include comfort levels, seat choice, paddling opportunities for the kids and the need to reach a destination. Don’t sacrifice the process for the goal—let all ages paddle at least part of the time.

Typically, children ages 4 to 7 will do fine sitting in the bow of a kayak but will not provide much propulsion, so your distances are limited. For children under 7, a canoe is an excellent choice. Canoes are stable and offer lots of gear and wiggle room for this age group. A large canoe can easily accommodate 2 or 3 kid riders plus adults.

By the time children are about 8 years of age, many are ready to paddle the bow of either a kayak or canoe. Most are also capable of learning and executing paddling skills.

Make sure to practice wet-exits, braces and other safety techniques in whatever boat type you choose.

Colder waters: Go with a decked kayak or a canoe with a spray deck (a cover made of waterproof fabric). Have your child sit in the bow or in the middle (with one adult in the bow and the most experienced adult in the stern or rear of the boat) until the child is experienced enough to handle a single in colder waters. The middle compartment of most kayaks is made for gear and not children, so it doesn’t come with a spray skirt and tends to take on splash. However, on calm waters, sitting in the middle is fine.

Warmer waters: In warm-water places such as Baja, Hawaii or the Florida Keys, or on calmer inland freshwater in the summer, a sit-on-top kayak becomes an attractive option. With some creativity, these craft can fit up to 3 small children. You can even find inflatable kayaks if you don’t want to invest in a carrier or have limited storage space. (Note: Sit-on-tops are not appropriate for exposed crossings or great distances from shore).

Duff or Paddle? Single or Double?

Your children’s ages, sizes, physical abilities, paddling experience and other qualities will determine whether they come along in a single or double, and as a paddler or duffer.

Duffing, or riding in the boat’s center compartment, is a great beginning place for all young paddlers. Though duffers may not be helping to propel the boat, they are learning about the feel of the boat.

Approximate age recommendations:

  • Duffer in kayak or canoe: 8 and younger.
  • Bow paddler in double kayak or canoe: 8 and older.
  • Bow rider/paddler in double kayak or canoe: 4 to 7 years old.
  • Single small kayak: 10 and older (if skilled).
  • Single medium kayak: 14 and older (if skilled).
  • Single small canoe: 14 and older (if skilled).

Paddle Sizes

The paddle is your intimate connection with the water, so how it feels is important. Kayak paddles come in various sizes for children—consider ones that are about 200 cm long with a narrow shaft. For canoe paddles, rest the handle on the child’s foot; the blade should be about nose height.

Safety Gear

PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices)

Don’t skimp on safety. It’s the law for all people in small craft to wear a PFD. Find a U.S. Coast Guard-approved model and follow the rules for usage and sizing. PFDs are sized for infants (8-30 lbs.), children (30-50 lbs.) and youth (50-90 lbs.). On an infant PFD, the neck pad is critical for keeping the child’s head positioned correctly in the case of capsize. In addition, always secure the crotch strap.

Tip: Babies and toddlers sometimes “hate” their PFDs. If possible, prepare youngsters ahead of time at home. Offer a reward for keeping it on or make a game of it. Explain its purpose without creating a scare.

Lines and Floats

Lines and floats may be used in rescue situations. It’s critical to know the safety techniques that accompany them, such as the wet-exit (a technique in which a paddler leaves the cockpit and then climbs back into it, usually under forced conditions such as a capsize or emergency situation).

Do not over-rely on these items, or on books or videos, to substitute for safety—take classes to practice!

Safety line and float gear includes a:

  • Paddle float for each adult
  • Throw-bag for each adult
  • Tow line for each boat.

Warning: Never tie or tether a child to the boat. This creates more danger than protection.

Packing for the Trip

Food and Hydration

Consider healthy, easy-to-bring items: smoked salmon, hard-boiled eggs, apples, mangoes, fresh red peppers, dried fruits and nuts (pine nuts and pumpkin seeds are rich in calories and pack well), cheese, dried veggies like carrots and tomatoes, and nutritious cookies and bars.

Hydration is important, too. Keep a water bottle close at hand and make a conscious effort to drink enough throughout the day. The exertion of paddling, combined with sunlight reflecting off the water, can increase fluid requirements more than you might think.

Water pillows carry the most water for paddle craft because they can be filled to capacity and still fit easily under the seats, where you want to keep the weight.


Layering with water-resistant, breathable fibers (e.g., rash guards, merino wool, polyester, weather-resistant shell) is the secret to comfort. Bring extra pants for kids under 7 years old who, no matter what, always seem to get filthy and wet. Don’t bother with cotton unless you’re in extremely warm conditions.

Tip: Always store clothing in waterproof dry bags strapped tightly to the inside of the boat. Ensure there are no loose loops or ropes to snag a paddler.

Some essentials for kids:

  • Wide-brimmed hat for rain and sun (waterproof, breathable “sombreros” are perfect). These are tough and work well for rain or sun.
  • Mid-calf to knee-high waterproof boots, which work even in warm weather. Sandals may be OK in areas that are free from foot hazards such as barnacles or broken glass.
  • Raingear that fits well
  • Sun-protection clothing (UPF rated)
  • Bathroom necessities

Remember that you generally bring the same gear for one night as you would for a week. For day paddles or very short paddles near your car and/or other facilities, you can perhaps forego some items.

Other Packing Suggestions

For 5 to 9 year olds (in addition to the adult list):

  • Binoculars or a monocular (a monocular is easier for kids to use)
  • Books
  • Fishing pole
  • Notepad and pencil
  • Tiny pop-up tents for longer days and overnights

For all ages:

  • Personal water bottles (avoid disposables) and water pouches for all, containing more water than you think you’ll need.
  • Sunglasses that are well-liked and fit well.
  • Emergency whistles.
  • Seat pads or short seats for low center of gravity.
  • Spray decks and skirts (covers the open compartment areas).
  • Tow/throw rope.
  • Personal maps and compasses.
  • Tarps for picnics or rain.
  • Umbrella for sun/rain on the duffer.

Day of the Trip (Pre-launch)

Always review the procedures for a wet-exit with adults and children alike before putting in. Make sure to go over examples of what might happen, and don’t rush. You want all questions to be answered ahead of time.

Leave ample time to relax and reconnect once the boats are loaded before pulling away, including making sure that the kids have gone to the bathroom and put on their sunscreen. Offer a handful of gorp; it’s easy to forget that loading a boat uses up calories, too, and you don’t want to start the trip hungry.

What to Do While on the Water

Go slow: Go about one-third your normal pace and don’t get separated. Always be within voice of all children and adults in the group. If you have extra adults, it’s fine for them to separate from the group, but the rougher the water, the closer all boats should be, though don’t crowd either, particularly in currents and high waves.

Teach: Talk with your young paddler about the water’s action while showing the correct response. This can include such techniques as drawing into an eddy, bracing against a wave and navigating the currents.

Provide rules: Be clear and simple about rules. No standing, no leaning, etc. Make the kids enumerate the rules and know the consequences when protocol isn’t followed.

Empower: Let the slowest paddler lead, then switch. This can become a game and adds a great deal of interest for the kids. If you are paddling a double with a young or inexperienced one, take your time and let him or her take breaks. Let the little duffers paddle once in a while, too. A few minutes are likely all they’ll want, but they’ll feel useful and gain practice.

Enjoy: Take lots of breaks and enjoy the scenery. Avoid criticism of performance unless safety is a factor. Always praise good paddling. Provide tips, demonstration and practice, but save serious instruction for later, on shore, so as to not spoil the moment. Enjoy the shore, as it is just as important as the water on paddling trips.

Riverside Recreation is located in Forest County along the Allegheny River in West Hickory, PA.  We have an 8 mile canoe or kayak float on the Allegheny River from Tidioute to West Hickory which will take from 2 to 4 hours to complete.  A 10 mile and overnight floats are also available.  You will be shuttled up river to Tidioute or other designated boat launches and you will float to West Hickory.  This stretch of river is calm with a few ripples, a few deep sections and no white water.  It’s a very relaxing and enjoyable trip. Contact us today at 814-463-9235 or visit


Author: Riverside Recreation

Riverside Recreation opened in the summer of 2011 by Pam and Tim Sneeringer. We are located in Forest County along the Allegheny River in West Hickory, PA. Rustic River Front cabins are available to rent. One day rental is $55 or $100 for two days.

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