If you’re looking for a fun way to get your kids interested in the great outdoors, kayaking is an excellent place to start.
Compared to other sports, kayaking is relatively low intensity, and even young children can manage short trips in solo or tandem kayaks. And, because it’s possible to paddle on various waterways, they’re less likely to get bored.
Of course, kayaking with kids is not like kayaking with an adult. It takes more planning. That’s why we’ve put together this guide with everything you need to know before taking your kids paddling.
Planning Your Trip
As with most outdoor activities, planning is key to a successful adventure. Below we’ve outlined the most important things to consider when planning a kayaking trip with kids.
At What Age Can Children Start Kayaking?
Kayaking with a child will depend on the child’s maturity level, physical ability, and your own kayaking experience. However, we’ll use ages to simplify this explanation.
Some experienced paddlers choose to take toddlers duffing (riding as a passenger in the center seat) in tandem kayaks. But duffing is not recommended unless your toddler can sit still for extended periods and can float themselves face-up while wearing a PFD.
You’ll also need an experienced stern paddler who can control the kayak independently if required, and you’ll need to be able to take care of yourself and a toddler in a capsize.
Kids aged between four and eight are perfect for duffing in a tandem kayak if they can sit still long enough. Duffing is a fantastic way to introduce kids to kayaking, and you can bring a kid-sized paddle so they can start practicing basic paddling skills. Kids aged eight and over may be strong enough to paddle in the bow position.
When Can a Child Start Kayaking in Their Own Kayak?
Some kids start practicing in child-sized kayaks as young as three or four years old. But at this age, practice will primarily involve holding the paddle and paddling for just a few minutes.
If you want to get your kid into the sport early, five to seven is a good age to start practicing in a swimming pool or calm waters. Under sevens may be able to paddle continuously for up to a quarter of a mile in a small kayak.
As with tandem paddling, most kids over the age of seven will be able to paddle a small kayak. By this age, most kids will have developed a longer attention span and the physical strength needed to kayak continuously for half a mile to a mile.
Getting Kids Enthusiastic About Kayaking
If you want your kids to share your love of kayaking, then start talking about the sport with them. Perhaps you can share your epic paddling adventures or watch videos about kayaking together to pique their interest.
You can also encourage them by letting them try sitting in a kayak at home or at a kayaking store. Alternatively, you could enroll them in a kayaking class if they’re old enough.
Once they’re interested, start planning the route together so that your child feels involved at every step of the journey. Suggest routes that you know will be interesting for them. Or consider letting them invite a friend if you have a second adult available to help supervise.
Where to Go Kayaking with Kids
You’ll want to stick to calm waters until your child has a good amount of kayaking experience. Think slow-moving rivers, ponds, small lakes, or possibly a sheltered inlet. Routes that offer a lot of variety are preferable so that your kids don’t get bored.
If you’re unsure where the best places for kayaking with kids are, your local paddle group might be a fantastic information source.
Once your child feels confident in a kayak and can perform the basic paddle strokes, wet-exits, and safety procedures, you might be able to venture onto faster-flowing rivers, larger lakes, or paddle along the coastline.
Also, consider water traffic when choosing your kayaking routes. Unfortunately, not all boaters pay enough attention to where they’re going, and some are not particularly patient with inexperienced kayakers. Therefore, busy waterways with lots of motorized boat traffic are not ideal for kids, especially while learning the basics.
When to Go Kayaking with Kids
Kids get cold easier than adults, so it’s essential to consider the air and water temperatures before you set out kayaking. Taking your kid out on the water in the middle of winter is not a great idea, even if they are appropriately dressed for cold weather.
Likewise, kids are more at risk of sunburn than adults. Sunhats and sunscreen will help, but you might want to consider paddling in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is less intense. Alternatively, choose a shaded waterway for paddling in the middle of the day. Canals, ponds, and lakes with forested banks may offer some shade.
Consider adding a bimini sun shade to your kayak if you will be paddling during the afternoon.
Length of Trip
Many kids get bored quickly and struggle to sit still for extended periods, so it’s best to keep kayaking trips short. Thirty minutes on the water might be the maximum for younger kids. Meanwhile, older kids might manage trips of an hour or more depending on their physical ability, attention span, and paddling experience.
One way to spend an entire day kayaking with kids without them getting bored or tired is to plan regular breaks. For example, you can spend thirty minutes to an hour paddling, followed by a break for swimming, then paddle another thirty minutes to an hour and make a long picnic stop.
If your kids are paddling, the breaks will give them time to recover. If your kids are passengers in a tandem kayak, the intervals will provide them with time to move and burn some energy. Lakes and rural rivers with plenty of launch points are ideal for this kind of trip.
Practice Skills Beforehand
Practicing specific skills before hitting the water can help your child’s confidence grow. Swimming is probably the most helpful skill to practice. Being able to swim 25 to 50 meters may also be required to join a kayaking class.
If your kid can swim, they will feel more confident practicing wet exits when they start kayaking. Teaching your kid to get out of a swimming pool without using the ladder will also build the base for kayak re-entrance after capsizing.
Some basic exercises to build upper body strength and coordination are also helpful. This might include exercises like push-ups and pull-ups, but you can also practice synchronized paddling in the garden.
How to Choose Kayaks & Paddles for Kids
Of course, there are many types of kayaks to choose from, but we will focus on the two most common questions when choosing a kayak for kids.
Single vs. Tandem
We recommend tandem kayaks for kids under the age of eight.
Tandems give you flexibility as your child grows and their skills develop. For example, with a tandem kayak, they’ll be able to practice paddling in the middle (duffer position) or bow seat while you control the kayak from the stern.
That said, single kayaks are the best way for kids to improve their skills and get confident paddling alone. Once your child has mastered the basic paddle strokes and safety techniques and has the maturity to paddle solo, you might want to consider getting them a child-sized kayak.
Sit-in vs. Sit-on-Top
Sit-on-top kayaks are mostly the preferred option for children because you don’t need to practice wet exits. They also tend to be more stable, difficult to capsize, and nearly impossible to sink because they have built-in drainage holes.
Additionally, kids often prefer sit-on-top kayaks because they’re less restricting. They’re also easier to enter and exit, meaning that your kid can go for a swim and climb back on.
It’s more challenging to recover from capsizing a sit-in kayak. You must know capsize rescue techniques, such as wet exits. For this reason, sit-in kayaks are only recommended for older and more experienced children or for paddling in colder weather.
Don’t forget to bring the right-sized paddle too! Standard paddles are too long for most kids to use comfortably.
The perfect paddle length for your child will depend on their height and the kayak’s width. But usually, child-specific paddles will be shorter, lighter, and with smaller blades than regular paddles. It may also have a slightly thinner shaft, allowing small hands to grip it more easily.
It can be easy to forget things when taking your kids out on an adventure. So, to make things a little easier, here’s a packing list of gear you will need before you head out.
Kids must always wear a coast guard approved PFD, even while paddling in shallow waters or near land.
You might want to get your kids used to wearing a PFD by getting them to wear it at home or while swimming. This should be done before you go kayaking, particularly if you’re going paddling with infants.
Remember to lead by example and wear a PFD yourself!
It’s also important to teach your kids how to swim and float while wearing a PFD. Some kids will naturally tip forwards or panic after capsizing, so you should teach them two safety techniques. First, how to lay back and float face-up. Second, how to turn from a face-down position to a face-up position.
It’s a good idea to take your child to a safe place to practice floating with a PFD. Swimming pools or calm waters that are shallow enough for you to stand alongside are ideal.
Get a Kids PFD That Fits
A PFD should be snug but not tight, and you shouldn’t be able to pull it off over your child’s head. While you might get away with buying oversized clothing for kids, PFDs are not something you want your child to grow into.
Although it might be slightly more expensive, buying a PFD with adjustable straps is sensible because your child will be able to use it for longer. It’s also essential to check your child’s weight against a PFDs weight capacity.
PFDs for kids usually come in three standard weight capacities/chest sizes:
- Infant: 8 to 30 lbs. / 3.5 to 14 kg; 16 to 20 inches / 41 to 51 cm
- Child: 30 to 50 lbs. / 14 to 23 kg; 20 to 25 inches / 51 to 64 cm
- Youths: 50 to 90 lbs. / 34 to 41 kg; 26 to 29 inches / 66 to 74 cm
PFDs for infants and children may also have the following features:
- Crotch or leg strap: This keeps the PFD from riding up.
- Grab handle: An easy-to-grab handle located on the top of the back, making it easy to pull a child out of the water.
- Head Support: More common on infant PFDs. This looks like a neck pillow and keeps the head raised in the water.
Throw Bags & Paddle Floats
Throw bags and floats are helpful for a capsize. Throw bags are precisely what the name suggests, a buoyant bag that you can throw to a capsized paddler. There’s a rope inside the bag for the swimmer to grab onto while you pull them in.
Paddle floats are inflatable or buoyant covers for the paddle blade, giving you something stable to push on while getting back into your kayak. Unlike paddling with an adult, young kids won’t be able to help you re-enter after a capsize, so paddle floats are very useful.
Throw bags are more commonly used for whitewater kayaking and work best when the thrower is standing on land. So you probably won’t need one for easy paddling on flat water. However, they can be helpful if your child falls out and panics.
Always carry a tow line, especially until you know how long and far your child can paddle solo. Then, when kids get tired or bored, you can clip a tow line to their kayak and bring them home safely.
Tow lines are also handy if your child is starting to paddle a solo kayak. A long line tethering your kayaks together will let you intervene when necessary and might help your child feel safe too.
First Aid Kit
A golden kayak safety rule is remembering to bring a first aid kit and pack it in a waterproof bag. Hopefully, you won’t need to use it, but it’s always best to be prepared.
Minor cuts, scrapes, and bug bites are usually the worst you’ll be exposed to, so make sure your kit contains antiseptic wipes, waterproof band-aids, and creams for plant and bug stings.
Exactly what needs to go inside your first aid kit will depend on the length and location of your trip and any medical conditions that you or your child have.
Food & Water
A hungry kid is a grumpy kid (I think the same applies to adults, too), so remember to pack enough food for the duration of your trip.
Pack carefully and think about bringing a mixture of healthy foods that release energy slowly and a few high-energy snacks in case your kid needs a quick energy pick-up. For example, fruit, nuts, and granola bars are ideal because they’re full of healthy calories and don’t take much space.
Bringing a picnic is a fun way to turn a short paddle route into a full or half-day excursion. But remember that your food might be under the sun for a while. Therefore, you might want to avoid bringing perishable foods unless you have space for a cooler bag on your kayak.
Water is even more critical than food, so always have a water bottle within arm’s reach and sip regularly while paddling. Also, check your route in advance to know how much water to bring and if there are any places where you can get out and refill. Take extra if in doubt.
Kayak Clothing for Kids
In cooler weather, layers of quick-drying clothing are best. Avoid materials like cotton and linen, which absorb water, dry slowly, and don’t hold heat. Instead, opt for lightweight synthetic materials such as polyester, which dries quickly, or merino wool which remains warm when wet.
In warm weather, lightweight and breathable clothing will be the most comfortable for your child. You’ll also want to bring a waterproof and wind-resistant jacket and think about taking a dry change of clothes if you’re going on a more extended trip.
When it comes to footwear, open sandals are fine for summer. In cooler climates, wet suit shoes are a better choice. However, if there are hazards at your launch point (i.e., sharp rocks, glass, coral) or the water is cold, a pair of mid-calf waterproof boots would offer more protection.
Sunburn is a common problem for kids, and long periods under the sun can leave you dizzy and disorientated. For this reason, we recommend getting your child to wear a high factor sunscreen whenever they’re out on the water.
Long-sleeved, UPF-rated clothing and a wide-brimmed UPF-rated hat will also help to protect your child from sunburn.
If you capsize, it rains, or you get splashed, your stuff will get wet. Although kayaks with storage hatches should keep your gear dry, not all are 100% watertight. So it’s wise to pack spare clothes, a first aid kit, food, and any electronics, in a dry bag for kayaking.
Other Packing Suggestions
Kayaking with kids is great fun, but you can make the adventures memorable by adding a few items to keep your kids engaged while paddling. Small things such as binoculars can stop your kids from getting bored.
If your child is riding as a passenger in a tandem, think about printing off a scavenger hunt or bird spotting, or plant identification checklist to keep your kids engaged throughout the journey. Alternatively, you could bring a book, notepad, waterproof camera, or a fishing rod.
Tips for Kayaking with Kids
Now that all the planning is out of the way, here are several tips to keep in mind when you’re on the water.
Quick Safety Tips
- Never strap your child into a kayak. Although you may think this is a good idea for wiggly children, it’s extremely dangerous if you capsize.
- Always wear a PFD, teach your kid how to float with a PFD, and practice wet exits.
- Get your child to wear a helmet if paddling in shallow and rocky waters and when there are low-hanging tree branches or low bridges on your route.
- Always have one experienced adult paddler for every child.
Be Patient & Start Slow
Kids won’t match your average speed, although they may overtake you when they grow up. Expect to move at about one-third of your usual pace and plan a route accordingly. Also, keep calm and avoid rushing your child unless it’s for their safety. Kids learn quickly, and giving them a little time to practice will go a long way.
Everybody hates rules, especially kids, but a few safety rules are essential. So let your kids know the rules before you set out on the water and what the consequences or reward will be if they misbehave or are good.
If your child is paddling their own kayak, you’ll also want to set rules for how far from you they can go.
Make an Emergency Plan
If you paddle tandem with your kid in the duffer seat, make sure that both paddlers know what to do in a capsize, i.e., who will look after the child and who will look after the kayak. Practicing this on calm water will make the actual event less stressful. If your kid is old enough to understand, share the plan with them.
Also, create a float plan each time you go paddling and inform a friend or family member. They should know how long you plan to be out, your planned launch and exit points, who’s in the kayak, and what to do if you’re not back at the agreed time.
The best thing about kayaking with kids is that you get to teach them your paddle skills. You can start with teaching wet exits and the basic paddle strokes.
If you’re not confident teaching wet exits yourself, you might want to enroll your child in a beginner’s paddle class so they can learn this essential technique. You can then practice together on sheltered water and close to land.
But why stop at paddle skills? You can also teach your kids about tides and currents or fill them in on your wildlife knowledge.
Even if your kid’s riding in a duffer position, they can still get in on the paddling action. Bring an extra paddle so they can join in, or let them take the bow seat for a few minutes. Memorize your route but give them a map and ask them to navigate or get them playing the captain for a while.
Keep the Kids in View
Most parents already know to keep their kids in their eyesight. In a tandem, let them take the bow or middle seat. In a single kayak, have them paddle in front unless you’re towing them home.
Keep it Fun & Enjoy!
The most important thing to remember when kayaking with kids is that it’s supposed to be fun for you and your child. Try to plan enough time to enjoy the adventure without rushing it. Take breaks, take photos, go for a swim, and have fun!