BWCA Canoe Trip Success with a Toddler

If you’re a parent you know life with a toddler is often unpredictable. Bringing said toddler into the Boundary Waters for a canoe trip adds a whole new level of unpredictability!

bwca canoe trip success toddler
Jack on his trusty stool—that doubled for a portage basket!

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just ask Bobby and Maura Marko, authors of the We Found Adventure blog, and parents of toddler Jack and baby Rowan.

The Markos are experienced adventurers. So when their family expanded, they adapted and continued their outdoor activities to include their young children.

Maura wrote two blog posts about their two vastly different experiences in the BWCA in the summer of 2016. In them she gives wonderfully candid advice on what they did and didn’t do right with their toddler (she was pregnant with Rowan at the time).

Here are 10 keys for canoe trip success with a toddler:

1. Simplify Your Route

That canoe trip you did with your buddies with 8 lakes and 7 portages? Forget it! Keep it simple. If you want portages, save them for day trips from your campsite. Another tip: stick to smaller lakes so you’re not fighting the wind as much.

2. Bring Reinforcements

The adult-to-child ratio should always be over-balanced on the adult side! Assume at least one adult will be occupied with your toddler at all times. If your reinforcements are family members, your toddler will already be excited about being with them—a major plus!

bwca canoe trip success toddler
3 generations of Markos—with their Bending Branches paddles!

3. Be Rested Before You Head Out

Don’t start your BWCA paddling trip already in a state of exhaustion. This was one of the major lessons the Markos learned—the hard way! This doesn’t just mean the toddler. If you as parents aren’t rested up, your patience and energy levels will be on a short fuse, too.

4. Start Early

Your toddler will be up anyway! If you’re out during the busiest weeks in July and August, it’s crucial to get on the water early so you can find a campsite before they’re all taken.

5. Keep it Short

This isn’t the time for the 10-day Border Route. And be willing to leave early if it’s just not working. 2-3 nights is a good length for the little ones.

6. Choose a Toddler-friendly Campsite

There are campsites with a gently sloping shoreline into the water…and then there are campsites with rocks leading right to over-the-head drop-offs. One will be much more relaxing with a toddler than the other!

If you choose a route or lake that has a lot of campsite options, you’re more likely to find a good one.

bwca canoe trip success toddler
This toddler-friendly campsite is on Lake Kawishiwi

7. Take Advantage of the Toddler Curiosity Factor

You don’t need to haul a bunch of toys along. The water, rocks, sticks and mud are wonderful diversions. Even when in the canoe for several hours, the Marko’s were pleasantly surprised to find Jack amused himself readily with the map, the water and a kid-sized paddle just for him!

8. Let Them Explore and Burn Off Energy

This is especially vital if you want them to sleep! And this is why you need a toddler-friendly campsite—so it’s not dangerous for them to explore.

9. Be Creative about Sleeping

Do your best to get those naps in, even if it means holding the kiddo in your arms in the canoe like Maura did. We all know a tired toddler is a not a happy toddler, so this is top priority!

10. Leave the Gourmet Meals at Home

Toddlers have many virtues, but patience when famished isn’t one of them! Plan snacks and meals that are ready-made, or easily and quickly prepared.

The Markos have many other insights gathered from bringing their toddler on a BWCA canoe trip. If that’s in your future, too, be sure to read their posts and bookmark them for reference!

Read the Markos' full posts here:

More Bending Branches posts for you:

(All photos courtesy of the Marko Family)