Despite not having any of my own, the majority of my canoeing experience has been with kids. I grew up at camp, then became a camp counsellor, and eventually a canoe guide. I spent the prime summers of my youth canoeing with kids.
I taught the young ones how to hold a paddle and what to do if the canoe flipped. I beamed in triumph when the older campers portaged solo for the first time or stayed upright through a technical rapid.
The Bending Branches Java canoe paddle and young girl, Rowan (photo courtesy of @wefoundadventure)
I rolled my eyes as the lily-dippers complained “Are we there yet?” and nearly had a panic attack when I thought I’d lost a camper on a portage trail. One teen threatened me with a knife and rolled a canoe barrel off a ravine.
It was the best of times, and on occasion, it was the worst of times. But at the end of the day, I learned a lot about the dos and don’ts of canoeing with kids. So today I hope to provide some tips and direct you to some resources that will help you gain the knowledge and confidence needed to take your own kids - regardless of age - on their first canoe trip.
And remember, you know your kids better than anyone else, so make adjustments as needed to match your kids’ preferences and abilities.
Tips for Safe and Happy Canoeing with Kids
How to Stay Safe Canoeing with Kids
Plan a Reasonable Route
When choosing your route, be realistic about how much paddling your kids can feasibly do - both in terms of physical ability and attention span. Young kids will get bored in the canoe after a few hours, yet can spend eons playing with tadpoles at the put-in. Embrace the change of pace and plan your route accordingly.
Always wear PDFs
All kids (and adults) should be wearing life jackets at all times while in the boat. I won’t linger on this tip as it’s fairly self-explanatory.
Ready for some canoeing! (photo courtesy of @damonbungard)
Review the Rules of the Boat
Prior to taking off, review the rules of canoeing with your kids even if you think the rules are obvious or intuitive. Don’t stand in the canoe or lean over the edge without letting you know. Keep your life jacket on at all times. Ensure they know these things before you start paddling.
Practice Tipping the Canoe
I know 99% of the people to whom I recommend this tip don’t do it, but I’ll say it anyway. I think it is incredibly valuable to practice a canoe dunk with your kids. Have them sit in the canoe with you and rock it back and forth, tipping the boat on the count of three.
Once in the water, you can all grip onto the canoe and call for help or swim to shore. (Bonus points for teaching them canoe-over-canoe rescue, but that’s a little tricky with young kids). The reasons I advocate for doing a practice dump are two-fold: first, it shows kids that dumping in a canoe isn’t nearly as scary as it appears, and second, they won’t be totally caught off guard if you do tip on a lake.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re paddling with very young children or infants. But, be aware that canoe tippings do happen and if you choose to paddle with such young kids, you need to know what you’ll do to keep them safe in the water.
Be Extra Mindful of the Weather
When you’re with kids you need to be a little more aware of weather conditions. That doesn’t mean cancelling if rain is in the forecast - rain on a camping trip can be fun (especially with puddle jumping).
But it does mean watching the forecast for storms and wind. If your kids are new to canoeing and there’s a lightning storm in the forecast, consider changing your plans. Likewise, be careful if planning a route with big lake crossings as high winds can make lake crossings especially tricky.
Bring Sun Protection and Bug Deterrent
Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat for the little ones. Long days on the water provide ample opportunity for sunburns. I also bring some Aloe Vera in my first aid kit just in case someone does get a sunburn.
And don’t forget something to deter the bugs. Some people are comfortable using bug spray on their kids (just choose one with a low deet content), while others prefer physical barriers like bug jackets or bug shelter.
Do a Site Sweep Before the Kids Get Out of the Boat
Although rare, I have found weird (and potentially dangerous) things left at campsites: burnt cans, fishing line, pocket knives, scrap metal, etc.
Before your kids hop out of the canoe and explore the campsite, have an adult do a sweep of the area and look for anything potentially harmful to kids. If you find anything concerning, either find a new site or do your best to remove it / move it off the site.
Keep yourself safe too: It’s great to pack out any garbage others have disrespectfully left at the campsite, but don’t put yourself at risk either. If you find scrap metal, sharp objects or anything else that doesn’t look safe to handle, leave it at the site and report it to the park rangers.
Bring Familiarity & Fun to the Wilderness
Show Your Kids the Gear
Kids love familiarity, and new experiences are made easier when there is an element of familiarity incorporated.
When I was guiding, we would walk the kids through the canoe, paddle, tent and other camping gear prior to the trip. The concept of sleeping outside can be daunting, but seeing the tent and sleeping gear can help the kids anticipate the experience and calm some nerves.
(photo courtesy of @five2nine)
Cook Their Favorite Foods
Through guiding I have eaten a lifetime’s worth of mac and cheese and hot dogs. When designing a meal plan for a kids’ trip, I’d choose easy to recognize food that they're familiar with. In my experience, I’ve found kids can only handle so many new experiences at a single moment - canoe tripping is enough of a new experience, let’s not add on an unfamiliar dish as well.
Bring so Many Snacks… and then Double It
Never let people get hungry because ‘hungry’ very quickly turns to ‘hangry’... and then all hell breaks loose. A steady stream of yummy, nutritious snacks is a must.
Some ideas for snacks:
- Apple slices
- Granola bars
- Dried fruit (like mango and pineapple)
- Fruit leather
- Yogurt-covered pretzels
- Beef jerky or pepperettes
- Trail mix
- Hummus and crackers
- Ants on a log (peanut butter and raisins on celery sticks)
Bring a Surprise Treat
Mistakes are going to happen. You might get lost for a moment, there might be rain, or the portage takes longer than expected. When things get tense, I always have a stash of Mars Bars and Maynard’s candy ready to sweep in and lift spirits.
Create a Seating Plan
When I have school-age kids in the boat, I typically have them sit on a canoe pack in the middle of the canoe (the Princess seat). This is much more comfortable than sitting directly on the hull. For younger kids, you can have them sit in front of you or between your legs (since they likely won’t be paddling).
Bring Toys and Game
To keep kids entertained at the campsite (or in the boat if they’re too young to paddle), bring toys and games with you. I always bring a deck of cards and some small board games (just be careful to not leave any pieces at the campsite). Frisbees, hacky sacks, fishing rods, binoculars and field guides also provide great entertainment.
For older children, I’d also make up games for kids to play around the campsite, like scavenger hunts or tarp / fire building competitions (bring a prize!).
(photo courtesy of @five2nine)
Get Your Kids Their Own Paddle
Put a paddle in their hands as soon as they’re old enough to hold one. Even if they never actually put it in the water, having their own paddle will get kids used to holding it and make them feel like they’re contributing to the trip. The Bending Branches Twig paddle is the perfect first paddle for canoeing kids.
Tip: Personalize the paddle. I once had a camper that hated holding a paddle… until I put colorful, sparkly stickers on it and then she wouldn’t put it down.
(photo courtesy of @wefoundadventure)
Teach Camping Skills and Give Responsibility to Older Kids
Some older children love all things canoeing and will want to contribute to any- and everything. For these canoeing enthusiasts, it’s extremely important to give them ownership in canoe camping responsibilities.
Teach them some steering strokes and let them take a shot at sterning the canoe. Bring a copy of the map for them to hold - rather than navigating yourself, let them try navigating and use your own map to double-check. Give your pre-teens and teens as much responsibility as they show an interest in.
Set Technology Rules
Prior to leaving for your camping trip, set some rules around technology. Some people want absolutely no technology on a trip, while others set guidelines for some technology (for example, phones can be used after 9 pm when in the tent). They probably won’t have cell service anyway, so the phone is really just a music player at that point.
Tips for Keeping Your Cool as a Parent
Manage Your Own Expectations
I know this will sound obvious, but it’s important to manage your own expectations on canoe trips with kids. Everything will take significantly longer than usual; that day trip hike you planned might not happen. Portages likely cannot be completed in one trip.
If you’ve grown accustomed to a particular tripping style with your buddies, recognize that things run at a completely different cadence when the little ones are with you. If you set these expectations with yourself (and your partner), you won’t get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan.
(photo courtesy of @five2nine)
Consider Re-Doing a Route You’ve Done Before
If you’d like to remove even more uncertainty from your canoe trip, consider paddling a route you’ve done before. For starters, this makes navigation a lot easier (no one wants to get turned around on their first canoe trip with kids). Plus, you’ll already have a sense of the campsite and portage conditions.
Choose a Destination with Reservable Campsites
While camping on public land is free and convenient for last minute adventures, there isn’t always a guarantee you’ll find a site suitable for a family.
To make things even easier for yourself, consider a destination where you can make a reservation - either for a specific campsite or for a specific lake. If paddling to the campsite takes a lot longer than you expect, you don’t have to worry about there being no available campsites when you do arrive.
Why Go Canoeing with Kids?
You might be reading all this and thinking “Wow, canoe tripping is so much work as it is… is all this worth the effort?”
It’s a fair point, and I’m sure a lot of parents who regularly bring their kids on camping trips thought that at the beginning too. I’ve thought about it many times while on canoe trips myself - especially when it was me, another counsellor, and eight 7-year-olds in the middle of a portage!
But there are a ton of reasons to get your kids paddling from a young age.
For starters, the earlier you introduce kids to nature and physical activity, the more likely they are to be environmentally conscious and physically active throughout their lives.
It also gets kids out of their comfort zone, builds confidence, and encourages skill development from a young age.
While it can seem daunting before you start doing it, a lot of young kids actually love being in a boat or at a campsite. Sure, there may be difficulties and frustrations, but there can be a lot of laughs, playtime, bonding and enjoyment too.
Canoeing with kids will also change how you experience a canoe trip. When I’m paddling with my friends, we have a tendency to rush through the trip - leaving the site early, paddling hard and getting portages done as quickly as possible. When I’m with kids, on the other hand, the pace is so much slower so I notice a lot more.
Kids also ask great questions about things you’ve grown used to or haven’t noticed before. I, for one, am always surprised by how little I know about geography after two weeks of paddling with 10-year-olds!
Inspiration for Canoeing with Kids
There are tons of incredible paddlers taking their kids on canoe trips and documenting their experiences. Here are some YouTube channels you can watch for inspiration and additional tips for canoeing with kids.
Campfires and Kids - You may recall Dwayne and Sarah from a previous Bending Branches blog post about their 73-day, 1500 km canoe trip in the Northwest Territories - which they did with their two young children!
Chris Prouse - Chris has several YouTube videos featuring her adorable son and provides some insight into planning excellent canoe trips with young kids.
Camping Across Ontario - This is a family of four, two parents and two school-aged daughters, who do plenty of canoe trips in Ontario and film their adventures.
Marty Morrisette - Marty has some great videos with tips about bringing kids (he has two daughters) on quick-paced canoe trips.
Final Thoughts on Canoeing with Kids
I hope you’ve found these tips helpful and are ready to plan a canoe trip with your kids this season. If you have any questions, please reach out or browse through the many resources on the Bending Branches blog archives.