Canoe Camping with Kids: Top Tips from Parents

8-minute read

Starting a family doesn’t mean you have to stop canoe camping. And it doesn’t mean you can’t start canoe camping if you haven’t done it yet. But there are some different ways of thinking that will make canoe camping more successful with kids—especially very young kids.

woman and toddler in a canoe, both paddling

Canoe tripping with kids is a different ballgame—but very doable! (photo courtesy of We Found Adventure)

Maura and Bobby Marko embraced their new life as parents several years ago. Instead of putting their outdoor adventures on hold until their kids were older, they learned to adapt their outdoor life to their growing family.

(NOTE: While their canoeing experiences have been in the Boundary Waters, these tips can carry over to most other canoe camping areas.)

“Many parents think a child doesn’t belong in the Boundary Waters. To them I say, you don’t know what you’re missing!” writes Maura. “They don’t need to reach an age where they ‘won’t complain.’ Let’s be honest: None of us have reached that age. Complaints, bad trips, unfortunate circumstances and unhappy campers are what make an adventure an adventure. Age won’t change that.” (source article)

As she also points out, that stage of life can be very hectic and overwhelming. “Slowing that time down, if only for a weekend, and immersing yourselves in the north woods is magic.”

They’ve produced blog posts and videos about their outdoor family life ever since, on their website We Found Adventure.

We’ve taken some of their best advice on canoe camping with kids (especially very young kids) and summarized it here for you:

Improve the Odds

Because the Markos own a 20-foot canoe (Northstar Northwind 20) they always have room for another adult plus their children. (It has 3-4 seats, lots of cargo space and a 1,000-pound cargo load capability…while it weighs just 54 pounds.)

They’ve learned it’s always best to improve the odds by bringing extra adults along. It could be grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends…even older cousins. With very young children like infants and toddlers, one adult will always need to be focused on their safety and well-being.

When the Marko’s daughter, Rowan, was an infant, “We had a designated duffer who’s only job was to sit in the canoe with her.” (source article)

This doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast rule, but it’ll definitely makes things easier to have the extra help.

little boy sitting on a log next to a green canoe and a bending branches paddle

Children’s natural curiosity about nature make canoe adventures fun for everyone (photo courtesy of @damonbungard)

Learn from the Wisdom of Others

If you’re new to canoeing and/or canoe camping, do some research before you plan your first trip. Start by reading all the paddling articles on We Found Adventure.

The Markos recommend the book Cradle to Canoe by Rolf and Debra Kraiker, both certified canoe instructors. Their book covers all kinds of topics from food and gear to activities and safety.

Outfitters in your desired destination know the best routes in that area. Ask them for a route suggestion that would be suitable for a trip with young kids.

Simplify Your Route

Don’t attempt your epic dream canoe trip when you have young children along. Keep your route simple and short.

The Markos like to set up a basecamp, then do day trips from there. The portaging is easier when all you have to carry are the canoe and daypacks.

Some entrance points offer campsites on the very first lake. To choose that option means no portaging with all your gear—a very attractive idea! That makes it easy to pack along larger items like a pack-and-play and family-size tent for a more comfortable campsite.

“Our definition of success never includes number of miles paddled, number of portages completed, days spent in, or setting off to do exactly what we hoped. Set your expectations low so that the trip is simply enjoyable for every single member of the group,” Maura suggests. (source article)

adult and young child hiking a canoe portage with gear

Short portages give preschoolers a change of pace from sitting in the canoe (photo courtesy of We Found Adventure)

Know the Weather Forecast

Be sure to check the weather forecast ahead of time. Bring the right clothing and gear for the high and low temperatures, for sun and for rain. And even if the forecast doesn’t call for rain, never leave the launch without rain gear for everyone. Wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters are famous for changeable weather!

PRO TIP: An inexpensive umbrella is ideal to keep, not just rain, but the glaring sun off tender baby and toddler skin while in the canoe.

Choose Your Campsite Carefully

Some of the campsites that are the most valued by adults are nightmarish for parents with toddlers. For example, campsites that have great beauty with a lot of rocky shoreline, steep drop-offs and deep water.

The best campsites for young children are those with sloping shorelines, even a sandy beach.

This is a great area to do some research on before you head out: books, websites, forums and social media groups, and local outfitters. Ask for advice about the best kid-friendly campsites in the area you want to paddle.

young boy playing with his canoe paddle on the lakeshore

A campsite with a shallow shoreline is ideal for young kids (photo courtesy of We Found Adventure)

Leave (most of) the Toys at Home

Most young children are fascinated by the natural world around them: sticks, rocks, bugs, helping set up camp, helping with meals, playing in the water, climbing on logs and boulders.

A handful of small toys and books may be helpful, especially if you get some rain. Keep them together in a small pack or dry bag and pull them out when needed.

Simplify Your Meals

It’s worth the time and effort to organize your meals well before the trip. Put each meal in a separate ziplock and label them so you it’s easy to pull the right meal out of the food pack at the right time.

Use a backpacking camp stove to cook your meals, rather than relying on a campfire. The very young aren’t noted for their patience when they’re hungry! Campfires, while lovely, take much longer to cook over than a camp stove.

When canoeing, keep snacks and water at hand. Consider bringing along special treats your kids don’t get at home often. These can be invaluable for those meltdown times that are almost sure to happen, or even to stave off meltdowns until you reach your campsite or landing.

Dad helps his young daughter fishing from a canoe

Focusing on your children’s experience makes canoe tripping a special memory for all of you (photo courtesy of @five2nine_ca)

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

With young children, the name of the game is flexibility. Sometimes you might even choose to call it a day and cut your trip short, as the Markos did one July 4th weekend.

If the forecast looks daunting, don’t be afraid to cancel or postpone your canoe trip for  more inviting weather. If things are going terribly wrong, it might be a disappointment, but it’s not a failure head for home earlier than planned.

Don’t Do This…

Maura wrote an insightful blog post about what NOT to do on a canoe trip with a toddler: A Toddler’s Tale of Woe. Read her entire article for the details, but here’s the gist:

  • Don’t try to cram too many things in before or after your trip. You, as parent, want to be rested and ready so you’re top-of-game for your kids.
  • Don’t canoe trip with your youngsters when you’re in your third trimester of pregnancy (says Maura). It’s hard enough at home surrounded by the conveniences of modern plumbing and electricity.
  • Don’t prep your kids too soon—it’s likely to get them over-excited.
  • Don’t start too late in the day—campsites in the Boundary Waters are often taken by mid-afternoon. Start in the morning when everyone’s fresh and you have your best chance of finding a great campsite.
  • If you’re a new canoeist, don’t take on big lakes—there’s more wind and bigger waves than smaller ones, and you’ll be on the water longer.
  • Don’t keep your young ones hemmed in: “I think this is where Bobby and I faltered the most on this trip,” says Maura. “Our own exhaustion, need to set up camp, need to cook supper quickly, and so many other things led to us not encouraging Jack to explore, dare, and be himself. We kept trying to contain him, trying to convince him that he should sit with us, read with us, lay down in the tent. All because we were too tired to recognize that what he needed was to burn off some serious energy after a stressful two-hour canoe ride on my lap.”

Nevertheless, Maura and Bobby’s biggest piece of advice? “Do it!”

A baby smiles in the canoe, mom behind with paddle

(photo courtesy of We Found Adventure)

As your kids grow and mature you’ll be able to adapt your canoe trips to what they can handle. As these trips become part of what your family does together, just think of the life lessons you’re teaching them and the memories you’re giving them.

You’ll find all this and more from Maura and Bobby Marko on their website We Found Adventure.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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