Kayaking With Kids: A Practical Guide For Parents Of Paddlers-To-Be

I’m guessing nothing would make you happier than to catch a glimpse of that oh-so-familiar love of paddling in your child’s eyes. Oh, imagine all the adventures you could have as a family! The mere thought of it probably makes your heart smile. But as a parent, you have to ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

I’m guessing nothing would make you happier than to catch a glimpse of that oh-so-familiar love of paddling in your child’s eyes.

Oh, imagine all the adventures you could have as a family!

The mere thought of it probably makes your heart smile.

But as a parent, you have to wonder:

Where should we go? How do I keep them safe? What should I pack? How do I make this a fun-filled bonding experience? 

I’ve been there – and I’ve prepared some handy tips to make sure kayaking with kids for the first time goes as smoothly as possible!

Kayaking With Kids 101: What Parents Must Know Before Kayaking With A Child

two young kids kayaking wearing swimming goggles

Tip #1: Planning, Planning, Planning: Know The When & Where 

You have to plan the entire trip, check the weather, know the locations and alternative routes, and have emergency contacts on hand. Oh, and a first aid kit.

It’s your job to pack lunch, find a spot to eat it before everyone gets cranky, and know where and when you can take bathroom breaks. Then, it’s up to you to keep the kids entertained in hopes of avoiding melt-downs.

And don’t you dare forget their favorite toys!

I could go on – but I think I made my point.

Kayaking Location

Unless you’re a highly experienced paddler, you want to stick to calm waters – think small lakes, slow-moving rivers, and bays – with little to no waves or wind. Even if you have years of kayaking under your belt, it’s better to take it easy.

So, watch their confidence grow, and their skills improve on calm waters near the shore. You’ll know when it’s time to hit more adventurous waters, such on the ocean sea kayaking.

Top tip – use our free interactive map to find the best kayaking location near you.

Duration Of The Trip

Most kids have the attention span akin to fireworks – dynamic, vibrant, and bursting with energy but short-lived and fleeting. 

The older the kids, the more time you can spend kayaking. Still, it’s best not to overdo it with long and tiring trips that will overwhelm your child:

Start small – 15 to 30 minutes of paddling followed by a quick break is a great starting point – and work your way up from there. One advantage of shorter kayaking trips is that there’s less chance of your child getting bored and restless. 

Plan Your Route & Outline Expectations

You’d plan your route when going on adults-only outings. So, why should kayaking with a child be any different? 

If anything, having a float plan backed by reliable information becomes even more critical when kayaking with kids.

Make sure your planned route accounts for:

  • Previous experience and familiarity with the area
  • Bathroom breaks
  • Sight-seeing opportunities in the area
  • Walking distance from the car to the put-in spot
  • Wildlife encounters
  • Unforeseen circumstances and emergencies

It’s essential to inform all participating adults about the trip’s details, but older kids might want to be included, too. It might help develop a sense of responsibility in younger paddlers.

As for very young children and toddlers, stick to brief, age-appropriate summaries, general descriptions of the trip, and location-specific safety considerations.

Weather & Water Conditions

As you’re making plans for your trip, be sure to check the weather forecast and know what to expect – and then check again on the day of your kayaking excursion.

If there’s any chance of rain or strong wind, it’s best to postpone your trip. Kids will have a much better time on the water on a warm, sunny day

Checking the water conditions is another vital aspect of planning a trip and taking your kids kayaking for the first time. Gather information about the tides, currents, know your route well, and check for boat traffic in the area.

Bonus Tip: Adult-To-Child Ratio

If you only recently started getting into kayaking, now’s probably not the time to bring your kids along. Beginner paddlers should never take kids on the water – at least not without an experienced kayaker to accompany you.

Also, watch out for the adults-to-kids ratio:

You should always aim to have one adult for every child in your kayaking group until you’re confident in all paddlers’ skills and experience, including kids. 

Tip #2: Safety Above All Else: Essential Safety Gear For Kayaking With Kids 

Kayaking can be dangerous, especially if poorly prepared. Talk to your child about on-the-water safety, explain what rules apply when you’re on the kayak, and make sure they’re fully aware of what kayaking entails.

Don’t even think about taking your kids kayaking before you’ve had that talk.

Then, enforce the rules and lead by example; this will help keep everyone safe and develop good kayaking habits for the future

Your safety gear checklist should always include:

PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

Stearns Child Classic Series Vest

Wearing a PFD whenever you’re participating in on-the-water activities is a no-exceptions rule for everyone onboard – kids and adults. Plus, it’s required by law.

Opt for a U.S Coast Guard-approved PFD designed for kids, and make sure to get the sizing right. If it doesn’t fit them right, it defeats the purpose of wearing one. On that note, avoid buying larger PFDs that kids will “grow into.”

PFDs for kids are generally categorized based on the child’s size and weight range:

  • Infants – Less than 33 pounds
  • Children – 33 to 55 pounds
  • Youth – 55 to 88 pounds

Lines & Floats

Zixar Water Rescue Throw Bag 

It’s a good idea to include line and float bags on your kayaking gear list – For instance, plain rope allows you to tow a younger paddler’s kayak when they’re too tired to continue. On the other hand, lines with flotation devices attached can be used in rescue situations, provided that they’re combined with safety techniques.

Each adult in your kayaking group should have access to: 

  • Paddle floats
  • A throw bag
  • Tow lines

Additional Safety Gear

First Aid Kit,Professional Waterproof Premium Nylon First Aid Bag

Besides PFDs for every family member and lines and floats for the adult portion of your kayaking group, you want to pack the following must-have kayaking accessories:

  • A first aid kit with Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, sterile gauze, hydrogen peroxide, hydrocortisone cream, and the like
  • A clip-on light
  • An emergency whistle attached to the PFD
  • A charged phone stored in a dry bag

Set Some Ground Rules 

You want your kids to have fun kayaking with you; having a bored-out-of-their-mind toddler on board is bound to cut your trip short.

But safety should always come first. You can’t hit the waters without setting some non-negotiable ground rules first, including:

  • Life jackets to be worn at all times, for as long as you stay on the water.
  • No standing in the kayak.
  • No fooling around, leaning, or reaching out of the kayak.
  • No jumping in and out of the kayak without permission.
  • A kayak paddles are not a toy and should only be used for paddling, not as a play pretend sword or fighting staff.

Tip #3: What Else To Pack For A Day On The Water? 

Banana Boat Ultra Sport Reef Friendly Sunscreen Lotion

Packing for an afternoon kayaking adventure with kids is, more or less, similar to packing for an adults-only trip. How old – or young – your “crew” is doesn’t make as much of a difference as you’d expect. 

Be sure to add the following to your kayaking-with-kids checklist:

  • Your kid’s favorite snacks, preferably something high in protein, such as nuts and dried fruits, rather than sweets 
  • Water bottles; lead by example and make an effort to drink enough water 
  • Spare clothes and towels – for you and the kids – in a dry bag, just in case 
  • Sun protection; including sunscreen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and a canopy if you’re kayaking with a baby 
  • Rain weather gear, including a raincoat or poncho and waterproof rain boots 
  • Water shoes; kayaking shoes or closed-toe, quick-dry sandals with rubber soles and heel straps 
  • Toilet paper, wipes, and other bathroom supplies depending on how old your child is 
  • Camera, preferably a waterproof and impact-resistant one, with a wrist strap or some other way to secure it 

You know your kids best; add to your list of boating essentials as you go. 

Tip #4: “Selling” The Trip To Your Kids: Keep It Fun, But…

GoFloats 'Great White Bite' Shark Party Tube Inflatable Raft

Fun is what gets them “hooked.”

However, there’s a fine line between keeping everyone safe and letting them enjoy their day on the water at their own pace.

That’s where the following tips might come in handy:

  • Explain the dangers without scaring your child and keep the emphasis on safety; you want them to understand the rules and consequences without ruining the fun
  • Take some time to practice safety drills in shallow waters and make sure your child knows what to do if you capsize
  • Make them feel included in the planning stages and talk about the trip in a way that sparks your child’s interest
  • Teach as you go, encourage them to ask questions, explain things in a simple, age-appropriate way, and see how well they can follow your instructions. Remember every child will have a different learning curve, be patient. 
  • Keep the initial paddling sessions short and near the shore, and take frequent breaks for swimming, sight-seeing, and playtime
  • Bring inflatable toys, pool floats, and whatever else “water-friendly” entertainment you can think of 

Know When To Call It A Day 

As much as you hope to kill two birds with one stone and squeeze in a paddling workout into your family outing, you’re risking “ruining” it for everyone. Drop your agenda; you’re there to bond and make lifelong memories!

When the fun stops, you stop, simple as that.

That said, a quick break is sometimes enough to get everything back on track. So, when the melt-downs start, put that tow rope to good use and take over for the time being.

There’s still a chance you might save the day.

But if not, it’s better to call it a day than to force things. 

Tip #5: Special Considerations: Kayaking With A Baby On Board 

My son was ten months old the first time I brought him onboard my kayak. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my decision – it’s viewed as “controversial” – but I have experience kayaking with a baby on board. 

And yes, it can be done.

Toddlers First Kayak Trip

If you’re considering kayaking with a toddler, there are some rules you must follow, including:

Family-Friendly Boats: What’s The Best Kayak Type For Kayaking With Kids? 

father and son kayaking as a family

Sit-In Or Sit-On-Top? 

Some enjoy the open deck, convenience, and beginner-friendly nature of sit-on-top kayaks. And others go with sit-in kayaks because of their efficiency, handling, and ability to keep you dry in challenging conditions.

Every paddler has some preferences in this regard. 

But since you’ll be kayaking with a child, you may want to put those sit-in or sit-on-top kayak preferences aside for a second – welcome to parenting – and think about what’s best for them.

I’d generally recommend a sit-on-top kayak for kayaking with children:

The wide and open deck will make the kayak feel like a floating platform built for fun. And if you let the kids jump into the water for a quick swim, it’ll be much easier for them to hop back onto a SOT kayak, too. Ideally, kayaks built for rivers or a kayak for use on lakes.

But if your child is a bit more skilled or feels safer in an enclosed cockpit, then, by all means, go with a sit-inside style ‘yak, such as ocean-going sea kayaks.

Single Or Tandem? 

Duffing – or sitting in the kayak’s middle seat without actively participating in paddling – is an excellent starting point for young paddlers. They’re not learning how to paddle, but they’re still getting a lesson in being on the water.

If you’re kayaking with a toddler and the kayak’s capacity allows it, you might get away with hitting the waters in a single-person kayak.

For kids between the ages of 3 to 5, you’ll want to upgrade to a tandem. Remember that kids should always sit in the front of the tandem; the parent should take the back seat, steering the kayak. 

And as a rule of thumb, children under the age of 7 or 8 should share a tandem kayak with an adult paddler – but can actively participate in paddling as bow paddlers. This is a great opportunity to start teaching a kid proper paddling technique.

However, if you plan to go paddling with your partner and child, a tandem kayak is probably going to be too small. I personally advise purchasing a kayak that can fit three people so that everyone has enough room.

Make sure to check out review for some excellent recommendations on the best 3-person kayak.

I’d wait until they’re at least ten years old before allowing them to switch to a small single-person kayak designed for kids.

Kids Kayaks: How To Choose The Right One

young child solo kayaking in kids kayaks

That’s a pretty significant milestone for your little one – and a proud moment for you – and you want to be sure you picked the best kids kayak for the job:

  • A shorter hull – measuring 6 to 8 feet on average – generally makes for a more kids-friendly kayak
  • Kids’ kayaks are usually categorized based on weight and height ratings; make sure you get the sizing right
  • Factor in growth and leave some “wiggle room” when it comes to the kayak’s load capacity
  • Go with a wider beam and a flat-bottom or pontoon-style hull with a reverse chine, as this adds to the kayak’s stability

Let’s Talk Age, Skills & Stamina: When Can You Let Them Paddle Solo? 

You know your child better than anyone; you’ll likely be the best judge of whether they’re ready to hit the waters solo in their own kayak. 

Teaching kids to kayak

But to do that, you have to be realistic about your child’s abilities, skills, experience, stamina; everything that may or may not make them a good paddler.

If you’re having a hard time deciding if you should let your child paddle solo, you might want to consider the following:

  • Is your child a good swimmer?
  • Are they comfortable being on the water on their own?
  • Does your child have any previous kayaking experience?
  • How familiar are they with basic rules of on-the-water safety?
  • Do they need kayaking lessons?
  • Do they know how to perform a wet exit, self-rescue, and re-entry?
  • Will they be strong enough to “right” their kayak?
  • Does your child have the skills and stamina to handle longer paddling trips?
  • Are there any laws and regulations that might prevent them from paddling solo?

Inflatable Kayak Or Hard-Shell? 

Inflatable or kayak or hard-shell is a question that has less to do with your kids – and more with the logistics of owning, storing, and transporting a kayak.

Take a second to consider the following:

Are the children old enough to help with some of the gear while you handle the kayak? How will you transport the kayak? 

Where do you plan on storing it?

What if you drop a lot of cash on a two-person hard-shell, and then your kids suddenly decide they don’t like kayaking, after all? 

Sometimes inflatable kayaks make a lot more sense for your family. Their compact, portable, beginner- and budget-friendly nature eliminates most – if not all – obstacles that might otherwise prevent you from ever going kayaking with kids. 

What NOT To Do When Kayaking With Kids 

sign showing message; what not to do when kayaking with kids

There’s a fair amount of “DO’s” – rules and recommendations for parents kayaking with a child – covered in this guide.

It’s about time I added a few “DON’Ts” and completed the picture, huh?

With that in mind, here’s what not to do when kayaking with kids:

  • DON’T leave your child strapped into a car seat when onboard a kayak; their little PFD won’t be able to handle the added weight if you capsize.
  • DON’T overestimate your child’s physical abilities; kayaking requires a lot of strength and endurance that younger paddlers might not have.
  • DON’T take your kids out on the water if you’re new to paddling and don’t have strong paddling skills.
  • DON’T take any unnecessary risks that might put you – and your kids – in a potentially dangerous scenario.
  • DON’T force your kids to try paddling solo if you can tell they’re not physically or emotionally ready for it; give them time.
  • DON’T take your kids kayaking if they’re too young to understand essential safety rules, can’t sit still, don’t have an appropriately sized life jacket and don’t know how to stay afloat.
  • DON’T head out on the water without a towing system if your child gets too tired or too bored to continue paddling.

Kayaking With Kids: Conclusion

Kids might not love kayaking for the same reasons that you do – and that’s perfectly fine.

There will be days when they’ll be more into collecting funny-looking rocks at the launch spot or splashing their siblings than actually getting into the kayak.

And that’s okay, too.

You want to go kayaking with kids because you want to spend time with your little ones, make lifelong memories, and make it a bonding experience for the whole family.

And if they happen to fall in love with kayaking and being on the water the same way you did, even better.

But if not, you still had a wonderful time together – hopefully, with a little help from this guide – and that’s what matters most.

Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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