How to go boating with babies and toddlers
I love the water. From competitive rowing and coaching, to stand-up paddle boarding, whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and even just lazy-river tubing; some of my fondest memories are of sun-soaked days on the river. Boating with babies and toddlers adds a few more complications than just filling the cooler up and heading out, but it’s still a perfect way to spend time outside together.
It was no surprise that after we had a child, we wanted to introduce him to the river right away! (After all, his name is River.) His first float trip in our raft was at just 3 months old.
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The very first time we went out, we planned a short 4-mile float on the Colorado River, a mellow stretch of water we knew well. Of course, as soon as we pushed off from bank of the river, cue the screaming that everyone for a 10-mile radius could hear.
The truth of every river trip is that once you kick off, there’s no going back upstream! We just forged ahead and he calmed down after 10 eternally long minutes.
Since that first voyage together, we’ve learned through trial and error, what we need to do to have a successful day with our kid on the water.
Tips to help you get started boating with kids
Start with small boating trips
Head out on a lake first, where you can come back to shore if needed. On a river, plan for a shorter float the first time out.
Always better to start shorter and leave them wanting more! Build up trips in length, so your child can learn what is expected of them in an unfamiliar environment.
There’s no set age for when you can get on the water with your child, as long as they have a good life jacket that fits. We started our son at just a few months old. It’s more important that YOU are comfortable on the water first.
Honestly, when they are really little, the motion of the water can actually help them to sleep better. Our little guy took the best naps on boats!
Start baby swim lessons from a young age (most swim centers start around 6 months). Learning to be comfortable in the water is a big bonus, and learning to float from a young age may save their life.
Life jackets for kids
Always require your child to wear a life jacket (this post will help you choose the best one!) It’s called a life preserver for a reason! 77% of fatal boating accidents are from drowning. Don’t become a statistic in the name of looking cool or being more “comfortable.”
Model good behavior for your child and wear YOUR life jacket. Even if you are a good swimmer, you can still drown, especially if you are boating on a river or lake with very cold water.
Getting a baby into a life jacket can be a real struggle. Practice makes everything easier, so have your child practice wearing the life jacket and taking it on and off them at home. That will decrease their discomfort on the water, when you are first getting started (and was our big mistake that first time out).
Need help getting your child to wear their life jacket? Check out more of our tips.
Get the right gear for boating
Wear your sunglasses, sunscreen, or consider wearing a sun shirt. With sunscreen, slather it on liberally and reapply every hour or two. You burn faster when light reflects off the water, including under your sunhat!
Stay in Your Comfort Zone
Stick to water that you are comfortable with, that you can navigate with no issues. If it’s a big lake, are you comfortable with the distance to shore, and the amount of boating wake? If it’s a river, is the current fast? Are there lots of portages or obstacles to navigate?
Rapids are fine, just be sure YOU are comfortable, can keep your boat upright, and are able swim in it and retrieve your child if they fall out (never tie them in – they could get pulled under). Maybe avoid bigger whitewater (class III+) with little kids, or at least until they are strong swimmers.
Make rules for the river
Lay down some boundaries about the water early on. Teach them to never get in the water unless you are there and say it’s ok. That can help you avoid them jumping into fast rivers, off the edge of the pool, or into deep end of lakes.
Never take an eye off them. Partner with someone if you can, or teach them to “help” you with tasks, so you always have a set of eyes on them. It’s hard, but kids will always do the craziest things (like fall in the water) when your back is turned.
If you are planning on stand-up paddleboarding or canoeing, teach your child (preferably on shore first) to remain seated. This makes a huge difference in your stability. I tell my kid that if he’s not sitting, we are not going.
Before you go boating
Be sure to check the weather before you go and know the forecast. If thunder/lightning is in the forecast, as it frequently is in the summer, plan to get off the water early and keep a sharp eye on the sky for cloud buildup.
If you are using an inflatable paddleboard, ducky, or raft, try to inflate it before you leave home if you can transport it that way. Getting on the water quickly can make a world of difference in your child’s mood, and inflating paddleboards and rafts can be a process on the riverbank.
As with all outdoor activities, don’t force it. If you get to the water and your kid is just having a rough day, it’s ok to throw in the towel and head home. We have done this more than once, and have never regretted it.
What to pack for a day on the river or lake
Like all outdoor adventures, snacks and a little preparation are the key to a successful day out. Pack snacks in a dry bag or cooler to avoid river contamination. Make sure your food can withstand hot temperatures (no mayo) if you’ll be out for a while.
Be sure to get a style approved by the USCG that fits your child’s weight, and with head support for infants. Most come with a handle, which can help you get them back in a boat if they fall out. Never underestimate how much a wet kid will weigh!
Water safety gear
Don’t forget your regular boat safety gear like a throw rope and extra paddle.
Have enough to hold everything you need to keep dry: diapers, snacks, dry layers, etc. We like these Watershed Drybags!
Dry bag or float for your keys
There’s literally nothing worse than losing your keys in the water. (I’ve lost mine more times than I’d like to admit.) Clip them to a dry bag with a carabiner, or use a key float. This cork style float is the most buoyant for heavier car keys.
It can get hot on a river or lake with no shade, and your family can get dehydrated in a hurry, so pack lots of extra water. I advise securing it to the boat with a carabiner, since those water bottles can roll around, so bring a kind with a loop top to attach it. (You do NOT want to lose your water!) These are our favorite water bottles for kids.
Sunscreen and chapstick with SPF
Sunscreen is a MUST on the water. Don’t forget you’ll burn faster with the UV rays reflecting off the surface of the water. Re-apply every hour or two. Don’t forget the tops of your feet, so you don’t get a Z-shaped Chaco burn. We recommend these sunscreen brands for families.
Don’t forget to protect your lips too – burnt lips are awful (ask me how I know!) While there are many choices out there, this is chapstick with SPF we prefer.
Rash guard/sun shirt
We love sun shirts because, unlike sunscreen, they don’t wash off in the water, and you can’t miss a spot when you apply it!
Extra warm layers
This seems strange to pack on a warm day, but your little ones can get cold more easily than you can. If there’s a breeze or if the water is very cold (all the mountain rivers we’ve ever been on are pretty frigid), your kids will get cold quickly. Think long-sleeve wool baselayers, or an extra quick-dry sun shirt.
Board shorts, quick dry capris, a swim skirt, or a good swimsuit are all great for the river or lake. Just make sure it is something that is lightweight and will dry quickly, in case you or your kids take an accidental dip in the drink.
Moms need swim gear too! Check out our favorite recommendations for Moms.
Brimmed sun hat
Preferably one that covers the neck and has a cinch to keep it on, even when your little one is bent over, looking for crawdads. These are the hats we recommend for kids.
Sunglasses with keepers
Sunglasses should preferably polarized to cut down on glare from the water. Chums make the most ubiquitous sunglass keepers, but there are lots of comfortable options out there. Babiators also make a version for their sunglasses. This post will help you choose the best sunglasses for your kids.
Water shoes with a heel strap
Skip the flip flops – they can break or fall off in a current. We prefer a water shoe or sandal with toe coverage for the kids, to help keep their toes protected when in a rocky lake or river.
Extra clothes and towels
Bring a set of dry clothes and towels to leave in the car for after your float so you don’t get your seats all wet. PackTowels are excellent to absorb a lot of water, dry in a snap! If you are floating with your pup, don’t forget a towel to wipe mud off their paws.
This seems silly when you’re on the river, but rain happens! It’s likely to be cloudy and cool off if it starts raining, and being cold and wet in a boat is no fun. Being prepared can also help prevent hypothermia if the weather turns, so just stash a set of rain gear away in a dry bag.
Cooler or insulated bag for food
It can get HOT on the water with no shade. Keep your food protected and cool if it can turn bad easily. Our raft has a custom cooler to fit in the frame, but a Yeti Roadside Cooler will fit nicely into a canoe, or a soft drybag Ice Mule backpack-style cooler can be carried easily on a kayak or paddleboard deck. Consider using ice packs instead of ice to keep meltwater down with soft coolers.
No day on the river is complete for kids without some water toys! Think bath squirt toys and water guns for maximum splashing. These Stream Machines can shoot water FAR (perfect for water fights if you have multiple boats) and hold up to some abuse.
Buckets, shovels, and little nets for catching crawdads can be perfect for shore excursions.
If you like fishing, pack your gear and teach the kids! Be sure to check licensing requirements in your area – in some areas only adults are required to have a license. If you don’t fish, you can also pack some play poles for the kids to pretend with.
If you’re in a bigger boat, think about packing camp chairs for shore lunch. Some shorelines can be pretty rocky or brushy, and it’s hard to find a comfy spot to sit and relax! We love these camp chairs for the whole family.
Cell phone or satellite device
Cell phones and water don’t mix, but it’s important to have a way to call for help in an emergency. Protect it with a waterproof case, or put it in a dry bag that can attach to your boat or life jacket.
Satellite messengers are excellent for rivers or lakes with no cell coverage, and can allow you to text loved ones or call for help in an emergency. We like the Garmin InReach Mini for it’s compact size and huge functionality.
Practice Makes Awesome When Boating with Babies and Toddlers
Doing something new, especially with small children, can be a challenge. In my house, we say “Practice makes Awesome.” It’s true; the more you practice getting out on the water with your kids, the easier it is!
Expect to have some bad days, tantrums about wearing a lifejacket, and losing things in the water. But don’t let those setbacks deter you. With practice, boating, tubing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, or canoeing can be an awesome summer activity to share with your kids.
- Best Tips to Get Kids to Wear a Life Jacket
- Best Kids Life Jackets and How to Choose
- 6 Best Sunglasses for Kids
- The Best Sun Hats for Kids
- The Best Water Shoes for Kids
- Natural Sunscreen for Families
How to go boating with kids
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