Canoe Camping with Kids

Today we welcome Ken Schmaltz to the blog.  He is a dad, a Canadian, an outdoorsmen and a fellow blogger.  I have been asking him for months now to share his stories about canoe camping with his kids (just because I think it sounds like great fun and hope to do it with my family too…as soon as we find a good canoe!)  

I went on my first real canoe expedition at the age of 13, paddling from the headwater of the Columbia River in Canal Flats, British Columbia, to just past its junction with the Kicking Horse River, some 100 miles to the north.

It was a transformative experience, and gave me skills and confidence that I still apply on and off the water.

But I didn’t go from rank beginner to expedition canoeist overnight. Our scout group started in a pool learning strokes and survival skills. Then we practiced those skills on calm, flat water. Then we tried a couple short outings on a river.

Only then did we proceed to our multi-day adventure on the Columbia. And it was a good thing we did all that preparation. I can still remember that first day paddling down Lake Columbia.

We were only half way when the wind picked up, pushing our canoes towards the middle of the lake and forming white caps that soon filled the hulls with an inch or two of frigid water.

Canoe Camping with Kids

These days my main mountain passion is hauling my butt to the top of them rather than paddling past them, but I still take my 8- and 13-year-old boys on an annual overnight canoe trip.

Understandably, I get a lot of questions from parents about how to go about taking kids on an overnight canoe trip. Here’s what I tell them:

Tips for Canoe Camping with Kids

Do it!

The learning curve to go from neophyte to competent beginner isn’t steep, and canoeing is fun. A lot of fun.

It’s also a great way to bond as a family, requiring everyone to work together to reach camp safe, sound and mostly dry.

Be Aware of the Dangers

There are inherent risks to venturing onto the water with nothing but a thin layer of fiberglass separating you from potential dangers that run the gamut from panicking kids to drowning.

And renting a canoe for a couple of hours at a lakeside resort is much different than heading out for weekend with a canoe full of kit and kaboodle.

The most important thing to take with you—even more important than your paddle—is the understanding that safety comes first.

Safety First

Knowing that safety is your number one priority and doing something about it are two very different things.

Plan ahead. Find out what skills you need to learn, what gear you’ll need, and what lakes and rivers near you are suitable for beginning paddlers.

Once you’ve identified likely destinations, research everything from campsites to who to contact in case of an emergency. Or consider a family oriented trip with a professional guide.

Take lessons

What’s a j-stroke, a draw stroke and when you should you use them? What should you do if the canoe tips over? How do you put on the brakes?

You’ll learn the answers to these and other questions in a beginner canoe course. Besides giving you the knowledge to safely take your family on the water, taking canoe lessons will also give you the skills to paddle more efficiently and have more fun on the water.

To find lessons in your area, check with local canoe club and paddling stores.

Take a “dry” run

Okay, not exactly a dry run. Take your family out for a day trip. If you’ll be renting canoes, be sure to rent the same type that you’ll be renting for your weekend trip.

This will give you a chance to familiarize yourself and your family with it, and figure out the best place for everyone to sit. It will also give you a chance to impart some of your newfound paddling knowledge to the kids.

And, most importantly, you’ll quickly find out whether your family is suited to the paddling life or whether you should consider postponing your weekend adventure until next year.

Canoe Camping with Kids

Start easy

Don’t choose a multi-day white water river trip for your first overnight canoe trip.

Start on a lake or flat, slow river on which you don’t need to paddle more than few miles to the campsite.

First, you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of a lake with night coming on. Second, spending a few hours in a canoe with nothing to do is boring for kids.

Bored kids, besides making the usual sounds, like “I’m bored”, are fidgety kids.

And fidgety kids have a tendency to tip things over. Things like canoes.

Pack for comfort

One of the great things about canoeing is that you can bring more gear than if you were backpacking. So go all out (within reason, of course).

Leave the single burner backpacking stove at home and bring the two-burner stove you bring car camping.

Bring comfort food like precooked chili or spaghetti and meatballs.

Pack an extra extra change of clothes for everyone. It’s amazing how wet kids can get, and how a dry change of clothes can be the difference between a fun family adventure and a lesson in why you shouldn’t take kids canoeing.

Having said all this, make sure it all fits in the canoe before you leave home.

Expect to do most of the paddling

You’ll bring paddles for the kids, and the kids may actually stick them in the water and try to paddle, but…you’ll be doing most of the paddling.

Young arms, shoulders and backs just don’t have the strength or stamina to propel a fully loaded canoe very far.

Paddling for more than five minutes is also boring by its very nature. Accept this, and you’ll save yourself—and your kids—needless grief and frustration.

Canoe Camping with Kids

Have fun

After safety, this is the most important thing to remember. Otherwise, what’s the point? And kids that have fun canoeing are more likely to want to go again.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Make sure everyone goes to the bathroom before they get into the canoe. This, and wearing life jackets at all times, is non-negotiable.

Ken Schmaltz is executive director of Crossing the Divide Experience, a non-profit that takes disadvantaged youth into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It only took a couple of years of hiking, canoeing and snowshoeing, but his 13- and 8-year-old sons now describe themselves as “outdoorsy people”. You can find reports of their adventures at

© 2013, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.


  • Amelia lives with her husband and five young children outside of Jackson, WY in Grand Teton National Park. As a mom, she quickly learned that the secret to sanity was to spend more time outside where tantrums don't see quite so bad. Amelia started TMM in 2012 to help encourage all families (including her own) to get outside, no matter the weather. Due to the necessity of having to keep so many kids warm and happy, she has become an expert in kids' gear and loves being able to share it with others.

    View all posts

5 thoughts on “Canoe Camping with Kids”

    • Paul, a flat water canoe with minimal rocker on the keel so you aren’t zig zagging all over the lakes. At MEC, something like the Nova Craft Falcon 16′, Old Town Tripper 172, Nova Craft Prospector…I think they all come in different hull materials of varying durability and cost. You can talk to the sales people about what length would be best for how much stuff/people you’ll be carrying.

  1. Hi Ken, thanks a lot for these tips. It comes really handy.
    I’ve been kayaking for a lot time now and this past summer we made our first family camping night. My wife and daughter liked it, so I’m really interested in doing this type of camping while traveling on canoes.
    Your advice is greatly appreciated!

    • Nice video Ken I really want to try that type of camping but do you recommend any good spots to canoe and a good type of life jacket for canoeing. I’m looking forward to take my two boy’s out canoe camping. I hope you post some new stuff soon.


Leave a Comment