Family Kayaking: Choosing a Family Kayak

As we slowly move into warmer weather, I’ve been getting the itch to dust off the kayak and plan some family time on the water. My boys (especially my not-quite 4-year-old) have really taken to kayaking and it has become a favorite family activity for us. Not only do you get all the benefits of being out in nature (more on those benefits in this post on why nature is good for you), but you get to spend quality time as a family, making memories that will stick with your children.

It’s also an excellent exercise for anyone paddling or hauling the kayak, which will be evident by the sore muscles you experience following the first few outings of the season! One of the benefits I hadn’t counted on was the lessons in resilience when dealing with mishaps (like capsizing or paddling through rougher patches) and problem-solving skills needed to push through (like maneuvering through river debris and switching routes when your planned one is blocked). My kiddos have taken these skills into other aspects of their young lives, which has been fun to watch!

You can learn more about getting out on the water with your family in this guide on how to start kayaking with kids. In this post, we go over how to choose a kayak for your family and give our top 10 kayak picks for family kayaking so you can hit the water and start reaping the benefits of kayaking as a family. 

A family kayaking on a river in a mountainous area using Lifetime Recruit Youth kayaks

As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we earn from qualifying purchases.

When Can a Child Start Kayaking?

Coast Guard Safety Guidelines

While it will depend on the child, here are some general guidelines from the U.S. Coast Guard to help you decide if your kids are ready to join you in the kayak:

  1. A child should weigh at least 18 pounds.
  2. They must be able to wear a snug-fitting Personal Flotation Device.
  3. Your child should be able to sit still in the kayak (this generally happens between the ages of 2 and 5 depending on maturity level).
  4. They can float on the water by themselves.

Positions in the Kayak for a Child

When you have children in your kayak, there are two main spots they can sit. Most little kayakers start as duffers, which means they will sit in the center compartment of the kayak (generally between or right in front of an adult’s legs).

As they get older and are more capable of sitting still and helping to paddle, they can sit in the bow (front) seat in a double kayak and either ride or practice their paddling skills with you.  If your kiddo is helping to paddle, I suggest getting a kid-sized paddle (like this one), which will be shorter, lighter, and easier for them to learn with.

Are Your Kids Ready to Paddle Solo?

The paddling and swimming abilities along with maturity levels of children can vary widely, so the age at which they are ready to go it alone will depend. Some kids are ready as early as 3 or 4 years old, while others prefer to wait until they are closer to age 8 or 9. Just be sure to start them in calm waters and stay close by to offer guidance and prevent panic.

Bring along a tow line to provide extra support when kayaking together (those little arms can get tired quickly!) Over time and with more practice, they will be able to go for longer distances and periods of time before needing a break.

A child paddling a Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak on a river near mountains

Kayaking Safety

Choosing the Right PFD

Before you hit the water, be sure everyone (not just the kiddos) has a well-fitting personal flotation device (PFD) that is Coast Guard Approved (if you’re in the United States). Also, check the sizing to be sure it’s appropriate for your child’s current weight. Keep in mind that cheaper PFDs tend to ride up and get in the way, so investing in a higher-quality vest that lasts and keeps your kids comfortable can make the experience that much more fun!

Check out this guide to choosing the right life jacket for your child. It’s full of tips and recommendations for brands our kids love.

A child paddling a Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak on a river in a mountainous landscape wearing a life jacket, hat, and sunglasses

Safety Gear to Have on Hand

As with any outdoor adventure (especially when kids are involved), you’ll want to be equipped with the gear you’ll need in case something goes awry. For kayaking, this includes a tow line (especially when traveling with multiple kayaks), paddle floats (to assist in re-entry), a throw bag (to pull in a capsized paddler), a kayak repair kit, and a first aid kit. Check out this post for more information on these safety items along with brand recommendations.

Sharing Safety Expectations with Children

Practicing safety protocols with your kids is key to ensuring that they stay safe and know what to do in case of an emergency. Go over the rules multiple times and have them repeat them back to you. For example, no standing, horseplay, or leaning out of the kayak. Explain why these actions are dangerous. I had to physically demonstrate what could happen by doing them myself for it to sink in for my oldest.

Practice capsizing and re-entering the kayak in calm waters. This helps prevent panic and keeps them safe should they experience these events while out on the water. Check out this post for more information and precautions to take when preparing your kids for kayaking adventures.

Three children paddling Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayaks in green, pink, and blue along a river wearing life jackets.

How to Choose a Family Kayak

Sit-in vs. Sit-on-top

Unless you are an experienced kayaker, I recommend getting a sit-on-top kayak to start, especially with children. They are less likely to capsize, and easier to bail out of if they do (which means less panic from everyone involved!) They are generally more stable, and easier to exit and re-enter should you want to take swim breaks.

Rigid vs Inflatable Kayaks

Both rigid and inflatable kayaks have their pros and cons. Rigid kayaks are heavy, more expensive, and harder to store, but they require less set-up and track better through the water.

On the other hand, inflatable kayaks can be tedious to set up and are generally not suitable for rough water, but they can be stored away easily, are lightweight, and are easier to repair.

Check out this graphic if you need some help deciding which would work better for your family.

Single or Double Family Kayak

This decision will rely mainly on your child’s age, size, and abilities. A small child who is simply along for the ride can fit nicely into a single kayak with an adult. Once they get a bit older, you may want to consider a tandem kayak so they can practice their paddling skills.

A 2-person kayak also works well if you have two paddling adults and a child in the middle or multiple children in one kayak with you. Generally speaking, you can get more bang for your buck with a tandem kayak since it can grow with your child as they develop their skills.

Weight Capacity

It’s important to keep an eye on the weight capacity of your kayak. You would be surprised how quickly you approach that maximum weight when you take into account the weight of the people onboard, the gear they are wearing, and any gear you plan to take with you. Exceeding the maximum weight capacity could cause the kayak to capsize, lose stability, and decrease performance on the water.

Recreational vs. Specialized

Not all kayaks are created equal. Taking into account your intended use can take some of the guesswork out of deciding which one works best for your family. For example, if you plan to stick to lakes, coastal bays, and slow-moving rivers, a standard recreational kayak will work nicely.

If you want to have the option to fish from your kayak, you may want to look for one with specialized options, such as fishing rod holders and supportive seating. If you plan to tackle whitewater, you’ll want a kayak that can maneuver the rapids and provide the paddler with stabilization for tackling the rough waters.

A man paddling an Intex Excursion Pro K2 Kayak along a coastal Bay
Some Kayaks can be Single or Double and have Specialized Features for Fishing

10 Best Family Kayaks

Choosing a kayak can be a daunting task. With so many kayaks on the market, it can be tough to choose which one will work best for your family. Here we have listed our top 10 family kayaks split into three categories: Inflatable, rigid, and youth-sized.

We’ve taken some of the guesswork out by listing all the specs along with the pros and cons for each kayak, and included options at different price points to help you make an informed decision. Because choosing a destination is so much more fun than worrying about whether you chose the right kayak!

Family Kayaks: Inflatables

Inflatable kayaks are convenient for several reasons. They pack down small so you can store and transport them easily. They are lighter, which is great if you are flying solo with your kiddos on a family adventure. They also tend to be cheaper than rigid kayaks, yet still durable enough for years of use. Here are some of our favorite inflatable options for fun family kayaking.

NRS Tributary Tomcat Tandem

This kayak is a favorite among the TMM team. They are now made with even more durable abrasion and tear-resistant materials to hold up against rough waters and river debris. With three main air chambers for safety and a self-bailing floor, the Tributary Tomcat is a great entry-level kayak with high-performance features at a reasonable price.


  • Price: $1,139
  • Design: 2-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (L x W): 12’6” x 38.5”
  • Weight: 44 Pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 500 Pounds
  • Paddle Included? No
  • Fun Features: Adjustable seats, 18 pairs of cargo loops
The NRS Tributary Tomcat Tandem Kayak

Pros: The seats are adjustable and there is tons of room. It can be used as a solo kayak with plenty of room for gear. It’s easy to fold up and store, it’s lightweight, and comes with a repair kit.

Cons: Not much other than it doesn’t come with a pump, paddle, or carrying bag included.

“We love that it is easy to store, has enough room for two adults and a couple of kids, tracks fairly well for river runs, and is easy enough to pick up and move around.”

– TMM Founder Amelia Mayer
A man with three children in an NRS Tributary Tomcat Tandem kayak paddling along a river

Intex Excursion Pro 2-Person Kayak

If you’re looking for a very affordable entry-level family kayak with all the bells and whistles included, look no further than the Intex Excursion Pro K2. This is a great place to start for families since the kayak is large enough for two adults and a child or an adult and two children plus gear. Plus, with everything included in one package, you won’t have to purchase anything extra to get started.


  • Price: $297
  • Design: 2-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (L x W x H): 12’7” x 37” x 18”
  • Weight: 47 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 400 pounds
  • Paddle Included? Yes, 2 86-inch Aluminum paddles
  • Fun Features: Integrated fishing rod holders, booster pad for elevated seating
Intex Excursion Pro K2 Kayak

Pros: Very budget-friendly while still including everything you need including a pump, pressure gauge, two paddles, mounting brackets for fishing accessories, two skegs, a repair kit, and a carrying bag.

Cons: Footrests are a bit uncomfortable and difficult to adjust and the seats become uncomfortable over long periods. It has a lower weight capacity compared to other kayaks.

“I love how portable this kayak is and that I can carry it and handle it solo. I also like that you can customize the seat positioning to allow for a single or double kayaking experience. It’s super affordable, which makes this a great option for beginners.”

– TMM Team Member Rebecca Hosley
A woman with two small children in an Intex Excursion Pro K2 Inflatable Kayak paddling along a coastal bay

Driftsun Rover 220 Inflatable Kayak

For families who enjoy rougher waters, the Driftsun Rover 220 can handle class III and IV rapids with both speed and control. For calmer waters, the detachable rear skeg improves tracking performance for smooth family kayaking. As a nice bonus, the paddles, pump, and carrying bag are included, so you can hit the river or lake without needing to purchase extra gear.


  • Price: $850
  • Design: 2-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (L x W x H): 12’6” x 38” x 13”
  • Weight: 28 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 600 pounds
  • Paddle included? Yes, 2 adjustable aluminum paddles.
  • Fun Features: Front action camera mount
Driftsun Rover 220 Inflatable Kayak

Pros: Very lightweight, and the rugged, layered PVS construction is super durable and abrasion resistant. It’s white-water friendly with 8 drain holes and spray skirts to keep out excess water. The seats and footrests are comfortable, and everything you need to get started is included in one package

Cons: There is a lack of cargo space, and a repair kit is not included.

ISLE Switch Inflatable Kayak/SUP Hybrid (single or double seat)

For adventurous families who like to switch things up, this 2-in-1 kayak and SUP is a great option. It’s lightweight with an impressive weight capacity, and yet it is supremely stable on the water. The abundance of attachment points allows you to customize the seats in kayak mode or load your gear in various configurations.


  • Price: $995
  • Design: 1 or 2-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (L x W x H): 11.6’ x 35.5” x 6”
  • Weight: 19 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 425 pounds
  • Paddle Included? Yes, 1 adjustable paddle
  • Fun Features: Doubles as a SUP, tons of attachment points
Isle Switch Inflatable Kayak/SUP Hybrid

Pros: You get a 2 for 1, so you can change it up based on your desired adventure. It’s very light, yet still very stable, which comes in handy with fidgety children. The paddle can switch between SUP and Kayak mode, and there are Velcro straps for the paddle, which makes carrying it to and from the water much easier. It comes with a generously sized carrying backpack that can fit everything. The seat is pretty comfortable for longer excursions.

Cons: There are lots of moving parts, especially if you are using it in kayak mode. It is time-consuming to inflate using the included hand pump.

“We tested this one out last summer. It’s a cool concept but it’s a LOT of moving parts with the seats and the straps and the paddles…plus it’s a huge SUP that has to be inflated. I think if you had older kids who could do all this work it would be a sweet setup but for me it was a little cumbersome.”

– TMM Team Member Sarah Toal

Family Kayak: Rigids

While rigid kayaks don’t store nearly as easily as inflatable options, they require little to no prep and are generally rugged enough for whatever the water throws at you. Here are some great family-friendly options for your next family kayaking adventure.

Perception Rambler Tandem Kayak

This rigid kayak is an affordable option for beginner and intermediate kayaking families. It is extremely stable, durable, roomy, and versatile in the water. The built-in center molded seat is great for children or the family pup to ride along.


  • Price: $1,003
  • Design: 2-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (LxWxH): 13’6” x 34” x 15.5”
  • Weight: 78 Pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 550 pounds
  • Paddle Included? No
  • Fun Features: Molded center seat for child or dog
Perception Rambler Tandem Kayak

Pros: There is an adjustable backrest for added support and a molded seat in the middle for kids or pups. It has superior balance and stability on the water and durable construction that will last for years.

Cons: It’s on the heavier side. There are no molded carrying handles, so securing the kayak to transport it can take some creativity. The storage tray at the bow is shallow with no bungee cord included.

Wilderness Systems Pamlico 145 Tandem Kayak

As the only sit-inside kayak on this list, I included the Pamlico 145T for its customizable seating and storage options. The swift acceleration and excellent maneuverability make this kayak a great option for families with older kids who want to cover longer distances.


  • Price: $1,439
  • Design: 2-Person, sit-inside
  • Size (LxWxH): 14’6” x 31” x 16”
  • Weight: 73 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 550 pounds
  • Paddle Included? No
  • Fun Features: Thigh and knee padding, locking hatch to keep gear dry
Wilderness Systems Pamlico 145 Tandem Kayak

Pros: It works as a tandem or solo kayak. The adjustable seats and footrests are comfortable, and the thigh and knee padding is a nice bonus. It moves fast through the water to cover longer distances quickly. There is a sealed-off storage compartment to keep gear dry.

Cons: It’s not as stable as other kayaks at this price point. There are no paddle holders, and the hatch-locking mechanism is a bit flimsy according to reviewers.

Ocean Kayak Malibu Two Tandem Recreational Kayak

Ocean Kayaks are known for their stability, and the family-friendly Malibu two is no different. The lighter weight makes it easier to carry to the water, and the 3 seat options allow for solo paddling, tandem paddling, or tandem paddling with a child or dog in the middle.


  • Price: $630
  • Design: 2-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (LxWxH): 12’ x 34” x 11”
  • Weight: 63 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 362 pounds
  • Paddle Included? No
  • Fun Features: Adjustable seating
Ocean Kayak Malibu 2 Tandem Recreational Kayak

Pros: Affordable for a rigid kayak. The seats are comfortable and adjustable for a custom fit. There are multiple lengths for molded-in foot braces for a comfortable paddling position.

Cons: The lower weight capacity can be a problem. There is a lack of storage options, and there are no extras included (such as paddles).

Best Kayak for Kids

Once your kiddos are ready to paddle solo, you’ll want a quality, safe kayak to help them learn to maneuver and paddle on their own. These three options are wonderful for helping children practice and gain confidence in their abilities.

Lifetime Youth Wave

The Lifetime Wave is one of the most popular first kayaks for budding paddlers. It’s a great option for kids 5 and older to learn to kayak on equipment built with their size and abilities in mind. The vibrant variety of colors makes this a fun option for kids to gain confidence and hone their paddling skills.


  • Price: $120
  • Design: 1-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (LxWxH): 6’ x 24” x 9”
  • Weight: 19 Pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 130 pounds
  • Paddle Included? Yes, a child-sized 72″ paddle
  • Fun Features: Swim-up deck for easy re-entry
Lifetime Youth Wave Kayak in Blue

Pros: This kayak is stable and has multiple footrest positions along with a molded paddle holder. The sloped backend and swim-up step make for easy re-entry.

Cons: The light weight means it’s affected by windy conditions and hard to maneuver at times. The lack of padding can get uncomfortable, and there is no storage for gear.

“Great intro kayak for very young kids on flat water. Super stable, nearly impossible to tip over when jumping on and around.  Small enough to fit in the back of a Subaru with the seats folded down, and pretty lightweight. Comes with a collapsible paddle. This was the kayak that taught my kids to kayak!”

– TMM Team Member Sarah Toal

Tributary Spud Youth Inflatable Kayak

Another favorite among the Tales of a Mountain Mama crew, this is a great kayak for introducing kids to whitewater. It may be lightweight, but it has supreme stability, even in rough water. In fact, with the higher weight capacity, this is a fun kayak for adults as well!


  • Price: $539
  • Design: 1-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (LxW): 7’2” x 35.5”
  • Weight: 21.5 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 220 pounds
  • Paddle Included? No
  • Fun Features: Great for whitewater
Tributary Spud Youth Inflatable Kayak in Cranberry

Pros: It can hold plenty of gear with a roomy interior and multiple tie-down loops. The high weight capacity means they won’t grow out of it anytime soon and it’s fun for adults as well! It’s built to tackle whitewater efficiently.

Cons: The seat can get uncomfortable after a while, and there are no set footrests. The paddle is not included.

“This is the BOMB! A great kayak for kids who are ready to move off flat water. It’s very stable, very easy to get a great paddle stroke in (tubes aren’t too big), and it’s short (you could fit 2 super small kids in it but it’s made for 1 kid). My 6- and 8-year-olds have paddled this through class 2 whitewater. It’s very easy to tip back over when it flips, too. Inflates easily without an electric pump.”

– TMM Team Member Sarah Toal
A young child paddling an NRS Tributary Spud Youth Inflatable Kayak along a river

Lifetime Youth Recruit Kayak

Another great beginner youth option from Lifetime, the recruit has a higher weight capacity along with some useful hand grips at the back for aiding in re-entry. It has excellent stability in the water, and multiple footrest positions so it can grow with your kiddo. This is a great option for children to learn how to paddle and maneuver a kayak on their own.


  • Price: $248
  • Design: 1-person, sit-on-top
  • Size (LxWxH): 6’6” x 24” x 10”
  • Weight: 21 pounds
  • Weight Capacity: 150 pounds
  • Paddle Included? Yes, a child-sized 72″ paddle
  • Fun Features: Molded handgrips for re-entry
Lifetime Youth Recruit Kayak in Green

Pros: This kayak is very stable with multiple footrest options and a molded paddle holder. The sloping rear, step, and handholds allow for easy re-entry from the water.

Cons: There is a lack of storage options, and there is no padding on the seat.

“I really recommend the Recruit if you can find it! The hand grips point back, and kids can use them to hang off the back and use the kayak like a kickboard. With the higher weight capacity, these kayaks have been a great size for my kids from the ages of 3-9, and we expect to still use them next year!”

– TMM Team Member Kristin Drenzek

Choosing a Kayak for Your Family Kayaking Adventures

While there are tons of great kayak options, we hope this round-up will help narrow it down for you so you can choose the best option for your family. Whether you are looking for an inflatable kayak that you can take anywhere, a rigid kayak that can last forever, or a youth kayak to hone their skills, there is something for everyone on this list. There are so many great benefits to kayaking as a family, so get out there and start making some epic memories on the water this season!

Related Articles

Family Kayaking: Choosing a Family Kayak

© 2023, 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.


  • Rebecca has lived in five different states in the last decade with her Navy submariner husband and two boys. A former science teacher turned home educator, she now focuses on exploring her surrounding area (currently Virginia Beach) with her family as much as possible before life sends them on another adventure elsewhere. Their favorite outdoor activities include hiking, kayaking, camping, and paddleboarding.

    View all posts

Leave a Comment