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Kayaking With Kids

Kayaking With Kids: How to Start

When we had our first child, my husband jokingly said “Well, I guess we won’t be kayaking again until he’s in the double digits”. Thankfully, you don’t actually have to wait until your child turns 10 years old to take them out on the water. In fact, you may be surprised at how early you can start taking your kiddos on kayaking adventures.

With some extra planning and flexibility (because anything with kids involved takes extra planning and flexibility), you could have them out on the water before they’re even out of diapers. We’ve put together this guide to help you feel confident taking your pint-sized paddlers out on the water from toddlerhood and beyond.

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At What Age Can You Start Kayaking with Kids?

General Guidelines to Kayak with Kids

While newborns are a no-go for kayaking, you may be surprised at how young a child can join you on the water. According to the guidelines set by the U.S. Coast Guard, a child can share a kayak with an adult if they:

  1. Weigh at least 18 pounds
  2. Wear a snug-fitting Personal Flotation Device
  3. Are able to sit still in the kayak
  4. Can float on the water by themselves

In other words, it is going to depend on the child, but generally speaking, a good time to start your kiddo is around ages 2-5 depending on maturity level.

Seating Positions for Kayaking with Kids

Most kids, especially those 7 and under, will start as a duffer in your kayak (meaning they will ride in the center compartment). In a double kayak, children who are capable of sitting still without being right next to you can ride in the bow (front) seat and practice their paddling skills with a child-sized paddle. This is a great way to build confidence, stamina, and skill with paddling before they move into their own kayak.

Woman and child kayaking on the beach in an Intex Excursion Pro 2-person Kayak.
My 3-year-old “Duffing” in our Kayak

When to Move a Child into Their Own Kids Kayak

This is another of those “it depends on the kid” scenarios. If you have been kayaking with your child from a young age and they have proficient paddling and swimming skills, they may be ready to try going solo in a child-sized kayak as young as 5 years old. Start them off in calm waters with short bursts of solo kayaking.

Just be sure to stick close by in case they need help or panic and bring a tow line in case they need extra support when kayaking together. As they get older and accustomed to the feeling of navigating the water by themselves, they will be able to go for longer distances and periods of time before needing a break.

3 children in Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak's tethered with a tow line and wearing Sunday Afternoon's Hats.

Kayaking Safety

Family Kayaking Gear:

Before heading out on the water, be sure you have the right safety gear. Here are some items to wear or carry with you while kayaking.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Everyone should be wearing a well-fitting, Coast Guard Approved (if in the United States) Personal Flotation Device. You will want to pay attention to the sizing (usually based on weight), along with how comfortable they are (especially for kids’ life jackets). Cheaper brands tend to ride up more and get in the way.

The main size categories are:

  • Infant – 8-30 pounds
  • Child – 30-50 pounds
  • Youth – 50-90 pounds

Check out this article for a guide to choosing the right life jacket for your child along with recommendations on brands our kiddos love.

3 children in a youth kayak wearing sun shirts and life jackets.
Different PFD’s for Different Personalities

Paddle Floats and Throw Bags

A paddle float (such as this one from NRS) is a buoyant or inflatable cover for the paddle blade that offers some stability when entering your kayak from the water. These come in handy when re-entering your kayak following a capsize or swim break, especially since young children are unlikely to be able to help you get back in from the water.

If you plan to kayak in whitewater, a throw bag is an essential piece of safety equipment (we like this compact Wedge Rescue Bag). These buoyant bags can be thrown to a capsized paddler, where they can grab hold of the rope inside the bag while you pull them in. They can also be helpful in all water if your child falls out of the boat and panics.

Kayak Tow Line

If you are kayaking with more than one kayak (such as when a child starts paddling solo), be sure to always have a tow line with you. This simple piece of equipment can be easily clipped to your child’s kayak so that you can assist when they get tired and help your child feel safe when they are just starting out. You can find them as waist tow systems that clip around your waist just below your PFD or as a separate line that can be attached to both kayaks.

A child on a Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak being towed by an adult kayak in a beautiful mountain landscape.
Use a Tow Line to Assist Your Child When Needed

First Aid Kit

A well-stocked first aid kit is a must for any outdoor adventure. The size and contents of your kit will depend on the size of your crew, where you plan to go, and how long you plan to be out (a short excursion or a weeklong kayak adventure). Just be sure to put your kit in a dry bag to protect the contents from getting soggy. Check out this article for more information on buying a pre-made kit or putting together your own first aid kit.

Repair Kit

If you have an inflatable kayak, it likely came with a repair kit. Be sure to keep it with you (and know how to use it) in case you rupture your kayak. You can also buy extra patches and Aquaseal to have on hand just in case.

Precautions When Kayaking with Kids

Discuss Safety

Discuss all the parts of the kayak, where safety gear is located, and what to do if the boat flips over. This is especially important if you are using sit-in kayaks. Check out this article from REI for more information, and practice with your kids while in calm waters.

“We practiced tipping the boat over (in a calm eddy) and grabbing the paddle, then grabbing hold of the upside-down boat. If they practice doing this, it makes it all a little less scary when it happens in moving current!”

~TMM Team Member Sarah Toal
3 children climbing into Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak's wearing Life Jacket's and Sunday Afternoons Hats.
Learning to get into and out of a kayak is important for everyone

Go Over the Rules

Go over the rules multiple times and be clear and simple. For example, no standing, leaning out, or horseplay, and discuss why these actions aren’t safe.

Go With an Experienced Paddler

Be sure you have an experienced paddler in your group before you consider taking your kids, especially for longer trips or locations with rough waters. Also, children should ride with an adult until they are experienced enough to paddle on their own.

Keep an Eye on Mother Nature

Keep an eye on the weather forecast, tides, and currents, and have a plan B in case of a last-minute need to cancel your trip. If the weather changes drastically while you are on the water, head back to shore as soon as possible.

Where to Go With Kids Kayaking

When starting out, look for locations with calm water and little to no current. This allows your kiddos to get used to the feel of the kayak and practice their paddling skills in a low-stress, safe environment. Slow rivers, small lakes, and bays are all good places to start.

If possible, choose a spot with a lot of variety to avoid the “I’m bored” statements and reduce restless wiggling from young ones. Features such as tunnels and bridges, varying landscapes, or easy-to-spot wildlife will keep things interesting, especially for non-paddlers.

Steer clear (pun intended) of areas with high motor boat traffic. Dodging motorized boats not only takes away from the calm of the adventure but can also be dangerous. If a boater isn’t paying enough attention to where they are going (or if they get impatient with an inexperienced paddler), it could lead to a scary situation.

A Woman and child in an Intex Excursion Pro 2-person Kayak paddling down a river
Calm Rivers Are a Great Place to Learn How to Kayak

Length of Kids Kayaking Trip

While this will depend on factors such as the age, experience, and attention span of your little one, plan on starting with short trips (think 30 minutes on the water at a time). As they get used to the experience, you can slowly build up that time with each trip.

One way to extend your kayaking adventure is to take frequent breaks throughout the trip. Let them get out on shore to run around and stretch their legs or let them take a swimming break before getting back into the kayak. You can also stop along the shore for a picnic or a potty break, or just to explore the nature in the area. This provides some variety for younger kids and allows little paddlers time to recover.

What to Bring Family Kayaking

Along with the proper safety gear listed above, be sure to pack the following items to ensure you’re ready for anything when setting out on a family kayaking adventure.

10 Essentials

You may have heard of the 10 essentials for hiking, but this handy list of items can apply to kayaking as well:

Water

Bring more water than you think you will need for your trip. If you are paddling in fresh water, you can bring along a small filter (such as a Lifestraw Filter Straw or  Squeeze Water Filter) to have access to safe drinking water.

Food

If your kids are like mine, they are constantly asking for a snack. Be sure to bring plenty of filling snacks such as trail mix, beef jerky, or protein bars.

2 Children in Lifetime Wave Kayaks paddling down a river
Cooler’s are Great Options for Keeping Food Dry and Fresh

Navigation Tools

If you plan to use your phone or a GPS unit, be sure to also have a waterproof map of your intended route along with a compass as backup.

Light

Even if you plan on only staying out a short while, it’s good to have a headlamp or flashlight on you at all times.

First Aid Kit

As stated previously in the safety section, buy or make a first aid kit that fits the needs of your family and your intended adventure.

Extra Clothing

The type of clothing will depend on the weather but be sure to have an extra pair of dry clothing for after your adventure on the water. Also, consider bringing a waterproof or insulating layer in case the weather changes.

Multitool

Whether you need to patch your boat or cut open a stubborn snack bag, you’d be surprised how often you need a multitool on any adventure.

Sun Protection

This is extremely important when kayaking, especially if you burn as easily as I do. Wear a sun hat (these are some of our favorites) and sunglasses and consider wearing sun-protective clothing so you don’t need to worry about reapplying sunblock.

Fire Supplies

Even if you don’t plan to stay the night, having the ability to make a fire can make a world of difference in an emergency. Pop a lighter into your pack along with a compact firestarter (such as a small candle) just in case.

Emergency Shelter

Having an emergency shelter, such as a simple, compact space blanket, can provide shelter in an unexpected storm or even double as a blanket for your kiddos if the weather turns chilly.

Dry Bag

You don’t want your gear to get soaked while on the water. While many kayaks have compartments that will keep your gear relatively dry, it’s better to be safe than soggy (especially in the event of a capsize or rain storm). Stuff anything you want to keep dry, such as electronics and extra clothing, into a dry bag (like this one from Sea to Summit) before you set out on the water.

Saftey Whistle

Everyone in your crew should have a whistle within easy reach.  They come in handy for a myriad of situations such as signaling each other when traveling in multiple kayaks, or when you have lost sight of someone in your group.

Fun Extras for Kids

My boys love bringing along their binoculars to investigate the surrounding area for wildlife along with their snorkel gear for swim breaks. TMM Team Member Mary Burton’s kiddos prefer to bring along a little net/bucket for critter hunting along with fishing poles. Let your kids decide what they want to bring based on their interests.

2 children in a Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak wearing sun hats and life jackets.
Bring a Net for Critter-Catching

What to Wear When Kayaking with Kids

Warm Weather Kayaking Clothing

Lightweight, breathable, UPF-rated clothing is ideal for comfortable paddling in warm weather.  For kiddos, a long-sleeved rash guard top and board shorts or swimsuit shorts are great options. For adults, UPF-rated sun shirts and board shorts or quick-drying pants help keep you comfortable and protected from the sun. Also, bring along a lightweight waterproof jacket for everyone in case the temperature drops or you run into a rain shower.

The footwear you choose will depend on the terrain of your kayaking location. Most water shoes will suffice, but you may want to consider ones with better traction if you plan to do a little exploring along the way (such as the Keen Newport H2 Sandals in kids and adults varieties). For very mucky locations, a mid-calf or taller rain boot will keep you from swimming in grime. Check out our roundup of the best water shoes for kids for more options.

Sunglasses come in handy to protect against the sun glaring off the water. Be sure to top it off with a wide-brimmed sun hat for everyone in the family to protect from the sun and help you avoid the inevitable sunscreen battle with your kiddos.

2 children in a Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak wearing sun hats and life jackets
Sun Hats and Sun Shirts for Warm-Weather Kayaking

Cold Weather Kayaking Clothing

While I wouldn’t recommend learning to kayak in the dead of winter, you can still have a great time kayaking in cooler weather. As with most outdoor adventures, it’s all about layering with the right fabrics. Stay away from cotton since it doesn’t wick sweat and stays wet for a prolonged period.

Start with a wool or synthetic base layer and an insulating mid-layer (think fleece). Top it off with a waterproof outer layer (such as a rain suit or rain jacket and pants) to stay dry on the water. You can also consider a wetsuit or top, which is specially designed to keep you warm in chilly waters.

Check out our favorite wetsuits for kids from the TMM Team!

Keep extremities warm with a pair of waterproof gloves, wool socks, and waterproof boots. Add in a wool or synthetic hat, and you’re set! Just remember to have some extra clothes on hand in your dry bag for after your adventure or in case your kiddos need a change. Check out this article on layering kids in cold weather for more information.

Child wearing rain gear and waterproof gloves while kayaking on a river
Warm and Dry While Kayaking in Cooler Weather

How to Choose a Kayak

Sit-in vs. Sit-on-Top Kayaks

When just starting out, I highly recommend a sit-on-top kayak. They have higher stability, are less likely to capsize, and have built-in drainage holes, making them hard to sink. If they do capsize, a child is less likely to be trapped or panic since they are not restricted as in a sit-in kayak. They are also much easier to get into and out of, which comes in handy if your kiddo like to take swim breaks.

Single or Double Kayak

While personal preference plays a big role in this decision, it will also depend on your child’s age, size, and abilities. If you have a small child who is simply along for the ride, a single adult kayak may suffice. This also works well for squirmier children who may need to be closer to you at first.

However, if you want a kayak that can grow with your kiddo and help them develop their paddling skills, I recommend a double kayak. Your child can either ride or paddle from the bow (front) seat while you control the kayak from the stern. This allows you to keep an eye on them and help coach them on paddling while also giving them some control and confidence (I mean, how often does your kiddo get to be in front?).

Once they have gotten the hang of paddling and gained some confidence on the water, you can consider transitioning them to their own youth-sized single kayak.  Just be sure to stick close as they learn to navigate the water by themselves and hone their paddling skills.

A woman kayaking with kids on a river in a Tributary Tomcat Kayak and a Lifetime Youth Kayak.
A Mix of Single and Double Kayaks

Rigid or Inflatable Kayak

This can be a tougher decision to make and depends on several factors. Check out some of the pros and cons of each type of kayak below to help you decide which one better fits the needs of your family.

An Infographic sharing the pro and cons for Rigid and Inflatable Kayaks

A Note on Paddles

The standard paddle size may be sufficient for an adult, but it is generally way too big and heavy for a child. Look for a paddle that is between 182 cm (for kiddos less than 4 feet) and 210 cm (if your child is closer to 5 feet) long. Youth paddles generally have smaller blades and a narrower shaft which provides an easier grip for small hands.

My older son prefers the 182cm Pelican Boats Junior Kid Kayak Paddle, which is made of lightweight aluminum and has drip-rings to help keep his hands drier while paddling. He has much more control and tires less quickly when using this paddle as opposed to the adult paddles that came with our kayaks.

Tips for Kayaking with Kids

Start Short and Slow

You can build up speed and distance with each trip, but the first few times are all about getting used to the feel of the kayak and paddles.

Practice Disguised as Games

“Practice getting in and off in the water, and play some games in the water (like tag or sharks and minnows, etc,) to help learn boat control.”

~TMM Team Member Mary Burton

Take Lots of Breaks

Whether you are getting out to stretch your legs, have a picnic, or simply take a paddle break on the water to enjoy the scenery, find the time to rest and break up the monotony of paddling.

3 children in rain gear and life jackets playing along the shore next to Lifetime Recruit Youth kayaks
Take a Break to Play Along the Shore

Teach and Stay Positive

Let your kiddos make mistakes (safe ones). Learning from their mistakes can help them learn good paddling techniques. Avoid criticism unless they are doing something that risks their safety and praise good effort and paddling all along the way.

Consider Taking a Kayak Class

If you want your child to learn proper kayaking techniques and tips, look for a class from an expert (like these options from REI). This works well if your kiddos learn best from other people, or if you are looking to hone your skills as well.

Go With a Kayaking Group

There are many areas, such as local and state parks, that give kayak tours of their land. The majority of these tours are great for beginners and families.

A woman paddling a yellow kayak in a group of kayakers.
Group Tours Can Help you Learn the Basics

Try Before You Buy

Many regional, state, and national parks allow you to rent a kayak for exploration of their land. You could also borrow one from a friend or family member to get a feel of the different kayak options before you decide what to buy.

Involve Your Kids in the Planning Process

This will help get them excited for the adventure. You can personalize it to their interests by choosing a spot near a favorite location or allowing them to invite a friend if appropriate.

TMM Team Member Kayak Recommendations

With the huge number of kayak options available, it can be overwhelming to choose one that fits the needs of your family. Here are a few options we recommend along with why they work well for our families.

Tributary Tomcat Tandem Kayak

“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
Man and two kids kayaking on a river in a Tributary Tomcat Tandem Kayak.
Tributary Tomcat Tandem Inflatable Kayak

Intex Excursion Pro 2-person Kayak

“I love the portability of this kayak and that I can carry it and handle it solo. I also like that you can switch the seat positioning to allow for a single or double kayaking experience. The affordable price tag makes this a great option for beginners as well.”

~TMM Team Member Rebecca Hosley
A woman and child kayaking along the beach in an Intex Excursion Pro 2-person kayak
Intex Excursion Pro 2-Person Inflatable Kayak

Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak

The placement of hand grips on the Recruit point back and kids can use them to hang off the back and use the kayak like a kickboard. 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 Dreznek
3 children in wetsuits in a mountainous landscape standing near their Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayaks.
Lifetime Recruit Youth Kayak

NRS Tributary Spud Youth Inflatable Kayak

“We love the NRS Spud! It’s made for kids, but fun for adults as well! Instead of growing out of the boat, kids can use it for years. It’s stable, confidence-building, and super fun in white water.”

~TMM Team Member Mary Burton
A child kayaking down a river in a Tributary Spud Youth Kayak
Tributary Spud Youth Inflatable Kayak

Lifetime Wave Youth Kayak

“These kayaks are lightweight and extremely stable. We bought the first one for my son when he was 5 years old. Within 30 minutes he taught himself how to steer the boat! They easily stack on top of one another on the roof rack and they also fit in the back of my Subaru.”

~TMM Team Member Sarah Toal
Child laying down in a Lifetime Wave Youth Kayak in calm water.
Lifetime Wave Youth Kayak

Starting Your Kayaking Adventures with Kids

With some planning, patience, and flexibility you can take your kiddos out on the water with you from a young age. Kayaking as a family can be such a rewarding experience and create memories that will last into adulthood (when they take their own kiddos on the water). So, the question shouldn’t be if you will take them. It’s when and where will you take your next family kayaking adventure?

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Kayaking with Kids: How to Start

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