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Kayaking with Kids: A Safety Checklist for Parents

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Starting young is the best way to introduce your child to a lifelong love of paddling. But like any new adventure, preparation can make all the difference when kayaking with kids for the first time.

Here are some key tips to keep in mind:

How young is too young?

A parent will be the best judge of whether their child is ready for their first kayak experience, but in general, children should know how to swim before heading out. It’s certainly possible to take younger children kayaking — provided they’re wearing an appropriate PFD — but just remember that the more attention a child requires, the more you’ll have to keep track of out on the water.

Kayaking with kids: A gear checklist

Packing for an afternoon kayaking with children isn’t much different than packing for a trip with adults, but there are some essentials to make sure you bring:

  • Appropriate-sized lifejackets, especially for the kids

    When kayaking with children, always wear a PFD!
  • Paddle floats, throw bags and bilge pumps for each kayak
  • A tow line for each kayak (especially if youngsters will be paddling their own kayak)
  • High-protein snacks, water or Gatorade in dry-storage bags (pack more hydration than you think you’ll need)
  • Weather-appropriate clothing, which should include wetsuits or drysuits if paddling cold waters
  • A change of clothing (in case Timmy gets wet, which he will). Make sure to keep extra clothes stored securely in waterproof bags.
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses and wide-brimmed, breathable hats
  • Water shoes (because many beaches and rest areas are going to have rocky shores) or sandals
  • Rain gear, including boots and ponchos
  • First-aid supplies
  • And, of course, anything else you think your child might require out on the water

If you’re looking to do a longer outing or planning to paddle away from shore, you might also consider:

  • Emergency whistles and flares
  • Binoculars
  • Maps and compasses
  • Picnic blankets or lunch supplies and coolers
  • Books or games to keep younger kids entertained

Plan, plan, plan

As a parent, you want to be prepared for all circumstances — and that’s especially true while kayaking with kids. Know where you’ll take bathroom breaks. Know where you’ll eat lunch. Know where the good swimming spots are. Know the water conditions. If you’re renting, know the hours, location and phone number of the rental company. Have emergency contacts on hand. Bring a first aid kit. The list goes on and on.

Be patient and start slow

When kayaking with your child for the first time, it’s probably best to start on a small lake or bay, for two reasons:

  1. The current won’t be as strong, which helps inexperienced paddlers feel more confident, and;
  2. You can return to shore (or your car) at any time.

With young kayakers, it can be difficult to tell just how much endurance or interest they’ll have. You don’t want to find out Jimmy’s tired or cranky when you’re still two hours from your destination on a long river trip. Lakes can also be a great place to practice paddling skills and teach proper technique in a low-stress environment. Each child has a different learning curve, so be patient while teaching them.

In general, avoid rapids, open waters or cold conditions.

Choosing the best kayak for kids

If you plan on kayaking with kids on a regular basis, it could (and probably should) impact your buying or rental choices. Age, experience and size factor in deciding which boat is right for your child.

Check out American Paddler’s guide to the 9 best kids kayaks of 2018

Sit on top or sit-in?

kayaking with kids
As a general rule of thumb, kids under the age of 7 might do best riding in a tandem kayak with a parent, while older kids may want to paddle their own kayak.

When it comes to kayaks for kids, there are almost an endless number of options, but the most popular choices mirror adult kayaks.

When choosing a kayak for your child, keep in mind their paddling ability and coordination. If your child is concerned about tipping, go with a more stable model such as a sit-on-top kayak, which usually has a wider body, fewer obstructions and won’t fill with water.

If your child is a little more skilled, a recreational sit-inside kayak can make him or her feel more secure in the cockpit, but make sure the boat isn’t too long or wide for their paddling stroke.

If you decide to go the tandem route, have your child sit in the front seat with you in back steering. If you’re going with more than one adult, some sit-on-top kayaks can comfortably seat two adults with a child in the middle.

Paddles

Choosing the right paddle for your child can make all the difference in keeping your kids’ energy levels up. A paddle that’s too long or too heavy can make kayaking a chore for the little ones, so be sure to size their paddle correctly.

Kayak WidthUnder 23″24″ to 28″29″ to 33″34″+
Paddler HeightRECOMMENDED PADDLE LENGTH
Under 5’5″210-220 cm220-230 cm230-240 cm250 cm
5’5″ to 5’11”220 cm230 cm230-240 cm250 cm
6’+220-230 cm230-240 cm240-250 cm250-260 cm
*Paddle length for recreational or sit-on-top kayaks

In general, kayak paddles for kids will be shorter (200 cm is average), skinnier (for smaller hands) and made of lighter weight materials. The paddle should be long enough to easily dip the blades into the water, but not so long that the shaft itself is submerged.

Tips to stay safe on the water

kayaking with kids
Make sure your child knows it’s never acceptable to take off their PFD while on the water, and enforce safety at every step.

1. Choosing the right PFD

All children (and adults, for that matter) should wear a personal flotation device (PFD) while on the water, regardless of whether they’re good swimmers. Swimming skills won’t help a child who’s knocked unconscious, and loss of consciousness accounts for more than half of all water-related deaths and injuries.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, all children under the age of 13 must wear a properly fitting personal flotation device at all times when on a moving watercraft — including kayaks. If you’re unsure of the laws in your state, the BoatUS Foundation has a handy list of regulations in all 50 states.

Lifejackets for kids come in three classes: those designed for infants (8-30lbs), children (30-50lbs) and youths (50-90lbs). It’s critical for your child to wear a lifevest that fits properly. A lifejacket that’s too big will not support your child in the water and could slip off, while one that’s too small might not have the necessary buoyancy to support your child’s weight.

Kids’ lifejackets also come with special safety features, such as a quick-grab handle near the shoulders, higher neck braces and crotch straps. Don’t skimp here.

2. Keep kids in view

Whether you’re paddling a single or a tandem kayak, make sure you or another adult can see your child at all times. On a tandem kayak, this means having your child sit in the front, or bow, of the boat. If your child will paddling their own kayak, keep them in the lead so you can see them.

3. Learn how to do a “wet exit”

If an older child will be paddling his or her own kayak, make sure they know how to perform a “wet exit.” This is an easy-to-learn safety technique that involves exiting the cockpit of a capsized kayak. Practice this before you need to use it, and if necessary, take lessons.

4. Tow lines and float bags

You never know when your little paddler will get tuckered out, so bring a tow line just in case you need to hook up their kayak to yours. This probably goes without saying, but a tow line does not double as a seatbelt. NEVER tie your child to your kayak, as this is a major safety hazard.

Making the most of your adventure

As a parent, it’s important to keep in mind that the reasons you love kayaking might not necessarily be the same reasons your child does. And that’s OK. Kids can find fun in almost anything — spotting fish, collecting rocks on shore, splashing their sister (or you). It’s important to remember that at day’s end, fun is what it’s all about.

While you should make sure your child doesn’t do anything dangerous, let him or her enjoy the day at their own pace. Plan some time for swimming, snacks and games, especially if you’re doing a “point A to point B” type trip.

If you follow these tips, kayaking with kids should make for some lifelong memories.

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