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How to Canoe With Young Kids


A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Paddling a canoe can be an amazing time for a family with young kids. Canoes are roomy, comfortable, and relatively stable – yet still quiet and agile enough to get close to nature. When done right, it’s a great family bonding experience.

But going about it the wrong way can lead to cranky kids, frustrated parents, or even swamped boats.

Paddling as a family requires planning, patience, and picking the right time and place. Start out slow and simple and keep your expectations in check. Your first trips are all about getting used to being on the water.

You can start at any age. When our son was 10 months old, my wife and I took him out for his first paddle among the cypress trees at Merchants Millpond. Those early excursions were slow, short, and not always easy. But now that he’s two, our paddling trips have turned into a great time of discovery.

Recently we headed out on the calm waters of Swift Creek Lake in Pocahontas State Park, just south of Richmond. We paddled along the shoreline, sneaking up on red-eared slider turtles sunning on logs that plopped into the water when we got close. The water lilies floating on the lake bloomed blazing white. Sunfish swam alongside the canoe. Occasionally we heard a green frog calling, sounding just like plucking a rubber band.  

Our son took it all in, full of curiosity. Eager to do his part, he trailed a paddle in the water as we drifted under branches shading the lake. While it didn’t do much to propel us forward, it made him part of the team. We hope that these experiences now are setting the stage for a lifelong love of outdoor recreation.

So how do you have a good time on the water while keeping kids safe and happy? Keep a few of these tips in mind.

Are You Ready?

Make sure you and your partner are confident in your paddling skills before taking kids. A canoe is trickier to handle with an unpredictable child on board. And, of course, consider swim lessons before heading out. They’re a good idea for any kid who spends time near the water.   

About Life Jackets

At first, many kids hate wearing life jackets. But it’s a must. Find a life jacket that not only fits your child well, but is also comfortable and not too bulky. Set a good example by wearing yours at all times. Often kids warm up to wearing a life jacket once they realize it means fun times on the water.

Small Lakes and Slow Rivers
For your first trip, pick a calm body of water with little current where you can stay close to shore. A small lake or slow-moving river is ideal. The first time out should be short, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, with a main goal of getting used to the experience. As you graduate to longer paddles, plan routes with plenty of options to stop for a picnic, swimming, or other fun time.

When to Go

Check the weather and choose a day with mild temperatures, low wind, and no rain or storms in the forecast. In the summer, get started early to avoid the afternoon heat.

What to Bring

In addition to the life jackets, pack sunscreen and a hat for shade – the sun is always more intense on the water. Plenty of tasty snacks and cold water will keep everyone hydrated and happy. And you might want to keep a favorite (non-electronic) toy on hand as a distraction in case your kid gets antsy.

Out on the Water

Out on the water children should always be within arm’s reach of an adult. Kids seem to love to lean over the edge to touch the water, especially when they get bored. Giving them a kid-size paddle will give them an alternative mission (and hopefully keep them from going overboard).

Kids will be most stable if they stay seated or cushion on the floor in the middle of the canoe. Smaller kids may also fit well in the bow in front of whoever is paddling up front.

Go slowly and share in the experience together. Talk about what you’re seeing. Look for animals, fish, birds, flowers, and bees. And if that fails, pass out the snacks or toys.

Have Fun

If things don’t work out perfectly, just remember why you’re doing this. It’s all about making memories and having a good time together. Your first trips might not go smoothly. That’s fine.

You’ve always got to go with the flow when you’re out on the water. If it’s just not working out, cut the paddle short and move on. You can try another day. At the start, you’re just laying the groundwork for amazing moments that will come down the road.  

Originally published July 25, 2019

Kenny Fletcher

Kenny Fletcher grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland and now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He loves fishing and paddling on creeks and rivers, enjoys a nice walk in the woods, and is always on the lookout for a great story.

July 1, 2020

Main image: Kenny Fletcher photos
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