How To Start Paddling With Kids

Photo: Svitlana

Whether you head out for a day across the bay or a week-long adventure, paddling is one of the best outdoor activities you can do with your kids.

Add water to your children’s upbringing and they’ll remember it when they’re well down the river of life on their own. But there are some basics to consider before getting your feet wet to ensure everybody has a great time and wants to go again. Following are a few pointers on everything from paddle-craft to proper safety.


The number one rule when paddling with kids is to make sure you and your child wear a properly fitted life jacket at all times on the water. Today’s U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type III life jackets are more comfortable than ever, and there’s no excuse not to wear one. Also, stay close to shore until you’re comfortable with self-rescue techniques, and always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return. In the event of a capsize, stay calm, make sure everyone is accounted for, and get everyone back in their respective boats (ideally you should always head out in pairs). Wear clothing suitable for the water conditions and weather, bring plenty of drinking water, and slap on the sunscreen (UV rays reflect off the water).  


There is no shortage of viable family paddle-crafts to pick from. Those living in the mountains often take to waterways and lakes in rafts, canoes and inflatable kayaks. In the Midwest and along the coasts, families break out canoes, sea kayaks and recreational kayaks. Even taking the family rowboat out or inner-tubing a slow-moving creek instills the magic of water. Here’s how to maximize the family-friendly potential of the most popular paddling options to consider.

Inflatable Kayaks

IKs, or duckies as they’re often known, are perfect for family floats on mellow rivers or lakes to introduce your young ’uns to paddling. Made of rubber or PVC, they’re durable—unlike that heirloom canoe—and don’t get dinged by rocks. When it comes to handling, they’re wide enough to be stable, but narrow enough to be maneuverable and fast enough to get you back to shore for snack time. All this creates a versatile craft that gives your kids a more intimate connection with the water than a raft, yet a more stable one than a traditional kayak or canoe. And when you’re through, simply deflate and roll for easy storage back home—which you need, now that your garage is littered with kids’ gear. Consider a tandem for paddling with a younger child in front (depending on the make, you can often convert it easily for solo use once they outgrow it.)


They have a major advantage over inflatable kayaks and rafts: You don’t need to inflate them. Simply pop it off your car, throw it in the water, and play Lewis and Clark on your local lake. For younger kids, they even offer playpen-like walls to keep your brood in the boat. These same sidewalls also give them grocery cart-like carrying capacity. Even a simple 16-footer can fit a family of four, as well as Rover. Young kids (aka “bow babies”) can ride shotgun in front of the bow paddler, where they’ll inevitably fall asleep, before graduating to the middle, where they can join in with their own pint-sized paddle.

Once your kids are old enough to start really paddling, put them in the bow. If there’s just one grown-up, turn the boat backwards and place your child up front and you in the rear to give the canoe better trim. When they’re even bigger, turn the canoe back around and paddle it normally, taking turns between bow and stern. But this configuration is also short-lived; by the time most kids are big enough for this, they’ll want a boat of their own.

Sea Kayaks

Unlike canoes, touring or sea kayaks (with dual cockpits) are easily propelled by one person, making them the ideal family option for those with young kids who can sit in the bow while you paddle from the stern. They also keep your lower half out of the wind and rain. Plastic boats are tougher, heavier and less expensive, while fiberglass is lighter and faster, but more fragile and expensive. Until your kids are old enough to paddle solo, put them in tandems while you steer from the stern.

Store gear in front of children’s feet, if needed, so they won’t slide under the deck (or use a dry bag or pad as a booster seat); the added height helps their paddles clear the cockpit rim for forward strokes. And don’t get them a plus-sized paddle; a small one helps teach proper technique by forcing their hands shoulder-width apart (most kids put them too close together), and rotating the torso with each stroke. Also make sure your craft has bulkheads or float bags, and that you have a rescue plan should things go awry.  

A family inflatable kayaking on a river Photo: Max Topchii

Rec Kayaks

Rarely will you find a better craft for getting your kids out on the water than recreational kayaks, whose wide, flat bottoms make them stable enough for even the most torrential tantrum. Consider them a touring kayak with training wheels. Like kids themselves, they come in a variety of styles and sizes. Two types work best: sit-on-tops, where you and your child sit on top of a depression in the kayak’s hull; and sit-inside rec kayaks, which have large, open cockpits for ease of entry and exit. Without claustrophobic cockpits to cram into, both let you paddle away on the first try without fear of tipping and are perfect for paddling as a family, whether your child is still in Pampers or on their way to a Ph.D. 

In warmer climates, sit-on-tops make the perfect choice. You’re out in the open and you can even jump in the water to cool off and climb back aboard. Self-bailing holes drain water out and, in the rare event of a capsize, you simply flip it over and climb back aboard—just like a bike. Rec kayaks have the same wide, stable bottom, but come with an enlarged cockpit, keeping you out of the elements—and water from puddling around your derriere. Most single-cockpit rec kayaks are big enough for you and your child. When your kids get older, get a two-person craft while you steer from the stern. The learning curve for each is akin to riding a tricycle: There’s no leaning or learning, and most importantly, no rolling. Simply hop on and go.


Standup paddleboards are a sort of extra-buoyant surfboard that you paddle standing up with an elongated paddle. This makes them the kid equivalent of a paddle-able, floating dock. Of all paddlecraft, they’re the easiest to cannonball off of and climb back on, and are the most conducive to water-plunging games of “king of the hill.” They’re also easy to paddle tandem when your kids are younger. Born as a Hawaiian surf tool, they’ve become the quintessential family craft, suitable for lakes, oceans and even mild river travel. Sure, they require a modicum of balance, but once your kids try it, be prepared for homework to take the back burner. They come as both hard shells, which are more rigid and offer higher performance; and inflatables, which are softer to land upon if you drop down, roll up for easy storage, and bounce off rocks. Soft-top boards with full-deck foam padding offer a friendly middle-ground option for kids learning. The simplicity of standing and paddling, however, does not mean that you can forget the necessary PFD as well as a board leash for safety on the water.

Other Family Paddling Tips

Have a Destination

Make the outing as fun as possible. Don’t just head out for a paddle; make it a journey somewhere. Paddle to an island, rope swing, secret swimming spot or a lighthouse for lunch. Also, don’t climb Mount Everest in one day. Shoot for maybe a 3- to 4-mile round-trip journey your first time out, taking tides, wind and, if applicable, river currents into consideration. 


Kids get hungry, especially in the Great Outdoors. Keep plenty of high-energy snacks and water and electrolyte-replenishing drinks on board. Don’t be afraid to put down your paddle periodically to chow down. Depending on your craft, bring along a small dry bag and hard or soft cooler. Hint: Give your kids their own snack pouch they can keep with them for easy access. 


Keep your kids entertained as they paddle. Possible games include: “I spy,” using only objects in the natural surroundings; the outdoor alphabet, where kids take turns coming up with water-related items going from A to Z; or pattern (not logic) puzzles where one person starts with a clue like, “I’m going on a trip and I’m bringing a book but not a magazine, a tool but not a saw,” and so on until the group can determine the secret and come up with similar pattern examples (i.e. double letters). Another simple solution to keeping kids occupied is by packing odds and ends: binoculars for wildlife watching, squirt guns for soaking sessions, and nets for identifying marine life. Two-way radios are also a great idea if you have more than one boat.  

Outfitter or Alone?

There are two ways to get your feet wet with a family outing on the water: Either John Wesley Powell it yourself, or go with an outfitter. For those unfamiliar with the discipline, go with an outfitter. They have the gear and skills to ensure your indoctrination doesn’t become an indunktrination. Unsure? Take an outfitted trip first and then play Huck Finn. Better safe than soggy. Either way, realize that paddling with your kids is a way to come together on a medium that’s responsible for all life itself—which means it’s bound to help your family life as well.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.