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How-To: Go Kayaking with Kids

Before putting in, take these steps to ensure a safe, tantrum-free paddle


Sea kayaking is one of the best outdoor activities you can do as a family. I'm a bit biased, as publisher of Paddling Life, but I believe it teaches an appreciation of water, the essence of all life, while taking you into some of the world’s most scenic surroundings.

Just ask my daughter, Brooke, who ventured with us into British Columbia’s Barkley Sound when she was only four years old. Giddy all morning, she rode up front in a double kayak, a nylon spray skirt with suspenders arcing over her life jacket to keep splashes at bay. No sooner had we put in and she started singing, “Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow,” a Raffi favorite.

She figured out how to splash me in the stern, marveled at seals poking their curious heads out of the water and was genuinely ecstatic over every single starfish she saw, which shone in shades of purple and orange. “Look, Dad!” she exclaimed. “They’re all over the place! Just like in the sky!” That was I all I needed to understand how valuable sea kayaks can be for family wilderness forays.

Unlike canoes, sea kayaks are easily propelled by one person and keep your legs out of the wind and rain. They’re also stable. Plastic boats are tougher, heavier and less expensive, while fiberglass is lighter and faster but also more fragile and expensive. Tandems work best for younger kids. You can man the stern, putting your child in the bow.

Following are a few rules and tips to help you get your kids out into the wild blue yonder:

Wear a Life Jacket
Sear this into your skull like the pancakes you burn at breakfast time. Make sure you and your child each wear a properly fitted life jacket. Today’s Coast Guard-approved Type III life jackets are more comfortable than ever, and there’s no excuse not to wear one.

Choose a Kid-Friendly Craft
There are as many boats to choose from as gift options at Toys"R"Us. Two main points to consider are sit-on-top vs. cockpit boat and single or tandem. If you’re paddling in warmer environments and making miles isn’t a top priority, go with a sit-on-top. You and your child simply climb aboard and paddle away, with no fear of being trapped in the cockpit, should the boat tip. If you do go over, simply climb back on. Conversely, if you’re planning to make miles and weather and water temperatures are a concern, consider a sea kayak with a cockpit. They’re generally faster and keep you out of the elements.

Until your child is capable of paddling on his or her own (and keeping a halfway decent pace), go with a tandem. You can place junior up front while you control the rudder from the stern. He or she gets the feel of paddling and can actually aid in your craft’s propulsion. Hint: Make sure the sprayskirt (nylon, not neoprene) fits loosely enough around the cockpit so as not to induce panic if you tip over. If height is an issue, have your kid sit atop a drybag, pad or an extra PFD as a booster seat. The added height helps their paddles clear the boat. Some parents even find it helpful to store gear in front of their children’s feet so they don’t slide under the deck.

Rarely will you find a better craft for getting your kids out on the water than a recreational kayak, whose wide, flat bottom makes it stable enough for even the worst tantrum. Think of rec kayaks like sea kayaks with training wheels. Like kids themselves, they come in a variety of styles and sizes, but they all have large, open-cockpits for ease of entry and exit. Like a sit-on-top, it'll let you and your kids paddle away on the first try without fear of tipping.

Size the Paddle
Don’t get a paddle sized for Yao Ming. Several companies make child-specific paddles and even those for small adults often work well for touring tykes. Teach them the proper paddling technique by having their hands shoulder-width apart (a lot of kids put their hands too close together), and show them how to rotate the torso with each stroke. Also, show them how the drip rings work, and to make sure they’re positioned outside of their hands. If your kids are like ours, they’ll be fascinated by how they stop drops dead in their tracks.

Pack Proper Safety Gear
If you’re in a kayak with a cockpit, this should include a bilge pump and paddle float to aid in re-entry in event of a capsize. Also, make sure your craft has bulkheads or float bags and that you have a rescue plan should things go awry. (Note: Your best bet is to have another grown-up along in another boat.) And always stay close to shore.

Getting In
To ease the Weebles Wobble feeling of climbing aboard, show your kids how to place their paddle behind them when getting in, propping one blade on shore or the dock for stability. They can scootch in using the stability provided by the impromptu outrigger. They might also need help securing their spray skirt, in which case you should start by sealing from the back and work your way forward.

Outfitter or Alone?
If you don’t want to venture out on your own, 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.

A version of this story first appeared on Recreating with Kids.

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