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Before you strike out on your first excursion canoeing with your kids, make sure you’re prepared. To help you prepare, we’ve gathered a list of tips that will help you have fun and stay safe while you’re spending quality family time in a canoe – here’s everything you need to know about canoe camping with kids!
6 Tips for Canoe Camping with Kids
1. Get your safety plan in place
The most important thing you can take with you when you are canoe camping with kids isn’t a paddle or a map (although those are important, too). It’s your safety plan.
A family safety plan should include everything from safety gear to emergency contacts. Take your time with this. You don’t want to be scrambling around and making last-minute visits to the outdoor equipment store because you forgot to buy a first aid kit or other essential items.
Remember that most accidents that can happen in daily life can also occur on a canoe camping trip and that you need to be adequately prepared for them.
Common injuries include:
- Cuts, scrapes, and bruises from trips and falls
- Burns from the fire and camping stoves
- Sun exposure
Another basic element of every family’s safety plan should be to ensure that everyone is warm enough, full enough, and rested enough. Cold, hungry, or tired children tend to get irritable and restless, which can spell major disaster in a canoe.
In formulating your safety plan, it’s also crucial to research the area you’ll be visiting. You’ll need to know what kind of conditions and wildlife to expect and what kind of gear and skills you’ll need. It’s important to make sure that the area you choose has paddling conditions appropriate for beginners.
2. Emphasize water safety
While we’re on the topic of paddling conditions, let’s talk about water safety in particular. Even flat, slow rivers can be hazardous if you don’t know the basics of staying safe on the water.
The top three rules we recommend that children learn and memorize before setting foot in a canoe are:
- A well-fitting life jacket must be worn at all times, no exceptions
- Always ask before standing up in the canoe
- Use your hands and words to point and communicate rather than lean over the edge of the canoe
The best time to start learning these rules and putting them into practice is before you set off on your canoe camping trip. It’s a good idea to do a test run, or better yet, a series of test runs, with shorter day trips. If you rent a canoe, make sure it’s the same type you’ll be taking on your trip so that the little ones can get familiar with it and work out a seating plan. Day trips will also give you a chance to brush up on and demonstrate your paddling skills to your children, which will hopefully kindle their excitement for the trip.
This brings us to another important point: a day trip will help you figure out whether or not your family is ready for a multi-day paddling expedition or not. You may discover that now isn’t the right time and that it would be wise to wait another year or so.
You may even want to consider an introductory canoe course for your children so they can master the basics and build their confidence. A course will teach them the key skills they’ll need to know, including:
- How to get in and out of the canoe
- Proper paddling technique, such as the J-stroke
- How to stop the canoe
- What to do if the canoe tips over
3. Plan for extra time and longer breaks
Adult-only trips are fundamentally different from trips that include children. In general, expect everything from paddling to setting up camp to take longer than it would if it were just adults on the trip.
Little arms and legs don’t have the strength or stamina to keep up with adults. Schedule in plenty of breaks and don’t expect to cover the same distance as you would be able to on your own. Plan the trip around their level, which typically means basic flatwater paddling with lots of stops to refuel and recharge. Even then, expect to do most of the paddling yourself. Managing your expectations about this ahead of time will save you a lot of frustration.
Don’t overlook the role of attention spans, either. Hours spent on a canoe can get a little boring for kids—it’s natural. You can keep things interesting for them with activities like the in-car games used to pass the time on road trips. You could have your kids keep their eyes peeled for different kinds of trees, plants, and wildlife. Some parents like to keep washable chalk on hand for making drawings on the inside of the canoe that wash right off with a bit of water. Use your imagination!
4. Double-check you’ve packed accordingly
Packing properly is essential to the success of any canoe camping trip, and trips with children have a few additional requirements. Here are a few of the essentials to pack when canoe camping with kids:
Bring as many items of clothing you think you’ll need. With kids, you’ll probably need significantly more than you do for yourself. You may encounter a range of weather conditions, and it’s important to be prepared for them.
Here’s a short list of must-have items:
- Sturdy sandals that are built for walking
- Waterproof rain boots to keep feet dry
- Raincoats with hoods to wear on drizzly days
- Hats or caps to shield little heads from the sun
- Lightweight clothing that covers the arms and legs to ward off sunburn and bug bites
It’s also a good idea to pack a few extra changes of clothes above and beyond what you think you’ll need. Little kids love to play out in nature, but this means they’ll get wet and muddy multiple times a day. It’s amazing what a fresh change of clothes can do. It often means the difference between a grumpy child and a happy one.
Snacks do double-duty in warding off both hunger and boredom. You’ll want to keep your kids’ favorites on hand so they can nibble away in the canoe and throughout the day. The same goes for juice boxes, water, and powdered drink mixes—they keep everyone hydrated and happy.
The best snacks are non-perishable, light to carry, and not prone to being pulverized (crackers and chips are likely to be a bag of fine dust after a few hours of hiking and paddling). Fruit leathers, jerky, and nuts all travel well and provide a good boost of energy.
Special treats such as candy and chocolate can be lifesavers in terms of halting tantrums and brightening bad moods, particularly if you’ve hit a rough patch of the trip.
We also recommend stashing some fun foods for evenings around the fire or camp stove. Marshmallows are usually a big hit, and unpopped popcorn doesn’t take up much room in your pack but delivers a lot of fun when popped over the fire.
A canoe camping trip is a chance to explore nature and have fun in ways you can’t during your everyday life. Things like binoculars, frisbees, and bubbles often take on a new excitement and fun factor out in the wilderness.
Simple things often provide the most creativity and fun. For example, a bucket or pail can be used in lots of ways. It can be used to carry water for splashing around or to build sandcastles on the shore. Or fill it up with sticks, leaves, and rocks, and then have your kids throw them into the water one at a time as you’re paddling.
5. Bedtime Routine
You may have no trouble falling asleep under the stars after a day of paddling, but your children may be a little out of sorts if they’re not used to sleeping bags and tents. This is where the importance of a bedtime routine comes in when canoe camping with kids.
As much as possible, try to follow the normal steps you would take at home to get ready for bed. This could include washing up, putting on pajamas, reading a bedtime story, or singing a lullaby. Consider bringing a comfort item such as a doll if you have space in your pack and it can be washed when you get home. It’ll be worth it if it helps your little one get the proper rest they need to start the new day refreshed and upbeat.
6. Fanny packs are your friend
Seriously, when canoe camping with kids, you’ll want to bring at least one, maybe two. Fill them with all the things a child could potentially ask for: sunscreen, bug spray, snacks, shoelaces, bandaids, tissues, a change of socks, pencils, a Swiss Army knife (for older kids), etc.
Keep them next to you pretty much everywhere you go, from the canoe to the campsite, and wear them on the front of your body for easy access. This way, if your child asks you for something, you can grab it out of the fanny pack without having to take your pack off your back and rummage around in it. You can also shift the fanny pack to the side to free up space for carrying a child who’s worn out or simply wants to be held.
Share your love of canoeing with your little ones
As with any activity, attitude is everything. A canoe camping trip is your chance to share your love of canoeing with your child and spark their excitement and interest in the great outdoors. This is less likely to happen if you spend much of the trip frustrated or angry.
An excellent way to keep things in perspective when the inevitable pitfalls arise is to remember that things will get easier with time. If this is your first trip as a family, you’re not only learning the practical skills of canoeing and camping. You’re also learning how to interact with each other in an entirely new and often challenging setting. That’s a tall order for anyone. So practice patience and extend grace to your children and yourself.
It’s also important to consider your children’s unique personalities. Sensitive or anxious children may be uneasy or downright panicky at first when they are outside of their familiar environments. Expecting it can help you respond appropriately rather than out of frustration. Remember, your children are always watching and learning from you. Model the kind of behavior you’d like to see from them, from wearing a life jacket and leaving no trace to demonstrating kindness and patience in the face of an emotional meltdown.
The rewards of this approach cannot be overstated. The quality family time you spend on a canoe camping trip can build bonds that will last a lifetime.