Kayaking With A Toddler – Guide For Parents

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As your family grows, you’ll naturally want to bring your little one along on your adventures. For many parents, including your toddler in the types of adventures you became used to before he or she was born can be quite the adjustment. 

Safety is, of course, the number one concern when kayaking with a toddler. But you also need to have some tricks up your sleeve to keep things fun as you push your outings longer and longer. 

While kayaking is a relaxing and adventurous experience for many adults, kids can get bored with it pretty quickly. That’s when your creativity and adaptability will really start to be challenged. 

In this article, we’re going to provide a comprehensive guide for parents to prepare for kayaking with a toddler. We’ll cover the importance of a PFD, how to plan your experience, the essentials you should pack, some advice on keeping it fun, and a few tips for how to select a toddler-friendly kayak. 

Jargon Buster

Before we dive into our comprehensive guide, we want to take a minute to define some key kayaking terms. In this section, we’ll provide brief definitions for several of the terms you’ll encounter later in this article. 

PFD

PFD stands for ‘personal floatation device’. PFDs have various Coast Guard Designations depending on their buoyancy and other criteria. 

Launching/Landing Points

These are locations where you put your kayak in the water and/or take it out at the end of your paddle. 

Hydration Bladder

A hydration bladder is a soft-sided alternative to a hard plastic water bottle. This is a great way to bring water on a kayaking trip. 

Capsize

When your kayak flips! This often occurs as a result of the paddler’s weight extending too far over one side of the kayak or the other. But it can also be caused by large waves or winds. 

Gunwales

Gunwales are the kayaking term for the sides of the kayak. Since kayakers are sitting and facing the bow during 99% of the time they’re in their kayak, they don’t tend to use the ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ terms that are common amongst larger sailing vessels. 

Importance Of A Properly-Fitted PFD

Buying a PFD for your toddler is simply the first step to a safe kayaking experience. Then you’ll need to learn how to get and keep your toddler’s PFD fitted properly. 

Why Many People Underestimate PFD Fitting

For many of us, we grew up calling PFDs by a different name. The term ‘life jacket’ can often imply that simply having a PFD on your body will save your life if your kayak capsizes and you find yourself working through an unexpected swim. 

The truth is that PFDs are only as effective as the person who puts it on. In the case of your toddler, you should be responsible for making sure your toddler’s PFD is fit properly. 

Many kayak guides will tell you that it only takes a minute of neglect for an inexperienced kayaker to end up in the water. If this happens and that kayaker’s PFD isn’t fit properly, it’s possible for the PFD to slip off entirely. 

As you might imagine, this is a worst-case scenario. But many inexperienced kayakers make a fuss about making their PFD snug because it might feel uncomfortable or appear “uncool.”

We want to prepare you so that the “cool factor” isn’t even a consideration when it comes to PFDs. As a new parent, you probably don’t need to be reminded that the safety of your toddler should be your primary concern when you head out for a kayaking adventure. 

How To Fit A PFD


For starters, you need to be careful to select a PFD that is the correct size for your toddler. In most cases, you’ll use your toddler’s weight to select a properly sized PFD. 

Once you have the right size PFD, there are a few simple steps for fitting it properly. Start by placing the PFD over your toddler’s head and sliding arms through the armholes. 

Next, buckle all the buckles or snap all the clips securely. There are many styles of toddler PFDs out there, so the exact method of clipping or buckling the straps in place may differ. 

Once your straps are buckled, tighten them down so that the PFD fits snug but isn’t causing your toddler any discomfort. Lift up on the shoulder straps of the PFD to test if it is fit tightly enough. 

If you can easily lift the straps of the PFD above your toddler’s ears, it needs to be tightened further. What you’re doing here is essentially simulating what will happen if your toddler does fall in the water. 

While it’s okay if the PFD moves around a little bit, it might be snug enough to stay in place if your toddler goes for a swim. If you need further clarification, click on the image above to check out the video on PFD fitting! 

How To Plan Your Experience

The plan you lay out for kayaking with your toddler can make or break your experience. It’s important to understand the limitations of all parties so that your plan has the greatest chance of success. 

How Many Paddlers?

There’s no consensus opinion on whether it’s better for two adults to paddle with one toddler or for your toddler to paddle with just one parent at a time. That being said, at least one of you should be an experienced paddler

Many experienced paddlers will be comfortable paddling alone with a toddler. And there are many double kayaks that offer a central seat for a toddler or small child. 

In the case that both parents are relatively inexperienced paddlers, it can be easier for one parent to paddle with their toddler at a time. This reduces the amount of in-kayak variables that could cause an unexpected capsize.  

Distance

It’s important to be conservative when planning your first kayaking trips with a toddler. If you set low expectations and wind up exceeding them, everyone wins. 

A good rule-of-thumb is to plan on covering less than one-third of the distance you’d usually cover on a trip with your adult friends. In some cases, simply getting your toddler into the cockpit and paddling several yards offshore can be enough to introduce them to the sport. 

Time

It’s best to keep your trips between 30 minutes and an hour when kayaking with a toddler. As you and your toddler get more comfortable with your kayaking setup, you can begin to plan longer outings. 

Location

Make sure you choose a body of water that is relatively calm for your toddler’s first few outings. A calm lake or very wide and exceptionally slow-moving river will give you, as the primary engine of the kayak, less to worry about and serve to reduce your toddler’s anxiety levels. 

In terms of launching points, it can be good to choose a large stretch of beach to launch from. If you plan a family beach day, you can set yourselves up for the day and then take the kayak out for as long (or as short) of time as you desire. 

It can also be helpful to choose a location that offers variety in terms of sights and surrounding activity. This can serve to keep your toddler engaged and reduce the likelihood of returning to shore with a sleeping toddler on board. 

Bathroom Needs

Make sure you plan for the bathroom needs of your toddler when outlining your kayaking itinerary. Whether that means packing extra swim diapers or planning for frequent bathroom stops, you and your toddler will be much more comfortable if you plan ahead on this front. 

Essentials To Pack

“It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” When it comes to packing the essentials for a kayaking trip with a toddler, you have every reason to overpack. 

Water

Water is the key essential to any outdoor recreation adventure. According to CHOC Children’s, the average amount of water a child should consume will increase as they age (up until age nine). 

Toddlers between one and three years of age should consume between 8 and 24 ounces of water per day. But we all know that this should increase with increased activity and sun exposure. 

Make sure you pack at least one full 32-ounce reusable water bottle that’s dedicated to your child’s drinking water. Of course, you must also account for your water needs when packing. 

We always recommend using refillable water bottles over disposables, but a hydration bladder is also a great solution. These can be especially good for kayaking because they’re easier to store onboard. 

Food

Easy-to-eat snacks are the best type of food to bring along on any kayaking trip. As a parent, you’re going to have the best feel for the exact snacks that your toddler will be craving after paddling for a bit. 

That being said, you’ll have to consider how you’re going to pack those snacks and keep them intact. That’s why we tend to recommend items like dried mangoes, apples, dried nuts (pine nuts and pumpkin seeds!), and dried veggies like carrots and cucumber.

When you’re packing a cooler full of snacks to go kayaking with your toddler, you’ll benefit from packing everything in hard-sided Tupperware containers, if possible. This will reduce the possibility of anything getting squished or spilling out into the cooler.  

Clothing

Protecting your toddler from sun exposure is really important. That’s why you should make sure to pack a wide-brimmed hat and do your best to make sure your toddler wears it for the majority of the time you’re on the water. 

We think it’s also great to look into a lightweight, UV-screening, long-sleeved shirt for kayaking with your toddler. That will reduce the amount of sunscreen you need to lather on while achieving the same degree of UV protection. 

On that same note, two of the areas that many adults often forget to protect from the sun while kayaking are the tops of the feet and the thighs. For your toddler’s feet, light water shoes have the benefit of protecting the top of the feet from the sun and the bottom of the feet from rocks and other sharp objects on the beach. 

To protect your toddler’s thighs from getting burnt, you can simply place a lightweight microfiber towel over their legs while you paddle. There are also several options for toddler swim leggings out there. 

As you start to plan longer kayaking trips with your toddler, you should also think about packing rain gear in case you do encounter any weather. Of course, any clothing that you bring on your kayak should be packed in a sealable dry bag to keep water from entering. 

In addition to the gear you bring on your kayak, you’ll also want to have some backup gear waiting back at the car. It’s always recommended to have at least a dry change of clothes in case you do go for a planned (or unexpected) swim!

Other Essentials

One major essential that we haven’t mentioned yet is sunglasses. The reflection of the sun off the water’s surface can be harsh on clear days, so you’ll want to protect your toddler’s pupils from those sun rays. 

Some other gear you might include for fun, safety, or both include binoculars, emergency whistles attached to PFDs, and personal maps and compasses. Of course, there are many items that become more and more essential as you begin to plan longer trips. 

Tips For Keeping It Fun

One of the biggest challenges of kayaking with toddlers can be keeping them entertained. In this section, we’ll provide a few recommendations for filling time and keeping it fun on the water. 

Challenge Your Toddler To Paddle

This should depend on the age of your toddler, but many kayak paddles can be broken down in half. This makes them a great size for your toddler to practice dipping the blade in and out of the water. 

In many cases, this will only last for short stretches. But it’s always a good idea to keep an extra paddle (or half a paddle) handy in case your toddler wants to help you navigate!

Follow Their Interests

Kids are naturally observant and curious. Your toddler is likely to pick out things on the water or on the shoreline that you might never have noticed. 

Every time your toddler asks, “what’s that?”, you have an opportunity to divert your course and explore further. Following your toddler’s curiosities on the water is a great way to keep them engaged. 

Play Games

Kayaking can even become monotonous for many adults. But a great way to break that monotony is to have some kayak games up your sleeve. 

These can range from a simple game of ‘I Spy’ to a more challenging obstacle-course style game. If you’re paddling with multiple other kayakers, you could even arrange a short-distance race for bragging rights. 

There are many great games that you can use to keep your toddler entertained while kayaking. The main point here is that you might need to prepare to get creative to keep your toddler engaged and entertained while paddling.  

How To Select A Toddler-Friendly Kayak

If you and your partner are new to kayaking and want to share your newfound passion with your toddler, you’ll need the right kayak! In this section, we’ll let you know several important things to look for when selecting a toddler-friendly kayak. 

Tandem Versus Single

The first choice is whether to go with a single or a tandem kayak. Tandem kayaks are made to accommodate two adults easily, and many have a space for a third seat in a central location between the bow and stern paddlers. 

While single kayaks can certainly be used to kayak with toddlers, you’ll mostly have to keep your toddler in your lap throughout the duration of your paddle. This can limit your paddle motion and also put your child at risk of getting hit if you have to make an unexpected, quick maneuver. 

Tandem kayaks are simply the better option for parents that want to kayak with their toddler. As you start to embark on longer adventures, a tandem will also offer plenty of extra storage space for your gear. 

Sit On Top Versus Sit Inside

This is the next choice you’ll be faced with, as tandem kayaks come in both the sit on top and the sit inside varieties. There are pros and cons of each, and your ultimate choice will largely come down to your experience level and the region where you live and plan to do most of your kayaking. 

Inexperienced paddlers should almost always start with a sit on top kayak. There can be some exceptions if you make the up-front investment in a training course that includes the basics of operating a sit-inside kayak, especially self-rescue. 

Sit on top kayaks are favorable for less-experienced kayakers because they’re more forgiving. They generally allow you to lean further in either direction without capsizing and are much easier to flip over and re-enter if you do capsize. 

This can be a really important point for safety when kayaking with a toddler. If you’re not experienced with self-rescue in a sit-inside kayak, it’s the last thing you want to learn when you have a toddler on board. 

Sit on top kayaks are also preferable for warmer climates. In these areas, you usually won’t worry about a little water splashing over the gunwales and cooling down your legs from time to time. 

For more experienced paddlers, there are benefits of a sit-inside kayak too. You’ll generally remain drier in a sit-inside kayak, which can drastically improve the quality of your toddler’s experience. 

Sit inside kayaks also generally have more space for dry storage inside. While you might not need this when starting out kayaking with a toddler, this storage space might come in handy as your child grows and you start to plan longer trips.

Those that will be doing most of their paddling in colder climates should more seriously consider a sit-inside kayak. This is the only type of kayak compatible with a spray skirt that keeps water and wind from cooling down your lower half.  

The ability to adapt to changing weather conditions is even more important in colder climates. And a sit-inside kayak gives you the variety to keep yourself, and your toddler, comfortable as you finish out your paddle. 

As we mentioned above, anyone looking into purchasing a sit-inside kayak for use with a toddler should be very comfortable operating this type of watercraft. Otherwise, you should at least invest in significant training before loading your toddler in for your first paddle together. 

Stability

The last major point we’ll mention is stability. And there are two factors that largely contribute to a kayak’s stability: width (relative to length) and the shape of the hull. 

In general, a wider kayak will be more stable. But you must be sure to consider width relative to length because this is going to give you an estimate of the kayak’s total water displacement. 

For example, a kayak that is 10 feet long and 34 inches wide might be more stable than a relative kayak that is 16 feet long and still only 34 inches wide. This is why taking both metrics into account for stability is important! 

When it comes to the shape of the hull, a deeper V-shaped hull is generally more stable than a shallower and flatter design. There are also U-shaped, double-U shaped, and pontoon shaped hulls, so you should be sure to look through an article like this one to familiarize yourself a little more!

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