Kids and Kayaks can be a winning combination, the unconfined nature of an open boat allowing for a progression of kid zones to accommodate progeny in safety and comfort.
Younger children are more passenger than paddler and the littlest ones are best left under the bowman’s watchful eye. Since bow babies are under the supervision of the fore paddler, little outfitting is needed to provide a safe and comfortable kid zone. Recognize, though, that the stern paddler will become the principal means of propulsion, as the bowman will be dealing with more immediate and vocal demands.
Bow babies will often succumb to the gentle movement of waterborne travel and nap time will soon follow. Creating a safe and comfortable space amidships for sleepy time will give the bowman a welcome break, and this same center boat space will be used with increasing frequency as bow babies grow into tandem toddlers.
For an amidships sleep zone a closed-cell foam pad will keep little ones warm and dry. One trickier requirement is the need for shade; adequate sun protection can be as simple as a towel spread across the gunwales or a sun screen propped upright on a thwart. One important factor in constructing a sunshade is that it not presents an entrapment hazard (avoid clamping an umbrella to a thwart or installing a partial spray cover).
That same center location also serves well as the next stage kid zone by replacing the foam sleeping pad with a short seat. A boat cushion, low beach chair or specialty kayak seat will provide the means to segue kid canoeists from slumbering ballast to more attentive passenger.
One caveat for creating a safe kid zone in a kayak
Inspect the hardware and outfitting for potential dangers. Do the seat and thwart bolts have cap nuts or thread protectors? Are there any sharp edges, exposed rivet shanks or splinters on the bright work? Since young children occupy a different level in the hull these dangers often go unnoticed.
Once children become interested in actively paddling, the bow seat becomes their territory. Some kayak designs will permit the hull to be paddled stern first, with boat turned “backward” and young bowmen ensconced in what was the stern seat. This seating arrangement provides an easier reach for proper paddling technique and better tandem trim with a lightweight bowman.
The last transition, with older kids, is to paddle a tandem kayak in the normal guise, bow forward with two paddlers. This configuration is the shortest-lived variation—by the time most kids have grown into accomplished bow paddlers they have begun to connive for a boat of their own. Most paddling parents will readily acquiesce to this request and return to their happy beginnings as a solo boater.
Kayak Touring with Tots
If you have kids, the sea kayak is best left hanging in the garage for a few years, right? Wrong! There are many ways to enjoy paddling in the company of youngsters. Rethink your routines, imagine yourself in the body of a half-pint, bring lots of snacks and change focus from covering distance to making discoveries.
Children love water. They love splashing the stern paddler, dragging their paddle to watch the wake and seeing waves slide under the kayak. Tandem kayaks work best. Junior sits in front while you sit in back. Make sure there are bulkheads or floatbags. Consider storing gear in front of their feet so they don’t slide under the bow deck. My nephews and nieces report a 20-liter drybag of spare clothing is the most comfortable booster seat. Sitting up higher, they can straddle the bag like riding a horse and anchor their feet beneath them on the seat, making it easier to paddle.
If two adults and a child are paddling, consider finding a tandem kayak with a good center hatch (make sure it’s isolated from the cockpits with bulkheads). Arrange padding to give the youngster a bit of stability and added height (dry bags filled with soft gear, tarps and ground pads work well). Before hopping in prepared to do all the work, take a few minutes to help your partner understand forward-vs.-backward strokes. Standing behind, put your hands over theirs in the correct position on the paddle—they will tend to keep their hands too close together. Don’t bother with technicalities. Guide them through the torso rotation of several smooth, continuous strokes.
A typical paddle is too big for a child. Department stores often have small plastic paddles for dinghies that work nicely. Kid-sized wooden canoe paddles also work great (or make your own). Don’t tether your tot to the kayak. Spray skirts are OK, but first ensure it will easily pop off should you capsize. And whatever you do, get your paddling companion a new life jacket that fits properly—and leave your old beater in the attic.
Rafting with Rascals
Taking kids rafting is a wonderful way to open their eyes to the world of canyons and water. But there are concessions. The first is the river. Until they’re comfortable swimming on their own in a PFD, forsake rapids for a more leisurely float. Whether you’re going for a day or overnight, have another adult on board to tend to their needs while you’re behind the oars. If you’re bringing gear, put it in the rear compartment so the kids can be up front where you can see them.
Keep snacks at the ready, and juggle your lunch plans to meet their needs, not the itinerary’s. Also keep plenty of water handy and stress the need to drink it. Have a plan in place for naptime, letting them slumber on a bench seat or even in a car seat resting on the floor. Keep in mind the importance of wearing a PFD at all times, and rig some sort of sun protection while they’re sleeping (towels, umbrellas, etc.). If the route is wide and free of obstructions, you can raft your craft together to create a floating barge, allowing kids to inter-mingle. This often breaks up the monotony of being on one raft too long. Since you’re out in the open, keep rain gear and warm clothes easily accessible in a day bag, and be prepared to pull over and wait out a storm if the going gets rough.
If you do have to negotiate a ripple or small rapid, scoot everyone toward the center and point out appropriate anchors to hold onto. Explain what to do beforehand if you anticipate a bump, and illustrate how to hold on to a perimeter safety line in event of a swim.
Above all else, don’t try to steadfastly stick to a preordained itinerary. You won’t make as good of time as you would without kids, so take it in stride and accommodate their needs, whether it’s potty breaks, multiple lunch stops or pulling over for leg-stretching beach time. A few final words to the wise: Never let the kids outnumber the adults (as they did on one multi-day trip of ours, 13 to 12); don’t expect single parents to provide much help with group duties; and always pack an extra box of fruit rolls.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.