Kayaking with kids: Paddling as a family since 2018
How old were our kids when we started taking them family kayaking?
If only you could have seen it.
Intense Class X rapids. Broken paddles. A huge hole in the hull.
All things that were definitely NOT part of any of our kayaking adventures with our kids.
🌺 When Aster was 3 and Connor was 6, we took them on their first kayaking jaunt, on the Hanalei River on the north side of Kauai, in Hawaii. It was a slow, easy paddle on a calm river. We rented everything we needed from Kayak Hanalei on Kauai.
The biggest difficulty we faced? It took a while for Jodie’s dad and Anthony to find their paddling groove. They kept veering across the river and crashing into the riverbank. Much to Connor’s giggly delight as he sat in the middle of the boat between them.
We adults had been kayaking a few times. We knew we wanted kayaking to be part of the experiences we shared with our children. Now that we can take our kids on the water, we’ve learned a lot about kayaking with our kids. Here are a few tips from our experience to help you decide when to start kayaking with your young kids, along with the kayaks we bought for our own family kayaking adventures.
The kind of family kayaking we’ll be talking about
Kayaking takes many forms, from riding crazy rapids to gently paddling around lakes.
Our kayaking is definitely the latter.
We have some experience with sea kayaking and whitewater, but our main kayaking love is flatwater paddling. The Cascade lakes of Oregon hold a special place in our heart. And when you get down to it, we are lovers of slow travel. That shows up in how we travel the water too.
So while some families want to set out on the sea or rip down some rapids, that’s awesome, but it’s not our focus here. Still, whatever kayaking interest your family has, our experience as kayaking parents can help you make the right choice for you and your kids.
The kind of kayaking we do focuses on:
- Flatwater paddling, such as freshwater lakes
- Tandem kayaks: We pilot two Sea Eagle 370 Inflatable Kayaks, with one adult in back and one kid in front for each boat
- Short trips: At this point at least, we don’t do all-day paddles or use our kayaks for expeditions. We go for paddles that are generally up to a few hours long, leaving from and returning to either our car or campsite
Why we wanted the kids to kayak
Family kayaking video: Sunset lake paddle in an active volcano
Kayaking as a family helps us travel more with a mama who has a disability
Hiking is part of our family adventures. However, hiking is also harder for Jodie, who has a disability. As an amputee who uses a prosthetic leg, Jodie also enjoys kayaking because being on the water is a sort of equalizer for her. She doesn’t wear her leg. We’re all in a couple of boats together. We move at the same pace, and it’s easy for us to stick together as a group.
We wanted the kids to kayak with us because kayaking—along with canoeing or paddling a SUP—shows us the world from a different perspective.
It’s one thing to see a lake while looking out from the shore toward the center. It’s another to look out from the lake, and see the land, the trees, the mountains, the sky. Instead of looking at the water, you can look into the water. The kids love searching out water plants, or spying insects on the surface, or seeking out fish swimming beneath us.
Our family kayaking adventures have given us a new way to bond. We get offline and get on the water, together. Kayaking also gives all of us ways we can help each other. The kids have learned that their mama needs us to work together as a team, so we can have more fun on the water. They in turn have learned to help carry the boats, work our foot pumps for our two tandem inflatable kayaks, carry gear, and safely get in the boat.
As a travel family, we love options. And kayaking has given us more options to explore the world, and get fresh perspective, than we can from just experiencing the world from on land.
What we considered for signs the kids were old enough to kayak
Do some parents kayak with their infants and toddlers? You bet. Other families wait until their kids are older, more toward kindergarten age. We decided that was the right path for us. Here are some of the things we took into consideration when deciding what to look for in our kids to see if they were ready to go kayaking with us:
We did not want to worry about hauling (or changing) diapers in a kayak. Nuff said.
Around 4 years old.
Age was not as big a deal to us, but we did figure around 4 years old was probably a good sweet spot of being able to sit, paddle, and understand things like safety rules.
Old enough to stay in the boat.
Speaking of safety rules, we especially wanted to see that the kids could comprehend safety concerns, and follow safety rules. Above all? Before launching, we always talk with the kids about a few ground, er, water rules. You know, little things like staying in the boat, sitting on your bum, and keeping your PFD on at all times.
Content with sitting and watching.
A lot of kayaking is sitting in a boat, watching the world go by, one paddle stroke at a time. We didn’t want to worry about the kids getting bored or grumpy, and wanted to see that they were mature enough to sit and be content.
Or as Aster likes to point out, “Being in the front of the boat is fun. You see everything before the other person does.”
Paddling or not paddling, it’s all good.
On our first kayaking trip, neither child did much paddling. A few years on, when we go out each kid now paddles some. We make it clear though, that they are always welcome to stop when they’re done and we adults can handle the rest.
🥥 Grab for all the leaves and coconuts in the water that you want.
As long as the kids stay sitting down, we’ve told them they are allowed to grab for things floating on the water, such as leaves and coconuts. It keeps them engaged, gives them something to do, and what they haul in has led to many a fun discussion. They share their observations about what they pull up, such as how heavy the coconut feels, and how some of it is black and some is brown. We talk about how it might have gotten into the water. And then we let it go.
Kayaks, canoes, ferries, and boats galore
Family kayaking video: Canoeing in Oregon’s Cascade Lakes region… and unboxing our family IKs!
Kayaking has opened up the kids to other types of water adventures
Another side benefit of taking our kids kayaking? It’s helped us introduce them to other boating experiences. Plus, we’ve gotten to see firsthand whether or not they get seasick—always a plus when figuring out adventures or transportation during our family travels.
Here are a few other boating experiences family kayaking has set us up for:
During a summer camping trip at a Cascades mountain lake with another family, it turns out they brought their three-person wooden canoe. Each dad took some of the kids out for a few canoe trips, and we grownups even got to have a few canoe dates, paddling around a beautiful lake near sunset, with the low sun glowing on the water and the surrounding peaks.
A quintessential Seattle travel experience? Taking the ferry out to one of the islands in Puget Sound. Knowing that we could trust the kids to stay with us and be safe at the boat railing, we could easily enjoy a ferry ride while also spotting jellyfish and orcas in the water.
While we haven’t (yet) traveled on a big cruise ship, during a popup camping road trip to Southern California, we built in time to check out Channel Islands National Park. Instead of going to one of the islands though, our visit coincided with whale watching season. Taking a whale watching boat cruise out toward massive Santa Cruz Island, the kids nimbly navigated steep staircases and the rocks and rolls of the ship as it crossed the waves.
Our reward? Not only did we see four gray whales, but we happened upon a huge pod of dolphins herding fish. Before we knew it, we were watching a swarm of dolphins seals, pelicans, and other seabirds as they dove and leaped around the water.
Could we have figured out these other adventures without family kayaking? Sure. But having that foundation on the water, as a family, has helped us have a much better idea of the boat and water adventures we can build into our family travels.
What we pack for a family kayaking outing
Family kayaking video: Our first float in our inflatable tandem IKs
The right gear helps make a great kayaking trip
As with any land excursion with kids, a successful kayaking day trip comes down to making sure you bring the right gear for the day. Packing is always a balance between what you need and what you think you might need, but in our experience, less is more. We don’t pack for every contingency, but we do try to make sure we cover our family bases so every stays snacked up, and we can deal with any issues while we’re away from car, home, or camp.
Before heading out, we always check the weather, and we don’t think twice about canceling a paddle if it seems like the conditions might get pretty bad.
Since we run two boats, with one adult and one child in each boat, we do pack some redundant items, so each boat has a few essentials. Here are some things you’ll typically find in the boat during one of our family kayaking trips:
Anthony typically has a 2-liter backpack hydration reservoir. Jodie carries a 24-oz. water bottle. Each kid carries a 1-liter water bottle, and we may have a couple of extra water bottles with us, depending on how long we expect to be on the water or if it’s a really hot and sunny day.
Each boat carries various trail mixes, fruit leathers, jerky, and some fresh fruit. If we’re going around more of a typical mealtime, we might also bring some lunch tortilla wraps with veggies, deli meat, and cheese. Often we’ll find a spot to pull up side by side and have a meal together.
GoPro and iPhone
Each adult carries a GoPro HERO9 Black, and we stow our iPhones in phone pockets in our PFDs. When needed, one of the dry bags might also carry spare GoPro batteries, a small portable battery, and a few charging cords.
Dry bags and supplies
Each boat carries small Sea to Summit dry bag. Inside that bag you might find ID, a credit card, car keys, an IK repair kit, a small first aid kit, spray or stick sunscreen, and carabiners of various sizes.
Hats and sunglasses
Sometimes we dress with long sleeves and pant legs, sometimes it’s short sleeves and shorts all around. We always wear hats and sunglasses—they definitely take the edge off a sunny summer day.
For a more complicated paddle or route, we’d bring some sort of map or chart. Since we’re typically just paddling around lakes, there’s not exactly much course to keep track of.
That’s the main gist of what we pack—except for one more, most crucial thing. Above all, we pack an excited, open-hearted, curious attitude.
Why tandem inflatable IKs have been our family kayaking sweet spot
During our month-long 2021 summer adventure, packing our IKs helped us float Colorado’s Grand Lake
Even small kids can help prep, move, and paddle an inflatable kayak
Hard shell. Inflatable. Single. Tandem. If you’ve been looking into family kayaking, odds are you’ve seen how many different types of kayak are available. Every family is different, so we’re going to wrap up by sharing a little about why we went with the kayaks we did.
Fortunately, there are so many options on the market, so no matter what your family setup, needs, and budget are, odds are you can find the right boat setup for you and your family. Plus, you can build out what you need today, with an eye to how that setup might change as your family changes and your kids grow.
As a “family Christmas gift” in 2020, we got ourselves two Sea Eagle 370 tandem inflatable kayaks (or IKs). Here’s why:
No roof racks needed
Our IKs store in large carry bags. We can stow them in the back of our Subaru Outback when heading to a boat launch. Or, if we’re on a camping trip, the kayaks go in the walkway of our popup camper, along with PFDs and paddles.
One parent and the kids can move the boats
Jodie doesn’t wear her prosthetic leg when we kayak. That meant we had to have a setup where Anthony could move our boats without help. As of this writing in late winter of 2022, Connor can shift a bagged IK on his own. When the boats are inflated, Anthony and one of the kids can move each kayak where it’s needed, while Jodie preps paddles and other gear.
Tandems fit our current family style
Some families might want to fit everyone in a bigger boat. Some might prefer individual boats, especially as the kids get older, bigger, and more capable. For where we are on our parenting journey, two tandem IKs give us balance and options. Each boat can easily hold one adult and one child. (At this point, one adult could even take both kids in one boat, though it’d be a bit snug). Plus, if any of the adults want to do a solo outing while the other hangs out onshore with the kids, the tandems handle just as well with one kayaker as with two.
IKs make for great family kayaking
A stereotype of IKs is that they’re pretty much pool floats. They’re not. Sea Eagle IKs are made of durable fabrics, with multiple inflation chambers and airtight valves. The boats are tough enough that people bring their dogs in them. At the same time, on the water IKs are easy to navigate. They hold course well, and while any boat can get blown around, they track accurately and are easy to course correct. Each kid can help with the paddling and navigating too.
Easy to store at home
It can be easy to think of all the ways you haul your kayak when traveling. It can also be easy to overlook how you store your boat at home. Our garage has a large closet, with wide cubbies along one end. The bagged IKs easily stow inside those cubbies, along with our four PFDs, plus four paddles, separated into three segments each.
Based in Long Island, NY Sea Eagle has been designing and making inflatable watercraft for decades. They have an extensive track record, impressive lineup, and, even better, their prices fit our family budget. One tandem IK, complete with two seats, two paddles, and a repair kit, cost us about $400 For the two, that’s about $800 altogether.
Inflatable tandem kayaks have met a wonderful sweet spot of storage, hauling, ease of use, and budget for our family of four. As the kids get older, sure, we can evaluate our setup and see if there’s a point at which we need solo boats. Even then, odds are we’ll stick with inflatables. They work really well for us, and they’re really fun to pilot.
Family kayaking brings us closer and helps us enjoy the world
That first family kayaking trip in Hawaii, when the kids were only 3 and 6, really set the stage for our future water adventures. Each kid sat in the middle of a kayak, marveling at the river, the trees, and the birds. Now and again they’d reach down into the water, grabbing for leaves and floating coconuts.
That first wee trip showed us all that we could kayak together. And it’s led to wonderful memories, in the Oregon Cascades, Idaho’s southeast corner, and one of Colorado’s highest lakes. Now that we have our own Sea Eagle tandem IKs, we’ve seen time and again that the kids love getting out on the water.
Sometimes they even want to help paddle.
And they still wish they could grab for coconuts floating on the water.
Hmmm, we’ll have to work on that. In the meantime, time to get ready for another kayaking trip. As you figure out the right kayak setup for your family, yes, there are choices to make, but you’ve got this. It’s going to be brilliant. Have fun and get paddling!