Canoeing with Kids

by Richard Munn|Published 00-00-0000

Special Considerations

The most important consideration is that the trip has to be fun - and fun from a kid's perspective. As adults, we’re sometimes willing to put up with a bit of adversity in order to get into that special lake or river; or reach that favourite campsite. Kids will neither appreciate nor understand this type of tradeoff. They live for the moment and if that moment happens to be miserable, they’ll be miserable too. You’re never going to be able to use adult logic to convince a child that a long, buggy day was worth it because you’ve reached your favourite campsite.

Daily travelling distances have to be scaled back dramatically. If your typical paddling day is 20 km, consider 5 – 8 km as a good distance for paddling with children. Kids may enjoy the novelty of riding in and paddling a canoe, but they also want and need time on dry land to explore and play. Frequent rest stops, longer-than-usual lunch breaks, late starts and early finishes are the order of the day when tripping with kids.  

Planning

The planning and preparation process is an enjoyable part of any trip, and that's particularly so when it's a trip involving kids. Let your child be part of this planning process. It will heighten the level of anticipation; and allow them to feel that they’ve had an important role in the process.

This includes menu planning and packing lists. Help the child understand that everything has to be planned out in some detail – what they’re going to eat, drink, wear, carry and use. Even a child should know that a canoe trip is different than going outside to play. If something gets forgotten, neither you or they are going to be able to run home to get it.

Show your child the route on the map and explain to them where you’re going to be going, what the scenery will look like and where you’re staying for the night. Even a small child can have a surprisingly good grasp of the concept that the map is a "picture" of the route. Point out that the little triangles are campsites, and that the line across the river will be a rapid. Show them the spots that the contour lines indicate a big hill or a cliff; and the symbols that indicate a marshy section.

Allow your child to do their own packing. For a small child, this may only be a matter of putting a storybook, their teddy bear, their GORP and water bottle into their little daypack. It’s still important. You can point out things like "what would happen to your bear if your pack fell in the water?" and recommend that maybe the bear might be safer inside a Ziploc bag.

Older children are perfectly capable of packing from a list that you have made. Allow kids to gather their own clothing, raingear and footwear and after checking these items against the packing list yourself, help the child pack them.

Equipment

Good kid’s equipment is just as important as good equipment for adults. If we’ve been out tripping for years, we probably have good clothing, a quality mattress and sleeping bag and adequate raingear. The same may not hold true for the children. If a quality, warm sleeping bag is necessary for you, then it is for the kids too. Those little cotton-covered bags with the pictures of Barbie or Pokemon are fine for sleepovers at a friend’s house, but not so great during a cold snap on a canoe trip.

Putting a child into an adult-sized bag (even a quality one) may not be the best idea either. Sleeping bags don’t generate any warmth – they simply hold in the heat that our bodies generate. A small child may not be able to generate enough heat to warm up the inside of a huge adult-sized sleeping bag, and regardless of the rating they may feel cold at night. Be sure that the temperature rating of the bag matches the worst expected weather; and that the bag is properly sized for the child.

A good PFD is also essential. For small children, it should have a loop on the collar so that you can retrieve a child that slips into the water or falls out of the canoe. It should also have a crotch strap so that when you pull on the neck loop you don’t end up with an empty PFD in your hand and a kid still in the water.

Each child should have their own daypack to carry their personal gear. This pack doesn’t have to hold all of their clothing – just their essentials that they’re going to need during the day. Kids feel much more independent and grown up if they’re carrying their own sunscreen, GORP and toys in their own pack. They should also be responsible for getting this pack across the portage. As children get older and able to carry more weight, the pack size can be increased so that they’re carrying more of their own gear.

A good piece of equipment for the daypack is an inexpensive compass. As you travel, you can tell the child "we’ve got to paddle to the north end of the lake," and let the child use the compass to find which way north is. It’s not only fun for the child, but a way of beginning to establish some type of navigation sense and familiarity with compass directions. Explain about directions and how a compass works. Ask them early in the afternoon to predict where the sun will sink below the horizon based on the fact that the sun sets in the west.

Of course, each kid has to have his or her own flashlight or headlamp. The ability to independently light up the inside of the tent at night is critical, and making shadow-figures is quite cool, too. With the heavy use that kids flashlights get, an LED model with super-long battery life is a good idea.

Children should carry a whistle at all times. This whistle should be clipped to a belt loop with a carabiner or otherwise ‘fastened’ to the kid. Watch out for and avoid neck strings that can get caught on branches or underbrush. Children can wander, and they should know that the moment they are out of sight of the campsite and aren’t sure of how to get back, they should stop where they are and use the whistle to signal for help. They should also recognize the importance of ONLY using the whistle for this purpose. The whistle is not a toy, and must not be used as a noisemaker – only to sound those three blasts that signal a problem. Let them try this three-blast signal in the living room at home as many times as it takes to get it out of their system and to ensure that their understanding of the signal is the same as your expectation of what it will sound like. After that, they have to know that blowing the whistle is a no-no unless they’re seriously in trouble or lost.

Toys

People seem to be of two different mindsets when it comes to bringing toys. Some feel that a little bag of toys can provide a valuable diversion; others feel that children can create their own playthings with sticks, stones, pinecones and other treasures they find.

Whatever approach you take, it’s certainly worth bringing along that favourite teddy bear or blanket. It provides some degree of continuity and comfort in what may be a brand new environment for kids. A favourite storybook can be a godsend also. When my guys were little, they wanted the Pokey Little Puppy and the Cat in the Hat as a bedtime story every single night. There’s no reason not to carry out that tradition while you’re in the tent. Books can also be a lifesaver during extended periods of rain, when kids start to get cabin fever.

A kid-sized mask and snorkel or swimming goggles can be a lot of fun for finding those special treasures on the lake bottom too.

While You’re Paddling

Again, it’s worth reinforcing the guiding principle that children have limited attention spans, and that their tolerance for a long paddling day will be low. Unless you want to paddle along with a whining child asking "are we almost there?" you’re going to have to scale back your normal paddling day dramatically.

Sitting on the cold, hard hull of a canoe isn’t much fun, so children should have some sort of cushioning, perhaps a closed-cell foam pad and a day pack to lean against. Children should be encouraged to paddle. Small paddles are inexpensive and readily available. It may be worth tying the paddle off with a piece of cord to the thwart or portage yoke so that you aren’t stopping to retrieve a dropped paddle every ten minutes.

For the most part, kids are content to watch the scenery go by, grab lily pads, paddle, drag their hands in the water and ask incessant questions. Stop for frequent breaks to have a pee and explore. Although we often are running on some type of schedule, it’s important to have some flexibility and allow time for berry picking, frog catching, plant identification and general exploration.

Activities

Most people find that planned activities are unnecessary. There likely won’t be enough daylight hours to gather every pinecone, chase every chipmunk and explore every nook and cranny on the campsite. Although feeding wild animals isn’t generally a good idea, if you’re staying at a frequently used campsite you’re probably going to find that you’re sharing the site with one or more very tame squirrels or chipmunks. Having a supply of peanuts or other nuts along can provide hours of diversion as the kids watch these critters return again and again for a handful of nuts.

A little net can provide lots of entertainment as the kids scout the shoreline for minnows, frogs and crayfish. Field guides to birds, plants and reptiles can provide entertainment. Encourage your child to keep a list of the birds they’ve seen; or collect as many different leaves as they can and try to identify them.

Keep a trip journal. It’ll be a priceless treasure in years to come. If your child is too young to record their thoughts in writing, let them draw pictures and dictate their impressions of the canoe trip to you so that you can record the stories for them.

Bug Protection

Adults may have the fortitude to tolerate insects – children may or may not. If a child is having problems with mosquitoes or blackflies, the end result may be a miserable, itchy kid up tossing, turning and crying in the tent at night. A kid-sized bug jacket (inexpensive and easy to find) is a great option. Make sure they have a hat with a brim that will keep the mesh away from their face. Insect repellent is a must also. Remember that strong DEET-based sprays or lotion are not recommended for children on an ongoing basis. There are repellents with milder concentrations of DEET, or citronella-based lotions available. Putting repellant on cuffs, pant hems and hat brims is a good option if you don’t want to apply sprays directly to young, sensitive skin.

During the peak (evening) bug hours, it may be necessary to retreat into the tent for story time or quiet playtime. A bug tent is probably a worthwhile investment if you’re going to be doing any amount of tripping with kids. There are some reasonably lightweight and portable models available.

"Afterbite" pens that help relieve the itch of insect bites are readily available at outdoor stores. The degree of relief they provide varies from person to person, but they may be worth a try for treating the inevitable bites that occur. A last resort may have to be a child-appropriate dose of an antihistamine, either in ointment form or taken orally.

Food

A child brought out into the wilderness environment has enough changes to adapt to without having to deal with a strange new menu. A canoe trip (particularly a first canoe trip) isn’t the time to see if your child likes dehydrated food or lentil stews. Sticking to the tried and true familiar items that kids like at home will probably work best.

Is your kid a Kraft Dinner or hot dog lover? You may as well plan on bringing them along. As adults, we can cope just fine with a complete new way of eating – children may not. A box of Cheerios may not be traditional tripping food, but if that’s the breakfast of choice at home, it may be best to carry it along.

Stick to foods that they enjoy at home, and bring along a bag of marshmallows for the campfire too! This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for creativity. Kids love cooking and eating anything that’s prepared on a campfire. Try wrapping bannock around a stick and letting the child cook it over the coals.

Frequent and readily available snacks are a must. Allow the child to carry GORP, granola bars and a drinking bottle in their day pack.