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Ten Tips for Canoeing With Kids

The idea of taking your young kids canoeing can be a daunting proposition. There are so many factors to account for and the downside of screwing it up can be hours of crying leading to a hatred for being on the river. Whoa, why would you even do it? Because it’s awesome.

Recently my wife and I hit the river with our 3 year old and our 1 year old. It would be our youngest’s first float. We were joined by some good friends of ours, Dave and Tashia, and their son Silas. Dave and Tashia are long time friends from West Virginia, transplanted to C-Ville, and this was going to be Silas’s first time in a canoe as well. It was a beautiful day on the river.

Tips For A Successful Canoe Trip With Kids:

  • Pick a short float. Both our girls have had their first canoe trip on the same section of the James River. In the James River State Park there is a 2 – 2.5 mile float from the Canoe Landing to Dixon Landing. The entire trip is within the park and the livery will even run shuttle for you for a small fee. It is the perfect river trip length for younguns. If they get to cranky, paddle fast, you’ll be at Dixon in no time.
  • Sunscreen and hats. This is simple. Sun burning your kids will prove unpleasant for both them and you. And people will look at you funny as you carry around a screaming 14 month old tomato.

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  • Pack lots of snacks. All parents know, snacks solve lots of problems. Ziplock bags or snack cups full of crackers, popcorn, etc. will keep them happy on the river. We also pack coconut water boxes for sipping on something sweet.
  • Bathtub Chalk. Seriously. If you can handle a little mess in your life and aren’t too OCD about the appearance of your canoe, bathtub chalk will provide lots of entertainment for your kids. And comfortable seating. I’ve found that a camp chair or kayak seat is a perfect resting place for our little ones.
  • Bubbles make everything awesome. It’s a scientifically proven fact.

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  • Plan a river trip that includes a good lunch/ swimming spot. Breaking up the paddle and tiring the kids out with some good ole fashioned river play is essential. Playtime is where the real memories are made. My 3 year old will tell you, now her favorite part of the canoe trip is playing in the rapids. Make it fun.
  • These first few trips are not about you having your perfect day. They are about setting the stage, building a foundation of recreating outside, that will plant the seeds for future trips. It’s in those future trips that the joy will come. Some of the early trips will be tough. Deal. It gets better.  Eventually you could even get to this point, sitting up front, while your wife pilots the canoe, casting for fish while your kids snack it up.
  • Keep it calm and keep it upright. Nothing capsizes a canoe faster than erratic movements. Even if your little tyke breaks out into a fit, stay zen, and find an immediate solution that does not involve quick, unbalancing action. Most of the time, little toddlers will enjoy sitting up front in the bow, between their parent’s legs. They’re in the action and easily entertained.

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  • Give your kids their own paddle as soon as they are ready. Our 3 yr. old got her first “real” canoe paddle for Christmas this past year, a Bending Branches Twig. She was psyched to get in on the action and help paddle.
  • PFD, PFD, PFD. Make sure everyone is wearing one. If a kid goes in the drink, they need to float and if you have to go in to get them, it’s best you have one on as well. I always wear my PFD on the water. How else can I expect my kids’ to follow that rule if I do not?

Taking your kids on the river can be a daunting prospect, but with a little planning and a cool head, you can have a good time. The first trip might be bumpy, but keep trying, because the payoff is a lifetime of appreciation for outdoor recreation. Our state parks are a great place to start. Every year my wife gifts me annual passes to our VA State Parks. It’s the perfect gift because I get to share it with my girls.

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