How to Get Started Kayaking with Kids

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Kayaking with kids is an enjoyable family adventure that's great for body and soul. Tips for beginners, including gear and where to get out on the water.

For years, we chatted back and forth about how much we wanted to go kayaking, but then this or that would come up, and the thought would float away.

But kayaking is something we can enjoy when we head back to Big Bend, on a mountain lake in Colorado, on the Gulf Coast waters, on the Jacks Fork River and the Current River in my home state of Missouri, and right here at home in the heart of the Ozarks where lakes and rivers abound, including Beaver Lake and the Buffalo National River.

Everything changed over the course of the past two months as we decided to finally take the leap and just do it.

Before we purchased our kayaks, we did a lot of research about kayaking with kids. We really wanted to experience this new adventure together, as a family; but above all, we needed to make sure everyone would be safe, especially our toddler.

After my initial freak out our first time out (I have a fear of deep dark water, but I'll write more about that later), I felt myself begin to relax, surrounded by nature. We went again the next day and again the day after that.

I think it's safe to say, from youngest to oldest, we're all falling in love with the sport of kayaking. It's another avenue to nature; and it's another opportunity, in addition to dispersed camping, to find hidden away places we might not otherwise get to experience.

There are some things we did in the beginning, though, to really get a handle on kayaking with our boys. We wanted them to feel safe and capable before we took them out on open water.

Watch our video to see what it's like kayaking with kids!

Tips for getting started kayaking with kids

1. Pick out kayaks and paddles. One is just as important as the other.

In the beginning, we thought about renting versus buying. However, with the empty cost of a rental, we decided to just go ahead and get our own. We ordered inflatable kayaks and bought a hardshell for Dan, so Zeke could ride more safely with him.

kayaking with a toddler on Beaver Lake in Arkansas

While inflatables definitely have their place, we pretty much knew our second to third day out, we needed more than just an inflatable. While the boys loved their inflatable kayaks, we felt in order to really explore some of the places we want to go (and the boys really want to do some fishing off their kayaks), we needed hardshell kayaks.

My advice to you: Pick the kayak and paddle that will work for each person in your family. Make sure if you have a toddler, you purchase a kayak with plenty of room for him/her to ride with you.

Go to the store and actually sit in both the sit in and sit on top kayaks; research the stability and read reviews. Try out paddles too because paddles are extremely important, though some kayaks do come with them.

Note: Make sure your kayak has a place to hold the paddle… Pretty important when you're out on the water and need to be hands free.

teen boy relaxing on inflatable kayak on Beaver Lake in Northwest Arkansas

Inflatables are a really affordable way to start out and get a feel for whether or not you and your kids even like kayaking. But if you're wanting to explore various places, are wanting to fish off your kayak, or want the safety net of a hardshell for younger kids, pick the hardshell.

2. Every person needs a life jacket.

Everyone needs a life jacket, regardless of whether or not you wear it. Here in Arkansas, the law is that anyone 12 and under must be in a life jacket. 

dad putting life jacket on toddler before getting in kayak

You can purchase life jackets by size or by weight. They usually range in price from $10 on up.

While Dan and I and even Jacob strap our life jackets within reach onto our kayaks, our younger kids are always in a life jacket when we go out. But we all have one because you just never know; anything can happen.

3. Start out in the pool.

I'm sure our neighbors thought we had finally lost our ever lovin' minds, but we put the kayaks in the pool and started out there. If you have access to a pool that will allow it, a pool is a great place to get your bearings on a kayak.

kids practicing kayaking and paddling in a swimming pool

While kayaking isn't hard at all, this step gives everyone a feel for being on the water in a kayak. It may even put your mind at ease, giving everyone a feel for the stability of their kayaks and a chance to learn how to paddle.

Learning how to paddle is key; if you or your kids don't know how to paddle correctly, you'll get nowhere fast and could even have an accident. Give everyone an opportunity to practice in a safer environment.

This will also give you a chance to talk about the do's and don'ts of kayaking together, and practice safety on the water.

4. Move up to an area of calmer water (like a pond or lake).

Stupidly, we went to the river for our first time out on actual open water. Not a good idea.

On a river, you deal with currents and loads of trees. While you have a little current on a lake and some trees, as well, it's nothing like it is on a river.

Start out on a calmer, hopefully less crowded lake or pond. If your lake is like ours (Beaver Lake), large and pretty busy with happy boaters, find a cove where the water's a little more calm, quiet, and peaceful. The more peaceful the locale, the better off you'll be your first time out.

kayaking with kids on Beaver Lake in Northwest Arkansas near Prairie Creek

This is yet another great opportunity to learn how to paddle. And if there are boats, it gives everyone a chance to learn how to handle the wake from a boat, which can feel like the waves of an ocean, depending on the boat.

5. Take short kayaking trips.

Those first few trips, keep them short and sweet. Kids don't always have a huge attention span, especially the younger they are.

Give them a chance to explore, but don't plan to stay out too long. Maybe give them opportunity to get out near the shoreline and swim a little if it's safe to do so.

exploring the creek while kayaking with kids

Gradually increase your time on the water. Over time, your trips will get longer and longer, until you may eventually be packing dinner to eat on the water while you watch the sun set.

6. Pack the gear you need for everyone.

Before headed out kayaking with kids, you may need to pack a few things…

  • Find a dry bag to keep things dry, so you can pack all the gear you need.
  • Binoculars

Sun Dolphin hardshell and Sevylor inflatable kayaks on beach of Beaver Lake in Northwest Arkansas

While water isn't usually a huge deal with the hardshell kayaks, it can be a problem; maybe think about getting a bilge pump to pump water out if needed. Ours was a life saver with the inflatables.

Also, you're going to want pictures. Maybe think about a soft case or a hard case for your phone, so you can still get all the photos and videos you want of your family's many adventures out on the water.

Find a kayak, explore your world

While kayaking is an initial investment with the purchase of kayaks and life jackets, once you have the gear, it's really an affordable activity your whole family can enjoy. There's no need to buy gas (other than to drive to your nearest body of water).

family kayaking on Illinois River near Siloam Springs, Arkansas

The places you can go in a kayak are limitless. If you're talking about kayaking with kids, stop talking about it and just do it. You may find yourself falling in love with yet another way to connect with your family in the great outdoors.

How to get started kayaking with kids
Get started kayaking with kids

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