Canoeing with toddlers for the first time is daunting, but if you prepare properly, pick the right location and the right weather, it’s a wonderful family activity. Here’s how we do it…
Pick a safe stretch of water
Whitewater rapids might be great for stag parties and adrenaline junkies, but not the smartest move with a young child on board your canoe. Aim for shallow, slow-moving water that’s easy to get in and out of. We’ve used an old mill pond at the National Trust’s excellent Houghton Mill on all of our early family canoe trips. It’s big enough to do some good splashing around, shallow enough that I can get out of the boat and stand up in case of emergency, and connected to the main river by a couple of narrow channels so you can paddle a bit further if you’re feeling brave.
Don’t gamble on the weather
You can guarantee you’re going to get at least a little bit wet, so aim for a warm or hot day when you know you’ll dry quickly and not start shivering at the sight of a few water droplets on your arm. It’s important that wind is low too, otherwise you risk being blown all over the water. Basically, if the weather forecast looks dodgy, stay at home!
Buy or hire a good canoe
With a restless, energetic and unpredictable toddler on board, this is no time to be risking an unstable or unreliable boat. There are plenty of good starter canoes for anyone aiming to get into canoeing with toddlers. We use the excellent Sevylor Madison inflatable kayak, (click here for review) which I’d highly recommend, but if you don’t want to shell out too much money at this stage look for a local canoe hire company for your first trip.
Get a toddler lifejacket
Don’t even think about hitting the water without a lifejacket for your toddler. They aren’t easy to find in shops, but we found the excellent Tribord Kids Lifejacket at our local Decathlon store. You can also order them online.
Make the trip short and fun
You know your toddler better than I do, but what I can guarantee with mine is that he always gets bored eventually. And usually sooner rather than later. Sonny really loves canoeing, but at just three years old he’s never done a trip longer than 20 minutes because I want to avoid the inevitable toddler meltdown. If you can keep them enjoying it and going home wanting more, it means they’ll want to come back and do it time and again.
Buy a toddler-sized paddle
A mini paddle is one of the smartest things I’ve bought for our father-son canoe trips. Sonny’s a stubborn kid (to put it mildly) and on the first few trips he insisted on commandeering one of my full-sized kayak paddles and jamming it into the water while I thrashed around at the back trying to maintain control of the boat. So a few weeks ago I ordered a lightweight plastic child’s dinghy paddle from Amazon for a tenner. So now he has his own paddle, and the good news for me is it’s so small it doesn’t mess up any steering I’m trying to do behind him.
Take a few distractions
Snacks are good, this foam water pistol (above) is even better. We bought it from a market stall in Tenerife for a few Euros and all you need to do is dip one end in the water, pull the handle back to fill it up, then pump a jet of a water high into the air. Perfect boredom buster!
Look out for wildlife
One of my favourite things about canoeing is that river wildlife never seems to see you as a threat. You can get amazingly close to some fantastic species that would normally keep their distance from any human activity. Dragonflies routinely land on my canoe, I’ve had a seal poke his head up right next to me in the River Great Ouse, I’ve seen a grass snake swim right past the front of the boat, a cormorant once emerged from the deep water right next to me with a fish in his mouth before flying off into the distance, and the highlight of Sonny’s last trip was 10 baby ducklings nuzzling against the canoe right next to him (no more than 12 inches from his face) for around a minute while we drifted downstream. Awesome stuff.
The Outdoor Dad Verdict – canoeing with toddlers
Canoeing is probably my favourite activity to do with my 3-year-old toddler. He loves it, I love it, and if you follow our simple tips I’m sure you will too.