Kayaking with Kids: A Complete Guide

Young boy in kayak holding paddle looking over mountains of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park
Kayaking in Glacier National Park

Do you love kayaking, and want to share the experience with your kids?  Just go!  Kids as young as two years old can have a safe and enjoyable kayaking experience.   It’s a great way to enjoy the outdoors as a family.  Unsure how, when, or where to go kayaking with kids?  Read our guide for the details on how to make the most out of your family kayaking trip!

At What Age Can Children Start Kayaking? 

Mother and son in kayak looking down at a manatee swimming below in Weeki Wachee Springs
Kayaking in Weeki Wachee Springs , Florida

Kids can go kayaking as early as 2 years old.  Usually younger children do best “duffing” or riding in the center compartment of a tandem kayak.  We always had good luck putting our little ones in the front seat of a double kayak. 

We found our kids get pretty mesmerized by the motion of kayaks, and stay unusually still through our rides.  You know your kid the best, so if you want them closer to you, you might consider duffing in a tandem kayak instead of putting them in the front seat.  

When kayaking with kids, at 5 and older we always make sure our kids are in the front of a double kayak with a paddle.  Be sure to get a kid paddle which is shorter and lighter.  Even though kids tire easy, they will enjoy putting the paddle in the water and learning the paddling skills required to propel the boat.  

How to Keep Safe when Kayaking with Kids?

Young boy paddling a kayak in a forest

All children under 13 years of age are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable life vest or personal flotation device (PFD). 

There are different size requirements for children of different weights.  Infant size PFDs fit children who are 8-30 lbs.  Child size fit kids 30-50 lbs, and youth PFDs fit kids that are 50-90 lbs.  There are special infant life jackets that have a neck pad and a crotch strap. 

We wouldn’t recommend kayaking with very small infants unless you are a very experienced paddler. 

Another important safety consideration when kayaking with kids is choosing your destination.  Locations with high current or heavy boat traffic can easily become scary and overwhelming. Paddling through the wake of large boats can turn a peaceful kayaking trip into a nerve wrecking one. If you are a novice kayaking family, we recommend starting in calm waters that are less trafficked.  

If you live in the south, natural springs are a great place to experience kayaking for the first time.  Water is crystal clear, and the current is calm and easy to navigate.  

What are the Best Youth Life Jackets?

Infant Life Vests (8-30 lbs.)

STEARNS Infant PFD Type II Life Vest

The STEARNS brand has been making life vests for 60 years. They are well known for creating high quality, reliable safety devices. This toddler Type II life vest is one of the best on the market for kids under 30 lbs.

Stohlquist Infant Waterwear Life Jacket

The Stohlquist brand is known for durability, safety, and quality. Started by an avid paddler John Stohlquist, they have some of the best life jackets on the market for kids. This life jacket is great because it is comfortable, and kids don’t feel restricted while still feeling safe.

Child Life Vests (30-50 lbs.)

STEARNS Child Classic Life Vest

This Stearns Child Life Jacket is well made, comfortable, and safe. With three straps, it can be adjusted to fit any child 30-50 lbs. Stearns has an excellent reputation for high quality PFDs, and this is an excellent choice for a child life vest.

Stohlquist Child Waterwear Life Jacket

This child life vest is easy to put on, snug, and comfortable for kids to wear. The zipper and single strap make it a unique contour, and easy for kids to keep on for a longer day. The Stolquist brand is known for good quality life vests, and this is one of the best in its category.

Youth Life Vests (50-80 lbs.).

Stearns Kids Life Vest

With a sleek design, two straps, and lightweight foam design this is one of the best youth life vests on the market. It is comfortable to wear, and allows for free movement while doing outdoor activities with a safe design.

Airhead Kwik-Dry Youth Life Vest

This Airhead life vest is comfortable, flexible, and also made with Kwik-Dry material. The vest itself is lightweight and comfortable for kids to engage in watersports, while keeping them safe.

When Can a Child Start Kayaking in Their Own Kayak?

In a child sized kayak, children can potentially their own single kayak as early as 5 years old.  In calm waters, young children can manage very short distances in a small kayak. There should always be a skilled adult close by, and children should be wearing a PFD and be able to swim.

Below seven years of age, children can usually only paddle for 15-30 minutes before getting tired.  After seven, kids develop more strength, and can paddle for a half hour to an hour.  

If starting a child kayaking, choose an area with easy calm waters and no current.   One way downstream paddling is fun for kids because it requires little strength, and brings easy rewards.  

Where to Go Kayaking with Kids?

Father and son paddling a kayak through a spring
Kayaking at King’s Landing near Orlando, FL

Be sure to plan your family kayaking trip with your kids in mind.  Do your kids need frequent bathroom breaks?  Are there specific things they like?  Tunnels, wildlife, snacks?

Water conditions are important when deciding where to kayak with kids.  The best places to go kayaking kids have little to no current, and lots of things to see. 

Places with different landscapes, bridges, tunnels, and other features are fun and motivating for kids to kayak through.  Shallow waters also make kayaking stress free and fun.

Don’t go kayaking with kids in areas with high boat traffic.  Not only is this dangerous, but it takes away the relaxation of a calm water paddle with kids.  

When to Go Kayaking with Kids?

Young boy sitting at the front of a tandem kayak wearing sunglasses looking around at the trees

Kayaking with kids subjects you to the elements.  Remember that sun protection and temperature is an issue.  Avoid very hot or very cold weather, as the extremes will be amplified on your trip.  The last thing you want to remember your kayaking trip with is a blistering sun burn.

What to Wear/Bring Kayaking with Kids?

  • Sun Screen
  • Hats
  • Long Sleeve Shirts
  • Light Weight Pants
  • Dry Bag for phones and snacks
  • Sandals/Water Shoes
  • Water Bottles

What’s the Best Kayak type for Kayaking with Kids?

We think that sit on top kayaks are the easiest kayak to start with kids.  They offer a variety of positions for kids to sit in.  Also, if they flip over the water drains out easily and quickly.  If you are paddling in warmer climates, sit on top kayaks are definitely the way to go if kayaking with kids. 

If you are in a colder climate, you might consider a decked kayak.  This will offer you more protection from the cold water, and keep your family drier.  

How Long to Kayak with Kids?

Father and son in a tandem kayak on springs

Our first kayaking trip with our two year old was over 2 hours long.  While we may have been a little ambitious, he did great!  There is definitely something calming and relaxing to kids about kayaking.  While our 2 year old can’t typically sit still, he calmly watched the springs pass on his first kayak trip.  

If you are kayaking with kids for the first time, 1-2 hours is probably sufficient for your first trip.  We wouldn’t recommend longer than that.  You will get to know your kids, how they like it, and what you will need to have a successful trip in the future.

What is the Best Kayak for Kids?

Pelican 6 Foot Sit on Top Kayak

This Pelican Kayak is the kayak we bought for our kids, and we have been happy with it.. Pelican brand is known for high quality kayaking products. It is only 19 pounds, and can carry a child of up to 100 pounds. It comes with a comfortable back rest and paddle. Sit on top kayaks we think are best for kids in general, as they are easy to get in and out of, and will drain without trouble if they flip.

Lifetime Youth Wave Kayak

At a lower price point, the Lifetime Youth Wave Kayak is a great choice for kids. It also comes with a paddle, and is lightweight at 18 pounds. It has a swim up step on the back, and several footrest positions so kids can grow with the kayak. This is a good option if you want to get a good quality kid sit on top kayak but are on a budget.

Intex Challenger Kayak Inflatable Set

If you are looking for a more portable, space efficient kayak, the Intex Challenger Inflatable kayak is a great low investment option for kids that are interested in kayaking. While not designed specifically for kids, it is smaller size and 27 pounds, making it possible for kids to maneuver over full size kayaks.

Read more about our Adventures with Kids!

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