Don’t Rock the Canoe: Getting Babies & Toddlers on the Water

Being the Minnesotan that I am, one of my favorite activities is canoeing. Being in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it makes sense! Any parent would understand that sharing your passions with your kids is priceless. But some of our passions are a little more difficult to accomplish with kids in tow. Difficult is not synonymous with “not worth it.” These tips will help you get your little adventurers out on the water with you.


Where there is a will, there is a way…. But you’ll need a few things first.


Duh. Obviously you need a canoe, you know that. But I have this listed because there are a few things to mention about your canoe. Check it out for any damage prior to use and if you haven’t used it in while check the tabs, make sure you are paddling legally. And as always, check for invasive species, be sure to clean your canoe before and after use. Both a solo and multi-person canoe will work just fine, the only difference is; where child should sit. We will go over child placement later on in this post.


When I was a kid, my parent bought me a small paddle to bring along in the canoe. Brilliant! It was a real wooden paddle, just smaller. It made me feel like part of the team, even at a young age. We still have this paddle, but it is now in my daughters possession. She loved being able to “help” while in the canoe. We found one for our son as well, now they each have their own. Sandy has outgrown hers, but I have started burning the names of the B.W.C.A. lakes that she has camped on onto the paddle. It has turned into a memorable keepsake. Killian still brings his along for the ride, it is great entertainment for them and gives them a job. Of course, this is optional, but it’s a great way to get them feeling part.


This is so important. Your child’s lifejacket should be the appropriate size, snug, comfortable, and Coast Guard approved. Getting the proper size is as simple as checking the weight limit and making sure that your child fits inside those guidelines. Getting it both snug and comfortable is a whole different animal. Yes, you need the straps snug. Don’t let your little one slip out of their lifejacket. They should have a leg strap if they are less than 50lbs. As far as comfort goes, having a t-shirt on under the lifejacket is really helpful. Even a thin swim shirt will do to keep the straps from rubbing. For the littler ones, having the floatation device in the front of them with a second on the neck is perfect and gives more breathing/wiggle room. Our Killian is very comfortable in his lifejacket, he even fell asleep in it. It’s a Full Throttle brand infant lifejacket. He wore it for his first two summers before outgrowing it.

***Important note: Puddle jumpers are not appropriate lifejackets out on the water. A pool at home or a hotel, sure. But not out on the lake or river. All your child has to do is put their arms up and the whole thing can slide off. I’ve seen too many videos of children in puddle jumpers out paddle boarding or kayaking with parents to not say something. It’s just not safe, please don’t do it.

Also, adults should be wearing their lifejackets too. Not only are you setting a good example, you are more able to assist your child in the event that something happens. You can’t help anyone if you are drowning yourself. I didn’t like wearing my lifejacket in the canoe, it’s not as comfortable to paddle. Now that I have kids of my own, I have it on every time I’m in our canoe. Funny how things change when you become a parent.


It is amazing how strong the sun can be in the summer. It’s rays are even stronger when you’re out on the water. Not only is it beating down on your little adventurers from above, it’s also reflecting off of the surface of the water. Be sure to lotion up before setting out on the water. An option that you might want to consider if you have an infant or a child with fair skin, is an umbrella. There are actually small umbrellas designed just for small boats and canoes. We purchased one for Killian’s first trip to the B.W.C.A. but didn’t actually use it. Our paddle in ended up being shorter than anticipated and cloudy later on, I was glad to have it just in case.

Feel the Heat

As we just went over, the summer can bring on the hot rays of the sun. Not only do you need to keep your baby’s skin protected from the rays, but from what the rays can do to the surfaces around them. Think about what happens to the sidewalk on a hot, sunny day. That same thing is going to happen to your canoe. If you have a thin canoe, it might not be so bad as the water may cool it from underneath. But my experience with our red Old Town canoe, is that even with a lighter interior she heats up quickly. Bring a towel or cushion to put on the bottom and rim of your canoe to protect your little one’s from a different kind of burn.

Snacks & Water

Snacks. I’m not kidding. Snacks are essential if you want success. You probably don’t need a ton if you are going out for only a half hour or so. But you’ll want to have some on hand just in case. I really like those apple sauce pouches for a quick fill, these can be sucked down fast if you’re trying to just get something in your hangry munchkin. Having some kind of snack that they can feed themselves slowly is helpful as well, such as pretzels or crackers. Bring an adequate supply of water or a good filter(when going into the wilderness), don’t let your kids drink the lake water. You don’t need anyone getting a parasite.


Bringing some entertainment out into the canoe with you is a great idea. And having those toys only for the canoe can turn them into high value toys. But keep this in mind; not all toys float. If your little paddler tosses a toy overboard and it sinks, that might be the end of a peaceful ride. Make sure the toys brought along float! Waterproof would be helpful as well. You might think that securing the toys to the canoe with a rope or string would be a good idea, but someone might get themselves tangled up in it. Let’s not do that.

Preparing your Baby

Introducing the Canoe

It’s not necessary to get your little adventurers out on the water the instant they see the canoe. Find a grassy area to place your canoe for your first introduction. Let them check it out, climb around in it, give them a paddle to play with. We didn’t worry so much about this part when Killian was an infant, but he loved it when he was a toddler. We got the hose out and he helped to wash the canoe and played in it for quite some time. Make it a fun experience.

Child Placement

This is something that you’ll have to play around with. Not every kid is the same. Some are easy going, some are finicky. You know your child the best. Obviously, you’ll want to hold your infant or have them placed comfortably in the bottom of the canoe within reach. It depends on their age. The more mobile munchkins will likely want to see what’s going on. When we paddled with Killian as an infant, we had our daughter Sandy along. She was 8 at the time and already had experience paddling. I sat in the middle of the canoe and tended to Killian while she and their dad, Scott, paddled us around.

For those busy toddlers, the best place for them is going to be close to you. My favorite was having Killian up front with me while Scott paddled. He could look around and see where we were going. But on longer excursions, you may have to improvise and do whatever it takes to safely make them comfortable. I’m not a fan of having a toddler in my lap while I am in a seat. Our canoe sits higher in the water and it seems too wobbly with that much weight and wiggling up there. When Killian wanted to sit on me, I sat on the bottom of the canoe and he sat on me then. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but we had a long paddle down a winding creek. We did what we had to do. Killian also liked to sit in the seat by himself, this was only allowed if I were right by him. Again, you may have to change positions while paddling. The best idea we had was putting the tent in front for him to sit on, he fell asleep while sitting up and leaning against my legs. So freaking cute, my littlest adventurer had had a very busy weekend.

A few things that should be avoided for safety should be noted. Your little one should be within reach, you may need to grab them quickly. If you are fishing, put the tackle behind you, so they cannot hook themselves or eat worms! Whether using a solo or multi-person canoe, having them sit on a raised seat without you immediately with them is not a good idea. They do not understand balance yet and can easily topple off the side. So if you are in a multi-person canoe and it’s just the two of you, they don’t need to be in a seat alone if you can’t reach them

***Important note: Do NOT strap your child into the canoe in any way. If your canoe flips they will be trapped under water. Do NOT strap your child to you. No baby carriers, wraps, or slings. If you go under water, so do they.

Short Trips

The best thing you can do when you go out for the first time is to find a quiet, low traffic spot with as little wind as possible. Stay close to your launch point. This will make it easy to cut the maiden voyage short if you need to. It’s best to keep this trip short. We have a little pond behind our house, this is the perfect spot for getting a little practice in.

Increase Duration

Once you’ve got a good first few experiences under their belt. It’s time to turn it up a notch. Add 15 to 20 minutes to your journey and see how they do. If it went well, maybe next time you can go a little longer. But, as we all know, toddlers can be fine with something one day, and hate it the next. Don’t get to discouraged if it doesn’t go well every time. And don’t forget those snacks!

The Real Deal

Well, you’ve got some practice. Your little one has had some experience in the canoe. Are you ready for your camping trip into the great wilderness? Maybe? If you have a three or four hour paddle planned for a trip, you don’t have to have your child out in the canoe for four hours before your trip takes place. We had Killian out a few times about half hour each before his second trip up there, he did just fine with a three and a half hour paddle. We did have to get creative in making him comfortable for such a long journey and change positions a few times. But we made it with no headaches. Keep snacks at the ready! And have fun!

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