canoeing with kids: safety, law, gear & pack lists

Have you ever seen someone doing something who just seems so confident, natural and second nature at the task? Then you hear they’ve been doing that since they were a kid. Ah, that explains it.

We were barely walking, if that, when we were introduced to life in a canoe. Now it’s become a part of us. There is rarely anywhere else we feel more at peace than paddling on the water. It rejuvenates the spirit.

But where to start? If you have the basic gear, just skip this next section. If not, here are some starting points we hope will help navigate this new adventure.


  • Lifejackets are the seat belts of the canoe world. They must be worn at all times. Parents, your kids will wear theirs if they see you wearing yours.
  • Buy only approved lifejackets from the country of your residence.

  • Have your kid try it on before purchasing (we don’t recommend buying online unless you can return them)
  • It should fit snug and not ride up over the chin or ears
  • There should be less than 7.6 cm (3″) between your shoulders and the PFD, otherwise it’s too big and could potentially do more harm than good.
  • A large collar for head support
  • Waist ties or elastic gathers in front and back
  • For the very young, a crotch strap to help prevent ride up
  • A safety strap that goes between the legs to prevent it from slipping over their head
  • Buckles on safety straps and reflective tape
  • Brightly colored are best as they can easily be spotted in the water
  • Attach a plastic pea-less whistle to the lifejacket. The Fox 40 is a staple in our family. But please teach your kids to ONLY use them in an emergency. Three loud, short blasts on your survival whistle, each lasting approximately three seconds is recognized around the world as an emergency call for help.
    • TIP: As a family, we had a little code: One blast: “Are you ok” (one blast reply meant yes). Two blasts: ‘I’m in trouble but not an emergency” (two blast reply meant “we are coming to help”). Three blasts was for emergency (three blast reply meant we are coming). We were very strictly informed to never use the whistle for play.
  • There are different styles of lifejackets: Type II, Type III, etc. Some are specifically designed to keep a person facing upwards even when unconscious. Here are some helpful websites to explain the different styles: Boat US and Government of Canada: Transport Canada: Choosing PFD’s.

Here is a helpful video for selecting a lifejacket


Buying for Kids

For us, one of the most exciting gifts we received from our parents was our own paddle.

Inexpensive option: adjustable emergency paddle. As your kid grows, the height can be adjusted. The aluminum shaft and plastic material make it pretty durable. Plus, you can keep it later if you upgrade it as an emergency paddle (we always keep an extra paddle in the canoe in case one is lost).

You definitely can go nicer, but kids can be brutal on paddles, and also, they will grow out of the size

Buying for Adults

This is a very personal subject – canoers are particular about their paddles! But when starting out, the best is to go into an outdoors store and try the grip and get fitted for a proper size (yes, this is important and will make your paddling experience much better).


Aluminum shaft/plastic. These are very durable and inexpensive. We only used them when whitewater canoeing because we dislike the feel of these paddles. The metal shaft can also get cold or hot depending on the weather, and they can be noisy when banged in a canoe. But if you’re only starting out and not looking to drop a lot of money, they are a good option.


Laminate, softwood, hardwood, or custom paddles. Wood shafts are warm, are much quieter, and the hand grips more comfortable. The more laminations on the paddle, the more expensive, but the more durable. Hardwood are tougher, softwood less expensive. Some manufacturers use softwood on the outer parts so they are lighter, but they’ll get dinged and are vulnerable to splitting (not a great risk if you mostly paddle in deep water)


We are quite particular about our own paddles. Personally, I prefer an oil-treated wood paddle. But these require a little more maintenance and care. It comes down to finding out what you like, and if you paddle a lot, it’s like a good pair of shoes worth investing in.

Shape of Paddle

Paddles come in so many shapes. The most common are shown in this photo. If you aren’t sure, ask an expert.

So much depends on your style and preference. Some prefer a more square or beaver tail shape for the bow (front) as they move a lot of water, and some prefer a slimmer otter tail style for the stern (back).

Length of Paddle

Most canoeists require a paddle in the 52″ to 60″ range. The best is to go into a store and try them in person. Many things can influence sizing – your preference, size of boat, style of paddling, width of boat – but you can play around with the sizing by a few inches and still find a good fit. Below is a general guideline.

In store, trying out a paddle

OPTION 1: Kneel down, sitting about 6″ off the floor (pretending to sit in a canoe). Hold the paddle upside down, with the grip resting on the floor. The throat of the paddle should be between your chin and your nose.

OPTION 2: Grab the paddle by the grip with one hand. With the other hand, grab the paddle just above the throat. Center the paddle over your head, and lower the shaft onto your head. Both of your arms should be at 90° angles: smaller than 90° and the paddle is too short, more than 90° and the paddle is too long.

At home, without a paddle

Similar as above, but measure from the floor to your nose, using a broom as an aid. Or, hold the broom over your head, mark where your arms are at 90° and measure the distance between both your hands. This will give your the approximate paddle length (not including the blade) The best is to go in store, but you can contact a paddle maker and tell them the broom measurement and they can size the paddle for you.

Quick Tip: For wider canoes or paddling from the stern (rear), maybe add 2″ to the paddle length to reach the water without a lot of leaning.

Gear Required by Law

Did you know you’re required by law to have certain items in your canoe or you could be fined? Check out your local country/county for specific regulations. Thankfully, there really isn’t much that’s mandatory.

  • Lifejacket/PDF
  • Buoyant rope (like a throw rope for emergencies)
  • Bailer or Bilge pump (or a little kit like this) or you can make your own by cutting off the end of a jug
  • Flashlight (waterproof) (TIP: I prefer to carry two – one that’s a cheaper waterproof style and another good quality one that I keep in a waterproof bag)
  • “Sound signaling device” such as a pea-less whistle. It’s better to attach one to each lifejacket than keep it in a pocket. This way it’s always close and you won’t lose it.

There are also handy kits that have everything you need, like a little kit like this. Outdoors stores can also carry some options.

Non-Essential But Worth Thinking About

Here are some tips and suggestions per subject. Some things to make your life a little easier! The items are listed in the free pack list at the end of the article also.

First Aid Kit

First aid kit is always important to keep stocked.

Waterproofing Gear

Having a few smaller bags will be less frustrating than digging through one big bag. For items you may need to access often, the duffel style may be easiest, or bear barrel. Unrolling the individual bags all the time from a backpack will get annoying (speaking from experience). Also, if buying individual bags, choose different colors for specific packed items so you can find them faster.

You can get duffel style, backpack roll style or individual bags. You can get really expensive ones, or go middle of the line. Check out your local outdoor stores too.

Bear Barrel

Good for gear and for non-refrigerated foods: easy to open, it floats, and they come in different sizes (like this, and you can get a harness to carry it). We’ve had ours for years and we haven’t been gentle with them, but they’re still going strong.

Electronics, Cameras and Your Wallet: YES invest in Waterproofing

. If your iphone goes in the lake you may ban canoeing forever (or your kids will). You can get something like this (inexpensive), roll it up in a waterproof bag, or what I use is a pelican case (see next point below).

Pelican case: basically a padded safety case that you can drop, is waterproof, and also floats. I have one large enough for my camera with lens, wallet and iphone. It has survived rapids, being dropped and hitting rocks (over and over and over), camera intact. I got the bright color to spot easily floating in the water. They also come in clear micro size for storing a smaller camera, wallet, etc.

Water Filter (or bring lots of Water)

Don’t cheap out on a water filter if you go that route. Get a recognized and trusted brand (for example Katadyn or MSR, there are more), and keep the filter clean and replace when recommended. Go to a reputable outdoors store if you aren’t sure. A tip is getting one that screws onto a water bottle – makes your life easier in a canoe.

Map of the Lake & Compass (and Waterproof it)

We suggest keeping the map in a dry sack or map holder – they are not very legible after getting wet! Sometimes park maps are available waterproof.

Bathroom Essentials

Toilet paper and a little shovel if you aren’t near a washroom. REI has a great article on how to … well.. use the forest as your washroom (like: not near bodies of water or on trails). Please be courteous to others.

Keeping Kids Happy

Lots of snacks

Sketch pad

Fishing Gear and tackle

A few fishing toys

Scavenger/spot the animal lists

Field guides for your area (an example for North America: Petersons Eastern and Central Reptile and Amphibians / or Western or birds)


A little backpack so they can learn to carry their own gear and be responsible for it.

Bug Repellant (Non-Deet Options)

Non-DEET repellant Natrapel and CarePlus are Picaridin based – we find they work well

Clothing, Sun Gear, Extras

Sunscreen, hats, sun-protective clothing.

Sandals with straps or little deck shoes

Rain gear, which can double as windbreakers.

Extra outfit (in a dry bag) for little kids who will likely get wet and muddy playing

Umbrella or pop-up tent for shade in the boat or on shore (or passing rainstorms). Just check the size and weight if you decide on a tent.


Waterproof might be a good idea. If you want a kids camera, see our article on photography. A good waterproof young child camera is Our Life (ages 5+) We will post some “Spot the Animal Photography Lists” for kids later under the Camping subject.

Canoe Comfort

Extra paddle (for an emergency)

Seat pads or stadium-style folding seats (fancy with back support or basic and cheap)

Rope to attach to the bow to help pull the boat on shore and tie to something to secure it from floating away if needed.

A Little Preparation

Some tips a, videos and references to help make your adventures enjoyable.

Learn to Paddle (and with Kids)

Google, watch videos, read a book. Then first go to a sheltered area, shallower water, or a pond and try it out. Switching sides after each stroke is not the way to paddle.

Stern Paddler: Learn how to correct the canoe, a few strokes in this quick video (bonus, there is a kid who helps explain).

Tandem (partner canoe) tips: from getting into the canoe without flipping it, to canoe strokes and tips. The video is by Paul and Willa Mason, father and daughter canoeists.

For some tips about paddling with kids to re-iterate what we’ve discussed, check out this video from a parent

Bow or Stern?

Choose who will be in the bow (front) and who will be in the stern (back). The person in the back keeps the canoe on track, so learning the J-stroke is important for this person. The one in the bow can paddle to help keep the canoe moving, but they can take breaks more easily – to rest, be a lookout, or watch the kids.

Tie Down Gear

Either buy bags that float or tie down your gear (attach to the thwarts or yoke) just in case your canoe tips – that way you won’t lose everything.

Cut the Amount

Once you’ve packed everything – cut the amount in half is possible. It’s easy to bring too much, but it’s unsafe to pack a canoe too full and also makes it uncomfortable when you’re in the canoe.

Canoe Balance with Gear

When loading your canoe, think of balance: heavier items in the center, not the sides. Even out the weight, front and back.

Keep Calm

Frantic, erratic movements can capsize the canoe. If there’s a little shuffling, try to not grab the gunwales (the upper edge), but try to balance with just your legs. You’ll soon learn those skills!

Videos (from the info above)

Planning a trip

  • Most areas have a listing of places you can go. For example in Ontario, here’s is the official Ontario Parks Locator.
  • You can check by location, activities, and even select areas where motorboats are prohibited (best option if you want quiet, calm water and being able to converse without yelling).
  • Plan a short trip first, just a few hours, and include a lunch stop and a swimming area.
  • Breaking up the paddling with swimming and playing is important. It helps keep kids from getting bored of just paddling or sitting in the canoe, and they’re the happiest when they’re tired out!
  • Some of the first trips may not go so great. Stick with it! Apparently I hated water as a little toddler and my parents figured I would be the fly in their ointment. Well…that certainly changed to the polar opposite – you can’t keep me away from the water.
  • Check the weather. NEVER canoe in a thunderstorm! No matter if the chances are low, it’s never worth the risk. While cancelling a day trip is disappointing, a day of rain can dampen any amount of zeal to try another time.
  • Let someone know where you are going, just in case.
  • Have some “in the canoe” activities:
    • Give your kids a copy of the map they can follow – you are never too young to learn (but keep one for the adults!)
    • Field guides so they can spot and identify animals they see
    • Camera so they can take photos
    • Fishing en route
  • Let your kids paddle! But do teach them not to lean too much to the side of the canoe…



Here is a check list and gear list you can adjust to your own family needs.

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