child sitting in a canoe smiling

Canoeing with Kids: Safety, Law, Gear & Pack Lists

Are you considering canoeing with kids? Are you concerned about canoe and water safety for your kids? Do you wonder what gear you should buy? Here are some tips on choosing paddles, videos on how to canoe, fit a child lifejacket, balance a canoe, plan a trip, and free pack list downloads to start the fun!

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

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

how to choose a child lifejacket

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

  • Have your kid try the lifejacket on before purchasing (we don’t recommend buying child lifejackets online unless you can return them)
  • The lifejacket should fit snugly 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 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 your child’s 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 ONLY to 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 whistle communication code: One blast: “Are you ok” (one blast reply meant yes). Two blasts: ‘I’m in trouble but not an emergency” (two blast replies meant “we are coming to help”). Three blasts were for emergencies (three blast replies meant we were coming). We were very strictly informed never to 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 upward 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

how to choose a Paddle

paddles leaned on a tree how to choose a paddle for canoeing with kids

Paddles 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 paddle 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 can go nicer, but kids can be brutal on paddles, and they will grow out of the size.

Paddles for Parents

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


Aluminum shaft/plastic paddles. These are very durable and inexpensive. We only used them when whitewater canoeing because we disliked the feel of these paddles.

The metal shaft can also get cold or hot depending on the weather and can be noisy when banged in a canoe. But they are a good option if you’re only starting out and not looking to drop a lot of money.


Laminate, softwood, hardwood, or custom paddles. Wood shafts are warm and quieter, and the hand grips are more comfortable than metal.

The more laminations on the paddle, the more expensive it is, but the more durable it is. Hardwood is tougher, and softwood is 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.

Paddle shape and style

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 the boat, style of paddling, and boat width – 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 – BEST OPTION

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° angle, and the paddle is too short; more than 90° angle, and the paddle is too long.

At home, without a paddle

Similar to above, 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 a 90° angle, and measure the distance between both hands. This will give you 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.

Canoe Safety 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 and floating) (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 handy kits with everything you need, like a little kit like this. Outdoor stores can also carry some options.

Non-Essential Gear – But Worth Thinking About

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

First Aid Kit

First aid kit is always important to keep stocked when you are canoeing with kids.

Waterproofing Gear

Smaller bags will be less frustrating than digging through one big bag. The duffel style or a bear barrel may be easiest for items you may need to access often. 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 non-refrigerated foods: easy to open, floats, and come in different sizes (like this, and you can get a harness to carry it).

We’ve had ours for years and 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: a padded safety case you can drop, is waterproof, and 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 a 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), keep the filter clean, and replace it when recommended. Go to a reputable outdoor store if you aren’t sure.

A tip is getting a water filter that screws onto a water bottle, making 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 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, near bodies of water or on trails). Please be courteous to others.

Keeping Kids Happy

Canoeing with kids can be like a long car trip – some kids love it right away and keep them

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 and be responsible for their own gear.

Bug Repellant (Non-Deet Options)

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

Clothing, Sun Gear, Extras

Sunscreen, hats, and 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.


Waterproofing might be a good idea. If you want a kid’s 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 For Canoeing with Kids

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

Learn to Paddle (and with Kids)

Google, watch videos, and read a book for learning to paddle. Then, try it out to a sheltered area, shallower water, or a pond. 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 tips about canoeing 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 if possible. It’s easy to bring too much, but it’s unsafe to pack a canoe too full, plus making 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, and even the weight, front and back. This is especially important when canoeing with kids since they move around often and sometimes suddenly!

Keep Calm

Frantic, erratic movements can capsize the canoe. If there’s a little shuffling, try not to 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 Canoe Trip with Kids

  • Most areas have a listing of places you can go canoeing. For example, in Ontario, here’s 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 canoe 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 paddling or sitting in the canoe, and they’re the happiest when tired!
  • Some of the first trips may not go so great. Stick with it! 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 canceling a day trip is disappointing, a rainy day can dampen any 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
    • A 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…

Looking to Get a Family Canoe?

What should you look for in choosing a family canoe?

Resources For Canoeing with Kids


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

canoes by a misty lake

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