Is It Safe to Canoe With a Toddler?

Family canoeing together with a toddler.

U.S. Department of the Interior/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Canoes and other paddle boats have been around for thousands of years, and it's likely that for most of that time, kids have wanted to go paddling with the parents. For modern parents devoted to the outdoors, this is a mixed blessing because (let's face it) a young child in the canoe or rowboat can cramp your style and be a distraction as you worry about their safety and tend to their needs. On the other hand, getting a toddler acclimated to the sport at an early age bodes well for someday having another competent paddler in the family. In families where outdoor sports are a priority, it's not uncommon to see two or even three preschool children happily paddling the lakes and streams with their parents. 

If you choose to paddle with your youngster, make sure to prepare properly and follow good practices.


When to begin? The first consideration for many parents is to decide at what age your child is old enough to join you in the canoe. In making this decision, safety needs to be the main concern. There are three prerequisites that really are essential:

  • First, your child must be able to swim.
  • Second, your child must be wearing a PFD (personal floatation device).
  • Third, you should stay only in protected bodies of water when canoeing with young children. This means an enclosed bay, lake, or another body of water that is surrounded by land.

Some parents wonder why swimming ability is necessary if the child will be wearing a PFD. Some parents do canoe with children who have not yet learned to swim. However, a wise parent won't compromise on this point. A child with no swimming experience at all is likely to panic in the water, and may not be able to float upright or deal with the instability of a PFD in the water. Remember, you’re protecting against a worst-case scenario. During a capsize, if you get knocked out or separated from your child, they need to be able to float face up and maneuver themselves back to the canoe or the shore.

Any child that satisfies the three prerequisites should be safe in the canoe, provided that conditions are favorable. Children as young as three years of age can qualify. It's good for the sport to get children involved in paddling at the earliest age that's reasonable. Of course, we don’t want to force our passion for canoeing on our children, so make sure to be sensitive to the signs they give you when paddling.

Can I Canoe With Kids?

Put the PFD on your toddler while still on shore. If there is someone to assist you, first get yourself into the canoe and stabilized. Then, have another adult place your child in the front of the canoe. If you’re alone with your child, the best strategy is to place your child in the boat first, then get in afterward. Instruct your child not to lean over to the edge of the canoe and to sit quietly upright the entire time.

Be sure to give your child a canoe paddle to use. Although this is not the first impulse of most parents, remember that your goal is to make your child feel comfortable with the sport and to make them feel involved. Show your child how to hold the canoe paddle and encourage them to put the paddle in the water. Of course, they are not likely to be all that helpful with their early efforts but remember that initially, this is play time for them and not an effort at serious paddling. A young child's attention span will last only so long, anyway. Soon enough, they'll be content to let you chauffeur them around. It's a good idea to buy your toddler a small paddle that is lighter, smaller, and thinner than a standard canoe paddle. Junior paddles are usually inexpensive and don’t have to be authentic. As your child grows up, they will graduate to more adult equipment.

Having Fun

At times, canoeing with kids can be frustrating, so don't expect perfection and remember why you're doing it. Enjoy your time with your youngster. Before you know it, your kids will be teenagers asking for the car keys, and you'll long for these carefree times again. Have fun with this opportunity to share something special with your little ones.