Going into the outdoors with children creates a unique set of problems. Paddling with children is even more problematic for a number of reasons. Paddling, especially on moving or whitewater, demands a lot of attention on the adults paddling the canoe or kayak, children can become bored in a very short period of time, and there is always the parental concern of dealing with the possibility of capsize of a paddle craft.
The first thing you need to evaluate is the kind of paddling you plan to participate in. Flat-water touring has a different set of challenges versus going down a Class IV rapid in canoe. The foremost issue is your child�s safety. Your child should always wear a Coast Guard approved personal floatation device (PFD) that is the proper size to safely protect your child. An ill-fitting or wrongly sized PFD can be fatal in an emergency situation. Keeping a PFD on a child can be as difficult as keeping a child in a car seat. PFD�s are restricting and uncomfortable to an active child. Never reach compromises like, �you can take your lifejacket off, but only for fifteen minutes,� if a battle is going to develop over wearing the PFD, it�s time to hit the shoreline. The best way to keep your child wearing their PFD is to lead by example, and wear yours at all times.
On the same subject of PFD�s, there is the unique problem of dealing with small children under the age of eight when you are paddling. In the event of a capsize, younger children will be very frightened and disoriented. As an adult we know to stay with the boat. A five year old caught in a downstream current will not have the internal fortitude to swim towards you or a boat. Some parents have attempted to solve this problem by tying a safety line from the thwart on the canoe to the PFD on the child. We strongly recommended against this practice. In the event of a capsize the rope or line can become tangled and actually keep your child underwater, drowning them. If you are going to be paddling in an area where the current is strong enough to carry your child away from you faster than you can swim while holding on to a paddle and dragging a canoe or kayak by it�s painter line, you probably should not take your child paddling in those particular sets of conditions.
You can build arguments about swimming after them, and your child is smarter and more level headed then that. The fact still remains that you will never know how your child will react in that situation. If your canoe or kayak has turned turtle, you will have a hard enough time keeping track of yourself, your craft, your paddles and your gear, let alone swimming after a stray child while wearing a PFD. Practicing with your child to catch a throw bag or throwable PFD in a swimming pool is an excellent drill. You should never take a child paddling if they have no swimming ability at all.
Children become bored very quickly. Any person who has been a passive third party during a paddling trip knows that sitting in the third seat of a canoe and doing, �nothing,� is akin to solitary confinement in the outdoors. There are a number of things you can do to keep active bodies and minds interested in paddling. Try to make the route interesting, stopping on sandbars and islands on the way adds to a special sense of interest on a canoe trip. Even young children can appreciate a remote location that is difficult to get to, and the adults will appreciate the, �wow, we must be the only people who have ever been here,� comments.
Children also enjoy moderate thrills. If you are proficient in handling your kayak or canoe, taking them through a Class II-, II+, or III- rapid will get the blood flowing and put a smile on most little faces. Pushing beyond that may be asking for trouble and turning turtle in a Class IV with a five year-old can be down right traumatic to them. Don�t let your desire to show them the thrills of whitewater scar their attitude on paddling for life.
Letting your child paddle for a while is another way to break the boredom. Children can be provided a small, inexpensive paddle (most children love things that are sized for them but look just like their adult partners) to use as you go along. If you are paddling in a tandem canoe, your child can be seated up front and �assist,� you in your paddling. The relative impact of the efforts of a child under ten while paddling will be minimal to your overall performance and course. If you are paddling tandem with your child in the front seat, a 40 to 80 pound sandbag strategically placed can offset your weight in the rear, and keep the bow in the water.
Giving your child things to do on the journey is also helpful. Providing your child with some dry erase markers and a small board is excellent on board a canoe. The dry erase board is not sensitive to getting wet, and can be reused over and over again. Older children can bring a Game boy or other handheld gaming device (make sure they bring headphones too), a Walkman or portable stereo, or can bring a camera to capture the sites on the way. If your child is more into writing, a small notepad kept in a personal dry bag is also a good bring along to note things seen on the trail.
You should paddle with a clear destination in mind, and you should keep your daily time in the boat to less than three hours. Under ideal conditions that means you could cover six to twelve miles depending on how many stops you make. Make sure the destination you go to is fun, unique, and stimulating. Waterfalls, remote islands, and wildlife viewing areas are all entertaining to a child. They will be more likely to remember the destination, and not the trip, and will be more eager to get into the boat for future adventures. In summary when preparing your course, keep your child�s needs in mind.
The final consideration when taking your children paddling is their comfort. Just like most serious paddlers who have special clothing, PFD�s, hats, glacier glasses, and gunwale mounted water bottles or hydration systems; you should provide the same tools to your child. Make sure they have sunglasses and a hat to protect delicate skin and young eyes from the glare of the water. Providing them with snacks and some water to drink is also very critical. Sun tan lotion, bug repellant, and a jacket are also necessary to provide. Finally, make sure your child has been well hydrated and used the bathroom before you start off. Letting your child urinate into the water while you are paddling sends the wrong message about leave no trace ethics, and can be a messy, risky proposition in a canoe or kayak. If your child is not potty trained, make sure to bring a diaper bag for them and some large plastic bags to carry out soiled diapers. Never bury, burn, or leave used diapers in the wilderness.
With some simple preparation, common sense, and route planning, you can make paddling an enjoyable time for your children. Make sure to listen carefully to their needs, and to provide them with fun things to do while paddling and at your destination. Acknowledge your little paddler�s efforts and contributions in the boat, and keep your trip short. By doing these simple steps you can assure, that your children will grow up to love paddling as much as their adult partners do.