Kayaking with Small Children???

My husband and I are fairly new to kayaking but have just moved to the great lakes region and would love to access these enormous bodies of fresh water. We have one small child and another on the way, so we are looking for a sturdy recreational kayak with which(in several years) we also could bring the children along. We have been steered away from tandem kayak.

So far I’ve looked at the Perception Prodigy and the Old Town Dirigo with Child Seat. Does anyone have experience or advice on which kayaks would be best for kayaking with small children, but also could be used solo?

Any advice appreciated. Thanks so much.

Great Lake with Kids

– Last Updated: Sep-02-12 1:55 PM EST –

One issue that you are going to run into is that the paddling season on the great lakes is going to be pretty short. When the water drops below 60 F. you are going to need some kind of wetsuit for the small kids and then it's only safe to do this down to about 50 F. The Great Lakes can offer a pretty challenging paddling environment for beginners and especially with small children.

Sit on top tandem kayaks actually work very well for paddling with small children. The issue with the large cockpit Recreational kayaks you have mentioned, is that if you capsize with a small child, you have a bad situation, because the boats are very hard to empty or to paddle back to shore when full of water. A tandem sit on top is very safe for families with small kids, you just flip the boat over, set the kids back in the boat and all is well. You do have to wear wetsuits or drysuits for cold water, but that is true of all kayaks. Tandem sit on tops are used with kids on rough big water quite a bit in California, Hawaii, Australia etc. But cold water temps are less of an issue compared to places like Lake Superior.

Some SOT Kayaks like the Hobie Oddysey can be set up to paddle from the center seat for solo adult paddling. Kayaking is not easy to pull off with multiple small children and to some extent if you want to paddle with your family until the kids are about 7, you are looking at some kind of tandem kayak. For multiple small kids a canoe is actually a pretty good way to introduce the family to paddling. But you would need to choose where to paddle a canoe carefully on the great lakes.

rec boats are not for the Great Lakes
There will probably be others who weigh in (after the holiday weekend) but most of us familiar with the Great lakes will advise you to forget about rec boats if the big waters are your intended location for paddling. Where you live has some bearing on this. There are some protected inlets and harbors on, say, the southeast shore of Lake Michigan during the summer that could be marginally safe close to shore. (I say this with some reservation – I used to live in that area and have seen the lake go from calm and glassy to a raging mess of confused waves within minutes. Just such a sudden storm killed two of my relatives who were swimming near a sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan 20 years ago.)

Lake Superior is always going to be too cold and too risky for small children or for adults not properly outfitted and prepared skill-wise.

You and you husband should try to learn to kayak safely and with confident skills including capsize recovery before you consider taking the kids out at all. It would probably be a better plan to limit your kayaking to inland waters. The sit on top suggestion is a good one. Have you considered a canoe? Many people with small children find that a more manageable option with younger ones because the kids have more freedom to move around. Some rental outings could be easily arranged in protected waters to test how things go and what the children’s reactions are.

A family canoe would be a better choice
although I switched our family from a canoe to a Folbot Super ( a big,stable kayak)for lake paddling.It served 2 adults and small kids very well.

Look at Innova Inflatables
especially the Sunny. They are really decent boats and the Sunny can be paddled solo or tandem. They can handle significant seas but would be great in more sheltered lakes like in The BWCA and are easily carried.

Not on the Great Lakes
If you are bringing the young ones, stay off the great lakes in a rec boat. They are (as others have said before) big water. Same for you even without the kids until you have appropriate skills.

I’d suggest you spend some time learning to kayak yourselves, including rescues and learning how to handle oh-shit situations, before you even think about being responsible for taking care of young kids on the water. At the most, stay on flat, quiet ponds.

Wait to buy a boat until the adults in the family know what to do with it.

Many of the medium to large rivers
around the Great Lakes have estuaries that are somewhat protected. These estuaries will usually allow folks in open canoes and rec kayaks to stay fairly close to shore. I just got back from Lake Superior Provincial Park, and there were about half a dozen river estuaries that allowed rec kayaks to use them safely. I ran the last ten miles of the Michipicoten, right down to the mouth where Superior Adventures is located. I could not have been out on Lake Superior that day in a whitewater canoe. It was too windy and wavy.

Other river estuaries we’ve done include the Escanaba, Platte, and Galien on Lake Michigan. There will be days when the big lakes may be calm enough for short, cautious jaunts, but don’t get carried away.

I have the Dirigo XT 140 with the child’s seat. I have only gotten it out once and that was by myself. I’m not really sure how good the kids seat is honestly. I bought a couple of the stadium cushion seats that I plan on using and I’ll just remove the seat.

Even then I’m wondering how it’s going to be to have someone that close in front of me. It seems they might be in the way of paddling and/or water rom the paddle will drip on them. Of course, I’m new so maybe it will make sense when I get one of the kids out there with me.

Sit on tops for children
I really think sit on tops are Ideal and so are tandems. Of course I’ve only been to the Great lakes on very rare occasion. Most recently this summer. I went to lake Michigan and Lake Superior and there were little children swimming and playing at the beaches. It looked pretty benign to me. I was cold whenever I was swimming but the local children swam for hours in it…brrrrr.

The reason I think sit on tops are ideal is because you stay wet the whole time you are in them and you do not get a false sense of security. They are no protection from the elements but if you falls off it is no trouble to swim back on.

I certainly would recommend you got farther from shore than you would swim with your children. I also recommend that you only go out in the nice beach weather, but I think anyone with small children has the sense to keep them from harm. Sit on tops make ideal beach toys and can set a foundation of paddling skills and experiences that can lead to a life of pleasure outside.

I sit inside will require you to have lessons on rescue and lots of skills before you are ready to take children out, because it is too easy to feel like it is “Warm Enough” and that “We won’t tip over” so you go too far out or explore someplace you wouldn’t swim and get into trouble.

I would not recommend you do any boating with children below the age of 3. The life jackets I’ve seen just don’t work for them yet. I think most children get their first boat between 6 or 10 years old and in that case I again recommend the sit on top, but for mine I got them a pirogue, an inflatable, and a rec boat.


Talk to a local
You might want to talk to a local shop. The Great Lakes can be very different. If you live in Northern Indiana Lake Michigan is far different than if you live in Munising and Lake Superior is at your back door. Since you are saying you are going to paddle with your kids in several years I won’t even take them into account right now, I would more think about if you are paddling on inland lakes or the Great Lakes. No matter where you live there is probably a guide service close that you can go learn the basics or your local boat shop might offer classes. We never even considered kids (we didn’t have them yet) when my wife and I bought our boats. Grandparents were our key to still getting out. Our daughter is now 8 and got her first boat (Acadia Scout) when she was 7 and a wet suit before we went to Superior this summer. On Superior she stayed close to shore and spent more time diving out of the boat than paddling but it is awesome to see her do a self rescue. She doesn’t paddle far when we go to lakes near our house, we bought a tow rope, but she really enjoys it. After this summer on Lake Superior our 5 yo son now wants his own boat and our daughter wants a “real” sea kayak, i.e. a Tsunami SP. I also wouldn’t even think of taking my kids out w/o them knowing how to swim, water confidence is a key. We have never regretted our boat purchases and we aren’t saddled with a rec barge instead of our sea kayaks.

One last thing, is respect the great lakes but don’t be scared of them. Be smart and get out in them but stay close to shore and watch the conditions, the only way you can improve is to be out in conditions but be smart about it.

Some things to consider…
Though some have touched on the safety issues, there are other issues as well. Before doing that, I’d like to emphasize that immersion in cold water is a real danger in children and even in a wetsuit, that initial contact can bring on panic. Canoes are probably a more comfortable and safer approach than kayaks and offer better opportunities to interact with the children than (most) kayak designs.

Small children have little tolerance for being inactive in canoes/kayaks. The adults need to work pretty hard to find interests, activities, etc. to keep them mentally active during the excursion or the trip will be a short one. Forcing a child on an overlong trip where they have no ability to exit is often a great way to make them hate the activity. Activities such as observing/identifying wildlife, what to look for in order to paddle safely, discussions about science, nature, our impact on nature and why we try to minimize it, etc. are pretty much a requirement.

You’d be surprised at how much even toddlers can get from these conversations. My son and I still have these conversations which started when he was about 2 years old and we always seem to discover something new, even if it is just the amazing way his teenage mind works:).


The Great Lakes were atypically warm
this summer. We were up at Michipicoten harbor on L. Superior, and also on the SE and NW corners of L. Michigan, and local swimmers commented on the relatively comfortable temperatures. The other times we have been on Superior and Huron in summer, water has been damn cold, and one would not want little kids sloshed with it. But stay in relatively sheltered inlets, and they won’t get sloshed.