Spending time together on the water can be the perfect family outing. Kayaking is one of my personal favorite outdoor activities, and I would have never come to love it without my older brother teaching me the techniques he learned at camp.
Whether kayaking is a traditional family activity, or the entire brood wants to take up the sport together, your children might find that they love kayaking so much that they want to get their own boat! Here’s a guide of some of the best kids kayaks out there, and how to make certain your child is ready to go solo.
First of All: Is Your Child Ready for a Kids Kayak?
Your child should have some experience kayaking with an adult or even just spending time on the water before you decide to buy him or her a personal kayak. If no one in your family has ever kayaked before, you might consider booking a trip with an outfitter to gain experience and expert advice. Paddling on calm water in lakes, bays, and slow rivers is not difficult, and can be picked up in a short afternoon.
Only if you have extensive kayak experience should you take children on water with a faster current. Experts at sporting goods stores, parks associations, or park services websites will know where the best kid friendly paddling locations are. Community pools also sometimes offer kayak lessons.
If kayaking is a personal favorite activity, share your love for it and your paddling stories with your kids to get them excited! It is never too early to start teaching young paddlers how to read the water. Study tides, boat traffic, and currents together before you go on the water. Have your child participate in the trip planning process so they become familiar with what they will encounter out on the water.
Think about safety when your child is learning to kayak
Practice exits and rescues with your child, and even if they have taken a class, review them again before going out on the water. Have them always wear a life preserver. Kids should drink lots of water when boating, and wear sunscreen and appropriate clothing.
If they are riding in a boat with you or another adult, they should sit either in the bow or in the middle of the kayak with adults in front and behind. Riding in the middle is called “duffing” and is a great place for beginners to get a feel of what riding in a boat is like.
Fun is the second most important part of a kayak excursion with your kids!
Bring along binoculars, notebooks, or other items that will keep them engaged and observant of their surroundings. You might play a game like I Spy that will not distract you from the water. Let all children paddle at least once, even if they don’t add much propulsion, to feel like they are being helpful and included. If they are having a hard time seeing or paddling, use a drybag or pad as a booster seat.
Observe your child on the water and their paddling abilities when deciding whether they are ready for a boat.
Consider their experience level, including familiarity with water, age level or maturity, swimming ability, and level of coordination. If you feel that any of these areas is lacking, you should continue paddling together before getting them their own boat. Even after you purchase them their own kayak, continue to go out on the water together or have them stay very close to shore while they are getting used to paddling alone.
What are the Best Kids’ Kayaks?
Once you’re certain that your child is ready for his or her own kayak, it’s time to wade through the many options out there. You can buy a kayak at a big box store or through a dealer. Both options are good, even if the bigger stores can be hit or miss—what’s most important is that the kayak is the right size for your child.
Kayak Dave has an excellent overview of kid’s kayak models to get you started. He covers a few products, like the Wilderness Systems Piccolo, that have been discontinued. Don’t discredit a used model—if you are looking to save some money, you might search eBay or other secondhand retailers for a discontinued model. Since kids grow quickly, a used kayak may not have gotten too much wear and tear before it started looking for a second home.
Kids’ Kayaks differ from adult kayaks primarily in size and weight. Width is very important when considering a child’s boat. If the boat is too wide, a little boy or girl will have a hard time reaching their arms out to paddle and will spend the whole trip bumping their elbows. A wider boat may seem more stable, but a narrow boat is just as safe and more maneuverable and enjoyable.
Other than size, children’s kayaks closely mimic their adult counterparts. The Perception Prodigy XS focuses on comfort and has knee pads and back/seat pads. The boat is narrow enough for kids to navigate it easily, and it accelerates quickly. The deck is also low enough that visibility for shorter kids is not an issue.
Costing less than $400, the Prodigy is a good starter boat for kids paddling on their own for the first time, and it comes in a variety of colors. Another similarly priced product is the Heron Jr. This boat carries up to 115 lbs and has a tow along system so you can attach the boat to yours if the child tires of paddling.
For the serious young paddler, the Jackson Kayaks Fun 1 is a little more of an investment. The boat is lightweight and easy to maneuver, weighing only 19 lbs. The Fun 1 is for kids 30-80 lbs, and the next sized model is the Fun 1.5, for children weighing 60-120 pounds.
Inflatable kayaks are another option that is less expensive and easier to store and transport. Inflatable boats can also be less intimidating for children, since they bounce off of objects rather than hitting them with a loud noise!
Open Top Kayaks are Great for New Kayakers
An open top kayak can be a great boat for kids. Since the seat is on top of the boat rather than inside a cockpit, visibility is uninhibited, and entering and exiting is easy—great for kids who want to jump in the water in the middle of a trip!
The Pelican Solo Youth Kayak is an open top kayak made just for kids. At under $200 dollars, this could be a great starter boat. Whenever buying a kayak, try to look at customer reviews and other forums for tips from those who have already tried the product—for instance, this kayak’s reviews say that the kayak carries up to about 100 lbs, rather than the 140 lbs in the description.
The Lifetime Youth Wave is another very inexpensive option. This lightweight kayak will even fit in your car!
While not technically intended for children, the reviewers state that the Pelican Tidewater 80 SS is a good boat for beginners and children can easily maneuver it. It is always best to buy a boat that is comfortably sized for your kids, but if you want something that will transition through a growth spurt, this product might last until they are full grown and ready for a permanent kayak investment.
Additional Equipment: Paddles and PFDs
Now that your child has their own kayak, it’s time to finish outfitting them for their adventures. The most important piece of equipment they will need is a personal flotation device (PFD). A child or teen (or an adult!) should never go out on the water without a life preserver, regardless of whether they are paddling with an adult or how strong of a swimmer they are.
Personal Flotation Devices or Life Jackets
Be sure the PFD is US Coast Guard approved, and that it fits well– do not buy a preserver that they will “grow into,” the way you might with other kids’ clothing. Here is an excellent guide to personal flotation devices that will aide in your search.
Once you have found the right life preserver, have your child wear it around the house or yard several times before getting on the boat so they are comfortable, and not itching to take it off in the middle of your trip.
Kayak Paddles for the Kids
Just like the boat itself is a scaled down version of adult equipment, there are also paddles made especially for children. The paddle should not be too heavy or too long for the child to use it effectively. The Werner Sprite Sea Paddle is a good size for children, and has all qualities of an adult paddle.
For a less expensive option, try the Quest Youth Pioneer Adjustable Aluminum Kayak Paddle and adjust the length as your child gets taller!
Having a personal kayak will make your child feel independent and increase their problem solving abilities. There is also nothing nicer than paddling on a beautiful summer day, and your child will carry that memory with them their entire life!