Everything you need to know to get your kid started in kayaking
We have three boys and a river in our backyard.
We can tell you that kayaking is an enjoyable and affordable adventure sport.
Getting started is very simple.
With the right kayak for their age, kids can learn to maneuver a kayak in just a few minutes. It is ridiculously easy for them to figure it out. The new sit-on-top kayaks are even easy enough for a five-year-old to use. You don't have to be an experienced kayaker yourself to get your kids into kayaking either.
With the confidence of the right life jacket, choosing appropriate calm water, a day with good weather (including no wind) and the right beginner kayak, your kid will be paddling away faster than you can keep up.
We were a family with a canoe and multiple stand-up paddle boards the first time we put our 9-year-old and 8-year-old on a sit-on-top kayak. After about sixty second of "How do I steer this thing?!" and a few basic lines of instruction from us they were off looking for turtles and have never looked back.
How old does my kid need to be to start kayaking?
I am not exaggerating that a 5-year-old is old enough for their first kayak. Here is a great video of a five-year-old trying a sit-on-top kayak for the first time.
I'm sure there are some 4-year-olds who would also be ready, but the suggested age on the smallest sit-on-top kayak we purchased said "5 and up" so I'm going to stick with that as the technical answer. However, our 3-year-old takes a ride on the back of that kayak as well with his older brothers who are both under the age of ten. Neighbor kids and friends have been on the kayaks with us, and they range from 5 to 11 years old. None of them had ever kayaked before, and they all picked it up very quickly.
How will kayaking help my kid?
It has been so beneficial for mine. Just for starters, it gets them out of the house, and I think that is a considerable benefit already. It builds strength and endurance. It gets kids out exploring in nature. And my favorite reason of all is that kayaking gives kids independence and adventure.
We live on a mill pond off of a calm river. There are houses on one side of the river, a nature area on the other, a park at the end of the pond (about a half mile away) and even a small nature preserve island to explore in the middle (as you can see, it would have been ridiculous if we had not bought our kids kayaks).
Our kids explore up and down the sides of the riverbank. They are looking for turtles and frogs. They have life jackets on. I am somewhere within visual distance of them on my paddle board while my husband and toddler are in the canoe having their own scenic adventure together. The two older boys get to be "on their own" in their kayaks.
For years they sat in the canoe with us, and it was fun, but NOTHING like what happened when we put them in a kayak and let them loose. We gave them something a thousand times more valuable than the canoe ride: the ability to explore on their own.
Freedom to explore is something that most of us were able to do as kids depending on which part of the country we grew up in, but it is rare (threatening extinction even) for most kids today.
A little autonomy is worth a million dollars in a child's development in my opinion. It gives them confidence and teaches them perseverance.
Is kayaking safe for kids?
Yes, kayaking is safe for kids as long as they have the right kind of life jacket on (and you do too) and you go to an appropriate body of water (calm - think pond, marsh, calm river, or small lake) on a day that has suitable weather. You should be within a safe distance of your kids as they learn. Bring plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and a whistle your child can blow if they need your help. (To read a post I wrote about which type of life jacket is best for your new kayaker, click here.)
The kayak we started with is literally unsinkable, which gave me (and my kids) a lot of confidence to go for it. The sit-on-top kayaks can't get water inside them or sink. My kids love to hop off into the water and swim around and then climb back onto their kayaks - that's how stable they are.
Of course, anything can be unsafe if we put kids (or ourselves) in situations above our experience level. Your kids should be on calm waters, with life jackets on, and should go out in good weather (avoid windy days when they are first getting started). You should avoid going very far on the first few outings until you know how much they can handle. Take it slow. They are beginners, so don't do anything questionable. Keep it simple and make it fun.
Our little pond has provided us with hundreds of hours of outside time exploring. When starting out with very young kids, stay away from rivers with a strong current, open ocean, and large lakes (think whitecaps).
On our lazy river mill pond, I have found kayaking with my kids to be extremely safe, even for my 3-year-old (who occasionally enjoys catching a ride with his brothers).
Interestingly, where we live (busy, narrow, winding Connecticut roads with low visibility), I feel much safer letting my kids kayak all over our pond then I do having them go out riding on their bikes. There is such a peaceful feeling when we are out on the water, and everything is calm and slow moving.
Even though my kids are far from ready for more advanced kayaking at this point, I feel that this young start on calm waters is a hugely valuable, just-right adventure for them for their ages and abilities.
How much is a kid's kayak?
You can get started for around a hundred dollars with a sit-on-top kayak if your child weighs less than 130 lbs and is also under ten years old. An inflatable kayak can also be purchased for under $100, while a traditional sit-inside kayak will start just under $200. Click here for a post I wrote about the different types of kayaks you can choose from.
Our first kid kayak was $86 and included a paddle (they have gone up since then, so now it is more like $100 to $150). If your child is over the age of ten or weighs 130 lbs or more, you can still get a kids kayak for between $150 and $200. There are more expensive kayaks you might be interested in now, or later down the road, but I think it is fantastic that any parent can get their child into the sport for a hundred bucks or so! We have tried and reviewed many styles so be sure to read my kayak reviews here and guide to what kayak is best for your child here and also a lot of info about sit-on-top kayaks here when you are ready to learn more.
A kayak makes a very exciting Christmas or birthday present (I wrote a post all about the joy of gifting a kayak here). It is like buying your kid their first bike, except this one is for the water! The purchase is opening a gateway to outdoor adventure.
Youth sit-on-top kayaks and inflatables often come with a paddle, otherwise you will need to purchase a paddle as well. You can purchase a paddle starting from $25. I have written about kayak paddles here. The only other thing you will need to get started is a life jacket, which I'll go over in another post.
What is the best type of children's kayak for a beginner?
If your child is under 10 and new to any paddling sport, I would recommend starting with the sit-on-top style of kayak, though there are some other great options if they are more advanced athletically, a little older, or tall for their age. But for a very young child, the sit-on-top just makes it so easy to get their feet wet in the sport of kayaking. I don't know why you would skip it for a beginner unless you are a family that already is into kayaking and has a lot of experience.
It's like buying their first bicycle; You start with something simple and then make it lots of fun along the way as they learn. Sure, in a few years you might be ready for an upgrade, but that doesn't mean you should skip over the "tricycle" first. We feel we got our money's worth and more the very first summer on the water and my kids (and all their friends) are still enjoying the sit-on-tops. For beginners, they are such an easy entry into kayaking.
If you (the parent) already know how to kayak, then you may want a sit-inside kayak for your child. Read our reviews about different kayak options for your child depending on their age and ability. However, I'm strongly suggesting the sit-on-top style for any families with very young children who have absolutely no experience with kayaking and just want to get their young kids started and also for anyone on a budget.
For an in-depth guide, read Kayak Options for kids: Which Type of Kayak is Best For My Child?
Do kayaks tip over easily?
Sit-on-top kayaks are difficult to tip over. You are not able to sink one even if you tried.
Sit-inside kayaks are also much more stable than you would imagine because you are sitting so low it also makes your center of gravity very low also (but yes, it is possible to tip a sit-inside kayak over).
In a canoe, you sit higher up on a seat, or you kneel, but with a kayak, you are sitting in the bottom of the kayak. Unless you take your kids whitewater kayaking (which you are not going to right now!), it is unlikely your kids will tip over on calm waters unless they are trying very hard to.
With a sit-on-top kayak, even if your kids fall into the water (or jump in the water), they will have a life jacket on, and it will all be part of the fun. On calm waters, kids can have a lot of freedom to just have fun without any unnecessary stress.
Getting thoroughly wet is often part of the fun on a hot day out on the water, but it is also optional when kayaking. With a sit-inside kayak, you can stay completely dry generally, while you will get a bit wet paddling a sit-on-top kayak. A little bit of water can splash over the edges at times and then it drains back through the scupper holes to keep the sitting area somewhat dry. We have taken many young children on the kayaks who didn't want to get wet, and indeed they stayed pretty dry paddling all the way to the park and back to the house.
What are the basics I need to buy to get my kid started kayaking?
A kayak, a paddle, and a life jacket.
We ordered our first kid kayak from Amazon (it included a paddle) and came a few days later. You should have seen the look on their faces when the kids came home from school and saw the kayak leaning against the front door! Many kid kayaks come with a paddle, otherwise, yes you would need to purchase a paddle too. There are more fun accessories you can look into later, but for now, a kayak, a paddle, and a life jacket are all you need to begin!
Can two young kids ride on a child-sized kayak?
Yes, the child sit-on-top kayaks with swim-up decks (like the Lifetime child kayak) have enough room for a younger sibling to hitch a ride on the back as long as their combined weight is under the maximum weight limit. Having a sibling in tow will slow down your paddling child but they will have a lot of fun exploring together and for our family, slowing them down was a good thing!
Sometimes my toddler gets on the kayaks to sit behind an older brother. Sometimes he also likes to lay on his tummy and hang his feet off the back of the swim-up deck into the water so he can kick his legs. Everyone gets a workout!
Of course, if you have an older child or get a sit-inside solo kids kayak, it will just seat one child. Read more about tandem kayaks and other options in my post Kayak Options for Kids.
How much work is it to get started with a children's kayak?
The kayak options available today make it so easy and fun to start young. And the child-sized kayaks are small enough to carry easily (by you or an older child), throw in the back of a minivan, or even in your swimming pool for practice. We ordered our kayaks on Amazon and they came within a few days - with free shipping to boot, and paddles included. Of all the things we have done with our boys, kayaking has definitely been one of the most worthwhile for the effort and the price.
Wishing your family many adventures on the water together!
My 9-year-old (on the right) towing his 3-year-old brother while racing his friend who is towing a younger sister!
This was his friend's first day on a kayak. It took him only about 30 seconds to figure out how to paddle before they were racing up the river together towards the park. Not long after, these two younger passengers climbed onto their big brother's kayaks from a canoe. After snacks and tree climbing at the park, we paddled back, stopping to get wet a few times along the way.
Almost six years ago we moved into a little New England house with a river in the backyard and quickly discovered the joy of kayaking kids.