S tarting a family brings a world of changes. Priorities shift. Time is at a premium. Most look forward to a time when they can get out for a paddle with the whole family. At first this might be in a tandem kayak or canoe, but eventually, children are big enough they’re able to paddle their own boats. How do you choose the right kayaks to meet the needs of your paddling family? Read on.

Age matters

The first question parents often ask is how old does a child need to be to paddle solo? The answer depends on what you hope to accomplish on the water. If you’re out for a fun float with the family and don’t have to make miles, younger kids will have a blast piloting their own crafts. If you’re on a family sea kayak tour, little ones won’t be able to keep up. For ambitious trips, small children are best paired with adults in tandem kayaks.

A good way to think about this is to compare it to bicycling. You can put a very young child on a strider bike and she’ll have fun riding to the corner of the flat block and back. The same child wouldn’t make it on a 20-mile road ride. The only real way to know what your children are capable of is to get them out on the water. With experience you’ll know what they can handle.

Price it out

One of the biggest challenges most paddling families face when looking for kayaks is affordability. One of the biggest challenges manufacturers face is keeping the price low. Kayak companies know it’s good for the paddlesports industry to encourage parents to get their whole family out on the water, but the cost of producing good small kayaks isn’t much less than building bigger boats.

One way around this challenge is to simplify the features in the kayaks. Children’s designs frequently have simple layouts and lack the bulkheads and hatches common in adult kayaks. Fewer options keep both cost and weight down, which makes it easier for kids to carry and control their own boats.

Of course, there are some kids’ kayaks nearly as full-featured as their grown-up equivalents. Children’s touring kayaks are built with all the safety features of full-sized boats, and this means you should expect the price of these kayaks to be higher. The bottom line is the closer a kid’s kayak is to the real thing, the closer the price will be to an adult kayak.

Performance

The other big challenge with children’s kayaks is performance. If you want your children to have a good time out on the water with you, they need to be in boats matched to their size and strength. It might be tempting to drop your kiddos into recreational kayaks , but most of these boats are way too big for small paddlers to handle.

Small recreational boats may be short, but they are also wide. A nine-foot rec kayak will float a full-sized adult weighing 200 pounds or more. Kayaks like this are often 30 inches wide. Put a 60-pound child into this same kayak and she’ll hardly be able to reach the water with her paddle. When it comes to kids’ fun on the water, big person rec kayaks are out.

Children’s kayaks need to be matched to the paddler’s size every bit as much as adult kayaks do. This typically means being narrower than 25 inches, sometimes as narrow as 20 inches. Children under 100 pounds find such kayaks plenty stable and much easier to control.

Width is a significant factor in kayak performance, but length comes into play too. Longer kayaks are faster, but they have more drag in the water. Children don’t have the strength to power a big boat effectively. This means kid kayaks are typically much shorter than similar models geared toward adults. Almost all children’s kayaks are under 12 feet long, and many are shorter than 10. The shorter length of children’s kayaks combined with less powerful paddlers means adults will need to back off a bit during a family day on the water. No kayak designed for children will keep pace with longer adult boats.

The right fit

Recreational kayaks for children come in both sit-on-top and sit-inside models. These kayaks are narrower versions of adult recreational kayaks smaller folks find easier to control. The benefits of sit-on-top designs are they can’t be swamped and are easy to climb back onto if you’re playing in the water. Sit-inside kayaks will keep children drier and warmer if the water or air temps are a little cooler.

Kids’ touring kayaks are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks. They are sit-in designs with smaller cockpits. Some designs have bulkheads and hatches like adult kayaks. Others skip these features to keep weight and cost down. The narrower width and increased length of these boats help children to develop paddling skills and keep pace with full-sized kayaks.

Once children hit about 100 pounds, you’ll have a few more options. Kayaks aimed at smaller adults are a good choice for bigger kids. These kayaks don’t come at a child’s price but they are scaled to fit a growing youngster. Small adult kayaks are a great choice as an upgrade from a child’s touring or whitewater kayak , especially if your family is getting more ambitious about spending time together on the water.

Kids grow quickly, so it’s tempting to put them in the least expensive kayaks you can find. The problem is the cheapest kayaks aren’t necessarily the best choices.

There are lots of low-price recreational kayaks available, but the majority of these are too wide for small children to paddle effectively. Other discount kayak options are little more than beach toys—short, lightweight boats are fine for horsing around but not for paddling from here to there. If you’re on a tight budget, consider scouring the used market for quality used boats rather than heading to the discount store.

The right shop

Most major kayak manufacturers produce at least one model of kayak aimed at children, so there’s a good chance the brand of kayak you paddle will have a kid’s option. River play designs from Dagger , Jackson Kayak and Pyranha should be easy to find. Perception makes an affordable touring kayak and Current Designs produces a premium composite kayak for kids. Old Town makes a scaled-down sit-inside recreational kayak. This list is by no means exhaustive. New models are introduced every few years and used boats and discontinued models are widely available. 

The best place to track down kayaks for children is at a serious paddlesports store. Shops like these may have kids’ kayaks in stock, and if they don’t, they’ll know where to get them. If you’re lucky, you can arrange a test paddle so your children can try on the boats for size.

The little things

Kid-sized accessories are every bit as important as finding the right kayaks. Avoid the temptation to buy inexpensive adult paddles for your children to use. These paddles are much too heavy for smaller folks and will almost guarantee a frustrating experience. Instead, find paddles that are lightweight and sized to fit smaller people.

Likewise, look for children or youth PFDs that fit well and are comfortable enough your children won’t complain about wearing them. All quality life jacket manufacturers produce good kid vests. Avoid the temptation to size up so your child can grow into it. Proper PFD fit is critical to safe and comfortable paddling.

Other accessories to consider for your children are sprayskirts for touring kayaks, and if you’re a touring family, make sure you have a tow belt so you can give kids a power assist if they start to get tired and fall behind.

Recreational kayaks are perfect for days at the beach, but to dabble in touring, kids will need specialized kayaks. | Photo Paul Villecourt

1 COMMENT

  1. One more point about sizing life jackets for children. GO BY CHILD’S WEIGHT and BODY SIZE — NOT AGE! And, yes, fit for use now, not something to grow into! And show positive reinforcement….Wear your life jacket, too!

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