Introducing a Toddler to the Canoe

Taking small children onto a boat or canoe is controversial. Admittedly, travelling on water has inherently higher risk than staying on solid ground. I do believe though that there are responsible ways to minimize the risks and create age-appropriate water outings. These were my personal reasons to decide it was ok:

  • In summer, the Russian River behaves largely like a very narrow lake with slow flow and perfect swimming temperature.
  • We have decades of exprience paddling this section of the river
  • I worked for several years as a life guard, am an experienced open water swimmer including several races, and I am also trained as a Wilderness First Responder
  • My son was tall and heavy enough to fit in an US Coast Guard approved PFD II type flotation device (moe information here). We tested that device in a pool before going out.

    Mallard diving for food on the Russian River in summer.


A few remarks on water safety. Many states in the USA have specific laws on life jackets; the Coast Guard recommends for children under 13 years of age to wear a PFD (personal flotation device). It is essential for safety, even once your child becomes a good swimmer. One can easily loose consciousness by a hit on the head during a boating accident. I have lost two adult friends due to this type of injury earlier in my life. Modern PFDs are much less bulky and do barely interfere with motion while boating. Lucie’s List has a recently updated blog post with reviews of currently available PFDs for toddlers. Never restrain your child during a water outing; a PFD only works if the child can exit the boat and float unencumbered.

Because of the high ratio of body surface to body volume children are much more susceptible to hypothermia than adults.  I found a story in this blog post by little aid which very clearly describes the symptoms you might see at the onset of mild hypothermia. For adults, my former rowing club used the “air + water temperature > 100 F” rule as the bare minimum requirement to go out. I still use this rule for myself today if I do not wear a wetsuit, and I would most definitely not take my toddler on the water if this rule plus generous margin would not hold.

At the time when we took J out for his first canoe outing, he was 10 month old and had just started to walk. He also was in the middle of the transition from two naps to one nap per day, which made it difficult to predict when he was tired or hungry. It was the 4th of July weekend in California. Mornings on the Russian River are foggy and cool, afternoons are nice and warm. We had pretty bulky RFP sold at the local stores. I should have been better prepared and bought a better designed PFD before the trip! J usually rolls with whatever is happening, but he stuck close to me because there were a lot of new sights and sounds to process. I decided to sit in the bow with J and not paddling. In this canoe, there is a fishing bucket installed in the front of the canoe, which restricts the space and required me to hold J. J tolerated the one hour trip to the beach fairly well, but when we got there he was super hungry. I only brought a but more than his usual amount of food. I quickly learned over the next outings that J gets unusually hungry on a boating trip. On the way back, J was hungry, cranky, and done with this PFD thing. I eventually managed to sing him to sleep.

Photo Jul 07

Exhausted from his first canoe trip. For the next trip, I moved back with him to the middle section of our boat just behind my seat. That worked much better.

The next two trips we wised up: more food, and shorter outing. We only kept paddling 20 minutes to the next beach, spend a good long time playing there, and paddled back after a hearty snack. With each of the outings J got more comfortable sitting in warm shall water which was not his bathtub. Discovering that rocks are fun to play with helped.He still was not too excited about being on the water, but singing lots of songs and waving to other canoes on the river entertained and distracted him.

Our canoe outings were cut short in late August, because the low water flow and heat during the California drought caused toxic blue algae to develop in the water. We decided it was not worth taking the risk of J accidentally ingesting them. What I did instead was sign J up for baby swim classes at a local swim school to keep him used to larger bodies of water. He not only loves going there, but also gets weekly practice listening to commands when to wait and when to go into the water. Next week is Memorial Day weekend, and if all goes well we will be out on the water with a much bigger boy and his new life vest. He loves wearing it, and did not mind when we tested it on him in the pool. In hindsight, it would probably have been easier for us to start the canoe introduction after J’s transition from a two nap to a one nap schedule was solidified. The combination of bulky life vest and J just having learned to walk on solid ground was too challenging for him.

What went well:

  • Keeping the initial outing short, around 20 minutes
  • Having one person 100% dedicated to staying with the kid
  • Hat, rashguard and longish pants as sun protection
  • Starting after the noon nap time

What we changed next time:

  • Bring more food. Double all portions. Then add even more.
  • Changed the life vest to a different model
  • Signed J up for swim class to get him used to be in and around larger bodies of water than his bathtub


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