Tips for paddling whitewater with kids

This story was originally published by Canoe & Kayak Magazine. Words by Annabell Plush.

There are several things to consider as you begin to take your child on whitewater.

Of course, the river you choose is important; one with small rapids followed by lots of recovery room, big eddies and plenty of opportunity for play is ideal.

Below are some other things to think about when getting out on your local stretch of gentle whitewater for the first time with your child.

Proper safety gear

Safety is key for paddling whitewater. Photo: Courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center

Make sure your child’s helmet and PFD fit properly and are within the right weight range. Helmets need to fit snugly and not wobble front to back or side to side. PFD’s should stay tight around the torso when you pull up on the shoulder straps.

Keep it simple

Kids can be fearless at times, so make a safety talk your top priority before getting on the water, but don’t overwhelm them with details about foot entrapments or how hydraulics work.

Give a short safety talk with things that are easy to remember (nose and toes up when swimming, swim all the way to shore before standing up, etc.). Then keep the focus on having fun and experimenting.

Practice rope catching and swimming skills

Find a nice stretch of sandy beach with slow, lazy current. Have your child practice flipping and swimming out of their kayak, then safely getting to shore. Also practice catching ropes. This ensures they can perform the maneuvers when the unexpected happens.

Keep it fun by playing games

When it comes to teaching kids, keep it light and fun. Photo: Courtesy Nantahala Outdoor Center

Encourage experimentation with challenges such as how many eddies you can catch in a rapid, or who can stand up in their boats in a big eddy without falling over. Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as turtles sunning themselves on rocks.

Introducing kids to kayaking at a young age can be influential in all areas of their lives. Rowan Stuart, world champion for youth freestyle in 2013, remembers how kayaking as a child helped her feel empowered and confident. “It’s entirely your choice to run or walk a rapid when you boat and that both teaches you to be responsible for what you do and to know your limits,” she explains.

Rowan, who started kayaking before she was even 10, remembers how much she would practice things like ferries. She has “vivid memories of being at the Tuckaseegee in Bryson City and practicing the same ferry over and over again … kayaking teaches kids to learn persistence because it is something that doesn’t always come easily.”

It is important to praise effort, and not just results, when teaching kids to kayak. In a world that is focused on the end outcome, kayaking can be a place of refuge from expectations. Because it takes so long to get good at kayaking, and requires so many mishaps along the way, the river can be a place for kids to relax and enjoy doing something for the pure purpose of having fun.

More from Canoe & Kayak Magazine

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5 ways to hook kids on flatwater kayaking.

Tips on how to raise a paddler and canoe with your brood.