Tips for Backcountry Canoeing with Toddlers

By Auntie Shelley

Lisa and I both agree that the toddler stage is probably the most challenging when it comes to backcountry canoeing with kids.  I think I have experienced every possible variation of toddler backcountry canoeing – canoeing with “just” a toddler; canoeing with a toddler while pregnant; canoeing with a toddler and a baby; canoeing with a toddler and older kids.  Oh! and then there was that trip where our toddler came down with the stomach flu in the canoe. 

Over the years we’ve learned a few important things about taking toddlers into the backcountry, so here are ten tips for canoeing with toddlers.


#1 – Have Realistic Expectations

A successful trip with a toddler is all about managing expectations.  I’m going to be straight with you.  If you go on a trip with a toddler and expect to spend hours paddling blissfully while your toddler quietly sits in the front of the boat, you are going to be disappointed.  If you go on a trip expecting that you will get to relax, read a book, sit and enjoy your morning coffee while watching the mist rise off the lake, you are going to be really disappointed with your trip.   If your idea of a great trip includes grueling 3km uphill non-maintained portages then you’ll be disappointed.

Backcountry trips with toddlers are not particularly relaxing.  Heck, life with toddlers isn’t particularly relaxing.  And toddlers just aren’t able to keep up with a grueling kid-free pace either.  This isn’t to discourage you from taking your toddler into the backcountry, it’s just that I’ve learned over the years that I have to have realistic expectations about what a trip with a toddler will entail.

So what can you expect? 

Expect that your toddler will spend a lot of time hanging over the edge of the boat.  This means that you will spend a lot of time grabbing the handle of the toddler’s lifejacket in order to keep him or her from plunging head first into the drink. 

You will be travelling at a much slower pace.  We typically plan our trips based on the assumption that the person in the stern will be soloing.  If by some chance our little one falls asleep and we both get to paddle, it’s a bonus, but this way we are never left trying to make up for lost time when the person in the front ends up holding the toddler instead of a paddle.  Sure we don’t cover the same distances we used to, but that’s okay because we’ve set appropriate expectations ahead of time.

Portages will take a lot longer.  Let me say that again - portages will take A LOT longer.  One of you will need to keep an eye on that toddler while the other gets a serious workout.  Or you will have to trade off on toddler duty.  I have found that our toddlers typically don’t share our fervor to get all the gear from one side of the portage to the next as quickly as possible.  Sometimes those sneaky little kids even try to return gear back to where we just carried it from.  Portaging with a toddler is a lot like hiking with a toddler – slow.  And inevitably they will fill their diaper right at the moment you’ve loaded the boat and are ready to push off.

Oh, and that bucket of rocks that everyone recommends you take so you toddler can throw stones one-by-one into the water as you paddle: be prepared for him or her to dump the entire contents into the water within the first 5 minutes of your trip. 


#2 – Keep A Life Jacket on Your Toddler Most of the Time

Of course it’s just common sense that your toddler will wear a life jacket when in the boat, but we recommend that you keep it on them most of the time.  It is not uncommon for toddlers to dart off towards the water.  This is particularly important if you are at a site with a steep drop towards the water.  Our little ones also keep their life jackets on when we are portaging and on many occasions it has protected them when they have fallen on rocky terrain.  It also provides an extra layer of insulation on cold rainy days.  


#3 - Let Them Have Their Own Paddle

Our toddlers love to “help” paddle.  Let them get involved and encourage them to paddle.  We have found that they are more interested in holding a paddle than a bucket or toy boat.  They want to be like everyone else on the trip.  Just be prepared to fish that paddle out of the water repeatedly (and to get whacked in the head a couple of times).  


#4 – Candy is Your Friend

While I’m normally a granola crunching, local whole foods kind of girl, candy does have its place on a backcountry trip with a toddler.  Don’t be afraid to pull out a lollipop or some Smarties in order to get your child to sit quietly in one spot if you need them to or to get them through the last leg of a paddle.  Just remember to put said candy in the pocket of your lifejacket before you start paddling.  If it’s in the bottom of your food barrel it’s of no use (don’t ask me how I know that).


#5 – Be Selective when Choosing a Campsite

Campsite selection is crucial when toddlers are with you.  Sites with steep drops or slick rock at the water’s edge should be avoided if at all possible.  At this stage our favourite sites are always ones where the water access is level without a quick drop off.  Ideally your site will be relatively flat with some open space for running around.  You don’t want a site that is going to require hyper-vigilance the entire time you’re there. 

In general I would also say that this is not the time to be checking out new sites.  Since I find trips with toddlers to be fairly challenging, I like to stick with places we are familiar with.  We have a few favourite spots that we know have good water access.  Since we’ve been there before, we already know where we will put our tents and tarps which makes setting up camp relatively quick and easy.

This is not the type of water access you want when you're out with a toddler.

This is not the type of water access you want when you're out with a toddler.


#6 – Bring a Hammock

Toddlers love hammocks.  Hammocks make naptime easy.  Easy naptimes make moms happy.  See this post for more details.

Tired Grace in her ENO Hammock

Tired Grace in her ENO Hammock


#7 – Bring a Kid Sized Chair

We have this Kelty Kids chair and our toddlers love it.  Having a little chair just for your toddler makes mealtime easier.  Usually in the morning I make hot chocolate first.  Then the toddler gets to sit in the chair and drink hot chocolate while I make breakfast.  I have also found it useful when Dan and I need to work on something together.  I can have the toddler sit in the chair, give them a snack or a treat, and they are usually content to sit in the special chair while we get our work done.

#8 – Let them Get Involved as Much as Possible

Toddlers love to help out with everything - carrying wood, stacking wood, washing dishes, carrying water bottles, filling stuff sacks, etc.  Let them get involved.   Sure it will take extra time and you might have to do things over, but you’re setting the stage for future trips and fostering their enthusiasm.  Before you know it they will be old enough to collect the firewood and start the fire on their own.  If you really do your job right at some point you’ll have older kids who can make you coffee in the morning and portage your canoe.   The extra effort when they’re young will pay off when they get older.

Caleb prepping a tent site.

Caleb prepping a tent site.


#9 – Make the Main Thing the Main Thing

Over the years I’ve found that it helps if I continually remind myself why we’re bringing our little ones into the backcountry.  We’re doing it to spend quality time together as a family, to instill a love of nature, to set the stage for future trips, and yes, to groom them into really good portagers so they can carry our stuff for us when we’re old.


#10 – Remember, this too shall pass

While trips with toddlers are crazy, remember that toddlers only last for a season.  By the next year they will be preschoolers, and then it's a whole new adventure.