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.

The Backcountry Toddler

Wondering about taking your toddler into the backcountry?  Check out this video of 2 year old Grace on a 12 day canoe trip in the interior of Algonquin Provincial Park.  Even though it rained for 10 of the 12 days she had a blast.  


A big thank you to MEC for making the Newt Rain Suit.  Our trip would have been a bust without it.

In the video you will see our Swift Algonquin which is incredibly stable and a great family boat.  Dan made the cedar strip canoe using John Winters' Kipawa design (a design also carried by Swift).  

(And a special thanks to big sister Anna for the musical accompaniment to the video)

Really want to appreciate nature? Hike with a toddler or preschooler!

by Auntie Shelley

I have always considered myself a nature lover.  I grew up in northern Ontario and most of my childhood was spent in the outdoors.  I wanted the same thing for my children, so it's not a surprise that when Anna was a baby one of our first purchases was the MEC Happytrails Child Carrier.  We lived in Vancouver at the time and she spent hours in that carrier while I hiked through forests, over mountains, and along rivers.  The scenery was spectacular and I loved being out in nature.  It was great and as a new mom I felt like I had this "outdoor adventure mom thing" down.  

Then she learned how to walk.  All of a sudden our hikes changed.  She wanted to explore and was less content to spend hours in the carrier.  Of course I wanted to encourage her to be active and enjoy nature, so I let her out of her carrier.  I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I quickly learned that there's "hiking" and then there's "toddler hiking."

If you've been out with a toddler or preschooler you can probably relate to what "hiking" with a toddler or preschooler is like.  Less than 100 metres on the trail and she's already stopped 37 times, picked up 12 rocks (all of which Mom has to hold because they are "special"), stomped in a puddle, then backtracked to stomp in the one she missed, picked up a snail, picked up stick, picked up another stick, passed the first stick off to Mom because she's found a third stick, backtracked to check out a leaf, picked up a very large slimy slug and held it right up to Mom's nose so Mom can get a closer look, oh wait! what's that tiny spec over there on that log??  You get the idea.

If I'm perfectly honest, initially I really did not enjoy these "hikes" with my toddler.  I found them insanely boring because most of the time I ended up standing around while Anna explored and got really muddy (seriously, that girl could find mud in a desert).  For me, enjoying nature had become synonymous with physical exertion.  Hiking, paddling, climbing, etc.  Standing around looking at slugs wasn't really top on my list of outdoor adventures.

However, I wanted to foster a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural environment in my child, so I let her explore.  Actually she didn't really give me a choice.  It was that or spend hours walking through the forest with a child in a carrier screaming "Me down!! I walk! I walk!" while simultaneously pulling on my pony tail.  What I didn't anticipate was that by allowing my child to explore at her own pace and in her own way, she would in turn foster my own sense of wonder and curiosity about nature.  

Exploring nature with my toddler gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to actually observe nature.  She noticed things that I never had.  Have you ever taken the time to examine  mushrooms, lichen, or moss up close?  I hadn't.  Turns out they're beautiful.

And tree bark?  It's amazing!

What about rocks?  

Or bugs for that matter? How can such delicate wings keep a dragon fly airborne?

Not only did she notice little things that I would have missed, she asked questions about everything she found.  What was that?  Why are that plant's roots "hairy"? Why does that have spots?  How do leaves rot?  Why is this slug so slimy?  Why is there foam on that water? Why is that water a different colour?  What's that bug's name?  What bird just made that sound?  Did that snail just poop?  I was surprised by how little I really knew about the natural world and soon found myself signing out every field guide at the library.  I found myself asking more questions about nature.  I found myself slowing down, stepping off the trail, and checking out what was living under logs.  Exploring nature with my toddler restored a sense of awe and wonder about creation that I didn't even realize had been lost.  

So if you really want to appreciate nature, throw some field guides in your pack and head out for a hike with your toddler or preschooler.  Let him or her lead the way and embrace the slower pace.  It still counts as an adventure!

Oh, and if you don't have a little one of your own don't worry,  you can always borrow one from a friend.  Parents of toddlers and preschoolers always appreciate an afternoon off.

P.S.  If you're interested in learning more about nature with your kids, check out our reading list for some suggestions.  My all time favourite is Anna Botsford Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study.  You can check it out online here.   This book was written years ago as a guide for teachers who had little knowledge about the natural environment.  It's almost 900 pages long and I routinely bring it with me on day hikes because it's just that great.



Hammocks - An Essential Piece of Gear for Naptime and Beyond

By Auntie Shelley

When we first started camping with toddlers, naptime was a bit chaotic.  Our naptime ritual went something like this: I would head to the tent for a “rest” with the little people.  The plan was for us to cuddle up, read a book, and then the little people were supposed to fall asleep and I would have some free time to paddle, read, drink coffee, etc.  In reality we would climb into the tent and the little people would immediately push all of the sleeping bags and gear into one big pile.  They would then proceed to launch themselves head first into the middle of the pile.  This would go on for at least half an hour.  Eventually, after much effort on my part to get them to settle down and sleep, I would pass out from exhaustion while they continued to roughhouse.  Yes, that was naptime.  It was fun for the little people, but not so fun for me. 

Then a few years ago on a last minute trip to Adventure Guide, I picked up a hammock.  Oh how the hammock changed things.  Luke was 2 on that first trip with the hammock.  When he started to look tired I asked him if he wanted to swing in the hammock with Mommy.  He hopped right in, snuggled up and within 5 minutes was out cold.  I think I fell asleep about a minute later.  A new ritual was born.  

Cousin Luke and Auntie Shelley enjoying the hammock.

I have found that my little ones will nap longer in the hammock compared to the tent and often when they wake up they are content to hang out there and watch the trees swaying above them.  I usually put a pad or blanket down underneath them for warmth.  Typically they like edges of the hammock folded up over them so that they are in a little cocoon.  If we’re out during bug season I will drape a mosquito net overtop.  I have also found that on the rare occasion when I don’t fall asleep in there with them, it’s pretty easy to sneak out without waking them up. 

Now, I will admit that when I bought the hammock I wasn’t really thinking about naptime.  I had visions of myself relaxing in it, enjoying a picturesque view of the water while my children canoed and explored the campsite.  In reality, I only got to use the hammock when I was putting Luke down for a nap in it.  The rest of the time it was full of children squirming, giggling, swinging, snuggling, reading, chatting, etc.  There were six or seven children on that trip and I think at least one of them was in the hammock the entire time.  At one point I did try to take back my hammock from the children, but I was out numbered.  They knew it and so did I. 

Since that trip the hammock has become one of our “must have” pieces of gear when camping with little ones.

Cousin Anna lounging in the hammock on a 2010 backcountry trip.

This year we ended up bringing two with us, which was a good thing since Grace staked her claim on the older one the moment it came out of its sack.  She’s rather small, but she is the fifth child and knows how to hold her own.  We all agreed it would be best not to mess with her.

Our latest addition is the ENO DoubleNest.  I picked this one because of its size.  Inevitably three or four kids want to be in there at once and the DoubleNest can easily accommodate them all.  It comes with two carabiners and an attached compression sack and packs down to the size of a softball.    

Cousin Josh in the ENO DoubleNest.

We have lots of webbing kicking around from climbing, so we use that to attach them to the trees, but the Atlas Straps would be worth picking up if you don’t have webbing already.

We have been interested in trying out hammock camping for a while now.  On our recent fall trip, Cousin Chloe tried it out for the first time.  I will let her tell you all about that experience.  For now let’s just say that I think hammocks will be showing up on some Christmas lists this year.