Kayaking with Toddlers

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Kelly at 1.5 (top) and Kelly at 2.5 (bottom)

Last late August/ early September, like the absolute maniacs we are, we took our 1.5-year-old on a 5-night kayak trip around Lake Kabetogama at Voyageurs National Park. It was the most socially distant trip I could think of, within reason. When planning this trip in particular, many of my friends asked me why we hated ourselves so much! BUT, many others reached out to say that we inspired them to try something new with their young ones or had great questions for me about gear, strategies, etc. So here it goes:

Luckily, now, which was NOT the case when we started all this a few years ago, there are some helpful communities like Wildkind and hikeitbaby that both exist to support adventuring families with littles. There is also FINALLY a safe sleeping bag for babies and toddlers from Morrison Outdoors. We actually use the Big Agnes Wolverine Sleeping Bag: 15F Synthetic bag now (which requires a sleeping pad).

We are definitely NOT experts and we learn from trial and mostly error. For example, we took our 9-month-old baby (without a helmet —oy!) bouldering up Old Rag in Shenandoah. We also got lost and made a 12-mile hike (which is a lot for us) into a never-ending 18 mile hike in the Tetons. We camped in Yellowstone in 15-degree weather with a baby who refused to eat and who HATED his down snow suit, which we made him sleep in at the time. There are plenty of other mishaps and adventures, but you get the picture… Also, if you want to talk about the extra precautions of keeping your camp “clean” with a baby in bear country, feel free to reach out… or offer me some suggestions!

Mostly we have learned the following things about backcountry camping:

Josh and I are pretty much fine no matter what (minus one unfortunate kayak trip where I couldn’t stop throwing up and had to be towed upstream, baby (imitating my vomiting) in lap)— so we can survive on the bare minimum clothes and food and gear. As long as I can stay warm, I’m fine. Josh is a beast.

Bring emergency gear every single time (including maps and a compass that is not your phone- ALWAYS… pleases don’t tell yourself, “Oh, it’s only 3 miles– no biggie!” unless you are on a trail that you know intimately. I also always have our LifeStraw with us for unfamiliar day hikes… just in case.

We really depend on our Osprey POCO AG Plus baby carrier. Some people also really like their Dueter packs for kids. There are now plenty of cool guides from moms on what they prefer. I like the sun and rain cover options on the POCO and the extra storage space.

Babies need way more warm clothes than you think. Layers on layers on layers. They (at least ours) also cannot keep hats on at night, so make sure you have something that ties. Or if they are a suffocation risk (under 12 months) — have a great time waking up every five minutes to make sure they are warm enough! Finding appropriate baby camp clothes is expensive and exhausting and could be an entire post on its own. The main rule is: NO cotton. The struggle is real. I say splurge for wool if you can. I recently cut open the “footies” of Kelly’s wool pants so he could keep wearing them! Wool socks are a must. We get most of our stuff from Patagonia, REI, Kamik, Northface, Smart Wool, Columbia, Burton, and Helly Henson. Oma + jo make great hats that actually stay on. We also LOVE Reima. Most stuff was huge on him, and that was mostly fine as long as it stayed on. Although, I do not recommend big socks or shoes as it leads to stumbling and balance problems. I also love the baby Carhartt overalls for rugged play, but they are definitely too heavy for backcountry IMO.

I generally dress in this order: Base layer (wool or synthetic), fleece layer, down layer, waterproof layer.

They need a sun hat— I suggest something they can’t so easily rip off. I can’t get Kelly to wear sunglasses, but if you can get them on yours, you definitely should. We also had baby sunglass chums, but… well, they were useless to us. I can also attest that Babiators are truly indestructible.

No matter the conditions, even in summer, we bring light mittens (think fleece) and usually more serious mittens. We like the Hestra baby long zip because he can’t get them off… they are expensive and he needs a new pair each season, but we don’t mess around with fingers and toes. Another great (more affordable) option are l-bow mittens.

Do no skimp on good rain gear (for everyone!) We bring multiple options: a coat and pants, a Columbia rain suit, Reima overalls and jacket— always good to have a dry option.

Here are some thoughts on camping footwear: On these trips I like having 3-4 options, also toddler shoes are pretty small so I don’t mind it. We like the Merrell Kid’s Trail Chaser for a hiking shoe. They are hard as shit for me to get on his feet, but super stable and he falls the least amount in them. I also like the Merrell Bare Steps water shoes (Kelly loves these and would wear them 24/7). They are sturdy and lightweight. I have yet to find a water shoe that is truly “quick drying” unless it is a rubber material. We have a pair of Kamik winter boots that also come with us no matter the season. They are waterproof and very warm (rated -20). Then, I usually choose between a baby native shoe (the ones with holes), crocs, or baby Teva sandals. I will say that he likes playing with the velcro and often takes them off because the ripping sound is fun and interesting, which can backfire.

Smartwool makes baby socks, but they run crazy small, so be careful. Their kids sizes seem more normal. Any synthetic sports sock would also work for day use. We often double up or triple up, depending. Don’t forget to take thick socks into consideration when sizing boots! For sleeping, if your base layers are footed, that’s an awesome first sock layer. If not, just add an extra sock layer. If your kiddo likes to pull their socks off, consider using a fleece velcro slipper-boot thingy as the final layer. Most babies sleep pretty warm and I have overheated Kelly more than once on these trips! This is bad because sweat in the cold can lead to hypothermia. It took a few trips for us to get in the swing of things. We started with small close to home trips before braving the backcountry of a remote island!

We don’t sleep with him at home, so to try to do so camping doesn’t work. He needs his own designated space. When he was suffocation age, he slept in a KidCo popup tent within our tent.

You need way more food and sunblock and bug spray than you think.

Bring ALL of the snacks and then bring more. I am a meticulous meal planner and have all of our food individually measured out in ziplocks (that I truly try to reuse) for each meal. I also make sure we have more than the recommended calories each day just in case. I also measured out and brought powdered milk. Kelly was mostly potty trained, except for nighttime, so diapers and garbage bags were a must. Don’t forget to budget extra room for all of this garbage that you get to pack out! Also, consider bringing extra “stuff.” One dreadful night, mice attacked the bear box where we kept our food supplies and CHEWED OFF the spout of Kelly’s sippy cup. I died.

I use ThinkBaby sunblock— it seems incredibly safe, it goes on easy, and it’s only medium messy. I will say that sometimes the lotion version can irritate his eyes if used on the face— so I got a small stick version and it solved that issue. We have a little Irish- Jew so he needs sunblock 24/7. On that note we buy most of his clothes with 50+ UPF in them already. We love Patagonia’s Capilene for this reason. It is always better to go long sleeve in the sun and on the water for long periods of time then have exposed skin. Kelly has gotten quite wind burned even when hiking mountains. For wind burn we try to Vaseline his face, which he does not like one bit!

Bug spray: We mostly use 100% Deet now (yes, I know, we are the worst). When he was brand new, I used Skin So Soft Picaridin wipes instead- they were fine. I also spray ALL of our camping gear (tent, chairs, boots, clothes, etc.) down with Sawyer’s Permethrin before we leave. It’s a production, but it is well worth it to protect from mosquitoes and ticks (always have tweezers in your emergency kit). I also have a Thermacell Radius… the jury is still out on its effectiveness. I also bought a very small pop-up bug canopy that you would put on a bed if traveling to somewhere where malaria could be a risk. I wanted somewhere the black flies couldn’t get us while we were making and eating food.

I have a few more thoughts on camping at the very end of this post!

On Kayaking Specifically: There is a reason no one goes Kayak camping with their babies/ toddlers— it is completely impractical, and if you want to make your life easier, please get a canoe instead. But, if you are selfish like us and want to kayak and not canoe and have a “they’ll be FINE” mentality, maybe kayaking is for you.

A good PFD is a must for the baby (and you). Kelly has a Stohlquist PFD. Your baby needs to be able to hold their head up and float in water. Swimming/water experience is super important. If COVID didn’t happen, we were scheduled for infant survival swim lessons, but c’est la vie. You need ALL the gear— ALL of it: paddle floats, paddle leashes, tow line, throw rescue bag, whistles, etc. You need to know how to wet exit your kayak. We got a GPS SOS device and subscription for this trip, and honestly, we probably should have had one all along. We have a Garmin inReach Mini– it’s the best and we don’t go anywhere without it anymore.

Also, if you are kayak camping, please do not take your baby’s PFD off at camp until you are able to give them 100% of your attention. If you have to help your partner get a tent up, that is not 100% of your attention. If you are literally doing anything else (cooking, organizing, going to the bathroom), that is not 100% of your attention.

TIE EVERYTHING DOWN. Doesn’t he throw everything overboard? Yes, yes he does. If he can throw it, he will. I have adapted some hacks for this. Basically, I tie everything down to the boat with paracord and carabiners. He threw his sippy cup overboard? No problem, because we are now just dragging it along side us. I also tie multiple snack cups down. He has his own 1 liter Platypus that he uses for water, which is also clipped. I clip the sucker and his hat to his life preserver. We also try to pack things that won’t kill the ecosystem too much if he throws it over. Like, I feel a lot less guilty if a blueberry ends up in the lake than a peanut puff or something. The downfall of this brilliant plan is that it can get all tangled up- so make sure your cords are short and far away from each other. I would say he calls out for me to unwrap something like only 15 times a paddle!

Choose your route and the body water carefully. Our kayaks are beasts. They are touring kayaks— I’m happy to talk to anyone about the different kinds and why you would use them for what… but with 6 days of food and gear— we definitely needed them for the storage space. Make sure you understand the weather patterns and risks of where you are. We decided our skill level was good enough to be okay on Lake Kabetogama in Voyageurs, for example, but, that Lake Superior around Isle Royale was too much of a gamble with Kelly. I will admit, though, that we were forced on a couple of days to brave some nasty weather and big waves. Kelly did shockingly well on these days. The day that he FELL OUT OF THE KAYAK was (luckily) on a day with smooth water!!

This may seem obvious, but we decided it would be super unsafe for him to have a spray skirt on his seat, even though it would keep him more comfortable in rough conditions, and it would be plenty big enough for him to move around. There are just too many opportunities for him to get trapped by the straps, etc. if we capsized. So, Josh and I used spray skirts, but Kelly didn’t. Did I feel super guilty when I was mostly dry and Kelly was getting pelted in the face with waves? Yes, I did. BUT, it was more important that he could escape his seat safely in an emergency.

Practice, practice, practice! Practice packing and unpacking your kayak way before you even get to the water. I had dry bag color coded systems in place for food, clothes, emergency gear, etc. I also bought cheap, waterproof key chains that I labeled meticulously and attached to our dry bags so that we knew exactly what we were grabbing. Have a primary bag accessible with essentials: emergency kit, snacks, extra layers, rain gear, and sun block. We did two packing dry runs in our garage before we felt confident about where everything would go. We took pictures. We memorized placement so that both adults could do any job needed. By day two on the water, we were a well oiled machine.

Practice kayaking by starting out super small. Our first few times out on the water were maybe only for 15 minutes each. That’s a lot of schlepping for 15 minutes, but we had our end goal in mind. Where does baby sit? GREAT question. You may have noticed that Kelly sits in his own seat. We tried so many combinations before we realized that he just wanted to sit by himself in the front seat of our tandem. He hated sitting with us… it was cramped (no matter which way he faced), and he didn’t like getting wet from our paddles, and we also both hit him like 100 times with the paddle by accident… poor buddy. It was meltdown city. Here’s the thing, him sitting alone is definitely a super risky choice. He wasn’t even two years old yet, so following directions was pretty lol. Even now, when I tell him to “sit down please,” it’s a joke. This means, I have to be vigilant in my single kayak (I use a Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145– a big boat for me, and Josh paddles an 18’ beast— the Old Town Looksha Tandem). If he tries to jump (which he has), it’s on me. It also means that we don’t make a big deal when he leans over to touch the water (if you have a toddler, you know that making big deal out of any behavior you don’t want repeated is a terrible choice), and we just try to redirect him instead. We sing and play peek-a-boo and “race.” If all else fails, and we are in an emergency, we shove him in between our legs and hold him there (while literally screaming, kicking, and trying to flail himself overboard) until we are safe on land. Not ideal, but at least he is safe. Also, I try to remember what a normal day is like for us— some great times and some meltdowns— it’s the same on the kayak or hiking. Toddlers are toddlers. We do our best to ignore the judgment of others on the water or on the trail! Also, I bribe him with suckers. It’s the only time he gets them, which makes them a bit more special and effective. Suckers are for the kayak and bikes!

Tow lines: have them and know how to use them. You must have a strong paddler who is able to tow the hundreds of pounds of gear, bodies, and kayaks in an emergency. When it was windy or we weren’t quite sure of our route, we tied on together so that we wouldn’t get too far apart… (aka I’m slow).

Do not overestimate your ability to paddle long distances and account for unknown conditions. We’ve been stranded on top of rocks on rivers that seemed to suddenly run out of water. We’ve encountered rapids where there should not have been rapids. We’ve messed up our navigation and overshot our campsite, etc. and had to paddle back upstream, which is NOT fun.

Have some backup plans. I reserved campsites that I knew we probably wouldn’t stay at just in case we needed them as options. Do your homework and plan and then plan again.

Last thoughts on camping:

Make good choices. Consider the weight you are carrying into the backcountry. Do you REALLY need those chairs? Can your bear canisters be chairs instead? Kelly is 30lbs, the pack is heavy, the water is heavy, and the rest is heavy. That’s a lot. At Isle Royale, I originally planned for us to do a 8.5 mile hike, which would have been fine if I hadn’t pinched my c5 and c6 nerves right before our trip. I knew attempting that plan was unsafe. So I found a 5.5 mile route that I felt confident was in my ability level.

What is worth the weight? Stuffed animal? Can you get a small version of a favorite? We have a large Daniel tiger for home and a mini one for camp. We take a coloring book, a bedtime book, and he also has a music box at home which I recorded on my phone for bedtime. Anything that could remotely be construed as a routine is probably helpful. I read on one of the fancy blogs that it was essential to stick to nap times… LOLOLOLOL. Look, if you are a family that sticks to a serious schedule and that is important to you, perhaps adventuring (at this point) is not ideal for you… OR you adapt your adventure to something more manageable in the front country, which can also be super fun. For us, our child does not nap while camping… Lots of FOMO, so we do our best and roll with the punches.

More on bed time issues/ sleeping in a tent: Our biggest stressor in shared spaces is that we could be disturbing someone else’s trip. Babies and toddlers cry. For us, it’s a lot and it’s unavoidable. If we are out in the backcountry and alone, I say, let it out! Go ahead and scream— it’s bedtime, we love you, goodbye now. (Also, this is how we do it at home— if this is not how you do it at home, it might be kind of cruel to start “cry it out” in the wilderness!) If we are in a crowded backcountry site or a front country site, we are forced into a family bedtime situation where we all have to “go to bed”, which is like getting punked every night. We spend an hour or so fake sleeping only to open our eyes to Kelly staring at us, giggling. Or “wake up” to a toddler foot in the face. He is also the most unfortunate morning alarm. He gets up EARLY (like 4am) when camping and will tear apart the tent until we join him.

Other issues to consider: If you’re not breastfeeding, you need bottles. When Kelly was still on formula, we used bottles with disposable liners and reconstituted formula. You need to throughly clean the nipple after each use with fresh, sanitized water. Make sure you have the appropriate filtration/clean water systems. On Isle Royale, for example, we used two methods to be safe. We filtered and used the drops. Even now, Kelly drinks a lot of whole milk a day. If you are committed to only using special water for formula, consider not going into the backcountry just yet or pack it in.

Diapers- pack extra/ swim diapers  We were lucky that Kelly was willing to potty train/learn/whatever your preferred terminology at 18 mos. Plus, there was a pandemic so we had the time at home! I still put him in a swim diaper on the kayak— yes he can technically pee through it which is gross, but most of our stuff is in dry bags. But there’s nothing worse than a toddler who knows you gotta pull up to land every time he claims to have to go potty. At the very least, it would contain a serious potty situation until we got to our camp for the day. We also used a night time diaper because he was 22 months and could not hold his bladder overnight (and neither can I at 36)… my suggestion is to double up— yes, it’s weird and baggy, but very effective. Do you want lug around a pee-filled sleeping bag all trip? No? Then make a small tear in diaper number one so the excess can seep through to the second diaper. Everyone will sleep better.

Baby wipes and their alternatives— I’m gonna be real… I wish I was willing to wash reusable diapers and wipes, but I’m not. There are lots of great options, and we are working towards incorporating some of them because we use a lot of wipes. We bring more than we think we need, especially in bear country. Toddlers are impossibly messy and it’s real important that you don’t bring a food covered babe into your tent. Have separate, designated sleeping clothes and do not let them eat food while wearing them. All clothes that the baby wore to eat in should be hung, in the bear canister, or stored in a food locker with the rest of your gear. This is real inconvenient, but real important. Remember, you aren’t just protecting yourselves but the campers who come after you, and most importantly, the bears!

Leave No Trace Principles— pack out what you pack in… bring more ziplocks and garbage bags than you think you need.

I hope this is helpful! I’m sure I forgot tons of things, so if you have a question, feel free to reach out!

XO

Sarah