How to Pack for Canoe Camping...with Kids!
When bringing kids along for backcountry adventures, The Expeditioners are the pros.
While their experience (and confidence) in taking their kids canoe camping evolved over time (read more about that here), to date, their adventures have spanned an incredible spectrum of distances and landscapes. And, though a fussiness-proof packing list and packing plan didn’t happen overnight, they’ve got their systems dialed: multi-day trips with multiple small humans kept safe, healthy and happy in all seasons.
What to pack for a canoe trip with kids.
The beauty of canoe camping? You’ve got ample space to bring extra, and bring more than enough supplies to keep everyone happy. Here’s how The Expeditioners gear up the family for their multi-day trips:
5-10L Emergency Dry Bag: Each family member has their own emergency dry bag - either 5 or 10L. The idea? If the canoe tips, having dry clothes and emergency items that can get people dry, keep people warm, and stay safe is incredibly important. Each dry bag has its own: small food supply, a down jacket, extra rain gear, emergency beacon, medical kit, headlamp, a lighter (that works), SOL (Survive Outdoors Longer) Firestarter and Cubes.
Kid-Friendly Medical Kit: while they carry a robust 5-10 person adventure medical kit (with things like splints, gauzes, etc.) they make sure to have items that are kid-specific: Kid’s Tylenol and/or Advil, Pepto Bismol, and (many) bandaids.
Clothing: the kids are decked out layered the same way Roberto and Shereen dress themselves for the backcountry: merino underwear + socks, merino base layers, mid layer (lightweight down), waterproof jacket and pants (always), winter jacket (only one in the emergency bag if temperate), duck boots for canoe trips, wool toque (so much heat is lost through the head), gloves. *PACK EXTRA* - you might be happy getting by on one or two t-shirts for 5 days...the kiddos won’t want to go near wet or soiled clothes, so have extras as a clean + dry stash.
Sleeping: Sleeping bags or sleeping suits that fit the kids (important: sleeping bags that are too big and leave too much space around the kiddos mean less effective warming - and colder kids at night), Thermarests for everyone/enough to fill the tent + have everyone covered.
Seasonal Gear: Hats for keeping sun off their faces and sun stroke at bay (yes, it’s a constant battle to keep hats and sunglasses on), sunscreen.
Food: Here’s where you can really go wild (within the constraints of your canoe and family sizes). In Roberto’s words: ‘Bring the pantry and the kitchen sink! We can take so much in the canoe that minimizing what we pack for food isn’t an issue or concern.’ On a recent trip, the family dined on lamb, steak, potatoes and wine; items they would never take if they were hiking to camp.
Smaller canoe + more people? Consider some dehydrated meals to save some space and weight.
A caveat: know your canoe route and pack light if you need to portage. If there are sections of your trip that require portage, minimize weight and make all your bags as portable as possible (consider something like the Highwater dry bags that have backpack straps).
Snacks: A category all to itself, be sure to pack LOTS of simple snacks (like bars, granola, chocolate). In canoe trips and backcountry trips these are all a great source of energy for the kids - plus they’re satisfying, can give a little kick of happiness with the sugar, and they’ll burn it off ASAP. If you can keep packaging to a minimum, that’s a win; less chance of garbage getting left behind at your site.
Water: Always have a water filter. Pro tip: don’t store it in cold storage locations; freezing water filters can break the membrane, which is something that’s not a ‘maybe this will work for one more season’ kind of risk to take. If it’s broken/cracked, buy a new one. Everyone also starts with one Nalgene full of water (they don’t pack in extra water), and then the water filter or melting snow is used to create more clean water while they’re away.
Toiletries + Diapers: toothpaste, toothbrushes, hairbrushes (if that’s your thing!), a few washcloths and some biodegradable soap should do the trick for toiletries. With little ones still in diapers: pack more than you think you need (changing them more frequently becomes important as you want them as dry as possible, as often as possible, to fend off chills and colds). And - be prepared to pack them out; have a system in place to pack out your used diapers (and other garbage, too, of course).
And what to leave behind?
It took a few trips with *way* too much stuff to pare back and pare down our necessities. And, here’s the deal: there’s a lot of gear you *think* you might need that can be replaced by gear you’d already be packing. For us it was the play pen; we thought we needed it/it was a responsible thing to bring. And, after one trip we learned we could leave it at home and leverage our tent as secure play space (that has built in sun coverage for the warmer months) for the babe(s).
Each family has a different level of comfort for what they use/feel safe using to support their kids. So, take your first few trips as time to experiment with what you *really* need, what you and your kids like to have with you, and what the things are that you can leave at home.
Plan for when stuff hits the fan
Let’s normalize challenging moments (and even whole days) while bringing kids along for nature experiences. Stuff is inevitably going to hit the fan, whether you’re at camp navigating crummy weather and trying to get people comfortable or if the winds and the rains crank up while you’re mid-trip (and pretty much everywhere and anywhere in between). Knowing how to handle the less-calm moments with a sense of calm and confidence makes a big difference in staying safe and keeping everyone happy along the way.
If fussiness hits the boat: have a few items that will immediately entertain the small ones. Snacks, individual games, something to keep themselves occupied while you’re on the move.
When weather gets real on the water: if you need all the adult hands, eyes, and ears on board dedicated to keeping the boat on course through some rough winds or rain, make sure kids know that when the adults tell them to sit down and stay still, that it’s time to listen. A great way to make those moments less intense? An iPad in a waterproof case that’s easily accessible can do the trick.
If *nothing* seems to be going right: pull the Plan Z parachute and set up camp - ASAP. Get off the water—or off the road if you haven’t gotten on the water yet—and go into full cozy mode: get the tent up, roll out your sleeping pads and sleeping bags, haul out that iPad OR other device, make some hot chocolate and get everyone settled. If there’s something Roberto points to as a must-do, it’s not pushing the kids beyond their limits - so if they’re telling/showing you it’s time to call it quits, trust them and pull the ‘chute as quickly and calmly as you can.
Go-to gear for family camping trips
Here are the items and brands that The Expeditioners trust with the comfort, safety and happiness of their little ones:
Mustang Survival REV and Little Legend’s PFDs are on the kiddos from the minute they’re launching, and stay on them through the entire trip. The styles with the head pillow are perfect for mid-paddle naps.
Pelican Canoes, Kayaks and Paddleboards for all our personally-propelled watercraft needs.
Thule racks to get boats to the water OR the child carriers for the hikes to the boat launches (not to mention the ones you may take from your camp spot).
Adventure Medical KIts just in case. Having a medical kit is IMPERATIVE - because while you may be able to get support from Search And Rescue on lakes and bodies of water closer to civilization, if you adventure further into the backcountry, you could be looking at a significantly longer wait before help shows up.
Reima for kids outerwear
Wolf and Grizzly Grill + Safety Pit make cooking a clean, efficient and safe experience. Bonus: you won’t scorch the earth wherever you make a fire.
LEDLenser Headlamps + Lights because every trip needs headlamps and a lantern for camp. Putting the headlamps on the kids the minute it gets dark keeps everyone spot-able and safe, and the lantern can transition from the cooking area to the tent to keep everyone organized. Because The Expeditioners are also shooting campaigns as they camp, they’ll take a 500 Lumen light with them too - which can light up a whole lake.
Ecoflow Portable Power Stations for keeping the electronics you choose to take with you charged. Note: these are for canoe tripping or car camping only; they’re a touch big for hiking or other paddlesport trips.
Emergency Devices like a Garmin InReach for satellite communication, and Kid’s CPR classes like the one Roberto took, hosted by Whistler First Aid (look for something similar in your neighbourhood!). You could also explore First Aid classes for infants and children.
Top tips for canoe camping with kids.
Beyond packing with confidence, take these top tips from the pros with you when you go to the water for a safe, successful trip every time:
- It all starts with your first. You’ll learn a lot from having your first baby and integrating it into your adventure plans. Do your best to let it be a learning experience, and remember: the more calm and confidence you can bring to how you bring the kids into it, the more all of you will love it.
- Eyes on the emergency bags. Always always know where those emergency bags are - because *should* something happen, getting everyone to shore, dry, comfortable and happy is your priority. Those bags are set up to do just that and should be top of mind for you on every trip.
- Stay seasonally smart. Add extra layers and bring along the floofiest down suits for trips that may encounter cooler temperatures. Merino in all seasons is a stellar bet - yet use your judgement to consider when extra warmth would be a great idea - no matter how much sun is in the forecast.
And three parting thoughts that have helped make every trip great:
1. Know what to have for the kids.
2. Know what to have for the adults (be sure to pack a couple things that you love - like wine, if that’s your thing!)
3. Go at the pace of the kids. Learn to let go of the plan (as best as you can), make space for flexibility, and find a way to roll along with the kids acting as your guidelines to what’s possible, in what timeline. Less is more, and pushing the kids past their capacity in one day is really never worth it.
The Expeditioners are always on the move and taking on new adventures - with a very special one about to happen: they’re expecting their 3rd mini-expeditioner in the summer of 2021. Follow along HERE as they pause to welcome the new family member, then find themselves back in adventure mode later in the year.
And, if you’re keen to learn more about getting your family ready to take on canoe camping together, check out the way The Expeditioners—seasoned backcountry enthusiasts—suggest getting everyone ready to get out into the wilderness in a safe, calm, comfortable and confident way!