Where does the baby go? Doesn’t your toddler just jump out of the boat? We get these questions frequently when speaking about taking our two children on canoe trips. They are now seasoned veterans of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and after multiple trips with both children, in a variety of seating arrangements we have finally come up with the a seating arrangement that works for us! The sad news is, that since last summer, and the last open water we saw, our children continued to grow and develop so our once crawling baby is now a terror of a running toddler. This year we will be starting from scratch and figuring out what works best for our family this year.

First, some background on our beloved canoe. It’s a Northstar, Northwind 20 canoe made right here in Minnesota by a small, dedicated group of canoe-building gurus. This beast is 20 feet 5 inches long and weighs in at a mere 54 pounds. It stays so lightweight by the Aramid (kevlar) fabric that is used to make it. To learn more about this canoe check out our visit to the workshop last year.

Because this beautiful canoe has 4 seats and a 1000 pound load capacity we can easily fit (and have) 3 adults and 2 children (occasionally we add in an extra child and it’s no problem).

2 adults and 3 kids

We currently don’t have the 4th seat mounted for this canoe. I (Maura) stern the boat so we left the rear seat, closest to mine, out for the time being. In place of that we have a Northstar Knee Bed 40″x52″ which provides added insulation from the cold. Atop the Knee Bed is our designated “duffer”, usually Grandpa Mike. He joins along on many of our trips to help with the baby of the group. He holds Rowan, enduring her screaming and fidgeting but, has the benefit of enjoying one of his favorite places, the BWCA, with his grandchildren along.

Sitting up in a baby-sized life jacket is difficult for the strongest of babies. It rides up, around their neck and makes them fairly uncomfortable. Thus, Rowan needed to be held all last summer and we had ample volunteers wanting to join us and help out. We are always strong proponents of bringing along friends or family for extra help and extra fun! We attempted a canoe trip with just us and the two kids, propping Rowan up between Bobby’s legs but it just didn’t work. Everybody was miserable and our trip was cut super short.

Alyce and Rowan

A great resource for parents who are looking to canoe with their children is Cradle to Canoe by Rolf and Debra Kraiker. This book offers multiple seating solutions for babies and toddlers, including the use of a laundry basket to sit baby in. We thought about using things like a Bumbo chair or even our framed carrier but the worry is, not having them in anything that they are clipped in or wedged to, should the boat capsize they need to be buoyant and float. A laundry basket is a great way of keeping them contained and safe while in the canoe.

Jack, on the other hand has been sitting solo on his canoe seat for the last two years. Before we had our Northwind 20 we borrowed Grandpa’s boat, which didn’t have a middle seat. We found that IKEA has an awesome stool for $8 that was the perfect height and super stable legs to provide Jack with the perfect seat. On Jack’s inaugural canoe ride we were sure he would jump right out of the canoe, due to his penchant for physically astounding antics and dislike of sitting still. Much to our surprise he sat, and continues to sit, like a true gentleman while in the canoe. He looks around, watches the birds, and simply loves being on the water.

We give Jack his own paddle to “help” us. Toddlers and preschoolers love to “help” out in any way they can. He is often going against the flow and occasionally drops his Bending Branches Twig paddle into the water. Thankfully, they float and are easily retrievable. Some parents opt to tether the paddle to the boat but I feel the added rope would cause frustration when tangled up, thereby increasing the likelihood of a mid-trip meltdown. It’s easy enough to turn around and grab it if need be.

One downside of canoeing, on lakes especially, is the complete lack of shade. This can be tricky if you plan on spending any length of time in the canoe with kids. We recommend long pants and long sleeves for kids that are a non-cotton, breathable material. We love Wee Woolies for summer time adventures. They are expensive, so be sure to ask for them as gifts for your kids! Having a solid sunhat is another way to keep skin safe from that blazing summer sun. Sunday Afternoon makes an amazing Explorer’s hat for toddlers and a wider brimmed, bucket hat, for older children. The chin straps work great for windy days and pesky baby hands frantically trying to get that hat off within the first second of having it on. The hats also work great for keeping biting insects at bay.

Another sun protection tool that we love is the umbrella! We use this on hikes and canoe trips with infants that may be too young for sunscreen. We don’t invest in a super expensive umbrella, just something simple and compact from Target works great! Just ignore the odd looks you get. If you have an infant that can sleep on the bottom of the canoe, or in the laundry basket this is a great item to set over them to keep the sun off, but a breeze coming.

We don’t bring many toys into the wilderness but we do bring one or two matchbox cars for playing with in the bottom of the canoe. We keep them in a small hipster pouch from Onya that can be attached to the seat. Don’t be afraid to let your children lean over and touch the water. Thankfully their lifejackets have a handle on the back to help hold them in when necessary but this is such a great way for them to explore what they are seeing.

Keeping snacks, treats, and water readily at hand is vital for the success of any canoe trip with toddlers along. I love my Stohlquist life jacket because of the large-sized pockets it has. Within them I can hold bars, fruit snacks, and, my personal favorite special treat, DumDum suckers.

Having an array of fun, sing-along songs in your arsenal is another great way to keep spirits up when canoeing with babies and toddlers. Remembering that, for the most part, they are just sitting there, hanging out. Keeping them engaged and interested with fun activities is a great way to make the trip a successful one. We play lots of games, observe what is around us and what we can hear. We talk about where we are on the map and have kids “help” us navigate by looking at the map. For longer trips, portages are actually a great way to break up the day. It gives kids the opportunity to get out, stretch their legs, get some energy out, and a change of scenery is always good.

Napping in the canoe is totally doable! We have had remarkable success with this. I don’t know if it’s just the luck of the draw that we got with our kids, in terms of sleeping habits, or if it’s the combination of the quiet, the fresh air, and the steady, constant motion of the boat that lulls them to sleep but it works wonders.

Our biggest piece of advice to those families who want to give canoe camping a try with their young ones is, do it! Find a lake with rentals and easy access. Plan for a half an hour and just see how it goes. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you experience, I know we were! Canoeing is such a great way, especially in Minnesota, to find a wilderness experience with your family without too much effort.

Free downloadable packing lists

Canoe camping with infants packing list

Canoe camping with children packing list

First aid kid packing list

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About the author

I am the youngest of six daughters and spent my childhood vacations camping in the beautiful State Parks of MN. In 2009 I married my best friend, Bobby Marko. We have embarked on numerous adventures along with our Golden Retriever, Latigo, our son, Jack (born 2014) and our daughter, Rowan (born 2016). When not adventuring in the great outdoors I work as a clerical at our local high school.



    i love this article and links so much thank you for posting it! I have a 10 year old and 1 year old both rambunctious boys that i’m going to attempt a paddle in my canoe w/ my girlfriend this weekend wish us luck!

  2. Bobby Marko

    Awesome! Have fun!

  3. Nisha Stephens

    I found this incredibly helpful and encouraging as we are planning on taking our very active 13 month old on a portage trip in a month. I was wondering how you got your babies to nap on the canoe? When we are at home our son sleeps in his crib (for around 1.5 hrs-2.5 hrs), or if it’s around nap time he will fall asleep in a stroller/car seat. I was wondering if it would be too sunny/ too much stimulation to try to get him to fall asleep in the canoe, and if we would have to stop somewhere and set up the tent to let him sleep. Any advice would be helpful!

  4. Bobby Marko

    Sorry for the delay, Nisha. I just saw your comment. We found our kids were similar to what you experience with your son, when it’s around nap time they get tired and tend to fall asleep in the canoe. But, they don’t typically nap as well or as long as they would if they were in their crib at home. We keep them shaded with big sun hats and sometimes also putting a umbrella or a lightweight blanket above them depending on the weather. The biggest thing we try to do though is to get our travel done in the morning so we can be in our campsite by naptime. That doesn’t always work out, but if we’re a few days in and the kids are getting really tired that’s always a good way for us to ensure they get some extra sleep. The biggest thing we’ve found is when we’re out there we let our schedule slide a little bit and do the best we can do with the circumstances. On the plus side, when we get home they’re always so exhausted that they usually sleep in the first night back!

  5. Lucas

    This is awesome! Me and my family always go on a trip every Father’s Day. We now have a daughter who will be a year and a half. We originally were not going to bring her, but I really want to. Our main concern was the mid-day nap lol. Any other tips you can think of for a year and a have daughter first time on a boat?

  6. Elyne (Belgium)

    Hello, I don’t know if you will see this message, but what do you put on the feet of your baby who can almost stand but not walk? I think cotton socks are not so good, but I don’t know what else is possible for such small feet to keep them dry/warm…? We haven’t bought any shoes yet because she’s only 7 months. Thanks for the ideas! I liked your movie! Greetings from Elyne from Belgium.

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