7 Tips for a Successful Canoe Trip With Children

Travelling in the backcountry with kids isn't hard, as long as you plan properly.

loading up the canoe
Packing the canoe for our long paddle home.

Katherine Martinko

Last week my family embarked on our now-annual canoe trip in the backcountry of Algonquin Park. This magnificent provincial park in Ontario, Canada, is famous for its hundreds of lakes, ringed by plunging granite cliffs and windswept white pines. With only a single highway bisecting the park, the best way to experience the park is by canoe, paddling and portaging (a.k.a. carrying the canoe) on rough trails that connect the lakes. 

So this is what we did, packing three kids, a tent, sleeping gear, lots of bug spray, and three days' worth of food into an 18-foot canoe, and paddled ourselves through Smoke Lake into Ragged Lake, where we set up camp on a big granite rock surrounded by water and stunning views. At night, we fell asleep to a cacophony of trilling loons, ribbiting bullfrogs, and, of course, the whine of mosquitoes outside the tent.

Several people have expressed surprise that my husband and I would embark on such an "adventurous" trip with young kids, but I maintain that it's not nearly as complicated as flying internationally. While a canoe trip is definitely more physically demanding, and there are plenty of logistics to work out in advance, the actual trip is pleasantly slow-paced, relaxing, and enjoyable for all (as long as the weather's good). As I wrote last year, a canoe trip is the epitome of slow travel, and we all need more of that in our busy, hectic lives. 

Now that I've done it several times, I have learned that there are some tips and tricks to making a canoe trip go smoothly with children. Here's what I recommend to anyone considering a family canoe trip. 

1. Pick a site and stay there.

Canoe tripping with young kids is about spending time in nature, not covering distance. It's easiest to set up camp in a single site and stay there for several nights, rather than relocating each day. Take small day trips to explore the region. 

kids at Ragged Lake
Children look out at Ragged Lake, Algonquin Park. Katherine Martinko

2. Pick your portages carefully.

The canoe route should be chosen based on how adept your kids are at hiking. Because our youngest is still quite small, we look for routes with minimal and short portages (less than 500 meters or a quarter mile). Even though a child might be able to hike proficiently, these trails are often very hilly and rough, and everyone's usually carrying gear, life jackets, and paddles, which makes it harder. 

3. Calories matter more than nutrition.

Don't stress out about your kids not getting five daily servings of vegetables for a few days, and be OK with the fact that they're munching on lightweight, shelf-stable snacks like nuts, crackers, peanut M&Ms, banana chips, or whatever else you've brought. This year, we discovered vegan Noble Jerky that was absolutely delicious. Another family favorite is freeze-dried Moon Cheese

I think it's important to have treats to boost morale. My friend Kristin, who recently did a multi-day canoe trip in Algonquin Park with her three kids and offered to share some of her own tips, agrees. She made cookie dough ahead of time, froze it in a pie tin, then "baked" it in the coals of the fire for dessert on the first night. "They got a little crispy around the edges, but I'd call it a success." That's also why I packed in some potato chips because nothing beats eating salty chips while sunbathing on a hot rock after swimming in the lake.

little girl eating a cookie while camping
Munching on a campfire-baked cookie. Kristin D. (used with permission)

4. Pack extra toys.

It's added weight, but it's worth the burden. Take along a few items to help entertain the kids in the campsite, such as snorkel gear and flippers or fishing rod and tackle, etc. Then there are the obvious ones, such as a deck of cards (Dutch Blitz is our fave) and a few books to read, both privately and aloud as a family. These are especially valuable for entertainment on rainy days.

Kristin's family traveled with an 18-foot canoe, as well as a kayak. The kayak was difficult to portage, as it's not designed for easy carrying, but she said it was fun to have around the campsite for the kids to play in.

kids playing cards in a tent
Kids playing cards in a tent. Kristin D. (used with permission)

5. Forget having an itinerary.

Let each day dictate its own adventures and go along with what the kids feel like doing. If they want to swim off a rock, let them do that until they're done. If they want to hike, canoe, explore, or have a campfire, why not? The beauty of the canoe trip experience is that there is nowhere to be except there.

6. Bring two tents.

This advice comes from Kristin, who said that, when they all shared a tent, everyone woke up anytime someone moved. A large family-sized tent is also heavy and takes up a lot of pack space, which is why she plans on taking two lightweight backpacking tents on her next trip. 

So far, my family sleeps together in a single tent, but as the kids grow, I imagine we'll add a 2-person tent for me and my husband. We've also realized that it makes sense to go to bed when the kids do, because they usually wake up at the crack of dawn and I don't want to be tired.

7. Add a few tools to make your job easier.

Having a good water filter makes a big difference. "We invested in a good one this year and it's the best," Kristin wrote to me. "I've never had such easy access to water. No chemicals, no boiling." We do the same, using a Platypus system that filters 4L of lake water at a time and eliminates any funky tastes.

Kristin's husband makes fire-starters for each trip, which makes it easier to light a fire if it's wet. I usually make sure there's plenty of cardboard or paper in our food packaging that I can use to start a fire. 

kids fishing in a canoe
Kids fishing from the canoe. Kristin D.

No doubt, everyone will find their own rhythm when it comes to canoe tripping, and there are really no hard-and-fast rules, other than have fun and leave no trace. It's a wonderful way to travel with kids that is deeply respectful to the planet, so consider giving it a try. Your kids will never forget it.