Stand Up Paddling with a Toddler

I couldn’t tell you the first time I ever paddled, but I can tell you that it’s my favorite adventure activity of all time. Water has always been part of my life as my parents water skied all summer long with an infant me in tow. I let my love of water sports flourish while attending summer camps sailing and kayaking as a Girl Scout. However, it wasn’t until college that it really became part of who I was as a human being. That’s also when I tried Stand Up Paddling for the first time which quickly became my favorite paddling sport and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Paddling 20+ Weeks Pregnant on Lake Tahoe in Late October

And then I became a Mom! Here I was with a little one and two boards in the garage waiting to all go out to explore as a family. But, we didn’t really know where to start. Now, we’ve done it and not only that, but we have a full blown water kid on our hands and I couldn’t be more stoked (especially since my husband is more of the mountain man while I’m more of the mermaid). 

We’ve gotten the questions before about how we got him so comfortable on the board at such a young age. To be frank, I don’t really know how or why he’s so comfortable and I think it’s a lot of luck. It’s in his genes, maybe? Or that I was constantly paddling with him while pregnant (I got a lot of kicks on paddle days!)? But, I’ll tell you about our journey SUPing with a toddler so far and hopefully give you some insight on how to start with yours.

What we noticed early on with Liam is that he really loves creeks, rivers, and lakes; really just all sorts of water. I do think that the free play we gave him around bodies of water helped him feel more comfortable around it. I let him splash and play in shallow water and, as he’s become a toddler, we let him walk freely into the water as long as it’s safe and we’re close by. 

Free play does so much for kids and Liam is always happy by a creekside throwing some rocks. But, this Mermaid Momma wanted to get him on the board with her once the warm weather hit. We knew the first step was to get him a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) and start getting him comfortable with wearing it. We went with an actual kid’s PFD (Stohlquist Waterware Nemo Lifejacket, here’s the infant version for 8-30lb kiddos) that will be more comfortable while out on the water and for an emergency instead of floaties. As a paddle guide, I highly recommend going with a kid’s PFD and not a Target floaty.

We honestly didn’t have a chance to really get him comfortable in his PFD before our first paddle but thankfully, he actually just didn’t care when we were getting him ready. Our first paddle with him is one that I will always remember and I was such a proud Momma. Liam loves being with Thomas (literally attached to him any moment he can get), so he naturally wanted to be on his board. Once I got on mine, Liam just hopped on Thomas’ board without a second thought and was ready to go, PFD and all. He was immediately comfortable and already trying to walk up to the nose and back to Thomas. We were having a wonderful first family paddle for about an hour before Liam started to get fussy and we knew our time was up.

One of my ongoing mantras for ever taking a toddler on an adventure is,

Have NO Expectations

The less expectations you have, the better. Toddlers are getting the hang of a lot of things all at once and then you throw an adventure in the mix? Lord only knows what’s going to happen. Going into an adventure (i.e. hiking, camping, paddling, biking, going to the store, etc…) is literally throwing dice for a million dollars. Could be bad, could be nothing, could be the best adventure ever, who knows?!

Now that our first paddle was under our belt, we were ready for more! BUT, we also wanted to be safe out there. So, Liam started going to swim classes. Each day was different in his comfort level. It was so much all at once, we thought he would just hate being at a local pool forever. He eventually started to get used to the pool, the teachers, being around older kids. Then, one magical day in his second week, it started to really click for him. However, he was almost too comfortable in the water without a PFD and wanted to walk straight in the 4ft end with no one with him.  

Once classes were over, we kept it up by going to my parents’ pool with no shallow end and also to lakes with a gradual shallow area for him to walk around in. The ongoing practice of just being near and in deep water really helps him get used to it. This definitely paid off once we were paddling in really deep water. He isn’t a swimmer (yet!), but his transformation throughout this summer has been really exciting.

With all the swim practice, we’ve gone on quite a few paddle adventures in between and he’s more comfortable each time we get on. Our toddler paddling excursions have taken us to:

  • Badin Lake in the Uwharrie National Forest
  • Buckhorn Reservoir in Wilson, NC
  • From Hammocks Beach State Park to Bear Island and back 
  • Fontana Lake near the Great Smoky Mountains

The real lesson we’ve learned is practice. Each time we take him with us, he gets more used to the process of preparation, getting on and off the board, and just being on the board. Every paddle is different, yes, but you can really see that he understands what we’re going to do. Just like with any adventure you take your toddler on, the more you practice the adventure, the better they understand. Yes, there will be hard days, but there will also be wonderful ones, too.

Things to keep in mind when planning your toddler paddle trip:

  1. Remember, Have No Expectations
  2. Bring more water than you think you need. Include an insulated bottle that your toddler can easily drink out of
  3. Don’t forget the snacks 
  4. Check the winds before you go. If you are not used to paddling, I don’t recommend paddling on a lake or an open waterway with more than 7 mph winds with a kid on the board
  5. Sun hat and sunglasses are a definite plus 
  6. Decent kid PFD will help everyone during an emergency and will keep them comfortable
  7. Have cold snacks and juice in a cooler for when you return to the car (chilled grapes are his absolute favorite after a hot paddle and it starts to hydrate him a little, too!)

Now that the summer is coming to an end, we’re still planning on some fall and spring paddles to keep those skills and comfort levels up. We know this will make it easier to paddle even more next summer. We’re looking forward to the day when he wants to paddle on his own. BUT, for now, we’re really enjoying these shared board moments (especially when he falls asleep in Thomas’ lap). 

See y’all out there!


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