Training your kids to kayak - without it going badly


I have a daughter that is 6 years old, almost 7. I’ve never taken her out on the water, either kayaking or rafting. I’ve been boating for 17 years at different class levels, and want to get her into it, without scaring the $hit out of her and turning her off of it for life.

Does anyone have “do’s & don’ts” that you’ve experienced when training your kid? How young is too young to start roll practice? I have a sit-on-top boat now, so will start there, but want to do a gradual progression into whitewater. Any tips are appreciated. I’ve talked with some people with more aggressive kids, and how they just stuck them in a boat and sent them down class II. She is pretty tentative so i don’t want it to go badly. Ultimately, there’s no better sport so i want her to like it as much as i do.


RE teaching the roll at early age…
CONSIDER…that prior to a certain age (x) a child’s bones and structure are still developing.
CONSIDER…that shoulder dislocation only happens to beginners who don’t have the timing right…that dislocation is always the result of a pretty-violent SELF-RESCUE effort. Where “the timing” of an Eskimo Roll’s choreography are not quite right…a beginner will substitute max effort…and hurt themselves
CONSIDER…that a person cannot learn the Eskimo Roll without…in those beginning phases…putting in more muscular effort…than one should.

So my thought would be that a young person should perhaps not begin learning the Eskimo Roll until…say…(just guessing here)…those bones are reached a stage of 80% development…maybe 12-13-14…

As for WHITEWATER training…I have mixed emotions…I came to whitewater when I was 30, I knew what I was doing and that I wanted to do it. I understood four-square what the deal was. I know from YEARS of trip-leading that a competent leader n e v e r tells any member of any class of beginners at the top of a n y rapid that “you can do this”. As a trainer…I a l w a y s made my beginners PORTAGE at least one drop of their training run, in order to confront them with EXPERT ADVICE that portaging is a correct and routine way of handling many a rapid.

OK with your OWN CHILD…you have “parental image and influence”…it is a pretty strong pressure. The fact that you have written the very Query that I am responding to…shows that you know this.

So just keep in mind this CATAGORIC WARNING…That no responsible Trip Leader ever tells a “student”…You can do this (rapid). You have people make up their own mind. You set example of DOING portage.


I started kayaking flat water in an old Perception Dancer when I was 9, and learned how to roll when I was 11 or 12. I learned how to hand roll when I was 13 or so. I continued practicing my roll and my hand roll for years at summer camp (two weeks every summer), until the end of last summer when I went out on Chili Bar for my first white water run.

From personal experience, I am very glad I was able to “perfect” (500+ alternating rolls consecutively) a flat water roll before going into whitewater, because when I did flip I was very calm and rolling was second nature.

As for teaching your kid, again I learned at 9 and I subsequently taught kayaking at the camp when I was 16, 17 and 18 years old. The absolute most important thing is for them to have good, positive experiences with kayaking (whitewater or flat water). Campers who freaked out repeatedly while doing wet exits ended up dropping kayaking from their list of sports they wanted to learn. As a young kid, it is scary being upside down in cold water, so all I can say is progressing slowly and steadily will help your kid learn the best and have confidence. On a side note, your daughter will love the sport more if it is her passion. Especially with a sport like kayaking, it is important for her to want to get on the water, not just following you.

I’ve started teaching kids how to roll as early as 10. I’ve had campers learn it over the course of two weeks, and some campers never understanding the body positioning or staying calm after working on it for three two week sessions each summer. Everyone is different.

I’d say that flat water is the best place to start. If your daughter knows that you paddle whitewater, let her ask questions before you start bringing up the idea that she should come on a trip with you. Having the personal passion develop will help ensure that she develops her own opinion of the sport. It’s invaluable that you are being cautious about not throwing her into whitewater, because even one bad experience early on can cause a younger kid to write off the sport for life.

If you’d like to know the name of the camp, feel free to shoot me an email,
This camp is the reason I love white water kayaking so much now (although only having been in it for less than a year; I would have loved to get on whitewater earlier, but I didn’t know anybody in the sport and the cost of gear was too expensive for me to front from 13-17 years old.) If you want your daughter to love the outdoors and at the same time learn the basics of how to kayak (from wet exiting to hand rolls/freestyle), I’d love to talk to you more about the camp.


Well, “TRAINING” sounds pretty silly, but I would start with teaching/coaching them to roll a kayak in a pool. You can start with doing the normal flat ground teaching stuff too. It’s like anything with children- you sort of have to force them to do it until they are actually old and mature enough to make decisions for themselves. They will thank you for it later. I wouldn’t worry about all the potential injuries someone else mentioned, they come with any sport and shouldn’t be a reason to not teach your kids to boat.

TLDR: Teach them the foundational techniques they need so they can go paddling and have fun. If they don’t have fun when they paddle, they’re not going to want to kayak when they’re older


I was fortunate enough to grow up in a paddling family. I have two brothers and my childhood was a bit like the intro to the film a river runs through it except replace the fly rods with kayaks.

Based on my personal experience this is my advice.

  1. Keep if fun.
  2. Foundational techniques will pay dividends in the long run but not worth trading a fun factor for.
  3. Understand they may not like kayaking no matter how much you do and try to make it fun. They may also get hooked and make kayaking the center focus of their life.


~ B


I raised my daughter, Sage, in a boat. Started in a topo duo- like a bike with training wheels, and she learned to roll at age 7. The beauty of rolling so young is the weight of the head on the back of the boat actually rights the boat up a lot faster and the learning curve is minimal. I’ve been a massage therapist for 22 years and did not see any structural stress on her body. Please add your phone number and I will call you and tell you my personal experience and the numerous kids I have encouraged, taught and paddled with throughout the years.


i have a 9 and 11 year old daughters and would like to know about the camp you went to please!

mike martini


Sure thing! I don’t want to publicly “plug” the camp here in order to keep it strictly kayaking/rafting, but please feel free to contact me at (650) 862-8975.

And this goes for everyone with kids aged roughly 9-14, this camp was an incredible experience and I would recommend it to anyone whose kids love the outdoors.



I was a kayaking coach for many years and my suggestion is - make sure she is a good swimmer! from my experience, the kids that were afraid of the water from the beginning on never really turned into kayakers, but the good swimmers could take a couple of beatdowns on the canal (nothing serious though :-)) and still got hoooked on kayaking!

have fun, Mareike


You say she’s never been on the water? I second what Mareike said. If she likes the water make sure she can swim. Then take her on a class I river on a nice day to see if she even likes it.
Forget about training/teaching and any goals YOU have for her. Just have fun. If she likes flat moving water, try a class II. Go with a commercial trip or if you’re an expert take an open canoe or raft or a duo or whatever. But above all, give her every opportunity to have fun on a river FIRST. Let her decide if she wants to try to paddle, and maybe start with an IK. Take her somewhere that she can see people kayaking rivers or play boating. Whitewater inherently introduces stressful situations and as a timid kid myself I think it’s helpful to be able to see it first, watch others do it and be introduced gently and at her own pace. Always keep it fun!


Haha, yes, fun factor is important!

another final comment from my side. Make sure that her outfitting fits her size! I often see kids with lifejackets that are too big which rather hinders swimming that it helps.

Also, she should have a long john neoprene suit in her size, neoprene shoes (not crocs :-)) and a nose plug!


all really good stuff thanks everybody


My daughter got her roll at age 9. However, she’s super athletic and loves the challenge. The Topo Duo was a great teaching tool. By the time she got in her own boat, a fun 1.5 she had it down. She was paddling C to G at age 7. She did numerous runs on C to G sitting on a SUP with a kayak paddle and often she took a friend. That SUP along with a friend was key to her getting comfortable on the river. They had so much fun. A few other things that were key: well fitting gear and warm clothes. We only went on hot days as well. I have taught adults for many years, kids pick it up so much quicker. The Fun 1.5 was too big for her for 3 years but it was very stable and confidence inspiring and I think that had a lot to do with it. We started without a skirt then to a half skirt. Two very important things: A good comfortable progression, and build trust. They must feel safe. A little fear is ok, like with anything new, but keep it to an absolute minimum. Even now I remind her that when in doubt just Portage. My daughter is now 15 and loves kayaking, she loves surfing and playing and is totally comfortable on the SF or just about any class 4. Rolls on both sides plus a hand roll. Next she will take a rescue class. It’s so fun to paddle together as a family