How to Plan an Overnight River Trip with Kids

We’ve completed several overnight paddling trips as a family over the last few years and are learning how to make them both safe and fun! Ensuring group safety is the priority, but the trip has to be enjoyable for the kids, too, if it’s worth repeating. For those interested in planning a kid-friendly river trip, here are a few tips to keep in mind that we’ve learned along the way.

family kayaking the Columbia River, Canada

Family-friendly paddling on the Columbia River. Photo: Tanya Koob

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Rivers Vs. Lakes

It can be tough to choose between rivers and lakes. We had the opportunity to have a multi-day lake circuit instead of our regular river trip,  but I couldn’t get over how much work would be involved with the numerous portages we’d have to do.

Multiple portages between lakes might be doable with canoes, but we prefer to kayak and stand up paddleboard. Also, add our son’s toy kayak that we brought along, and we had three vessels for our one family alone! A lake circuit with portages was unfortunately not an option for us.

I confess that I’m also a bit lazy when it comes to paddling. So, I appreciate having a current to help out, even if it is a gentle float trip with a river that barely moves. I’m also terrified of headwinds, being that I choose to complete these trips on a stand-up paddleboard, and lakes often have strong winds. Meanwhile, rivers are easier to navigate in windy conditions, and the current helps a lot when it comes to keeping your boat moving downstream.

So, for our family, river trips make the most sense. But your family may feel differently. When choosing between rivers and lakes, just remember to take portage accessibility, number and type of vessels, level of activity you want, and conditions in mind.

women stand up paddleboarding down the Columbia River

Stand up paddleboarding down the Columbia River. Photo: Tanya Koob

Choosing A River

On our last trip, we chose to paddle the Columbia River near its origin at Columbia Lake in Canada. We floated lazily down the river for two days. Then, we camped on a beautiful island for the night, while the kids played in the mud, swam, and discovered their inner wild child.

There were a few reasons that we chose the Columbia River. But, the most significant factors were the warmth and calmness of the water. We wanted the kids to be able to swim and play in the water, but we wanted to relax on our trip without worries of hypothermia should somebody fall overboard. Also, we wanted to enjoy ourselves without continually thinking of the next set of rapids around the corner.

Our float trip was benign in every way, with next to no risk at any moment. We didn’t have to tie down gear, nor did we have to chastise the kids for wiggling too much in the canoe. Plus, we didn’t have to be hyper-strict about river safety every second of the trip. Careful but relaxed is our style.

Questions To Keep In Mind

For your trip, here are a few factors you may want to consider before choosing a river:

  • What is the ability of the most novice family member on the trip?
  • How old is the youngest child? Age can help determine the difficulty of the river. For example, Class II rapids might not be appropriate with a wiggly toddler.
  • How many days do you have for your trip? The timeframe can help determine the length of your journey and stretch of river.  Remember, no child wants to sit in a boat for 5 hours at a time while you try to conquer 20 miles on a slow-moving river.
  • How well do the children in your party swim? Trust me, that’s important if they are taking a plunge – even in warm water.
  • Do you need a permit to paddle your chosen river?
  • Will you be able to camp anywhere on the river? Or, will you have to make a reservation in advance at an official river-side campground?
  • Finally, how easy will the shuttle be to set up, and can you leave a vehicle or two safely at both the put in and take out spots?
kid-friendly river trip: family paddling down a calm river

Relaxed floating down the Columbia. Photo: Tanya Koob

Simple Ways to Make a River Trip Fun for the Family

To make sure everyone has a blast on your next kid-friendly river trip, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Take It Slow

My best advice is not to take the trip too seriously. Instead, stop often, play in the mud, go for a swim, or have a water fight!

We met another group doing the Columbia River at the same time as us, and we asked them for some suggestions on where to camp for the night. They proceeded to tell us about “friz dock” – which they felt was the best beach in the area. As it turned out, this was an annual trip for them, and the beach they referred to was where they always stopped to play Frisbee. They all looked forward to this beach break, and I sensed it was a highlight of their trip each year.

We were lucky that the group decided not to camp on this beach after their break and grabbed it for our use. It was paradise, indeed. The kids played in the mud around the area until it was time to change into pajamas for bed.

tent camping on the Columbia River, Canada

Paradise on the Columbia River. Photo: Tanya Koob

Add Variety

My second piece of advice for fun on your kid-friendly river trip is to bring a variety of boats or activities with you if you can.

Kids get bored, but the simple act of jumping ship to a new vessel helps to break up the monotony of sitting for hours on end.

We had kayaks, a canoe, a stand-up paddleboard, and a child-sized toy kayak. The favourite by far was the paddleboard! The adults took turns using it, and the kids enjoyed riding on it. Plus,  trading kids back and forth serves as a break when parents need a new personality to deal with in their boat. 😉

But, if you’re unable to bring multiple boats with you, you can still add some activities to your paddling. Take a break by going for a swim or stop on the beach for some frisbee!

kid friendly river trip: dad and child sitting on a paddleboard on the Columbia River

The paddleboard was a popular vessel on our trip. Photo: Tanya Koob

Choosing A Campsite

We were fortunate because, in our entire two days of paddling, we only found one beach that was large enough, suitable, and pleasant. Therefore, I can’t stress enough that you go on the trip with some idea of where you will camp.

Talk to the folks at a local visitor centre, do some searching, read guide books, and ask around. But going in “blind” is dangerous. As I said, we got lucky this time, but that’s not always the case.

If you aren’t able to find a place beforehand or aren’t entirely sure where you’ll spend the night, the two safest things you can do are to:

  1. get an early start
  2. to have a plan B lined up

Start your paddle early in the day so that you aren’t still searching for a site with darkness approaching. Second, figure out what you will do IF you can’t find a spot and be ready to execute the alternate plan if necessary. For us, we would have had to complete two days of paddling in one day – and the early start would have been imperative!

sunset on the Columbia River

Sunset on the Columbia River

Guidelines for Camping on a River

When staying overnight, there are a few additional guidelines to consider as you’re planning your kid-friendly river trip.

Leave No Trace

Wilderness camping on a river is very similar to backcountry camping on a trail, and the same “no trace” rules apply. For a complete overview, visit the  Leave No Trace 7 Principals.

In general, nobody is coming down the river after to clean up after you. So, carry out what you bring in and leave your campsite better than you found it.

Packing

What you pack will be similar to the gear needed for a backpacking trip. However, you’ll want to wrap your sleeping bags, and mattresses in heavy-duty garbage bags in case water should get into your boat. Also, dry bags are recommended for items that you don’t want to get wet, such as any electronics, or certain foods and clothing items.

Furthermore, 4 Corners River Sports offers a packing list, which includes all river gear you’ll need for your adventure. The list is incredibly comprehensive, so make sure to tailor it based on you and your family’s style and needs. For example, you may not need a fully stocked camp kitchen or a table for an overnight trip.

Finally, bring a water filter or purifier if you aren’t bringing jugs of drinking water. Also, you’ll want to bring a small backcountry stove and a spade for digging the latrine at camp.

kid-friendly river trip: boat with supplies being paddled on river

Poor packing had us towing our large food bin by the end of the trip. Photo: Tanya Koob

General River Safety

Similar to other outdoor adventures, safety is the number one priority. Make sure you’re prepared before heading out. If you are new to paddling or want a safety refresher, it’s best to consult this guide from the American Canoe Association. Or, for kids specifically, Environmental Education for Kids has some helpful tips.

Also, when in doubt, taking a lesson before embarking on a big trip is never a bad idea.

For more information on our specific paddling trip on the Columbia River with put in and take out locations in the Columbia Valley, check out Paddling and Camping on the Columbia River with Kids.

Have you planned an overnight kid-friendly river trip? What recommendations do you have? Please share them with us in the comments below!

Read Next:
A Mother’s Day To Never Forget: Kayaking Fun & Misadventures
Prep Your Kids For Canoeing; You Will Thank Me Later

Article updated with additional info on May 26, 2020

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