Tips for canoe-camping with grandchildren

The call of the loon, the slap of a beaver’s tail, the crackle of a campfire at the end of the paddling day. Sharing these experiences with grandchildren is one of life’s greatest joys. Canoe-camping with youngsters means adapting your game, though. We offer the following tips:


Trip planning is an adult activity. Children live in the moment. Older, analytical ones may show some interest in route planning and logistics, but most kids prefer just the need-to-know information. Where will I go to the bathroom? Can I bring my iPad? These key questions should be covered in advance of the trip.

First-timers and picky eaters must participate in menu planning. Oatmeal flavours, the composition of trail mix, the colour of the juice: expect strong opinions, and do your best to comply. Really picky eaters should be asked to sign off on the meal plan.

Oops! Granola bars plop overboard, marshmallows fall in the fire, kids slip-trip-and-fall into mud puddles. Bring extra food, extra clothes (especially socks), and plenty of band-aids.

Super-size the tents. Children are smaller than adults, but kids are not tidy, and they need a lot of space. A three-person tent works well for two kids.

Water, water everywhere. Kids drink – and waste – an amazing amount of water. (We’ve seen one gallon used to brush teeth). A gravity water filter is a good investment.

Safety first. PFDs, of course, and all the usual on-water rules. On land, everyone should wear a lanyard with a whistle and instructions to blow it if they get hurt or see anything that causes them concern (a bear, for example). Some kids are immune to swimmer’s itch, insect bites, and temperature extremes. Others have sensitive skin and are accident-prone. Refresh your first aid knowledge and supplies before departure.

Embrace uneven numbers. Even numbers are easy: one grandchild, one grandparent per canoe. An extra grandchild gets a solo kayak. This solution was first suggested to us by Alan Thomson, and it has been a huge success.

Boys are not girls. Boys must chop firewood and lots of it. If there’s more than one boy, a hierarchy must be established for key functions such as building and lighting the fire and holding the fire-poking stick. Girls are compelled to collect things (shells, pebbles, leaves, etc.). Bring a container (an egg carton works well) for each girl and a pen or crayon for labelling. If your destination has rules that prohibit collecting or removing natural elements, let the girls know in advance.

Consider a guided trip. Taking grandchildren into the wilderness is a big responsibility. A professional guide can help ensure a safe, fun, and educational trip. The perfect guide will be a good teacher, cook, leader, storyteller, fisherman, and naturalist. The grandchildren will bond with the guide, and you can relax a bit.

You are never too old. Since this list was first written (2013), we have had a pleasant surprise: even teenagers and young adults are keen to canoe-camp with their ageing grandma and grandpa. Do you lack the skills and energy to challenge your older grandchildren? See “consider a guided trip”, above. Professional guides love to paddle through surf and rapids, jump from cliffs, and bushwhack in wild country.

The more, the merrier. Friendships are important, especially to adolescents and young adults. Offer your older grandchildren the opportunity to invite a friend. A youth who says yes to canoe-camping with their friend’s grandparents is likely to be a cheerful and flexible person, open to adventure – a valued addition to your expedition team.

Where can you take your grandchildren for their first canoe-camping trip? Here are three destinations we recommend:

  • Clearwater-Azure Lakes in Wells Grey Provincial Park. For a shorter, easier trip, take the water taxi to Rainbow Falls, then paddle back down the lakes. This saves a buggy portage and some upstream paddling between the two lakes.
  • Murtle Lake in Wells Grey Provincial Park. This is a family-friendly destination, with great day-hiking possibilities. Note: dogs are not allowed here.
  • Valhalla Provincial Park. A short, easy trip along the western shoreline of Slocan Lake. Be bear aware: this is prime habitat for grizzlies.

Our credentials: five grandchildren, ages 15 to 22

Note: This article was originally published in the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club Newsletter in 2013. Updated December 2021.

A grilled cheese sandwich

A grilled cheese sandwich at Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1950s. What’s that got to do with our grandchildren and canoe-camping trips?

Yes, we love canoe-camping, so it’s natural that we would want to share that love with our grandchildren. But how did we get the idea to take grandchildren along – just one or two at a time? Cathy’s grandmother, Daisy, was part of the inspiration. Here’s the background:

Daisy lived in Ohio; Cathy grew up in California. Air travel was expensive in the 1950s, so it was only every year or two that Daisy flew to California to visit her four grandchildren. Daisy was a very British lady. As a second-grade teacher, she was partial to little girls who were well-behaved and who had good cursive handwriting. Cathy met the criteria for attention.

During her one-week visits, Daisy made time to do special things with Cathy: shop for knitting supplies, play canasta, go to church, have a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke at the Woolworth’s lunch counter (with a nickel to play the jukebox), recite English fairy tales (the Old Woman and her Pig was a favourite). Although Daisy’s visits were brief, the memories of alone-time with Grandma are still strong. Grandma Daisy made Cathy feel grown up, special, and – most of all – loved.

Will our grandchildren love canoe-camping as much as we do? Maybe, maybe not. But we hope their trips with us will create some memories: the swish of the paddle, the comfort of a cosy sleeping bag at the end of a day outdoors, and the knowledge that we cherish every minute we were able to share with them.