By Kate Gregory (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kathy
Last updated: August 2001
This FAQ is based on our experience taking our children canoe camping with us, our discussions with other parents, and things we have read on the net and elsewhere. We'd love your comments and suggestions.
HOW YOUNG CAN YOU TAKE THEM?
ISN'T IT DANGEROUS?
WHAT DO YOU EAT?
WHERE DO YOU GET DRINKING WATER?
WHAT ABOUT BATHROOMS? AND DIAPERS?
HOW DO YOU MAKE THEM WEAR LIFEJACKETS?
WHERE DOES EVERYBODY FIT IN THE CANOE?
WHAT ABOUT BUGS? SUNBURN?
ISN'T DEET IN BUGSCREEN HARMFUL?
HAVE YOU HEARD OF BULLFROG SUNSCREEN?
HOW DO YOU ALL SLEEP?
WHAT ABOUT PORTAGES?
DO YOU HAVE TO BRING A LOT OF TOYS?
HOW MANY TONS OF CLOTHES SHOULD YOU PACK?
HOW FAR CAN YOU GO?
WHAT ELSE DO YOU TAKE?
WHEN SHOULD YOU GIVE UP?
Our experience is limited to children under ten, although I have memories of canoeing and camping as a child myself (Well, we took a thirteen year old once, but I'd rather not generalize from her). This is also not about white water in any way. I'm talking about putting into the water with packs and packs of stuff, paddling all day, setting up camp, sleeping in tents, and getting up the next day and doing it all again. Repeating for as much vacation as you have, and feeling sad when you get back to the cars.
The cast of characters: Kate, her husband Brian, their daughter Beth, born in June 1989, their son Kevin, born in June 1993; Kathy, her husband Dave, their son Marc, born in November 1985, their daughter Aimee, born in January 1989, and their daughter Kimberly, born in May 1992. We have been canoe tripping together since 1982, and saw no reason to stop when kids became part of the picture. Kathy has even been on a trip while pregnant (with Marc.) Yes, that's FIVE children. They outnumber the adults. But here's a trick: five is easier than two, most of the time. We have achieved a critical mass of children, able to entertain each other and play happily together.
|None of our kids has been into the wilderness their first summer; we do car camp with them at that age but there is always a car and a phone just steps away. Kevin and Beth went in a canoe for the first time at six weeks, and on their first wilderness trip at fifteen months. (Oh, OK, Beth went into Algonquin for an overnighter at 11 months. Close enough. It was her second summer.) Kimberly would have gone on a trip her second summer, but Kevin was born that year so we car-camped. Lots of people think we're CRAZED to take toddlers into the dangerous wilderness when we can't bring a playpen, and that's why we wrote this FAQ. That brings us nicely to the next question:|
The things most people worry about are wolves, bears, and drownings. These are actually much less of a worry than sprained ankles on portages, cutting themselves playing Junior Woodsman, burning themselves in the campfire, slipping on a slimy rock and bashing their head, and so on. Make sure everyone is warm, well-fed, and well-rested all the time. This is not survival camp, eating cold baked beans and Power Bars and sleeping in the cold rain in the clothes you wore all day -- you have your *kids* with you! Relax, have fun, don't push yourselves too far. Know first aid and how to prevent accidents.
Cook on a stove rather than a fire: it's ready faster and it's easier to keep the children away from it. We were surprised how quickly Beth and Aimee learned to stay away from firepit and stoves. When Marc was 1 1/2 he burned his finger on a stove that had been off for half an hour or so. The girls repeated "burn" after us and stayed away, when they were 1 and 1 1/2. Don't let them near firepit or stove when it's cool: it will be years before they can handle "sometimes yes, sometimes no". With Marc we had him in his lifejacket almost all the time at campsites: with the girls we relaxed a bit and just watched them. Beth was the only one who ever tried to eat stuff off the ground, and she did it only when she was hungry. It got to be a joke: someone feed this kid, she's eating dirt again!
A lot of the stuff you bring camping (medication, stove fuel, shampoo, etc) should be kept out of the reach of children. But there are no high cupboards in a tent, and no locking bathroom cabinets either. Train your children not to get stuff out of packs alone, and try to bring things in childproof containers wherever possible. For example, buy a small container of medication that comes with a childproof lid rather than transferring some of the medication to a random household container.
If you are planning to take your child as an infant or young toddler, but the child is not born yet, the most important piece of advice we can give you is: breastfeed your baby. This will save you the hassles of cleaning bottles, preparing formula, carrying city water, warming bottles etc, with the bonus that nursing gives children more comfort than bottles. It is such a hassle to make up a bottle when there is no fridge to put it in if the child doesn't want it. If you offer to nurse and they don't want it, you just put your shirt back down. And mornings are so much easier if you can stay in the tent and nurse rather than get out into the cold, get the stove set up, etc etc. If you take a nursing toddler be prepared for a dramatic increase in the number of nursings per day. It will only be temporary.
If your child is at the jars-of-mush stage, as Aimee was in 1989, and you have a home dehydrator, you can do what Kathy did: pour a jar onto a Teflex sheet and make a leather. You can reconstitute this with a little boiling water very quickly.
For older children (and adults too) we take fresh fruit, English muffins, cheese (choose fat reduced where possible as it is less likely to separate being dragged around without refrigeration: we take one quarter pound stick per day for the nine of us plus a few extra), peanut butter, jam, and a long keeping summer sausage for lunch, and all the kids wolf it down. They make a good breakfast too, though we're as likely to have oatmeal. For dinner we make some sort of "pieces of meat in sauce" (spaghetti, chili, stew, ...) on noodles or rice, using home-dehydrated meat and vegetables. We also do pizza in a frying pan that is just fantastic!
We make our own English muffins in camp every day. The extra fuel we carry to make them is nothing compared to the weight and space of English muffins themselves, and though it takes a few hours, we don't mind. We'll give you our recipe, but you should practice at home first! Typically we start the muffins as we start dinner, and get around to cooking them after dinner. Then we have muffins for the next day's breakfast and lunch.
We took formula powder along for "milk" with meals for the youngest two until they were over two years old. Drinking boxes of juice are more nutritious than powdered drink, and have always been greeted as a major treat. Crackers and cookes will likely shred to crumbs, but we took Cheerios and rice cakes and they stayed intact. Marshmallows just have to find a place in the pack, and don't forget popcorn, which can be made in a pan over a stove just fine. When packing snacks, remember peanuts are a choking hazard for those without back teeth. Jerky and dried fruit are fine even for the littlest, though you may have to shred them off a tiny piece.
Of course all these drinking boxes and fresh fruit and pounds and pounds of cheese will fill your food pack to overflowing. We have long since graduated to several food packs, which shrink down to one as the journey progresses.
Remember there will be no highchair (sit a baby/toddler on your knee; sitting on logs without falling backwards is tough), and that the can-and-bottle bans in most parks specifically exempt baby food.
|Once upon a time, we took our chances and drank the lake. Then we boiled for the kids, and the grownups drank the lake. These days we take a water filter. It's quick (no waiting for it to cool after boiling,) safe, weighs less than the fuel for the boiling, doesn't make the water taste funny and best of all the kids fight for the right to do it! Get the kind that screws right onto a standard Nalgene bottle or dromedary bag, and make sure you clean it properly and dry it out when you get it home. If you're going somewhere really silty, take a spare filter or a backup method like tablets, just in case. We usually take a litre or so of city water for the toddlers, just because we're cautious folks. They get more drinking boxes of real juice than the older kids, too, since they are more nutrionally sensitive as well as more sensitive to strange water.|
Kate's first was in cloth diapers, disposable for travelling. What she didn't do in 1990 (but should have) was ask someone who uses disposables regularly to recommend a brand. The tapes on the brand she chose were useless and we used pieces of grey duct tape from the repair kit to hold the diapers together. We carry the diapers around until we are having a fire and then burn them. You cannot smell anything and our only concern is the ultra absorbent gel in there - heaven knows what it forms when it burns. We had one trip with a total fire ban and two kids in diapers! We carried around a week's worth. We had brought a spare small frameless pack for day hikes or whatever and it became the garbage pack, kept tied up whenever possible and added to by brave people only. We stopped by a canoe builder on the way home and while we were there, the ban was lifted. Oh, well.
Once they get out of diapers, you have to teach them how to "go in the woods". The big worry here is that they will continue the practice at home, but ours have all learned that this is only for camping. Girls will probably need a supportive hand at first. And try not to giggle too much during the "lessons"!
Many provincial parks have latrines or pit toilets at campsites. These are smelly and not very pleasant, but if one exists you should use it. Try to prepare your child for using this sort of toilet in advance.
Lifejackets (PFDs) are an absolute MUST and quite likely to be hated. The smallest you can buy is for 20 to 30 pounds, but even if your child weighs less, get that size and get her in somehow. Beth wore her 20-30 pound model when she weighed only 11 pounds. If possible, try several brands. The McKinley (identical to Buoy Oh Buoy) she wore in 1989 was wrong somehow in 1990, she couldn't sit in it, and we rented a Mustang which for some reason fit her better. Try it on with and without a coat, too -- on cold days you will still need to get the lifejacket on.
Whatever you buy/rent, get plenty of dry land practice, with cuddles and/or treats, until it is accepted. With an older child (say 5) you may have to wear yours all the time to get them to wear theirs. If you're not int the habit of wearing yours, you may find you can't even paddle in it. Find out first and if you have to, buy one you can paddle in. As a bonus, you'll find that modern lifejackets have pockets -- every parent needs one if only for kleenexes, snacks, and treasures you've promised to look after, not to mention toddler shoes that get taken off in the canoe and must not go overboard!
Let's assume you are being traditional: Daddy in the back, Mummy in the front. We do that, though both women are perfectly capable of paddling stern, carrying the canoe over portages, etc.
One child with you: sit her right behind or right in front of Mummy. In front of makes paddling much harder, but some little ones insist on it. Certainly if you are planning to comfort the child during the trip by nursing then she had better be near the one with the milk (Just wait until you have tried nursing a baby when you are both wearing life jackets. I couldn't even zip mine up over my enlarged, um, chest). Also passing a baby back to another person, over packs, when all involved are lifejacketed, is an experience to avoid if you can.
Two children with you (of different ages): older one in front of Daddy, younger one in front of or behind Mummy. Three? Probably by now you can work this stuff out yourself. The Dennis kids sit oldest in front of Daddy, middle behind Mommy, youngest in front of her.
If you are taking an under-two, take for granted that your front paddler won't paddle a lot unless the baby falls asleep. Make sure a favourite blanket or teddy is easily available so you can put the baby on the floor of the canoe and let the swaying rock her to sleep. After about eighteen months they will need less cuddling but are more of a nuisance: climbing onto your seat from behind, crawling under your seat, throwing toys overboard, putting their hands in the water. If yours uses soothers, get a "soother bib" or other device that makes it un-droppable.
When Marc was eighteen months old, we went into Algonquin in late June. He put his hand in the water at first, then his arm to the elbow, then more and more until about half an hour from the cars on the way home he tried to put his arm in to the shoulder and toppled head first into the water! As he floated past his father, Dave reached in, grabbed the large loop that is at the back of all children's lifejackets, and hauled him into the canoe. Because we were so close to the cars and there was no wind, we just dried him off with the towels we had handy, wrapped him in his mother's coat, and paddled like hell. Any further or any wind, and we would have stopped and changed him into dry clothes, even built a fire if necessary. Certainly being as far forward as possible made it more likely he would be caught by the back paddler. If one canoe has no kids in it you might like to go last so you can scoop up a "baby overboard" if the parents miss.
For those who worry, Marc is the only one to go overboard so far. None of the others has even come close.
In 1995, we came up with an innovative solution to the Mummy-can't-paddle problem: we rented a 26 foot canoe. All nine of us fit in there just fine. We tried a number of arrangements but ended up with Mummy and Mommy at the front, with each of our youngests sitting with us, Beth and Aimee (who were 6) behind us, Marc (who was 9) behind them, and then the Daddies. Even when one of us couldn't paddle, the other three could. It was EASY to feed all the kids on the water. The sheer size of the boat meant we weren't windbound, even when our 16 and 17 footers would have been, and the canoe itself became a piece of campground furniture, mainly a kitchen windbreak but on occasion a dressing room. Kevin even had naps under it! The only drawback, before you all rush out and buy one, is that it took four adults to carry it. Ugh.
|Your first line of defense should be physical: long sleeved shirts, long pants, hats. Then make sure you bring a bug repellent that contains about 30% DEET. Spray it on their clothes rather than their skin. Babies' sunscreen shouldn't contain PABA - we use a SPF of 30 or more for Beth and Kevin since Kate burns like mad and we don't know whose skin they have yet. We also bought an umbrella designed to clip onto a stroller handle and clipped it onto the gunwales to act as a sunshade. Worked beautifully, with only a slight tendency to catch the wind. Yes, we got a few looks, but mainly when the baby wason the bottom of the canoe asleep and passers by can't see who the umbrella is shading.|
Assume that naps on travel days will be taken in the canoe. Naps interrupted by portages may just be over, so try to schedule your day. Don't push off just as the child should be going down for a nap. Check the map to see when there will be an hour or two of uninterupted paddling and leave at a time that will connnect you with that stretch at nap time.
On days you stay put, you may find naps in a brightly lit tent, with the sound of adults just outside, simply do not happen. Make sure you have things as familiar as possible (blanket, teddy, etc).
Figuring out how to get a whole family of people into a tent small enough to carry over a portage is a bit of an art. When we were childless couples, we slept two people in each of our "4 man" tents. We are still using the same tents now. Here's how we do it. In the Gregory tent, they have three sleeping pads side by side down the length of the tent. The kids sleep on one feet-to-feet, with Mummy next to them and Daddy on the far side. Kevin is near Mummy's head (a leftover from the days when he might have wanted to nurse in the night,) and Beth is nearer the door, though she couldn't get out without climbing over both parents' legs. In the Dennis tent, the sleeping pads are across the width of the tent and Kimberly sleeps between her parents. They don't have packs or shoes inside the tent: those are in an add-on vestibule that attaches to the front door.
Practice at least one night in the backyard (or basement, if you have a freestanding tent) before you go. At night you will want to be sure no little ones can get out of the tent, and if they are blanket kickers you may want to put two sleepers on to keep them warm. Some babies get very upset sleeping between Mum and Dad and scream for the spacious crib back home. This is another case where breastfed babies are less trouble as they will often nurse off to sleep anywhere. Typically once they are about four they will accept almost any sleeping arrangement with equanimity. Bring some bedtime books and reproduce the bedtime ritual you have at home, including brushing teeth and going to the bathroom.
As the kids keep growing we are going to have to graduate to a "kid tent" some year soon. The adults are all looking forward to getting some space back!
Some folks ask us a rather delicate question related to sleeping arrangments. They ask us how they can, er, you know, *sleep* *together* :-) when the kids are in the same tent. Hey, get some imagination! You can sneak out of the tent into the moonlight when the kids are asleep (highly recommended,) you can go off for a paddle to a secluded beach in the afternoon leaving your children with the other couple, you can encourage the other couple to take your kids on a *long* hike after dinner. Let's just say Kimberly was conceived in Killarney and leave it at that.
Don't count on your child walking across the portage. When Marc was 2 1/2, he insisted on being carried and screamed whenever he was put down. I have a Hip Snuggler which theoretically would let me carry Beth on my hip and a light pack on my back, but it's hard to get a child out and put them down when you have a pack on, and "up!" "down!" "up!" seems to be the order of the day. Assume you will take at least one more trip than you take now, and if you have been carrying the canoe between you, learn how to do it solo. It's actually easier for one person to carry it anyway. Besides, you'll be carrying so much more stuff than you used to!
The more kids you have the less of an issue portages become. One two year old may insist on being carried, but a two year old who sees three older children walking is going to demand something to carry, let us tell you! As the number of kids rises, it becomes harder and harder to achieve a streamlined pack system with no loose coats, paddles, toy bags, and whatnot, but at least you can usually get the kids to carry some of this loose small stuff.
Just how do you head-em-up-move-em-out? It depends how long the portage is. We do quite well sending out two adults, the kids, two adults. At the far end, two adults head back right away for a second load, while the other two move stuff out of the way so that other trippers can come through, give the kids snacks and drinks, and catch their breath. When the first adults come back, the duties switch. Sometimes one or two people have to go back for a third(!) trip; especially on a short portage we don't mind, but on a long one (500m+) we'll go to some trouble to avoid it. On really short (50-100m) portages the kids want to scamper back and forth from end to end, and we ususally let them.
We segregate our toys: the non waterproof ones are packed with the tent and do not leave it; the waterproof ones are in my little fanny pack and each have about five feet of string on them. We tie them to the thwarts and gunwales of the canoe: toddlers love to throw them overboard and watch them bob along next to us. We leave them tied on as we portage: if you ever meet a canoe on a portage with kids toys dangling down from the gunwales and thwarts, that's us.
I have read recommendations for one toy per child, but what if you are stuck in the tent for a while due to rain (or blackflies?) We take a lot and don't begrudge the space. Don't bring crayons or anything else that will make a mess if it melts. And keep track in your head of your inventory so you take home everything you brought. And plenty of books!
|Don't forget that the actual fact you are camping in the wilderness is a game and a toy in itself. Around the campsite, sticks and rocks will probably be the preferred toys: encourage that. You haven't seen dirty till you've seen Aimee's cabbage patch doll after a week in Killarney in 1990. Ideally the sticks would stay out of the tent and be left behind at each campsite, but you try telling the heartbroken five year old his dragon stick can't come with us: poor dragon even got his broken wing mended with duct tape. Children love to swim (with supervision and maybe with lifejackets for fun), go on hikes, clamber over rocks, and the perennial Gregory-Dennis favourite, "throw rocks in the water". This alone can occupy our little ones for hours, especially if a parent can be sucked into wading out and retrieving all the rocks after they've thrown in every rock on the island.|
Oh, five or six tons per child :-). Seriously, far less of the regular stuff (shirts, shorts, pants) and far more of the unusual than you would expect. Don't forget raingear (raincoat and splash pants,) plenty of warm and cool stuff (including both sunhat and warm hat), and a big plastic wipable bib for toddlers. (You wash the bib as a dish after each meal.) It's a pretty good idea to just put the kids in the same pair of sturdy denim overalls or jeans for an entire week, since they get dirty so fast anyway. Keep a pair of sweatpants (they are stretchy enough to go on over jeans on really cold days (we've done it) and to fit another child if needed) and some shorts in the tent pack. Plan to wear each shirt for about two days, and bring enough socks and underwear to change at *least* once a day (socks especially can get yucky going over a muddy portage, and have also served as mittens one particularly cold August in Temagami.) If you get warm windy weather on a day you stop early, or if you are windbound, you can do a laundry partway through the trip, but don't count on it. Bring a sweater, or better still a hooded sweatshirt, for cool evenings. Make sure their coats have pockets.
Stash some presentable clothes in the car, for all of you but especially the kids. When you get out of the wilderness you may find your dirty little urchins are suddenly a little less cute. Take a damp cloth to hands and faces, comb their hair, stick them in something that's fresh from the laundry, and they'll be their old selves again. Knowing there are clean clothes waiting there will help you relax about the clothes they are wearing in the wilds.
Before we had kids we used to take 2 and 3 week trips. Now a week is as long as we have gone. But that's more about our lives and how hard it is to get vacation time than about holding back because of the kids. Food is the weak link here. If you go for two weeks instead of one, you don't need to take twice as many tents or stoves, but you will need twice as much food, fuel, and somewhat more clothes and books. Start at short trips and work your way up. As the kids age (at least once you stop adding younger ones in at the bottom again) you will take less stuff: diapers, teddy bears, and so on will all make room for more supplies, plus your older ones will start carrying a pack as well.
If you've tripped before, unless you used to set a very leisurely pace you will go slower now. Striking camp in the morning will take longer because you won't be all-hands-on-deck if one adult is watching the kids; portages will take longer for the same reason; the kids are likely to need shorter days on the water than you used to push yourselves to; you won't go as fast through the water if your front paddler isn't paddling much, and you need to stop earlier anyway in order to fit in the longer setting-up-camp time. Don't get obsessive about it, just set yourself shorter loops. We often set up our trips as "we'll go in here, travel inwards for three days, and them come back out the same way." As long as we go the same speed in both directions, we'll get out the day that we should. Alternatively, set up a loop with rest days, where you hang around at a great campsite for two whole nights. You might spend that off day fishing or hiking, or just lying around reading and watching your kids play. It is a vacation, remember? Don't decide at home where the rest days will be (unless there's only one great hike to a lookout or whatever) -- let the quality of the campsites and the mood of the group choose it. If you grossly overestimated your pace, dropping the rest days will let you meet the original schedule.
Let's see: food, clothes, cooking stuff, tents, toys, books, diapers, sleeping bags -- you mean we have to take MORE? Sure: first aid, repair kit, -- but what this section is about is the stuff you don't find in the ordinary camping books. Stuff that's neat if kids are along, or for keeping parents sane.
At least one, probably two, fanny packs. These function much like purses in real life, holding sunscreen, bug repellent, unwanted hats/shoes/toys, snacks (LOTS of snacks,) drinks, flashlight, matches, knife, shoelaces, kleenexes and anything else a child might ask you for in the course of a day. These are next to an adult in the canoe and at the campsite, come along on hikes, and on portages in both directions. That's one of the reasons we suggest a fanny pack rather than a small day pack. Put on the fanny back backwards, with the pouch over your stomach, and put on your portage pack normally. Then head across the portage. If a child needs something you don't need to take off the pack you are carrying and open it up and root around, nor do you have to explain that the thing they want is in a different pack that hasn't come over yet. Then you head back for your second trip, leaving the fanny pack on, and still you have all your important stuff. The other reason we suggest a fanny pack is that it helps you to carry a child who's really a bit large to be carried, if tiredness or cold or sunburn gets someone all whiny and clingy. Put the bag on sideways, and sit the child on your hip with the pack as a chair. You'll still need an arm for support but it will be an easier carry.
Other neat stuff: glowsticks. Those things you break and they glow -- kids love to walk around with them in the dusk and then take them into the tent. Kathy stocked up one year at a post-Halloween clearout. If there is to be one small flashlight, there should probably be one per child. We bring one for everyone, whether it's an adult who will use it to head for the toilet late at night, a toddler who will just play and wave it around, or a child in between who will get an opportunity to learn responsible use, and stop asking to borrow mine so much. We don't use a big Coleman lantern at all. We have some small fluorescent flashlights for the tent: we hang them up and several people can read by them. Outside a strategically placed candle lantern works very nicely. It's not like the kids are going to let us sleep in, so we don't stay up terribly late.
Little stuff? Clothespegs -- makes hanging up laundry on tarp lines so much easier. Several half rolls of toilet paper rather than one single roll, since kids do sometimes drop it, and older children are embarrassed to have to ask where it is or get it from a central location. Have at least one roll per tent. A pair of cloth gardening gloves function as oven mitts for hot pots, and blister-preventers while paddling. A little notebook to record what food was liked and what wasn't, how long things took, how much was left over, which campsites were good, and so on. Your packing list, to write down the things you forgot, so you won't forget them next year. We always take a printed copy of this FAQ, scribble all over it, and vow that this will be the year we update it. (1993, 1994, 1995 all weren't: 1996 was.)
Adults can take a lot of misery, slogging through the rain for days, and come out saying it was a good trip, thinking of the one or two really good afternoons in there. Kids, in general, won't. There are times when the general misery level gets so high, you should make better ues of your limited vacation time. There are also times when you would be putting your children in danger by pressing on. Tired, cold, wet, grumpy people are more likely to have accidents, or to make serious errors in judgement like going out in wind and waves because you're all going stir crazy at the campsite.
We've abandoned two trips in 13 years. The first was to be a long weekend in Algonquin in early June. BLACKFLIES! The kids were four, three, and just-under-one. There was no sign of bugs on the water, but once we stopped, they were everywhere. We all piled into one tent and took turns doing the cooking outside, then went to bed early. In the morning they were just as bad, so we went home. The second was August 1994 in Temagami. It was COLD. I have a picture of Kevin, 14 months, wearing two pairs of pants, two shirts, two sweaters, and socks on his hands for mittens, and you can still tell that he is cold. Happy, but cold. We were at a fine campsite, but couldn't move if we had wanted to: wind on the main lake was backing people up into our little channel and there were no sites between ours and the main lake. After three or four days we left, and spent the rest of our week or so's holiday going to the northernmost zoo that has exotics (tigers, pheasants, and so on,) the famous Highway Bookstore near Cobalt, all sorts of little museums, touristy stuff. And we investigated the big canoe we ended up renting the following year.
Don't push on when you know you shouldn't. Be prepared to be windbound. Be prepared to realize you have over-scheduled. Don't take chances with small, unpredictable, precious little people in your boat with you.
Take care, have fun, and say Hi when you meet us at a portage someday....
Kate and Kathy.