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Family Kayaking Basics with Emily Jackson  

photo credit / Seth Warren

Emily Jackson is a celebrated World Freestyle Kayak Champion with podium finishes across possibly every discipline of kayaking. She’s also part of the Jackson family—sister to fellow kayak athlete Dane Jackson and daughter of Olympic Kayaker Eric Jackson, who is also the founder of Jackson Kayaks (now Jackson Adventures).

We caught up with Emily and her family in Cascade, Idaho. The family travels about ten months out of their year in their RV running rivers, attending whitewater events on behalf of Jackson Adventures, and enjoying life outdoors. The family’s two kids, a daughter age 4 and son age 8, are both learning to love kayaking. Emily shared some of her top tips on how she’s sharing her passion for kayaking with her kids.

photo credit / Seth Warren

The key to starting kids kayaking is to keep it fun,” says Emily. Her kids started off with a Jackson Fun 1, a kid-sized boat for tikes weighing 30-80 pounds. Emily says, “We treated it like a pool toy initially—no paddle, no skirt. Emily says, “During this timeframe, the most important thing was making sure they’re comfortable and safe in the water.”

At the time, the Fun 1 was the smallest kids kayak ever made. And it’s also the reason Jackson Kayak was started by her dad Eric back in 2004—there were no kids boats at the time. Having a properly sized boat is important. Boats that are too big can mean the kids have trouble reaching the water with their paddle, or the boat isn’t responsive when it should be.

photo credit / Seth Warren

At about age 5 or 6. Emily let her son use the kayak with a loose-fitting spray skirt, “One that barely keeps water out.” Emily shared a tip she uses with her kids, which is to duct tape a piece of foam on the front cockpit rim to make pulling the skirt even easier. She says, “You don’t want them to have an experience where they can’t get the skirt off.” Emily would stand in the water and flip her son over and roll him back up immediately. She also recommends that kids wear scuba-style goggles to keep water out of their nose. Slowly she’d add more time where her son was underwater—counting to five while banging on the kayak then rolling up. And from there, she says, “Bracing and hip snaps. Which are the basics for rolling up.”

Emily stresses that these are really short 15-minute learning sessions. She says, “Keep it short and sweet. You have to step in with the idea that you're taking baby steps and breaking them down even more.” When transitioning from the pool or lake to the river, expect to take a few steps back and start from there. She adds, “Make sure it’s still fun—swim in the rapid or current and do all the same steps again.”

As the family progresses to river floats Emily continues to stress the fun factor. “A long family paddle can be frustrating. It takes a lot of practice for kids to move the kayak where they want to go. We try to have them just paddle around, but not in long distances through flat water. Also add in floaties or a raft to give them options if they want to get out of their boat.”

photo credit / Seth Warren

Emily’s Tips for Kids Kayaking Gear:

Buy a kayak that fits your kids.

Jackson Kayaks offers multiple kids kayaks including the Fun 1, Fun 1.5, and the Sidekick. Emily says, “Buying used kids kayaks is great—you just want to make sure you have all the outfitting parts.” She adds, “I have stories of our kid’s kayaks being bought and sold 7 or 8 times. Kids are really easy on their gear compared to adults.” Another option is the Jackson Kayaks Dynamic Duo two-person kayak. Emily says, “It’s great for introducing kids into whitewater and getting splashed. Your kid is a passenger along for a ride. They can just have fun or you can convince them they’re in control.”

Outfit your kids into their kayak.

Make sure the feet are sitting on the footrests, they’re sitting up high enough to touch the water properly, and the hip pads and back band are tight enough.

photo credit / Seth Warren

Get the correct length paddle.

Not having a kid’s-specific kayak paddle is exhausting, they’ll end up doing more of a sweeping stroke than a forward paddle, which will have them going in circles. Werner kid’s paddles are great.

Invest in a good helmet.

Kids-sized paddling helmets are hard to come by, but Emily feels safe with her four-year-old daughter in a BMX-bike style helmet. Her six-year-old son is just big enough to fit into a Sweet Protection paddling-specific helmet.

photo credit / Seth Warren

A paddling-specific PFD is important.

Emily is a fan of Astral and NRS kids PFDs (Personal Flotation Device aka life jacket). If buying used, Emily suggests ensuring the weight range is higher than your kid’s weight as, over a long period of time, PFDs can lose some of their flotation. For smaller kids' life jackets, Emily stresses the importance of choosing a PFD with neck support, like the NRS Big Water V Youth, to keep their faces up and out of the water.

River shoes are key!

Emily recommends kids Tevas, Keen with toe coverage, or Astral Loyak Youth.

And finally, always have plenty of snacks and water or electrolyte drinks.

Pack them in a waterproof dry bag.

photo credit / Seth Warren

For more family adventure and kayaking tips follow Emily Jackson at on Instagram.

Annie Fast writes about winter sports and outdoor adventures from her home in Bend, Oregon.You can read more about her and her work at

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