Magazine: Invest in the future – Get the Kids Geard Up

Rather than dismiss youth gear as “not cost-effective,” brands are realizing that making paddle sports accessible to kids is worth the risk. 

Young bristish paddler Alfie Astle ©Peak PS

Want a sport or habit to stick? Start young. Or so the saying goes. How many out on the water wish they had been introduced to paddling earlier? Ironically, ask those who began young about their early days on the water, and you’ll likely hear “cold,” “awkward,” and “uncomfortable.”

Generally speaking, the kid’s market has been considered too small, too risky, and not cost-effective enough to merit significant attention or development. Few parents were willing to invest in expensive, specialized items for children that would outgrow them quickly. Rather than bring their kids on the water, many let paddling fall by the wayside in favor of more “family-friendly” activities.

Recently, that has begun to change, with more brand owners becoming parents and families flocking to paddle sports in search of a fun outdoor activity for the whole family. More, an entire generation of active paddlers are becoming parents who want to share their passion with their kids—and they need gear to do it.

Call it selfish or smart; you don’t have to be a parent to realize this is a market worth investing in. “Our growth and future depend on youngsters getting into the sport. The products they’re using play a huge part in their first impression and experience,” acknowledges Lotta Lettmann, the third generation of a paddling family and Marketing Manager for Level Six. Paddlers know paddling is a great way to create core memories and explore personal limits and new destinations. Parents know a happy kid equals a happy parent. Gear that is comfortable and fits well goes a long way toward facilitating fun on the water, making everyone more likely to want to repeat the experience. “I think having gear that fits makes parents more comfortable taking kids on the water,” says Jackson Kayak Marketing Director and mom of two Emily Jackson.

John Best (Uk) teaches kids the joy of being on the water ©Peak PS

While most youth will start by sharing a boat or on the board with parents, investing in equipment kids can paddle themselves adds to the fun and is critical for skill development. “Offering gear better suited to children/smaller paddlers encourages independence and participation from a young age. In seeing my four-year-old son’s eyes light up when he first held a ‘tiny canoe paddle,’ I witnessed a shift in his realization that paddling is something he can actively engage in, says Luanne Koubsky, Creative Lead at Aqua Bound & Bending Branches.

Consider bikes and skis: Starting your kid out with a too-big bike or ski boots/skis is so clearly detrimental to having a good—and safe—experience it is laughable. Given the number of bike and ski companies with successful youth-specific lines and the increasing willingness of retailers to diversify youth offerings, it is almost surprising there aren’t already more options in paddle sports. After all, kids are the perfect target audience. “If not children, then who is athletic and adventurous?” asks Lettmann.

©waterkids

At the 2023 Paddle Sports Show, Soul Waterman founder Corran Addison showed off videos of his son ripping in his latest whitewater kayak design. Aztron’s Tony Yeung debuted an inflatable youth racing SUP. There were kid’s carbon fiber surfskis at Vadja and numerous other advancements. But youth equipment doesn’t need to be ultra-elite or performance driven. “Parents mostly just want to know their kids are happy, are not exposed to huge risks; and that they are getting good value. Kids want to just have fun,” says Palm Equipment Marketing & Brand Manager Paul Robertson. “Simple, functional products,” agrees Jackson. “Medium-end is key.”

Durability and price point are crucial factors in making paddle sports accessible for families. Developing trade-in programs or gear that can grow with kids reduces the perceived cost and extends use over multiple years. Items hardy enough to hand down or sell when they no longer fit also help make investing in kid’s gear less risky and more cost-effective for manufacturers and consumers alike.

“Kids kit isn’t just a short-term growth strategy, it’s hugely important for us all to ensure there are future participants,” reminds Robertson. Kid-specific gear lets the next generation improve at paddling much quicker and at younger ages than before, creating a healthy—and hopefully long-lasting— relationship with a brand and a love of paddle sports. It also lets the industry maintain the paddlers that are already here. “It’s 100% worth the investment even if the return on investment might not be realized for a decade to come,” agrees US Sales Director Chris Hipgrave.

©Peak PS

There is no shortage of young guns out there ripping already. At Peak Paddlesports, what started as a niche desire to share the river with his kids has evolved into something much more for founder Pete Astles. “Hopefully, these youngsters will become lifelong paddlers. Some will be future champions and river advocates, and some will become parents themselves, perhaps continuing the paddling circle for another generation.”

Read the 2024 Paddle Sport Show Paddler’s Guide

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