How to Tie Down & Transport a Kayak: Step-by-Step Guide

how to transport a kayak

While kayaks are fun to paddle, their large size makes transportation a challenge. Therefore, knowing how to load and tie down a kayak on your vehicle is essential.

If you’re concerned about safely transporting your kayak to and from launch, worry not—we’ve got you covered.

Up next, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how to transport a kayak. We’ll discuss the basics of carrying a kayak, and we’ll offer insight into your various transportation options to help ensure that your paddles go as smoothly as possible.

How to Carry a Kayak

Carrying a kayak in a way that’s safe for you and your gear is a vital skill that all paddlers ought to know. While moving a boat might seem pretty straightforward, some general rules of kayak transport are worth bearing in mind.

To help you out, here’s a step-by-step guide to carrying a kayak, whether you’re alone, with a friend, or using a purpose-built kayak cart.

Carrying Solo

Unless your boat is cumbersome, many paddlers find that they can carry their kayak by themselves. Here’s how it works:

  1. With your kayak on the ground and the cockpit facing the sky, stand on one side of your boat.
  2. Squat down next to your kayak next to the cockpit.
  3. Using both hands, grab the side of the cockpit that’s closest to you.
  4. While gripping the edge of the cockpit, stand up slightly and lift the kayak off the ground so that the hull is resting on your thighs.
  5. As your boat’s hull is resting on your thighs, stabilize the side of the cockpit that’s closest to you with one hand. Then, use the other hand to grab the other side of the cockpit. 
  6. Using the hand that’s furthest from your body, pull the far side of the boat toward you until it is resting on your shoulder. 
  7. If you haven’t already, stand up completely and take a minute to ensure that your kayak is well-balanced on your shoulder.
  8. Once you feel comfortable, you can start walking with your boat toward your destination.

Warning: Kayaks are heavy, so do not attempt to lift or carry one by yourself if you have a history of back pain or another similar condition. If you are concerned about your ability to lift a kayak safely on your own, please consult a physician before doing so. As with any lifting motion, carrying a kayak requires proper lifting technique, including lifting with your legs, not your back.

Two Person Carry

2 people carrying a kayak to the sea

The two-person carry is generally the easiest and most convenient method of carrying kayaks. To carry a kayak efficiently with a partner, do the following:

  1. Place your kayak on the ground with the cockpit facing the sky.
  2. With one person at the bow and one person at the stern, squat down to the ground.
  3. Each paddler should grab their end of the boat. If you have an empty, unloaded kayak, it’s okay to grab the boat using the carry handles. However, for a kayak loaded with gear, do not lift your boat using the carry handles. Doing so can snap the handles and damage your kayak. Instead, with a loaded kayak, wrap your arm around the hull of the bow or stern and lift.
  4. Verbally or visually confirm with your partner that you are ready to lift your kayak. Clarify which way you want to walk and where you will place your kayak back on the ground. 
  5. Using your legs—not your back—stand upright and lift the kayak off the ground.
  6. Start walking toward your destination. The person at the front of the kayak should also notify the person at the back of the kayak of any potential tripping hazards while you walk, as they may not be able to see underneath the boat.
  7. When you arrive at your destination, confirm with your partner that you are ready to place your kayak back on the ground.
  8. Lower your kayak to the ground by bending your legs. Take care not to place your kayak on any sharp or jagged objects that could damage the hull.

We should also mention that some people like to carry two kayaks when transporting with a partner. This is a common technique, but please do so with caution. When doing this, it’s challenging for the person at the rear of the kayaks to see the ground in front of them, so clear communication is key.

Kayak Carts

kayak resting on a kayak cart

If you’re paddling solo and you’re not keen on carrying your kayak on your own, a kayak cart might be a solid solution. Kayak carts are a set of wheels that you can attach to your kayak’s stern for simplified transport.

Each kayak cart is different, so it’s impossible to give specific directions for every model on the market. However, most carts are designed so that you simply have to lift the stern of the boat and strap the boat down to the cart. Once the kayak is secure, you’ll walk over to the front of the kayak, pick it up, and pull it to wherever you want to go.

Do keep in mind that kayak carts aren’t great if you’re trying to carry your kayak over very rocky terrain. We have seen bent wheel spokes and other similar types of damage after people attempt to use kayak carts in rough terrain.

So, a kayak cart is a good option if you’re trying to transport your kayak across a parking lot to a boat launch. But if you want to transport your kayak over a 1 mile (1.6 km) portage through the woods, a two-person carry is often the better option.

Read article: Best Kayak Carts

Kayak Transport Options

Unless you happen to live close to the water, you’ll likely need to drive your kayak somewhere every time you want to paddle. As a result, you’ll need to have a system in place for transporting your kayak on your vehicle. 

Kayakers have three primary options for transporting their kayaks: roof racks, trailers, and pickup truck beds. This is what you need to know about the pros and cons of each method.

Roof Racks

2 kayaks strapped to the roof rack of an SUV

Roof racks are arguably the most common kayak transportation method because you can mount a roof rack on nearly any vehicle.

To efficiently transport a kayak on the roof of your car, you’ll need to have a properly installed roof rack and a set of crossbars. While some vehicles come with factory roof racks and crossbars, many do not. So, be sure to get the right rack and crossbars for your car.

Besides a roof rack, crossbars, and a method for tying down your kayak (more on that soon), you’ll need either a set of foam blocks for padding or a purpose-built kayak rack system.

Foam blocks are easily the more affordable option, though they can be a bit finicky. 

Meanwhile, there are many different types of kayak roof racks out there for you to choose from. Kayak racks come in a range of different price points. For example, you can find simpler J-shaped models that cradle your boat or high-tech models that lower down to the ground for simplified boat loading.


a van towing several kayaks on a trailer

If you plan on transporting a large number of kayaks at once, a trailer is often the best bet. Since most roof racks can only hold one to two recreational kayaks, a trailer can provide all the storage space you need for paddling in a large group.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to transport your kayaks as well as extra equipment, such as bikes, a trailer might provide you with more storage space for your adventures.

These days, you can find many different kayak trailers on the market, some of which can accommodate as many as fifteen kayaks at once. However, the majority of trailers will carry anywhere from two to six kayaks.

The advantage of kayak trailers is that they’re generally easier to load since they’re located lower to the ground. 

Nevertheless, the downside to kayak trailers is that driving a trailer can be a bit of a hassle. Some locations also require special licenses for driving a trailer, so check your local laws before buying one. 

Pickup Truck Bed

2 kayaks strapped to the roof rack of a pickup truck

For anyone that owns a pickup truck, transporting your kayaks in the bed of your truck can be a solid choice.

If your truck bed is long enough to fit your kayaks, then you simply need to load your boat in the bed, strap the boat down, and hit the road.

Should your truck bed not be long enough to fit your kayak, though, you still have options. Some companies sell purpose-built truck bed kayak racks. These racks effectively extend the length of your bed by providing a secondary support point for your boats to the rear of your tailgate.

Do keep in mind that you must tie down your kayak to your truck, even if your kayak fits perfectly inside your truck’s bed. Driving around with an unsecured load (in this case, a kayak) is illegal in many places, and it can have severe consequences if your kayak were to fly out of your truck.

How to Load a Kayak on a Roof Rack

Whether you’re new to kayaking or you’re a seasoned paddler, putting a kayak on a roof rack can be tricky. Therefore, knowing how to load a kayak onto your vehicle is a skill that’s worth developing before your next trip. 

This section will introduce you to everything you need to know to properly load kayaks onto the roof rack of your car or truck.

What You’ll Need

Putting a kayak on a vehicle and preparing it for safe transportation requires having a few essential pieces of gear. These include:

  • Roof Racks & Crossbars – Properly transporting a kayak on the roof of your vehicle involves having a suitable set of roof racks and crossbars. Most crossbars and cars are strong enough to hold a kayak but check the maximum dynamic load rating of your vehicle and rack before getting started.
  • Kayak-Specific Rack or Foam Pads – In addition to the actual roof rack and crossbars on your vehicle, you’ll also need a place to mount your kayak. For some paddlers, a set of foam pads will do. However, others prefer to invest in a set of J- or V-shaped racks that cradle your kayak.
  • Kayak Lashing Straps – Kayak lashing straps are a must for boat transport. We’ll dive into the details of whether rope is a suitable replacement for tying down your kayak in a bit, but purpose-built kayak lashing straps are ideal.
  • Static Rope/Cord – Having rope or cord on hand to tie down your kayak’s bow and stern can help. This is particularly true when you’re heading out on a long road trip. Any low-stretch cord that’s smaller than about 8mm in diameter will work.
  • Cockpit Cover – A cockpit cover is an optional accessory, but it’s a solid choice if you’re traveling a long distance with your kayak. Quality cockpit covers will keep the inside of your kayak dry and free of debris during your travels.

Loading a Kayak by Yourself

Now that you have all the gear you need to load your kayak, it’s time to talk about the kayak loading process. 

While most folks prefer to get help from a friend when loading a kayak onto their vehicle, you may have to do so independently. So, having a good idea of how this works is very helpful.

The easiest way to load a kayak by yourself is as follows:

  1. Place your boat behind your car with the bow of the kayak facing the trunk of your vehicle.
  2. Pick up the bow of your kayak and place it on the rear part of your vehicle’s roof. If you are concerned about scratching your car or your kayak, consider placing a towel or blanket on your vehicle during the loading process for extra padding.
  3. Lift the stern of your kayak off the ground.
  4. Push your kayak forward and into place onto your vehicle’s roof rack.
  5. Tie-down and secure your kayak properly before hitting the road.

Warning: Loading a kayak on your own can be difficult. If you do not feel comfortable lifting a heavy object above your head on your own, please do not attempt to load a kayak by yourself.

Loading a Kayak with Two People

2 people loading a kayak on a roof rack

If you have the luxury of a second set of hands when loading your kayak, take advantage of your good fortune. It’s substantially easier to load a kayak with two people than on your own. So, this is the preferred loading method for the majority of paddlers.

To load a kayak with two people, do the following:

  1. Place your kayak on the ground on one side of your vehicle so that your boat is parallel to your car.
  2. Have one person stand at each end of the kayak
  3. Confirm that you and your partner are both ready to lift your kayak.
  4. Each person should grab the hull of their end of the kayak and lift it with their legs to bring it up to torso height.
  5. Check-in with your partner to ensure that you’re ready to lift your kayak onto the roof of your car.
  6. Lift the kayak overhead and place it down in position on your roof rack
  7. Tie-down your kayak and secure it properly to your vehicle before getting on the road.

When loading a kayak with a partner, communication is critical. Be sure that everyone is in complete control of your kayak at all times so that you don’t accidentally drop it, damage your car, or hurt yourself in the process.

Loading Multiple Kayaks

If you’re looking to transport multiple kayaks at once, you have several options for loading them onto your roof rack. However, not all of these options will work for every vehicle, roof rack, and type of kayak, so it’s important that you find an appropriate solution for your situation.

The simplest option for sea kayaks and recreational kayaks is to invest in two sets of J-shaped kayak roof racks. These J-shaped racks place your boats mostly on their sides so that you have enough room to transport two kayaks at once.

Alternatively, people looking to transport small recreational kayaks or whitewater kayaks can use a type of high-capacity roof rack called a stacker bar. These bars are designed to store your kayaks directly on their sides, maximizing the amount of space on your roof rack and allowing you to transport up to four kayaks at once.

Once you find a solution that works for you, the actual loading process of getting the kayaks on your car isn’t any different from loading a single kayak. Do remember, though, that you’ll need a separate set of straps for tying down each kayak on your roof.

How to Tie Down a Kayak

As soon as your kayak is on your car, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to attach it to your vehicle. 

While we can’t speak to the specifics of every single roof rack system on the market, most kayaks can be tied down using the same guiding principles. So, here’s a quick run-through of how to tie down a kayak onto a standard roof rack using kayak straps:

  1. Ensure that your kayak is well-balanced on your vehicle. Your kayak should be able to sit comfortably on your car without sliding in any direction.
  2. Pass the buckle end of your kayak ratchet strap over your boat and position it so that it rests on the side just a few inches away from your crossbar.
  3. Throw the other end of your kayak straps (not the part with the metal buckle) over your kayak, and then walk around to the other side of your car.
  4. Thread the kayak strap under the crossbar.
  5. Throw the kayak strap back over your kayak and walk around to the other side of your car.
  6. Thread the kayak strap under the crossbar.
  7. Insert the strap through the metal camming device. Pull down on the strap to cinch the kayak into place. Tighten the straps until your kayak is snug but take care not to over tighten, which can damage your kayak.
  8. Repeat steps 1–7 for the other crossbar on your roof rack.
  9. Test the integrity of your steps by attempting to wiggle your kayak from side to side and from front to back.
  10. If your kayak is secure, wrap any excess strap webbing around the nearest crossbar and tie it off in a knot to stop it from flapping around in the wind.

In addition to using kayak straps to tie down your boat, we also highly recommend that you use rope to secure the bow and stern of your kayak to your vehicle.

Doing so involves looping your rope around a secure point at the front and back of your vehicle, such as a metal tow hook. Once the rope is attached to a secure point on your car, you can thread it through the carry handle of your kayak. 

Tighten the line back onto itself using a trucker’s hitch or a similar knot until it is reasonably snug (don’t overtighten). Tie off any excess line.

Straps vs. Ropes

When transporting kayaks, proper kayak lashing straps with a built-in camming device are considered the gold standard. These ratchet straps make tying down your kayak as straightforward as possible, and they are reliable enough for use on long road trips.

But kayak straps can be somewhat pricey, so many folks wonder if they can use rope instead.

While we’re not going to say that you should never use rope for tying down your kayak, we would highly discourage you from doing so whenever possible. 

It is much harder to securely attach a kayak to a vehicle when using regular rope than it is with ratchet straps. The comparatively thin diameter of rope is also more likely to damage your kayak on longer drives. Plus, kayak straps are much easier to use, so they’ll save you time in the long run.

There is one situation where ropes are helpful, though: when tying down the bow and stern of your kayak. For this purpose, some moderately thick rope (less than 8mm in diameter) is perfect.

How to Transport a Kayak Without a Roof Rack

So far, we’ve spent a whole lot of time talking about kayak roof racks and the like. But, we don’t want you to think that you’re required to have a roof rack in order to transport a kayak.

While we would highly recommend considering a roof rack because they are much less hassle in the long term, there are ways to transport a kayak on a car without one. Here’s what you need to know.

Foam Blocks

Remember those foam blocks we mentioned earlier in our discussion about transporting kayaks directly on crossbars? Well, you can use those foam blocks on their own for kayak transport, even if you don’t have a roof rack or a set of crossbars.

To use this method, you’ll need at least two foam blocks, a set of kayak lashing straps, and rope for tying down your bow and stern. Then, do the following:

  1. Place the foam blocks on your vehicle’s roof.
  2. Load your kayak onto the blocks.
  3. Tie your kayak to your vehicle using your kayak straps. 
  4. Tie-down the bow and stern of your kayak using your rope to stop your boat from shifting as you drive.

Inflatable Roof Racks

Inflatable roof racks are essentially a high-tech alternative to foam blocks. These racks strap down to the roof of your vehicle (even if you don’t have a factory rack or crossbars) for maximum convenience. 

Then, when it’s time to transport a kayak, you can inflate the racks to serve as padding under your boat. Afterward, you can load your kayak onto the rack, just like you would if you had foam blocks.

Once your kayak is on your vehicle, you can tie it down using your lashing straps. Do note that you will almost always need to tie down your kayak’s bow and stern when using inflatable roof racks. But check the rack manufacturer’s instructions for more detailed guidance on how to load a kayak using inflatable roof racks.

Read Article: Best Kayak Racks for Cars Without Rails