How To Carry A Kayak: Portage Rules You Must Follow

Keep paddling for long enough, and you’re going to – well, run out of water. It’s one of those inevitable things – a necessary evil, as some would put it – meaning you’ll have to learn how to carry a kayak eventually.

And to be quite frank now is as good a time to discuss all the joys – and horrors – of portaging as ever.

You’ll want to stick around for this one!

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What Is Portaging A Kayak & Why It’s Necessary

2 Kayakers Portaging A Kayak as the river bank

To paddle or to portage – who knew that would ever be the question, huh?

Yet, here we are, about to discuss what can only be described as a death march through the woods. I mean, what else would you call getting out of a perfectly good kayak, loading up all your gear – and the kayak itself – on your shoulders, and hitting the trail?

It does sound a bit like a crazy person’s hobby when you put it like that – but that’s portaging for you. 

It’s one of those necessary evils of kayaking that, despite your best efforts, can’t always be avoided.

Here are a few reasons why you might have to portage a kayak:

  • Getting the ‘yak from your car to the launch spot and back
  • Avoiding obstacles, nasty rapids, and otherwise dangerous parts of the river
  • Going around a low-head dam (you don’t want to mess with the so-called drowning machines)
  • Detouring around unnavigable waterways
  • Going from one lake to another
  • Avoiding crowds and leaving easily accessible spots behind for the sake of solitude and exploring the deep wilderness 

How To Make Carrying A Kayak Easier: Set Yourself Up For Portaging Success

two men carry a kayak

Portages rarely look like the ideal, hop-out-walk-hop-in scenario – not even close. That doesn’t mean that there’s no way to make the whole ordeal more manageable, though. 

A little planning and preparation make a big difference when you’re trying to portage a kayak! 

Tip #1: Always Plan Your Route

I’ve said this a million times; planning your route is a matter of safety. And ignoring safety is the one risk that we, as paddlers, can’t afford to take if we want to avoid possible injuries.

Check maps of kayaking locations near you. Look for potential obstacles on the water that could require you to portage a kayak, search out and pinpoint the exact entry and exit points, and plan your way around them.

How long is the portage? Is there a trail or road you can take? Are we talking off-road terrain or pavement? Will you have to go uphill?

You’re not exactly exploring uncharted waters on Mars, but it’s best to know where your paddling route will take you and what type of terrain and elevation to expect, nonetheless.

Tip #2: Walk The Route & Do Some Scouting

Maps are useful and all, but they might not have all the answers. Sometimes, there’s a washed-out trail or an unexpected obstacle blocking your way.

Scouting the portage – as in, walking the route without the kayak – is generally a smart move.

It will take a bit more time, sure.

But it beats carrying your kayak halfway along the route, only to find that it’s impossible to move forward – and that you have to go back to where you started.

Tip #3: Ditch The Hard-Shell & Get An Inflatable Kayak

The hard-shell vs inflatable debate is timeless and the lighter the kayak, the easier the portage; that part’s self-explanatory.

And what could be more lightweight and portable than an inflatable kayak?

If you plan on doing a lot of portaging, you might want to consider sending your hard-shell kayak into early retirement – and getting yourself an inflatable.

It’s a much better alternative than having to haul an 80-pound kayak – plus all the gear – every time you need to portage.

Failing that, downside and invest in a nibble, small lightweight kayak, which are great fun for river running.

Tip #4: Add Handles (If Your Kayak Doesn’t Have Any)

There’s a reason why I always advise you to make sure a kayak has pre-installed handles; they’re convenient and make the whole ordeal easier.

Most kayaks will come fitted with carrying handles, be it molded-in or rubberized ones – but there will be some exceptions.

If you happened to overlook this feature, do yourself a favor and upgrade your kayak with a quality set of aftermarket carry handles.

Tip #5: Get Yourself A Proper Carry Strap

Yes, kayak carry straps are a thing – and no, it’s not the same as grab handles. You’re going to need one of these shoulder straps if you plan on hitting longer trails and need to free up your hands.

On that note, you might want to check out Pelican’s Universal SUP & Kayak Sling.

The strap loops around the bow and stern to allow you to carry the ‘yak at your side – much like you would a surfboard – and features a padded strap for comfort. 

Tip #6: Install A Skid Plate

A skid plate won’t make the portage easier – but it will offer some protection if you can’t avoid dragging the kayak from point A to point B. 

I’m not the biggest fan of dragging, but I know sometimes you don’t have a choice, especially when you’re stuck with a massive kayak. 

So, if that’s the route you must go, I highly recommend fitting your ‘yak with a skid plate.

What’s The Best Way To Carry A Kayak? 

carrying your kayak guide

Method #1: Carrying The Kayak (Or Two)

I figured we should get the most physically demanding method of carrying a kayak out of the way first. Once you master this one, the rest will come easy. 

So, how do you carry a kayak? 

Well, the answer depends on the size and type of your kayak – and how much it weighs

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide that works for most smaller-sized kayaks:

  • Place the kayak on the ground, directly in front of you; the bow should be pointing in the direction you’re headed.
  • Bend your knees to squat down slightly and grab the side of the hull near the seating area.
  • Stand up, sliding the kayak onto your thighs. Remember to lift with your legs – not your back.
  • You might have to lean back slightly as you lift the kayak to improve your balance.
  • Reach over to the opposite side of the cockpit and pull it up onto your shoulder. Turn your body in the direction you’re headed as you raise the kayak.
  • The rim should rest on your shoulder.  

Maintain a relatively slow pace, watch your footing, and remember to take breaks; portage shouldn’t be a race. 

If you have a tandem kayak, sharing the weight between two people – with each paddler grabbing one end of the kayak – is the way to go. 

And what if you need to carry two kayaks?

Well, the easiest way is to partner up with a fellow paddler, carrying both kayaks together – with each person taking responsibility for the same end on both kayaks.

But for the most part, it works similarly to carrying a tandem:

  • Line up the kayaks next to each other on the ground and make sure both are pointing bow-forward.
  • Both paddlers should stand in between the kayaks, facing in the direction they’re headed.
  • One person will be in charge of the rear handles, carrying one in each hand. The other should grab the handles at the bow in the same manner. 

Method #2: Using A Kayak Cart

If you have a long portage ahead of you, use a kayak cart – a manually-towed, two-wheeled trailer, often with a folding frame, designed specifically for hauling your boat.

The two wheels slide underneath your kayak, bearing some of the load and making the trip a little easier.

Seriously, what could be more convenient than wheeling your kayak?

You have two options here:

  • Strap-style kayak carts, with a padded platform and straps for securing the kayak
  • Plug-style kayak carts that slot into the kayak’s scupper holes

Ensure the terrain isn’t too rough, though – otherwise, the cart will be pretty much useless.

Method #3: Dragging The Kayak (NOT Recommended)

Dragging your kayak across the ground sounds like a great low-effort way to get it to the put-in spot, right?

Wrong.

It’s arguably the worst possible way to “carry” your kayak to the water – and will inevitably damage the hull.

You might be able pull this option off if you have a plastic kayak with a skid plate installed. But even then, you should only attempt this if the terrain is sandy or grass-covered.

As for fiberglass or composite kayaks – don’t even bother trying. You can expect to reach your destination with a fresh new hole in the hull.

I get that portaging isn’t exactly a walk in the park. But it’s still better to suck it up than to end up buying a new kayak.

Bonus Advice: How To Load And Unload A Kayak By Yourself 

Car with kayak on roof rack

Unless you plan to grow an extra pair of hands for the occasion – in which case, I’d like to see a picture – I strongly suggest you learn to do this on your own. 

Your technique lesson on how to load and unload a kayak by yourself starts now:

  • Take the kayak behind your car or vehicle and turn it upside-down to minimize hull deformation.
  • You can use a kayak carrier slider mat to protect any contact points between the kayak and the car.
  • Lift the kayak’s front end and rest it on the rear crossbar
  • Grab the stern of the kayak and lift it off the ground, moving it up and forward so that it slides onto the car’s roof rack system. Using a roller load-assist can make the loading – and unloading – a whole lot easier.
  • Make sure it’s centered and secure it with tie-downs or cam straps. 

Unloading the kayak will, for the most part, mean repeating everything you just did – but in reverse.

Top tip – some high-end rack systems are fitted with lift-assist.  An extendable rack arms which helps move your kayak up onto the roof, and back down again. Check out the Thule Hullavator Pro.

How To Carry A Kayak: A Quick Summary

In terms of how to carry a kayak – be it on your own or with a little assistance – you have several options:

  • Lifting the kayak up and onto your shoulder, which works best for smaller-sized, lighter kayaks  
  • Sharing the weight with a fellow paddler, especially when you’re carrying a longer, heavier kayak 
  • Using a kayak cart – as long as the terrain allows it
  • Dragging the kayak to the water, but only if it’s a plastic one and has a skid plate installed

Portaging is one of the very few things about kayaking that aren’t fun – but sometimes, you don’t have a choice. 

If anything, I hope this guide makes the on-land portion of your kayaking adventure as painless as possible!