How To Haul A Kayak – A Practical Guide To Kayak Transport

A lucky few may live right next to a river, lake, or ocean. However, most of us are stuck with figuring out how to haul a kayak from our home to our kayaking destination. 

That’s where this how-to guide comes in: 

I put together a list of go-to methods for transporting kayaks, complete with tips on loading and securing your boat without too much hassle. 

Continue reading to learn how to get your kayak to the water – and back – in an efficient, convenient, and reliable manner! 

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How To Haul A Kayak 101: 3+ Common Methods Of Transporting Kayaks 

There’s more than one answer to how to transport a kayak. When it comes to transporting kayaks over longer distances, three methods come to mind – some generally better than others. 

1. Truck Bed 

Two kayaks being hauled in pick-up truck

A pickup truck is, hands down, the most convenient means of kayak transportation, and if you drive one, you’re in luck: 

You won’t have to make modifications to your vehicle to turn it into a kayak-mobile, and you won’t have to buy any additional towing equipment, either. Depending on the size of your truck’s bed, you might fit two or more kayaks in there as is – no trailer needed. 

Pop the tailgate open, slide the kayak in, secure it – running the ratchet straps through the handles and back to the truck will do – and you’re ready to hit the road. 

I told you that it’s going to be super straightforward and convenient, didn’t I? 

You have two options when using the truck bed: 

One is to leave the tailgate open, with the kayak lying flat, and the other is to lift the end, latch the tailgate, and let the kayak rest on it. Either way is acceptable, and it mostly depends on the length of your ‘yak, but if there’s a significant overhang, attach a red flag for better visibility

Bonus Tip: 

If you’re transporting a long or heavy kayak, you might want to invest in a truck bed extender. It hooks up to your pickup truck’s hitch and provides more support and stability to the part of the kayak that overhangs the truck bed.

2. Kayak Roof Rack System

kayak rack system -Four red and green colored full size kayaks loaded on top of an SUV car using a combination of tie down straps and roof mounted cross bars.

The upside of transporting kayaks on a roof rack system is that it keeps your boat up on top of your car and out of the way, but it’s not without its issues: 

Not all vehicles have roof rack systems pre-installed, meaning you’ll have to make permanent modifications to the roof of your vehicle to fit an aftermarket system. What’s more, if your car is on the smaller side, the kayak’s stability might be compromised.

I’m not saying that you should dismiss roof rack kayak transportation altogether. It’s certainly an option – and a common one at that. 

But before you decide whether this method is right for you, it’s essential to go over how roof racks – both factory-installed and aftermarket – work first. 

The two critical pieces of hardware you’ll need for the up-on-the-roof approach are: 

  • Side Rails – Two metal bars that run along the length of your car’s roof on each side
  • Crossbars – A set of railings that run across the width of your car’s roof and typically attach to the existing side rails 

These two act as the base of your kayak-hauling system, allowing you to fit additional rack accessories for securing the boat during transportation. 

Here are the three most popular options: 

  • J-Style Racks – J-cradles, which got their name from the J-shape design, are considered the most popular type of kayak roof racks. J-style kayak racks are side-loading racks, meaning that they support the boat at a 45-degree angle. 
  • Saddles – These padded platforms extend from the roof rack and support the hull’s bottom, allowing you to transport kayak in a horizontal position. You can also replace the rear saddles with a set of rollers to make loading easier. 
  • Stackers – Stackers act as vertical kayak racks and are designed for arranging your kayaks – yes, more than one – in an upright position. The kayaks sit on their side, rather than flat, making stackers a more space-efficient solution.  

If your car isn’t suitable to support an aftermarket kayak roof rack system, or maybe you don’t want a rack permanently fitted to the car, or need an inexpensive and temporary rack system then don’t panic – we’ve an ingenious way to transport a kayak without a roof rack.  

All you need are; a some pool noodles or foam blocks and a set of ratchet strap

Oh and our how-to guide; How To Transport A Kayak Without A Roof Rack?

One last thing before we move on, if you are in the US it’s a good idea to double-check with your local DMV to make sure a roof rack isn’t an unlawful modification for your type of vehicle.

3. Kayak Trailer 

Kayaks on the trailer with eight canoes, kayaks by car delivered to the river

If you drive a pickup, the truck’s bed is an obvious solution to transport kayak from point A to point B. For everything else – SUVs, Sedans, and other types of vehicles – you have different styles of pre-installed and aftermarket roof racks. 

Let’s think outside the box, though: 

How about you skip putting your kayaks up on the roof altogether and use a kayak trailer, instead? 

A kayak trailer is an overall outstanding option for transporting your kayak – and one that offers ease of use and versatility that no other method of kayak transportation does. It’s designed and optimized for hauling kayaks, after all! 

What’s more, kayak trailers are often pre-equipped with crossbars and ratchet straps and compatible with various aftermarket accessories. 

Sure, it isn’t the most budget-friendly option – but kayak trailers comes with quite a few notable benefits, including: 

  • You don’t have to lift relatively hefty kayaks on the car’s roof, making loading and unloading easier. 
  • There’s less risk of scratching or denting your car. 
  • It doesn’t require you to make permanent modifications to your car. 
  • A kayak trailer can easily be switched from one car to another, rather than installing a roof rack on all of them.
  • They often have room for other gear in addition to kayaks and can be used for towing larger items.
  • Great option if you have more than one kayak to transport.
  • It frees up space on the roof for bikes, SUPs, or anything else you want to bring on your next adventure. 
  • You can use a trailer as kayak storage when it’s not in use – kayak transport and kayak storage all rolled into one.. 

The only real requirement for a kayak trailer is that your car is equipped with a tow hitch and capable of pulling light loads. 

4. Kayak Cart (But Only For Walking Distances) 

kayak on a cart

Getting the kayak from your home to the desired paddling destination is only part of the story. You still have to carry it from wherever you parked your car to the actual launch spot – and back. 

Now, there are typically two methods of how to transport your kayak to and from the water’s edge;: 

One is carrying the kayak on your shoulder or, better yet, sharing the load with a paddling buddy, so that you can both utilize the kayak’s carry handles. 

The other is dragging the kayak by lifting one end and then towing the boat across the ground. This approach can cause wear and tear, especially on gravel and pavement, so a replaceable skid plate is generally recommended. 

But what about a third, more convenient transport option, such as a kayak cart? 

It’s an incredible – not to mention practical – invention: 

Two wheels that slide beneath your kayak, transforming it into a lightweight, manually-towed trailer. 

It’s ideal for covering walking distances between your car and the water while bearing very little of the kayak’s actual weight. Plus, most can be assembled and disassembled quickly or boast a folding frame for maximum convenience.  They are especially a godsend for those with reduced mobility or bad knees.

I’d recommend sticking to relatively even ground, though; kayak carts aren’t suitable for rocky or rough terrains. 

How To Load A Kayak Onto A Roof Rack (With Or Without Help) 

Kayak weight - Two men carrying kayak outdoors

Carrying, lifting, and loading a kayak is a common concern most beginner paddlers face. You realize that heavy-lifting – before and after each paddling session – is part of the deal, and doubt starts creeping in: 

Will I even be able to carry the kayak by myself? How will I manage to load it onto the roof rack without any help? 

Yes, it’s going to seem impossible at first – but if you give it time and use the right loading technique, you’ll get there. 

I’ll go over two ways of loading a kayak on the roof rack – with and without help – so keep reading! 

If You’re Sharing The Load With Someone: Easy-Peasy

The good news is that having an extra pair of hands to help should make things a whole lot easier. You know what they say: 

Teamwork makes the dream work. 

No matter how bulky and cumbersome the kayak is, two sets of hands will always do a much better job of lifting a kayak than a solo paddler would. 

Here’s a quick guide on how to do it: 

  • Carry the kayak to your vehicle; you and your paddling partner should grab the handle on each end to share the load. 
  • Position the kayak next to – and parallel – to your car, with the bow turned toward the front. 
  • Grab the boat at each end, but this time, don’t grab the handles; hold it by the hull, instead. 
  • On a count of three, lift the kayak overhead. Never lift with your back to avoid injury and let your legs do the work. 
  • Gently slide the kayak down on the roof rack simultaneously or try resting one end on it and pivoting the other into place, depending on the type of frame installed. 

If You’re Doing It By Yourself: Tricky, But Doable

Some paddlers prefer the company of friends and family, while others enjoy kayaking in solitude. I’m a little bit of both, so I had to learn how to load my kayak on the roof rack even when there’s no one around to help. 

If you’re anything like me, listen up – here’s how to load a kayak by yourself

  • Bring your kayak behind your car and turn it bottom-side down. Loading it upside-down could help minimize hull deformation during transport, but not all kayaks will fit the roof rack that way. 
  • If you’re worried about scratches and dents, now would be an excellent time to add protective padding to areas where the kayak might come in contact with your car. An old towel or blanket will do. 
  • Raise and lift the front end (the bow) of your kayak so that it rests on the rear crossbar. 
  • Pick up the other end (the stern) off the ground, pushing up and forward to slide onto the roof rack. 
  • Unless you’re transporting more than one kayak – or other gear – on the roof, make sure to center it on your car’s roof rack. 

Not everyone has the muscles to do this by themselves or wants to bother with all that heavy-lifting. 

Either way, a liftassisted system is worth considering: 

The load-bearing bars are part of the roof rack and slide down to your car’s side when needed. With the load-assist extended, you only have to lift your kayak to about three feet. The system then acts as a hydraulically-assisted lever that makes loading the boat more comfortable. 

How To Tie A Kayak To A Roof Rack & Stay Safe On The Go 

Kayak on kayak roof rack system, tired down with straps, bow and stern lines

Have you ever put your coffee on the car’s roof in a hurry and then drove off, forgetting that it’s there? 

Yeah, it happened to me, too. 

But unlike a spilled cup of coffee, a kayak flying off the roof of your car is a much bigger mishap – and one that could spell disaster. 

Knowing how to tie a kayak to a roof rack is crucial for the safety of everyone involved – you, your kayak, and others on the road. Yet, I’m often amazed (and I don’t mean that in a good way) by how many paddlers get it wrong.

That said, let’s go over the simple – but essential – steps of how to tie a kayak to a roof rack for safe transit

  • Loop the tag end of the ratchet strap beneath the crossbar. Then, hold the buckle end (or let it sit on the roof) and toss the tag end over the kayak to your car’s other side. 
  • Loop the tag end under the crossbar on the other side and throw it over your kayak again, going back to where you started. 
  • Bring the buckle at about 8 to 12 inches from the crossbar by pulling the tag end. 
  • Loop it once more, inset into the clip, and pull down to tighten. It should be tight enough to feel secure without causing damage or warping the hull. 
  • Repeat the same process with a second tie-down strap. 
  • Bundle up any excess strap to prevent it from flying around while you drive. 
  • Also, tie the bow and stern of your kayak down to prevent it from turning sideways. Tread the ratchet strap through the kayak’s front and rear handles and secure the ends to the built-in tow points on your car’s underside. 

I want to add a few extra safety tips while I’m at it: 

  • Don’t “Boat Up” In A Rush – I like to give myself enough time to secure everything correctly, and as overly cautious as that sounds, I recommend you do the same. Loading your kayak in a hurry is a surefire way not to reach your launch spot with everything in one piece. 
  • Use A Cockpit Cover – Opting to skip a cockpit cover when transporting your kayak could turn it into a fast-moving missile aimed at whoever’s driving behind you. These covers are relatively inexpensive and can even prevent debris from entering the cockpit. 
  • Use Bow and Stern Lines – Transporting a kayak on the roof of your vehicle is like adding an airplane wing to your car.  The force exerted as air moves over the kayak can cause it to move, twist or flex. This puts your pride and joy under immense stress and risks damaging your kayak.  You also run the risk of seeing you kayak bouncing down the road in your rear view mirror.  Most rack systems will come with bow and stern lines/ratchet straps – please use them.   
  • Check The Ratchet Straps Periodically – Check how your tie-down rig is holding up whenever you stop for fuel or stretching your legs. If something doesn’t feel secure, locate the weak link, and take care of it. It’s better to catch any loose knots early than to have your kayak slide off half an hour down the road. 
  • Hang A Red Caution Flag – Unless it’s a short model, the chances are that your kayak will overhang. Consider hanging a red flag – even a red rag will do – on the bow of the kayak to make the overhang visible. Depending on your state’s regulations, this may be more than a recommendation; it could be the law. 

Transporting Kayaks: Summing It Up 

If you came this far, you get the importance – and urgency – or learning how to haul a kayak safely and securely. You’ll have to put the plans to travel and explore new paddling locations with your kayak on hold until you do. 

Transporting – and especially loading – kayaks can be almost as exhausting as paddling itself, but you know what they say: 

Practice makes perfect! 

Your backyard or driveway is the perfect place to go over lifting, loading, and securing the kayak step by step. If the initial attempts don’t turn out quite as planned, don’t get discouraged. You’ll get it right in no time. 

And as always, remember to stay safe!