How to Transport a Kayak: A Guide for Hassle-Free Travel

If you’ve paddled for decades (as every writer at Wave Gurus has), you’ve encountered plenty of stressful situations related to boat transportation. Since we’ve been through it all and tried every method available, we thought it would be helpful to put together an article on how to transport a kayak.

There are so many ways to do it and each has unique advantages and disadvantages. Let’s explore the options together and figure out which method is best for you!

Preparing for Transportation

The first thing you need to know is that prep work will go a long way when developing your ideal way to transport a kayak.

I learned early on that researching methods and inspecting my kayak thoroughly beforehand helped a lot when honing transportation strategies. 

Choosing the Right Kayak Transport Method

The two most popular methods are using a roof rack system or a kayak trailer. We’ve used and love both methods. 

Using a Roof Rack System

A tried-and-true solution. These systems consist of crossbars and supports that attach to the roof.

If you’re interested in this method, check to see if your vehicle already has built-in roof rails or crossbars. If not, you can easily purchase aftermarket roof racks designed for your specific make and model. 

Several popular roof rack brands have earned a reputation for their quality and reliability. Thule and Yakima, two industry giants, offer a wide range of versatile roof rack systems suitable for various vehicles and outdoor equipment. Rhino-Rack and Inno are also well-regarded for their durable and innovative designs.

For those seeking a budget-friendly option, SportRack and Malone provide excellent choices without compromising on performance. We recently published a review of the Malone Downloader, which is one of the better racks we’ve encountered in recent years.

It’s always good to buy something that will last, and these brands offer that. 

Using a Kayak Trailer

If you find lifting your kayak onto a roof rack cumbersome or have a smaller vehicle without a roof, a kayak trailer might be the perfect solution. 

Keep in mind that a kayak trailer might be more versatile if you need to transport multiple kayaks or have other outdoor gear to carry.

There are many popular kayak trailer manufacturers–these companies offer a diverse range of high-quality trailers designed to safely carry kayaks.

Ruff-Sport is known for its durable and reliable trailers, which are suitable for transporting multiple kayaks at once. Malone Auto Racks is another top player in the market, known for its sturdy and easy-to-use kayak trailers.

If you seek lightweight and portable options, Trailex is a reputable brand that offers aluminum kayak trailers. And Yakima is renowned for its versatile and multi-functional trailers.

For those seeking customization, Magneta Trailers offers personalized solutions to cater to specific transport needs. T-Rex, with its innovative designs, also provides unique and practical solutions for kayak enthusiasts.

Inspecting Your Kayak Prior to Transport

This is where you make sure your kayak is ready for the journey ahead. Carefully inspect it for any signs of damage and give it a thorough cleaning (if possible)–remove dirt, sand, and saltwater residue; use mild soap and water to clean the hull, deck, and cockpit. 

Gathering the Necessary Equipment

Here’s a list of essential items you’ll need for transporting your kayak:

Ratchet Straps or Tie-Downs

Choose high-quality straps with the appropriate weight capacity.

I prefer NRS tie-down straps (I’ve been using the same straps for many years) over ratchet straps because in my experience ratchet straps can sometimes damage the kayak, but only if you overtighten.

Bow and Stern Lines

These anchor your kayak to the front and back of your vehicle and typically feature hooks. 

Safety Flag

If your boat extends beyond the rear of your vehicle, attach a safety flag to prevent collisions.

Using a Roof Rack to Transport Your Kayak  

I’ve been using roof rack systems my entire paddling life, and believe me, one could write a book on this topic!

In this section, I’ll teach you how to attach your boat to a roof rack.


These systems provide anchor points to tie a kayak with ratchet straps to the top of your car. They (along with the straps) are the only thing keeping your kayak from taking flight on the highway, so be sure to pick the right one!

To read a review of one of our favorite rack systems, the Malone Downloader, click here!

Install a Roof Rack System On Your Vehicle

Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started:

Buy a Roof Rack 

Choose one that is reliable and compatible with your vehicle. Skip this step if your vehicle came with a rack.

Clean the Roof

Before installation, clean the roof of your car. 

How to transport a kayak

Position the Crossbars

Position the crossbars on the roof according to the manufacturer’s instructions. They should be spaced apart to accommodate the width of your boat.

Mount the Towers

Attach the towers to the crossbars securely. Check for proper alignment. Adjust if necessary.

Tighten the Towers

Use the appropriate tools to tighten the towers. Double-check their stability before proceeding.

Perform a Test

To make sure everything is properly installed and secure.

Load a Kayak Onto the Roof Rack

This process may differ slightly depending on whether you’re loading it solo or with the help of a friend.

Solo Loading

Set your kayak beside your vehicle with its bow facing the front. Lift it onto your shoulder, maintaining a firm grip on each side.

Position the kayak on the roof rack so that the cockpit aligns with the crossbars. Slide it forward until it is centered on the roof.

Loading with Help

Lifting a kayak with a buddy is much easier. Have your friend hold one end of the kayak while you position the other end on the roof rack.

Slide the kayak onto the roof together, keeping it centered and aligned with the crossbars.

Securing Your Kayak Properly Using Ratchet Straps

Ratchet straps provide a strong and reliable hold (if used properly) and preventing the kayak from shifting. Don’t skimp on these!

Attach Bow and Stern Lines

First thing: attach bow and stern lines to the front and back of your kayak. These lines provide additional stability and prevent any forward or backward movement.

Position the Straps

Place one ratchet strap over the front end of your kayak and another over the back end. Make sure they are placed on the kayak’s hull, not on the deck.

Thread and Tighten the Straps

Thread each strap through the corresponding crossbar and then back up through the kayak’s grab handles or securing points. Tighten them until the kayak is secure. (Note: there are many ways to accomplish this–YouTube is your friend!)

Pro Tip: Don’t tighten them to the point where they damage the kayak–this has happened to me twice and is best avoided! 

Check for Stability

If your boat feels loose, tighten the straps further until the kayak is stable.

How to Transport a Kayak Without a Roof Rack: Trailer Edition

We’re big fans of kayak trailers at Wave Gurus. We think they are much easier and more reliable than racks, but they’re only good for people who have the space to store them and will use them often. 

Advantages of Using a Kayak Trailer

Saves Time and Less Effort

A trailer allows you to load and unload much quicker than a roof rack. 

Transport Multiple Kayaks

If you’re heading out for a kayaking trip with friends or family, a larger kayak trailer provides the convenience of transporting two kayaks (or more) at once.

No Roof Rack Needed

For those who don’t have a roof rack system installed on their vehicle (or prefer not to use one), a kayak trailer offers an excellent alternative.

Convenient Storage

When you’re not using the trailer to carry a kayak, it can serve as a dedicated storage solution, keeping your watercraft safely stowed away.

Improved Gas Mileage

Compared to carrying kayaks on the roof of your vehicle, using a kayak trailer can lead to better gas mileage, as it reduces wind resistance.

Types of Kayak Trailers and Their Features

Kayak trailers come in various styles and sizes. Here are some common types of trailers and their features:

Single Kayak Trailers

These compact trailers are perfect for solo adventurers.

Multi-Kayak Trailers

Ideal for group trips, multi-kayak trailers can transport multiple kayaks and many accommodate up to four boats.

Kayak and Canoe Trailers

Some trailers carry both kayaks and canoes.

Folding Trailers

For those seeking space-saving solutions, folding kayak trailers can be ideal.

Off-Road Trailers

Designed with rugged terrains in mind, off-road kayak trailers are suitable for those who frequently explore remote locations.

Hitching the Trailer to Your Vehicle

Before hitting the road, make sure you’ve hitched your trailer to your vehicle correctly. 

Gather Necessary Equipment

You’ll need a hitch, ball mount, and safety chains to secure the kayak trailer to your vehicle. Make sure the hitch and ball mount are compatible with your vehicle’s towing capacity.

Position the Trailer

Align the trailer’s hitch coupling with the ball mount on your vehicle.

Attach the Hitch Coupling

Lower the trailer’s hitch coupling onto the ball mount.

Lock the Hitch Coupling

Secure the hitch by locking it in place using the appropriate locking mechanism.

Connect Safety Chains

Attach the safety chains from the trailer to your vehicle by crossing them underneath the hitch.

Test the Connection

To make sure it’s securely attached. 

Loading Your Kayak onto the Trailer

This part is pretty easy. Whether you’re loading solo or with assistance, all you need to do is get your kayak into the trailer and make sure it’s loaded properly according the manufacturer’s specifications. 

Transporting Kayaks Without Roof Racks Part II: Other Convenient Kayak Transport Options

There are a few other ways to move a kayak–we’ve used all of these at one time or another and they’re all good options. 

Buy a Kayak Cart

A kayak cart is one of my favorite kayak tools–it allows you to wheel your boat from location to location easily. All you have to do is place the cart under your boat, secure it with straps, and get moving!

Use a Truck Bed

If you have a pickup truck, you can easily transport your kayak by sliding it into the bed. Make sure the kayak is centered and properly secured with straps to prevent it from shifting during transport.

Also, check the clearance height if you plan to pass under bridges or tunnels. While driving, be mindful of the additional weight of the kayak in the truck bed. 

Use an Inflatable Roof Rack

Inflatable roof racks are an excellent alternative for vehicles without a roof rack system. They are portable and super easy to install. 


Overall, you want to prioritize safety and convenience when choosing a way to transport your kayak. Keep in mind your vehicle type, kayak type, and the frequency of your trips to make an informed decision.

Whether you’re a seasoned kayaker or a beginner, safe transport sets the foundation for a memorable adventure.

We’re confident you’ll find what works best for you!

How do I transport a kayak?

In various ways depending on your preference and resources. You can choose to load a kayak onto a roof rack, use a kayak carrier, or even carry it in a pickup bed. 

What is the best way to load a kayak onto a roof rack?

Start by positioning the kayak next to your vehicle. Lift one end of the kayak and place it onto the roof rack, then carefully lift the other end and slide it onto the rack. Use straps to secure your kayak in place.

Can I transport an inflatable kayak?

Yes, you can transport an inflatable kayak. Similar to a regular kayak, you can secure your inflatable kayak on a roof rack or deflate it before leaving, or use a kayak carrier designed for inflatables.

How can I carry a kayak without a roof rack?

You can use a soft roof rack or DIY roof rack. These options provide a temporary solution for transporting your kayak without the need for permanent installations.

How do I safely transport a kayak in my vehicle?

Place the kayak in your vehicle with the bow of the kayak facing towards the front. Use straps to secure it and prevent it from sliding or shifting during transportation.

How complicated is kayak transportation?

Kayak transportation can vary in complexity depending on the method you choose. Using a roof rack system or a kayak trailer can be straightforward and secure, especially if your vehicle is compatible and equipped for such methods. Transporting a kayak without a roof rack may require more effort and creativity.

Should I tie a kayak to my school bus?

Tying a kayak to a school bus is not recommended. School buses are not designed for kayak transportation, and attempting to do so can pose significant risks to both the kayak and other motorists. Always use transport systems designed for carrying kayaks on appropriate vehicles. And always follow local laws and regulations regarding transporting kayaks and other oversized items on public roads. Safety should be the top priority when transporting your kayak.

How do I secure my kayak to a roof rack?

Use high-quality straps to tie your kayak down. Make sure the straps are tight to prevent the kayak from shifting.

How do I transport a kayak that is too wide for my car’s roof rack?

Consider using a vertical kayak rack system. This allows you to transport the kayak in a vertical position, which can be more suitable for wider kayaks.

How should I position my kayak on a roof rack?

With the front facing forward and centered on the roof. This way the weight is evenly distributed and the risk of the kayak flying off during transport is minimized. 

After a heavy rain, how do you secure your kayak to a rack? Does it require extra steps?

Dry your kayak with a towel. Dry the rack and the top of your car. Consider using additional padding or towels to absorb any remaining moisture and provide extra cushioning between the kayak and the rack (but make sure everything is secure!). This prevents potential damage to the kayak’s hull caused by friction during travel.

What is the type of rack that allows you to carry a kayak in a horizontal position?

That’s a saddle rack. These consist of two padded saddles that cradle the kayak’s hull, providing excellent support and stability during transportation. The kayak rests on its bottom, and the saddles are adjustable to accommodate various kayak sizes.

Saddle racks are a popular choice for those who prefer to transport their kayaks horizontally. They are particularly useful for longer kayaks or boats with specialized hull designs.

I’ve heard that using a roof rack with a kayak can cause damage. Is that true?

Sure, improper use or inadequate padding on the rack can lead to potential damage. Without the right padding, the kayak’s hull may get scratched due to friction or pressure. Be sure to regularly inspect the rack and kayak for signs of wear and make necessary adjustments–this will help maintain a safe and secure transport system. Overall, it isn’t hard to transport your kayak on a rack without causing any harm to it–just make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Image Credits
Photo 1 by Happiness Without

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