How to Carry a Kayak The Right Way

Kayaks effortlessly glide across the water, seemingly with the smallest effort. With a smooth stroke, a touring boat can glide on and on and on. But on land, kayaks aren’t so elegant. Actually, they can be downright awkward.

With a few tips and some practice, carrying a kayak won’t break your back. One person can maneuver a big boat with reasonable ease, and many people portage their kayaks regularly. You don’t have to be a weightlifter to pick a kayak up. The best lightweight kayaks are pretty easy to pick up but so the biggest challenge is maneuvering their bulky shapes in tight spaces.

Are Kayaks Heavy?

How much do kayaks weigh is a common question for first time buyers. The answer is all can affect a number of things like how you will end up storing and handling it. All this is related to the material that the kayak is built from. The lightest kayaks are easy to pick up, but they are also delicate. Lightweight carbon fiber or fiberglass hulls scratch easily on rocks or hard surfaces and, if dropped, they can crack. An average 15-foot composite boat like this weighs in at about 30-40 pounds.

Most rotomolded plastic boats are heavier but also much hardier. They can take bumps and scrapes that come from being dropped accidentally or banged against obstacles. The average 11-foot plastic boat weighs about 50-60 pounds.

As a general rule, you need to consider your boat’s weight before committing to a purchase. The boat shouldn’t be so heavy that you can’t move it on land. Awkward is one thing, but everyone needs to move theirs now and again. Think about where you’ll need to put your kayak and how far you might have to carry it. Do you need to lift it onto the roof of your car?

Carrying a Kayak on Your Own

If you’re alone, you must carry the kayak from the middle. Some models have handles built for this, but most require you to find a handhold somewhere on the cockpit coaming. Some trial and error will show where the boat balances best. When picking the boat up, lift the kayak’s weight with your knees, not your arms or back—it shouldn’t take much upper body strength. As you carry it more and more, you will get better at doing it.

Most boats are too wide to be carried like a suitcase, with your arm down. Instead, you’ll need to lift the handhold to shoulder level and carry the boat on its side, with your elbow bent. It takes a little practice, but it’s not difficult to do. If your kayak has a wide enough coaming that it will rest on your shoulder without you holding it, you can wear your lifejacket to give you some extra padding and let it rest on your shoulder comfortably.

An alternative option is to use a sling-style shoulder strap, like this example from Pelican. These help you lift the boat, placing the weight on your shoulder like a shoulder bag.

Regardless of how you carry it, maneuvering around obstacles takes a little practice. Most of us aren’t used to walking with six or eight feet of plastic sticking out in front of us, much less behind us too. You’ve got to plan your turns and move slowly to avoid bumping obstacles. Be extra cautious if it’s windy, which will make the kayak very difficult to hold up. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with putting it down to take a breather, either.

Carrying a Kayak with Two People

With two, you have the option of carrying the kayak from the bow and stern handles. You carry them at waist level, as you would with a briefcase. Generally, the forward person carries the boat behind them, and the rear person carries the boat in front of them. That way, everyone is walking while facing forward.

The advantage of having two people is that you could carry two light kayaks with one handle in each hand. Or, you can share the weight of one heavy kayak. You may want to take a close look at the kayak’s handles to ensure that they’re up to the task, though. Many handles can barely support the boat’s weight, so you should always carry it when it’s empty before you have loaded your gear.

Dragging Your Kayak

At first, it might seem that the most logical thing to do is to drag a heavy kayak behind you. But dragging your kayak is the absolute last resort. If you have a fiberglass, carbon, or kevlar boat, don’t drag it—ever. These materials scratch easily and can crack—they just aren’t built for that sort of handling. You will trash your boat.

You can drag plastic boats for short distances, but they will still get marked and scratched up if they grind against sand or rocks. Soft sand, mud, or grass shouldn’t pose problems. In the end, you’ll have to decide if a few marks are worth it or not.

Using Kayak Carts

A better option for moving a kayak a long distance is to invest in a kayak cart. These are two-wheeled carts that you set under the stern of your boat. You then grab the bow handle and pull the boat behind you.

There are several designs of carts–some kayaks even have wheels built into their sterns. Some work better than others, and it’s worth remembering that not all surfaces will work as kayak roadways. Soft sand beaches, for example, are one of the hardest surfaces to get wheels to spin on. Likewise, rocky shorelines or rough terrain don’t work well either.

You can buy carts with various sizes of wheels, and generally, the larger wheels will work better on most surfaces. Another thing to pay attention to is the quality and ease of attachment. There should be a strap to keep the kayak on the cart while you pull, and it needs to be easy to put on and off. It also needs to be secure because nothing is more annoying than having a cart that won’t stay attached.

Loading a Kayak Onto Your Car

It’s one thing to master carrying a heavy kayak around, but it’s quite another to manage to get it on and off a rooftop car rack by yourself. Tall SUVs and trucks pose even more challenging problems. Luckily, there are several solutions available from the leading roof rack manufacturers that can help. A small, inexpensive step stool can help a lot, too.

One method is to use a cradle system that incorporates rollers. You mount the rollers to the rear crossbar, and then you can maneuver the bow of your boat into the rollers. You can do this fairly quickly with one person. Lay the boat next to the car, then lift the bow into the rollers while the stern rests on the ground. You can protect the stern with a towel or mat on rough pavement. Finally, you pick up the stern and push it forward on the rollers until it is positioned correctly on the rack.

You can also use fancier systems, like the load-assist system from Yakima. There are several systems like this, and all provide some support that helps you get the kayak onto a taller vehicle.


Anyway, that’s about it for our tips for carry a kayak. Lifting and carrying your kayak may seem awkward and undoable at first. But once you get the basics of balancing it and where to hold it, almost anyone can tote their boat where ever they need to. Good luck!