How To Lift and Carry a Kayak By Yourself (And Avoid Injury!)

Kayaking isn’t exactly a lightweight sport. If you’re short on height or muscle, or you’re carrying an injury, then lifting and carrying a heavy kayak may put you off getting out on the water.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

In this article, we’ll teach you how to carry a kayak by yourself or with a friend and talk about some tools and techniques to make transporting kayaks easier. 

Can I Carry a Kayak by Myself?

If you’re new to kayaking, you may wonder how you can transport and carry your kayak to the water’s edge by yourself. As a slightly-built woman who doesn’t have a lot of upper-body strength, I had the same concerns.

In most cases, physical strength isn’t a barrier to kayaking. If you worry about transporting your kayak, there are a couple of things you can do to it easier:

  • Opt for a lightweight kayak.
  • Opt for a kayak that’s short enough to fit in your vehicle (so you don’t have to load it onto a roof rack) or get an inflatable kayak. Alternatively, it may be possible to store your kayak close to the water’s edge (e.g. in a boat hut).
  • Find places to paddle that don’t require you to carry your kayak long distances.

Kayaking helps build your upper-body strength, and you may find that lifting and carrying your kayak becomes easier after a few months of practice.

That said, you need to work within your physical limitations. For example, I can carry a kayak short distances on my shoulder, but I can’t lift a kayak onto a roof rack single-handedly. I need to do more shoulder presses in the gym!

The good news is, there are tools you can use to make transporting your kayak easier. Scroll down to find out more.

First, let’s go over how to safely lift a kayak by yourself. You may find it easier than you think!

How Do You Lift a Kayak by Yourself?

If your kayaking buddy isn’t available, or you prefer the solitude of paddling alone, then you’ll have to carry all your kayaking gear by yourself. Before setting out, make sure you know how far you’ll need to carry your kayak to the water’s edge and what terrain you’ll be dealing with.

The technique you use for carrying your boat will depend on what type of kayak you have. Make sure you’ve removed everything from your kayak before lifting it. This is partly so your gear doesn’t end up scattered on the ground, but also because extra gear can affect the balance point of the kayak and make lifting harder.

How to Carry a Hardshell Sit-Inside Kayak

The easiest way to carry smaller kayaks is on your shoulder. Here’s how to lift and carry a sit-in kayak.

Step 1: Position your kayak on the ground with the bow pointing in the direction you want to go.

Step 2: Stand next to the cockpit, facing the kayak. If you want to carry the kayak on your left shoulder, the bow of the kayak should be to your right. If you want to carry it on your right shoulder, the bow should be to your left.

Step 3: Squat down and grab the cockpit rim. Roll the kayak onto its edge with the cockpit facing away from you. Don’t forget to keep your back straight!

Step 4: Straighten your legs, so the kayak slides up your legs. Bend your knees slightly, allowing the kayak to rest on your thighs.

Step 5: Reach across the cockpit with one or both hands and grasp the rim of the cockpit on the far side. Roll the kayak toward you and up onto your shoulder.

It’s important to keep your back straight and avoid twisting your upper body, as you could injure your back. If your kayak is too heavy for you to carry out this maneuver smoothly, then try a different method.

Step 6: Balance the kayak on your shoulder. You can place the hand inside the cockpit on the upper rim, to keep the boat from resting directly on your shoulder. Some kayakers prefer to wear a personal flotation device to give some extra padding between their shoulder and the kayak.

Step 7: To lower the kayak to the ground, reverse the process.

Tip! If you find it hard to rest your kayak on your thighs, you can lift it onto a box, bench, or log to help you get it onto your shoulder.

Check out this video for a visual demonstration of the technique: 

How to Carry a Hardshell Sit-on-Top Kayak

Sit-on-top kayaks are harder to carry on your own as they don’t have a cockpit rim to rest on your shoulder. It’s possible to carry some sit-on-top kayaks for short distances without assistance, but a carry strap or kayak cart will help for longer distances.

Most sit-on-tops are heavy. If you have a lighter kayak, then you may be able to carry it under your arm. For example, the Lifetime Lotus, an 8-foot kayak weighing 37 pounds, comes with a molded grab handle in the center of the kayak to help you carry it.

Here’s how to carry a sit-on-top kayak using the under-arm method.

Step 1: Position your kayak on the ground with the bow facing the direction you want to go. Stand at the balance point of your kayak (this is usually slightly back from the center). If you’re right-handed, stand to the left of the kayak (when facing the bow). If you’re left-handed, stand to the right of the kayak.

Step 2: Face across the kayak with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squat (keeping your back straight) and lift the kayak onto its side, so the top of the kayak is facing away from you.

Step 3: Keep one hand on the kayak to steady it while you turn to face the bow of the kayak.

Step 4: Slide your hand down the kayak until you find the grab handle. Keep your back straight and use your legs to stand upright.

Carrying a kayak using this method is hard work as the weight of the kayak is on your arm rather than resting on your shoulder. If you’re not sure you can manage it or you have a back injury, check out our guide on using carry straps or a kayak cart below.

Step 5: To lower the kayak, squat down until the kayak rests on the ground.

How to Carry an Inflatable Kayak

You can lift a sit-inside inflatable kayak using the same basic principles as for a hardshell sit-inside kayak.

Most inflatable kayaks have a sit-on-top design. As they’re lighter than hardshell sit-on-top kayaks, you can often carry them over your shoulder using a variation on the technique for hardshell sit-inside kayaks.

Here’s how you can lift and carry an inflatable yak.

Step 1: Inflate your kayak and make sure the bow is pointing in the direction you want to walk.

Step 2: Stand facing the kayak, around the middle of the boat. If you want to carry the kayak on your left shoulder, the bow of the kayak should be to your right. If you want to carry it on your right shoulder, the bow should be to your left.

Step 3: Squat and reach across the inflatable kayak to the tube on the opposite side. Place your hands under the tube where it meets the floor and rock the kayak up onto its side (so the top of the kayak is facing you).

Step 4: With both hands under the tube, straighten your legs to stand, bringing the kayak up with you. Remember to keep your back straight!

Step 5: Shift your position so that the inflatable tube rests on your shoulder. If need be, move the kayak forward or back to find the correct balance point.

Step 6: To lower your inflatable kayak, reverse the steps above.

How Do You Lift and Carry a Kayak with Two People?

Carrying a kayak between two people is much easier than carrying one on your own. If you’re new to kayaking, it’s worth getting a friend to help you with your kayak the first few times you go out, even if you plan to paddle on your own in the future.

Longer, heavier kayaks, such as tandems and some touring kayaks, require a two-person carry. This technique also allows you to carry a fully-laden kayak, as you don’t have to flip it on its side. 

The easiest way to lift and carry a kayak between two people is using the grab handles at the bow and stern of the kayak. Here’s how to transport a kayak using the two-person carry method.

Step 1: Have one person stand at the bow of the kayak and one at the stern.

Step 2: Both people should squat down and take hold of a grab handle.

Step 3: Stand up at the same time, using your legs rather than your arms to lift the kayak. You’ll need to communicate to keep the kayak steady when lifting.

Step 4: The person at the bow should go first and let the person at the stern know of any obstacles in your path.

Step 5: To lower the kayak, both squat down until the kayak reaches the floor. Keep your back straight and don’t drop the kayak!

You can also use this technique to carry two kayaks. If the kayaks aren’t too heavy, this can be easier as the weight is balanced on both sides of your body.

If your kayak doesn’t have grab handles, you can place your hand under the bow or stern to lift it. Or install your own heavy-duty handles.

You can also carry a kayak between two people on your shoulders. This may be more comfortable for longer distances.

Is It Bad to Drag a Kayak?

Some people will tell you never to drag a kayak. In an ideal world, I’d agree with them. In reality, if I have to move my kayak ten feet across the sand to the water’s edge, nine times out of ten, I’ll drag it.

That said, there are situations when you definitely shouldn’t drag a kayak.

Plastic kayaks are pretty robust, but boats with more fragile hulls can get easily damaged, even if you’re dragging them across a soft surface. You should never drag a composite or fiberglass kayak. High-quality inflatable kayaks are pretty robust, but I’d err on the side of caution, especially if there’s anything sharp in the vicinity.

I wouldn’t recommend dragging a kayak across concrete or rocky ground. Sand, grass, and dirt should be fine, though take it steady and keep an eye out for tree roots. If your kayak has a replaceable skid plate, this will help protect the keel.

To drag your kayak, bend your knees and pick your kayak up using the grab handle at the bow. Keep your arm straight, so your legs and core are doing the hard work.

Gear to Help You Lift and Carry a Kayak

If you’re worried about injuring yourself or you want to make life easier for yourself, there are some tools to help you carry a kayak by yourself.

How To Use a Kayak Carry Strap

Kayak carry straps are used to help you carry a sit-on-top kayak. They’re cheap, easy to use, and take up very little space in your vehicle.

Kayak carry straps are designed to fit either through the scupper holes in your kayak or around the kayak’s hull. An adjustable shoulder strap allows you to take the weight of the kayak on either shoulder.

A kayak carry strap can help you carry a sit-on-top kayak between your vehicle and the water, but it’s pretty awkward and uncomfortable to use. As the weight of the kayak is on one shoulder, it’s not great for your back either. If you’ll be carrying your kayak frequently, it’s worth investing in a kayak cart.

How To Use a Kayak Cart

Kayak carts are the easiest way of carrying kayaks by yourself. They’re a great option for even terrain, such as concrete, asphalt, or grassy shorelines. However, they aren’t suitable for rocky ground and they may get stuck in mud or sand.

A kayak cart is a two-wheeled device that works on a similar principle to a wheelbarrow. You strap your kayak to the cart and either pull it from the front or push it from the rear. It’s best to attach the cart around the balance point of the kayak.

You can use a kayak cart to transport a fully-loaded kayak. This is especially useful if your launch point is some distance from your vehicle and you don’t want to leave your gear unattended while you ferry things back and forth.

Kayak carts cost upward of $50. You can also make your own using the instructions in the tutorial below.

How To Use a Kayak Yoke

You use a kayak yoke to transport a kayak upside down on your shoulders. It’s essentially a wooden bar with a curve to accommodate your neck and padding for your shoulders.

Why would you want to use such a thing?

As crazy as it might sound, it’s the easiest way of transporting a kayak comfortably over long distances or on narrow paths, for example, if you’re portaging it between two spots on a river.

The yoke ensures the weight of the kayak is distributed evenly across your shoulders. It also raises the kayak so you can see where you’re going!

To use a kayak yoke, attach it to the cockpit of your kayak, then lift the kayak using the method outlined above. Once it’s on your shoulder, you can use both hands to lift it over your head.

How Do You Transport a Kayak with One Person?

The challenges of carrying a kayak may pale in comparison to the thought of loading your boat on top of your car. Don’t panic! You can transport your kayak on top of your car by yourself, though you may not have to…

Inside Your Vehicle

If you’re paddling solo, it’s much easier to transport your kayak inside your vehicle. The practicality of this will depend on what you drive, but smaller kayaks fit inside most trucks, vans, and large cars. Shorter boats are also easier to carry and maneuver on the water.

To load your kayak into your car, open the trunk and lift the bow of the kayak so it rests on the edge of the trunk. Then lift the stern and push the kayak forward, guiding it into the right position. You may want to place a towel or piece of old carpet on the lip of the trunk to protect it.

The other option is to buy an inflatable kayak. They’re a bit more hassle to pack away, but an inflatable kayak will fit inside almost any vehicle. They also take up less storage space—good news if you’re an apartment dweller or don’t have access to a garage.

On Top of Your Vehicle: How to Load and Unload a Kayak by Yourself

The simplest roof rack systems use factory-fitted roof bars. If your car doesn’t have roof bars, there are alternative systems available, but these might be more expensive.

There are roof rack loading systems that will load your kayak for you (for example, the Thule Hullavator), but they are expensive. Here are a couple of more affordable options.

How to Load a Kayak Using Rollers by Yourself

Kayak saddles and rollers are often used together to help solo paddlers load their kayaks. They fit on the crossbars of your roof rack—the saddle on the front and the roller on the back.

Position your kayak on the ground behind your vehicle. Place a piece of carpet or mat underneath it to protect the stern, then lift the front of the kayak and set it in the rollers. You can then lift the stern and slide the kayak forward until it’s resting on the saddle.

A cheaper option is to have two saddles and use a suction roller that attaches to the back window of your vehicle. This can make the kayak easier to load, but you need to be careful that it doesn’t slip off the roller.

How to Load a Kayak on a J-Rack by Yourself

J-racks attach to the crossbar on your roof rack system. They hold a kayak on its side, meaning you can transport two kayaks on top of a small car or SUV.

The downside is that you have to lift the kayaks on top of your vehicle. If there are two of you, you can lift the kayak and load it from the side of your vehicle.

If you’re on your own, an easier option is to load the kayak from the back, using a similar method to that described above. Lift the bow of the kayak and place it securely in the channel of your J-rack. Then lift the stern and push the kayak forward up while rotating it so it settles on its side in the J-racks.

How To Tie Down a Kayak

It goes without saying that you need to secure your kayak properly on the top of your vehicle. Before tying it down, center your kayak between the crossbars and make sure it’s running parallel to the car.

It’s best to use cam straps to tie down your kayak as they’re easy to tighten and undo. Simply run the cam straps over the kayak, and loop them under the crossbar on both sides before threading the strap through the buckle.

As well as tying your kayak to the roof rack, it’s also important to have bow and stern tie downs. Most rack failures occur when kayaks aren’t tied down at both ends—the consequences could be catastrophic. 

If you have a tall vehicle, a small step ladder can help you adjust the position of your kayak and tie it down.

Conclusion

I hope this tutorial has reassured you that anyone can carry a kayak by themselves. Using the proper technique will make lifting easier and help you avoid injury.

If you have any other tips for carrying a kayak by yourself, please post them in the comments!

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