Though not difficult, it's important that you load and secure your kayak or canoe safely onto your car. Watch our video example for basic instruction, and read on for more details.

Kayak or Canoe Loading Tips

Basic 2-Person Procedure

  • Lay out the straps on your vehicle beforehand if applicable.
  • Place the kayak next to your vehicle.
  • Grab the kayak at each end and use a standard 2-person overhead lift (as shown in our video).
  • Once you've lifted it over your head, place the boat so it's directly above the rack, then set it down gently on whatever rack attachment you've mounted.
  • Reverse the procedure to unload it.

Solo Loading

  • Some kayak saddles feature rolling wheels, so the solo paddler can simply set the bow of the boat into the rear cradle, pick up the stern end and roll the kayak forward into the front cradle.
  • Integrated lift systems, such as the Thule Hullavator, do the heavy lifting for you and are the ultimate option for solo paddlers.

Tie-Down Strategies

Tie-Down Straps

Most mounting attachments come with the nylon straps necessary to secure your kayak. These straps feature self-locking cam buckles that are easy to use and quick to cinch down, providing excellent overall grip.

Straps typically will have some sort of padding directly underneath the buckle (where it contacts the kayak hull) to minimize hull damage during transport.

Tie off the extra length of strap directly above the buckle once it's been cinched tight. This adds security should the buckle release while you're driving.


Unless you're super-confident in your knot-tying ability, use nylon tie-down straps with cam-buckles. They are reliable and easy to use. If rope is all you have, make sure it's non-stretch and water-resistant. It should be "seasoned" (brand-new ropes tend to stretch), non-slick (slippery ropes tend to come untied) and non-elastic (even when pulled tight, elastic lines and bungee cords expand under pressure and can let go of a boat).

Basic Securing Procedures

No matter what type of tie-downs you use, follow these basic procedures whenever you secure your kayak to a roof rack.

  • Once your boat is on the rack, be sure to center it fore and aft.
  • Use at least 2 lines or straps to hold the body of your kayak in place. These lines should run across your car width-wise.
  • Secure both ends of the kayak to your vehicle's bumpers. There are bow/stern tie-down sets that feature easy-to-use ratcheting systems, or you can simply use a standard nylon tie-down strap.
  • If your vehicle and boat will be out-of-sight for a while, lock it to your rack. The ideal solution is to use a long cable lock designed for boaters.

Note: Avoid over-tightening any of the straps holding your kayak in place. Too much tension can deform plastic hulls and crack fiberglass.

Driving Tips

Pre-driving Check

Always make sure your boat is securely fastened to your rack before heading out. Check it occasionally throughout your drive. Road vibrations can cause straps to loosen slightly and some boats soften up when exposed to the heat of the sun.

To check your kayak, grab hold of either end of the boat and shake it from side to side. If the kayak is secure, the entire car should shift instead of just the boat. Inspect both bumper lines each time you check your boat.

On the Road

Drive cautiously. Kayaks can affect the handling of some cars in high winds or at high speeds, so keep your speed down.

Make sure your boat is centered on your vehicle properly so that it doesn't impair your view of the road. And always be mindful of your spacing between other cars if the ends of your kayak extend beyond the ends of your vehicle.

Shop REI's selection of canoe and kayak racks.

Contributor: Judy Moyer, REI Seattle store kayak specialist.