How to Carry a Kayak by Yourself?

Elegantly carrying a sit-in kayak deserves a lifetime achievement award. Learning to carry it safely, without damage to body, boat, and buddy is possible within a short amount of time.

In this technique, I explain how to carry a sit-in kayak on the shoulder, as well as a sit-on-top kayak. No special equipment is required for this lift, although if you get a padded shoulder strap, it absorbs the weight of the boat better.

I carry my sit-on-top kayak everywhere on my shoulder: from the boathouse to the water, from the water to the car, and when I need to portage around a tricky water section on rivers. 

5 Steps to Lifting a Kayak on Your Own

First, practice lifting a kayak onto your shoulder. Start with the bow facing forward because it’s easier to lift. 

It’s much easier to lift smaller kayaks, so if you have a smaller kayak, it can be mastered within a few practice sessions. 

  1. Place the kayak on the ground with the boat’s bow pointing in the direction you’re moving towards.

Position the boat with the cockpit facing you; you will be lifting the kayak from the part of the cockpit closest to you. This is tricky in sit-on-top kayaks because they don’t have a cockpit rim that can be rested on your shoulder.

  1. While standing in a slightly forward lunge position, bend the knees to squat down slightly. Grab hold of the near edge of the cockpit. 
  1. Stand up, sliding the kayak upwards using your thigh as support. Remember to lift with the legs – not through the back.  

The kayak will now be sitting on your thigh.

TIP1: Lean back a little during the lift; I find it improves balance.

  1.  Reach over to the opposite side of the cockpit and pull it up onto your shoulder. If the bow is on your left, you’ll lift the kayak onto your right shoulder. If it’s on your right, you’ll lift it onto your left shoulder. Simultaneously, turn your body in the direction you are headed. 

The bow will now be facing away from your body.

TIP 2: Brace the inside of the cockpit area with your elbow to steady the sway of the kayak.

  1. The rim, also called the coaming, should rest on the shoulder.  You are now ready to walk on.

TIP 3:  Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) while carrying a kayak. The shoulder strap of the lifejacket makes it more comfortable to carry.

Expect the Unexpected When Learning to Carry a Kayak

The kayak’s weight does not behave as weights you lift in the gym. A kayak can behave somewhat unpredictably when carried due to the wind or the terrain being covered. 

Technique often trumps strength when it comes to picking up your kayak.     

1. Expect Uneven Weight Distribution Between Bow and Stern

Be mindful that the total weight of the kayak is often unevenly distributed around the seat area. 

In real terms, it simply means the heavier side will unexpectedly tilt towards the ground.  Sometimes the rudder, if it has one, makes contact with the dirt.  

Bracing the elbow in the cockpit area towards the bow of the vessel steadies the tilt.

2. Kayaks Are Unwieldy to Carry

Kayaks may glide gracefully on water just to morph into what feels like a cumbersome walrus on land. At first, piloting even slight changes of direction or obstacles feels like a feat.  

With a bow and stern reaching six to eight feet in front and behind, ordinary activities at the outset seem like intimidating hurdles. 

Due to the reach you have with a kayak on your shoulder, it’s imperative to be aware of every aspect within your environment. Knocking the kayak can cause damage to the craft, not to mention the object or person you scraped against. 

Inflatable kayaks are generally lighter boats, but even then, it often takes two people to carry them. If you’re alone, you can use a carry strap to help you hoist your boat. 

A carry strap has two straps that go around the middle of your kayak and usually have a padded shoulder strap. 

3. Don’t Put the Kayak Down Too Hard

Be attentive to how and where to place the kayak back on the ground. A carbon fiber or composite boat is not built to withstand impact.

Once lifted off your shoulder, the speed at which gravity wants to plonk the boat back onto the ground is somewhat surprising. Brace yourself, not just for surprise, but to avoid a potential strain.

Before setting the kayak down, check the area for any sharp objects that may accidentally puncture the hull. Always set the kayak down as lightly as possible.  

This comes quickly with some practice.

4. Bail Water

The likelihood of having water in the kayak after a paddle is high. Remove as much as possible before lifting the kayak because it will disturb the kayak’s balance point and make it harder to balance.

Lift the stern and bow alternatively by holding a grab handle. 

Kayak Cart and Roof-Rack Loading

If you know you have to lift and carry your kayak over longer distances, it’s a good idea to invest in a kayak cart. Kayak carts are two-wheeled attachments that work on the same basic principles of a wheelbarrow. 

They fit over one end of the vessel and allow you to wheel your boat to the water. The kayak cart carries the majority of the load, you just have to ensure that you secure the vessel well with stern tie downs so it doesn’t wobble off. 

Some carts have suction cups or straps for this reason. 

There are also different types of racks. A J-rack (or J-cradle) is shaped like the letter J and holds the kayak in place in its proper position on its side. 

This is a convenient accessory because it can fit onto your existing roof rack and can be used to carry more than one kayak. The only drawback is that you have to be able to lift the kayak over your head to put it on the rack, which can be difficult for one person to do, even with shorter boats, and especially with a heavy kayak. 

If you have to load two kayaks or more, you should opt for kayak stackers, which allow you to stack the kayaks alongside each other on a rack. Stackers are often used for touring kayaks, recreational kayaks, and whitewater kayaks.

If you usually paddle on your own, it makes sense that you don’t opt for the heavier kayaks. If it’s too late for that, you can benefit from investing in a roof rack system that actually lifts the boat onto the roof for you.

You can use something called a suction roller to easily get your kayak onto your roof rack. Some top-of-the-range racks have lift-assist. 

A lift-assist tool makes use of an arm rack that extends out to hoist your kayak up. Once the kayak is on the car, you can use cam straps to secure it.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What Gear Do I Need to Transport a Kayak Comfortably by Myself?

No special gear is needed when carrying kayaks. That said, equipment does exist that can make it easier, for instance

  • one-shoulder kayak carry straps;
  • carry straps that act as a yoke (most kayaks come with fitted handles but not all of them, but a carry strap is very useful); 
  • kayak carts;
  • roof racks; and
  • a cam strap.

Can a Kayak Be Pulled by the Grab Handles?

Dragging a kayak by a carry handle for anything but a few meters over smooth terrain is not recommended, particularly if it’s a fiberglass kayak or a composite kayak. They have more fragile hulls that can be scratched, cracked, or punctured by objects on the ground. 

It’s also not a good idea to drag an inflatable kayak along the ground; however, a plastic kayak can usually be dragged, as long as you’re dragging it on sand or grass and it has a skid plate to protect it.

Can Anyone Carry a Kayak?

Sit-in kayaks come in different lengths, weight ranges, and materials. Assess the weight of the kayak before attempting to carry it solo. 

Learning the correct technique to lift and carry the craft over a distance is certainly just as important as gauging if the weight can be safely lifted. For children, an inflatable kayak, or inflatable yak, is the better option.

Smaller adults and children should use a lighter kayak and attach a kayak carry strap to help them lift and carry their kayaks. And if you have back issues, it’s a good idea to invest in a lift-assist product.


Kayaking has become such a popular sport over the years, but transporting kayaks still remains challenging whether you’re a serious kayaker or you do it for purely recreational purposes. So, before you go on a kayak trip, you do need to assess your own physical limitations and determine whether you are strong enough to lift and carry your kayak on your own. 

You also need to learn the proper technique for carrying a kayak. To sum up, you lift it with your knees bent, and then flip it onto your shoulder and turn in the desired direction. 

If you make use of these tips above and maybe invest in a few tools to assist you along the way, you shouldn’t have any real problems carrying your kayak by yourself.