(Last update July, 2016)
Once you have your kayak and essential gear you need a way to get it from your home to the water and back home again. There are several ways and products available to accomplish transporting kayaks and shuttling, depending on your vehicle.
First, no matter what method of transport you use realize that the force of moving air exerted on a boat can be tremendous. As the driver of a vehicle you are responsible for any damage done if your kayak takes off on its own, plus most damage to kayaks occurs during transport, loading and unloading – not on the water. So making sure your kayak is solidly attached to your vehicle during transport is important. Make sure you have at least 3 tie-down points, preferably 4 points. Two straps across the hull to hold it from rolling side to side, and bow and stern tie-downs to keep it from shifting front to back and lifting into the air. We’ve seen a lot of boats on the highway without bow and stern tie-downs, trying to “take off” or shifting when the car makes an abrupt stop. This can lead to loosening of the cross-over straps and/or damage to the kayak. With good reason, in many states bow and stern tie-downs are required by law, in all states they are a good safety precaution. Also, remember to add a red or orange safety flag to the stern of the boat if it extends beyond your rear bumper.
If you have a pickup truck and a relatively short kayak (up to about 12 feet depending on bed length), you’ve got it made! Simply let down the tailgate, load the boat into the bed, tie it down and take off. In determining whether you can safely carry your kayak in the bed, make sure the cockpit has supported so over half of the kayak lies in the bed. If you load the kayak at an angle (possible for a single kayak), make sure it does not extend beyond the sides of your truck. If your kayak is longer or your bed shorter you will probably want to get a bed extender. These handy-dandy and inexpensive racks fit into your rear hitch receiver and provide support for longer loads. Keeping the load at waist-level also makes loading and unloading easy on the body and with some ingenuity can be done by one person. Bed extenders can also be used in a vertical position for cab-top loading which leaves your bed free for hauling gear and may also work with some van and SUVs.
Probably the next easiest in terms of loading and unloading, if not driving, is a small trailer. These can range from re-purposed utility trailers that you may already have or can pick up used to expensive custom jobs that can haul several kayaks. Our only recommendations regarding trailers are: the lighter the better, the bigger the wheels the better (at least 12 inch for highway driving), and take care of your wheel bearings. If you use the trailer a lot, have the wheel bearings checked at least once a year. Another advantage of a trailer is that you might be able to use it to store your kayaks, at least during the paddling season.
If you don’t have a pickup or trailer then you must rely on a roof rack of some kind.
Foam Blocks and Foam Sleeves
This is the least expensive and perhaps the most finicky since they require 2-3 people to get it right. But if you’re just getting started and need something temporarily while deciding what you want or you don’t go too frequently they will work. If your car has installed roof racks you can cover the rack with swim noodles or foam sleeves. If there are no racks, you can purchase a kit that includes foam blocks and straps. You place the blocks directly on the roof of the car, place the boat on top of the blocks and run the straps to clips at the windows or through the windows. Bow and stern tie-downs are a MUST when using this method.
Yakima and Thule are the leading rack manufacturers and they have all kinds of saddles for holding the kayaks and clips for attaching them to various racks. So the first thing you need to do is go to the Yakima and Thula websites and determine which saddles/racks will fit your specific vehicle. Yakima Boat Systems and Thule Watersport Carriers If you have factory-installed roof racks on your car you may be able to use them. If you do not you will have to purchase a base rack system. Then you can choose from a variety of saddles and carriers to hold your kayaks. BTW, you can also mount the racks and/or saddles on a trailer or the top of a camper. The Hullavator is probably the creme de la creme roof rack system and is great for high SUVs and vans. The cradle actually folds down to the side of the vehicle where you load your kayak at waist level, strap it down, then flip it up to the roof and lock down the rack.
Shuttle is the word used for getting you and your vehicle from the start (the put-in) to the end of your paddle (the take-out). It may seem obvious to some of you, but you would not believe how many questions we get about how this is done. So, at the risk of stating the obvious, we’ll go over several different ways you can accomplish this.
Ok, you are putting in at a boat launch at point A on a river, you’re going to paddle 10 miles downstream and then take out at another landing. So how do you set it up so your cars (or at least A car) is at your end point when you get there?
Using a shuttle service.
The easiest way is to use a shuttle service. For a fee, they will either
A) pick you up at the take-out where you will leave your cars, transport you and your kayaks to the put-in and you can then paddle back to your cars, or
B) meet you at the take-out at a pre-arranged time and transport you and your kayaks back to your vehicles that you left at the put-in, or
C) you unload at the put-in, drive your cars to the take-out, and the shuttle service drives only the drivers back to the put-in.
Which method you choose depends on a number of conditions such as distance, your schedule, how secure your vehicles will be at either end, etc. It’s usually best to ask, not tell, the shuttle service what the best way is, since they are usually going to know more about local conditions than you do.
Handling your own shuttle.
To set up your own shuttle you will need at least 2 forms of transport, even if one of those forms is a bicycle or your feet.
Our preferred method of setting up a shuttle is for everyone to meet at the put-in, unload all the boats and gear, then leaving one person with the yaks for security, drive as many cars as possible down to the take-out. At that point all the drivers pile into one car for the trip back to the put-in. At the end of the trip someone will need to get the driver and her/his kayak back to the put-in. The advantage of this method is that most of the vehicles are at the take out, ready and waiting to be loaded and most people can start home from there. Also, this is the best method for loosely organized trips when you aren’t absolutely certain how many people may show up and/or what types of vehicles are available for the shuttle. The big disadvantage is that you have to allow for an extra 1/2 hour or more (depending on distance) at the start of your trip to take care of the shuttle at a time when everyone is very anxious to get out and going and you need at least two cars and 3 people for it to work.
Another method is the reverse. Meet up at the take-out, load your kayaks and gear into as few vehicles as possible, then drive them to the put-in. The advantage is that it usually gets you on the water earlier but it transfers all the load/unload/load again time to the end of the trip when everyone is tired and just wants to get home or to a local restaurant for a meal and cold drink.
A variation on the above is that perhaps two people in two vehicles can meet up at the take out early and transport their kayaks and gear to the put-in, leaving one vehicle at the take-out to transport the all the drivers back at the end. The advantage of this method is that everyone gets going sooner and everyone can load their kayak and gear into their own vehicle at the end. Also, only one vehicle is left at the take-out – important if security at the take-out is an issue. Leaving one beat-up pickup truck at a remote access point is sometimes a better decision that a bunch of late model cars. The disadvantage is that only one car is available at the end and if you are not sure exactly how many are going to show up it might be a very tight squeeze getting all the drivers back to the put-in to retrieve their cars.
Another variation, and probably the only one if you are alone or are traveling all in one vehicle, is to use a bicycle. Unload at the put-in, drive the car to the take-out, ride the bike back to put-in and chain it to a post or tree. At the end of your trip you can pick up your bike. Or drop off the bike at the take-out on your way to the put in and do the bike ride at the end.
A bike can also be handy when it’s not recommended to leave a car at a particular put-in or take-out. On one trip we were warned not to leave a vehicle at our proposed take-out point due to repeated vandalism there. But we found a family-owned grocery store a couple miles away that was willing, for a small gratuity, to allow us to park a car there for three days. We left an old bike at the take out, hidden out of sight and chained to a tree, and at the end of the trip one of us rode the bike to the store to pick up the car.