How to Transport a Canoe: Cart, Trailer, or on Top of Your Car

How to Transport a Canoe

Early Western explorers used canoes almost exclusively for transporting themselves and cargo. Nowadays, figuring out how to transport the canoe itself, to and from where you’ll use it, is actually one of the biggest challenges to owning a canoe. Because many modern canoes are big, bulky, and in most cases, heavy.

How to transport a canoe? You can transport a canoe from picking it up and carrying it over your head to using specialized canoe trailers, canoe carts, and vehicle roof racks to transport a canoe from point A to point B with your car. Transporting a canoe can be as easy as putting it in the bed of a pickup truck.

There are many more options for transporting your canoe to and from the water. Read on and we’ll go through them.

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Canoe Transportation

Before you can go on that relaxing and peaceful canoeing trip, the first thing you’ll have to do is transport your canoe to the river or lake you’re going to paddle.

If you want your canoe to arrive in one piece or at all, one of the most important things to figure out is how to safely and securely transport it to your destination.  

Ropes/straps and tarps are essential for transporting your canoe to the water and then storing your canoe overnight. The ropes are used to keep the canoe from shifting around on the vehicle during transport. And afterward, they can be used to tie the canoe to a dock or secure it to the shore.

A good waterproof tarps can help keep the canoe dry on an overnight trip while it’s not in use. It can also protect your canoe from sun damage, scratches, and condensation while it’s not being transported.

There’s nothing more annoying than waking up in the morning and having to get all the condensation off the seat of your canoe before you can go paddling for the day.

Transporting a Canoe With a Vehicle

There are various ways to transport a canoe with a vehicle, so choosing the best one for you just depends on what vehicle you have and the modifications and accessories you’ll need to get you and your canoe to the destination as safely as possible. 

Pickup trucks with lumber racks are perfect for transporting long, heavy canoes. But if you only have a car, the best way to transport your canoe is to simply tie it down to your car’s roof or it’s built in roof rack. 

Roof racks are a great option to transport a canoe because then you don’t need a canoe trailer or car hitch to pull it. Also, on a roof rack there’s less chance of the canoe moving around if it has been properly tied down and secured.

Attaching the Canoe to a Roof Rack

If you own an SUV, a van, or even many crossovers or passenger cars, chances are your vehicle came with a roof rack built into to the top of it. If not, it’s not that difficult to put one on most vehicles.

Roof racks are usually two bars running along the outsides of your car’s roof with at least two cross supports between them.Roof racks allow for various things to be attached to your vehicle’s roof for transport to and from your destination.

When securing a canoe to a roof rack, be sure to use cam straps or another method for cinching and tightening the canoe down to the roof rack. Cam straps are ideal for this purpose because their design allows the user to manually ratchet the belts, tightening them to ensure the canoe doesn’t move while in transit.

Steps for attaching a canoe to a roof rack:

  1. Remove everything from the canoe – Make sure the canoe itself is entirely free of anything inside it—paddles, life vests, etc. You don’t want anything falling out of the canoe while you’re traveling down the road. It’s dangerous.
  2. Check your roof racks weight rating – Make sure your vehicle’s roof or roof rack can take on the canoe’s additional weight. You can do this by checking your vehicle’s user manual to see the maximum extra weight your vehicle’s roof rack supports. Once you’ve determined that the canoe is light enough, you can begin to attach it to your roof rack.
  3. Get help lifting the canoe onto the roof rack – Attaching the canoe to your roof rack is easier if you have help to lift the canoe onto the car. If you want to protect your canoe and your vehicle, you can place cloth or foam bricks in-between the canoe and the car’s roof to prevent any damage to the car or the canoe.
  4. Center the canoe side to side and front to back – You’ll want to center the canoe and balance it front to back on the crossbars so that it doesn’t tip forward or backward. Also, keep the canoe centered parallel and inline with the center of car as evenly as possible. Because if the canoe is tilted even a little off center, the wind from the drive can cause the canoe to pull to one side or the other while you’re driving. 
  5. Get the straps over the canoe – After you have the canoe balanced, take the cam strap’s non-buckle end, and toss it up and over the canoe to the driver’s side of the vehicle. 
  6. Wrap the strap around the canoe and the roof rack – Once you have the non-buckle side on the vehicle’s driver side, wrap the strap around the roof rack’s long sidebar and then thread it back to the passenger side of the car. 
  7. Tighten the straps – Slide the strap underneath the canoe and then through the buckle and begin to tighten it. You want to make sure both straps are evenly tightened.
  8. Tie off the loose straps ends – The last and final step is to ensure the loose ends of the straps don’t flap around in the wind. You should tie them off as well as you can and/or find a place to tuck them in to ensure they don’t fly out during transportation.

What if My Car Doesn’t Have a Roof Rack?

For some cars, roof racks can be an additional add-on after purchasing the vehicle; they usually range from $200-400, depending on the type of vehicle you have.

If your car didn’t come with roof racks or adding one isn’t in your budget, you can still attach your canoe to the roof of your vehicle with ropes to secure it. 

  1. Once again, take extra precaution and have another person help put the canoe on top of your car.
  2. When placing the canoe on top of your vehicle, be sure there are cloth or foam bricks between the canoe and the roof of your car to prevent any scratching or other damage to either the car or the canoe.
  3. The canoe should go, once again, centered on top and from the front to the back, making sure that most of the canoe’s weight is center-mass on the roof of your vehicle.
  4. The ropes for tying down the canoe should be tied around the canoe’s ends and then to the vehicle’s front and rear bumpers.
  5. You’ll want to tighten both straps evenly to ensure tightening one side over the other does not shift the weight balance of the canoe one way or the other.
  6. This is tricky, but you should tie (or use cam straps) to tighten the canoe to the roof of your vehicle by wrapping straps over the canoe and through open windows in your vehicle. (Alternatively, you can open your car doors and then secure the canoe with straps that run over the canoe and through the door openings, around the entire car roof and canoe. Shut your car doors carefully to avoid cutting the straps.)

Transporting With a Canoe Trailer

If you don’t have an SUV or larger vehicle with a roof rack and you don’t want to tie it down directly on the roof of your car, there’s another option for transporting your canoe. 

A canoe trailer is perfectly efficient and easy to move your canoe around. The trailer can hold one or potentially more canoes while attached to the back of your vehicle via a hitch system. A canoe trailer is like any boat trailer, just a little smaller in size.

Canoe trailers come in a variety of sizes. There are smaller options that can fit as few as one canoe, and bigger versions that can fit 8-10 canoes. Larger canoe trailers might also have extra storage space built in to store oars or paddles or other safety gear. The multi-canoe trailers allow you to stack canoes in order to transport more of them. 

Loading and Attaching a Canoe Trailer to Vehicles

When transporting a canoe using the canoe trailer, the trailer hitch needs to be properly secured to the vehicle and then the hitch’s trailer ball needs to be properly secured to the tongue of the trailer.

Canoe Trailer Hitch

Also, attach your trailer via the hitch to your vehicle before you attempt to load the canoe. If you don’t, you’ll be trying to connect the trailer fully loaded, which can be heavy and difficult. But more importantly, as you load the trailer the tongue may flip up and hit someone.

When loading a canoe trailer, be sure to have another person help put the canoe(s) on the trailer. For the most part, canoe trailers will have special slots or holders that the canoes can fit into. If not, then securing the canoes with ropes or cam straps is a must.

Note: Before you put a canoe trailer on a vehicle, make sure your car has a hitch on it and that the weight the vehicle can tow is greater than the size of the load the vehicle will be towing. If you are unsure of what type of hitch you have on the back of your vehicle (there are five different classes of hitches), has a great list of the various hitches available.

Canoe Trailer Wiring

Along with making sure the hitch is connected fully, be sure the trailer wiring is also hooked up properly. The wiring should be easily attached to the vehicle by way of a plug adapter. Most vehicles have the necessary wiring attachments in the rear of the car near the hitch receiver. If not, you’ll have to get your vehicle wired for a trailer. 

Trailer wiring is essential because it connects the brake lights, turn signal lights, and the reverse lights on the trailer to those of the vehicle. This means that when the vehicle’s lights come on for braking, the use of a turn signal, or going in reverse, the lights on the trailer will also come on, coinciding with the lights of the vehicle.

This is not only for safety reasons but also necessary to legally tow a trailer.

Where to Buy a Canoe Trailer?

These kinds of trailers are relatively easy to find. For the most part, large outdoor retailers like Cabelas, REI, or West Marine carry canoe trailers, and there are many online retailers that will ship canoe trailers right to your door.

Along with those retailers, Amazon is a great place to compare different brands and sizes to determine which trailer is right for you and your vehicle.

Be sure to find the correct sized trailer to fit your vehicle and use the matching sized trailer ball to the canoe trailer’s tongue.

Amazon also has an excellent canoe packing kit that comes with essential items like ropes, clips, and foam blocks. These are needed when attaching the canoe to the top of a vehicle that doesn’t have a roof rack. There is even a carrying bag for storage of the canoe packing kit when not in use.

And if you don’t want to buy a new trailer, Craigslist is a great place to find used canoe trailers.

Transporting Canoes to the Water

Once you transport your canoe to your destination, either at a river or lake or at a marina parking lot, you’ll need to get your canoe into the water. While some canoes can be light enough to move from vehicle to water with ease, other canoes are more likely made from wood or heavy plastic material.

Especially if it’s a long way from your car to the shore, heavy canoes will require a little more than just pure strength, even for two people.

That being said, anytime you’re moving a canoe by hand, be sure you’re doing it correctly. Always carry heavy canoes with at least one other person; attempting to move a heavy canoe by yourself can injure you or a bystander, or you could cause damage to nearby vehicles or the canoe itself. 

When carrying the canoe, one way is to turn it upside down, put it on your shoulders, and move it using the inside of the canoe for grip. You will have to hold the canoe on your shoulders or above your head, though, to see where you are walking to not run into anything.

Canoe thwarts are the cross support parts of a canoe that are designed specifically to rest on your shoulders while carrying a canoe upside down over your head.

Canoe Dolly or Cart With Wheels

If you can’t move your canoe by yourself and don’t have help to carry it, there are other options. A canoe dolly or cart with wheels are similar in their design and their use—moving your canoe from point A to point B by yourself.

Canoe dollies and carts with wheels have a handle and wheels that make it easier to move canoes and other similar small boats. 

Depending on where you plan on taking your canoe, there are a few canoe carts you can choose from. Depending on the terrain you’ll have to cross to get to the shore, different types of canoe cart wheels are used. So if you have a rocky or tough surface, you should look for a cart with off-road tires.

There are also smoother, balloon-like tires that are ideal for surfaces like sand or pavement. There are also different length handles available. Obviously, finding the best length fit for your canoe length and comfort is ideal. 

Again the best and most readily available places to find canoe carts are at larger outdoor retailers like Bass Pro Shop or Dicks Sporting Goods. Along with those, Amazon is excellent for finding a large variety of selection in all sorts of sizes and options. 

When transporting canoes using canoe carts, be aware of your surroundings. Because a single person can pull these carts, there is greater chance of the canoe getting away from you and getting damaged or running into something and damaging it. 

Also, be sure that the canoe is correctly attached to the cart before transporting, especially across rough ground, where you might have to pull/push the cart.

Canoe Transport Wrap Up

Canoes are great for getting out on the water and enjoying the outdoors. But transporting your canoe from home to the water can be tricky, especially if you’re alone. 

A canoe rack on top of your car is one of the best methods to transport a canoe to and from the body of water you’re going to paddle. Always ensure your canoe is properly and securely attached to your car before transporting it.

When possible, carry your canoe with at least one other person to ensure your safety and to protect the canoe from damage. If you don’t have another person with you, a canoe cart or dolly with canoe wheels is great for moving canoes once you’re at your destination.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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