Helpful Gear and Tips for Loading and Unloading Your Kayak

Loading and unloading your kayak can be a pain, especially if you have a heavy kayak or are just generally a smaller person. As a woman who likes to kayak solo, it can be a challenge to figure out how I’ll be transporting my kayak by myself, especially when it comes to how I’ll load and unload it from the car. 

There are some great techniques and gear to help you load and unload your kayak successfully, even if you’re doing it solo. These help you maneuver your kayak onto your car without too much of a challenge so you can focus on what’s really important – your paddling! 

Below we’ll explore some basic tips for loading and unloading your kayak without any gear before diving into some DIY and non-DIY gear options to help you transport that kayak successfully to the launch site.  

Kylia tying down a yellow kayak on a j roof rack with a blue cam strap. Loading and unloading a kayak solo

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and I may receive commission for purchases made through links in these post. All links are to products I highly recommend and have verified.

Loading and Unloading Your Kayak Unassisted - The No Gear Option

There are many reasons why a person needs to be able to load/unload their kayak without any extra gear. It could be because the loading gear is too expensive, or because you already have enough car-attachments and don’t want to add yet another one. No matter the reason, there are some no-gear options to help you load and unload your kayak without too much of a challenge. 

Hoist and Roll Option

The problem for most people, especially smaller people who are kayaking solo, is that the kayak is too heavy to load onto their car by themselves. And although it is more of a challenge, it isn’t impossible and you don’t need to just invest in a lightweight kayak (although this can be helpful if it’s in your price range). 

The main way people load and unload their kayak without any extra gear is to take the front of the kayak and prop it up on the roof of the car. You can do this from the back of the car, or the side of the car, whichever you find easier for your situation. 

Once the front is propped against the car, all you need to do is lift the bottom and slide it onto the roof. If you’re worried about scratching your kayak a simple towel should do the trick to slide the kayak onto the roof without scratches. 

And although this is a no gear section, pool noodles, or the Seattle Sports Suction Boat Roller Assist are inexpensive ways to help you roll that kayak onto your car without any fancy equipment. 

blue pelican kayak lifted onto the back of the gray Kia Soul to make it easier to load the kayak

How do I Load and Unload a Kayak From a J-Rack

I’m not going to lie, getting a kayak onto the roof of your car by yourself when there’s a J-Rack involved, is much harder. There are a lot of benefits to transporting kayaks via J-racks, but ease of loading solo is definitely not one of them. 

With that said, it’s not impossible. In fact, I actually transport my kayaks with a J-rack and am often kayaking solo. So, as a 5’4″ female, I’ve proven it can be done. 

How I load and unload my kayak resembles the method above – except that I don’t prop the kayak up on the back of the car. Instead, I open the front door closest to the J rack and prop the front of my kayak up on that door. From this position I lift the back of the kayak (yes, I do need a step stool for this) and use the front door as leverage to lift it up on the car and directly into the back J-rack. 

This technique takes a bit of practice, especially depending on how tall or strong you are. My first few attempts resulted in scratches on both my kayak and my car. So, if you want to avoid scratches at all cost, I recommend lining the side of your car (and car doors) with towels until you get the hang of the movement. 

blue pelican kayak resting on the open passenger car door of a gray Kia Soul. A method of loading a kayak

DIY Options for Kayak Loading and Unloading Assitance

Some of us are DIY people, and some of us would rather just buy something pre-made. For those who would rather go the DIY route you can build your own support system to help load your kayak onto your car

*If you’re not a DIY person, then skip this section and head directly to the next section, as we go over some pre-made kayak loading/unloading gear you can purchase instead. 

How to Build a DIY Kayak Loader Assist

For this project, all you need are two long PVC pipes, two metal brackets (to hook onto your car’s roof racks for stability), and two PVC tee pipes (for base stability). 

Essentially, the brackets go into one end of both PVC pipes, and these will hook onto the top of your car racks, while the PVC tee pipes fit into the other end of the PVC pipe. These provide stability so your pipes don’t slide on the ground or sink into the grass when your kayak is loaded. 

With these structures, you’ll have two pipes running directly from your roof rack to the ground. From here you load your kayak onto the bottom and slide it up to the top. Once it’s at the top you’ll just flip the kayak vertically into the j-racks (or whatever other rack you’re using). For this last part, it helps if you have a step stool available, especially if you’re shorter like me. 

If you’re more a visual person and my written explanation doesn’t make any sense you can check out this video which shows exactly what I’m talking about. 

Gear to Help You Load and Unload a Kayak

If you’re not a DIY person and just want something simple to help you load and unload your kayak I’ve rounded up the top four options and listed them below. 

But, before getting into them in more detail I do need to warn you that these devices do NOT come cheap. Some are more affordable than others, but they are still a luxury device and are priced that way. With that said, if you’re a frequent kayaker then investing in one of these is probably worth it. 

If you need more convincing, think about how many times you load/unload your kayak (4 times per trip!) If you multiply that by the number of times you kayak in a year and divide that by the price – you may find that the price per use value is very affordable and absolutely worth the investment. 

Thule Hullavator

The Thule Hullavator is the holy grail of kayak load assist gear. It’s most peoples first go-to for load assist gear, and because of that it’s been priced high. This will often run you upwards of $800 (whew, that value makes me sweat). But again, if you want the best of the best then the Thule Hullavator is the way to go. 

You use the Hullavator by actually loading your kayak on the side of your vehicle at around chest/stomach height level. It’s at this height you do all your strapping – including your bow/stern lines. Then once the kayak is all strapped in, the Thule uses assists for you to help you push it from the side of the car onto the roof. Once it’s fully on the roof, you lock in the racks and you’re all set. 

The Hullavator is (in my opinion), the easiest to use out of all of the options in the list, and one of the only ones where a step ladder is never needed, even for the shortest among us. 

black kayak rack with THULE written in white letters

Yakima Showdown

The Yakima Showdown is the Hullavators biggest competition, as it works essentially the same but can often be found $100-$200 cheaper. Like the Hullavator, this is a roof rack that lets your kayaks be loaded on the side of your car at chest height. 

Once they’re loaded and all tied down, you’ll lift the entire rack and slide it onto the top of the car. This step is where the Yakima doesn’t quite live up to the Hullavator. Compared to the Hullavator, it isn’t as easy to get the rack all the way up so you can slide the kayak onto the roof, especially if the kayak is on the heavier side. If you’re strong enough or have a step stool to assist, then this probably won’t be an issue and may be worth the slight discount. But if you’re fairly short and aren’t that strong, the Hullavator may be worth the expense. 

Malone Telos

Unlike the Hullavator, the Malone Telos is not it’s own kayak rack. Instead these are kayak assist bars. There are two metal bars that hook onto your cars roof rack and secure into the ground (much like the PVC DIY option discussed above). 

Once the two metal bars are secured, you’ll load your kayak onto the side of your vehicle (around chest/stomach height). Now, unlike the DIY option with PVC pipes, the Malone Telos allows you to slowly notch your kayak all the way up to the top of your car. What I mean by this is that the bars your kayak rests on can be moved up a few inches at a time. So, you’ll go back and forth to each bar slowly notching your kayak up until it gets to the top (see what I mean here). 

Now, when the kayak gets to the top you’ll need to flip it to slide it into whatever rack you’re using. For this step most people will need a step stool to help them. Once it’s loaded into the rack you’ll tie down your kayak like normal and be on your way. 

This option is cheaper than the Hullavator, and will run you between $450-$600. 

Kari-Trek Easy Load Roof Rack

The Kari-Trek Easy Load Roof Rack can be difficult to find, especially for those of us in the United States. It’s a European brand and not really sold anywhere in the U.S. With that said, if you’re a person who needs to transport 3+ kayaks on one vehicle, then this is going to be the only kayak load assist that will allow you to do that. 

All the other options discussed above only allow you to load 1 kayak at a time (and to fit a total of 2 on a car). For most people, this is just fine. But there are cases where you may need to transport more than that and if so than the Kari-Trek is going to be your option. 

The Kari-Trek works very similarly to the Thule Hullavator, in that it is a roof rack that slides from the roof and down the side of your car. From here, you can load as many kayaks as can fit (think about weight limits of your roof racks) and tie them all down. After everything is attached, you can slide the roof rack back onto the top of the car. Depending on how heavy this is, you may need a step stool to complete that last step.  

If you’re looking for an easier way to load and unload your kayak, hopefully this guide has provided you with a few different options of how to make transporting your kayak just a bit easier. Even if we love to kayak, it doesn’t mean we’re body builders – and having that extra support and technique can help us load our kayaks easier. 

If you’re new to kayaking (or just looking for a refresher), check out our ultimate guide to kayaking for beginners or check out any of our articles below! 

Want more content like this? Fill out the form, and you’ll receive content just like this directly in your inbox.