Handling and Transporting Canoes
Moving canoes around, securely and without incident - from lifting and carrying to using trolleys, roofracks and trailers

If we look around we'll find lots of different ways of handling and transporting canoes, including on roof racks, trailers, and trolleys. Good solutions share key principles, some of which can really extend the life of our canoes!


Unless we're spectacularly fortunate, our time on the water is likely to involve time moving our boat around on dry land. If we're lucky, we might find this straightforward… but assorted tricks-of-the-trade can still help!

Lifting and carrying tricks matter more to some than to others, as do aids like trolleys… whilst specialist techniques like yoke-carries work for others.

This Paddle With Silverbirch blog covers also touches on things to look for and check in a roofrack, ways of securing canoes to a roofrack or trailer, pointers for local regulations, potential responsibilities for insurance and assorted Tips and Tricks, including for compromise solutions.

As so often in life, no answers will work for everyone… so our top tip is to develop an appreciation of what can be managed safely, without help… and of differences that make a difference when others are offering support.

Sooner or later, most of us start working out ways to avoid situations where we know we're likely to struggle… like loading and unloading boats… but that can mean missing out on the things we'd otherwise like to do, like going canoeing! A light boat can help… so in some cases, it can really pay to work on our manual handling solutions!


If we're going to get injured during a day out canoeing, the most likely time and context is either {a} getting our boat to the water before we've warmed up; or {b} getting our boat from the water when we're tired.

Principles of safe moving and handling are no different with boats to with any other items, but the size of our boat can make it especially susceptible to getting blown around in a breeze, and many canoeist's preferred environments are only accessible via steep banks and uneven ground.

One key principle: if we're ever likely to have to manhandle a canoe in deep water or up a steep bank, prior practice somewhere similar might help!  

One way or the other, we're going to have more options (and life is going to get easier) if we can find ways to get our canoe to shoulder height. If that can also be upside-down, even better… as that's the easiest way to carry a canoe any distance, and it's a good basis for loading boats onto trailers and roof-racks! If we need to balance one end on the ground, or to lift with a friend, that's fine… but for loading roofracks and storing boats, we might also use ropes and mechanical aids.

Overarching principle: our lifting gets easier if we can use our our whole body to get our boat moving upwards and then move seamlessly underneath whilst sustaining the momentum - this keeps most of the strain in our legs rather than our back.

Aside from finding a lighter-weight canoe and making good use of friends, our easiest way to reduce our risks might be through how we pack our boats. Being able to quickly strip "extras" into a simple portage pack can minimise the temptation to try and manhandle our canoe whilst it's weight down with everything from a bailer and kneeling mat to spare paddles and swimlines!


Whilst any canoe can be damaged, and resistance to abrasion and impact resistance can vary hugely, a little care in how we handle our boats can pretty much ensure no damage occurs off-the-water.

Our first tip is to find good ways to manhandle our boats so that we don't end up dropping or dragging them. If we can manage that for our standard transporting, launching, portaging and loading… we're getting somewhere…

…but even if we transport canoes safely, in ways which avoid abuse and accidents, stresses and strains from a roof-rack or trailer can be a step too far – especially with thermo-plastic canoes in very warm weather!

As a rule, boats do best if tied down as lightly as necessary and no more. If that's onto a padded rack, we might be talking of little more than finger-tight. A little more pressure might be appropriate at times, but ideally just for the duration of a journey: not from the day before, and not for any longer than needed after arrival.

Many find carrying a trolley really helps minimise damage to boats, especially if that same trolley will work in places where we might be tempted to drag a canoe. On an appropriate trolley, a canoe may be appropriate for carrying a limited amount of kit on portages.

One reason our canoes can genuinely handle carrying big loads when we're afloat is that the load is supported evenly by the water. As soon as the boat is on the ground, we get pressure-points… so our boats should really be carefully supported and unladen. Putting a boat on the bank full of kit or water may cause problems… and sliding a loaded canoe into the water is asking for trouble!


Countries may vary in rules and regulations for carrying loads on the roof of a vehicle or on a trailer, and the expectations of our insurance companies might add maximum-loading constraints beyond what official regulations.

Whilst vehicle roofs might cope with considerable loading whilst we are loading, the safe roof load limit which matters on the road needs to allow for maximum forces whilst the vehicle is being driven (e.g. breaking, cornering).

In practice, many modern vehicles are only rated for 50Kg (110lbs) of roof load. As the figures quoted include the weight of any roof-rack, even a rating of 75kg (165lbs) might only suffice for two canoes.

If our vehicle's maximum roof load rating is high, as with many vans, two additional considerations start becoming more significant. Firstly, the rating of each component of the system (e.g. 30Kg / 65lbs per rail). Secondly, the maximum loadings on the vehicle (either per axle or overall). 

Last but not least, many countries have expectations for securing loads plus regulations for maximum overhangs (e.g. 305mm / 12" to either side of the vehicle) and for marking overhanging loads (e.g. lights or markers boards on loads overhanging the rear of a vehicle by more than 2m / 6'6").

As a rule, practical considerations limit how high we load a vehicle or trailer. Height regulations may also apply, but enthusiasm for going high tends to evaporate once we consider the challenges of lifting boats on and off plus height barriers and limitations on low bridges!


Canoeists have been known to load their craft onto anything from a trailer-tent to a dedicated boat trailer… and professionals routinely use dedicated canoe trailers for carrying entire fleets - often for very good reasons!

Whilst trailers come with many of the same challenges and regulations as roof racks, including around secure loading, towing almost always adds more - including restrictions on which roads we can use and on who can drive.

On a positive note, trailers commonly allow canoes to be tied down closer to each end, reducing the pressure for bow and stern tie-downs.

Country-specific regulations may specify a minimum weight of vehicle for a particular trailer, maximum dimensions for any trailer, maximum gross trailer weight for either an unbraked or braked trailer, and/or the maximum length of the vehicle + trailer. Regulations can also be different for "commercial" vehicles!

For British regulations on loading roof-racks and trailers, see the Department of Transport's Guidance on Overhanging Loads (2009)

For British "who can tow" regulations, see INF30: Requirements for towing trailers in Great Britain

Handling and Transporting Canoes
Consult Design Create, Greg Spencer 25 January, 2023
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