Big Canoe, Small Car: How to Carry a Canoe on a Car with No Roof Rack By Yourself

Loading up a canoe by yourself

Getting ready to load our 16 foot Old Town Discovery 158 onto my ’08 Fit.

In this article:

The Challenge

Being outdoor enthusiasts, our family just picked up a used canoe on Craigslist as a “Christmas present” for the family. We had gotten out on a rented canoe a number of times at one our amazing local state parks and everyone had a great time, including our two little kids. We figured we could enable new adventures on local streams and waterways with our own vessel so found a good deal on Craigslist and went for it.

Now, one of the key elements to make our canoeing adventures a success was going to be how easily we could transport this 16 foot, 80+ lb canoe. While a large truck or gas guzzling SUV might make the job easier, I’ve always found with my little car if there’s a will, there’s a way, and in this case it was no different!

A roof rack would make things easier, but I always like to explore a cheaper alternative, especially if you don’t know if a new habit will stick. Since this was a new foray for us I didn’t want to sink $400+ on a Yakima or Thule rack, as who knows how long this canoeing thing may actually last. (I also know roof racks increase the drag on a vehicle and thus, decrease the fuel efficiency of your everyday driving too.)

Lastly, I knew most of the time it would be on me to single-handedly load and unload this Old Town beauty as my spouse would likely be wrangling the kids before or after the adventure. So my goals were to transport this canoe 1) cheaply, 2) easily, and 3) by myself.

My Canoe Loading Approach

So, for anyone out there who finds themselves in a similar situation, I thought I would create my first YouTube video to show what I came up with.

What’s Needed: Transporting a Canoe with No Rook Rack

There’s only a few items you need to safely transport a canoe:

1. Canoe Foam Blocks

If you don’t want to get a roof rack, there are these beautiful and cheap foam canoe blocks that easily attach onto the gunwale (side edges) of the canoe. They’re grippy so the canoe won’t slide around on your roof and 4 blocks can balance a canoe nicely on even a small car.

2. Tie Down Ropes

Aside from the foam blocks, you just need rope and straps to tie things down. I found these amazing ratcheting / quick release ropes with hooks on the end that significantly speed up tying down the front and back ends of the canoe! They save a ton of time and hassle over using fancy knots to secure the ends of the canoe and I’d highly recommend them. If you don’t want to go this route, additional rope and/or ratchet straps for the front and back of the canoe could work.

3. Ratchet Straps

These are used to secure the middle of the canoe to the roof of the car. I had 15 foot ratchet straps that I cut down to 10 feet, which was more manageable. Then I also used some of that extra webbing to add tie down points under my car hood, which I just pull out when transporting a canoe, but removable hood or trunk tie downs are also an option (see item 6 below).

4. Reusable Zip Ties

I purchased a handful of 12″ reusable zip ties and find them incredibly handy for a number of items around the house, and one of those is quickly tying up loose rope ends for the canoe. Instead of tying and untying a knot to handle excess rope, a quick reusable zip tie does the trick in seconds. I also use them around the different ropes, straps, etc. for the canoe equipment to keep items organized when not in use.

5. Removable Hood/Trunk Tie Downs

If I didn’t have a convenient place to attach some permanent tie down points, I would definitely be using these removable hood and trunk tie downs. They help to create a point on the car to secure the front and back ends of the canoe.

6. Flag

If you’re going to be hauling something that extends 4 feet or more off the back of your car in Virginia, you need to have a red flag visible at the back of the load. I image other state laws are similar. I haven’t measured exactly where I’m at with the canoe loaded, but I know it’s pretty much at that 4 foot mark. I figure adding a flag is quick piece of mind rather than risking being pulled over on your way towards getting away from it all. I used a plastic red flag I got from the last time I hulled some lumber until it was ripped to shreds, then picked up a cheap but much higher quality option from Amazon.

What’s Needed: Loading a Canoe By Yourself

If you have two people to regularly load and unload the canoe, just placing the canoe alongside the car, putting the foam blocks in the right positions, and then hoisting the canoe up and on top of the car works fairly well. It gets trickier when you’re just doing it solo however.

The best way I’ve found to do this is by using pool noodles. Here’s what you need:

1. Pool Noodles

Specifically, the beefier 3″ pool noodles (like these ones I grabbed from Lowe’s) are strong enough to handle the weight of an 80+ pound canoe on them while still keeping their shape. (I tried a smaller size at first and they just squished and didn’t roll.) When placed on the roof, the pool noodles allows you to gently roll the canoe up and onto the roof (and off again).

2. Rope

Without some rope through the center of the pool noodle, the pool noodles would regularly fall off with even the smallest bit of wind. (As you can imagine, this is not ideal while wielding a 16 foot behemoth on your head, especially in a parking lot with other vehicles on each side of your car.) The rope, secured by closing between the roof and car doors, keeps the pool noodles right where you need them!

Good luck!

Even if this specific information isn’t helpful to all readers, I hope the general DIY example may help your creative thinking. When you come to your next challenge, you may consider if there’s a cheaper or easier way to accomplish something than a new product or a lot of extra cash.