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How to transport a canoe

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September 19 9 minute read

It’s a moment that I never want to re-live again: I’m driving a van-load of students down Route 93 in New Hampshire USA with a canoe on the roof. We’re in a bit of a hurry because we got a slow start in the morning, but it looks like we’ll get to the airport just on time for the two departing students to catch their flights. A moment later, I hear a slight sliding noise which alerts my senses, and then the side view mirror is filled with a sixteen-foot canoe cartwheeling end over end down the shoulder of the freeway! 

I screeched to a halt and ran back up the road. Amazingly, this canoe had bounced to the verge without killing anybody! The cause of this gigantic near-miss: a hurried attempt at tying the boat down with bad knots, old ropes, and weak attachment points. I learned the hard way that transporting your canoe is probably one of the most dangerous things that you’ll ever do with it.  

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There are many means of transporting a canoe and, rather than preach one specific technique, I’ll cover some of the basic principles to consider so that you can make sound decisions on your own.  

The best way to load

How you’re going to carry the canoe on the vehicle is the first consideration. Will you use soft-racks, roof racks, a roof-top cage, tradie racks or a trailer? The best way to carry a canoe on a vehicle or trailer is upside-down on its gunwales: It’s the strongest part of the canoe, structurally, and doing this removes the chance of your boat filling with rainwater. It also gives the canoe 4 points of contact at locations that are both wide and far apart from each other. 

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Spacing your roof racks

The farther apart these cross-bars are, gives the canoe a more-solid “footprint.” Think of the two support bars like a fulcrum. If your roof racks are 2’ apart, and that’s all that’s securing a 16’ canoe, then you have 7’ of an unsupported canoe on either end that the wind can use as leverage to try and pivot and move (or remove) your canoe.  

Add padding

Most roof racks come with some form of rubber on them but a cage, or a trailer, won’t have this. Adding on some padding, in the form of something simple like a cut-in-half foam pool noodle or a yoga mat attached with duct-tape, provides cushioning, minimises vibration, protects the canoes, and helps to hold the boat straight. If your racks, bars, trailer, or cage don’t have this, then it’s a wise idea to add some on before the canoe is loaded. 

Lifting your canoe

Getting the canoe onto the roof can sometimes be a challenge. If it is, then many hands make light work. I’m fortunate that I’m young enough, and my boats are usually light enough, that I can carry them to the vehicle and lift them on by myself.

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Tying down

Once the canoe is on on the vehicle, and straight, then the strapping can begin. Many items can be safely used for securing the boat to the racks: Cam-buckle straps, quality static (non-stretching) rope, and even ratchet-straps. The latter should be used with caution, though, as it’s easy to over-tighten them and damage the canoe. Ropes can work well provided they are robust, non-stretching, UV tolerant, and you’re good with knots. Items that should be avoided altogether: bungee cord or “Occy” straps. These will not keep a canoe securely fastened to a trailer or vehicle in transit. The goal is to have as much of your strap in-contact with the hull of the canoe as possible. This means having your strap touching the boat from the point that it leaves the bar until all the way down the other side. Having a strap only over the top of the canoe but tied off out too far wide of the canoe gives the boat the freedom to move side-to-side under the strap.   

Canoe tie-down straps

I usually use cam-buckle straps as they’re cheap, strong, and cut to a suitable length which makes them easy-to-use. To save walking around the vehicle repeatedly, I start on the opposite side to where I want my buckles to be (usually the driver’s side so that I can check them quickly). To begin, I pass the buckle underneath the bar and pass it up and over the top of the canoe. I can slide it along by pushing the strap as well. This helps to avoid throwing the metal buckle over the canoe and scratching your window or paintwork.

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Next, I pass the tail-end of the strap over the top of the canoe, making sure to avoid twists in the strap. Once it’s over the canoe, I can walk over to the other side. I hold the buckle in place roughly where I want it to finish while I feed the tail of the strap underneath the other side of the bar and up to the buckle. By squeezing the cam-buckle open, I can feed the strap in from the underside and begin to draw the loose material through until it’s taught. Once it’s tensioned enough that it won’t “slip” around the entire canoe, it’s now possible to properly tighten the strap by pulling it downward with both hands.

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Now, we’re not done just yet. Cam-buckles are great, but they can still allow the strap to vibrate its way back through the cam device which will loosen the strap and make your boat start to move. The way to prevent this is to tie off the tail in a way that no slack can be added back into the system. Some people do a knot just below the buckle. Others like to wrap the strap around the cross-bar and do a knot down there. The choice is yours, but this part is essential to remember to do.  

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Bow and stern lines

Once you’ve got one strap on look at the canoe from the front of the car to ensure that it’s pointing dead-straight. Then, you can proceed to tighten the second strap. When both straps are tight, give the canoe a push, shove, wiggle from the end to make sure that you’re happy with its security on the vehicle. If you’re satisfied with it, then you can proceed to the last step. It is recommended that you also include bow and stern tie-downs, for added security, if you’re transporting the canoe on a vehicle. It’s not unheard of for roof-racks to get peeled off cars or for straps and ropes to break. 

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Doing this not only adds more points of attachment to the vehicle, but it also helps to minimise the boat moving side-to-side. Two tie-downs at either end are great for keeping the boat central on the vehicle, but a single line at either end will also be quite useful. It’s important not to over-tighten these lines as it puts stress on the canoe’s hull – they should just be firm.  

Red flag

Lastly, a red flag may be required at the back of the canoe if there is a significant overhang on your vehicle. This amount of allowable protrusion varies from state-to-state, so it’s worth checking.

Once you’ve driven for a bit, it’s worth stopping and having a look at how things are going. Check the straps are still tight, the canoe is straight and that the roof-racks hasn’t shifted.

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Transporting your canoe safely and securely is one thing, but if I can offer one more bit of advice, it is this: don’t over-complicate the system. If you make it so challenging to get the canoe off of the roof that it becomes a chore, then you’re less likely to ever use it. Keep it simple, and there are fewer obstacles between you and a good time on the water.  

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Hailing from New York, Travis has called Australia home from the early 2000s. Whilst accomplished across outdoor disciplines, he is most at home exploring wild places by canoe. An expert guide and instructor, Travis also imports fine canoes from across the world.

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