Unless you’re one of the lucky people who lives right next to some white water, chances are you will have to transport your kayaks to find the best runs. A typical family vehicle isn’t made for carrying kayaks on its roof, although you may be able to rig a contraption with bungees, towels and ropes.
Kayak roof racks are much safer and more reliable than a pulled-together solution that may not keep your kayaks secured to your car’s roof. You don’t want your kayak falling off your vehicle when you take a sharp turn or flying off on the highway.
These safety devices come in several designs, each honed for your vehicle’s specifications. Here are some of the most common kayak roof rack designs you’ll see when you’re purchasing one of these infinitely valuable devices.
Types of Kayak Roof Racks
There are a couple of different designs you’ll come across when shopping for a new kayak roof rack: crossbar, saddles, J-style, stackers, rollers and pads. Before you buy, there are a few things to consider. If you're not the best mechanic, there are roof rack systems that require no tools to install. It pays to make sure you know what tools are required for installation before you buy; otherwise, you may need to buy tools you don’t already have. You should also be aware of what comes in a roof rack package. A roof rack bundle may only include the front roof rack. This can be frustrating if you buy from Amazon wanting to take the kayak out for the weekend. If all you get is the front roof rack, you will have to wait until you get the rear roof rack to load your kayak.
Crossbars for Your Roof Rack
This is the essential starting point for any kayak-holding contraption you are putting on the roof of your car. Two crossbars go across the top of your vehicle as support for the kayaks. Crossbars are usually made of rubber and metal to keep your car top or kayak from being scratched.
Often, vehicles don’t come with crossbars right off the lot, so you may want to negotiate that if you're buying a new car. If you already have crossbars, you will want to know if they are round or square because some roof racks only fit round crossbars and others only square. Later model crossbars will fit either round or square. This is great if you have two vehicles with different crossbar sizes. If you have factory crossbars, make sure the roof rack fits factory crossbars of that vehicle type as factory crossbars come in a variety of shapes.
Saddle Roof Rack
A saddle rack attaches to the crossbars and has two grips that cradle your kayak from below. They protect both your kayak and car top from dents and scratches. A saddle roof rack is easy to use and makes it easy to tie down most any kayak.
J-Style Roof Rack for Inflatable Kayaks
This holding device is convenient because you can load your kayaks from either side of your car into the J-shaped components. They work well with a variety of kayaks, especially inflatable kayaks.
Kayak Stacker Rack
Best for small kayaks, with a stacker device, you can transport multiple kayaks simultaneously if you have a few paddlers in your household. Even if you have only one kayak, a stacker may be a good choice if you plan to take friends and their kayaks with you. There is nothing worse than trying to tie down multiple kayaks without a stacker rack.
Kayak Roof Rollers
These security devices clip onto the crossbar and sport rollers on the top side. You can load kayaks from either side of your vehicle with rollers. Roof rollers make it easy for one person to load their kayak by themselves.
Kayak Carrier Pads
You don’t need a crossbar for pads, and these types of security devices for kayaks are easy to install. Pads protect your roof, and the material they’re made from creates pressure to keep your kayaks in place. From heavy-duty carrier pads to the inflatable ones, you will find there are many types to choose from. People tie down most anything with a carrier pad, including inflatable pads for paddle boards or heavy-duty pads for big kayaks.
Once you know which type of roof rack is best for your vehicle and lifestyle, you can pick up the right one for your paddling obsession. If you are wondering how to transport a kayak, here are the six best kayak roof racks on the market so you can get on the water more quickly and more often.
1. Rhino-Rack Nautic Roof Rack
This kayak rack is a saddle-style design with four cradles made of durable Santoprene, a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE). There’s a lot of surface contact area with a Rhino-Rack Nautic that ensures a very secure kayak no matter the road conditions.
Pads swivel 180˚ for easy loading, so you can pull it toward the edge of your car’s roof, put your kayak on the rack and roll it into a transportable position. This allows one person to load a kayak without using a ladder.
2. Yakima JayLow Folding J-Cradle Rooftop Kayak Rack
Specific kayak models are longer and more unwieldy than others, making them difficult to secure with just straps or racks. Two benefits of the Yakima J-style rack is that it comes out of the box fully assembled, and the arm has two locked positions to expand its utility.
You don’t need any tools for assembly or to secure it to your vehicle, but note you need at least 24 inches between the crossbars for a Yakima JayLow. You can lock the arm of the JayLow into a 45˚ angle for a J-style design or a 90˚ angle for a stackable configuration.
3. T-Motorsports J-Bar Kayak Rack
If you have a variety of watercraft, like kayaks, paddleboards and surfboards, and want a roof rack that can carry quite a few different types of light craft, the TMS J-Bar rack is an ideal option. This rack can hold kayaks and other craft up to 75 lbs. and 36 inches wide.
You can mount a TMS J-Bar rack on any type of crossbar currently on the market. With adjustable pads and constructed of rugged steel, the J-Bar protects both your boats and your car’s exterior from damage.
4. Thule Hull-a-Port Pro Kayak Carrier
This popular J-style design from Thule is made to take a beating. Constructed of solid, durable materials, it has a wide mouth for easy loading. When you’re not using it, you can fold the Hull-a-Port Pro down in compliance with any height restrictions.
The tie-down set-up is also a thoughtful and practical design, as the package comes with two straps, two ratcheting tie-downs and buckle protectors. With thick padding, you can be sure your boats and your vehicle will not be damaged in transit.
5. Thule 830 The Stacker Kayak Carrier
The Thule stacker carrier is made to transport multiple kayaks at once in a stacked configuration. If you’re heading out for kayak bass fishing with buddies and need a reliable system to get your kayaks there, you may want the stacker design.
You can carry two kayaks with one carrier, and you can buy two packages if you want to have four kayaks on your car. Perpendicular posts are bolted into crossbars, and you lean your kayak against this post and strap it down, adding posts as you need them.
The stacking portions of this carrying system fold down to reduce drag when not in use, and it can accommodate kayaks 10 feet long and 34 inches wide. This is an attractive option with a practical price point that works well for multiple boats.
6. Malone HandiRack Inflatable Roof Rack
If you only want to dip your toe into the different devices used to secure kayaks to your car, the Malone inflatable HandiRack is a perfect way to start. Two inflatable pads made of nylon lie across your roof with five D-ring anchor points to keep it secured to your vehicle.
Malone claims these pads, which you fill with the double-action pump the Malone system comes with, have a 180-lb. weight limit, but this may be too much for highway travel, so start slow if you have a lot of weight up top.
Safely Transport Your Kayaks and Enjoy the Rapids More Often
Kayaking is an adventurous undertaking, and part of the fun is exploring different waterways in your craft. To get to those untouched and gorgeous corners of the backcountry, you need a reliable and trustworthy way to tote your kayaks on your car.
Start with crossbars, and decide which roof rack design is best for your lifestyle. If you are a novice in this sport, you can try inflatable racks first, as they are the simplest to install and use. If you’re a little more serious, you can opt for a J-style or saddle roof rack. Before you buy, do your homework with considerations like ease of installation, how easy it is for a single person to load and will it work with the style of crossbar you have. Your skills are only as good as your gear, and transporting kayaks can be dangerous if done incorrectly. Get a high-quality roof rack to make the trip to your next voyage a safe and fun one.