Kayaking is a fun and relaxing way to spend time outdoors and enjoy a slice of nature. But if you own or are planning to own a kayak, you have to deal with the hassle of transporting it from point A to point B as safely as possible.
You’re wondering whether to invest in a kayak rack or roof rack system. And if you do, will crossbars be required to mount them? What kind of kayak rack should you get? What factors should you consider before buying a kayak rack?
Figuring out all these on your own can be overwhelming. But not to worry, this article is going to break down all you need to know about using a kayak rack so you don’t have to stress about how to move your kayak around safely.
Photo by Oliver King
- What is a kayak roof rack?
- What are crossbars?
- Are crossbars necessary for a roof rack?
- Can you use a kayak rack without crossbars?
- Can I put a kayak directly on a roof rack?
- Are roof racks and crossbars universal?
- What kind of roof rack do I need for a kayak?
- What is the easiest kayak rack to use?
- Roof Rack or Roof Rails for kayaking?
- How do you strap a kayak to a roof rack without crossbars?
- Should I transport my kayak upside down?
- Do you need crossbars for Thule?
- Do you need a special rack for a kayak?
- How do you safely use a kayak rack?
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A roof rack is a device that’s mounted on the roof of a vehicle and designed to transport luggage and equipment such as motorcycles, bicycles, snowmobiles, sailboards, and kayaks.
Roof racks are usually factory-installed by manufacturers and dealerships. They are specifically fabricated to hold more weight than other roof carriage systems such as rails.
Kayak roof racks are typically constructed with solid steel to enable them to withstand the weight of heavier loads.
Although roof racks and crossbars share some similarities and are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.
Crossbars are a pair of steel, rubber, or aluminum bars that are used to create a mounting point for equipment and accessories that are too large to fit inside your car or truck. They run across the width of a vehicle—from the passenger-side window to the driver-side window.
Crossbars help to support the weight of any items you intend to carry or mount on the roof including kayak racks, bike racks, ski racks, and baggage boxes by transferring the weight to the feet and towers.
Most crossbars can be attached to factory-installed bars on the roof of your cat that run from the front to the back. However, there are also crossbars that are designed to be situated in the bed of a truck.
If your vehicle doesn’t come with any factory-mounted roof carriage system, you can use crossbars to install a roof rack and provide extra storage space for moving heavy objects like kayaks.
Photo by Matheus Bertelli
Yes, crossbars are required for most roof racks because roof racks aren’t typically able to rest securely on a vehicle roof without side rails.
If you want advanced load carriers that are designed specifically for hauling kayaks, you are going to need crossbars.
Without crossbars in place, it would be difficult for you to properly stabilize heavy loads and prevent your kayak from flying or dangling off the roof while you’re transporting it.
If your car roof is completely bare and does not have any kind of rail system attached, you’ll need to install crossbars first so you can place your roof rack on the bars.
When shopping for crossbars and racks, you’ll want to pay attention to the cargo capacity ratings—weight limits—to ensure they can adequately handle the weight of your kayaking gear.
You also have to ensure that your vehicle has the capacity to tow the total weight of your kayak, crossbars, and roof racks to prevent unfortunate accidents.
You can do without crossbars for your roof rack if you opt for temporary pads.
Temporary pads are straps that conveniently wrap around the inside of your vehicle, across the roof, and over the top where inflated cushions or foams are provided.
The downside of using temporary pads is that they’re not built to withstand long journeys or fast travel. But if you only plan on embarking on short kayaking trips from time to time and you’re happy to drive at a slow pace, temporary pads will serve you well.
Other alternatives you can use to get around not having or using crossbars include hitch mounts and foam carriers.
Yes, you can place your kayak directly on a roof rack without needing to cushion it with any other materials.
As long as your roof rack system is properly installed, can bear the weight of your kayak, and you have carefully secured the kayak to the rack, you have nothing to worry about.
Just place the kayak on the rack, ensure it’s properly fastened, and you can be on your merry way.
Photo by Ivan Samkov
Crossbars come in different shapes, types, and dimensions depending on the design, type of vehicle, construction materials, mounting options, and aerodynamic factors.
You can’t just use any type of crossbar for any kind of car. You have to make sure that your vehicle model and rack system are compatible with the mounting requirements for the crossbars you want to buy.
The crossbars also have to correspond with the width of your car—they can’t be short or too long.
However, when shopping for roof racks, you don’t have to worry so much about compatibility because most roof racks have a universal mounting system that works on different vehicle models.
There are different types of kayak roof racks and they each have their use cases. So before you decide on which kayak roof rack to buy to transport your kayak, you need to understand your options.
Photo by Jacob Mouncey
If you are a regular paddler or you only plan to transport no more than one kayak at a time, then a saddle roof rack would be a great choice for you.
It’s a cushioned platform made up of a single cradle or two linked cradles that attach to the roof rack and can be adjusted to align with the width of your car roof.
Saddle roof racks provide a wider surface area for your kayaking equipment and accessories to rest safely on. They give your kayak great padding support to prevent scratches and slippage.
This type of roof rack is easy to load thanks to the saddles placed in front and the rollers at the back, and they offer better security when transporting your kayak in inclement weather.
The ease and simplicity of installing J-Style racks have made them the most popular option on the market.
J-Style racks are also known as J-Cradle racks and they feature padded bars shaped like the letter J, which is where they get their name from.
They are ideal for vehicles that have been fitted with factory-installed or removable crossbars.
When using J-Style racks, your kayak will have to be positioned on its side—at a 45° angle. This helps to keep kayaks made of plastic from getting bent out of shape.
The rack allows you to load your kayak from the side of your car, creating more room on the root for holding other things. Additionally, J-Style racks provide ample padding to prevent your boat from getting all scratched up and it also makes tying your kayak down very easy to accomplish.
If you will be going kayaking with a partner, look out for J-Style racks that are built to carry two kayaks, rather than just one. This will help you conserve resources and save you and your paddling buddy the trouble of taking two cars.
Although J-Style racks are pretty stable, secure, and easy to use, they might not provide a satisfactory experience when used on cars with narrow roofs.
Stacker racks are perfect for people who intend to transport more than one kayak at a time—they can hold up to four kayaks.
With Stacker racks, your kayak will be positioned vertically, on its sides, creating extra space to fit in multiple watercraft or other kinds of luggage.
Although this arrangement seems precarious, stacker racks are quite safe and secure if they’re properly mounted and secure. So you won’t have to worry about your precious kayak or gear slipping off or getting damaged in transit.
Photo by ALTEREDSNAPS
If you are thinking about heading to a local kayaking destination and you don’t want the hassle of buying and installing a complex rack system, go with temporary pads.
Temporary pads come in foam or inflatable forms that can be secured to your vehicle roof with the aid of nylon straps that pass through the car’s interior.
These types of roof racks are the best option for bare roofs or roofs fitted with side rails.
However, it’s not advisable to try to stretch the usefulness of temporary pads by using them for long-distance travel or while driving at high speeds. They were not created for that purpose and are not safe enough to withstand such journeys.
You are going to need a secure and fitted kayak roof rack and crossbars if you’re going to be traveling far and fast.
For bare roofs, temporary pads are the easiest to use because they don’t have any mounting requirements and you can strap them on any kind of vehicle.
They’re perfect for kayakers who don’t want to invest in an advanced rack and just want something simple that they can easily fit and remove when transporting their kayaks a short distance.
However, if you already have or intend to install a rack system on your car’s roof, J-Style racks will help you load and unload your kayak more easily than saddle or stacker racks.
If you’re a big fan of outdoor activities like kayak camping and fishing and you’re thinking about installing a mount system on your car’s roof for carrying your gear, you will have to choose between roof racks and roof rails.
These two mount systems are not the same, so before you pick one over the other, let’s explore the difference between roof racks and roof rails.
Photo by Twilight Kenya
A roof rack is a system that comprises one or more crossbars that attach to a car’s existing roof rails or a raised mount system consisting of both crossbars and rails for cars without rails.
Roof racks are mounted on the roof of your car in an east-to-west direction. They are designed to handle heavier loads and equipment.
Roof racks are the best option for kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy going on adventures regularly and have to transport a lot of unwieldy items that won’t fit in the trunk of the car.
Installing a roof rack can be a pricey endeavor, so it wouldn’t be a worthwhile investment unless you’re going to be using them regularly for an extended time period.
Bear in mind that all roof racks come with a weight capacity limit that should be strictly adhered to. If you overload the rack, you’ll leave your vehicle more prone to accidents.
Most insurance companies will not cover your losses for accidents resulting from an overloaded vehicle.
Photo by Matt Hardy
Unlike roof racks which run across your car’s roof from door to door, roof rails run along the length of the roof from front to back or north to south.
Roof rails allow you to tie items to your roof that are too oversized inside your car. They are intended for carrying lighter-weight loads—bicycles, traveling boxes, lightweight kayaks, etc.—and cannot take the place of roof racks.
Roof rails are generally factory-fitted on cars by the manufacturer while roof racks are usually added as a customization option after the vehicle has been sold.
Most roof rails have a weight limit of around 50-60 kg, which would work great for you if you own a recreational kayak or don’t need to move a lot of heavy luggage.
But if you want to improve the cargo weight capacity and stability so your roof can hold heavier kayaks and gear, you’re better off with a roof rack.
Without crossbars, your roof rack probably won’t be able to rest securely on the roof of your car. This means that you can’t strap a kayak to it because the kayak and rack will just slip right off the roof.
You need side rails or crossbars to mount and secure the roof rack in place before placing your kayak on the rack and to help distribute the weight of your kayak evenly on the roof rack to prevent damage to your roof.
Otherwise, you can forgo getting both a roof rack and crossbars and opt for temporary pads instead.
This will allow you to strap your kayak to the roof of your car without using crossbars.
Photo by Gaspar Zaldo
The method or position you use to transport your kayak will depend on the kind of roof rack you have and the composition of your kayak.
If your kayak is made of thermoform or hardshell plastic—high-density polyethylene—it can be carried upside down or on its side.
Don’t forget to remove the gear, paddles, and other unattached objects from a sit-in kayak before transporting it. You don’t want these items falling out mid-journey.
If you’re transporting a sit-in kayak upside down, you can use a cockpit seat cover to minimize wind drag and prevent debris, dirt, and water from getting into your kayak.
When transporting kayaks made of composite materials like carbon fiber, kevlar, aramid, or fiberglass, you must position them with the hull down using cradles or cushion pads to protect them from damage and keep it from getting cracked.
If you’re transporting an inflatable kayak, you can position it upside down or right side up.
Yes, you’re going to need a roof rack with crossbars to mount a Thule kayak rack on your car.
However, if your car doesn’t have any rails, Thule offers some roof racks that can still work for the car’s roof. You just have to go through the brand’s buyer’s guide to find the best rack for your car model and existing roof rack specifications.
You don’t need a special kind of rack for your kayak. A regular roof rack will do. However, if you want to optimize for maximum stability and safety, adding a kayak carrier or rack to your roof rack can elevate the transportation experience.
Photo by Erik Mclean
Here are some guidelines you can follow when transporting your kayak with a track to prevent accidents or damage from occurring.
Choose the right roof rack system — Invest in crossbars and roof racks that are the correct fit for your vehicle model and roof type so that your kayak rack will have a secure base to be mounted on.
Follow the manuals — Whether your rack came pre-installed on your car or you’re using an aftermarket rack, be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions on how best to use the rack. Also, consult your vehicle manual to ensure the rack and the luggage you intend to carry will not exceed the car’s weight limit.
Ensure the rack is compliant with safety standards — When shopping for a roof or kayak rack, go for quality products that adhere to the highest safety standards as they’ll be more secure, stable, and durable.
Properly secure your kayak to the rack — Learn the proper techniques for loading your kayak on the rack, tying it down, and getting it off safely.
Whether you’re using tie-downs, straps, or ratchet straps to hold the kayak in place, make sure the front, back, and top are tight and secure to keep the kayak from moving around while you’re driving.
Keep the weight balanced — The weight of your kayak and other luggage should be distributed evenly to avoid accidents. Place the heavier loads at the bottom and the lighter ones on the tip. This means your kayak should go on the rack first, then you can arrange your remaining gear on top.
Be conscious of your speed limit — When you’re transporting one or more kayaks via the roof of your car, it will affect how the vehicle moves and consumes gas.
Driving at a slower pace will keep your kayak from moving and also reduce fuel consumption. Try to stay within the speed limit of 50-70 mph when on the freeway and park by the side of the road if you feel the kayak is starting to shift.
Consider the height — Mounting a roof rack and loading a kayak on top of it will impact the height of your vehicle so you might need to adjust your routes to make sure you can fit underneath any structures such as overpasses that you may have to pass along the way.
Adhere to local laws and regulations — Every state has its own laws about the kind of modifications you can make to your vehicle and what you can carry on your car’s roof.
Make sure to check with the DMV to ascertain that your roof rack is not considered an unlawful modification for your vehicle. You’ll also want to ensure your cargo complies with the overhang laws of the state you’re in.
Double-check before and after getting on the road — Before you head out to explore your new or favorite kayaking spots, double-check the bolts, connectors, and straps on your roof rack to ensure they’re correctly positioned.
Then once the journey begins, pull over after you’ve been driving for about 15 minutes and give your kayak a quick tug to see if any straps have loosened.
If you’ve purchased a kayak and you don’t live right next to the water or you plan to explore kayaking destinations outside of your local area, the safest way to carry it around is on the roof of your car.
Roof racks with crossbars provide the most secure, maximum-capacity transportation system for getting your kayak and assessors from one location to another.
Following this guide will help you resolve any confusion you might have about your options and help you make the best decision for you, your vehicle, and your kayak.