As a new kayaker, it can feel like there’s a lot to learn and a lot of accessories to get your hands on. But after buying the best kayak for your needs and getting a compatible roof rack, you’ll need to know how to strap a kayak to a roof rack.
Transporting your kayak safely is critical to your ability to explore new waterways with your new kayak. The truth of the matter is that a roof rack and kayak straps are only as good as your ability to use them properly.
So we’re going to walk through the process of loading and strapping a kayak to a roof rack step-by-step. Pay close attention so you can protect your investments and make sure your kayak doesn’t fall off your roof while you’re driving.
- Jargon Buster
- How To Set Your Straps
- How To Load Your Kayak(s)
- Kayak Loading Best Practices
- How To Secure Your Straps
- How To Check Your Work
- Final Thoughts
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Before we discuss the details of strapping a kayak to a roof rack properly, you’ll need to know some important kayak terminology. You’ll find these terms mentioned later on in this article.
Cam (or Tie-down) Straps
These are the most common straps used to secure kayaks to roof racks of all types. They are preferred over ratchet straps because you don’t need to tighten them down more than you can do by hand in order to keep your kayak on the roof rack.
A daisy chain is a technique used to eliminate the excess length of a strap from flopping loosely in the wind while driving. It’s also useful for reducing wear and tear on your straps and we’ll cover how to make a daisy chain later on in this article.
A J rack is a type of kayak that (surprising as it may be) is shaped like the letter J. These racks must be attached to existing roof-mounted crossbars, but they are a useful and affordable way to secure kayaks to your roof.
These are bars that attach to the roof of your vehicle and they run across the width of your vehicle (from side-to-side). Kayaks can be loaded directly onto crossbars, but most kayak-specific roof racks need to be secured to crossbars to provide a more stable method of transporting kayaks.
Also Read: Best 2 Kayak Roof Racks
How To Set Your Straps
Before you load your kayak onto a roof rack, it’s often easier to set the straps in place first. This will help you ensure that your straps are solidly in place before looping them up and over your kayak to tie it down.
Setting Straps for a J-Style Roof Rack
If you have a J-rack installed on the crossbars of your roof rack, it’s even more important to set straps in place before loading your kayak. Because of their design, it can be difficult to set straps in place properly after your kayak is already up on the racks.
When setting straps for a J-style roof rack, thread the strap through the upper U-shaped portion of the rack. This is the longer side of the rack and it’s the side that will wind up behind your kayak once it’s loaded.
After you thread your straps through the upper section of your J-racks, run them towards the front and back of your vehicle, respectively.
The strap on the rear-most rack should run towards the back of your vehicle and the strap on the forward rack should run down over your front windshield.
Running your straps like this and leaving them in place before loading your kayak makes it complete the next step properly once your kayak is loaded.
Setting Straps For Crossbar-Based Racks
If you just have crossbars on top of your roof, you can run one strap under each crossbar and then allow each to hang down against the side of your vehicle.
Some kayakers will choose to set up their straps on the passenger side of the vehicle so that the buckle of the strap winds up being accessible from the driver’s side when the tie-down is complete.
Loading Multiple Kayaks
If you’re loading multiple kayaks onto your roof rack, it’s even more important to set straps in place before loading either kayak onto the roof. This is because the first kayak will often end up making it more difficult to set straps in place for the second.
To make your life easier, get all of your straps in place before you load kayaks onto your roof. Then load them one at a time and also strap the first down snugly before loading the second kayak on.
This ensures that your first kayak stays in place if you bump it with the second as you’re loading.
Also, several unfortunate kayakers have damaged their boats because high winds blew their first kayak off the rack while they were attempting to load the second one.
Performing a preliminary tie-down helps you protect your kayaks and eliminate the need to do the same work twice. You can always go back and tighten all straps down securely once everything is loaded onto your roof rack and you’re performing a final check.
How To Load Your Kayak(s)
Learning how to load a kayak onto a roof rack is important for your safety and the safety of your kayak. So we’ll cover some basic techniques for safe loading (and unloading) before we get to securing your straps and hitting the road!
If you have a paddle partner with you, we always recommend loading and unloading kayaks with two people. It helps to share the weight and also reduces the awkwardness of carrying a unique object like a kayak.
The exact loading technique you use will obviously depend on your specific vehicle, the type of roof rack you have, and the size and shape of your kayak. But here are a few general recommendations.
For tall vehicles, have the taller individual set his or her end of the kayak on the roof first before coming around to assist the shorter individual with their end. It’s best to avoid stepping up onto a vehicle tire or runner while carrying the weight of a kayak.
In some cases, it can be easier to load the kayak starting from the rear of the vehicle.
In this case, one person should set their end of the kayak onto the roof racks from the back of the vehicle and then stay on one side of the kayak to help guide the kayak as the other person pushes it forward onto the racks.
The Lift-and-Load –
Loading a kayak onto a roof rack by yourself can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. If your kayak is light enough for you to lift over your head easily, then you can try positioning it on the side of your vehicle to start.
You should be standing on the side of the kayak that’s furthest away from your vehicle and it’s easiest to start by lining up the cockpit of your kayak roughly between the crossbars of your roof rack.
Next, reach down and grab the handle (or cockpit edge) furthest away from you and tip the kayak towards you and onto its edge. With your other hand, grab the opposite handle (or cockpit edge), bend your knees, and lift with your legs.
By putting your hands in these positions, you’ll be able to either load your kayak on its side on a J-style rack or turn it over to load it face down directly on crossbars.
Keep in mind that this technique should only be used if your vehicle is short enough for you to lift the kayak onto the roof without stepping on a runner, tire, or ladder to achieve the requisite height needed.
The Angle Approach –
If your vehicle is too tall or your kayak is too heavy, you’ll need to adapt your one-person loading technique.
The best way to do this is to start by positioning your kayak on the side of your vehicle but slid farther toward the rear of your vehicle than you would start with the previous technique.
To make sure your kayak is aligned properly, ensure that the bow of the kayak is somewhere in between the two crossbars of your roof rack. This will ensure that you can get the bow of your kayak onto the rear crossbar during the next step.
The first part of this technique is going to involve lifting the bow of your kayak and getting it secure onto the rear crossbar of J-style rack on top of your vehicle. But before you lift, there’s a little prep you need to do.
In order to ensure that the kayak doesn’t slide off your roof once you set the bow up and let go, you should angle the stern of the kayak out and away from your kayak.
You don’t need a true 45-degree angle between your vehicle and your kayak, but at least 30 degrees is recommended for safer loading.
After you’ve angled the stern of your kayak away from your vehicle, place a towel or foam pad underneath the stern to reduce the likelihood of damage from the extra weight that will be placed on the stern when you lift the bow onto the roof rack.
Once the pad or towel is in place, you can lift the bow and place it gently on the rear crossbar or J-style rack.
Being careful to make sure the front of your kayak remains in place when you remove your hands, you can then move around to the stern.
To finish this technique, you’ll need to gently lift the stern while pushing the entire kayak forward and onto the roof rack.
If you’re loading directly onto crossbars, it can be good to slide the kayak on face-up before flipping it over once the weight is safely on top of your vehicle.
For J-style racks, you might angle the kayak away from your vehicle less because the upturned front section of the rack will help you hold the bow of the kayak in place while you lift and push the stern forward.
Because of their design, J-style racks come with advantages and disadvantages when it comes to loading and transporting kayaks. If you have this type of rack, be sure to check out our article detailing how to load a kayak on a J rack.
Kayak Loading Best Practices
Always make sure your kayak is centered on your crossbars before strapping it down. If your kayak is face down, the cockpit should be located directly in between the crossbars when it is centered.
Centering your kayak is important if you’re loading on to a J-style rack as well.
Even though your kayak will rest on its side on this type of rack, the cockpit should still be positioned between the two racks to ensure the weight of the kayak is centered properly.
How To Secure Your Straps
Once your kayak is loaded and positioned properly, it’s time to strap it down! Provided that you’ve done all the work leading up to this point thoroughly, this should actually be the easiest part of the process.
Whether you have a J-rack or you’re just loading onto crossbars, the first step is to loop your straps up and over your kayak. They should then fall over to the opposite side of your vehicle where you can secure them.
Before you insert the strap into the buckle and tighten, check to make sure that the strap isn’t crossed over itself. Also, it’s best to untwist the strap so that it lies flat against your kayak and isn’t twisted over multiple times.
For both crossbars and J-racks, you should then loop the open end of the strap (the end without the buckle) under the actual crossbar on top of your vehicle. This is the strongest tie-down point possible and should be trusted over the front, U-shaped section of a J-rack.
Keep in mind that you should always run the strap under the crossbar inside of the point where the crossbar actually attaches to your vehicle. If you run it under the crossbar outside of this point, the strap could slip off the crossbar entirely if it loosens while you’re driving.
Once you loop the strap under the crossbar, run it back up and towards your kayak until you meet the buckle end. To set this up easier, the buckle should already be hanging roughly halfway down the side of your kayak.
Then you can thread the strap through the buckle and pull back towards yourself to tighten.
If you have to push the strap away from your body to tighten the strap, you’ll need to re-evaluate and set the strap up so that you can pull towards you to tighten once you thread the strap through the buckle.
Pull both straps snugly but not too tight in order to avoid causing unintended damage to your kayaks. To test, grab hold of either end of your kayak and shake it from side-to-side to ensure it isn’t going to move while you’re driving.
The ‘Daisy Chain’
The daisy chain is a way to eliminate the extra length of strap that’s falling down the side of your vehicle once the strap is pulled to your desired tightness.
This keeps the excess strap from flapping in the wind and causing damage, either to itself or to your vehicle/kayak.
So let’s detail how to daisy chain a kayak strap once it’s tightened down. To start, you’ll want to double the strap back on itself and tie a knot just below the buckle. This essentially creates a fail-safe to keep the desired tightness on the strap if the buckle does happen to fail.
When you double the strap to make this knot, you’ll create the loop that you’ll use for the daisy chain. Using that initial loop as a guide, double the strap again and place it through that loop.
You’ll now have the start to your chain and you can repeat this process as much (or as little) as needed depending on how much excess strap you have.
When you’re nearing the end of the strap, you can place the end through your last loop to essentially tie the strap to itself and secure your daisy chain in place.
After that, you’ll have about half the excess strap to tuck away so it doesn’t flap in the wind. If you need a visual representation of this technique, here’s a great video on how to daisy chain a kayak tie-down!
Securing Bow and Stern Lines
If you have an extra-long kayak on a shorter vehicle (e.g. the picture above), you’ll want to secure bow and stern lines to further protect your kayak from shifting while driving.
These lines will ensure that high winds don’t lift the bow or stern of your kayak up and cause unsafe driving conditions.
Your stern line will also serve as a useful place to attach a bright red or orange flag to alert other drivers to the presence of a long kayak extending further back than the usual length of your vehicle.
You can use a pretty standard rope for your bow and stern lines, as long as it’s in reasonable condition. But for more security, we’d recommend using a rope with a thickness of at least one-quarter of an inch in diameter.
You’ll use the handles at the bow and stern of your kayak as the upper anchor points for these lines. And you’ll want to make sure you don’t have a bunch of excess rope that’s going to end of flopping around in the wind.
So you can either measure the distance from your kayak to the secure points on your vehicle and cut the rope to that desired length.
Or you can look online to find your desired length of NRS cam straps and use them for bow and stern lines as well.
For the lower anchor points, many vehicles have metal tie-down points located just under the bumper and welded directly to the frame.
These points are often used to tie vehicles down when they’re being transported across the country on trucks or trailers.
These points should always be used as the lower anchor points for bow and stern lines over simply tying the line directly to the bumper or crafting any other DIY solution. These metal anchor points will provide the most solid way to ensure the safety of your kayak.
How To Check Your Work
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as pulling your straps too tight when strapping down your kayaks. Generally speaking, this isn’t an issue for plastic kayaks, but it certainly can be for boats made of fiberglass, composite, or inflatable materials.
For the latter, you want to pull your straps down so that there’s enough tension to keep your kayak in place. But you want to avoid too much tension because it can result in your kayak warping (fiberglass and composite material) or rupturing (inflatable material).
A common mistake amongst new kayakers is tightening straps down so that you can ‘pluck’ them to create noise (kind of like plucking the strings on a guitar).
But you want to stop before tightening your straps to this level, as it also creates the risk of the straps or buckles becoming compromised and let loose under the additional stress of wind from driving.
Before we finish up, we can’t over-emphasize the importance of double-checking your work before driving off with your kayak on a roof rack. It’s always good to get a second set of eyes to make sure everything is tied down properly.
There’s a great risk to improperly strapping a kayak to a roof rack and it can put many things in danger, including other people on the road.
But if you follow the instructions we’ve laid out above, you’ll be able to strap your kayak to a roof rack in minutes and be on your way.
And now that you have your kayaks loaded and strapped down properly, where are you off to? Check out some of the best kayaking destinations if you’re looking for new waterways to explore.