Kayak owners are undoubtedly aware of the difficulty of transporting their kayaks from one place to another. Most vehicles simply don’t have the room to fit something 10 feet or more across. For these inveterate adventurers, a kayak roof rack can be an invaluable tool. But with so many options in the market, choosing the best one, admittedly, can be a real head-scratcher. Don’t fret, because the buyer’s guide below can ease your decision fatigue. We’ve rounded up what we think are the best kayak racks for cars currently on the market, so read on and find out which one — or ones — are right for you!
The Best Kayak Racks
This kayak rack comes with a built-in boarding ramp for straightforward loading, and everything that you need to transport your kayak on top of your car is included, except for the cross rails.
The design features fold-down technology to increase the overhead clearance. As for the padding, it is oversized to protect your kayak during transport. The mounting hardware is designed to fit round, square and most factory oval cross rails.
- Includes all necessary kayak carrying equipment
- Comes with built-in boarding ramp
- Oversized padding for protection during transport
- Fold down technology for overhead clearance
- Brand Malone
- Model MPG114MD
- Weight 10 pounds
Whether you have a single kayak or a pair of them, this carrier is designed to support one weighing up to 80 pounds or two weighing as much as 110 pounds. The contact points are extra padded to offer a high level of protection and grip during transportation, so you don’t have to feel nervous while driving.
When you get the kayaks on the roof (one in the J-cradle position or two stacked vertically), you can lock them into the base rack with a SKS lock core that’s sold separately. Heavy-duty straps and bow/stern tie-downs are also included.
- Carries any type of kayak
- Very low maintenance
- Super-padded contact points
- Includes straps and tie-down
- Brand Yakima
- Model 8004073
- Weight 12.7 pounds
Next is a high-performance kayak carrier from Thule, a known manufacturer of outdoor and transportation products. Loading and unloading are made easy thanks to the wide j-profile, and the package includes thick weather pads to ensure maximum protection for both your roof and your kayak.
All load straps needed to secure one kayak — including bow and stern tie-downs — are included, and the manufacturer boasts that the kayak carrier will fit all Thule rack systems, round bars, as well as most factory crossbars.
- Accommodates a variety of kayaks
- Designed to fit Thule rack systems, round bars, and most factory crossbars
- Thick all-weather pads
- Rust-resistant coating
- Brand Thule
- Model 834
- Weight 8.7 pounds
This handy piece of equipment is not only designed for kayaks but also a host of other things, including surfboards, luggage, paddleboards, and more. Unlike many other similar products, it is made from textured material, which has a cushioning and protective effect.
Designed to fit almost any type of car, each one comes complete with everything you need for the easy installation. Secure transportation is provided by the D-ring anchor points and extra-long straps which fit around the roof. And the load capacity is up to 175 pounds.
- Designed to fit most vehicles and SUVs
- Made from 420-denier nylon
- Textured surface for protection
- Ultra-long straps to evenly spread the load
- Brand HandiRack
- Model MPG452
- Weight 6.4 pounds
Solid steel makes this a durable option, while there is also adjustable padding to protect your kayak and increase carrying strength. The J bar has a wide mouth to facilitate loading and unloading, and it is designed to mount to virtually all crossbars and load bars on the market.
It is suitable for kayaks up to 36 inches wide and 75 pounds, so take the time to weigh and measure your kayak before making a purchase. It also comes with quick on/off hardware, enabling fast installation and removal.
- Steel design with adjustable padding
- Quick on/off hardware
- Secures kayak on its side
- J-style carrier leaves space on the roof
- Brand TMS
- Model KAYAK-RK-J(1BOX)
- Weight 7.87 pounds
This carrier can hold kayaks and standup paddleboards in multiple configurations to maximize space. The system easily mounts to most factory crossbars and other SportRack Roof Rack Systems. The package includes pads for protection, extra-long straps, quality ropes, as well as bow and stern tie-downs good enough for either two kayaks or two standup paddleboards.
Installation is fast and easy, and the mounts can be folded down when not in use.
- Designed to fit up to two kayaks or two standup paddleboards
- Mounts to most factory crossbars and SportRack Roof Rack systems
- Includes all straps and tie-downs for two kayaks or two standup paddleboards
- Brand SportRack
- Model SR5514
- Weight 19.7 pounds
Subtle in its single saddle design, this kayak and cargo carrier is easy to set up. While some carriers take up a huge amount of roof space, this one is designed to only use a small amount of room. You will also find that it is easy to set up and transferrable to another vehicle in just a matter of minutes. The mounting hardware is made to fit around round, square, and the majority of oval cross rails.
- Low-profile design
- Includes everything needed to carry a kayak on your rooftop
- Unique space-saving, mid-mount design
- Universal JAWZ™ mounting hardware
- Brand Malone
- Model MPG107MD
- Weight 10.05 pounds
This double J-style kayak carrier is strong, secure, and will give you peace of mind as you go about the business of transporting your water vessel. It’s made from heavy-duty steel and has a powder coating for maximum rust protection. It has foams and adjustable padding where you need it to prevent damage to both your roof and your rack.
It will fit most factory crossbars, whether oval, round, or square. Lastly, the package includes enough mounting accessories to accommodate two kayaks
- Made from heavy-duty steel and powder coated
- Adjustable padding
- Fits most factory crossbars
- Includes enough straps to mount two kayaks
- Brand Leader Accessories
- Model 4350438890
- Weight 15.52 pounds
The WooWave Roof Rack is a durable and easy-to-remove option for small vehicles, and for adventurers who want a more temporary solution. It is made from UV resistant ballistic nylon cover and EPE foam that can take a lot of abuse. The padding is thick and will be able to protect almost any kind of kayak.
Two waterproof and padded polyester straps are included to accommodate one kayak, and it comes with a portable bag for storing everything when not in use.
- Made from UV resistant ballistic nylon cover and EPE foam
- Two waterproof polyester straps included for mounting one kayak
- Will fit nearly any vehicle
- Includes a portable storage bag
- Brand WooWave
- Model N/A
- Weight N/A
Last but not least we have this kayak rack for your SUV, van, or car, which allows you to mount your kayak in a J-style to create more space on top of your vehicle. The J-bar is in a wide-mouthed style, allowing you to load and unload your kayak with ease. The framing is made of heavy-duty steel, and you can adjust the padding as you would like. All mounting hardware and fastening straps are included to ensure that you have everything you need.
- Universal fit
- Wide mouth J-bar
- Quick on/off hardware
- Brand ECOTRIC
- Model RACK-A11-P
- Weight 16.25 pounds
What to Look for When Choosing the Best Kayak Roof Rack
There are a few important things to consider before deciding on the kayak roof rack to get. To help you settle on the right one, we’ll discuss each of these considerations below.
When it comes to kayak roof racks, it is unfortunately not a one-size-fits-all situation. Some kayak roof racks were designed for specific kinds of roofs and may not fit yours in particular. A roof rack that doesn’t fit properly will present potential hazards, both to your kayak and the car itself. The good news is that, whether you drive a subcompact or a large 4×4, there will be a kayak roof rack in the market that’s designed for it. You can check your owner’s handbook for the exact measurements of your vehicle’s roof or you can measure it yourself. Doing this will go a long way in helping you pick out the right rack system for your roof.
Some roof racks can accommodate full-sized kayaks, while some will have difficulty doing so. You can go for a roof rack specifically designed to carry a kayak or one that is multi-purpose. Needless to say, it’s always a bad idea to force a roof rack to carry something it wasn’t designed to do as this can damage both your kayak and your car’s roof. The important thing is to make sure your rack can accommodate the kayak’s exact dimensions.
Consider the other features of your rack system as well and make sure they are suited for your specific kayaking needs. Will you need something semi-permanent or temporary? This might depend on how often you go kayaking. The former will be stronger and will offer more flexibility in positioning the kayak but will also be more expensive. A temporary rack option might be less stable depending on the size of your kayak, but they are less expensive and can be easily removed.
Number of Kayaks
Naturally, the number of kayaks you intend to bring will be something to consider when choosing a roof rack. Some roof racks can accommodate two kayaks, while some as many as four. You need to make sure that the roof rack you’re getting is designed to carry the number of kayaks you’ll be transporting because forcing two or more kayaks on a roof rack designed to accommodate a single kayak can damage your roof, your kayak, or possibly even the other vehicles around you.
A roof rack with a tall bar height might make the kayak more difficult to load and unload. Conversely, a low bar height puts your kayak closer to the roof, making loading and unloading easier. But the downside to a low bar height is that there’s a bigger chance of your kayak hitting the roof during the loading or unloading process.
The materials used for the roof rack’s construction will give you an idea of how long it will last. Of course, the better the materials used, the longer it can be expected to last. Steel and aluminum are typically the materials used in high-end roof racks. It should also have a padded design to protect your kayak while in transit. Some roof racks made from fabric offer a good amount of protection, too, and they might fit your roof like a glove. You can read through the reviews first before making a purchase to assure you’re getting a quality product.
There might be other things you’ll need to purchase to complete your rack system and get your kayak to fit perfectly. For instance, you might need a crossbar system. If you do, you’ll need to make sure it’s compatible with your roof rack. Some roof racks will already have everything you need while others will be missing a few things, requiring you to purchase them separately. Whatever the case may be, these are concerns you should take note of before making a decision.
The bevy of kayak roof brands in the market can make things all the more confusing. But it will be a good idea to take your time and find out about them since some have a better reputation than others. Ultimately, your decision will involve the type of vehicle you have, the dimensions of your kayak, and your budget, but don’t forget that other factors like the reputation of the brand and their customer service can matter, too. It’s usually a good sign when a brand focuses on roof racks or kayak-related products.
As with most products, the quality can be expected to increase with price. It is no different for kayak roof racks. Typically, the more expensive a roof rack is, the more robust its construction will be. We don’t advise that you get the most expensive one in the market — this will always depend on your specific needs. But you’ll have to be open to spending a premium if you want your roof rack to last a long time.
Types of Kayak Racks
There are different kinds of kayak rack holders in the market, and before you make a long term decision on what to get, below is some information about each type. Basically, kayak rack holders can fall into four main categories, each with its own pros and cons. Types include temporary pads, saddles, j-cradles, and stackers.
Not all vehicles come with roof racks installed. While a typical SUV will have some kind of rack installed, those that aren’t so lucky will need a Temporary pad, which is a rack system specially designed for vehicles that aren’t already fitted with a factory rack. These racks are uncomplicated and are easy to remove. Installation will be straightforward, too. Basically, straps that run through the inside of your vehicle and over your roof are what hold the rack steady above. There will be cushions or inflatable pads attached to keep your kayak from damaging the roof. It’s an affordable option and intended for those making short trips, or those who won’t be carrying their kayaks often.
Another type of kayak rack is what’s called a “saddle” rack. This rack allows you to sit your kayak on its hull atop your vehicle’s roof. Because of the large surface area and the way in which the kayak is positioned, saddle racks are among the sturdiest and most stable of kayak roof racks. This will be a great option if you’re going to be transporting your kayak through particularly rough patches of road. One disadvantage of the design, however, is that even a single kayak will be taking up a lot of space on your roof, so you’ll be lucky to load two kayaks.
Perhaps the most popular kind of kayak roof rack is the J-Cradle, which gets its name from the shape it makes. Basically, they are a pair of supports that attach to your crossbar to hold your kayak at an angle. The manner in which it holds a kayak allows for more space on your roof for other items, or even for another kayak or two. They are stable and secure, but the relatively high-profile means you won’t be as aerodynamic as you would be with a saddle rack. Since the J-Cradle is designed for side-loading, owners of cars with extended trunks will benefit the most from its design.
Stackers, like the name suggests, are designed to transport multiple kayaks. The kayaks are mounted on the roof standing straight on their sides, taking up as little space as possible. This allows up to four kayaks to be mounted, depending on the area of your roof. A good stacker rack will be reasonably secure, as long as you don’t mount more than your roof can handle. They are easy to install and remove, too, making them a great option for those who need to haul two or more kayaks at once.
Safety Tips for Transporting Multiple Kayaks
Different rack types will offer their own set of pros and cons. The important thing is to check the product literature to see what its limitations are and check how many kayaks it can accommodate. You will also need to have the relevant amount of fasteners and ropes depending on the number of kayaks you intend to carry in one go. Some products will come with enough straps to tie down a single kayak, while some will have more — you’ll need to check the product’s guidelines to ensure you have enough for what you need.
Where loading kayaks is concerned, it’s best to start by strapping in the outer ones before fitting another in the middle. Be sure to have everything tied down safely and securely, and consider driving much slower than you would without a kayak strapped to your roof. If you can’t avoid the highway, then limit yourself to the slow lane, and of course, forget about overtaking unless you really need to.
How To Install a Kayak Car Rack
There isn’t one way to install a kayak roof rack. The method of installation will depend on the type of rack, and the kind of vehicle you have. Below are a few basic things you’ll need to do, however, which will generally apply to most racks.
Assemble the kayak rack before attaching it to your crossbar. Once assembled, put it on the crossbar as instructed in the manual and secure the strap to the rack with a carriage bolt. Next, loop the strap under the crossbar and thread the carriage bolt, leaving it loose enough for adjustment. Do the same thing to the other rack, and once they line up properly, tighten the bolts until you’re confident they’re secure.
Best Kayak Racks for Cars FAQ:
Q: How do I load a kayak onto a roof rack?
A: If it’s your first time to load a kayak onto a roof rack, we’re sure it will at first seem like a daunting task. Before you do anything, it’s best to check the user’s manual to see if a lift system was included to help you in the loading and unloading process. Typically, this will look like a sliding bar against which the kayak can be slid to take off some of its weight when loading.
If your rack doesn’t include a boat loader or a lift system of some kind, then you will have to carry the rack yourself. Check your kayak and clear it of water or possible items left inside because these might present a hazard while transporting. Next, check your user’s manual to determine the type of loading that is required. Some rack systems are designed to be loaded from the side, while some from the back.
The standard way of loading a kayak onto a roof rack is quite simple. The first step is to stand the kayak vertically, allowing one end (typically the front end) to rest on the front part of the roof. Then, lift the other end of the kayak toward the back of the roof. You can place a towel between your kayak and the roof to avoid scratching. Next is to tie the kayak down along the bow and stern lines, making sure they’re secure but not too tight as to damage the shape of your kayak. If you’re planning to load a single kayak, make sure it’s exactly centered between the bars to avoid accidentally tipping it over.
Of course, if an instructional video is available from your manufacturer, then we advise that you watch it before doing anything else.
Q: How do I tie down a kayak on a roof rack?
Most of the time, a manufacturer will be clear on how to use the ropes and straps included with the product. Typically, the user’s manual will discuss the tie-down system, illustrate how to use it, and talk about the anchor points you’ll need to pay close attention to. Often, tying down a kayak to a rack simply involves looping straps under the rack and over the body of the kayak, making sure everything is secure. But some systems might involve a little bit more than that, so it’s best to refer to the manual when in doubt.
Regardless of the type of roof rack you choose, strapping the kayak’s front and rear end to secure parts of your vehicle will always be one of the requirements. Most vehicles will have tow hooks underneath the bumper onto which the kayak’s bow can be strapped. Just remember to avoid securing the strap on any soft part of your bumper as it might damage in transport. For the stern, tie down the grab handle located at the rear of your kayak to any secure point on the rear of your vehicle. Most vehicles will have a chain anchor at the rear which can be used to tie down the stern.
Any other loose ends must be tied up securely, to make sure no knot gets undone during transit. Any strap that unravels on the way can get underneath your car and cause serious damage. Not only that, a loosely strapped boat can cause damage to both your car and boat, as well as other vehicles.
Q: Can I mount a kayak to a small car?
Most small cars will have kayak roof racks designed for them. Of course, the question of whether you can mount a boat on a small car will also depend on how big the boat you intend to mount is. It goes without saying that the smaller the vehicle and the bigger the boat being mounted, the more difficult the mounting process will be. Some really diminutive vehicles might require a custom-built roof rack that can accommodate a kayak. Of course, there are many kayak roof racks designed for subcompact vehicles, and the best thing to do is to check with the manufacturer for the proper roof rack.
Q: Can I add rails to my car?
Unless you opt for a Temporary pad system, you will definitely need additional rails on your car if you want to carry a kayak. Naturally, they have to be the kind that fits your vehicle’s specific make and model, but most will be pretty basic to install. The main parts are the mount, the crossbars, and the tower/foot set. The mount is what is attached to the vehicle, and the way to attach them will depend on the mount type. The crossbars are what runs across the width of the roof. The tower/foot set is installed at the strongest points of the roof and they connect both the mount and the crossbars.
Q: How much does a kayak rack cost?
A kayak rack will cost anywhere from $40 to $200, depending on the type, and depending on what is included in the package. Some will have enough items included to mount two or more kayaks, while some will only have enough to mount one.
Q: Do you need crossbars for a kayak rack?
If your roof has no rack or is only fitted with side rails, then a Temporary pad might be the best solution. This is because there is nothing atop your roof to hold the mount. There are a few other solutions, of course, but they will require drilling mount holes onto the roof.
Some vehicles will have factory crossbars installed. If you have one such vehicle, then a gear mount such as a Saddle or a J-Cradle might be all you’ll need. If your vehicle doesn’t come with a factory crossbar, then you can purchase one and have them installed, or follow the instruction guide and install them yourself.
Q: How do you transport a kayak without a rack?
You can either get an inflatable rack, a trailer, or a foam car top carrier. A foam top carrier will likely be the easiest solution, and they basically consist of foam blocks attached to the roof of your car by ratchet straps that run through the windows.
Our Top Pick
The Malone Downloader Folding J-Style Kayak Rack gets our top pick. It comes in the popular J-style design and is incorporated with an adjustable sliding ramp to make loading and unloading a kayak easier. There’s a good amount of padding to ensure both the kayak and the roof don’t get scratched during the loading or transport process. We particularly liked that the system is designed to fit different types of cross rails, whether round, square, or oval.
Man reviewers agree it’s one of the best kayak carriers in the market, and we think it will tick most boxes.
- How to Decide on a Roof Rack – YourMechanic Advice
- 4 Essential Things to Know About the Roof Rack on Your Car – YourMechanic
- How to Transport a Kayak – HowStuffWorks