How to Transport a Kayak (Do I Need a Roof Rack?)


How to Transport a Kayak

How Do You Safely Transport a Kayak?

Transporting your kayak is one of the first challenges you’ll face when you begin kayaking. Even if you have a kayak delivered to your house, you’ll still need a reliable and safe way to transport your kayak each time you want to go paddling.

So what is the best way to transport kayaks? The best and safest way to transport a kayak is by securing it to a roof rack on top of your vehicle. If you don’t have a roof rack or don’t want to install one, there are alternative methods to transporting a kayak, including: in the bed of a truck, on a trailer, or even behind a bike.

Transporting an improperly secured kayak can cause serious damage to your vehicle, your kayak, or to other people on the road. So it’s crucial that you think about what method is best for you in advance. Take time to consider the different methods, so you can better understand your kayak transport options.

Ideally, you should figure out how you’re going to transport your kayak before you buy one (and I’m saying this as someone who’s pretty impulsive). But even if you haven’t had time to think about it in advance, there are still plenty of options for your particular needs.

Things you’ll need to consider in planning to transport your kayak:

You also need to think about the features on your vehicle and the nature of your trip. Your preferred method of kayak transport for a short trip down a smooth road might be very different from a long trip that involves bumpy, uneven roads.

Regardless of the transport method you choose, there are a few steps you should always take when you’re securing your kayak during transport. These steps will make the job easier … and safer.

1. Use a Cockpit Cover

When you’re transporting a kayak, you should try to use a properly fitted cockpit cover. This serves multiple purposes. For one, you want to protect the inside of your kayak as you transport it. You don’t want road debris to fly into the kayak or otherwise do damage.

Another big reason to use a cockpit cover is your kayak will be more secure…and your trip will be safer. If the cockpit is not covered, wind that builds as a vehicle speeds up may pull the kayak out of the straps meant to keep it steady. This can not only cause major damage to your kayak, it can pose a huge risk to yourself and other drivers if it breaks loose altogether.

To be fair, I transport my recreational sit-inside kayaks with no cockpit cover all the time and never have had problems. But a cockpit cover on more expensive, sea or touring kayaks is definitely a good idea.

2. Routinely Check All Straps

If kayak transport were to have a golden rule, it would likely be to check (and recheck) all straps and lines before you leave and throughout your trip. A good rule of thumb is to stop after about the first fifteen minutes of driving and ensure that all the straps are tight enough.

It may seem like an inconvenience to stop just minutes after starting a trip, but having your kayak slip off during transport will be way more painful. Take a few minutes to ensure the lines are still secure since they can loosen as you drive.

When you stop for a bathroom or food, check the straps again. You’re already getting out of your car, so you might as well make good use of the stop. 

If you hear any unusual sounds coming from your kayak as you drive, it’s best to just pull over as soon as you can to make sure that everything’s secure. 

3. Use a Red Flag For Visibility

Unless you’re moving your kayak on a stretch limousine (pro tip: don’t transport your kayak on a stretch limousine), then part of your kayak will likely be hanging over the back of your vehicle or out the bed of your pickup. 

So you’ll want to make sure other drivers are aware of the overhang. It’s good practice to attach a red flag to the rear end of your kayak during transport. In fact, some states even require one by law.

Be sure to check state road rules before you transport a kayak so you can avoid fines. It takes very little effort to add a warning flag. 

4. A Little Help Goes A Long Way

A final general consideration is to have help whenever possible. You might physically be able to move a kayak by yourself, but it’s much easier and safer if you have another person to help you, especially hoisting it up over your head and onto a tall vehicle like an SUV.

How to Transport a Kayak With a Roof Rack

Transporting a Kayak with a Roof Rack
Transporting a Kayak with a Roof Rack

As you’ve probably realized by now, there are two main ways to transport a kayak:

  1. On top of a car with a roof rack
  2. On top of a car without a roof rack

But you’d be surprised how many people are unsure if they can transport a kayak with a roof rack on their car.

Either they think their car can’t bear the weight of the kayak, or the kayak isn’t aerodynamic enough, or they simply don’t think their kayak can be tied down safely. 

So, to answer this burning question:

Can you transport a kayak on a roof rack? You can absolutely transport your kayak on top of your car attached to a roof rack. It’s convenient, it’s safe, and as long as your car’s roof rack is secured to the roof of your car and is rated to hold the weight of your kayak, most car racks are perfect for transporting your kayak.

First, take a look at the roof of your car. What do you see up there?

Many vehicles come with some sort of roof rack that’s already installed. Most SUVs have a version of a luggage rack on the roof that will work for transporting a kayak. Some SUVs already have a complete roof rack system installed, so that you only need materials specific to kayaks.

While there are several different types of roof racks (more on that in a moment), the tie-down procedure to secure your kayak is pretty much the same for each one.

If your vehicle doesn’t have any kind of roof rack, don’t worry. There are plenty of removable roof racks out on the market. There are a few extra steps involved to make sure a removable rack has been properly secured to your vehicle. Once those are done, you can secure your kayak for transport as usual.

Types of Roof Racks

  • Side rails and crossbars: As I mentioned earlier, there’s many SUVs on the market come with a complete roof rack system already installed. These will have side rails for a frame, with several crossbars covering the width. If your vehicle has this type of system, then good news: you just need a few attachments to be ready to transport your kayak.
  • Side rails only: Some SUVs have only side rails and no crossbars. Others have both. If your vehicle doesn’t have factory-installed crossbars, you can purchase separate bars. There are many options for crossbars so you can find the correct size and style to fit with your vehicle. The crossbars are designed to attach to the side rails that are already on your car’s roof.
  • Removable roof racks: For vehicles that don’t have any sort of roof rack system, you can buy a removable system. Removable roof racks are usually in a soft form, meaning that there is some foam that cushions harder bars on the inside. 

Removable roof racks are a great choice for sedans or other vehicles without roof racks. If you decide to opt for a removable soft roof rack, keep in mind that they typically do not elevate the kayak above the car very much. This can cause problems if the vehicle has a particularly round roof. 

The vehicle must also have a wide enough roof to allow for proper spacing of the rack. So if you’re driving a little hatchback, then it might not be big enough to accommodate one.

In all cases, keep in mind that a factory-installed roof rack system is likely to be more durable and secure. Use caution when you decide on a removable roof rack for long or heavy transport. 

Kayak Attachments to Roof Racks

Once you have an adequate roof rack system set up, you still need attachments designed to transport a kayak on the roof rack.

There are a few main types of attachments that you can use for your kayaks:

  • Saddles: These are the preferred method for many kayakers. A saddle is like a small, cushioned platform that attaches to the roof rack. The kayak rests on the saddle and is stabilized by the attachment. Some people use a pair of saddles underneath the bow and another pair of saddles under the stern, but you can also just use one pair underneath the middle.
  • J-cradles: When you use a j-cradle, you will actually position the kayak on its side. This may seem odd, but it helps to prevent plastic kayaks from warping out of shape. You can also transport two kayaks side by side with j-cradles. These pieces are essentially padded bars in the shape of the letter J, hence their name. 
  • Stacker: A third type of kayak attachment is a stacker. As the name implies, a stacker allows you to transport more than one kayak at a time. Like j-cradles, the kayaks are positioned on their sides. A stacker is the best option if you want to transport multiple kayaks at the same time. 
  • Foam blocks or pads: These are a temporary addition that you can use if you do not want to invest in a more complex system. The goal with temporary blocks is to add padding to the roof rails that are already on a vehicle. This can be done with different types of foam strapped to the bars, such as pool noodles. 

How Do You Load a Kayak on a Roof Rack?

After determining that you have the proper setup, now comes the fun part: loading and securing your kayak to the roof of your vehicle.

  1. It is easiest to load a kayak with the help of another person. With two people, each person uses the grab handles at either end of the kayak in order to hold the kayak parallel to the vehicle.
  2. Lifting at the same time, both people raise the kayak so that it is over the roof rack. 
  3. Then they’ll carefully lower the kayak onto the roof rack. Be sure to have the kayak centered appropriately.
  4.  If you are loading a kayak by yourself, consider using a towel to slide the kayak onto the roof without damaging your vehicle. 
  5. Once the kayak is resting on the roof rack, you will use a cam strap for each of the crossbars. Place the strap’s buckle to the side of a crossbar, loop the end on the other side of the vehicle under the crossbar, and then return to the original side.
  6. Then you will loop that end under the crossbar before you secure it in the buckle. The strap should be inside of where the crossbar meets the vehicle. This is done for each crossbar. You want the straps to be tight without warping the shape of the kayak.

It is best to tie a knot in the excess ends of the cam straps before also tying them to the crossbars. To make sure that the kayak is secure at this point, try to rock it from side to side.

You also need to strap down the bow and stern of the kayak. Use ratchet lines or rope for this part.

  1. Using the ratchet end of the strap, attach the line to the front of the kayak, preferably to a grab strap. 
  2. Then attach the other end of the line to a secure part of your vehicle. This means a part of the vehicle that is not plastic. 
  3. Next, you will tighten the line by pulling down the free end. Again, the strap should be snug but not to the point that it places stress on the kayak. 
  4. Tie the loose end of the strap under the ratchet and repeat with the stern of the kayak. 

What is the best way to secure a kayak to a car?

The best way to secure a kayak is to use a roof rack that includes some sort of factory-installed metal bars. While a roof rack system of some kind is better than none at all, you will likely find the most security and durability with a commercial rack system. 

Using a Pre-Installed Roof Rack

The factory-installed roof rack on your car, if you have one, can offer the most stability. It will have a proper weight distribution ratio and will be secure. If the rack only has side rails, you will have to add crossbars before transporting a kayak.

Picking the Right Attachment

You also need to pick the right attachment for your kayak. While it will depends on how many kayaks you want to transport, saddles are usually the most secure attachments. They offer a sort of “hugging” hold to the bottom of the kayak.

Tying Down a Kayak Properly

It’s crucial that your kayak is securely tied down without damaging the kayak or your car from too much tension. Lines that are too tight can cause the kayak to bend or even snap over time. You want to have enough tension to keep the kayak from moving but not so much that you are crushing the shape of the kayak.

How to Transport a Kayak Without a Roof Rack

Do you need a roof rack to transport a kayak?

Most people prefer the stability of a roof rack for transporting kayaks. If your vehicle doesn’t have a roof rack and can’t accommodate a removable one, don’t worry. Just about any vehicle can be modified to carry a kayak.

Here are several ways to transport a kayak without a roof rack:

1. Consider an Inflatable Kayak

An inflatable kayak is a great option if you don’t expect to have a roof rack for transport. It’s also an excellent choice when you’re first getting into kayaking as it’s easier to store inflatable kayaks.

With an inflatable kayak, everything usually fits into one bag. This makes transport extremely easy as the bag can fit in your car without taking up a ton of space. 

Some people don’t want or like inflatable kayaks. There can be concerns about the durability of the kayak and damage. But modern inflatable kayaks are made well, transport more easily, and perform just as good as hard, full-formed kayaks.

2. Use a Pickup Truck

One of the easiest ways to transport a kayak is with a pickup truck. This method is essentially just putting the kayak in the truck bed and securing it. Note that since most kayaks are over 9 feet long and most pickup beds are at most 8′ long, you’ll probably have more than a little bit of overhang.

Here’s where that red flag tied to the rear tip of your kayak comes in.

Before you place the kayak in the truck bed, make sure to completely clean it out. You want the bed to be clear of any objects or debris that could damage the kayak. It is also best to lay down mats of some sort. Rubber mats work best, but you could use towels or blankets if necessary. The goal is just to prevent scratching of your kayak.

Here’s how to secure your kayak to the bed of a pickup truck:

  1. Slide the kayak into the truck bed. If the tailgate has room to close, go ahead and shut it.
  2. Even if the tailgate closes all the way, you should still use tie-downs to secure the kayak. If your kayak is longer than the truck bed, then leave the tailgate up.
  3. How far can a kayak hang out of a truck? Rules vary state to state, but generally, no more than three or four feet beyond the edge of the truck bed. 
  4. If necessary, you can have the kayak stick out over the tailgate but use tie-downs to secure it. Be sure to attach the lines in a way that prevents the kayak from slipping. 

With this method, it’s important to have a red flag on the end of your kayak. You should also make sure that you routinely check the security of the kayak throughout your drive. 

3. Trailer the Kayak

How to Transport Kayak - Trailer
Transporting a Kayak on a Trailer

Kayak trailers come in all different sizes and capacities. Trailers are great for heavier fishing kayaks as well as carrying multiple kayaks more conveniently.

Another alternative to using a roof rack is to trailer your kayak. This option is great for people who frequently transport their kayaks, but prefer not to use a roof rack. If you already have a trailer that is the right size for your kayak, it will probably be the most efficient method.

Alternatively, many places like U-Haul have fairly cheap day rates for trailer rentals.

As with any other method, be sure to use adequate tie-downs to keep the kayak in place. Keep in mind that there are general use trailers and those that are specifically for kayaks. A trailer that is designed for kayaks can be pricey, but it’s a worthy investment if you plan to be transporting your kayak often.

4. Make a DIY Roof Rack

How do you transport a kayak on a car without a rack? If you don’t have a roof rack, you can create your own version of a roof rack. This is a great option for people who have not found a roof rack they like or for those who will not be transporting a kayak many times.

One way to make a DIY roof rack is by using pool noodles and ratchet straps. You can easily find pool noodles for a great price. Ratchet straps have adjustable buckles to secure everything well. When you make this version of a roof rack, you will want to have your car doors open.

  1. Use at least three pool noodles to have one for the stern, the bow, and the middle. Cut the pool noodles if they are too long for the width of the roof of your car. 
  2. Then, use the ratchet straps to secure the pool noodles to the car. The straps should be adjusted inside the car, so make sure the doors are open. 
  3. Load your kayak upside down onto the modified roof rack. Keep the weight distributed evenly from front to back and side to side. Use ratchet straps again to secure the kayak. 
  4. Be sure to add straps to the middle, front, and back for security.

Kayak Transport Wrap Up

A key consideration when you decide to buy a kayak, is how you’re going to transport it. If you have a car or SUV that’s large enough, then the best and safest way to transport it is with your vehicle’s built-in roof rack. 

Don’t worry if your vehicle doesn’t have a roof rack, though. With removable roof racks and alternative transport methods, there are still plenty of ways to get your kayak from point A to point B.

Just refer back to this handy guide for reference, and you’ll have your kayak on the road and on the way to the next wide stretch of water in no time.

Steve W

I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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