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If you own a kayak – the non-inflatable variety – then you need a way to get it from your home to the water and back. Now, unless you have a kayak trailer to tow your boat, the next best option is to get a roof rack for your vehicle.
It’s the only logical alternative since most cars don’t have room to accommodate a 10+ foot-long yak. Not to mention it makes transporting it safer and more convenient.
While your shiny new boat is a welcome addition to your outdoor gear collection, it’s a given that you’ll also need a roof rack to go with it. The question is – How do you pick the best one out of all the available models?
We’ve analyzed the different options that are hot on the market right now, to help you pick the best kayak roof rack for your vehicle.
If you’re in the market for a saddle-style kayak roof rack, then you’ll love the Rhino-Rack Nautic 570 Series Kayak Carrier. The rack system comes with four large Santoprene rubber cradles, each of which has three highly-flexible joints that hold your boat securely in place. It almost looks like two pairs of hands gently cradling your kayak from underneath.
If you’re not sure whether this particular rack system will fit your crossbar or roof rack, Rhino-Rack has a useful resource on their website that you can use to match your existing roof system to a carrier.
One particularly useful feature you’ll like is that you can load it from the side. All you have to do is – pull the pads toward the outer part of the vehicle, load your kayak, and roll it back into the carrying position. The pads are designed to swivel 180 degrees.
The Rhino-Rack Carrier is made to fit a wide range of hull types, although it will take a bit of experimentation to find the optimum mounting positions for the cradles to hold your kayak securely in place. It comes with other useful accessories, including tie-downs and load straps that come pretty handy when you’re on the road.
Lightweight and easy to install
Pivoting pads make loading and unloading a breeze
Comes with tie-downs and load straps
Secures the hull without applying undue stress on it
While the rack’s design provides some measure of security, it’s not enough to deter a determined thief from stealing them off your car roof
Best Budget Choice
2. Pilot CG-30 2 Strap Roof Rack (Best for Beginner Kayakers)
If you’re just dipping your toe in the kayaking pool, the Pilot CG-30 2 Strap Roof Rack is the perfect way to ease you in without breaking the bank to do it. It is a quick-and-easy-install roof rack system that fits perfectly on just about any vehicle.
You don’t need any tools to do it. You don’t even need a roof rack or crossbar system. Plus, you can use it to carry anything – not just boats. From luggage and furniture to snowboards and skis – you name it. The Pilot roof rack can haul it.
The system comes with two inflatable pads with air chambers inside, and an inflator to protect the roof of your car while cushioning the load. The package also includes two cam buckle tie-downs to spread out the weight evenly, therefore, enhancing stability.
When not in use, you can store all components securely in the handy bag that comes with it. Overall, it’s a great way to transport your kayak without damaging your vehicle in the process.
Quick and easy installation process
No tools, roof racks, or crossbars required to mount it
Offers excellent protection against damage to your car roof
May not be ideal for long-distance trips on the highway
3. Thule Hull-a-Port Pro Kayak Carrier (Best J-Style Roof Rack)
The Thule Hull-a-Port Pro Kayak Carrier is one of the top roof racks in the industry right now. It is designed as an easy-to-use carrier for hauling a wide range of items and is easily the most padded kayak rack we’ve come across so far.
The system is gentle with thick foam padding lining the J-shaped bars. It also has a nylon shell enclosure that keeps your kayak safe and protected, regardless of how much it’s jostled around on the rough back roads.
Aside from its superior padding, the Thule Hull-a-Port Pro is backed by a lifetime warranty. This is a testament to the superior quality of this particular roof rack system.
It comes with a quick-collapse lever that you can use to conveniently fold up and store away when it’s not in use. Although it is pricier than many of the other roof racks on the market, the protection it provides is second to none. It is certainly well worth the investment.
Easy to collapse and store
Has a narrow profile
Offers superior padding
It is made of durable construction
Backed by a lifetime warranty
Price is slightly on the higher side
4. Great Lakes Kayak Wing (Best Saddle-Style Roof Rack)
The Great Lakes Kayak Wing is a saddle-style roof rack whose smooth polycarbonate design makes it easy to slide your boat onto and out of your car roof. It offers horizontal support to your kayak, allowing you to set it on one end of your vehicle and slide the boat forward into the carrying position.
The smooth finish of the Kayak Wing means it has no rough edges or corners whatsoever that could potentially scratch your vehicle roof or boat hull.
Although it is not collapsible like many of the other roof racks you’ll come across, it still mounts and unmounts on your vehicle with ease, using knobs to attach it in a matter of seconds. No tools are required for this process. A pair of tie-downs are included in the purchase.
It is very gentle on your boat’s hull and vehicle’s roof
The Rhino-Rack Folding J-Style Kayak Carrier S512 is one of the most popular roof racks around. It is designed to transport your boat safely and securely and comes with a built-in cradle for transporting your paddles as well.
It features aluminum/steel bars to offer 45-degree support to your kayak, making it easy to load and leaving enough space for stowing extra gear, or an additional kayak on the other half of your vehicle’s roof.
The Rhino J-Carrier has a collapsible hinge that folds down when it is not in use. You, therefore, don’t need to remove it every time you drive through the car wash or into your garage.
One drawback, however, is that the mounting brackets don’t attach to square-shaped rail systems, despite the manufacturer’s claims that they are universal. Other than that, they are well-engineered, durable, and will get your kayak from point A to B with no issues whatsoever.
Comes with a cradle for transporting your paddles
The durable and well-engineered design
High weight capacity
Leaves additional space for transporting and extra kayak
If you need to transport multiple kayaks on the roof of your car, then the Malone Stax Pro2 Universal Car Rack is the way to do it. This 8-pound stacked kayak roof rack supports up to four boats with a capacity of up to 100 lbs. on either side.
Considering its impressive weight capacity, it is surprisingly lightweight, although you will need to buy some additional items to mount four kayaks. It has built-in stacker blocks that work effectively to keep the boats stable during tie-down and prevent them from jostling about during transport.
When not in use, the Malone Stax Pro2 rack system folds down to enhance fuel economy, and to allow passage through low-clearance spaces. It is backed by a lifetime warranty.
Has a large weight capacity
It is extremely lightweight
Backed by a lifetime warranty
Could have done better with the mounting straps
7. Thule Xsporter Pro Truck Rack (Best Kayak Mount for Pickup Trucks)
Okay, so it’s not technically a “kayak rack” per se, but hey – we still need to cover all the bases, right? If you have a pickup truck and a kayak you need to transport, then you’ll need something else to safely mount your boats and get them to the lake.
That’s where the Thule Xsporter Pro Truck Rack comes in. It is an adjustable cargo rail system that’s built to attach the mounting slots to a standard pickup truck. Before you can even think of getting a kayak rack for your truck, you first need to install a rail system.
The Thule Xsporter Pro is made of a stainless steel/aluminum construction and is pretty lightweight at 65 lbs., considering that it is sturdy enough to hold up to 450 lbs. Its height is adjustable, allowing you to transport a wide range of cargo types – not just boats – safely and securely.
No special tools, equipment, cutting, or drilling is required during assembly. Just tighten the knobs, and you’re good to go. You can then mount your kayak rack on it and head on to the lake.
An excellent choice for pickup trucks
Easy installation and assembly
High weight capacity
Rugged and durable design
You still need to attach a kayak rack to transport your boats
8. ECOTRIC J-Bar Universal Carrier (Best Value Kayak Roof Rack)
If you’re looking for an affordable kayak roof rack with a wide-mouth design for larger boats, the ECOTRIC J-Bar Universal Carrier is designed for just that purpose. It consists of a pair of J-frame racks engineered to accommodate up to 36-inch wide kayaks.
Their wide-mouth design makes it easy to load and unload your kayak, while their J-shape creates useful spaces for carrying extra gear and equipment. The frames’ long tubes are foam-padded to provide much-needed support and protection.
The entire steel tube construction weighs 15.1 lbs. and has a capacity of 165 lbs. distributed between two kayaks. It comes with four mounting straps to provide additional support.
One drawback, however, would be the fact that the frame is not collapsible. This means that you’ll need to mount and unmount the rack every time you need to haul your kayaks. But, as far as value is concerned, you’re getting a lot more for its price.
Offers excellent value for money
Accommodates large kayaks
Wide-mouth J design allows for easy loading and unloading
If lifting a kayak on to the roof of your car sounds like a herculean task, well – it is. So, any kind of assistance you can get is always welcome. With the YAKIMA Showdown Load-Assist Kayak Rack, you don’t need any help lifting your boat to your vehicle roof.
The mount tilts down to two feet below the roof rack, effectively lowering the loading point to make it easy for you to place the boat. The Showdown mechanism takes up to 45 percent of the weight and then goes on to lift the kayak onto the rack. While it isn’t exactly cheap, it’s not the most expensive, either.
Load assist feature takes up a huge chunk of the weight
Last, but certainly not least, is the Thule Dockgrip Kayak Saddle. This roof rack is specially designed to accommodate a wide variety of boats with different hull shapes. This can be attributed to its two independently-pivoting saddles. They use an angle-setting lever to fit the saddle to any hull shape for maximum support.
It is lined with large flexible pads to cushion the hull against any bumps and grazes that may occur during transport. The Dockgrip can accommodate kayaks that measure up to 36 inches wide and weigh up to 85 lbs. The pack comes with center load straps that have car protective buckle bumpers, as well as stern and bow ties. Overall, it provides excellent protection when hauling your boats.
The angle-setting lever allows saddles to fit the shape of any hull design
The flexible cushioned pads on the saddle protect the hull against damage
Accommodates kayaks that measure up to 36 inches wide
Price-point is slightly on the higher side for saddle racks
How to Choose the Best Kayak Roof Rack – Buying Guide
Picking the right kayak rack for your car is not easy. There are several factors you need to keep in mind when evaluating which roof rack best suits your needs. Here’s everything you need to know before you settle on one.
What Type of Roof Attachments Should You Use
Kayak mounts come in several different shapes and designs to allow you to carry your boats, equipment, and other gear safely and conveniently. The most common attachments you’ll come across include:
J-cradles and stackers: These allow you to transport kayaks on their sides, leaving more room for additional gear or multiple boats.
Saddle mounts: These gently nestle the kayak hull in an upright position, while holding the sides of the boat without pressing too hard. Transporting kayaks using saddle mounts protects the edges of the hull against wear and tear.
Integrated lift systems: These feature sophisticated gas-assist shocks built into the rackmount to raise and lower the kayak onto and out of the rack, respectively.
Foam-block carriers: These are temporary carriers that you attach to the roof of your car using the downward force exerted by two to three nylon straps that hold everything in place. Some blocks are designed to fit between the roof of your vehicle and the boat
These attachments can either be clamped on to the roof of your vehicle, or screwed on depending on the type you buy.
Is There Anything on Your Roof
The first thing you need to do before you can even consider buying a roof rack for your kayak is to inspect the actual roof of your vehicle to see what’s already there. You’ll likely find one of the following four possibilities.
Naked/ bare roof
If your car roof is bare or only fitted with side rails, then you’ll need foam or inflatable pads to attach the gear mount to. If you prefer carriers that are specifically designed to transport kayaks, then you will need to install crossbars.
If, on the other hand, your car already comes with crossbars built-in, all you have to do is buy a saddle, j-cradle, or stacker, which are all mounts designed for kayaks. Keep in mind though that before attaching any gear mount to factory-fitted crossbars, you’ll need to establish whether they have any existing weight limitations on them.
How Many Kayaks Do You Intend to Carry
The next thing you need to consider is the number of kayaks you plan to transport. Unless you intend to carry more than two boats at a go, most roof racks function as a double carrier. Anything more, and you’ll need to get a stacker.
It is always a safer bet to get one since you never know when you might need to carry several roof racks. Most of the available solutions in the market allow for maximum boat capacity. The only limitation will be the width of your car’s roof and the dimensions of the attached crossbars.
If you have two kayaks, for instance, and your vehicle’s roof is relatively narrow, your best bet would be to buy a pair of j-cradle mounts.
How Far Are You Traveling
Distance is something else you need to factor in when buying the best kayak roof rack for travel. If you intend to take a cross-country trip to seek out other coasts, lakes, rivers, or waterways, you want to get a solid and secure mount for your kayaks.
The last thing you need is to be cruising down the interstate at 65 mph only for your kayaks to fly off the roof and on to the open road. That could spell disaster to other road users and your kayaks as well.
It is always better to avoid temporary pads or foam if you’re headed for a long-distance drive. These won’t hold your kayaks securely, particularly in extreme conditions like driving on bumpy roads or through stormy weather. You would have to wrench down the pads as tightly as you possibly can, which could end up damaging your kayak.
If you don’t, your boat will end up shuffling around on the vehicle roof, or in a worst-case scenario, the foam pads may blow out from under it. The best kayak roof rack for long-distance travel is a saddle. A j-cradle also works just as well.
How Frequently Do You Intend to Kayak
If you kayak every couple of months, then you probably won’t mind taking a bit of time to load and unload your kayak from your vehicle. But, if you do it every day or every other day, then it can be quite an inconvenience, to say the least.
You want to spend as little time as possible loading and unloading your boat. The time-saving solution to this would be to install a set of saddles at the front section of your roof rack, and a set of rollers at the back. That way, you’ll have a highly-efficient time-saving hauling system for your boat, to load and unload it in a matter of seconds.
For some, side-loading j-cradles are an easier, more convenient alternative. Either way, if you have a solid roof rack system, convenience comes right along with it.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Getting the best kayak roof rack could be the difference between hauling your boat safely to the water and causing irreversible damage to it. Invest in a great set of carriers to avoid any mishaps that may leave wishing you did.
The kayak roof racks detailed in this guide are a great place to start.
Outdoors, I’m in my element, especially in the water. I know the importance of being geared up for anything. I do the deep digital dive, researching gear, boats and knowhow and love keeping my readership at the helm of their passions.