Paddlers are an ingenious sort! I’ve seen dozens of unique rigs that serve to attach a canoe to a car or truck. Some are great, and some are downright dangerous. I’ve been tying canoes to cars for over 4 decades.
Here’s an outline that I believe offers the very best tie-down options for your vehicle. There are many more that work (some better than others) but many of us have opinions on this issue, and here is mine!
What’s the Best Way to Transport a Canoe?
The best way to transport your canoe from home to lake is with a vehicle that can handle 2 crossbars around 3′ to 4′ apart. This is the easiest method which also happens to be the most secure.
While there are other good ways to transport your canoe based on your vehicle style (ie. truck bed extenders, pickup truck racks, foam blocks, etc.), nothing is quite as secure and compact as placing your canoe on 2 well-placed crossbars on your roof with the appropriate accessories to eliminate any movement of your canoe resulting from heavy winds or loose straps.
Of course, the effectiveness of the 2 crossbar system depends largely on how well the canoe is tied down and what accessories you have to increase safety, rigidity, security, and roadworthiness.
Do I Need a Roof Rack for my Canoe?
A roof rack on a car is not 100% necessary to transport a canoe or kayak, but without one, you’re left with only foam blocks as an option.
Or, you could have a pickup truck with a flatbed (the canoe will stick out awkwardly) or even worse, a trailer (which requires a whole new set of driving skills, licensing, etc.)
If you’re serious about canoeing or kayaking and you own any vehicle other than the tiniest sub-compact car (ie. Smart car, Chevy Spark, etc.) I’d strongly suggest investing in a good set of crossbars and associated hardware.
What Roof Rack is Best for my Car?
If you’re carrying a canoe, I would suggest the system I own. It’s a Yakima round crossbar system with mounts made for my specific vehicle. Here’s a picture on Amazon of a mount (specific to your vehicle) and round bar with an adapter.
Remember that Yakima racks give you many options as to what system you’d like to use. You could go with an aerodynamic bar system which would then require a whole different set of accessories to attach to them so you can then mount a kayak or a canoe or a cargo cage, etc.
We use the round bar system on which we then attach accessories called “KEEL OVERS”. These are small braces that attach to the round bar and they do several CRUCIAL things;
They lift your gunwales so they are not sitting directly on the steel bars (if your canoe’s gunwales were directly on steel bars, your canoe would move a tiny amount side to side in the wind no matter how tight you tie it down – that would cause wear on your gunwales and bars, and be less secure).
The Keel Overs also provide a “cradle” into which you can place your canoe (gunwales down) so as to make it 100% impossible for the canoe to move even a fraction of an inch side to side in heavy winds.
In addition, your gunwales will be sitting on rubber instead of hard plastic or steel, so you won’t get any gunwale scratches.
What if my Canoe or Kayak is Too Heavy to Easily Mount?
If you’re having problems with your boat being a little too awkward or heavy to easily slide on your car’s (or SUV’s) roof, there are a number of solutions.
If you have a Thule rack system (or might consider buying one), the Thule Hullavator Pro might work for you. It’s the easiest system for mounting a kayak, but it comes with a hefty price tag.
You can see a video about the Hullavator at the end of this post!
If you have a Yakima roof rack system (or might consider getting one), you can opt for a much more affordable mounting aid called the Yakima Boat Loader EVO.
It’s essentially an extender bar that slides out from your roof rack beside your vehicle so you can place the nose of your canoe or kayak onto it (like you might on the rear roof rack, but without fear of damaging the vehicle and you can use it at any angle).
The Yakima Boat Loader EVO slides in and out of your crossbars to make loading your kayak or canoe easier!
Can I Use a Canoe Rack for a Kayak?
It’s possible to use part of your canoe rack for your kayak, but only the part that mounts to your car and the crossbars. After that, a kayak will have to have different hardware to attach it safely to the crossbars.
There are usually 4 parts to consider when buying and using a roof rack to carry a canoe or kayak;
1 – The vehicle mounts (usually 4 of them). Some call these “towers” or braces, but their purpose is to attach to the roof of your vehicle and hold the 2 crossbars. Some mounts are vehicle specific (like Yakima) which can be challenging if you can’t find mounts for your specific make and model.
Other mounts (which may not fit as well) are meant to be universal. These are a bit less expensive and require a strap to go around your entire vehicle (around the roof and through the side windows).
Still other mounts are meant to fit a type of vehicle generally (ie. sedan) and try to be universally compatible. These often fall short of being a perfect fit, but you could get lucky!
2 – Crossbars. Once you have the mounts, the next step is to determine the type of crossbars you’ll get. Note that if you have a universal system, you may get the mounts and bars together.
Also note that your mounts may be paired with a specific style of crossbar, so you’ll need to consider the mounts and bars together rather than analyzing each separately.
3 – Vessel Mounting Hardware/Accessories. Once you install your crossbars, you’ll usually need to mount proper holders for your specific type of vessel. If it’s a kayak, you’ll need to get some kayak holders. The same is true for a canoe.
There are a few exceptions to this process, however. For example, I’ve seen some crossbars that are rubberized and wide (aerodynamic). These bars will grip the gunwales of an upside-down canoe so well that you may not need holders or braces for your canoe.
Still, most of the time you’ll need some accessories. Amazon is full of them, but Yakima has an excellent “J-cradle” style holder which we recommend.
Thule also has some excellent kayak holders ranging from $200 to $800.
If you’re mounting a canoe, you will also need some items. Many paddlers just tie down a canoe to the rack or bars, but that usually results in wearing of the bars when the canoe shakes in the wind, but more importantly, damage to the canoe’s gunwales can result.
We use and strongly suggest The Keel Over system from Yakima. These braces protect the gunwales and eliminate even minor side-to-side AND front-to-back movement of the canoe in any conditions.
4 – Tie Down Straps. After you have your kayak or canoe sitting on the mounting hardware, you’ll need to secure the vessel to the mounting supports.
Tie-down straps are typically used for this purpose and are often included with mounting accessories. However, if they’re not included, I would strongly suggest getting straps that tighten with one pull rather than a rope that needs to be tied with knots.
I know quite a few knots but experience tells me that tying good knots in the rain and snow is torture and can make for an unsafe tie-down. Also, ropes tend to loosen after long journeys while straps don’t typically.
Even if they did, it’s easy to just give the end a yank and things are tight again, instead of having to untie and re-tie and hope for the best. Here’s a great list of straps from Amazon.
Best Budget Mounting Systems for Your Canoe
We’ve looked at some of the “best” systems to buy for transporting your canoe or kayak, but I did not give any thought to budget. The prices on the Yakima and Thule are about as high as they get in the industry because those are 2 big, trusted, quality brands.
However, there are other options that might possibly work just as well for you, and they are less expensive and easier to install.
You can use a Universal SOFT Roof Rack available on … you guessed it – Amazon! I’m not sure you’d ever find it at your local outdoor/canoe/kayak retailer!
This option is easy on your wallet and sets up quickly but I’m concerned about how well it will hold up. If you’re positioning your canoe or kayak in the same place on it each time you use it, eventually it may develop indents from your canoe gunwales or kayak hull.
The good news is that you can use it for an upright kayak hull without extra accessories, but it won’t be quite as secure. It’s best for short trips (up to maybe 20 minutes) from home.
You can use a very inexpensive foam block system available online. You can get a system for about $30 rather than up to $1000 for a high-end system.
We have a set of blocks for our canoe (gunwales) when we use our car (as opposed to our truck) to carry our canoe.
You can also get foam block systems made specifically to carry a kayak, and it won’t break the bank for sure!
Here’s an article I wrote about how to effectively use a foam block system to carry your canoe!
You can also check out my video on YouTube if you’re tired of reading 🙂
Can I Use a Kayak Mount System for a Canoe?
It’s very difficult to fit a canoe into or onto a roof mount system designed for kayaks. Whether you’re using a budget-style foam mount, or a more expensive rack system with custom accessories, it’s not smart, safe, or effective to use a kayak system for a canoe.
Each vessel has a very different hull profile and mounting abilities. A kayak has no gunwales like a canoe and can’t be turned upside down and tied to straight bars. If you try, your kayak will roll side-to-side and not be secure for any prolonged road trip.
The good news is that whether your budget is $40 or $1000, you can customize it specifically for either your canoe or kayak, and you can change from one to another fairly easily.
You can even mount one of each beside each other if your crossbars are wide enough (60″ – 70″ should work for 1 canoe and 1 kayak).
What’s the Best Kayak Rack for my Car?
While it’s not brand new to the market, the Thule Hullavator Pro is our #1 pick for the “best” kayak rack.
That may be in part because I’m getting older every hour and my shoulders are not what they used to be! At any rate, the Hullavator makes mounting your kayak unbelievably easy compared to the option of lifting it over your head or sliding it up the back of your car’s body!
The Thule Hullavator Pro can extend your kayaking passion well into your “golden years”
The bad news is that it’s not cheap. However, if you’re serious about your kayaking hobby or lifestyle and you’re not 22 years old, this may be the single component that lets you get out on the water longer before you have to “hang up your kayak” for good!
Remember that there are several options for carrying your canoe or kayak on your car, in the category of premium and budget.
If you get a premium system, you’ll want to be sure the entire system is from one company so all accessories are compatible, and you’ll need to be sure the entire unit is compatible with your specific vehicle.
With any of the higher-end brands like Thule or Yakima, you can purchase separate systems to aid in mounting your boat onto the roof of your vehicle.
Be sure to understand that good rack brands have numerous mounting options just for a canoe and even more diverse options for mounting a kayak.
I hope this article has been of some help to you, and it’s a result of 4 decades of paddling Ontario’s vast network of lakes and rivers, along with some detailed research into canoe racks and where to get them.
You can see more information on DIY projects, product reviews and trip documentaries on our YouTube channel RuggedOutdoorsGuide.