40 years of paddling and experiencing some epic fails, along with unending research and connections with industry experts, have revealed a host of creative and practical options for securing and transporting your kayak on any vehicle (or bicycle!) you own!
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What’s the Best Method of Transporting Your Kayak?
By far, the best way to transport your kayak safely, easily, and securely, is to place it top down on a set of roof racks and then secure it with at least 2 tie-down straps. Without a roof rack, it’s possible to be just as safe using the flatbed of a pickup truck, or using a trailer that is made specifically to transport a kayak.
With that said, there are dozens of safe and effective ways to move your kayak from your garage to the lake with nearly any vehicle and with minimal effort.
Kayaks come in a virtually unending parade of colors, styles, sizes, and shapes, so it’s a good idea to understand the best options to transport your style of kayak.
I can tell you from experience that a sea kayak does not travel as well on solid crossbars as a fishing kayak.
Here are some of my thoughts and best suggestions after interviewing several kayak retailers and experts;
Do You Need a Special Roof Rack for Kayaks?
No, you do not need a special roof rack for kayaks. In fact, you don’t need roof racks at all. If you have a set of roof rails, a set of crossbars is easy to add. Once you have crossbars, you have all you need for carrying at least one kayak.
You can simply secure the kayak on the crossbars (which are placed as far apart as possible if you have a car) top down, and then tie down the kayak with tie-down straps.
When you see “special roof racks” on a car carrying kayaks, it is usually because the car needs to transport more than one kayak. Even so, you won’t need special racks, only an additional item of gear called a “J-bar“.
How Do You Carry a Kayak on a Car?
Some cars have roof rails (to which you can attach crossbars for a full rack system) but many cars have only a bare roof. In the case of a rack, it’s easy to simply lay the kayak on the racks and secure it to the crossbars with a set of straps. Ideally, the addition of padding on the crossbars is best to avoid scratching the kayak as it sits on the metal bars while being jostled by wind on the highway.
For cars with no rack system, a secure mounting can be achieved by placing something soft on your roof to separate the kayak from the roof directly.
It’s best to get something made specifically for this purpose like a foam block. Pool noodles would be at least better than nothing at all.
Since car roofs are fairly low, there is no special apparatus recommended to help mount the kayak. You would simply lift the kayak and slide it onto the roof racks from the side. You can also place the bow of the kayak on the rear bar and push forward while lifting the stern.
This method works only if there are no major obstacles on the back of your car like a Gurney Flap or a shark fin antenna.
For any vehicle with no rails or roof racks, it’s quite possible to fit a set of suction cup mounted cross bars. Here’s a great option we found recently:
Without a rack, it is not possible to tie down the canoe to anything outside of the vehicle.
The best option for a secure tie-down would be to wrap your straps around the entire kayak and right through your vehicle with the strap sitting just above the heads of the vehicle’s occupants in both the front and rear seats (see photo below).
Wrap the straps around the kayak and around the vehicle roof through the car doors. Be sure to add 2 or 3 twists to the strap (no more than that) to eliminate or reduce wind vibration of the strap
How Do You Carry a Kayak on a Truck?
To carry a kayak on a truck (presumably a pickup truck), one of several methods may be used. A roof rack can be used with an extended crew cab or on a rack that is installed on the edges of the truck’s bed. It is also common to see kayaks in the bed of a pickup truck with or without an assistive device.
Truck bed extenders like the Yakima Long Arm and others, are helpful in carrying a kayak in the bed of a pickup truck.
Other truck mounting options include the use of racks that mount on the rear bed rails or just on the roof of the cab itself. Often, truck owners use racks that employ both the bed rails and the cab roof.
Still others simply use nothing more than the flatbed with the kayak sticking out through an open tailgate (while being secured to the truck to prevent sliding out) or, if the kayak is short enough, it can just stick up over the closed tailgate.
If you allow your kayak to stick out the back of your flatbed, it’s best to tie a red cloth (flag) to the end sticking out, and if it sticks out more than 4 feet, you’ll run the risk of being pulled over by the cops, so keep the “stick out” minimal if possible.
If you use only the flatbed of a truck with an open tailgate, you’ll need to be sure the kayak is secured to prevent it from falling out of the bed, but also from rocking around excessively in the bed.
If you use a truck bed extender (which, by the way, can also be used as a rear “roof rack”), you’ll want to secure the kayak to BOTH the extender on one end and at least tie the other end to something secure in the truck bed.
If you choose to mount your kayak(s) on a roof rack, you have many options for mounting hardware that can make life much easier, and make your kayak (and others on the roadways) safer.
Here are some great mounting hardware or mounting style options:
1 Just the Roof Rack Cross Bars
A flat (or round) bar can be used while turning the kayak upside down on the rack consisting of the 2 straight bars. This method is the least expensive (if you already own a rack) but is the least secure (might get some side-to-side play) and it may damage the sides of the kayak.
A J-Bar is a specially-designed aluminum bracket that comes in pairs. It is meant to hold your kayak at an angle so as to allow for a second kayak to be carried on the roof at the same time. Multiple flat-laying kayaks would not fit many racks unless specialized longer crossbars are used.
I’d suggest using only the crossbars on a good-quality roof rack. If you need room for 2 kayaks, I’d suggest a set of J-bars.
I would not suggest getting only a pad (even if it is made just for transporting a kayak on a bare car roof) because once you tighten the straps to a safe tension, there’s a good chance a part of your roof will temporarily buckle in, and no one wants that!Rob Grossi – C&R Kayak – Port Dalhousie, Ontario
3 Yakima Mako Saddles and Hand Roll Mounts
Yakima is one of the world’s top manufacturers of quality roof racks and accessories. The difference between Yakima racks and factory-installed roof racks is big enough that I would suggest you replace your factory racks if you value your kayak investment enough to ensure top-notch security.
The saddles are meant to securely cradle a single kayak (right side up) – usually the bow and are mounted on the crossbar closest to the front of the vehicle. Before you can reach the saddles, however, you would place the nose (bow) of the kayak on a set of rollers mounted on the rear crossbar.
The rollers facilitate easy loading of the kayak with no friction or rubbing while you maneuver the kayak into its final position on your roof racks.
Yakima – HandRoll Rooftop Mounted Kayak Rack Rollers
Yakima – Mako Saddles
The Saddles and rollers make transporting (and loading) any kayak much easier and safer, but if your kayak is made from ANY material other than Polyethylene (ie. Kevlar, Fiberglass, Wood, etc.), it is ESSENTIAL that you use a good quality saddle mounting system to prevent damage to your craft.
How Do You Get the Kayak on Top of a Truck, SUV or Van Roof?
If it is too difficult to simply lift and place a kayak on top of a tall vehicle like a truck, van or SUV, there are 2 main methods to mount the kayak. The best method is to use a Yakima Boat Loader, which is simply a telescoping bar that attaches to the end of a crossbar. When extended, it offers a convenient and easy way of leaning one end of the kayak against it while picking up the other end and easily sliding it sideways onto the main roof racks.
The other method is loosely similar to using the boat loader, but without the actual telescoping arm. The bow of the kayak would be leaned on a towel or bath mat placed between the front and rear crossbars, and the stern of the kayak would be lifted onto the rear bar while the bow is being pushed onto the front crossbar.
The process is basically the same, but the Yakima Boat Loader makes the process easier (and therefore potentially less dangerous for the kayak, the vehicle, the person loading the kayak and bystanders).
If possible, it’s always a good idea to have 2 people place the kayak on the vehicle’s roof, though it’s nearly impossible to meet this condition on a solo paddling excursion.
The Yakima Boat Loader is a telescoping extension bar that makes it easy to mount a kayak or canoe on a set of roof racks.
How Do You Transport a Kayak on a Van or SUV?
Mounting and carrying a kayak on a van or SUV is similar to any other car or truck. If a roof rack is used, the kayak would be placed on top with 2 people or using an extender mounting arm, or sliding it onto the rear bar and pushing forward, or on the side of the vehicle and carefully pushing it up along the side of the vehicle and onto the front bar and then placing the rear of the kayak on the rear bar.
The difference between a Van/SUV and a Pickup truck is that with a van or sport utility vehicle, you’ll be able to use either roof racks OR no roof rack options like a car.
Overall, the best scenario with a tall vehicle (racks or not) would be to have 2 people mount the kayak, or barring that, use a telescoping Loader Bar like the one from YAKIMA.
Should My Kayak Be Transported Upside Down?
Touring kayaks are best transported in a proper cradle mount with the deck facing up, while recreation, fishing, and sit-on-top kayaks are best transported with the deck facing down. With either kayak style, the wind resistance is typically a bit more if they are facing upright, and the shape of the fishing or recreation kayaks’ hulls make it more practical and secure to store facing deck down.
There are many factors that will ultimately determine the best position for your kayak to travel.
For example, because of the shape of all kayaks (other than sea/touring kayaks), it’s best to place them hull-side up on your roof. Often the tension of the straps (especially if applied for days at a time or longer) can force the shape of the hull out of its natural molded shape and cause it to either distort or crack.
As for sea/touring kayaks, it’s best to place them in whatever orientation the saddles or holder you have will best hold it in the most secure manner.
What is the Best Way to Tie Down a Kayak?
The best way to tie down a kayak is by placing the kayak on a set of good-quality roof rack crossbars ideally about 4 feet apart. Then, use 2 cam-locking style tie-down straps to secure the kayak at each crossbar.
If your kayak is a composite or wood touring kayak, it is wise to be judicious and careful when pulling down on the straps for a final tightening. It is possible to crack the hull.
A plastic (polyethylene) kayak is very tough, and while it can be damaged like anything else, it is very difficult to damage the hull by pulling tightly on your tie-down straps.
For this reason, I would suggest a high-quality pair of straps on which you can pull tightly enough to ensure no movement of your kayak in high winds on the freeway.
FREE TIP: I use YAKIMA KEELOVERS (originally meant for canoes) to secure my kayak to ensure NO movement side to side in even the highest winds.
Do You Have to Use Bow and Stern Tie Downs for Kayaks?
For all but the very longest touring kayaks, it is not usually necessary to tie down the bow and stern as you might with a canoe. Many recreation and fishing kayaks are in the 8 to 10-foot length range, which makes bow and stern straps impractical and unnecessary.
As a rule, if you cannot even see the bow of your kayak while sitting in the driver’s seat of your car, then it’s not practical to tie down the bow. Two good-quality cam straps made for canoe/kayak tie-down are your best option and your only necessary tie-down points.
On the other hand, a long touring kayak will absolutely need bow and stern straps for maximum safety to your vehicle, kayak and other cars on the roads/highways.
While you can use several types of bow/stern tie-down options, I like using a thin, strong rope (because of minimal wind resistance compared to flat straps) and I use a trucker’s hitch to secure it tightly. You can see details in this video where I show you the process of tying down the bow and stern;
Can You Pull a Kayak on a Trailer?
You absolutely can mount and transport a kayak on a trailer. It’s quite possible to modify a generic flat trailer with pads and other hardware, but it’s even easier to use a dedicated trailer manufactured specifically to transport kayaks.
There are several well-rated kayak trailers on AMAZON, but be sure the trailer you consider is meant to be used on the highway and public roadways. There are trailers that are meant only for pulling by hand and meant only to be used from your parked vehicle to the water.
Can You Transport Kayaks on Top of Each Other?
You may stack Polyethylene kayaks on each other for transport since they are very durable and can handle the added stress of being strapped together in a potentially awkward way compared to nice, dedicated kayak support cradles.
From the standpoint of damage potential to your kayaks, stacking them will not likely damage or even scratch them.
However, there are some important guidelines to keep in mind.
Firstly, don’t stack fiberglass, wood or composite kayaks on each other. They will be damaged.
Secondly, when you stack Polyethylene kayaks, it’s best to keep them tightly strapped to each other for no more than a day or so at a time. They could start to warp if kept under pressure in an asymmetrical configuration for too long.
Thirdly, because Polyethylene can be very slippery against another Polyethylene surface, you need to consider your tie-down methods carefully. Even strapped down as tightly as you can, you may see significant sliding and movement of the top kayak in high winds.
Most scenarios involving stacked kayaks for transport are in the context of a large trailer where the kayaks are supported by side rails and don’t need excessive tie-down or tightening.
Can You Transport a Kayak with a Bicycle?
As long as your trip to the water is relatively short, there is no reason a bicycle can’t be used to move your kayak to the water’s edge. The logistics would involve the use of a kayak cart strapped to the kayak near the stern, while the bow of the kayak is raised at least 12″ off the ground and attached to the bike frame (typically a bar sticking back from the seat stem).
The setup requires the use of a cart (which is easily purchased from Amazon) and some type of bar that is attached to your bike and sticks out the back so that the bow of the kayak can be attached to it.
Can You Lock a Kayak on Your Car?
It’s not only possible but advisable to lock a kayak to roof racks if necessary. There are numerous ways to secure your investment, but some of the best options for kayak security are to use cable locks around the hull, use lockable tie-down straps, use a loud bicycle alarm, and park your vehicle where it will be seen by the most people possible.
This is such an important issue, Rugged Outdoors Guide has written much more on just kayak and canoe security. You can find that article HERE or …
Pro Tips from Kayak Gurus
While transporting a kayak on your vehicle, a cockpit cover will allow you to put additional gear inside your boat.
This is by far the best way to carry paddles and bulky safety and rescue equipment.
It is much better to use proper roof straps (for your kayak) than to tie the boat on with rope.
Do not tie kayaks to your roof rack right side up. They are unaerodynamic this way, and they will quickly fill with water if it rains.Bill Mattos and Jeremy Evans – Authors, “kayaking, Canoeing & Sailing
BONUS: What Do You USE to Move a Kayak?
To transport a kayak from a vehicle to the water and back, one may, of course, carry it alone, or with someone else. However, it is most often either not practical to have a partner, or it is too awkward and difficult to carry a fishing kayak with no cockpit. So, kayak carts are the very option to make the task of moving to and from the shore easy and relatively pain-free.
While we’re on the topic of kayak transportation on your vehicle, why not complete the topic more thoroughly by discussing transport options once the yak is off the vehicle.
If your kayak has a cockpit (like some recreational kayaks have, and all sea/touring kayaks also have) it’s relatively easy to hoist it on a shoulder while your arm is inside the cockpit area.
However, if you’re not quite strong enough (and who will be once you get to be in your 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s?), you’ll want to consider a kayak cart.
Some boats come with a bracket and dedicated cart (like the Winner Strider and Volador 3).
It is crucial, however, to understand the basic physics of how carts work, and if a built-in cart like the one pictured above, is right for you.
I recently reviewed the Winner Volador Angler 3, and though it only weighed 58 lbs, most of that weight was born by my arm, shoulder and spine, even WITH A CART! Why? Because the cart was at the very back of the kayak.
If the cart had been in the center of the boat, I would have borne no weight at all. I would only have had to pull or push the kayak instead of also having to lift it.
Because of this physical dynamic, I much prefer an adjustable cart that can be placed wherever I like. Fortunately, Amazon has quite a few to choose from. Here are the best options!
While the options are nearly endless when it comes to transporting a kayak, the best option is always a good quality rack with dedicated accessories made specifically for kayak transport.
When laying flat, it’s best to tie kayaks top down unless it’s a touring kayak with a dedicated cradle system.
Normally, you won’t need bow/stern tie-down straps, and you can even stack kayaks as long as you don’t keep them tightly strapped together for too long.
Carts for transport between your vehicle and the water are almost essential for anyone who is actually getting older!
Remember, no matter what your car, truck, van, SUV or bike looks like, there’s a solution that will make it possible for your kayak to spend less time on your garage wall or ceiling, and more time on the water!