How to Transport a Kayak

By: Melissa Sandoval
kayaks on cars
Image Gallery: Car Safety Transporting a kayak on its side will help prevent it from warping because its sides are stronger than its bottom. See more car safety pictures.

Paddling down a scenic river in the summer breeze, sharing an adventure with family and friends, sea kayaking with killer whales -- it's easy to understand why the range of possibilities makes kayaking such a popular sport. But all kayakers face one issue: how to get the boat to the water.

Many kayakers attach their boats to the top of their vehicles for transport, and boating supply stores sell a variety of products for car-top transport. Foam blocks are inexpensive and ideal for short trips in good weather, while rooftop racks are pricier, more secure and often easier to use. Rooftop racks are a good choice for kayakers who make longer trips, drive on the highway where speed limits are higher or who may be driving in high winds. And these racks are more versatile than foam blocks -- you can use them to carry other sports equipment like skis, surfboards and bicycles.


Kayakers must use saddles, j-cradles or stackers to attach their boats to rooftop racks. Saddles fit along the bottom of the boat at the bow and stern and are designed for transporting the kayak right side up. J-cradles, on the other hand, carry the kayak on its side, a position that's less likely to deform a plastic boat and one which allows you to carry more than one kayak side-by-side on a narrow roof. Stackers also carry kayaks on their sides and allow you to stack more than one boat in a single stacker. But some kayakers bypass the roof altogether and pull their boats behind their vehicle in a trailer.

Whether you choose to use foam blocks, a rooftop rack or a trailer depends on many factors, including what type of kayak you have, what vehicle you drive and how many boats you want to transport. Choosing the right equipment and using it the right way will help you enjoy your excursions and save you money by preventing damage to your boat and car.

Read on to learn more about rooftop racks for your kayak.


Kayak Racks

Rooftop kayak racks start with a base system, which is composed of two horizontal metal bars that fasten to the top of a vehicle. The bars are designed to attach to factory-installed roof racks, raised side rails and naked rooftops. Some base systems allow extra clearance for vehicles with side gutters, and some specialty systems are made for specific vehicle models. You can attach most base systems yourself by using the clamps they come with; however, some stores will custom-design a base system for your car and install it for you.

Once you have your roof rack, it's time to choose the right equipment to attach your boat to the rack. Saddles are small padded platforms that attach to the rooftop rack and hug the bottom of the boat. Saddles are easy for you to install at home, and they provide a safe, stable ride for your kayak. You can attach a pair of saddles to the front bar of your roof rack to support the bow of the boat and a second pair on the back bar to support the stern, or you can attach a set of rollers to the back bar to make it easy for one person to load the kayak alone. With rollers on the back bar, you can stand behind the car and simply lift the bow of the boat into the rollers, and push the boat forward until it is rests on top of the car. However, rollers need a long roofline to have enough leverage to keep the boat from shifting during transport -- it's best to use two sets of saddles if you don't drive a van or SUV.


J-cradles are j-shaped padded bars that hold kayaks on their sides. Because the sides of the boat are stronger than the bottom, j-cradles have a smaller risk of warping plastic boats, and it's possible to haul more than one kayak if your car has a narrow roof. Some kayakers find it easier to load and unload boats from j-cradles because you stand beside the car and simply lift the boat in and out of the cradle instead of loading it from the back. If you want to use j-cradles but don't like the idea of all that lifting, you can buy a loading system -- these typically require you to raise the kayak just three feet (.9 meters), and then the device lifts it the rest of the way [source: Kisting].

Now that you know what kind of equipment you need, read on to learn how to secure your kayak to your car.


Securing a Kayak

You may have heard horror stories of kayaks that have flown off the top of a car going down the highway, or of boaters who reach their destination only to find their kayaks damaged. The best way to keep these stories from becoming your own is to use the right equipment for your boat and vehicle type, secure the kayak the correct way, and periodically check on the boat during the trip.

Once you've loaded the kayak onto the roof, use pieces of foam to pad any abrasive surfaces that touch the boat and make sure the kayak is parallel with the sides of your car to reduce the effects of wind as you're driving. If you're using foam pads instead of a rack, place the boat upside down; otherwise set the boat in the saddles or j-cradles as instructed. If you're transporting your kayak right side up, use a cockpit cover to keep the boat from filling with water.


Use two nylon-webbing straps with spring-loaded buckles to attach the boat to your car. Put the straps as far apart as the rack will allow and fasten them snugly without over-tightening. Watch the kayak as you tighten the straps to make sure it isn't warping. After you've fastened the straps, lift gently on the bow of the boat -- the boat shouldn't raise at all. Then gently push the bow from side to side, and make sure the boat doesn't shift back and forth easily. If the boat lifts or wiggles easily, tighten the straps more.

Once you've strapped the boat down, use ropes to secure the bow and stern. Tie a rope around the front grab handle of the boat and attach it to a secure place on or under the front bumper of your vehicle. Tie another rope around the back grab handle and attach it to the back bumper. The ropes should put gentle downward pressure on the bow and stern of the boat. If you can't find a good spot to attach the ropes to your car, check the bumpers for a little square of plastic you can pop out with a screwdriver. Many vehicles have these little squares that have threaded holes underneath them and an eye bolt that screws into the hole. The eye bolt is often stored with the vehicle's spare jack, but you may need to order a second eye-bolt for the back bumper.

Tie off the loose ends of the straps and ropes to keep them from hitting your car or kayak, and then take to the road. After the first few miles of driving, pull over in a safe area and check the boat to make sure it hasn't moved, and check that the straps are still tight.

For more information on kayaking, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Charles River Canoe & Kayak. "How to transport your canoe or kayak." Web. 15 Dec 2009
  • Kayaking Journal, The. Web. 17 Dec 2009
  • Kisting, Wes. "Transporting your kayak." Rogue Paddler & Sail. Web. 15 Dec 2009
  • ORS Racks Direct. Web. 17 Dec 2009
  • Spirit of the West Adventures. "Kayaking British Columbia Canada and kayak Vancouver Island… a magical experience." Web. Dec 16 2009.