Whether you’re buying, renting, or borrowing, you’ll need a way to transport your kayak to the river. If you have an inflatable, this should be pretty easy—you can fit it in just about any trunk or backseat. Likewise, if you have a truck, it should be pretty easy to toss just about any boat into the truck bed and tie it down using ratchet or river straps. However, for those who drive a sedan or SUV, you’ll need some other solution, several of which are outlined below.
No matter which roof rack system you use, you’ll need to properly secure your boats. Trust me on this—I pass someone every summer who has gotten pulled over because they didn’t properly secure their boat.
A few tips
Here are a few more quick tips before we look at various rack systems.
- Each rack system generally comes with everything you need to safely transport your kayak.
- Don’t keep anything in your kayak that can blow out while on the road.
- Make sure to secure the front and back of your boat to your vehicle. This is an important step that shouldn’t be ignored.
- The “river straps” that often accompany kayak racks only work correctly when fed from the proper direction. Make sure you know how to correctly use them, or you’ll encounter slippage.
- If you’re securing a rental boat using racks and straps provided by the rental company, it’s probably best to have them help you get everything set.
Vehicles without crossbars
If your vehicle does not have crossbars (meaning the two bars that extend from one side of the vehicle to the other side, not to be confused with the side rails which extends from front to back of the vehicle), then you’re limited to using foam blocks or inflatables.
Foam blocks are the cheapest system you can buy to transport a kayak, and are touted as a universal system that works with, or without, crossbars. The blocks are often contoured with a gentle V-shape to better match the shape of a kayak hull, and often include a cut-out chamber to accommodate a variety of crossbar styles. When installed, the kayak sits on its hull, as it would in the water.
Because the blocks simply rest on the top of the car, this is by far the least secure method for transporting your boats, as the blocks often shift around under your kayak while you’re driving. When this happens, the straps can further loosen, and the entire block come loose. In addition, because the straps are routed through the passenger area of the vehicle, it’s much harder to get them tight enough to reduce slippage. As a result, it’s important to take extra care to secure them effectively.
If you’re using foam blocks, I strongly recommend that you use two additional shorter straps to attach the foam blocks directly to the kayak first. Then place the kayak and the attached blocks on top of the roof, and secure the kayak using the other straps. This helps reduce the likelihood that the blocks may shift while you’re driving.
It’s also good to keep in mind that foam blocks may not last long in the intense desert sun; be sure to replace them before they start to come apart. In addition, foam blocks often create some abrasion on the vehicle’s paint, presumably from tiny particles of dust or sand between the blocks and the roof and the vibration of the vehicle. Finally, it’s best to check the weight rating of your vehicle’s roof; heavier kayaks can dent in the roof panel a bit, though often it will pop back out.
Similar to foam blocks, there are also a number of inflatable roof rack systems. These are usually designed for carrying any larger items on the roof, but each air tube straps directly onto the vehicle. Instead of keeping the kayak upright like it was floating in the water, you load it upside down, making sure that the kayak seat is folded down and secured. These inflatable racks are a nice alternative, but tend to be double or triple the cost of traditional foam blocks.
Vehicles with crossbars
If your vehicle has a roof rack with crossbars, then you’re in luck—there are a wide range of options available. Before you start shopping, there are a few questions you’ll want to consider:
- How many kayaks will you be transporting?
- How easily can you lift your kayak onto the vehicle’s roof?
- Will you be keeping your rack on all season, or just putting it on each trip?
- How much vertical clearance does your garage or carport need?
The answers to each of these questions will help direct you to the best rack option for your own needs. Keep in mind that some racks will only fit a certain type (or shape) of crossbar, so make sure that the rack you purchase will fit the vehicle you’ll be using. You should also note the maximum weight limit for your crossbars, especially if you’re planning on carrying more than 2 kayaks.
These are probably the most popular rack available. This rack uses two sets of bars shaped like the letter “J” that hold the kayak on its side edge at a slant. Because the kayak is on its side edge, the kayak sticks up into the air the most, which can cause parking clearance issues and occasionally wind issues when driving at high speeds. However, the biggest benefit of this orientation is that you can use two rack systems next to each other. The kayak is loaded from the side of the vehicle, which means that you’ll need to be able to pick up the entire boat and place it onto the rack. This can be difficult to do by yourself if you have a heavy kayak or a taller vehicle, though it’s always much easier with a second person.
There is a wide disparity in cost for these types of racks, with some generic brands being among the most affordable kayak racks out there. Unfortunately, the cheaper versions can require as many as 8 nuts and bolts (and tools) to secure the rack, which means you’ll probably want to keep them on all summer long. As a result, you’ll want to make sure your vehicle will have enough vertical clearance to park wherever you need to during the kayaking season.
More expensive versions, like the Yakima Bowdown system I’ve been using for many years, feature just one screw you can tighten by hand, which means I can secure both in about a minute. Some racks can also fold down when not in use, which is a great feature if you’re planning on keeping it on your vehicle all season long.
Saddles and rollers
Saddle-style racks have four small “saddles” that can be positioned along the crossbars to accommodate your kayak’s hull, so that the boat sits flat as it would on the water. This is an excellent system for driving long distances, creates the least amount of wind drag, and maintains a lower overall vehicle profile. However, it can be difficult to align the four saddles properly, often requiring some trial-and-error to get it just right for your boat. As a result, this is one system you likely won’t want to put on and take off regularly, in spite of its stability. Some alternative versions feature two molded “V” shaped saddles, which reduce this problem at the expense of custom fit. Kayaks are usually loaded from behind the vehicle with this style.
Roller-style racks are similar, except that the back two saddles are rollers. This makes it easier for one person to load the kayak, as you just need to get the front of the boat onto the back rollers and then you can easily push it forward into proper position.
Stacker systems feature two simple vertical posts that you can use to secure multiple kayaks laid on their side edge. This is the least stable system and tends to work best when used with flatter-hulled boats. Many stackers can accommodate up to 4 kayaks, but some users will learn that their practical limit is only three—due to either the weight limit or length of the crossbars. Be sure you do some research and measure the width of the kayaks you’ll be carrying before relying on this system. Some varieties of these stacker racks also fold down when not in use.
Lift-assist and load-assist systems
These systems can be substantially more expensive than the other options mentioned above. However, with their cost comes a big benefit: they help paddlers who couldn’t otherwise load or retrieve their boat by themselves to forgo the assistance of another person. These types of systems can range from simple crossbar extenders that allow you to raise just one side of the kayak at a time, to side-loading mechanical levers that help reduce the weight of lifting a kayak by as much as 40 lbs.
If you’re planning on transporting a number of kayaks and have a hitch already installed on your vehicle, a simple trailer may be a great option. You’ll need to make sure that your trailer system is safe and adheres to state law—and make sure not to drag your chain, which can spark wildfires in our dry climate. One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that you may not be able to access every recreation area along the Lower Salt River, let alone find an adequate place to park.
As discussed in the previous section, foam block systems are the primary option for vehicles without crossbars, though one with some serious downsides. Luckily, many of those downsides are reduced when using them in a vehicle equipped with crossbars. The foam blocks usually have a molded channel that allows it to fit over most standard crossbar shapes, so they likely won’t shift around while driving. In addition, the tie down straps can be tightly secured to the crossbar frame, eliminating the need to loop through the passenger area.
DIY with pool noodles
A number of kayakers whose vehicles feature small diameter crossbars have fashioned their own padded crossbar system using large pool noodles that they’ve sliced lengthwise and attached around the crossbars using a number of zip-ties. Kayaks are then placed upside down on the pool noodles, making sure that the kayak seat is folded and secured, before tying the boat down to the crossbars.