You have your amazing kayak and you’re all ready to go out to the lake. There’s only one problem: you have no way to transport it. Kayaks can certainly be heavy, and due to their size, aren’t necessarily the easiest things to fit in your car. Most people might think their only option is to strap it to the roof, but you don’t want to damage your kayak or your roof either. Instead, you should explore some of the best kayak racks for cars, SUVs, and trucks for a safe and easy transport experience. Now, we will show you how to choose a kayak roof rack depending on your type of vehicle.

How to Choose a Kayak Roof Rack for a Car or SUV

It’s not easy to choose a kayak roof rack with the number of options you have between types and products. The first step is to consider what will be best for your needs and which one suits you and your car the most.

What Kind of Roof Setup Do You Have?

This really narrows down your choice of roof racks depending on which of the four setups you have already.

  • Bare/Naked Roof - For a bare or naked roof, temporary pads are always best. These are cheaper and don’t require you to install any cross bars. If you want to use saddles and cradles with a roof like this, you’ll have to upgrade and get those crossbars.
  • Factory Racks - If you’re carrying multiple kayaks, remember that factory racks aren’t designed to hold lots of weight. Load capacity depends on your car model. You also need to be careful of customizing when it comes to your loading options. Factory racks are designed to specifically match their respective systems, not accessories that you add.
  • Factory Cross Bars - Factory settings aren’t always all bad though, since factory cross bars will still handle one kayak without a problem. You can even replace these with aftermarket cross bars without too much of a problem.
  • Aftermarket Cross Bars - For the most amount of flexibility, go for aftermarket cross bars. These give you lots of flexibility, and allow you to use solid solutions like saddles and j-cradles. They’re also able to handle more weight and transport multiple kayaks.

Consider the Amount of Kayaks You Will Carry - Yes, the number of kayaks you have is important. If you plan on carrying just one or two kayaks, just about everything will work. If you’re carrying more, stackers are a better pick. Just be aware that this is still limited by your roof capacity and the size of the cross bars. With a narrow roof, j-cradles may be best.

Driving Long Distance - Like I said before, temporary pads aren’t the best when it comes to traversing the interstate or driving long distances. You want a more secure setup for that so that you don’t need to lash down your kayak tight enough to damage it.

How often will you Kayak? - I wanted to kayak as much as possible, which is why I wanted something that wouldn’t force me to spend lots of time loading and unloading. If this is your situation too, you may want saddles and rollers to minimize the time spent before and after getting on the water. Even j-cradles save lots of time, and with the right system, you’ll love the added convenience.

Loading the kayak alone - It’s great to have someone with you when you kayak, but sometimes you just want to go alone. That’s fine, although you need to be sure then that you’re able to load and unload your kayak all alone. A j-cradle might be too much for you if you’re smaller, so consider rollers in this case.

Types of Kayak Roof Racks

It may be surprising if you’re a new kayaker, but there are quite a few options when it comes to kayak racks. In order to get the best one for your needs, it’s important to know the differences between them. For the most part, you can start by choosing between the two main types: temporary pads and roof racks.

Temporary Pads - kayak roof rack for cars without rails

Unless you have an SUV, most cars do not have a rack on the top. If this is the case, a temporary pad may be just what you need. These pads don’t require any sort of base rack system, meaning that they can be installed directly onto the roof. On top of that, they’re easy to install and remove since they are just straps that go inside your car and over the top, with foam padding.

Make use of temporary racks if you’re only traveling short distance, don’t use the interstate, don’t plan on carrying more than one kayak, or are budget conscious. As an inexpensive solution, these are perfect. One major issue though is that these aren’t necessarily fit for long distances or the interstate. If you have a sunroof, it may also be difficult to install the pad around it.

Temporary pads fall into two types: foam pads and inflatable pads.

Foam Pads

 As you might expect, foam pads are made of foam to absorb some of the shock of your kayak on the top of your roof. This will prevent your car from sustaining any sort of damage.

Inflatable Pads

You also have the option of inflatable pads, which similarly absorb shock and may end up saving you some space when you deflate them too. Like the foam pads, they are cheap and still keep your kayak stable over short distances.

Roof Racks

The other main type of kayak racks are the roof racks. These types of racks are a little bit safer, but they do require a roof rack already set up with the car. This can be something you install or that comes with the car, although you do need the cross bars atop your roof. After you have that set of cross bars, you can add some accessories to easily cart your kayak around. There are a few different types you can choose from, such as J-Cradles, Stackers, and Saddles and Rollers, along with Lift Assisted Carriers.

J-Cradles

J-Cradles, also known as J-Style racks, are the world’s most popular racks. As you might expect, they’re a J shape. They are loaded from the side as they sit at about a 45-degree angle on the cross bars, leaving you with some extra roof space. If you’ve got a narrow roof, this is preferable compared to saddles and rollers.

J-Cradles are also very stable and secure while being quick to load and unload. Just pick up the boat and side-load it. This can be difficult if your kayak is especially heavy, or if you’re exhausted from kayaking or from rough weather. If you’re shorter or older, these may not be the best option for you.

Stackers

When you use a stacker, you will be arranging your kayak in an upright position, so it’ll take up only half of the normal amount of crossbar space. Carry the kayak and stack it against either the post or against other kayaks, making it possible for you to transport as many as four kayaks.

For the most part, stackers are inexpensive, although they may slip on the bars, requiring some sort of friction or padding. They work well with any type of kayak though except for wide tandem sit-on-tops.

Saddles and Rollers

Saddles are horizontal roof racks that rest your kayak on a flatter surface. This will provide you with more surface area for your boat. Basically, saddles are two pads that extend from the base rack to the bottom of the kayak as part of a single cradle or as two separate pieces that adjust to fit your boat. These are great if you end up driving through storms since they provide lots of support, and are easy to load and unload as well. With no wind resistance, they take advantage of aerodynamics to reduce fuel consumption too.

For something to add a little more convenience however, go for a pair of rollers. Rollers will let you lift half of the weight of the kayak onto the top of the car before you roll the stern onto the saddle and strap it in. These will be important for cars with long rooflines like SUVs since they’ll hold the kayak more firmly, but prepare for some shuffling on the rollers.

Lift Assisted Carrier

It’s also possible to install a lift assisted carrier, which may be the easiest loading mechanism. These carriers ensure that you never have to lift the entire weight of the kayak on your own since they help to cushion the load while providing resistance against slipping. If you’re going out on the lake alone, this may be the best option for you, although remember that you do still have to take some of the weight of the kayak to get it up there.

How to Choose a Kayak Truck Rack

If you have a truck, you’ll more than likely need some sort of bed extender or utility rack to use rack accessories. There are a few different considerations to keep in mind though if you want just the right one to fit your kayak.

Time Spent Kayaking

Whether you pick out an extender or a utility rack depends on how much time you plan to spend kayaking overall. Extenders are very easy to install and uninstall since they don’t require drilling and attach simply. Store them when they’re not in use or transfer them to different vehicles.

Extenders are not a permanent option though and sacrifice some storage room while extending the length of the vehicle. If you do want a permanent option because you spend more time kayaking, you may prefer a utility rack instead. This will reduce the time you spend messing with it whenever you go out on the lake.

Comfort Level

I’ve mentioned this before, but with extenders, you need to be sure you’re comfortable enough to drive your vehicle with them attached. Any extenders will add length to the back of your truck, inhibiting your parking abilities and possibly forcing you to drive slower.

If you’re not used to driving with something upright either, a vertical extender won’t help much. On the other hand, if you’re not comfortable with a horizontal extender, go vertical or even use a utility rack for the most about of stability and safety.

Types Of Kayak Truck Racks

You’ll commonly see racks for cars and SUVs, but there are a lot of options for truck racks as well. These are made to accommodate the bed of your truck specifically with multiple types to choose from. 

Let’s start with bed extenders. 

Horizontal and Vertical Bed Extenders

As you would expect, these fit in the bed of the truck and allow you to carry any sort of oversized equipment, such as your kayak. You will have to choose from either horizontal or vertical though. Horizontal extenders use the most amount of space in the bed so you don’t have to worry about the clearance on top. It will hook into the hitch of the truck, making it very stable, and can be extended depending on the boat’s length. For any longer kayak, this is a great option due to the low wind resistance. You can also hold up to two kayaks depending on your crossbar length, but the added length can make it difficult to park or may require you to warn other drivers.

On the other hand, you can use something vertical too. This might make you nervous to have your kayak hanging out, so only use this if you feel confident in your driving abilities. Vertical extenders hook right into the hitch port like the horizontal ones do, but the weight of the kayak will be distributed between the extender and the cab instead. You’ll just need a single cross bar or foam bar, with a stabilizer bar to keep it steady. With the ease of installation, this is perfect for someone who wants to kayak on the weekends.

Utility Racks

Finally, you can choose a utility rack for a more permanent solution. These are bolted to your truck bed to provide you with lots of stability while allowing you to transport many boats instead of just one or two. Avid kayakers prefer this option the most since it’s so durable and doesn’t require constant installation every time you want to go kayaking.

These utility racks can also carry more than only kayaks, so if you’re camping or need a place to set equipment, they work very well. The versatility works well especially if you don’t mind keeping it installed all the time.

Final Considerations

You have a lot of options, but you should also think about whether any of these have the accessories you’re looking for too. This might include removable cross bars or side rails. No matter what you choose though, be sure you have enough stability to keep your kayak safe. After thinking about all of your options when it comes to kayak racks, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Not to worry though! Just take a look at these top product reviews to help you pick the right one.

Best Kayak Roof Rack Reviews

Best Temporary Pad

This HandiRack Malone Inflatable pad is perfect for transportation with its double action Handi Pump to inflate the rack in just twenty minutes. It’s made to last with tough 420-denier nylon, including 5 D-ring anchor points to keep it completely stable on the top of your car. As long as your kayak is less than 180 pounds, you’ll have no issues since it installs on just about all vehicles. Make use of the included travel bag and load straps too.

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    The straps adjust easily and do not get in the way of people inside the car
  • plus
    Fabric is high quality, with straps being extremely well-made
  • plus
    Air chambers provide a strong cushion between the car and your kayak
  • plus
    Solid at highway speeds

CONS

  • minus
    Does not work well in the rain, heat, or under lots of pressure
  • minus
    It’s very difficult to patch up any leaks if anything gets punctured

Best J-Cradle Roof Rack

J-Cradle carriers like this one come with a built-in boarding ramp so you can load and unload with ease. Fold it down to increase the clearance overhead, but don’t worry about the padding. It still includes oversized padding to protect your kayak, no matter what type you might have. Thanks to the JAWZ mounting hardware, it’ll fit most cross rails, and even comes with both 60mm and 70mm mounting bolts, along with load straps and buckle protectors.

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    Does not deteriorate over time if you leave it on your roof
  • plus
    Loops keep extra strap length in place
  • plus
    Locking tabs work correctly, and you’ll hear an audible click when everything is in place
  • plus
    Very solid, with extremely high building quality
  • plus
    It does fold in half, so when your kayak is not on top, you can fold it down

CONS

  • minus
    You may need to use your own tools to tighten it for more stability
  • minus
    Can be noisy in some cases during transport

Best Saddle Roof Rack

The low-profile design of a saddle roof rack like this makes it easy to set up while taking up the least amount of roof space possible. It flexes gently so that your kayak will remain completely protected while improving your gas mileage as well. Just use the JAWZ mounting hardware to fit your cross bars, and as long as your kayak weighs under 70 pounds, it’ll stay on without any problems.

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    Stays completely in place while you’re driving, and doesn’t affect your driving at all
  • plus
    Produces no noise whether the kayak is in it or not
  • plus
    It’s so low profile when there’s no kayak in it, and doesn’t create lots of wind resistance
  • plus
    One person can install

CONS

  • minus
    Works better for kayaks that are narrower
  • minus
    You do need to loosen the straps when not in use to prevent any sort of indentation

Best Stacker Roof Rack

This stacker rack from THULE is made with a fold-down steel design, so it’s very durable and won’t get scratched very easily. It’s able to be installed and uninstalled simply to carry up to four kayaks at once. Your kayak just needs to be under 75 pounds for the included straps to transport it to work. Even though you’ll have to buy extra straps for more kayaks, the stability might be more than worth it.

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    Doesn’t add any wind noise or mess with the aerodynamics of your vehicle
  • plus
    Comes with every strap, hook, rope, bolt, and ratchet needed for installation
  • plus
    Easily removable, but you can keep it on the roof if you’d like

CONS

  • minus
    The straps that come with it aren’t the greatest, and may require a replacement
  • minus
    You may want to add more foam to increase the friction

Best Lift Assisted Roof Rack

The wider cradles within this rack accommodate bigger hauls during waist level loading, unloading, or strapping so you’ll have an easier time maneuvering your kayak. Make use of the gas struts to help you move the kayak, and with the QuickDraw bow and stern tie downs, along with two center straps and protective buckle bumpers, your kayak and your car will remain stable and safe. You won’t need to worry about your kayak slipping or your car getting scratched anymore!

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    If you’re petite, this handles well and doesn’t require much effort
  • plus
    Easy loading, making it perfect for smaller, older, or single individuals
  • plus
    Directions and instructional videos are very clear when it comes to setup
  • plus
    Stability

CONS

  • minus
    May not be super stable when you’re carrying it at highway speeds
  • minus
    It can be difficult to assemble if you are short

Best Kayak Truck Rack Reviews

Best Horizontal Kayak Bed Extender

Lund makes a great extender for your truck, allowing you to carry your kayak with ease. You’ll receive an additional 7 inches of ground clearance, and if you’re concerned about travel, you get a flag and some reflective tape to help you when you’re driving. It will fit the standard hitch in your truck, and fit your kayak efficiently too. Be sure your kayak isn’t longer than 49 inches, since wings adjust from 27 to 49 inches.

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    Adjustable
  • plus
    Heavy-duty
  • plus
    Easy to set up
  • plus
    Great for trucks with short beds

CONS

  • minus
    Not suitable for heavy loads

Best Vertical Kayak Bed Extender

Tricam’s hitch-mounted extender is perfect for your kayak since it’s strong and stable. It’s constructed of heavy-duty 2-inch powder-coated steel so it will stay strong in all types of weather, and last longer than comparable options. Use it either horizontally or vertically at 5 adjustable heights and an extended width. If there are any problems, the 1-year warranty will be a huge help too!

Available on Amazon.com


PROS

  • plus
    The unit itself is very sturdy and well-made enough that it can hold your kayak well
  • plus
    Stores compactly when you’re finished using it
  • plus
    Perfect for moving some of the weight off of the roof of your car
  • plus
    You don’t have to assemble anything; just put it in your car right away

CONS

  • minus
    Hitch tighteners are not included with your purchase, so you may have to purchase your own for extra stability
  • minus
    May not fit all vehicles well enough that your kayak doesn’t slip around
  • minus
    You need to add your own screws to keep your kayak stable when mounted vertically

Best Kayak Utility Rack For Trucks

TMS has a utility rack which is made of heavy-duty steel and designed to haul all types of items, not just your kayak. The sturdy frame allows you to carry anything up to 800 pounds, but it’s thankfully easy to install and has an adjustable width from 5 to 7 feet so it’ll work for multiple truck bed sizes. It’ll secure your kayak safely so you don’t have to worry about it falling out of your truck when you’re driving to the water.

Available on Amazon.com

PROS

  • plus
    Adjusts very easily so you don’t need to mess around with it too much
  • plus
    Perfect for long trips that will take a few hours
  • plus
    Can carry multiple kayaks without worrying about stability issues
  • plus
    Enables you to carry long items like kayaks even with short truck beds

CONS

  • minus
    It’s likely that the paint will chip and cause rust after a while
  • minus
    There are no included instructions to help you, despite easy installation

Conclusion

There are many options when it comes to your kayak rack, whether you’re buying one for a car, SUV, or truck, but one option seemed to stand out above the rest. If you don’t have a truck, the saddle roof rack by Malone is the best option. It will keep everything completely in place, and if you have a narrower kayak, will work even better. The low-profile appearance makes it perfect if you don’t want to remove it when you’re done, but there are lots of other great options to choose from too. It largely depends on your car and desired rack type, but any one of these can be a great choice for keeping your kayak safe and sound until you arrive at the water!

If you have a truck, the utility rack by TMS had very few problems, with the only real issue being that the paint tended to chip. Besides that, it’s easy to adjust, great for long trips and provides you with a huge amount of stability so you don’t have to worry about anything on the road.