The Best Kayak Racks for Trucks

If there’s one problem with owning a kayak it’s how to transport it to your put-in point. Unless you’re paddling an inflatable or folding model, your boat is going to be long, heavy, and generally unruly. Getting it attached to your truck is a struggle, especially if you don’t have the right equipment.

Kayak racks for passenger cars and SUVs are pretty straight-forward, you’ve got a couple of crossbars and a system for attaching those bars to the roof. However, kayak racks for trucks are a different story though; there’s more than one way to haul your boat, and below we’re going to explain the different options and look at several kayak rack models that can make your paddling experience a whole lot less stressful.

Our Top Pick
AA-Racks Pick-Up Kayak Rack

The APX25 from AA Racks is perfect for the paddler who wants only the best when transporting their kayak.

There are three main methods of loading a kayak onto your truck that we feature in this guide, below is a brief example of each. For more in-depth information on how to select the optimal method of transport for your truck, check out our guide below.

Truck Topper

Fantastic for camping or keeping your gear safe from elements. Unfortunately, having an attached topper can be a hindrance to installing a kayak rack – the bed is already occupied.

Bed Racks

The best option for paddlers that want a more permanent transportation system for their boat. Most racks bolt into the bed rails and are left on year-round.

Hitch Racks

One of the easiest ways to transport your kayak is simply throwing it in the bed. If you’re paddling a whitewater kayak, especially a playboat, it’ll barely extend past the tailgate and may not even need a hazard flag attached.

The crafty among you would be pleased to know that if the specifications for the racks below are not your liking, there’s also a DIY section. And if both of those options don’t happen to do it for you, there’s always the tried and tested kayak trailer.

Truck Bed Kayak Racks

1. AA-Racks Aluminum Pick-Up Kayak Rack

The APX25 from AA Racks is perfect for the paddler who wants only the best when transporting their kayak. It’s made from lightweight aluminum, which shaves about 20% off the rack’s weight. Most steel models come in between fifty and sixty pounds, while the APX25 is a more comfortable 42 lbs. The aluminum frame resists corrosion much better than steel and the whole setup is powder-coated for enhanced durability. Lightweight materials don’t translate to lower capacity either; it can hold up to 800 lbs.

A nice feature on the APX25 is the crossbar bumpers attached to the vertical sections prevent your load from sliding around too much. The bumpers are adjustable so you can squeeze the sides of your kayak with them and they can be removed if you’re carrying a wider load.

If you’re concerned about drilling holes in your truck bed, the APX25 comes with eight heavy-duty clamps for attaching the vertical brackets. These are the same clamps that are used to attach toppers to your bed, so you know they’ll stay firmly in place.

The only area where the APX25 falters is on price. It costs at least twice as much as its steel counterparts. It’s very well-built and deserving of a higher price tag, but if you’re not someone who will make use of its lighter weight, by installing and uninstalling each season, it’s probably not worth the cost.

Reasons to Buy The AA-Racks Aluminum Pick-Up Kayak Rack
  • 800 lb. carrying capacity.
  • Aluminum frame that’s 20% lighter than its competitors.
  • Adjustable crossbar bumpers for a more secure fit.
  • C-clamps for no-drill installation.

2. TMS Adjustable Kayak Truck Rack

This model from TMS is the gold standard for truck bed racks: it’s built tough, it’s relatively easy to install, and it’s not too expensive. Let’s start with the construction, the 1.5” vertical and crossbar pieces are manufactured from heavy-duty steel, allowing you to carry up to 800 lbs.

It can be adjusted to fit any bed width between five and seven feet with a simple bolt, and the rack sits thirty inches above the bed rails. Each of the four vertical sections screws into the bed rails or can be clamped if you aren’t sure about a permanent install.

You can haul more than a couple of kayaks with the TMS too. Each of the vertical sections has a small post that sits above the crossbar that helps to prevent anything like a ladder or lumber load from sliding off. Hooks on the sides of each vertical piece provide more attachment points for bungees and rope that would complement your main tie-downs.

The only downside to this rack is that it’s cumbersome. The whole set weighs fifty pounds and if you don’t attach it permanently, they take up a fair bit of space in storage. There’s also the issue of drilling holes in your bed rails, but that’s a problem with any truck bed rack.

TMS also makes a version of the rack that does not include the goal post verticals. This model is a little easier to lift your boat onto since you don’t have to clear those extra few inches, but it’s less useful for carrying loose loads like lumber or pipe. Those verticals can be a lifesaver should something slip free of the tie-downs.

Reasons to Buy The TMS Adjustable Kayak Truck Rack
  • Solid construction with great carrying capacity.
  • Inexpensive for a bed rack.
  • Extra attachment points for tie-downs.
  • Crossbar width is easy to adjust, fitting almost any truck bed.

3. MaxxHaul Universal Aluminum Truck Rack

MaxxHaul’s 70423 truck rack is a more budget-friendly version of AA APX25. Also constructed of aluminum, it weighs less for its size compared to steel and is great for buyers anticipating taking their rack on and off often. The MaxxHaul’s verticals are equipped with bumpers that keep your load from sliding around, but they reduce your crossbar’s usable length by a few inches on each side.

Additionally, the MaxxHaul only has a 400 lb. weight limit, half that of the AA APX25, or the TMS. The aluminum construction just can’t take as much weight and the Maxxhaul lacks the reinforcements seen on the AA truck rack. Given that almost no kayak or canoe weighs 200 lbs., the Maxxhaul’s lower capacity isn’t a problem when carrying two boats, but could be an issue when hauling other things.

If you see yourself needing to take the rack on and off every season, the lightweight aluminum might be worth the extra cost. However, it’s lower carrying capacity combined with a moderately high price tag make it a niche product.

Reasons to Buy The MaxxHaul Universal Aluminum Truck Rack
  • Lightweight aluminum construction.
  • Costs less than other aluminum truck racks.
  • Bumpers on verticals stop your boat from sliding.
  • 400 lb. capacity.

4. AA-Racks Truck Bed Rack With J-Racks

The X35 from AA Racks is one the best truck bed racks on the market for one reason – it comes with four J-racks that secure your boat in a semi-upright position rather than over the crossbars. The heavily-padded J-racks provide extra attachment points and prevent the boat from sliding laterally. Even with the more complex rack, it doesn’t cost any more than some of the aluminum models.

One of the biggest downsides to this type of truck rack is that it’s hard to load a boat onto them without a ladder. J-shaped racks are great for low to the ground passenger cars, but lifting a touring kayak above your head is near impossible without assistance. At least with the standard racks, you can slide the bow onto the rack from the rear of the truck.

On the other hand, the X35 does come with eight C-clamps to attach the vertical sections without drilling into your truck bed. They’re not quite as secure as bolts and some pickup beds just aren’t compatible with their shape, but it’s still a nice option to have if you’re looking for a kayak rack that’s removable in the off-season.

It also comes with four ratchet straps that are rated to 2200 lbs and four bow/stern tie-downs to keep everything in its proper position. These extras go a long way towards justifying the X35’s price, which is comparable to some of the more expensive aluminum racks for trucks.

Reasons to Buy The AA-Racks Truck Bed Rack With J-Racks
  • C-clamps for no-drill installation.
  • J-racks are more secure than tying your boat to the crossbars.
  • Tie-downs and bow-stern lines included.
  • Extra thick foam on the J-racks.

5. Apex ATR Kayak Rack for Trucks

If you’re looking for an easy to install and a lightweight truck bed rack, the Apex ATR-RACK is an excellent option. It’s made from aluminum, like the AA and Maxxhaul models, weighing just thirty-eight pounds (the lightest truck bed rack on this list!). Thanks to some rock-solid welding and thick tubing the ATR-Rack is capable of holding 800 lbs. This makes it a great option if you’ll be carrying loads that are heavier than the average kayak.

Where the ATR-RACK really shines though is in the installation. No drilling is required – the rack attaches with eight J-shaped clamps. The clamps fit very tightly, so be aware that not all bed rails will work with this system and a tonneau cover is definitely not an option. Additionally, the crossbar can be adjusted to any bed size up to 66 ½ inches using a small, hand-turned knob.

The ATR-RACK is moderately expensive, especially compared to equivalent steel racks. Its main advantage is the ease of installation, so if you’re planning for a permanent setup, the lightweight construction and no-drill install aren’t that useful.

Reasons to Buy The Apex ATR Kayak Rack for Trucks
  • Comes with J-clamps for a no-drill install.
  • Lightweight aluminum construction.
  • 800 lb. capacity.
  • Easy crossbar adjustment for any bed width.

Truck Topper Kayak Racks

6. Vantech Universal Pickup Ladder Rack

Vantech’s M1000 is top of its class as a kayak rack for truck toppers as it’s well-designed, inexpensive, and very lightweight. The two sets of aluminum crossbars can be installed by drilling eight holes in your truck bed topper, which is, unfortunately, the only way to mount any of the topper racks.

The crossbars have a carrying capacity of 500 lbs and are 60 inches wide. The bars sit a little over five inches above the topper, which gives plenty of clearance for seats or any accessories that are attached to the deck of your kayak. The crossbars weigh just 14 lbs, making it the lightest kayak rack for trucks on this list.

The Vantech’s crossbars lack any kind of bumpers, which are usually quite useful for securing a load and preventing your kayak from slipping around. However, just getting your kayak up on a topper feels like it requires a ladder and an extra set of hands. Forgoing the bumpers makes the process a little easier as you don’t need to lift it over the vertical posts. 

The M1000 is a good choice for buyers that need a lot of capacity and flexibility in how their load is attached. The lack of bumpers provides more usable space than most topper racks. It’s also priced fairly low for such a high-quality aluminum rack.

Reasons to Buy The Vantech Universal Pickup Ladder Rack
  • 500 lb. capacity.
  • Wide clearance between crossbars and topper.
  • Extremely lightweight (14 lbs.)
  • No crossbar bumpers for easier tie-down.

7. AA-Racks Universal Pickup Ladder Rack

AA racks DX36 isn’t the most glamorous of racks, but it gets the job done when it counts. This rack is made from white, powder-coated steel. It features a 350 lb capacity that is more than enough for a topper rack. The bars also weigh just 20 lbs, making it one of the lightest weight kayak racks for truck options.

The crossbars are adjustable between 35 and 57 inches. The ends of the bars have large bumpers to prevent anything from sliding off, but they are not removable or adjustable as they have been on other models. As with all topper racks, you need to drill a few holes to get the bars installed. Fortunately, AA Racks included some helpful gaskets to go on the mounts and prevent moisture from leaking in the freshly-drilled holes.

There’s nothing particularly special about the DX36, but the rack is very inexpensive and could be a good choice for paddlers that need something cheap and easy to use. The lack of features will be a turn off for many buyers though.

Reasons to Buy The AA-Racks Universal Pickup Ladder Rack
  • 350 lb. capacity.
  • Very lightweight (20 lbs.)
  • Included gaskets protect your topper from leaks.
  • Powder-coated for durability.

Truck Hitch Kayak Racks

8. MaxxHaul Hitch Mount Truck Bed Extender

At first glance, the MaxxHaul 70231 looks like any other hitch rack. It extends between 24 and 49 inches, which combined with your truck bed is long enough for even the largest sea kayaks. It has a 300 lb. capacity, which isn’t bad for a hitch rack and is sufficiently large for carrying two heavy fishing kayaks.

Where the MaxxHaul excels is in its user-friendliness. The whole apparatus is assembled with quick-release pins, so it can be taken apart or put back together in about a minute. It also weighs just 32 lbs, making storage a cinch. Another one of the cooler features on the MaxxHaul is that the goal post arms fold down to create a workspace. Just lay a piece of wooden sheeting over the arms and tailgate and you’ve got at least four feet of table space hanging off the back of your truck.

The MaxxHaul 70231 is one of great value when it comes to hitch-mounted kayak racks for trucks. Hitch racks are generally less expensive and this model is loaded with user-friendly features.

Reasons to Buy The MaxxHaul Hitch Mount Truck Bed Extender
  • Quick-release pins make for fast assembly and disassembly.
  • Sides fold down to create a workspace.
  • 300 lb. capacity.
  • Length adjusts from 24 – 49 inches.

9. Darby Industries Extend-A-Truck

The 944 from Darby Industries is a fairly basic kayak rack that attaches to the hitch receiver and carries the boat inside the truck’s bed. It has a 350 lb capacity and extends 53 inches back from the hitch. Unlike other hitch racks, it is not fully adjustable.

However, the 944 is unique in that the rack is made from just three pieces: a crossbar, a bar extending back horizontally from the hitch, and a vertical bar. The horizontal and vertical bars can switch positions for the boat to lie in the truck’s bed or on a roof rack attached to the cab. This is a great option if you need your truck bed for storage while transporting the kayak.

The 944 also features an extra-wide crossbeam that makes this a great option for hauling big loads. The crossbar does not have very large bumpers compared to some of Darby’s competitors, so it’s critical that you tie down any load extra tight. The rack also breaks down into several pieces and can be stored behind the seat in the cab. It weighs just 25 lbs and is an incredibly portable kayak rack for your truck.

The biggest reason for purchasing the Darby 944 is that it can be configured for bed or rooftop hauling. If you don’t have a crossbar setup for rooftop hauling this feature will go unused and you’d be better off with the MaxxHaul or Goplus hitch rack. As far as racks go though, it’s the best for trucks with a tonneau cover as it doesn’t interfere with the bed when in the rooftop configuration and the cover can be rolled back if your boat is being carried in the bed.

Reasons to Buy The Darby Industries Extend-A-Truck
  • Adjusts for truck bed or rooftop hauling.
  • Fits in the cab when not in use.
  • Extra-wide crossbeam for maximum storage.
  • Easy to install.

10. Goplus Pickup Truck Bed Hitch Rack

The GoPlus hitch rack might be the best hitch kayak rack for trucks on the market right now. It has a 750 lb. capacity, which is definitely overkill for a hitch rack, but provides peace of mind for the rack’s durability. On each side of the crossbar, the GoPlus has vertical posts designed to keep any kind of load centered on the rack. Usually, there’s not too much movement with a properly tied down kayak, but these bumpers are useful when you’re carrying long loads like dimensional lumber.

For safety’s sake, the GoPlus is packaged with a red flag to place on the end of your kayak. The rack is also coated in reflective tape for extra visibility. Another great feature on the GoPlus is that you can use an adaptor to narrow the rack down to 1 ¼” to fit in smaller hitch receivers.

While it’s unlikely that your pickup truck would have a 1 ¼” hitch receiver, the GoPlus can be adapted to fit the smaller hitch to be compatible with passenger cars and vans. You probably don’t want to load it up to full capacity using the 1 ¼” adaptor, as the vehicle will not be designed for carrying that kind of weight and the rack will be more unstable in the smaller hitch mount.

This is one of the least expensive options for carrying a kayak with your pickup truck and it’s one of the easiest to use. Just slide it into your hitch receiver, adjust the extension bar to your boat’s length, and secure it with some tie-downs.

Reasons to Buy The Goplus Pickup Truck Bed Hitch Rack
  • Can fit 2” or 1 ¼” hitch receivers.
  • Large vertical bars provide extra protection for your boat.
  • Reflective tape for enhanced visibility.
  • 750 lb. capacity.

Extra Accessories to Consider

Y-Autopart Mounting Clamps

The most challenging aspect of setting up a kayak roof rack for a truck is drilling holes into your bed. The holes are unsightly when the rack is not attached, moisture can seep in and corrode the truck’s body, and there’s always the possibility that you’ll measure wrong and need to drill some extra holes. The solution: clamps!

Clamps are commonly used to attach toppers to truck beds and they can just as easily secure your kayak rack. These clamps from Y-Autoparts are especially effective at the job, utilizing a cap clamp design that will fit almost any pickup truck bed. The larger jaws hold better than standard C-clamps and powder-coating on them ensures they’ll last for many years.

These clamps are an excellent addition to your kayak transportation setup and one that will make your life a whole lot easier. While clamps aren’t as foolproof as bolts would be, they’re certainly easier to install and remove, plus you won’t need to worry about damaging the truck and reducing its resale value.

Reasons to Buy The Y-Autopart Mounting Clamps
  • No holes in your truck bed.
  • Powder-coated for durability.
  • Fit most pickup truck beds.
  • Hold tighter than C-clamps.

Ratchet Tie Down Straps

All of the above rack options are great, but they’re missing a critical component – tie-downs. The very best rack is useless without a strong set of tie-downs to secure the boat to the crossbars. You could use rope or bungees, but there’s always the chance that they’ll get some slack in them and your kayak could come flying off the rack.

These ratchet straps are the perfect solution to your tie-downs needs. They’re rated to 500 lbs, which is more than enough since even the heaviest fishing kayaks won’t weigh more than 150 lbs. Factor in the forces that come from driving 75 mph down the freeway and you still have a comfortable margin of error.

The durable ratcheting mechanism ensures a tight fit against the hull of your boat too; you’ll need to be careful not to overtighten them as they can deform the plastic quite easily. The straps are also 15’ feet long, so you may only need two of them to secure two boats (though four straps are included in the package).

The straps easily hook onto your truck bed, hitch, or any other attachment point via a pair of rubberized S-hooks. The rubber coating makes them less likely to strip the paint from your vehicle, even if they’re vibrating at highway speeds. Two bungee cords are included in the package, which can be useful for securing things like cockpit covers or other lightweight items.

Reasons to Buy The Ratchet Tie Down Straps
  • Rubber-coated S-hooks won’t damage your vehicle or boat.
  • 500 lb capacity is big enough for even the heaviest fishing kayaks.
  • Ratcheting action for a tighter hold.
  • Long enough for any rack configuration.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How can I prevent my truck from getting scratched?

Rack systems keep your boat at least a few inches away from your vehicle, so there’s really no chance of scratching once it’s tied down. The problem is getting it on the rack without scraping any paint along the way. The best solution is to always have a friend to help you load the boats. One of you can stand inside the truck bed while the other slides it up the back rack. Alternatively, hitch racks are much easier to load by yourself as you don’t need to lift the boat above your head.

Can I transport a kayak on a rack while pulling a trailer?

There are a number of variables that will determine whether this scenario is feasible. First, is the trailer height shorter than your vehicle? If so, there should be no issue pulling one with your kayak in a bed or topper rack. These racks put the boat’s hull above your roofline, so as long as the trailer is shorter than this, you’ll be okay.

Let’s say you want to pull a tall camp trailer though; in this case, just make sure the kayak doesn’t extend past the truck’s rear bumper. Unless you’re carrying a very long sea kayak, your boat will probably be just fine sitting above the cab and bed, with little to nothing hanging over the bumper.

What are the state laws regarding kayak transportation?

Before you put your DIY plans in action, check your state laws to ensure the design is in compliance with them. Every state is different, so you’ll have to look up the rules and regulations that are specific to you, but most states have similar laws regarding how a load must be carried. These are a few of the universals.

●  A load (your kayak) cannot extend more than three feet past the front bumper. That’s just common sense; you don’t want to impale the vehicle in front of you.

●  If the load extends more than four feet past the rear bumper, it needs a red flag attached to it so other motorists can easily spot it. If you’re driving at night, attach a red light to the end of the boat.

●  Kayaks can only extend a few inches past the sides of your vehicle. Don’t build a massive rack that goes a foot or more past the doors. This can really mess with your vehicle’s handling and it’s a danger to cars that are passing you.

Selecting the Optimal Kayak Rack for Your Truck:

There are loads of different methods for hauling a kayak ranging from throwing it in the bed of the truck to strapping it down on a ladder rack that’s permanently mounted to the vehicle. Your choice of rack is determined by how comfortable you are with drilling holes in your truck, how often you think you’ll want to detach the rack, and what other kinds of equipment are already attached to the truck.

Bed Racks

Truck bed racks are the best option for paddlers that want a more permanent transportation system for their boat. Most racks bolt into the bed rails and are left on year-round. They’re also useful for carrying long loads that are not kayaks, like dimensional lumber, fence materials, and long pipes.

Truck Topper

Toppers are fantastic for camping or keeping your gear safe from elements. Unfortunately, having an attached topper can be a hindrance to installing a kayak rack – the bed is already occupied. Fortunately, a few companies design crossbar systems that attach to your truck’s topper so it can remain attached while hauling your kayak. It can be difficult getting your boat onto the topper, but it is doable with the help of a friend.

Hitch Racks

One of the easiest ways to transport your kayak is simply throwing it in the bed. If you’re paddling a whitewater kayak, especially a playboat, it’ll barely extend past the tailgate and may not even need a hazard flag attached. Touring boats are a different story though; they’re extra length necessitates extra support and that’s where a truck hitch rack comes in.

A hitch rack has a bar that extends from the hitch with a crossbar or “goal post” attached to the end of it. This provides vital support for a boat hanging four or more feet past the tailgate.

Hitch racks are usually the best for tonneau cover pickups as the brackets involved with bed racks cover the inside of the rails where the tonneau cover would be. If your boat has a very low profile, it might fit under the cover, but in most cases, you’ll need to roll it up first.

An Alternative Option: A DIY Kayak Rack for your Truck

By now you’ve probably noticed something – kayak racks for trucks don’t come cheap. To save a few bucks, many paddlers build their own racks. It’s certainly not as easy as picking one off the shelf, but with a little patience, some handiness with tools, and a solid plan, you can put one together for a lot less money than a commercially available rack. Building your own rack also allows you to customize the fit to your vehicle.

Building a Kayak Rack for Your Truck

The vast majority of kayak racks for trucks are made from metal pipes. Metal is harder to work with and more expensive, so DIY-minded paddlers build theirs out of wood. You can find all the parts necessary at your local hardware store and it will probably cost half or a third of what it would to purchase a rack. As for tools, you’ll need a circular saw to cut your wood and a drill to tie it all together with screws.

Homemade Kayak Racks for Trucks

Building a kayak rack for your truck isn’t all that hard as the design for a truck bed rack is fairly simple; there are really only three parts to consider.

1) The uprights. These are the vertical pieces that go in the corners of the truck bed. You can bolt them into the bed, slide them into pockets along the bed rails (if you’ve got them), or just wedge them in tightly with the other components.

2) The crossbars. This is what your kayak lays on, so it’s a good idea to add some padding to them. It’ll protect the boat and provide some much-needed friction that’ll prevent it from sliding around.

3) Stabilizer bars. The uprights and crossbars form a box, but one that’s highly unstable. You’ll want to add some diagonal cross pieces on the sides and ends to prevent the whole rack from shaking as you speed down the highway.

While the weight of the rack frame, along with the boat on top of it, should keep anything from moving around, it’s always a good idea to attach a few tie-downs to the frame so everything is locked in place.

Our Top Pick
AA-Racks Pick-Up Kayak Rack

The APX25 from AA Racks is perfect for the paddler who wants only the best when transporting their kayak.

Written by
Ryan Victor
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