A kayak roof rack is an essential gear item for any regular kayaker. They make life easier by helping to avoid problems like possible damage to your car or kayak during transportation and loading and unloading struggles. Kayak roof racks are available in various styles, ranging from inflatable or foam pads to elaborate saddle and roller systems that carry your kayak safely and securely and assist in safe loading. We elaborate more on the different options here.
Editor’s Note – This list of the best kayak roof racks was updated on June 01, 2023, to add newly listed products and improve content relevance and usefulness.
The Yakima JayLow is the best kayak roof rack due to its versatile and user-friendly design. It can accommodate various kayak sizes and styles, including those with narrow or wide hulls, making it a great option for kayak enthusiasts. The adjustable padding provides excellent protection for your kayak.
Our Other Recommendations
At under $80, the TMS J-Bar is affordable and reliable. It can accommodate most kayak sizes and styles, and the carrier can be quickly and easily mounted onto most roof racks. It is a well-designed and versatile rack that won’t break the bank.
This rack has an innovative design with adjustable cradles that can be modified to fit a variety of kayak shapes and sizes. The cradles are made from a durable rubber material that provides excellent grip and cushioning. The Nautica includes a universal mounting system compatible with most roof racks.
The Malone HandiRack can be quickly inflated using the included hand pump. The HandiRack is gentle on your vehicle’s roof while providing a secure transport base. The soft padding helps to protect your kayak during transport. It is a great choice for anyone who wants a portable kayak roof rack that can be easily transported and stored.
The Thule 830 can transport multiple kayaks simultaneously. This carrier is designed with two padded cradles stacked on each other, allowing you to transport two kayaks using only one roof rack space. The Thule 830 is designed for most roof rack systems and can be easily installed with the included hardware.
Attention – Beware!
Regardless of which kayak roof rack system you choose, ensure your kayak is properly fastened and secured before starting your journey. Failing to do so can damage your car and kayak and cause accidents, putting fellow road users and pedestrians in danger.
1. Yakima JayLow
20.25 X 10.4 X 7.75 Inches
Kayak Rack Type:
As with many racks of this type, the JayLow is engineered to be used with almost any crossbar type. The rack installs onto your vehicle quickly with no tools needed. However, a minimum of 24 inches should be between your crossbars.
The JayLow does double the job by offering the utility of a traditional J-style rack but with the multi-boat storage capacity of a stacker kayak rack. The kayak contact points are extra padded and provide excellent protection to your kayak, while the holding arm can be locked into two positions at roughly a 45-degree angle to the base or 90 degrees.
With the arm at the 45-degree position, the JayLow acts as a traditional J-style rack, but with the arm at the 90-degree position, two kayaks can be tied down to the arm—one on either side of the arm, such as in the manner of a stacker-style rack. Suppose you want to transport a single kayak; this rack will support one boat weighing up to 80 lbs. or two boats weighing up to 110 lbs.
Yakima provides solid and heavy-duty straps and stern tie-downs with the JayLow. Additionally, a HoodAnchor is also provided that can be used on vehicles that do not have attachment points for tie-downs and straps.
The JayLow has the Same Key System locking system that keeps your rack safe from theft. This system consists of lock cores and keys installed into the rack and can be used on other Yakima products. However, the lock system is sold separately.
The JayLow has many handy features. It’s a breeze to install and use. It’s a perfect all-rounder and the best investment for transporting your kayak.
2. TMS J-Bar
17.5 x 12 x 6.5 Inches
Kayak Rack Type:
This TMS rack is perfect for larger boats, such as sea or touring kayaks. It has steel construction for extra strength and durability, especially to carry heavier boats, and fits kayaks up to 36 inches wide and 75 pounds. Thick, adjustable pads fitted onto the carrying arms protects the kayak from damage during transit. As far as versatility goes, this kayak rack fits the majority of vehicle crossbars.
After unboxing, some light assembly is required. Although a stamped wrench is included for tightening the rack’s nuts, it’s not the best quality tool, feeling and looking flimsy. I would suggest having a more solid, adjustable wrench handy. Trying to line up the bolts, the holding arms, and the stiff rubber block at the bottom of the rack is a little bit frustrating. But nothing that should put you off considering this kayak rack.
The kayak is quickly loaded from the side of the vehicle thanks to the wide-mouth J-shaped rack. When loaded, the kayak is positioned at roughly a 45-degree angle. Two loading straps are included, but I suggest buying additional straps for a more secure tie-down.
The TMS rack is a convenient, no-frills kayak roof rack. This rack is a solid piece of equipment due to its steel construction, making it the best choice if you work with a tight budget.
3. Malone Auto Racks J-Downloader
21 x 10 x 8 Inches
Kayak Rack Type:
Like other J-style kayak racks, the J-Downloader makes loading and unloading a kayak exceedingly easy. However, the Malone J-Downloader has a useful fold-down feature that provides low-clearance access when not in use, much like the previously mentioned Yakima kayak rack.
This Malone kayak rack further excels with the loading and unloading process as it has a small inclined platform in the front of the rack on which the kayak rests as you slide it up into its loaded position. The extra-thick padding on the cradle arms feels durable enough to protect your kayak during transportation on uneven terrains and long hauls. This isn’t a one-person job, though, and shorter kayakers might need something to step on to lift the kayak high enough. However, it is a simple yet quite clever idea.
If you are looking for load assist in helping you, I would strongly recommend looking at the Telos Load Assist Module, with which this rack is compatible.
This universal kayak rack fits most crossbars and comes with two sets of hex bolts for mounting to different sizes of crossbars. The JAWZ mounting hardware is designed to fit round, square, and most factory oval crossbars. The J-Downloader clamp system might not be perfect for roof racks or crossbars with rounded tops. Malone claims that the rectangular cutout at the base of this kayak holder will not affect the fit and performance of round or oval-shaped crossbars. But, it would help if you considered that this might vary from one vehicle to the next.
When tying down the kayak onto the J-Downloader, I would strongly recommend only using the bow and stern tie-down straps, which are all included with the rack, so if you are considering using any other straps, don’t. This is a specific requirement from Malone, and failing to do so voids the warranty on the product should anything go wrong.
The J-Downloader Malone kayak rack is a solid choice if you want genuine value for money. Is it the best option? No. Is it the worst? No. Will you be satisfied? Absolutely. It offers many helpful features for easy loading, folds flat onto your car’s roof when not in use, and cushions your kayak with high-quality thick padding at a fair price.
4. Rhino-Rack Nautic 570
10 x 7 x 6 Inches
Kayak Rack Type:
Roof bar U-bolt
This saddle kayak rack system from Rhino Rack consists of four large Santoprene rubber cradles with three flexible joints that grip the kayak securely. All that contact area adds to stable and secure storage for your kayak or boat.
The Rhino-Rack fits most crossbars like the JayLow and the TMS kayak racks mentioned previously. Apart from the sturdy and practical design, the Rhino-Rack Nautic saddle rack stands out because loading the kayak is extremely easy. Positioned towards the side of the car, the cradles swing to the side at a 180-degree angle, which makes loading and unloading the kayak a treat. Many racks of this type are loaded from the rear of the vehicle. The cradle’s rubber padding is waterproof and UV protected, so they will be fine if left mounted over long periods.
The pads on the cradles are engineered to fit various hull shapes. Still, it takes a bit of experimentation to find the best mounting locations for the four cradles to hold different kayak sizes and shapes securely. The TMS kayak rack includes everything you need to get out on the road, including load straps and tie-downs.
5. Malone HandiRack
14.76 x 7.17 x 5.91 Inches
Kayak Rack Type:
The HandiRack comprises two inflatable 420-denier nylon pads with internal air chambers.
If you’re interested in additional features, then the HandiRack will disappoint. It fulfills its essential requirement to provide cushioning and protection to your kayak when loaded onto the roof of your vehicle. It is a temporary feature that is easy to attach and remove without any alterations to your car or the roof bars or rails requirements. The smooth material is problematic during heavy rain spells as the water drips down the straps into the car’s interior.
The Malone HandiRack is not a long-term investment or heavy hauler. I wouldn’t recommend this as something for everyday use.
If you’re an occasional weekend kayaker looking for something quick and easy to load your kayak or boat on, seriously consider the inflatable HandiRack from Malone before any other temporary kayak rack solution. The HandiRack also works as a roof rack substitute for transporting other cargo.
This is quality, practicality, and functionality at a reasonable price. Hard to beat.
6. Thule 830
5 x 5 x 20 Inches
Kayak Rack Type:
The Thule 830 can carry up to 4 kayaks up to 36 inches in width, with a maximum weight capacity of 75 pounds each. However, you must buy an additional carrier if transporting four kayaks. One pair of stackers only carries two kayaks, and only enough straps and tie-downs are provided to secure two boats.
This Thule kayak rack has a very simplistic yet sturdy design. Made from steel with a non-scratch outer coating, this is the quality expected from a brand like Thule. However, I would have liked to see more padding on the rack as a cautionary measure for possible scratches or damage during loading or transportation. The stackers are easily attached to all Thule crossbars or rack systems and fold down almost completely, adding to their aerodynamic quality. No tools are needed during installation; they should have a universal fit to nearly all crossbars.
Unlike J-style and saddle racks, a stacker such as the 830 doesn’t cradle the kayaks. It keeps them vertically stacked to save space and provides an anchor point to which the kayaks are tied down. It does take some time to figure out a quick and more efficient way to load the kayaks, as there is no loading feature added to this kayak rack to help speed up the process.
If you want to save space and carry more than a pair of kayaks, I recommend the Thule 830 stacker because this is a straightforward, no-frills stacking kayak rack. It provides stability, durability, and efficiency when transporting multiple boats at an excellent price.
A Look At The Different Kayak Roof Rack Styles
These sturdy racks allow you to load your kayak from the side of your car.
This rack has two grips that attach to your crossbars and hold your kayak from below.
Crossbars are the beginning of many types of roof racks. These allow you to attach kayak racks to your vehicle.
These pads, either inflatable or foam, are a one-step roof rack. No other parts or hardware are needed.
The advantage of rollers is that they allow for more effortless loading of your kayak.
This type of rack allows you to stack multiple kayaks on your roof. Stackers are best for smaller kayaks.
What Are the Different Kinds of Kayak Designs
Sometimes it is helpful to be aware of the type of kayak you’re transporting when choosing a kayak rack. Without getting too technical, below is a summary of kayak types, their designs, and their intended purposes.
1. Recreational Kayaks
These are perfect for everyday outings and fun on the water. Their general purpose is to provide comfort and stability. These kayaks are not designed for rough open ocean waters but for slow-moving, flat waters such as rivers, lakes, and ponds—the perfect choice for beginners.
Recreational kayaks are generally shorter than other more specialized kayaks (9 to 12 feet) and much broader, with a width of 28 to 34 inches.
2. Touring Kayaks
Touring kayaks have an extended hull and a very narrow beam. This kayak has a sleek design and is specialized for long-distance travel over large bodies of water.
These kayaks usually have a length of between 12 to 20 feet and have a narrow design of 18 to 28 inches in width. However, with ample storage space, such as sealed hatches and bulkheads, this more than makes up for the tight fit. Since they are made for long-distance touring across open water, they also have a skeg or rudder system that aids tracking and stability.
3. Sea Kayaks
These are specialized variations of touring kayaks. Sea kayaks tend to have a more pronounced rocker, a sharper V-shaped hull, and thigh braces that increase stability and control. These kayaks are perfect for facing the ocean’s rough, open waters.
4. Whitewater Kayaks
These are made specifically for taking on whitewater rapids. Their short, stubby frames make them perfect for precise maneuverability, buoyancy, and rapid response in fast-flowing waters.
5. Racing Kayaks
Racing kayaks are designed for high performance, such as sprints and marathons. Mainly used on flat water, these lightweight kayaks are built for speed and efficiency.
These kayaks are long and extremely narrow, with single-person kayaks reaching up to 17 feet and usually no more than 20 inches.
6. Fishing Kayaks
Fishing kayaks are specifically made with anglers in mind. These kayaks are made to be stable, with a broad deck measuring between 30 and 42 inches in width. Fishing kayaks have rod holders, mounting spots for trolling motors and fish finders, an anchor system, and much storage space.
7. Inflatable Kayaks
Inflatable kayaks are for recreational purposes and great for those with little storage space. They’re not built for speed but are surprisingly strong and versatile. It’s best to keep close to shore when using these kayaks, while more rugged inflatables can be used on flowing rivers, some even as touring kayaks.
Choosing The Right Kayak Roof Rack – A Buyer’s Guide
Before investing your money in a kayak roof rack, you need to consider a few essential things to help narrow down what would suit your needs best.
Your Vehicle’s Roof Setup
The first thing to consider is your car’s roof setup. Bare roofs or roofs with side rails would best suit inflatable kayak racks or foam pads.
Alternatively, some vehicles have factory-fitted or aftermarket crossbars, perfect for kayak roof mounts such as saddles, j-cradles, and stackers.
Roof Rack Weight Capacity
Ensure that the roof rack is rated to carry the weight of your kayak. It’s also important to ensure the roof rack is compatible with your car. Check your car’s user manual to see if it’s compatible with the roof rack you’re interested in.
The Number of Kayaks You Want to Carry
The number of kayaks will determine what roof rack you should get. Like most J-cradles, a double kayak roof rack is generally sufficient. However, a stacker-type rack is the best choice for carrying up to four kayaks.
You should consider the size of the kayak. You may need a different one if your kayak is too large for the rack.
How Frequently Will You Use the Kayak Roof Rack?
If you’re a frequent kayaker, invest in a rack that makes loading and unloading easy and efficient. The best option for this is kayak rollers or saddle-type racks. J-cradle kayak racks also provide easy side-loading options, especially if you will be loading your kayak without an additional person’s help.
Any Additional Features
Finally, look at the features of the kayak roof rack. Make sure that the rack comes with all necessary mounting hardware and straps. You should also make sure that the rack has adjustable straps to fit different sizes of kayaks, as well as any additional safety or anti-theft features.
How to Safely and Securely Install a Kayak Roof Rack
Installing a kayak roof rack is a great way to transport your kayak securely. To do so safely and securely, you must follow a few steps.
- Ensure your vehicle has a roof rack compatible with the type of kayak rack you are installing. If not, you will need to purchase a compatible rack.
- Measure the size of your kayak and your vehicle’s roof to ensure that the kayak will fit properly.
- Use the appropriate straps to secure the kayak rack to your vehicle’s roof rack. Ensure the straps are tight enough to hold the kayak in place.
- Secure the kayak to the rack itself. You can use ratchet straps or bungee cords to ensure the kayak does not move around during transport.
By following these steps, you can have peace of mind that your kayak is securely installed on your vehicle, and you can safely transport your kayak to your destination.
Tips for Loading Your Kayak onto Your Roof Rack
Remember a few important tips when loading a kayak onto your roof rack.
- Ensure your roof rack is securely attached and can handle the kayak’s weight.
- Your kayak should securely fasten to the roof rack and use the right straps and tie-downs.
- Wear gloves to avoid abrasions and injuries when lifting the kayak onto the roof rack.
- Ensure the kayak is centered on the roof rack for safe and balanced driving.
Finally, double-check all straps and tie-downs to make sure the kayak is safely secured before you drive away. There are some great kayak lift-assist systems to help you get your kayak onto the roof of your vehicle with minimum effort.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should Kayaks be Transported Upside Down?
If you have a rotomoulded kayak, you must transport it upside down. This will keep your kayak safe and prevent damage. However, for composite kayaks, it’s better to transport them by placing their bottom on the racks to avoid deformation. Sometimes, it also depends on the rack you choose.
Is a Temporary Foam Rack or a Permanent Roof Rack Better?
Both racks have their perks. Temporary foam racks are affordable, and you don’t need to consider several factors before purchasing them. But they can suffer from damage when they’re not as durable as other racks. They also make the installation process immensely difficult for the user. Permanent racks are durable and highly efficient. Besides that, they offer an easy loading method.
Does Kayak Roof Rack Impact Your Driving?
No, you don’t have to face any problems while driving. No matter what type of rack you choose, you can quickly and comfortably drive your car.
What Other Accessories Do I Need to Transport My Kayak Safely?
Depending on the type of kayak roof rack you have, you may need additional accessories such as tie-down straps, padding, or a cargo net to ensure your kayak is properly secured. You may also consider a kayak cover to protect your kayak from UV rays and inclement weather.
Timo is an outdoor enthusiast and gear specialist who is constantly exploring. As an avid hiker, he has completed the ADK 46ers, South Beyond 6000, GA4000, and the Colorado 14ers. He's ice climbed Mt. Hood, hiked up half a dozen mountains in the Alps, and spent three consecutive summers constructing a sustainable trail through the Colorado high country.