kayak roof rack buyers guide

The Best Kayak Roof Racks

For any regular kayaker, a kayak roof rack is an essential part of the experience. They make life easier by helping to avoid problems like possible damage to your car or kayak during transportation and loading and unloading struggles. 

Car roof racks for kayaks are available in various options, ranging from inflatable or foam pads to elaborate saddle and roller systems that carry your kayak safely and securely and assist in safe loading.

Our Pick!

Yakima-JayLow kayak roof rack

Yakima JayLow Roof Kayak Carrier

The JayLow is a beautifully designed carrier with some particularly convenient and useful features that make it a top choice for us.


The kayak has been around for a long time. Originally, it was used by Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut peoples for hunting and transportation. It was made from seal or other animal skin with a wooden, or sometimes whalebone frame, the kayak was truly a personal watercraft.

The kayak was designed to be a practical, efficient working boat for the people who created it. Nowadays, this small, streamlined watercraft is the starting point for recreation and adventure. There are countless types and designs made from durable modern plastics.

A Look At The Different Kayak Roof Rack Styles

TMS J-Bar Rack HD Kayak Carrier Canoe Boat Surf Ski Roof Top Mounted on Car SUV Crossbar

J-Style

These sturdy racks allow you to load your kayak from the side of your car.

Rhino-Rack Nautic

Saddles

This rack has two grips that attach to your crossbars and hold your kayak from below.

Roof Rack Crossbars 54” Universal Locking

Crossbars

Crossbars are the beginning of many types of roof racks. These allow you to attach kayak racks to your vehicle.

Pads

These pads, either inflatable or foam, are a one-step roof rack. No other parts or hardware are needed.

Yakima Hully Rollers

Rollers

The advantage of using rollers is that they allow for easier loading of your kayak.

Thule 830 The Stacker

Stackers

This type of rack allows you to stack multiple kayaks on your roof. Stackers are best for smaller kayaks.

Don’t forget, the perfect accessory to your kayak is a kayak cart. Slide your kayak from the rack onto the cart and pull it to the water’s edge. Kayak more, worry less.

The Best Kayak Roof Rack Overall Is the Yakima J-Low

1. Yakima JayLow Rooftop Kayak Carrier

Yakima JayLow Rooftop Kayak Carrier

Dimensions:
20.25 X 10.4 X 7.75 Inches

Foldable:
Yes

Kayak Rack Type:
J-Style

Mounting Type:
Crossbars


Yakima JayLow rooftop kayak rack is a fantastic take on a sturdy long-hauling J-style kayak rack. The JayLow is a beautifully designed carrier with some particularly convenient and useful features that make it our top choice for the best kayak roof rack overall.

As with many racks of this type, the JayLow is engineered to be used with almost any type of crossbar. The rack installs onto your vehicle easily 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 a 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 at 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. If you want to transport a single kayak. This rack will support one boat weighing up to 80 lbs. or two boats with a combined weight of up to 110 lbs.

Strong, heavy-duty straps and stern tie-downs are provided by Yakima 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 a Same Key System locking system that keeps your rack safe from theft. This system consists of lock cores and keys that are installed into the rack itself and can also 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 overall.

Liked

  • Attachable to all crossbars
  • Foldable design to improve aerodynamics when not in use
  • Integrated quality ramp system for a hassle-free loading process

Disliked

  • More expensive than most other roof-mounted kayak racks

The Best Budget Option Is the TMS J-Bar Kayak Rack

This universal J-style rack by T-Motorsports is an excellent option for the budget-conscious when it comes to kayak carrying solutions. This TMS kayak roof rack is a very popular model with a lot going for it. Tough, durable, and easy to install, the rack can carry a wide range of boat sizes while also being easy on the wallet. An extremely practical choice.

2. TMS J-Bar Kayak Rack

TMS J-Bar Kayak Rack

Dimensions:
17.5 x 12 x 6.5 Inches

Foldable:
No

Kayak Rack Type:
J-Style

Mounting Type:
Crossbars


For larger boats, such as sea or touring kayaks, this TMS rack is perfect. 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. It is a tiny bit frustrating trying to line up the bolts, the holding arms, and the stiff rubber block at the bottom of the rack. But nothing that should put you off considering this kayak rack.

The kayak is easily 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 would suggest buying additional straps for a more secure tie-down.

The TMS rack is a very practical, no-frills kayak roof rack. Overall, this rack is a solid piece of equipment due to its steel construction, making it the best choice if you’re working with a tight budget.

Liked

  • Designed to attach to most crossbars or load bars
  • Durable steel construction
  • Affordable relative to most kayak racks

Disliked

  • Included wrench not suitable for its intended purpose
  • Additional straps may be required for security

The J-Downloader From Malone Auto Racks Is the Best Value for Money

Here is another great J-style rack. The Malone J-Downloader Kayak Carrier by Malone Auto Racks offers corrosion-resistant aluminum construction, universal fit mounting hardware, and a few nifty features not found on the TMS rack mentioned above. As far as what this kayak roof rack has to offer, and considering its price range, this is probably the best value for money for any occasional kayaker.

3. Malone Auto Racks J-Downloader

Malone Auto Racks J-Downloader

Dimensions:
21 x 10 x 8 Inches

Folding:
No

Kayak Rack Type:
J-Style

Mounting Type:
Crossbars


Just 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 during long hauls. This isn’t a one-man job though, and shorter kayakers might need something to step on in order to lift the kayak high enough. However, it is a simple, yet quite a clever idea.

If you are looking for a load assist to help you, then I would strongly recommend taking a look 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. Take caution that the clamp system on the J-Downloader might not be a completely perfect fit 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, realistically, you should consider that this may vary from one vehicle to the next.

Malone does provide detailed instructions for both mountings on your vehicle and for securing your kayak to the rack which is all quite simple to do.

When tieing 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’re looking for genuine value for money. Is it the best option? No. Is it the worst? No. Will you be satisfied? Absolutely. It offers lots of helpful features for easy loading, folds down flat onto your car’s roof when not in use, and cushions your kayak with high-quality thick padding all at a fair price.

Liked

  • Folds down for increased overhead clearance
  • Built-in boarding ramp for easy loading
  • Thick padding protects the boat during transportation

Disliked

  • The possibility of not fitting perfectly to all crossbars

For the Best Saddle Kayak Roof Rack, Get the Rhino Rack Nautic

As far as saddle, or cradle, kayak racks go, the Rhino Rack Nautic is the best choice because it is discreetly designed but still offers quality construction, and practicality. The padded cradles are perfect for loading your kayak with the minimum amount of effort and damage to your vehicle. Definitely a worthwhile investment.

4. Rhino Rack Nautic 570 Kayak Rack

Rhino Rack Nautic 570 Kayak Rack

Dimensions:
10 x 7 x 6 Inches

Foldable:
No

Kayak Rack Type:
Saddle/Cradle

Mounting 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 up to very stable and very secure storage for your kayak or boat.

Like the JayLow and the TMS kayak racks mentioned previously, the Rhino Rack fits most crossbars. Apart from the sturdy and practical design, another reason that the Rhino Rack Nautic saddle rack stands out above the rest, is that 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 rubber padding on the cradles 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 a wide variety of hull shapes, but it takes a bit of experimentation to find the best mounting locations for the four cradles to securely hold different kayak sizes and shapes. The TMS kayak rack includes everything you need to get out on the road, including load straps and tie-downs.

Liked

  • Lightweight and easy to install
  • Comes with tie-downs and load straps
  • Pivoting pads make loading and unloading effortless

Disliked

  • Lacking in security and anti-theft features

The Malone Handirack Is the Best Inflatable Kayak Roof Rack

If you want to step lightly into the world of kayaking this may be the way for you to do it. The HandiRack by Malone Auto Racks is a straightforward, quick, and easy roof rack system that will fit just about any vehicle by just strapping it onto the car’s roof and that’s it. No crossbars or roof rack are needed and no tools. The HandiRack is made from tough and hardy nylon material, and it feels like it can definitely take on a kayak’s weight on a regular basis. For anyone that doesn’t want to commit to a full-on roof rack, the HandiRack from Malone is a good place to start.

5. Malone HandiRack Kayak Roof Rack

Malone HandiRack Kayak Roof Rack

Dimensions:
14.76 x 7.17 x 5.91 Inches

Foldable:
No

Kayak Rack Type:
Inflatable

Mounting Type:
Strap


The HandiRack is made from two inflatable 420-denier nylon pads with internal air chambers. A double-action pump is used to inflate the pads, whereafter they have a 180-pound weight capacity.

If you’re interested in additional features, then the HandiRack will disappoint. It fulfills its basic requirement which is 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 vehicle or the requirements of roof bars or rails. The smooth material is problematic during heavy rain spells as the water has the tendency to drip down the straps into the car’s interior.

The Malone HandiRack is not a long-term investment or heavy hauler, so I wouldn’t recommend this as something for everyday use.

If you’re an occasional weekend kayaker and looking for something quick and easy to load your kayak or boat on, then seriously consider the inflatable HandiRack from Malone before any other temporary kayak rack solution. The HandiRack also works well as a general roof rack substitute for transporting any other cargo.

This is quality, practicality, and functionality at a good price. Hard to beat.

Liked

  • Made of tough 3-ply 420-denier nylon
  • Installs on nearly all vehicles
  • 180-Pound weight capacity

Disliked

  • Known to cause a bit of leaking into your vehicle via water running down the straps
  • Air pockets might deteriorate after prolonged exposure to high temperatures

For the Best Stacker Kayak Rack, Get the Thule 830

The Thule 830 stacker kayak rack allows you to haul multiple boats on your vehicle and is a real space saver, especially if you regularly go on kayaking trips as a group. Thule is renowned for its high-quality outdoor transportation gear, and the 830 stacker lives up to Thule’s reputation. It is smart and ergonomically designed, with quick installation, and carries up to four recreational kayaks. If you’re looking for a true multi-kayak carrier, consider the Thule 830. No other stacker kayak rack will offer you this much quality at such an affordable price.

6. Thule 830 Stacker Kayak Rack

Thule 830 Stacker Kayak Rack

Dimensions:
5 x 5 x 20 Inches

Folding:
Yes

Kayak Rack Type:
Stacker

Mounting Type:
Crossbars


The Thule 830 can carry up to 4 kayaks up to 36-inches in width and with a maximum weight capacity of 75-pounds, each. However, you will have to buy an additional carrier if you’re planning on transporting 4 kayaks. One pair of stackers only carries two kayaks, and there are also only enough straps and tie-downs 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 type of quality expected from a brand such as 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 the installation process and it should have a universal fit to almost all crossbars.

Unlike J-style and saddle racks, a stacker such as the 830 doesn’t cradle the kayaks. It simply keeps them vertically stacked, in order to save space and provides an anchor point to which the kayaks are tied down. It does however 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, then I would recommend the Thule 830 stacker for the simple reason that this is a straightforward, no-frills stacking kayak rack. It provides stability, durability, and efficiency when transporting multiple boats, at a very good price.

Liked

  • High-quality materials and construction with non-scratch coating
  • Easy to install and set up
  • Uses less crossbar space than other kayak rack styles

Disliked

  • Takes some time to figure out an efficient loading process
  • Two stackers are needed to carry four boats
  • Secure straps and tie-downs are only provided for two boats, instead of four

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 short 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. Not designed for rough open ocean waters, these kayaks are better suited to slow-moving, flat waters such as rivers, lakes, and ponds. The perfect choice for beginners.

Recreational kayaks are generally shorter in lengths than other more specialized kayaks (9 to 12 feet) and much wider, with a width of 28 to 34-inches.

2. Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks have a long 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 are also fitted with a skeg or some 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 add to increased 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. Mostly used on flat water these lightweight kayaks are built for speeds and efficiency.

These kayaks are long and extremely narrow, with single-person kayaks reaching a length of 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 features such as rod holders, mounting spots for trolling motors and fish finders, an anchor system, and a lot of storage space.

7. Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are absolutely for recreational purposes and are great for those with little to no 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 a Kayak Roof Rack – A Buyer’s Guide

Before investing your money in a kayak roof rack, you need to consider a few important things to help narrow down on what would suit your needs best.

Your Vehicle’s Roof Setup

The first thing to consider is what your car’s basic roof setup is.

Naken or bare roofs or roofs with side rails would be best suited for inflatable kayak racks or foam pads.

Alternatively, some vehicles have factory-fitted, or aftermarket crossbars which are perfect for kayak roof mounts such as saddles, j-cradles, and stackers. Take into consideration that factory-fitted crossbars have weight limitations.

The Number of Kayaks You Want to Carry

The number of kayaks will determine what roof rack you should get. A double kayak roof rack such as most J-cradles, is generally sufficient, however for carrying up to four kayaks, a stacker type rack is the best choice.

How Frequently Will You Use the Kayak Roof Rack?

If you’re a frequent kayaker it makes send to 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should Kayaks be Transported Upside Down?

If you have a rotomoulded kayak, you need to 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 prevent deformation. Sometimes, it also depends on the rack you choose.

Is a Temporary Foam Rack or Permanent Roof Rack is 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. 

On the other hand, permanent racks are durable and highly efficient. Besides that, they offer an easy and simple 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 easily and comfortably drive your car.

Our Pick!

Yakima-JayLow kayak roof rack

Yakima JayLow Roof Kayak Carrier

The JayLow is a beautifully designed carrier with some particularly convenient and useful features that make it a top choice for us.

Join the discussion

3 comments
  • Would you please discuss the pros and cons of different lift assist systems. I am in my 70s and would like an easier way of getting our kayaks up on my Forester.

  • I need a kayak racks for a 4.5 inches wide/ 2.1 inches height crossbars.
    Any suggestions?

    Thank you.

  • How does the kayak composition, plastic v fiberglass, affect the carrier type (cradle, saddle, crossbar)?