Rackmaven is reader supported. We earn an affiliate commission if you buy through our links . Learn More.
The kayak has been around for a long time. And we mean a long time. It is believed that the slim, swift sporting boat has existed for about 4,000 years. It was used by Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut peoples for hunting and transportation. Originally made from seal or other animal skin with a wood (or sometimes whalebone) frame, the kayak was truly a personal watercraft. Generally, the boat was constructed by the user and was built to a size that closely reflected the body measurements of the builder.
For the people who created it the kayak was designed to be a practical, efficient working boat. And the workplace was usually close to home. But nowadays, this small, streamlined watercraft is the starting point for recreation and adventure. There are countless types and designs, made from durable modern plastics. Of course, most people nowadays don’t build – they buy. And unless you are fortunate enough to live near rushing whitewater, peaceful lakes, or other blue spots on a map, you need to haul your kayak from your home base to those places.
For this, most people turn to a kayak roof carrier for their car or truck. They range from very basic inflatable or foam pads to cushion your boat (and protect the roof of your vehicle) to elaborate saddle and roller systems that not only hold your kayak securely but also provide some assistance in loading.
This guide will provide a solid start to finding the gear you need to bring your kayak to the wild (or placid) waters. We will get you started by discussing the types of carriers available, giving you some idea of what to consider when beginning your search for the right rack, and some reviews of specific products that we think are great choices for your kayaking journeys.
Our Selection of The 5 Best Kayak Roof Racks:
Take a look at our top ten picks below to see what we think are some of the best kayak roof racks you can currently buy online.
Yakima JayLow Folding J-Cradle Rooftop Kayak Rack is another take on the sturdy long-hauling J-style rack. The JayLow is a beautifully designed carrier with some particularly convenient and useful features that make it a top choice for us.
One of those convenient features reveals itself immediately: The JayLow comes out of the box fully assembled. We don’t have a problem with doing a bit of work, but this is a welcome benefit. 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 car or truck easily – no tools needed – just attach the rack’s clamps to your bars and tighten the thumbscrews. Note: The rack comes with adapters for the Yakima’s Roundbar crossbars, which allow the rack to be securely clamped to those round bars. Users report that those adapters can be used with other round load bars. Also, note that Yakima says there must be a minimum of 24 in. of the distance between your crossbars to use the JayLow.
Another great feature: This rack does double duty by offering the utility of a traditional style J rack and multi-boat storage capability of a stacker (see above).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 is a traditional J-style rack, ready to receive one boat for transporting. With the arm at the 90-degree position, two kayaks can be tied down to the arm –one on either side of the arm in the manner of a stacker-style rack. This rack will support one boat weighing up to 80 lbs. or two boats with a combined weight of up to 110 lbs.
Yakima has this great video to show the process of securing one or two boats onto the rack. (You also get a close look at how to mount the rack onto your vehicle). We should mention here that the JayLow comes with heavy-duty securing straps and bow/stern tie-downs
Yakima also offers a locking system, the SKS (for “Same Key System”) locking system, to keep your rack safe from theft. The system consists of lock cores and keys that can be installed into your rack – as well as other Yakima products. One key fits every lock, so one key lock and unlocks all your Yakima gear. And presumably anyone else’s. The lock system is sold separately. It would have been nice to have it included. It seems a bit pricey to us. Check it out for yourself.
We like the JayLow. So many handy features. A breeze to install and use. A bit rough on the budget. But still a great choice.
Available at Amazon
In the Rhino Rack Nautic Series 570, we get an example of the saddle type of roof kayak rack. This rack system consists of four large (3 in. X 8 in. in size and 6 millimeters thick) santoprene rubber cradleswith three flexible joints that grip your boat securely – almost like two pairs of hands holding from under the kayak. All that contact area adds up to very stable and very secure storage for your boat.
Like most of the other racks featured here, the Rhino Rack features universal fit mounting hardware.(You can see the attaching clamps on the bottom of each cradle in the product photo.) As always, a little research is a good idea to determine if this rack will fit your roof rack or crossbar system.The Rhino Rack website has a tool for helping you match a rack or crossbar system to a carrier. We found it a bit frustrating to use. As they say, your mileage may vary. Also on the Rhino Rack web page for this product is a short list of bars with which the rack system is compatible. Helpful, of course, but not comprehensive.
A very useful feature of this saddle-style rack is that it can be loaded from the side. The pads swivel 180 degrees, allowing you to pull one pair toward the outside of your vehicle, load your boat onto them, and then just roll the boat into carrying position. If that sounds a little confusing, you can have a look at this video to see the carrier in action.
This eliminates the need to get up and over your vehicle, and also eliminates the need for a ladder to do the job. One person can manage it with their feet firmly on the ground. This also allows you to easily load and unload your kayak even if you are towing gear behind your vehicle – many racks of this type are loaded from the rear of the vehicle.
The manufacturer says the pads on the cradles are engineered to fit a wide variety of hull shapes. It will also take a bit of experimentation to find the best mounting locations for the four cradles to best hold your boat. If you have to remove the rack, it might be a good idea to make some small marks on the crossbars so you won’t have to search for those spots again.
When not in use, we would be tempted to remove these cradles, mainly to avoid damage to the rubber padding that is so crucial to the functioning of these cradles. Though they are designed to take a beating – the rubber pads are waterproof and UV protected.
This rack includes everything you need to get out on the road, including load straps and tie downs.
Available at Amazon.
We’ll start as simply as we can. If you want 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 easyroof rack system that will fit just about any vehicle – just strap it on and go. No crossbars or roof rack needed. No tools. You can use it to carry almost anything you can tie down to it: not just boats, but luggage, furniture, skis, snowboards, you name it.
The system consists of two inflatable pads made of 420-denier nylon with air chambers inside.A double-action pump is included to fill the pads with air – save your breath, and your energy, for the white-water paddling. There arefive D-ring anchor points to which you can tie your stuff. The manufacturer says this padding system has a 180-pound weight capacity, but we wonder if the air chambers in the pads can really take that much weight – especially bouncing around at highway speeds.
Special features? Extras? Not really. The Handirack basically provides some cushioning and protection for your stuff and the roof of your vehicle and a way to tie things down. Sometimes that’s enough.
We have heard reports of air chamber failure in cases of heavy loads, long use, or when using in high temperature conditions. That’s not such a big surprise. We don’t see this as a heavy hauler. Just don’t go crazy overloading it and you’ll a have a handy, lightweight rack system you can use for quite some time.
If you’re an occasional weekend warrior or the water is just a short hop, you might just want the HandiRack. If you want to do some basic hauling, without the need to assemble, install, wrench, drill, or tighten anything, the Malone inflatable might be for you. On and off in minutes – no permanent changes to your vehicle. Sound good? You might be HandiRack material.
Available at Amazon.
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 reviewed above.
The Malone Downloader, with its hip, high-tech name, give you the easy side loading ability of other J-style racks. You get the same J-style efficient, space-saving rooftop storage, and the same easy installation on your existing crossbars. But the Malone J rack has an extremely useful fold-down feature that provides low-clearance access when not in use. And it will carry up to 75 lbs. of kayak.
You also get a bit of help when it comes time to load your kayak onto your vehicle: the rack has a built-in “loading ramp” to make pushing heavier boats up and into the rack easier. It’s just a small inclined plane in the front of the rack, but it could make the difference for shorter kayakers. It’s a simple, yet quite clever idea.
Malone helps you out with the installation on your car or truck, too. The rack comes with two sets of hex bolts (50 millimeters and 70 millimeters) for the mounting hardware to accommodate different sizes of crossbars. And the JAWZ mounting hardware is designed to fit round, square and most factory oval crossbars. We like that this rack includes detailed instructions for both mountings on your vehicle (quite simple) and for securing your kayak to the rack. Have a look at them here.
Malone not only recommends that you use bow and stern tie-down when you transport your kayak with this rack, they tell you failure to do so voids the warranty on the product. Something to keep in mind. Both the load straps and the bow and stern tie-down are included with this rack. So, no excuses.
The Downloader also includes extra-thick padding on the cradle arms to protect your boat. Another nice touch.
We heard a few user complaints about the clamp system not being a perfect fit for roof racks or crossbars with rounded tops. According to the company website: “The base of the carrier has a rectangular ‘cutout’ that has been included for square cross bar fit.” Malone also claims that the square cutout will not affect performance on round or oval shaped cross bars. But, realistically, you should consider that performance on your vehicle may vary. You may want to be sure of the shape of your crossbars before buying. In fact, if you are interested in this rack and do not yet have crossbars for your vehicle, it may affect your choice of crossbar.
One final helpful touch from Malone: If the lifting required to load your rack is a genuine problem for you, the manufacturer mentions that this rack is compatible with the Telos Load Assist Module. It clips onto the loading ramp of the J rack and lets you easily raise your boat up on to the rack in small increments. You only have to lift your kayak up to the waist level to get it on to this device.
The J-Downloader Kayak Carrier is a solid choice for a kayak rack. Lots of helpful features, easy loading, folds down to practically nothing when you aren’t using it. Fair price, too. Just remember what we heard about the round crossbars.
Available at Amazon.
This J-style rack by T-Motorsports is a contender for the perfect kayak carrying solution. This TMS carrier is a very popular model within a very popular style of kayak rack. And it has a lot going for it. Tough and easy to install, the rack holds a wide range of boat sizes, and, perhaps best of all, is easy on the wallet. An extremely practical choice.
If you have a larger boat, such as a sea or touring kayak, this TMS rack might be for you. It features tough steel construction, for extra strength and durability. This rack will hold kayaks up to 36 in. wide and 75 lbs. There are the adjustable pads on the carrying arms to protect your boats from damage during transit. And this rack is designed to mount onto virtually any type of crossbar on the market.
The TMS rack needs some assembly after unboxing. All the hardware you need to put it together is included. Users have reported that there is a stamped wrench included for tightening nuts, but that it is less than satisfying to use. It’s a good idea to have a solid adjustable wrench handy.
There have been a few complaints about the instructions for assembly that come with the rack. But have a look at the video below. The sound is a bit low, but it will give you a good look at the rack and assembly process. Once you look over the parts carefully, you will have some idea of how they fit together – the assembly process is not very difficult
No matter how mechanically skillful you are, it may be a bit frustrating trying to line up the bolts, the holding arms, and the stiff rubber block at the bottom of the rack. Some users have suggested boiling the rubber block to soften it up, making it more easily adjustable, and allowing you to slide it on to the two parts of the holding arms with less effort.
Once you attach the rack to your crossbars – this rack, like most of the others you will see here, has universal fitting clamps – the wide-mouth J-shaped rack makes for easy loading of your kayak from the side of your vehicle. After loading your kayak on the rack, it will sit in the J cradle at roughly a 45degree angle. This leaves quite a bit of space on top of your car or truck for other racks, bicycles, luggage, etc. The rack comes with two loading straps included, but many users suggest buying additional straps for a more secure tie down.
We thought this would be a good place to include a video about how to properly secure a kayak to a J-style rack for transport. The instructions here are not specific to the TMS rack, but to J-style racks, generally.
The TMS rack is a very practical, no-frills sort of product. Overall, this rack is a solid piece of equipment. The tough steel parts should make it a part of your kayaking experience for years to come. Assemble and install it with care, add some better load straps, and you’ve got a great rack system.
One more thing: You will be very happy with the price.
Available at Amazon.
Another fine choice of a J-style carrier. This time from Vault Cargo Management. Since the J-style rack is probably the most widely used storage solution for boats, we wanted to include a wide selection of them here. And the Vault carrier is a solid entry in a crowded field of products.
This rack comes out of the box fully assembled. Easy installation onto your vehicle’s crossbars or roof rack. Although Vault recommends using their own Roof Rack Cargo Bars (see our review below). All necessary loading straps are included.
All the features you would expect to find on a top-quality kayak rack are here. Load arms feature generous padding to protect your boat. The rack folds down – the load arms have a 180 degree range of motion – so you can keep them on your car or truck all year long – pulling into your garage should be no problem. All mounting hardware included.And this rack is made of aluminum so it’s light and corrosion resistant.
And if there’s a problem, Vault offers a lifetime warranty on this rack.
The few quibbles we have heard are also common to other products of this type: Load straps are inadequate, rack does not fit perfectly on vehicle crossbars. But this what you will find on universal products – it won’t be all things to all people or even all vehicles. A bit of research into the compatibility of the rack with your vehicle and your roof rack or crossbars is always a good idea.
A solid choice. And, before we forget: All these top-of-the-line kayak rack features are available at an extremely economical price. The Vault represents one of the better deals for the money in this segment of the market.
Available at Amazon.
A great product to pair with the Vault Kayak carrier reviewed above, since they are made by the same company and are sure to be compatible. These crossbars, however, are not meant only to be used with other Vault products. The company designed these bars to be used on a wide range of vehicles and with many other types of roof racks and accessories.
These bars are the start of so many different types of rooftop storage systems. Even if you aren’t hauling kayaks, these bars provide a lot of utility. You can attach bicycle racks, cargo boxes and bags, cargo baskets. And you can secure many items directly to these bars. If you want to do some rooftop hauling, we strongly recommend starting with a set of these guys. And the Vault is a fine choice. Here’s what it has going on.
That 54 in. figure you see in the product name is the outside measurement of these bars. (The actual dimension according to the manufacturer’s website, and even in the information section of Amazon’s page for this product is 53 in.) They are designed to fit on existing roof rails (with a gap – see the video below to see the type of roof rail we are referring to) up to 47 in. apart.
Vault claims that these crossbars have been meticulously designed to be aerodynamically efficient, reducing drag and wind noise. That may be. But most users complain at least a little about whistling and wind noise at highway speeds. That may be, as well. But we don’t think there is anything unusual about this. You don’t get something for nothing.
Installing these bars is as simple as setting the length of the bar – the ends of the bars are adjustable – seating the bar over the rail and into the gap and tightening it up. This crossbar system has a neat locking system that prevents anyone from walking away with it. This video gives you a good look at the product, how it is adjusted, and how to mount it on a vehicle.
A nice feature is that all contact points on this bar, places that touch both your vehicle and you boat, are coated in rubber to protect against any damage. But if you are using these bars with a J-style rack or other rack system, the bars should never touch your boat.
We think the Vault crossbar system is a good buy. If your vehicle has roof rails with gaps, this might be a good choice for you. Actually, this is would be a good system to have no matter what you are planning to haul. And the price point is very attractive – Vault seems to try to keep their prices reasonable.
Available at Amazon.
Our first impression of this beefy J-style rack from Thule is that it looked like a seriously hefty piece of gym equipment, designed to take a regular beating from surly gym patrons. And, really, that’s what these carriers do – they take a pummeling from the moment you pull them out of the box. They endure boats being tossed into them, suffer the lashings of load straps, fight their way through high wind, rain. The torture never stops.
And from what we have learned, that tough-looking exterior reflects the quality of Thule’s 835 Hull-a-Port Pro Kayak Carrier. To begin, it has what you would expect from the very popular J-style design: The rack provides compact rooftop storage of your boat – leaves room for more gear, luggage. The J-style has a wide-mouth, easy to load shape. The Hull-a-Port Pro conveniently folds down to avoid any clearance problems when not in use. And nearly all reports say this rack is no trouble to install on a crossbar system – even fits round bars.
But what makes the Hull-a-Port Pro unique? Besides its tough-guy looks, that is? It seems as though Thule has put a little extra thought into what users need to secure their boats to the rack. We’re talking about the loading straps and tie-downs – which includes a set of two ratcheting tie downs, two straps, and buckle protectors. Many users report they are of high quality. We haven’t heard that comment too often. Also, after your kayak is tied down, excess load strap can be stored in the covering for the padding. The padding is extra thick, providing good cushioning for your boat. And, as we noted above, it looks great – like top-flight gym equipment.
We noted a few owner complaints about the included bolts used to attach the rack to roof racks or crossbars – some users reported that the bolts were too short and that they needed longer ones for a secure installation. It would be worth checking with the manufacturer to be sure about what size bolts are best for the rack system or crossbars you have on your vehicle. As we stated in the review for the Vault rack above, this type of mismatch is an unfortunate, but inevitable, result of working with universal fit products – they are meant to fit greatest possible number of vehicles, but an exact match for every vehicle just isn’t going to happen.
There is no locking system included with this rack, but one is available separately from Thule. Perhaps a bit pricey. Users have suggested alternatives, such as wrapping wire or using a zip tie around the cradle and the load bar. That could work with any of these racks, really. It won’t stop determined thieves, of course, but it will probably make them pass up your rack and look for easier pickings elsewhere.
But the Hull-a-Port is a solid piece of work. Your cross-country kayaking trip could start right here.
Available at Amazon.
Our final entry in the J-style rack category is this kayak carrier by Rola. An extremely economical choice for occasional or seasoned kayakers.
This Rola rack starts out strong with its high-strength powder-coated steel construction – that should keep you heading out to the water for quite some time. There are foam pads to protect your boat. And this rack comes with universal fit hardware meant to fit on as wide a range of vehicles as possible. We have discussed the benefits (will fit many types of vehicles) and drawbacks (won’t fit on everything) earlier in this article. Do a bit of checking to be sure this rack will fit on your roof rack or crossbars.
Note that this rack does not fold down when you are not using it – so keep your overhead clearance in mind. Will your car or truck fit in your garage without removing the rack? Measure once, worry never.
This Rola rack is similar to the TMS J-style rack we reviewed earlier. Barebones, but solid, sturdy, reliable. Good for larger boats, longer runs. Includes load straps and bow/stern tie-downs.
For the budget conscious paddler, this is a nice choice. Nothing too special, but it will get your boat out of the garage and out to where the water is.
Available at Amazon.
Our final entry is the Thule 830 The Stacker Kayak Carrier, yet another style of rooftop rack for your kayak. The stacker allows you to haul multiple boats on your vehicle standing on edge – a real space saver. And it can be a money saver, too.
The maker says this rack can be used to transport up to four kayaks, and a number of users have reported that they have been able to do this.To manage it, you need two stacker racks, and that’s what you get in this package. Thule says there are only sufficient load straps and tie downs in the box to handle two boats, though. If you want to get four on your roof for transporting, you need to buy additional straps.
The Thule 830 is a sturdy post-like assembly that attaches to your existing crossbars. Then, you simply lean your boat against the stacker and tie it down. To haul two boats, you put one on either side of the stacker, and tie them down. The stacker doesn’t hold the kayak the way the J-style or saddle racks do. It is there as a support for the boat and provide something for you to tie it down to.
Don’t worry about assembly or installation here. It’s tool free and universal fit on almost any existing roof or rack crossbar system. The Thule stacker can be folded down to just a few inches above your crossbars when not in use – reducing wind noise and drag.
This video gives you a very good look at the simple installation process of the stacker, as well as the tie down process for a kayak.
The maker recommends using this rack with kayaks up to 34 in. wide and 10 ft. long.
We think the Stacker is a fine choice if you are looking to haul multiple boats. The packed offered by Amazon (below) can provide storage at well below the cost of some of these other racks if you are hauling four boats.
Available at Amazon.
Types of Roof Kayak Carriers
It helps to have an overview of what is available. Here is a glimpse of some of the most common and widely available types of kayak racks.
Temporary padding is the quick and easy way to create a roof storage solution for your vehicle. These pads, either inflatable or foam, are a one-step roof rack – no other parts or hardware needed. No crossbars or factory rack on your vehicle? No problem. They can attach to your car by looping straps through the side windows or by other fairly simple methods. Your kayak, luggage or furniture rests on top of the pads and can be tied down for transport.
The pads are great for shorter hauls and would be best for the occasional kayaking trip. Also, they are an excellent choice for those who just don’t want or need a permanent rack system installed on their vehicle. These pads are not really meant to be a heavy-duty or long-lasting solution.
Crossbars are the beginning of many types of roof racks. These are solid, sturdy bars that attach to the roof of your vehicle, either onto roof rails or to some other type of mounting hardware. You can attach almost anything to them: bicycle racks, cargo bags and boxes, as well as many types of kayak racks. It is also possible to attach your kayak directly to the crossbars. Many companies produce these.
J-Style / J-Cradles
The J-style rack is an extremely popular choice for carrying kayaks. Consisting of a base and a holding arm, in the shape of a “J,” these racks allow you to load your kayak from the side of your car. The boat itself sits on its side at an angle. This leaves lots of room on your roof to carry more luggage, bicycles, whatever. These are generally very sturdy racks and will hold onto your boat quite securely. Good for larger boat sizes. Our review section features several of them.
Saddles are another sturdy, built-to-last storage rack for your kayak. This type of rack consists of a set of pads that attach to an existing roof rack or crossbars and hold the bottom of your kayak. Your boatrests with its full width sitting flat over the roof of your vehicle.A rack of this type can use either a single pair of saddles or two pairs of saddles to hold a kayak. Like the J-type, saddles are good for larger boat sizes.
You can use rollers either by themselves or – perhaps a more secure option – to replace one of the pairs ofthe saddle type cradles mentioned above. The advantage of using rollers is that they allow for easier loading of your kayak. If you place the rollers at the rear of your vehicle’s roof, you can load the front of your boat onto the rollers and then just roll the rest up on to the rack easily.We didn’t feature a roller system in our reviews, opting for more popular and more frequently used types of racks, but if you want to have a look at a roller system, here is one you might like.
Finally, we have stackers, which, as the name suggests, allow you to stack multiple kayaks on your roof. Your boats will stand on their edge with this type of rack, leaving lots of room on your roof for other stuff. The stacker is a sturdy post-like assembly that attaches to your existing crossbars. Then, you simply lean your boat against the stacker and tie it down. Stackers are best for smaller boats, such as white-water kayaks.
Which One Is Best for Me?
What type of rack system should you choose? You should consider a few significant factors:
What type of vehicle do you own? Pickup truck, car, van? What is the year, make and model? It is a good idea to check with the manufacturer’s web site to be sure that the rack you want is compatible with your ride. (Amazon also provides a great deal of this kind of information.)
You want to be sure the rack you choose fits your vehicle and is designed to interact well with the other components. For example, does your SUV have roof rails? Do you have crossbars installed?Or do you have a car with only a bare roof? These factors will help determine what type of product you should spring for.
Obviously, you should think about what exactly you are planning to carry. And, not just what, but how many. One kayak? Two? Four? And what are the dimensions? How much weight do you need to haul?
Where are you going? Are you planning a long-distance trek? Driving across the country? Or is your destination just a few miles down the road? Long distance trips at highway speeds – and in who knows what type of weather – will require the sturdiest rack system you can afford. This also applies to those who kayak frequently – get something built for strength and endurance.
That said, have a look at some of the products above. We wanted to give at least one excellent product from each of the types discussed above – minus the rollers, as we mentioned. There should be something for almost every type of paddler out there – newbie or pro, large or small budget.
After all is said and done, the J-style kayak rack is extremely popular with paddlers for several good reasons: They solid and durable with a straightforward design, are simple to set up use, and they provide a safe and secure way to haul your large or small kayaks to where the water is. Any of the J-style racks in our review will work well for you, but we have to say, we like the simplicity and economical option from TMS. You may want to invest in some better load straps and bow and stern tie downs, but the money you save on this rack will pay for them.
Whichever type of rack you decide to spring for, do a bit of research before buying. Make sure it is compatible with your vehicle and your roof rack/crossbar system. Below, you will find contact information and a few words about the manufacturers featured in this article. If you have any doubts about compatibility, you should contact them.