Kayak Roof Racks: How To Pick The Best One For Your Car Or Truck


kayak on SUV

Don’t put yourself through a day of frustration trying to figure out how to put your kayak on the roof of your car only to realize that it doesn’t fit. A bad kayak rack can ruin everything from your day trip to a fun weekend vacation. Not to mention shorten the life span of your vehicle and/or kayaks.

Now you have a new kayak to haul and transport, but the process of picking the right rack is overwhelming. That’s why it’s critical to know what to look for when you are shopping for kayak roof racks.

Selecting the type of rack you want will depend on your type of vehicle, whether it has a naked roof or rack rails, and whether you have a sunroof.

Let us help you find the perfect kayak rack for your needs. I’ve put together a comprehensive list of kayak carriers that will help you save time and money. This review will introduce you to different types of vehicle roof racks along with an in-depth buying guide to help you pick the best one for your car or truck.

So, let’s cover these topics so you can better decide what you need:

Check out Ultimate Guide: How To Transport Your Kayak with More Confidence to find out more about hauling kayaks!  

Well, let’s get started

Related Topics

Does Your Vehicle Need A Roof Rack?

First off, let’s get this out of the way: unless you drive a truck or pull a trailer, your car will need a roof rack to transport your kayak. This gear is one of the essential accessories you will purchase to protect the kayak, canoe, or storage carrier you carry on your roof, except for the truck bed.

Few cars come with a factory roof rack other than SUVs, Jeeps, and mini-vans. So, use an aftermarket roof rack system along with a dedicated set of kayak mounts. I highly recommend it.

And it would be best if you avoided DIY noodle roof racks when considering options. Noodle, temporary padding, and other DIY roof racks and kayak carriers can:

  • Warp or bend the bottom of your kayak or canoe
  • Dent or damage the roof of your car
  • Break or become unsecured and let the kayak blow down the highway

With this in mind, you are responsible for damages caused to other vehicles for losing your kayak(s) on the road.

So, yes, you need a heavy-duty factory-built or aftermarket roof rack system to haul your kayak. The good news is that these seem racks also carry canoes.

Roof Rack Options By Roof Design

Let’s start our discussion by reviewing roof rack systems. Car, truck, and SUV rooftops come in a few varieties:

  • Naked roof
  • Raised side rails
  • Flush side rails
  • Fixed-mount points
  • Roof tracks

Each scenario will require a slightly different solution. But, your roof rack should all be easy to install, easy to load and unload, and quick and easy to disassemble.

As a result, here are some vehicle roof rack options to serve your purpose, based on what is currently on your vehicle roof. First, therefore, identify what top type your vehicle has. Then, in case you need help, refer to a reputable installer.

Naked Roof

A naked roof means no rails, racks, or tracks that carry your kayak. For example, you will find a bare top on smaller vehicles, some SUVs, and truck cabs.

There are several options for a kayak roof rack that serves cars without rails. Generally, this roof type requires a strap-on or clip-on system from an aftermarket vendor. These products allow you to carry a kayak on vehicles not specifically designed to carry cargo on its roof.

As a result, most manufacturers offer naked roof carriers. These include:

  • Four towers with pads that rest on the roof. This accessory supports the crossbar
  • Four clips that secure the towers and crossbar to the vehicle
  • Two crossbars to carry and hold the weight of your kayak

Naked Roof Rack Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityLoad RatingRack Attachment
Yakima Baseline
Baseline
165 lbsClamp
Yakima Jetstream Bar
Jetstream Bar
 Crossbar
Rhino Rack Vortex
Vortex 2500 RS
165 lbsClamp + Crossbar
Thule Evo Clamp
Evo Clamp
165 lbsClamp + Crossbar
Thule Wingbar Evo
Wingbar Evo
 Crossbar
Inno XS-250 Aero Base Stays
XS-250 Aero
165 lbsClamp
Inno Base Bars
Aero Base Bar
 Crossbar

Rack towers and crossbars are purchased separately. Sometimes you will find them packaged together. However, some vendors list prices for one rack bar, so you will need to order two.

Furthermore, all roof racks require you to fit the size of your vehicle. Therefore, additional parts may be necessary. So, read the order details carefully.

You will also need a bow and stern tie with load straps to secure the kayak to your roof. Again, ratchet straps work the best for a quick and easy fastener.

Most roof racks require a minimum of 24″ between bars and 48″ from the front bar to the back of the roof. They also recommend attaching one crossbar above each door, so 2-door cars are not usually supported.

Raised Side Rails

Raised side rail roof racks
Raised Side Rails Rack

This vehicle accessory runs along the top of the roof, from front to back. Additionally, there is a gap between the rail and the roof. These gaps allow you to run your hand between the rail and the car top. Manufacturers of these vehicles intend and design them to carry cargo on their rooftops.

Rack manufacturers have roof racks that take advantage of raised side rails. These kits include:

  • Four towers with a clip or wrap attachment to the side rail. These towers will support the crossbar
  • Four clips that secure the towers and crossbar to the vehicle
  • Two crossbars to carry and hold the weight of your kayak or canoe

Raised Side Rail Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityLoad RatingRack Attachment
Yakima Timberline
Timberline
165 lbsSide Rail Clips
Yakima Railbar
Railbar
165 lbsSide Rail Clips
Yakima Jetstream Bar
Jetstream Bar
 Crossbar
Rhino Rack Vortex SX
Vortex SX
176 lbsSide Rail Clips
Thule AeroBlade Raised Rail
AeroBlade Raised Rail
165 lbsSide Rail Clips
Inno XS150
XS150
165 lbsStainless Steel Straps
Inno Aero Bar
Aero Bar
 Crossbar

Rack towers and crossbars are purchased independently. Sometimes manufacturers package them together. However, some vendors list prices for one rack bar, so you will need to order two.

Furthermore, all roof racks require you to fit the size of your vehicle. Therefore, additional parts may be necessary. Therefore, read the order details carefully.

Roof racks require a minimum of 24″ between bars and 48″ from the front bar to the back of the roof. But the number of doors does not matter since the side rail supports the racks.

Flush Side Rails

Flush side rail roof racks

This vehicle accessory also runs along the top of the roof, from front to back. But, the rails are flush and do not have a gap between the rail and the roof. As a result, these vehicles’ designs look sleek and aerodynamic and carry cargo on the top of the raised side rails.

Rack manufacturers also have roof racks that take advantage of flush side rails. These kits include:

  • Four rack towers with ridge clip attachments to the side rail. This system will support the crossbar
  • Four clips that secure the towers and crossbar to the vehicle
  • Two crossbars to carry and hold the weight of your kayak

Other rack tower systems come with thick pads that screw down into the top of the flush side rails and a removable crossbar that attaches to each.

Flush Side Rail Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityLoad RatingRack Attachment
Yakima Ridgeline
Ridgeline
165 lbsRidge Clips
Yakima Jetstream Bar
Jetstream Bar
 Crossbar
Yakima Flushbar
Flushbar
165 lbsFlushbar Clips + Crossbar
Rhino Rack Vortex SX
Vortex SX
176 lbsFlushbar Clips + Crossbar
Inno sXS450 Aero
XS450 Aero
165 lbsTorque Knob
Inno Aero Bar
Aero Bar
 Crossbar

Rack towers and crossbars are purchased separately or as a set. Unfortunately, some vendors list prices for one rack bar, so you will need to order two.

Furthermore, all roof racks require you to fit the size of your vehicle. Therefore, additional parts may be necessary. So, read the order details carefully.

These roof racks require a minimum of 24″ between bars and 48″. This system extends from the front bar to the back of the roof. But the number of doors does not matter since this set attaches to the side rail.

Fixed Mount Point Roof

Fixed mount point roof racks
Fixed Mount Point Racks

This vehicle looks like a naked roof but has a set of attachment points or pre-drilled holes that go down into the vehicle’s frame.

This option also uses the rack tower and pad system screwed down into the attachment points on the vehicle’s roof.

This roof rack system is an exceptionally sturdy option to use with your rack system, so it’s a preferable rack attachment style. These kits include:

  • Four rack towers with screw-down attachments to the roof attachment points. This tower set will support the crossbar
  • Four clips that secure the towers and crossbar to the vehicle
  • Two crossbars to carry and hold the weight of your kayak

Fixed Mount Point Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityLoad RatingRack Attachment
Yakima Skyline
Skyline
165 lbsVehicle Specific Pads
Yakima Jetstream Bar
Jetstream Bar
 Crossbar
Rhino Rack Vortex RCH
Vortex RCH
165 lbsVehicle Specific Mounts + Crossbar
Rhino Rack Vortex 2500 RS
Vortex 2500 RS
 Vehicle Specific Mounts + Crossbar
Inno XS350 Aero
XS350 Aero
165 lbsVehicle Specific Mounts

Rack towers and crossbars are purchased separately or as a set. Unfortunately, some vendors list prices for one rack bar, so you will need to order two.

Furthermore, all roof racks require you to fit the size of your vehicle. Therefore, additional parts may be necessary. Therefore, read the order details carefully.

The vehicle manufacturer determines the spread distance between the crossbars and specifies them at the time of build. Use the provided mount points to ensure using the manufacturer’s intent.

Roof With Tracks

Roof tracks roof racks
Roof Track Racks

These vehicles have a low-profile track that runs from front to back on each side.

This option allows you to also attach the rack tower and pad system and crossbar rack system to the tracks. In addition, some rack system manufacturers offer a track set for custom options for hard-to-fit vehicles.

Roof Track Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityLoad RatingRack Attachment
Yakima Skyline
Skyline
165 lbsTrack Mount
Yakima Jetstream Bar
Jetstream Bar
 Crossbar
Rhino Rack Vortex
Vortex
165 lbsTrack Mount + Crossbar
Inno Insut Stay Rack
Insut SUT
165 lbsTrack Mount
INNO Square Base Bars
Square Base Bar
 Crossbar

Rack towers and crossbars are purchased individually or unless packaged together. Some vendors list prices for one rack bar, so you will need to order two.

Furthermore, all roof racks require you to fit the size of your vehicle. Therefore, additional parts may be necessary. So, read the order details carefully.

Types Of Crossbars

Have you ever heard a whistling sound when you leave one of your car windows cracked? Unfortunately, that is what you will hear if you don’t choose an aerodynamic crossbar or it is not attached correctly.

Most vendors will offer aluminum and steel crossbar teardrop versions. The main difference is how it attaches, accessory options, and the cost. You can also select a classic round bar.

Crossbar Length

We recommend that the crossbar length be just slightly longer than the attached rack towers. You can extend longer but not longer than the vehicle width and side mirrors. Longer than that is illegal in some states.

Other Roof Rack Options

Most manufacturers offer a windshield deflector in the front to reduce wind noise from the round crossbar. You can also add locks to the towers to keep someone from stealing your investment.

Kayak Mounting Cradle Options

There are three standard types of kayak roof rack mounts for all vehicles.

Saddle Kayak Mounts

SUV with saddle kayak roof racks

This kayak car rack sets positions your boat flat with the deck and gunnels pointing up. There is good padding to protect the kayak, and it is cradled above your racks to prevent scratches on your vehicle.

Kayaks are loaded from the back of the vehicle and slide forward with this mount type. Some of these come with a roller system or a load extender. You mount this at the rear of the car to make loading easier.

Saddle Kayak Cradle Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityWeight Capacity Rack Weight
Yakima DeckHand
DeckHand
80 lbs3.5 lbs
Thule DockGrip
DockGrip
85 lbs8.7 lbs
Rhino-Rack Nautic
Nautic 580
80 lbs 
Malone Saddle Up Pro
Saddle Up Pro
90 lbs9 lbs

The downside is that this mounting system will take up a lot of room on the crossbar and possibly limit you to one kayak.

J-Cradle Kayak Mounts

The J-cradle is one of the universal cradles on the accessory market; some folding models can tuck out of the way when not in use; other models can fold up to tie a second kayak or canoe on the other side.

The J-cradle mount keeps your kayak at a 45-degree angle, which allows you more room to mount other kayaks to the crossbar.

Since this kayak car rack sits in a cradle with a slight tilt, the boat will rest there while you strap it down. This technique keeps strapping simple. There is the padding that helps to protect your boat from bending and warping during transport.

You will load kayaks from the side of the vehicle using this mount.

J-Cradle Kayak Cradle Options

Product InformationAmazon AvailabilityWeight CapacityRack Weight
Yakima JayHook
JayHook
80 lbs10.5 lbs
Thule Hull A Port Pro
Hull-a-Port
75 lbs8.7 lbs
Rhino-Rack
J-Style Carrier
80 lbs 
Malone
J-Pro2
75 lbs11.5 lbs

Stacker Kayak Mounts

This option is the most economical kayak carrier available. In addition, it is the only mount that carries up to 4 kayaks.

This kayak car rack comes with a vertical bar in which you mount each kayak. Then, you strap the kayaks to this bar.
The kayaks are on their side against the bar, making it hard to handle and tie them down.

In addition, because you are not protecting your boats from the bar, there is a chance they can be damaged or warped if not appropriately secured.

This mount type also requires you to load the kayak from the side of the vehicle.

Stacker Kayak Cradle Options

Product InformationWeight CapacityRack Weight
Yakima BigStack150 lbs7.2 lbs
Thule Stacker150 lbs7.1 lbs
Rhino-Rack150 lbs 
Malone50 lbs / boat8.5 lbs

Summary

Hauling a kayak or canoe on your car roof requires a roof rack. You can use the original manufacturer or an aftermarket model. It would help if you avoided DIY carriers. They can be harmful to your kayak, canoe, or storage cargo box due to pressure points between the boat and your vehicle.

There are kayak carriers for cars without rails (a naked roof), raised side rails, flush side rails, fixed mount points, and roof track style.

Kayak carriers are attached to the roof rack crossbars. Then kayaks are attached to cradles such as saddle, j-cradle, and stacker kayak mounts.

Tracy Villarreal

I'm the owner of Active At The Beach. I grew up in a beach town in which I was fortunate enough to spend tons of time around the sea and the beach.

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