How To Transport A Kayak On A Car: The Complete Guide

March 23, 2022

Kayak being transported on a car

If you ask any lifelong kayaker what the worst part of this activity is, they'll probably all tell you the same thing - loading up the kayak at the end of the day to take it home. Not only does it mark the end of a long day of fun. But, it can also be pretty difficult and exhausting getting your kayak back up to the parking lot and loading it up to go home.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

When you have the right gear and a bit of know-how, proper kayak transportation can be a breeze. That's why today, we're going to teach you how to transport a kayak on a car. You'll learn a few different ways you can go about it: using a roof rack, using your truck bed, and even using a trailer as a last resort.

But that's not all you'll learn here today. We're also going to teach you how to get your kayak to and from the water to the car with ease! This may just be one of the most beneficial guides we've written - so be sure to read all the way through. This article is packed with valuable insights. Let's begin!

Why Transporting Kayaks The Right Way Is So Important

Before we dive into the different ways you can go about transporting kayaks, we want to explain why this is a topic you should not take lightly. In fact, learning how to get your kayak to and from your destinations is perhaps as important as learning how to choose a kayak paddle, or even how to paddle a kayak!

Why? Simple - the last thing you want to do is damage your kayak in transit. Or worse - lose it altogether. We see so much poor advice on the internet right now and we fear that many beginner kayakers are going to end up harming their expensive boat.

Picture this: you're loaded up ready for a fun day on the water. You rig up your kayak on your roof or in the bed of your truck and hit the road. But somewhere in transit, the straps come loose (if you even used any) and your boat comes unattached - falling off/out of your vehicle at 55+ MPH. You may not end up getting on the water that day after all.

Even if you manage to avoid this nightmare scenario, improper transporting can wear down your kayak over time. These things are expensive - which we're sure you already know. That's why you want to get the most useful life out of it possible. And, as you're starting to realize, proper transportation goes a long way in this.

Beyond just keeping your kayak safe and secure, proper transportation also keeps you safe and fresh. You don't need to waste your time or energy - or worse, cause bodily harm - trying to get your kayak on the roof of your car or getting it into your truck bed. There are easier solutions these days. Work smarter, not harder as they say!

With all that said, let's begin by discussing how to transport a kayak with a roof rack and roller.

How To Transport A Kayak With A Roof Rack & Roller (#1 Choice)

Using a roof rack and a kayak roller is the #1 way to get your boat to and from the water in our minds. It's the safest and most efficient way - and it's also the most cost-effective. All you need are two pieces of equipment:

  • Your Roof Rack
  • A Kayak Roller Loader

This is a topic that can get convoluted as everyone seems to have a strong opinion on which type of rack is best. As you'll soon see, there are all kinds of different options to choose from. But don't worry. We're here to help you choose the right kayak roof rack. First, though, we want to explain why going bare roof is never a good idea.

Can I Just Throw My Kayak Up On The Roof and Strap It Down?

We see some kayakers claiming that roof racks are a rip-off. You can just mount your kayak on the roof and tie it down with straps - no need for any sort of rack. Is there any truth to this?

In our opinion, no. This is a disaster waiting to happen. Your boat may feel secure before you start driving, but bumps along the way will loosen things up. You will also experience some loosening just from the force of the wind as you cruise the highway.

Ask yourself this one question - are you willing to replace your entire boat just because you wanted to save a little bit of money on a quality roof rack? If you think you can get by without a roof rack, you'll pay for it in the long haul when you end up damaging your boat over time.

Trust us - a good roof rack not only pays for itself in terms of safety and protection. But, it also pays for itself in the form of convenience. It's so much easier to transport a kayak with the right roof rack. So, with that said, let's examine your options:

The Different Types Of Kayak Roof Racks

We're going to highlight four different styles of racks you can use to transport your kayak.

  • Kayak Saddles - These are our preferred choice for roof rack transportation because when paired with a roller, you can get your boat up on top of your car with ease in just minutes. Many of these even allow for two boats to be saddled together up on top of your roof.
  • Kayak J-Cradles - These allow you to load your kayak from the side of your vehicle. Then, a lift assist system helps you raise the kayaks up onto the roof before you head out. These are a great way to secure your boat if you have help - but some solo kayakers find that they are difficult to use. This is especially true the bigger your boat is. Nevertheless, they're one of the most affordable options. They will also help you save more space than the alternatives.
  • Kayak Stacker Racks - These types of racks are exactly what they sound like - they allow you to stack a bunch of kayaks on the roof of your car. If you have more than two kayaks you plan on transporting, these stacker racks will be the only choice. However, the roof of your vehicle will determine if these racks are even an option. If your roof is narrow, it may not be a good fit.

The ideal choice will depend on a number of factors. First and foremost, consider your unique vehicle. If you have a low car with a flat roof - pretty much any of these will work well. On the other hand, a sedan with an extended truck or a pickup truck will be best suited with J-cradles, as side loading is easier.

But, you also have to consider who is loading the kayak. If you'll always have help loading, then you can use the J-cradles with ease. However, a solo kayaker - especially if you're on the shorter end of the spectrum - will struggle with these. Instead, you're better off using saddles or even just crossbars.

Finally, consider the type of boat you're using. For longer boats, saddles or crossbars are the ideal choices. Shorter boats won't have much of an issue with these, and can even use J-cradles with ease.

Now, if you want our opinion? Most kayakers will be best suited with a good saddle and some rollers.

Note: Not All Vehicles Have Crossbars Installed Out Of The Factory!

Keep in mind that when shopping for a roof rack you need to take into account your vehicle's crossbars. While many vehicles have crossbars installed right out of the factory, others do not. You will be confused and frustrated when your roof rack arrives and you realize you have nothing to attach it to on top of your vehicle - so be sure to double-check that first.

If you do not have crossbars, don't fret. You can buy kayak crossbars and attach them yourself very easily. They're affordable too. Once you have your crossbars installed and your roof rack attached, it's time to learn how to actually load up your kayak for transport. Depending on the option you chose, you'll have a different process. We're going to discuss mounting your kayak from the back - as this is our preferred choice for most kayakers because you can do so solo.

Using Kayak Roller Loaders To Get Your Boat On The Roof Of Your Car

Kayak roller loaders are a godsend - especially to the solo kayaker who struggles to get their boat on the roof alone. These rollers can suction to the top of your rear window and help you get the boat heaved up onto your roof.

You simply get the rollers attached and put the bow or stern of your boat up against the roller. Then, go to the other end of your boat and start pushing it up the roller. You'll be amazed at how easily you can get the boat up on the roof. It takes next to no effort. Better yet, it keeps you safe from hurting yourself, your car, or your kayak along the way. We consider these a must-have.

Once your kayak is loaded up into the saddles, you can get it secured with straps. Tie down the boat without restricting it too much and causing damage. Then, once you arrive at your destination, put the roller back on your rear window and slide it down with ease. Simple as that!

How To Transport A Kayak Without A Roof Rack

There is no question - a roof rack system is the #1 way to transport kayaks. But, maybe your roof is not an option. Say, for example, you have a single cab pickup truck. You'd be hard-pressed to find a roof rack that will fit your narrow roof. Or, maybe you have too many kayaks and don't want to try and mount them all on your roof. Don't worry - we have a few more options we're going to share with you.

How To Transport A Kayak In A Truck Bed

If you have a truck, you can pretty easily transport your kayak in the bed. While this approach is certainly easier and more secure with shorter kayaks (under 10'), you can do it with almost any length. You'll just have to take extra measures to secure your boat in the bed of your truck.

We recommend you lie down soft mats in the bed of your truck if you're taking this approach. You don't want to scuff up the bottom of your boat during loading or unloading. You should also remove other things that could move around during transit from your truck bed along with the inside of your kayak itself. This will prevent things from knocking around and damaging your kayak.

Once you've got your boat inside of the bed and close up your tailgate, you'll be presented with two scenarios: the kayak fits inside the truck bed or it is propped up and hanging out. Even if your truck bed accommodates your entire kayak, you still need to take the time to tie it down and secure it in place. This prevents it from rattling around and getting damaged and decreases the likelihood it could fly out.

If your kayak extends out of your truck bed a few feet, that's ok. You can leave the tailgate down and tie it up. Most states do have a limit on how far beyond your tailgate your kayak can extend. If you find that your boat is more than 4' out of the back of your truck, you may need to consider another option - such as a trailer.

How To Transport A Kayak On A Trailer

As a last resort, you can invest in a kayak trailer. There are pros and cons to this approach. Of course, this is the easiest and most convenient way to transport your boat to and from your destinations. You'll save all that space on the roof for other toys like SUPS or other cargo. And, you don't have to lift up the boat more than knee height.

With that said, trailers take up space themselves - you'll need to have somewhere to store your trailer. And, they're not cheap. A quality trailer can easily run you a few thousand dollars. If you only use your kayak a few times a year, it might make more sense to rent a small trailer rather than purchasing one outright. If you use your kayak frequently, it makes sense to invest in a trailer.

You'll want to start doing some research into what trailer best suits your needs. Different styles can accommodate different sizes and quantities of kayaks. Many of these can also haul other gear and toys you may have - great for those summer trips to the water where you want to do all sorts of activities.

In terms of how to transport a kayak on a trailer, there really isn't much to it. You'll just need to hitch up your trailer, get your boat onboard, and tie it down with ratchet straps. Simple as that!

How To Transport A Kayak From Your Car To The Water

That concludes our breakdown of how to get your kayak from your home to the water - and back again. But, we know many people search up "how to transport a kayak" with the goal of figuring out an easy way to get your boat from your car to the water. If you can pull right up to the dock this is really a nonissue. But maybe you've got a bit of a hike to the water. In this case, you'll want a quality kayak trolley.

These are a true lifesaver for those who have to walk long distances from their car to the water - especially if you're going out solo. They have wheels and can easily be pulled right up to the water - how cool is that!

Final Thoughts On How To Transport A Kayak

Now you know everything there is to transporting kayaks. Whether you want to use a roof rack system, your truck bed, or a trailer - you know what it takes to get the job done efficiently and safely. At OutdoorPlay, you'll find all your kayaking essentials - including roof racks, ratchet straps, trolleys, trailers, and more. Head over to the site and get yourself set up for your next adventure!

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Brian MasseyHead of Catalog ManagementBrian is a foundational member of the team at Outdoorplay. For over 25 years, Brian has brought his expertise and passion for paddlesports and the outdoors to bear on both his work and leisure time. He is an active member of the paddling community in the Columbia River Gorge and beyond. Brian enjoys multi-day rafting trips, kayaking and biking - any way to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family.