How to Transport & Launch a Kayak by Pickup Truck With a Roof Rack

May 11, 2024

How to Transport & Launch a Kayak by Pickup Truck With a Roof Rack

Transporting a kayak can be quite a task, especially if you do it solo. But, with the right system in place, it doesn't have to be a hassle. A kayak truck rack is one of the best systems you can use. It's a combination of a truck rack and a roof rack. It can hold two kayaks, leaving your truck bed open for other equipment.

Choosing the Right Roof Rack for Your Pickup Truck

When you're ready to hit the water with your kayak, you must have a reliable, durable roof rack compatible with your pickup truck. Every rack is unique; it's tailored to fit specific vehicle models. A longer crossbar will pass through the mounts and off the side of your vehicle, so ensure your chosen rack matches your vehicle's mounting options and roof span.

Next, consider the load capacity. If you're transporting a single kayak, you don't need as much load capacity as you would for multiple kayaks or SUPs. Flat saddles usually allow for more weight and create less wind resistance. Still, rear-loading systems simplify loading with wing-style saddles.

Lastly, prioritize durability. Your roof rack should be built to withstand rough conditions and heavy use. Look for racks made from high-quality materials that offer robust and sturdy construction.

Choosing the Right Roof Rack for Your Kayak

The wrong rack can damage your vehicle, your kayak, or even worse, it could cause an accident. That's why picking a roof rack that suits your needs is critical.

Types of Roof Racks

There are several types of roof racks to consider when hauling your kayak. Rugged racks or mounted crossbars, for instance, are suitable for cars with side rails, gutters, and tracks. These are not universal fits, but you'll often find a set to suit your vehicle. For stackable kayaks, most roof racks would do. Still, for specific hull shapes, you might need to rely on particular kayak cradles, such as twin J-style carriers or a kayak/canoe holder.

Next are J-style racks, full-assist racks, flat resting racks, saddles, and rear-loading racks. These are just some of the options available. Your final choice would depend on your vehicle, kayak type, and personal preference.

Weight Considerations

It's crucial to ensure the rack, along with your vehicle's roof, can handle the weight of your kayak. Consider the inertia during transport. For instance, a 50-pound kayak abruptly changing speed or direction at highway speeds can be a disaster.

Installation Tips

Make the bow and stern lines tight enough. They're there to prevent the kayaks from sliding forward or backward during hard acceleration or braking. Over-tightening, especially on a fiberglass boat, could crack it on impact with a large bump.

How to Prepare Your Kayak for Transport

If you plan on transporting a kayak, take the time to learn what to inspect on your boat and how to position it on your truck's roof rack so it's secure for the drive.

Gather the Essential Gear

Straps are crucial for securing your kayak to the roof rack. Always check their condition before use and be aware that the straps could scratch your vehicle's paint. Consider using something soft, like a cloth, under the straps to prevent possible damage. Adjust the ratchet to move the handle from top to bottom, facing you as you tighten. Lastly, looping the straps under the car rack, not just through the hooks, will provide extra security.

Also, remember pads for your roof rack. You can use pool noodles or foam blocks, which will act as temporary paddings to protect your boat from scratches and friction against the rack.

Tie-downs are essential to prevent the kayak from moving side to side while driving. Fasten them securely, but don't over-tighten them to avoid damaging the kayak.

Inspect Your Kayak

Before setting out on your adventure, check the hull for any signs of cracks or abrasions. Most kayaks are built of durable plastic to withstand moderate abuse from dragging and lifting. However, undue pressure can still cause wear and tear or enlarge cracks, leading to more significant problems. 

How to Load & Secure the Kayak to the Roof Rack

The first order of business is loading your kayak onto the roof rack:

  1. Place your kayak next to your vehicle, parallel with the bow facing the front of the car.
  2. With a second person, lift the kayak at each end by the hull, not the grab handles. Remember, even if your kayak is lightweight, use your legs to lift, not your back to prevent strain.
  3. Once the boat is overhead, gently place it onto the rack.

This process is most effortless with two people, but investing in a kayak loading system can be super beneficial if you go solo.

Proper Positioning of the Kayak

The seating position should face the outside of your vehicle with the back slanted against the longer side of the rack. The bow ideally faces the front of your vehicle. This setup can reduce wind resistance as air flows over the kayak's seat.

Your kayak should stay within the rear of your truck. State laws and standards safety practices advise that the overhang be at most 2 to 3 feet. Violating these guidelines could result in accidents, posing a risk to you and others on the road. For instance, extending 7 to 9 feet of a kayak is considered unsafe and inadvisable. A truck bed extender may be necessary if your kayak is longer than your truck bed.

Securing Straps and Tie-Downs

Secure the midsection of the kayak first with ratchet straps, then install the bowline to your vehicle's bonnet. Lastly, secure the stern line to the rear of your vehicle. A Yakima bow-stern tie-down is a reliable strapping solution. Be cautious not to overtighten as this could damage the kayak.

Accessories for Stability & Convenience

Accessories like saddle carriers and rollers enhance the transport of kayaks by providing added stability and ease of loading on vehicle roof racks.

Saddle carriers consist of padded saddles that conform to the shape of the kayak's hull, offering a secure and stable base for the kayak when you mount it on a roof rack. They distribute the kayak's weight evenly across the roof and minimize the risk of damage to the kayak by reducing pressure points.

On the other hand, you install rollers at the back of the roof rack to assist the loading and unloading process. Place one end of the kayak on the rollers and then push it forward onto the roof rack without lifting the entire weight of the kayak at once. This makes loading and unloading the kayak easier and helps prevent damage to the vehicle and the kayak by reducing the amount of dragging and lifting involved.

How to Drive Safely with a Kayak on Your Pickup Truck

You must adapt your driving habits to ensure safe transit when traveling with a kayak. 

Check Clearance & Overhangs

Measure your vehicle's height once the kayak is loaded. Can you safely pass under low bridges or driveways or park in garages? Double-check legality issues around how much overhang is allowed at the back since most states have overhang restrictions. Attach a brightly colored flag, preferably red or orange, when transporting oversized cargo like kayaks to warn other drivers.

Adjust Your Driving for Wind Resistance

When a kayak is fastened onto your truck, it creates additional wind resistance, affecting your speed and fuel consumption. Be prepared for a slower pace, especially on highway drives. Remember, your kayak's bow and stern can cause drag. Secure these points with bow and stern lines to minimize this drag and ensure more secure transport.

Inspect the Kayak During the Transport

Refrain from relying on just a visual check before starting your journey. After the first 10-15 minutes of driving, pull over and inspect the kayak's position. Make sure it's still securely fastened. Regular checks can avoid accidents and damage to your kayak or truck.

Watch Your Speed, Turning, & Braking

Maintain a lower speed and avoid quick turns and harsh brakes. These can dislodge the kayak and potentially cause accidents. When navigating turns, give yourself ample space and time to avoid leaning the kayak into an uncomfortable angle or toward the traffic in the neighboring lane.

Monitor Weather Conditions

Driving in wind or scorching weather can pose additional challenges. Always be aware of the forecast before setting out for the day. Strong winds can cause your kayak to wobble, increasing driving difficulty and possibly damaging your kayak. If the weather is too harsh or the winds persistently strong, postpone your trip until conditions improve. Your safety should always be the priority.

How to Unload Your Kayak from the Pickup Truck

Begin by undoing the straps and tie-downs. Remember that straps can damage your truck's paint job if pulled off too quickly, so take your time unfastening them.

If you unload the kayak solo, use your core and leg strength over your lower back. Always bend with your knees and keep your back straight. When you're with a group, sync your lift with a count or command to ensure even lifting off the roof rack. 

Consider investing in a kayak cart for a solo unloading scenario when your waterway is slightly away from your parked vehicle. These wheels attach to the back of your kayak and make it easier for you to pull along your kayak. Whether unloading solo or as a group, consider putting on your personal flotation devices (PFDs) (also known as life jackets or life vests) for padding.

How to Launch Your Kayak

After safely transporting and unloading your kayak, the next step is getting it in the water. The process you use will vary depending on the type of launch site.

For Beaches

Beaches are generally the most accessible site for kayak launching. Put your kayak parallel to the water's edge and ensure its half in the water and half on the sand. Use your paddle as a support by placing one end on the ground and the other in the kayak's cockpit. After sitting down, push off into the water using your hands or with the paddle if the bottom is rocky.

For Docks

Launching a kayak from a dock can be challenging but manageable with some practice. Position your kayak parallel to the dock and hold onto the dock with one hand for stability. To get into the kayak, the trick is to sit on the dock, swing your feet into the cockpit, and lower yourself carefully into the seat.

For Slipways

Slipways, or boat ramps, can be steep and slippery, so use caution. Wear a pair of water shoes with excellent grip to avoid slipping. Position your kayak at the top of the slipway, hold the stern, and let it slide into the water. Take care not to let it go too fast to prevent damaging the bottom of your kayak.

Common Launching Mistakes to Avoid

  • Lack of pre-launch checks: Check the tightness of your drain plug, adjust the footpegs, and ensure your gear is secured and that you've fastened your life vest correctly.
  • Failure to survey the area: Observe the conditions and choose a location with calm, flat water versus rakish rocks, sudden breakers, or swift currents.
  • Failure to monitor weather conditions: Wind, thunderstorms, or excessive heat can make for a challenging and potentially dangerous launch. Always check the weather in advance.

Transporting Your Kayak Back Home

After a day of paddling, it's essential to thoroughly clean your kayak. If your kayak has been in saltwater, rinse it thoroughly with fresh water since salt can corrode parts of it over time. Look for any signs of wear and tear to catch potential issues early and repair any scratches or cracks as soon as possible after you return home.

Once your kayak is clean and dry, it's time to load it back onto your roof rack. Follow the same steps you took to secure it for the outward journey. Ensure the straps are correctly adjusted and tightened (avoid over-tightening) and check your kayak's overhang.  

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you transport a kayak with a roof rack?

To transport a kayak with a roof rack, place it upside down, use cam straps to secure it tightly to the crossbars, and tie the bow and stern lines to the front and rear of the vehicle for extra stability.

How far can a kayak hang out of a truck?

A kayak can hang out of a truck up to a few feet (usually 2-4) without requiring a red flag or additional lighting. Still, it is essential to check local traffic laws since regulations can vary.

Can you put a 10-foot kayak in a 5-foot truck bed?

Yes, you can put a 10-foot kayak in a 5-foot truck bed. It will extend significantly beyond the tailgate, so you should tie it down securely and mark it with a red flag or light if it's extending more than 4 feet from the tailgate.

Or consider using an Extend-A-Truck accessory, which attaches to the truck's hitch receiver and provides an additional bar that extends beyond the back of the truck, effectively increasing the support area for the kayak. This is particularly useful for longer kayaks that would otherwise extend too far out of the truck bed.

Is it better to transport a kayak up or down?

If using bare bars, it is generally better to transport a kayak upside down on a roof rack to protect the hull from deformation and provide better aerodynamics. However, kayak carriers are the preferred method. 

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Erika PaciniHead of MarketingErika is a novice adventurer and dedicated member of the Outdoorplay family for over two years. With a passion for hiking, biking, and all things outdoors, she's always on the hunt for new trails, waterfalls, and secluded beaches to explore. Erika's passion for the natural world and mindfulness fuels her desire to inspire others to deepen their connection with themselves and nature through outdoor adventures.