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Kayak Transport: Trailers and Racks for Transport

Kayak Transport

Whether you’ve just purchased your dream kayak or are renting from an outfitter, it’s essential to know how to transport your beloved watercraft in a way that won’t cause damage to your boat or your vehicle.

Setting up your vehicle to transport your kayak doesn’t have to be expensive, but there are some key components you’ll need, and depending on the size and weight of your boat, some that will work better than others.

Unless you’re within walking distance of a river, lake, or the ocean, you’re likely going to need a vehicle to transport your kayak. In my twenty years of paddling, I’ve only ever lived close enough to the ocean once, where I could strap my boat to a set of kayak wheels and roll it down to the beach at the end of my street.

This proximity is uncommon, and even if you’re a stone’s throw from a water source, your sense of adventure will soon encourage you to want to take your kayak into new, unchartered territory.

Roof Racks


Roof racks are a must for safely transporting your kayak on top of your vehicle. I’ve seen people without racks attempt to strap kayaks to the roof of their car using a blow-up mattress or a foam pad as protection, and I don’t recommend it. This method can easily damage your vehicle and boat, even if traveling only a short distance.

Suppose you don’t have a rack and are looking for an inexpensive alternative. In that case, there are some excellent attachable sport racks on the market, including compact, inflatable options that sit flush to the roof and wrap around your vehicle’s interior using straps like the HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack Bars.

These attachable options are great for transporting your kayak to the local beach or a nearby lake. But if I’m driving my eighteen-foot, sixty-five-pound sea kayak on a more extended trip or at high speeds down the highway, I want to ensure both the kayak and the rack are firmly attached to my vehicle.


One of the most trusted and recognized brands on the market for roof racks and accessories is Thule. They have about every option under the sun for transporting your boat safely and securely. Thule can even take the muscle work out of getting your kayak onto your car by offering a side-loading option like the Hullavator Pro Rooftop Kayak Carrier. But you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to get your boat on the water.

Many other brands on the market like Yakima, Rhino, Malone, TMS, and inflatable manufacturers like HandiRack, Tirol, and Stanley make transporting your kayak easy and affordable. Check out our 16 Best Kayaks Racks in 2022 for more options.


Now that you have a factory-installed rack or an after-market alternative, you’ll need a cradle that sits between the kayak and the crossbars to protect and cushion your boat while traveling.

Unless you’re using an inflatable rack system, cradles attach to your crossbars to ensure the kayak remains fixed and secure to your roof rack.

Kayak Cradle Photo

Options range from a $20 foam block to a move expensive adjustable cradle with protective rubber pads that can adjust to various hull sizes.

I have happily used the cheaper foam block alternative for many years, but the disadvantage is you cannot adjust the foam to fit snug around your boat, which creates pressure on the base of your kayak.

With a rota molded plastic boat, if you synch the straps down too hard, you can cause an indentation in the hull, often referred to as ‘oil canning.’ In glass boats, excessive tension could eventually cause the fiberglass to crack.

The same issues arise when using a cheap alternative like a pool-noodle between the crossbar and your kayak. I’ve seen this done many times and have used the pool-noodle method for paddleboards myself. But I don’t recommend it for kayaks. The noodle’s density and inability to mold to the shape of your boat can cause unnecessary stress and damage to the hull.


Customized cradles avoid this problem by adjusting to the width of your boat, which creates a greater amount of surface area contact. There are a wide variety of custom cradles on the market. Just ensure the brand you choose is compatible with the model of your crossbars.

My preferred kayak cradles are the J-style carriers like the Thule 835 Hull-a-Port Pro Kayak Carrier, which attaches to your crossbars using a clamp. As the name suggests, J-style carriers are shaped like the letter ‘J’, and allow you to transport your kayak on its side. These cradles are convenient when carrying more than one kayak, especially if the boats are wide like a white-water kayak or a more stable sit-on-top.

The other advantage of J-style carriers is your kayak is less likely to fill with water if you’re transporting it through heavy rain without a cockpit cover. There’s nothing worse than trying to lift your kayak off the roof of your vehicle when it’s full of water.


You don’t need to spend a lot of money on straps, but this is not a component you want to skimp on either. You’ll want to purchase a heavy-duty nylon webbing strap to secure your kayak to your roof rack.

The webbing should have a cam buckle that allows you to feed the strap through it easily and will lock into position once closed. These buckles are designed to pull down and tighten the strap without having to open the buckle manually.


The more expensive straps from brands like Thule will have a rubber casing or protective sheath that prevents the buckle from scratching and damaging your kayak. This is a worthy investment. If you’re vertically challenged like me, you’ll be throwing the straps over your boat from the opposite side of the car, so the rubber casing not only protects your boat but can protect your car windows from any unnecessary scratches or cracks as well.

Strapping your Kayak to your Roof Rack

The best method for strapping your boat to the roof rack is to feed the strap under the crossbar in the center of the vehicle and then grab or throw the two ends of the strap back over the boat towards the doors.

Once the straps are lying across your deck, you want to line up the buckle so it’s sitting halfway down the deck if the boat is on its side or halfway between the deck and the hull if upright. You can then feed the end of the strap under the crossbar in front of the side rail before threading the end through the buckle.


You should avoid placing the straps over the cockpit of your boat if possible, as the straps can cause tension on the coaming around the cockpit where the spray skirt fits under. This is especially important for fiberglass or Kevlar boats as the added tension can eventually cause a crack.

Once there is no slack left in the strap, you’ll want to synch the strap down by pulling on the end until your boat is secure enough that it doesn’t move or swivel. Be careful not to wrench down too hard on the straps and cause unnecessary stress on the boat. Think of your kayak as your forearm or thigh. The strap should feel tight but shouldn’t be cutting off your blood circulation.

Be sure to always secure the straps around the crossbar and even the side rail of your roof rack for added safety. If you only connect the strap to the J-Bars or the cradle, you could lose your cradle and your kayak.

A good length for your straps should be around nine feet, as you want the extra length to tie the strap to itself, as the tension will inevitably loosen a little as you drive. It’s also wise to keep a set of extra straps in the car or your boat for emergencies.

Bow and Stern Straps

With longer boats extending beyond your windshield and rear window like tandem kayaks, sea kayaks, or surf skis, you may want to secure the bow and stern. You’ll need a customized strap like the Sentry Ratchet Kayak and Canoe Bow and Stern Tie Downs, with a hook on one end that attaches to a secure part of your vehicle like the tow hooks or the chain loop on the hitch of your car.


A vital component of these straps is the ratchet pulley system, which eliminates the need for tying knots. You also want to use rope for the bow and stern lines, as nylon webbing will vibrate and create noise while you drive.

If you don’t have an anchor on your vehicle to attach the bow and stern line to, you can purchase an easy-to-install option like the Shoreline Marine Hood Trunk Tie Down Loops, which secures under your hood and inside the trunk of your vehicle with the webbing loop sticking out to attach to.

Kayak Trailers

Another alternative to a roof rack is a kayak trailer. Kayak trailers are a fantastic option if you need to transport more than two kayaks at a time and already have a tow bar on your vehicle.

Kayak trailers come in all shapes and sizes, and the number and size of your kayaks will help determine the type of trailer you’re looking for. Check out our 13 Best Kayak Trailers reviewed in 2022.

Securing kayaks to a trailer uses the same principles as securing your boat to your vehicle’s roof rack. You will need a cradle or padding for the kayak to sit upon and two nylon straps to secure the boat to the trailer’s rack.

Trailers are a great option when traveling with multiple kayaks and other pieces of gear such as bicycles or a canoe, and they are also much easier to load without having to lift your kayak onto the roof of your car.

Kayak Wheels

Kayak wheels are a handy piece of equipment for any paddler to own, regardless of your proximity to a water source. Transporting your kayak on top of your car doesn’t always mean you’ll be able to park right by the water’s edge. This is why wheels are essential for solo paddlers who don’t have a buddy to help carry their boat from their vehicle to their launch spot.


Wheels can also be a great tool to move your boat onto other forms of transport like a ferry. I’ve been on several trips around the coast of BC, Canada, where I’ve rolled my fully loaded sea-kayak on wheels onto the ferry and saved myself the vehicle fee.


Although kayaks are a little more complicated to transport than a bike or a surfboard because of their weight and size, this shouldn’t mean you’re limited in the places you can travel with your boat.

Owning a decent roof rack, cradle, or a kayak trailer will help you explore the lakes, ocean, and rivers accessible to you by car. Owning a portable set of kayak wheels can get you even further, especially if you’re a solo paddler like me.


If owning a roof rack or trailer isn’t an option, you could always explore the choice of a folding or inflatable kayak that can fit inside your car’s trunk. You can review the 15 Best Inflatable Kayaks we tested in 2022.

I believe transporting your kayak should never create a barrier to getting out on the water. Like anything, once you’ve got the equipment and feel competent in using it, your imagination will be your only limitation to where you might travel.

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