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Kayak trailers are expensive and take up a lot of storage space, so for many paddlers, a roof rack is a sensible alternative for getting your vessel to the water. When choosing between different styles, your first step should be to determine what’s compatible with your vehicle. For example, temporary pads are the only option for cars that don’t have factory or aftermarket crossbars; while some carriers only fit certain crossbar shapes. Other factors to consider include how many kayaks you want to carry, whether you want to carry them horizontally or vertically and whether you need to be able to load them by yourself.
Need some advice? We can help. We put together a list of the best kayak roof racks to buy, so take a look below to see what to use on your next adventure.
Our Top Picks
Best Temporary Pads: Malone HandiRack Inflatable Universal Roof Rack
If your car has a bare roof, temporary pads allow you to transport your kayak without forking over some serious dough for after-market roof rails. The Malone HandiRack Inflatable Universal Roof Rack can be installed on almost any vehicle and boast a low profile design that helps to keep wind noise and fuel consumption to a minimum. The pads are also easy to use — simply pass the straps through the interior of your car then shut the doors to hold them in place.
Inflate them using the included double action air pump then fasten your kayak at the bow and stern without damaging it or your car. The straps are made from tough 420-denier nylon and have five D-ring anchor points for attaching load straps. The pads measure 37 x 9 x 4 inches and can support up to 180 pounds. Keep them deflated in your trunk for transporting any kind of cargo (not just your kayak) at a moment’s notice. Your purchase includes an air pump, cam buckle load straps, a travel bag, and a one-year manufacturer warranty.
Best Budget: SportRack Adjustable Kayak Carrier
Those who don’t have several hundred dollars to spare on a kayak roof rack from top brands like Thule can save big by opting for SportRack’s Adjustable Kayak Carrier. Intended for vehicles without a base rack, it consists of two temporary cross bars each fitted with a pair of foam blocks. These blocks are fully adjustable and can be moved closer together or further apart to accommodate a range of different hull widths. They carry a single kayak horizontally and require no tools or drilling to assemble.
The bars are connected to the roof of your car using the included straps, which slide through the gap between the doors and the roof to buckle together inside. A non-skid underside protects your vehicle’s finish. Bow and stern tie ropes are also included for securing the kayak to the rack system. However, note that it’s best suited for infrequent use on short trips to and from the river rather than for off-road or long distance expeditions.
Best Saddles: Malone SeaWing Auto Rack
The Malone SeaWing Auto Rack can only be used on cars with cross rails. Two V-shaped beds cradle the kayak horizontally, which many reviewers like because it minimizes wind resistance and allows for excellent stability. This is a great choice when you’re traveling long distances or over rough terrain. This style also makes it possible to load the kayak by yourself, by mounting it bow-first from the back of your vehicle and then sliding the stern up afterward. This way, you never have to bear its full weight.
If you purchase two rackscrossbars you may be able to transport two kayaks side-by-side, depending on the width of your hulls and the roof of your car. The saddles are made from non-corrosive molded nylon and come with universal Jawz mounting hardware that can be adapted for round, square or oval cross rails without the need for additional tools. They measure 27.5 x 6 x 4.5 inches each and can support a total weight of up to 75 pounds. Two cam buckle load straps and a set of bow and stern lines are included.
Best J-Cradles: Yakima JayLow Kayak Carrier
J-cradles allow you to transport your kayak on its side, giving you more space to load additional gear or a second kayak. The Yakima JayLow Kayak Carrier is compatible with all kinds of recreational and sea kayaks and fits onto Yakima round, square, factory or aerodynamic crossbars (as long as they have a spread of 24 inches or more). An integrated cam lever allows you to adjust the cradle’s positioning so that you can carry one kayak in the titled J-cradle position or two vessels stacked vertically.
Either way, padded contact points provide extra grip and protection on backcountry roads. And when you’re not using them, the cradles fold flat so that you don’t have to remove them every time you want to park your car in a low clearance garage. Each cradle measures 6.69 x 6 x 20 inches and together they support one boat of up to 80 pounds or two boats with a combined weight of 110 pounds or less. The system comes fully assembled with heavy-duty straps and bow/stern tie-downs included.
Best Stacker: Thule The Stacker Kayak Rack
When you need to carry multiple kayaks, stacker systems are your best option. Thule’s The Stacker Kayak Rack carries up to four kayaks vertically (depending on the width of your hulls and the space on your roof). It’s designed with whitewater kayakers in mind and works best with kayaks that measure 36 inches or less in width and have a maximum weight of 75 pounds. Each steel stand measures 5 x 5 x 20 pounds and folds down so that you can leave it attached when not in use.
A non-scratch coating ensures that the stands look good season after season, no matter how roughly they’re treated. However, there are two things to consider before purchasing: First, the stands are only compatible with certain Thule rack systems, round crossbars or factory bars. Secondly, customers claim that loading the kayaks can be tricky and requires at least two people. The system comes with sufficient straps for one kayak; if you plan on stacking more, you’ll need to buy additional straps separately.
Best Roller Rack: Yakima Showboat 66 Roller Rack
If you’re looking for a kayak rack that you can load by yourself, consider the Yakima Showboat 66 Roller Rack. It features a load-assist roller bar that slides out from the rear of your vehicle so that you can easily mount the bow before sliding the rest of the kayak into place. Because the bar extends away from your car, it protects your paintwork from scratches and dings; while padding protects the kayak itself during loading and transport.
This is a great option for those that like to canoe as well. Compatible for craft weighing up to 80 pounds, it makes loading heavier boats a breeze. Additionally, the complete system measures 44 x 6 x 2 inches and uses corrosion-resistant stainless steel and brass hardware. It includes two 66-inch Yakima crossbars and is compatible with Yakima round, square, factory and aerodynamic crossbars with a spread of 24 inches or more. Note that you’ll need to buy your cradles and load ropes separately.
Best Load Assist: Thule Hullavator Pro Kayak Lift System
To truly revolutionize your kayak loading experience, invest in the Thule Hullavator Pro Kayak Lift System. Sure, it's pricey, but many solo paddlers find it’s worth it to be able to load their kayak by themselves. The cradle secures the kayak horizontally on top of your car but has double arms that extend over the side to allow you to load it at waist level. Gas-assisted struts then support 40 pounds of the kayak’s weight so that you can effortlessly lift it up and onto the car where it locks into place.
This ingenious mechanism comes in equally handy when offloading. The kayak cradles expand to fit wider hulls (up to 36 inches) and feature eight padded contact points for ultimate protection. All of the hardware is made from corrosion-resistant aluminum or double-coated steel, affording a longevity that justifies the high price-tag. Two center straps and Thule’s QuickDraw bow/stern tie-downs also come included. This product is only compatible with certain Thule rack systems and round cross bars.
Most Versatile: Thule DockGrip Kayak Carrier
The Thule DockGrip Kayak Carrier is the ideal solution for watersports enthusiasts who want to use their roof rack to carry different crafts from one day to the next. Known for its versatility, the system features independent pivoting saddles — each with an angle-setting lever that allows you to adjust them to suit a wide range of hull shapes and sizes. The carrier is suitable for any kayak or canoe weighing up to 85 pounds and measuring up to 36 inches in width. It can even be used to accommodate an stand-up paddleboard (SUP). All vessels are carried horizontally.
The saddles have flexible, cushioned pads that prevent your kayak from sustaining any damage during transport. Similarly, the included center load straps have rubber buckle bumpers that protect your vehicle’s paintwork. The DockGrip Kayak Carrier is compatible with all Thule rack systems and comes with T-track attachments that allow it to fit onto most round or factory crossbars as well.
Our writers spent 4 hours researching the most popular kayak roof racks on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 15 different racks overall, screened options from 5 different brands and manufacturers and read over 40 user reviews (both positive and negative). All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.