A Complete Guide To Transporting Your Kayak
by Brian Long
Transporting your kayak is an important thing to consider before purchasing your boat, and maybe even your vehicle! While it’s possible to transport any kayak on just about any vehicle, some rack systems will prove to be better options than others, and there is the rare occasion where a rack of any type is not possible on a particular vehicle. Researching all aspects of transportation is an important step if you’re in the market for a new kayak. Throughout this article we'll link to various products that we've found useful and refer to sections within the article for relevant information.
The easiest method of transportation is simply throwing the kayak in the back of a pickup truck and securing it with a couple tie downs. Simply leave the tailgate down and allow the kayak to stick out the back of the truck, with a red flag on the end. There are products on the market such as the Extend-A-Truck which will slide into your hitch receiver and act as an extra support out the back of the truck. If you have a pickup truck with a hitch receiver, we recommend using this product to transport your kayak. It’s easiest to load and unload the kayak, it’s one of the safest ways to secure a kayak to a vehicle, and it’s very economical in comparison with a roof rack system. Most trucks, including all Chevrolet’s will have tie down loops low on the walls of the bed. If your truck’s tie down loops are mid-way or at the top of the bed walls you’ll have to either install aftermarket loops lower on the walls, or find a way to properly secure it around the bumper, or other part of the bed. The extend-a-truck includes tie down loops, so that is not a problem, but you’ll need to address the opposite end of the kayak. When securing that end of the kayak, run the strap through the bow (or stern) handle of the kayak to prevent sliding.
The EXTEND A TRUCK also has the ability to swap ends so that instead of extending outward, it extends vertically, behind the tailgate. If you add a single cross bar over the cab of the truck you can then transport the kayak above the truck, leaving the bed open for storage. This is a great option for longer trips and weekend getaways when you need the bed space for extra storage.
We’ve seen some people leave the tailgate up and butt one end of the kayak against the tailgate with the kayak extending forward at an angle over the cab of the truck. This is not advisable because the wind really catches the kayak in this position and if even the slightest thing goes wrong with a tie down or a rope it could cause a disastrous accident. Not to mention the extra height it adds to your vehicle, drastically limiting the selection of drive-thru restaurants available and other similarly catastrophic inconveniences. Smaller kayaks like a mini-x can sometimes be transported in the bed of a truck with the tailgate up, but be sure to butt the end of the kayak against the forward side of the truck bed and rest the other end of the kayak on top of the closed tailgate. The wind force will then push the kayak into the bed instead of out of it. And of course, always use at least two tie downs for even the shortest trips.
Lumber racks are a good option, but there can sometimes be a problem because the forward most cross bar usually comes almost to the windshield while the rear bar is toward the tailgate, with a third somewhere around the back of the cab which creates a very long span between the front and rear, especially if your kayak is under 13 feet. If a saddle system can be attached to the two rear bars (not the one by the windshield), this is the best way to do it. Read more about those systems in the Add-On section. If not, you’d want to put the kayak on upside down since it is resting on straight crossbars (check the Securing Your Kayak section for more on that) and what ends up happening is the kayak will contact the front and rear bar without touching the middle bar. They are so far apart that it’s not the most secure way to attach the kayak, so be sure to use a strap on all three bars.
You can also find telescoping systems like the Xsporter which is essentially a telescoping lumber rack without the front portion, so it’s just a crossbar near the tailgate and a crossbar at the front of the bed where the bed meets the cab. When not in use it can be folded down so as not to add extra height to the truck, and help with loading. It also includes load stops which help guide the kayak onto the rack. This is further explained in the Add-On section.
4 Door Cars
Almost any four door car can utilize a removable Soft Rack System. This is essentially a set of two foam tubes with two straps running through the center of each tube. To attach it to the vehicle, open all the doors and set one tube on the roof toward the windshield and one toward the rear window. Run a strap through the doors and cinch tight. Set the kayak upside down on the tubes and use the remaining straps to secure the kayak to each tube. Always secure the bow and stern to the bumpers when using this type of rack because there tends to be a lot of flex without them. This system is very simple, requires no permanent installation and is very economical. For short trips to a launch site it’s a great option, but for longer road trips a more secure, hard mounted system is recommended. Just don’t forget to open the doors first, or it may negatively impact the operation of your vehicle.
The soft rack does have some drawbacks compared to mounted crossbars. It only elevates the kayak maybe an inch above the roof, so any rod holders or permanent mounts on the kayak may contact or even damage the roof of the vehicle. This low clearance also will not allow for any sort of roof-mounted antennae that cannot fold completely flat or be removed completely. Vehicles with overly rounded roofs can sometimes be difficult for this system because spacing the tubes far enough apart would cause the kayak to contact and damage the roof in between them. Proper spacing is key to this system, so make sure your particular vehicle’s roof shape and doors will allow these tubes to be mounted a good three to four feet apart.
Most SUV’s on the road have some sort of luggage rack on the roof, or at the very least include the side rails as standard equipment. If your SUV has the factory luggage rack already installed with the cross bars, this is usually adequate to transport a kayak. If your SUV has the side rails but no crossbars, please skip to the aftermarket rack section. Inspect your vehicle’s rack, especially if it’s an older model to make sure nothing is damaged or loose. It’s not a bad idea to have your local dealership give it a good once over before loading a 70 pound fishing kayak and driving 60 miles. It’s not uncommon to find a loose or damaged bracket of some sort, which could easily lead to failure.
Almost all SUV crossbars are a similar shape, they are flat and thin and made out of a plastic composite type of material. Some are rated for higher loads than others, but almost all can support the weight of a kayak. If you’re concerned about the load rating of your particular luggage rack, contact your dealer’s service department, check your owner’s manual or research on the web.
Some vehicles, especially some Nissan’s have extremely thick crossbars which will not allow for many add-ons or even rack pads. Your options become more limited with these crossbars unless Nissan (or your manufacturer) offers its own add-ons, but there are still options available to safely transport a kayak. Read the next section, or take your vehicle to your local dealer, rack specialist, or kayak shop to see your options.
Really there are two major manufacturers of aftermarket roof racks, Thule and Yakima. They are very similar systems with the most noticeable difference being the round bars from Yakima and the square bars of Thule. Both companies offer a wide range of vehicles they’ll fit and a number of add-ons for their crossbars that will secure anything from bikes to snowboards to luggage cases and of course kayaks. Both systems are similarly priced and fit an enormous range of vehicles. One benefit to Thule over Yakima is that square bars inherently won’t spin in the mounts and add-ons won’t spin on the bars, whereas that can be an issue on round bars. Thule also fits a slightly wider range of vehicles than Yakima, and as you’ll learn in the Add-Ons section they have the edge there as well.
There are a number of ways that Thule and other aftermarket systems will attach to a vehicle. Before diving too far into this section, be sure that whichever system is right for your vehicle is installed correctly and always double check the rack system itself in addition to the kayak before pulling out of your driveway. More often than not it’s a loose bolt that causes accidents rather than an improper tie down. Between vibrations on the road and people attempting to steal a rack, we’ve heard a number of instances where entire rack systems have come loose. Always double-check your roof rack.
There are two and sometimes three individual pieces that must be considered depending on your vehicle’s mounting options. The most basic is the crossbars themselves. You can choose whichever length you like, none of these systems allow the crossbar to dead end into the mount. A longer crossbar will simply pass through the mounts and off the side of your vehicle. Don’t go too long because the bars often mount near the doors and long bars can create a hazard for your forehead when sitting into the vehicle. The author of this article has extensive experience in that area, which may or may not be apparent through its affect on communication ability, and other motor functions. Of course don’t go too short because it won’t cover the span of your roof. Look up your vehicle on Thule.com for the recommended length, or break out a tape measure.
The second piece to consider is the mount itself, or as Thule calls it a foot pack. There are a variety of foot packs designed for different mounting options from SUV side rails to rain gutters to camper shells, and everything in between. Even the same vehicle may have multiple mounting options, so decide which method is best for your vehicle before purchasing the foot pack.
Many SUV’s and mini-vans include side rails on the roof, but may not have the crossbars installed. Factory crossbars can sometimes be purchased through a dealership’s service department, but the cost may be comparable to an aftermarket system and you get the added benefit of all the compatible add-ons that aftermarket systems offer, along with the less flexible metal bars compared to the plastic factory racks. To add aftermarket crossbars onto the existing side rails of your SUV or mini-van, you would use a mount such as the Thule Crossroad. A metal core rubber strap goes under the side rail and is fastened into the mount with an allen key (included) which tightens the strap as it’s turned until the mount is secured. This is a simple install and gives you all the benefits over a factory rack.
Older vans, some SUV’s and even some older cars have an external lip running the length of the roofline called a rain gutter. There is a type of mount that will clamp directly onto that lip called the Gutter Foot Pack. This is a very versatile mount because with the addition of an artificial rain gutter it can be used on any flat surface such as a fiberglass camper shell, enclosed trailer, or RV where other systems will not work. Keep in mind, installing the artificial rain gutter will require drilling holes to install, but it is sometimes the only option on such vehicles.
Some newer SUV’s and vans have recessed areas in the roof, specifically for the addition of a luggage rack without the visual impact of the more common side rails you see on most SUV’s. The Podium foot pack is designed specifically to mount into one of those areas if you have a newer vehicle with that feature.
Some vehicles also have a pair of tracks that run the length of the roof. A foot pack like the Tracker II can easily mount into these tracks, and with the addition of a TK1 base Thule’s own track system called Top Tracks can be installed on top of a camper or RV to allow this system to be installed. Just like the addition of artificial rain gutters, the top tracks will require holes being drilled for installation.
The most common system, and the one that fits most modern cars on the road involves three components. A system such as this will elevate the kayak above the roof far enough to clear most roof mounted antennas and results in a completely solid mount with no flex in the rack, which is a big advantage over soft rack systems previously mentioned. With the addition of some add-ons a hard mounted system can also be used for more than just kayaks. Besides the crossbars and the foot pack, in this case the Aero Foot, there must also be the addition of a fit kit for the particular vehicle it’s being installed upon. The fit kit is a simple, small metal bracket that mounts to the underside of each foot pack with the proper dimensions and angles to clamp onto the door jam of a particular vehicle. Once installed in the door jam it has no effect on the door’s closing or functionality in any way. The portion that contacts the vehicle has a rubber pad that will not scuff or damage the vehicle. Since there are so many fit kits available for so many specific vehicles, some dealers will stock a limited number of the most common fit kits, but the rest will be over-nighted from Thule as it wouldn’t be feasible for most any dealer to keep every possible fit kit in stock at all times. To order a fit kit, please call us with the year, make, and model of your vehicle.
Recently companies such as Thule have been introducing a more visually aesthetic type of roof rack, such as the Thule Rapid Aero system. The foot packs remain the same with the exception of the word “Rapid” added to the beginning, (for example the Rapid Crossroad) and the ability to mount the different shaped bars. The crossbars are a larger, thicker, more rounded version in silver metal instead of black. All add-ons will still work on these bars, but longer bolts are usually required.
Loading The Kayak By Yourself
A 15 foot fishing kayak loaded with accessories and batteries can be difficult to get on top of a full size SUV, especially if it has any sort of lift or large tires, but if you follow these steps you won’t need a second person to get even the heaviest kayak on top of the tallest vehicle. There are a number of add-ons that make this process much easier and safer for both the kayak and the vehicle’s paint job, so please read this basic technique for loading the kayak and then continue to the add-ons section where you’ll learn about the benefits of some of those items.
What you want to do is put the kayak right side up on the ground behind the vehicle and lift one end of the kayak onto the rear cross bar so that it’s resting with one end on the rack and one end on the ground behind the vehicle. If your crossbar is not placed where it will allow the kayak to clear the vehicle’s paint job when in this position, place a towel, where it may come in contact with the vehicle. If that’s still not enough to protect the vehicle, there are some other options explained in the Add-Ons section. Next, pick up the other end off the ground and slide the kayak forward onto the rack. Keeping the boat right side up for this portion makes it easier to slide as there are normally eyelets, hatches, handles and bungee which tend to get hung up on the rack if you try to slide it upside down. Position the kayak so that the mid-point is halfway between your crossbars. Side handles are a good reference for this, as they’re normally mounted at the mid-point of the kayak. If you elect to transport your kayak upside down, now is the time to flip it over.
When you initially put the first end of the kayak on the cross bar, you will inevitably drag the other end of the kayak a foot or two to get the kayak in place. This can be very damaging to your kayak if done repeatedly. To avoid that, instead of placing the kayak directly behind the car, position it on the ground at an angle with the front end of the kayak nearly as far forward as the rear wheel and the other end angling behind the vehicle. Now you can simply lift and pivot the other end on the ground instead of dragging. Putting down a piece of cardboard or other protective surface is still advisable.
Securing Your Kayak
You can place your kayak directly onto the crossbars upside down and secure with hand-tightened tie down straps. You may find that the polyethylene of the kayak can easily slide on the composite material of your factory crossbars, or the metal on aftermarket systems making it difficult to tighten securely. Adding rack pads will not only help to grip the kayak, but the padding will protect the kayak and also allow for a tighter cinch. Be sure to order the SUV Rack Pads if you have a factory rack because they are wide enough to fit the flat crossbars on a standard factory luggage rack. For aftermarket bars such as Thule or Yakima, use the regular Rack Pads.
Unless you’re really good with rope and knots, it is far easier and safer to use tie down straps when securing your kayak to any type of rack system or vehicle. When using tie down straps to secure your kayak to the rack, there is one method that is the safest and most secure. We will not allow customers to leave our parking lot without securing their kayak in this fashion, even if it means giving them a pair of tie downs to borrow. First, place the kayak upside down on the crossbars with rack pads in place if you choose to use them. Hold the buckle end of the tie down strap in your non-throwing hand and standing next to one of the crossbars, throw the tag end over the kayak from the driver’s side to the passenger’s side (or visa versa). Set the buckle on the roof of the vehicle near the crossbar and walk around to the other side of the vehicle. Loop the tag end of the strap under the crossbar as close to the kayak as possible and throw the tag end back over the kayak. Now, return to the other side of the vehicle (where you started) and pull the tag end of the strap slowly so that the buckle is pulled maybe 8-12” above the cross bar. Loop the tag end under the cross bar (same as before) and insert it into the buckle. By positioning the buckle 8-12” above the crossbar it will allow you to pull down to tighten instead of up, which can be awkward on top of an SUV. Repeat the process for the second crossbar and you’re done. It’s very important to loop the strap under the cross bar as close as possible to the edge of the kayak. If you loop it through the side rails, or some sort of attachment point where the crossbar meets the side rail, it will create too much of an angle in the strap which could allow the kayak to slide under the straps. By looping under the cross bar right at the edge of the kayak, the football shape of the kayak itself will not allow it to slide through the straps.
This is a very secure method of transportation and normally bow and stern straps are not even necessary as long as your rack is in good condition without much flex and the kayak is secured properly to the crossbars. For longer trips or for racks with extra flex like some factory racks are known for, some people choose to secure the bow and stern to the bumpers as additional insurance. Besides being the most secure result, looping the strap under the crossbars also eliminates the potential failure of a mounting point on the rack or metal hook on the strap.
When placing the kayak directly onto crossbars like this, you must always place the kayak upside down for a couple reasons. The bottom side of the hull can easily be indented permanently by the crossbars once the kayak is cinched down, and also, the rounded hull or keel will make the kayak want to tip to one side or the other on the straight crossbars. Putting the boat upside down eliminates both problems when the kayak is placed directly on the crossbars.
The proper tie down strap is also an important consideration. Avoid the ratchet style straps like you would use for a motorcycle or heavy cargo. The most common way we’ve seen people damage their kayaks is by using this type of strap and over-tightening, causing the kayak to collapse on itself and crack the plastic, normally around a scupper hole which will not collapse because of its load bearing cylindrical shape. The rest of the kayak will compress around it and the scupper hole will eventually bust through the surrounding plastic. Also avoid the type of tie downs with metal hooks on the ends, which are also common on ratchet straps. Since you’re looping the strap under the crossbar and not going to an attachment point, a metal hook is not ideal, especially on the flat bars of a factory rack. The best type to use is a simple Hand-Tighten Tie Down with a metal cam buckle. It’s impossible to over-tighten these, so cinch as hard as you can, just be sure to insert the tag end through the backside of the cam buckle, or you’ll find it will be able to slip through the buckle under load. They’re fast and simple to use, allow for the proper securing method, and with so few moving parts, they last forever and aren’t affected by sand or grit. Plus they’re the cheapest straps around…
In addition to basic crossbars, there are a number of add-ons that will allow a variety of items to be mounted to the rack, and in a number of positions and configurations. Since bikes, snowboards, skis, luggage carriers, surfboards and the like are beyond the scope of this article, we’ll focus on the kayak specific products that will allow for easier loading, better positioning and multiple kayaks. All of the Thule products listed as examples here will also clamp onto round bars and flat factory bars, and in most cases can be adapted to thicker crossbars by using longer screws.
Some of the most common add-ons for transporting kayaks are the saddle type of carriers which will allow the kayak to be placed right side up instead of upside down. When loading a kayak by yourself, as explained in the previous section, these saddles have some more benefits. As you slide the kayak onto the rack, these saddles will act as guides to keep the kayak from drifting off the side of the rack as it slides. This is a huge advantage, especially on windy days or if the vehicle is parked on uneven ground. The saddles will also allow the kayak to remain right side up during transport, so there’s no need to flip the kayak over once in place on the rack, and many accessories can be left on the kayak for transport; a big plus if you fish multiple times a week.
Within the realm of saddle carriers, designed to hold the kayak upright on the rack, you’ll find some variations. While kayak fishing and the plastic sit on tops that it requires have gained in popularity, many kayak racks and accessories in general are still aimed toward the more traditional sit inside kayaks. As such you’ll find that many of these saddle carriers are designed to conform around a rounded hull that is commonplace with sit insides, but very uncommon with sit on tops. A soft rubber saddle such as the Malone Sea Wing or Thule Set-To-Go will generally conform better to the shapes of most sit on top kayaks compared to a hard plastic saddle like the Thule Top Deck.
To help with the sliding portion of the loading process, you can replace the rear saddles with a roller or felt lined saddle. The problem with rollers is that they tend to blow in the wind on the freeway creating an irritating noise, and they can also bind up with sand or dust. The Hydro Glide from Thule is simply a felt lined saddle which has no moving parts to make noise or bind up and lets the kayak slide just as easily. If you’re set on the roller, the Rollercoaster incorporates a roller behind two felt saddles to create a very easy slide and extend off the back of the rear crossbar for a slightly better angle if you find your kayak rubbing on the paint job.
Other load assisting add-ons have just recently come on the market to help load the kayak by yourself. A very functional and economic option is the Outrigger II. It’s just an extendable, load bearing bar that mounts inside of your crossbar. It allows you to telescope your crossbar out off the side of the vehicle a good 18” or two feet so that instead of sliding the kayak onto the rack from behind, where you may rub the kayak against the trunk or back end of an SUV, you can put one end on the outrigger and then lift the other end onto the other crossbar without ever touching the vehicle.
The Thule Slipstream is basically an entire rack that slides backwards to help with the same issue of rubbing against the trunk or rear of the vehicle. The most intensive load assist product on the market is the Hullavator. This contraption unfolds from the roof rack, halfway down the side of the vehicle where the kayak is loaded into saddles only a few feet from the ground. Then the system is folded back into place (hydraulically assisted mind you) and locked. It’s cool, it’s expensive, and it’s the best, especially if you’re loading a large and heavy fishing kayak onto a tall SUV or van.
Unless you drive a military HUM-V, chances are your vehicle isn’t wide enough to fit two fishing kayaks side by side on the cross bars. Most fishing kayaks are in the range of 30 to 33” wide and that makes for a necessarily wide vehicle. To fit two kayaks on a roof rack you need to position them at an angle using a holder such as the Thule Hull-A-Port. Even the thickest kayaks like an X-Factor or Stealth 14 will fit in this cradle and it allows you to put two kayaks on your rack with room to spare on even the narrowest cars. The problem with these cradles is they add a good amount of height to your vehicle even without a kayak on them, so getting into garages and low overhangs can be problematic. And that’s why god invented the Hull-A-Port Pro. A folding version of the hull-a-port so instead of removing and installing the entire thing, you simply fold it down when not in use. If you have a wider vehicle like a full sized SUV or truck with a camper shell or Xsporter, it’s possible to do a third kayak straight down the middle of two cradles if it’s held completely vertical using The Stacker.
This article is meant to give some relevant information for kayak fishermen and sit on top kayakers who utilize wide, plastic sit on top kayaks with varying hull shapes. Over the years we’ve seen some very “interesting” transportation methods and we’ve found that transporting a kayak is one of the biggest mysteries for people getting into our sport. By following some of the suggestions outlined here, we hope to put to rest many of those questions and concerns about transporting a kayak. After all, there’s a safe and secure method to transport any kayak on any vehicle, please take the time and make the investment to safely transport your kayak to and from the launch site. Saving a couple bucks on a rack or a tie down strap is not worth your kayak flying into traffic on the freeway. And yes, it has happened to customers of ours, but never to those who secure their kayaks properly. If we’ve forgotten anything here or if you have any sort of suggestions, questions, or hate mail, please contact us. Just ask for Brent with the hate mail responses.