8 Best Kayak Roof Racks For Cars Reviewed ( No Rails Needed )

Man installing a car roof rack outdoors

Paddlesports, especially kayaking, has seen a boost in popularity. Kayaking is fun and healthy, and a beginner kayak is readily available at an economical price. Best of all you can do it almost anywhere, whether it is a local stream or a favorite beach.

However, not everyone lives in a waterfront estate or has a truck to transport their new kayak. Most paddlers need to find a way to transport the kayak with the family sedan. The most common method is with a roof rack or carrier. Luckily, there are countless options.

The harder part is figuring out which is right for you. Let us help you figure it out.

 

The 8 Best Kayak Carriers of 2020: Outdoor Empire Reviews

  1. Best for the Money #1: Malone SeaWing Saddle Style
  2. Best for the Money #2: TMS J-Bar HD Kayak Rack
  3. Best for Cars Without Rails #1: SportRack Complete Roof Rack System
  4. Best for Cars Without Rails #2: Malone HandiRack Inflatable Roof Rack
  5. Best Dual #1: Ikuram Kayak Roof Carrier
  6. Best Dual #2: Thule Compass
  7. Best Three or Four #1: Yakima Big Stack
  8. Best Three or Four #2: Thule 830 Stacker

 

CategoryBest for the MoneyBest for Cars without RailsBest Dual
ProductMalone SeaWing Saddle Style
Malone SeaWing Saddle Style

SportRack Complete Roof Rack System
SportRack Complete Roof Rack System

Thule Compass
Thule Compass

Load Capacity75 lbs per boat130 lbs130 lbs
Weight11.6 lbs12.5 lbs20 lbs
Length27.5 inches45.5 inches32 inches
Width6 inches5.8 inches7 inches
Height4.5 inches3.8 inches19 inches
CostCheck PriceCheck PriceCheck Price

 

1. Best Kayak Roof Rack for the Money #1: Malone SeaWing Saddle Style

Malone SeaWing Saddle Style

This V-style cradle rack is Malone’s signature design. It is easy to install and works with most recreational kayaks. It consists of two saddles (which mount to your existing crossbars), mounting hardware, two 11-foot cam buckle load straps, two bow and stern lines, and a detailed instruction manual.

Installation is easy, even if you are not mechanically inclined. All the required hardware is included, and Malone’s website has videos to assist you should you get stuck. You do not even need tools, as the bolts include knobs for hand tightening.

With this rack, your kayak is cradled by twin noncorrosive polycarbonic & nylon saddles. Rubber padding protects the kayak from scuffs or scratches and aids in preventing slip during transport.

The dual-cam buckle straps attach the kayak to each saddle, and bow and stern tie-downs provides an additional connection between the kayak and your vehicle.

The unit has a 75-pound capacity, more than enough for the average kayak. Depending on the width of your roof, it is possible to install two SeaWing systems side by side.

This is an excellent option for those looking for a way to transport their new kayak. It will fit multiple styles of kayaks, fit most existing crossbars, and leave room for an additional kayak later.

PROS

  • Easy 15-minute installation — no tools needed
  • Universal design fits most recreational and many sea kayak designs
  • Includes mounting hardware and tie-down straps
  • Can be moved from vehicle to vehicle in minutes

CONS

  • Bow and stern tie-downs can obstruct the view when operating the vehicle
  • Does not allow the kayak to be transported on its side
  • Requires pre-existing crossbars

 

 

2. Best Kayak Roof Rack for the Money #2: TMS J-Bar HD Kayak Rack

TMS J-Bar HD Kayak Rack

J-bar racks are one of the most common kayak rack styles, and the TMS J-Bar is one of the most popular models. It’s easy to install, can accommodate a wide range of kayak sizes, and best of all, is economical.

The TMS J-Bar features steel carry arms capable of holding up to 75 pounds. Each arm is covered by an adjustable dense foam pad to protect your hull during transportation.

At only 36 inches in width, you will have room left over for a bike rack, small luggage carrier, or additional kayak rack if desired. Two tie-down straps are also included.

The racks do need to be assembled before use. All necessary hardware, as well as a small wrench, are included. Once assembled, the rack will fit most standard crossbars and can be removed or transferred to another vehicle if needed.

The TMS J-Bar is a solid, reliable, and economical example of a popular design — perfect for the new kayaker on a budget.

PROS

  • Solid, reliable construction
  • Slim design suitable for even smaller cars
  • J-bar style rack that offers a more secure means of transport
  • All necessary mounting and assembly hardware included

CONS

  • Assembly instructions can be difficult to follow
  • May need another set of hands to assist during assembly
  • Provided tie-down straps are not the highest quality

 

 

3. Best Kayak Roof Rack for Cars Without Rails #1: SportRack Complete Roof Rack System

SportRack Complete Roof Rack System

This all-in-one, easy-to-install system allows you to safely transport several pieces of outdoor equipment, including skis, bikes, and kayaks.

This rack is specifically designed for a vehicle that does not have rails. By utilizing unique doorjamb hooks, the crossbars connect to today’s most popular vehicles in minutes. There are no holes to drill and no tools needed.

The pre-assembled unit includes two steel crossbars, plastic-coated feet, a chrome-finished lock, and two keys. Not only will this rack hold your kayak securely, it will also protect your vehicle’s roof from scratches or dents.

With a total weight capacity of 130 pounds, the SportRack makes carrying the average recreational or ocean kayak a breeze. It is also capable of accommodating a wide range of kayak sizes. The SportRack website includes a handy guide to determine which size rack will best fit your vehicle.

The SportRack Complete Roof Rack System is perfect for the kayaker who is also a biker, skier, or simply needs the ability to carry more than just a kayak.

PROS

  • Easy to install — no drilling or tools required
  • Can be transferred to multiple vehicles is necessary
  • Can support up to 130 pounds
  • Steel design with plastic coverings protects not only the kayak but your vehicle as well

CONS

  • As a multi-purpose rack, you will not have as secure a fit as a rack designed specifically for kayaks
  • Doorjamb rubber seal can become damaged after installation.

Learn more about the SportRack Complete Roof Rack System.

 

4. Best Kayak Roof Rack for Cars Without Rails #2: Malone HandiRack Inflatable Roof Rack

Malone HandiRack Inflatable Roof Rack

An inflatable roof rack offers many of the advantages of a traditional rack without the need for permanent rails.

The three-ply nylon construction provides a durable yet lightweight alternative to traditional racks. You can transport loads as heavy as 180 pounds, and it installs in minutes thanks to the included double-action air pump.

Also, it includes two 10-foot cam style load straps, bow and stern lines, and five D-ring anchor points.

An inflatable roof rack allows for use on any vehicle and can even be removed and used on multiple vehicles. With a width of 37 inches, it provides plenty of space for either recreational or ocean-style kayaks and can accommodate two kayaks at the same time.

Plus, you will enjoy improved fuel economy thanks to the low-profile design.

Kayak owners looking for an easy-to-use roof rack that does not require rails or permanent installation will find the Malone HandiRack Inflatable Roof Rack hard to beat.

PROS

  • Lightweight, easy-to-install design
  • Heavy-duty nylon construction with five D-ring–style anchor points
  • 180-pound capacity
  • Two-year limited warranty

CONS

  • Not intended for permanent installation
  • Does not allow kayaks to be loaded on their side
  • Bow and stern lines may obstruct your view

 

 

5. Best Dual Kayak Roof Rack #1: Ikuram Kayak Roof Carrier

Ikuram Kayak Roof Carrier

This kayak carrier utilizes the popular J-bar design but adds a twist: the ability to carry two kayaks on a single unit. By adding a J-bar to the other side of the upright, you reduce space necessary to transport the second kayak and the need to purchase a second set of mounts.

This is truly one of the most impressive dual kayak carriers on the market. The universal fit allows for mounting to most crossbars. The J-cradles will accommodate kayaks up to 42 inches in width and can support a total weight of 158 pounds.

Oversized padding and acrylic sleeves protect the kayaks from scratches, and the supports can be folded down and out of the way to maximize overhead clearance when not in use

Each unit also includes bow and stern lines, heavy-duty nylon straps, and Native Paddle Holders. The anodized aviation-grade aluminum-alloy construction is lightweight, corrosion resistant, and extremely durable. You will enjoy many seasons of worry-free use.

PROS

  • Lightweight, durable method of transporting two kayaks
  • Perfect for smaller vehicles with limited roof space
  • Includes all tie-downs as well as paddle holders

CONS

  • Universal mount users have reported difficulty with mounting on square tubes
  • Requires crossbars (not included)

 

 

6. Best Dual Kayak Roof Rack #2: Thule Compass

Thule Compass

Thule is one of the best-known suppliers of kayak and bike accessories. They have a reputation for producing high-quality products, and the Compass is no exception.

Unlike some other carriers, the Compass is specifically designed to carry watercraft, not kayaks as well as other outdoor equipment. This allows you to carry kayaks, canoes, or SUP with a high degree of security. It is also designed to mount to a variety of factory roof bars, whether round or square.

It also has a maximum weight of 130 pounds per boat. This means you will be able to carry even the largest recreational kayak or sea kayak available, even if it’s it loaded with all your gear and accessories.

The frame is constructed from powder-coated steel, with dense foam padding on the uprights. Integrated locks allow you to secure the rack to your vehicle and the kayak to the rack. Both locks operate using a single key.

The push-button release allows the unit to fold down when not in use, improving gas mileage and increasing overhead clearance.

Overall, this is one of the best dual-kayak carriers from one of the best-known suppliers of kayak accessories.

Learn more about the Thule Compass.

 

7. Best Three- or Four-Kayak Racks #1: Yakima Big Stack

Yakima Big Stack

Yakima is one of the original suppliers of modern kayak accessories and one of the few to offer a rack truly designed for three or more boats.

The SteelCore construction, Hullgard padding, and AnchorHead tie-down system provide the strength and security needed to safely transport multiple kayaks. Rated for up to 165 pounds, the Big Stick will accommodate three larger kayaks for four smaller whitewater models.

It is designed to fit most round, square, factory, or aerodynamic crossbars. Heavy-duty security straps and bow/stern ties provide additional protection while on the go. Optional SKS Lock Cores can be purchased as well.

With only a few basic components, the Big Stack is almost out-of-the-box ready. Assembly takes only minutes, and adjustments are made via easy-to-turn knobs. No tools are needed, and you can be on the road in no time.

If you wish to use it on another vehicle or replace it with a different rack system for bikes, luggage, or anything else, it can be removed just as easily.

For the adventurer who prefers to explore with friends and family, the Big Stack provides a great way to transport multiple kayaks on a single vehicle.

PROS

  • Easy to install and remove
  • Push-button lowering when not in use
  • Universal mount fits most factory and aftermarket crossbars
  • Produced by one of the best-known names in kayak accessories

CONS

  • Weight limit of 165 pounds is a bit light for multiple kayaks
  • Friction straps are not as secure as cam bucket designs

 

 

8. Best Three- or Four-Kayak Racks #2: Thule 830 Stacker

Thule 830 Stacker

Carrying multiple kayaks is always a challenge. Thule, one of the most recognized names in sport roof racks, has stepped up and provided the answer with the 830 Stacker. It is easy to install, maximizes roof space, and handles a heavy load — everything you are looking for in a kayak carrier.

Steel uprights provide extreme strength with a maximum load of 600 pounds. A non-scratch outer coating protects your kayaks and ensures the Stacker will last for many seasons to come.

Fast, easy installation hardware and the universal mount makes it perfect for those who want a single rack for use on multiple vehicles. The slim design maximizes roof space and allows the use of other accessories without a need to remove this rack.

When not in use, it folds easily out of the way to increase overhead clearance.

If you need to move up to four kayaks at once, there is no rack available that beats the 830 Stacker.

PROS

  • Unheard-of 600-pound maximum weight capacity
  • Easy installation on most factory crossbars
  • Optimized roof space allows simultaneous use of other roof accessories
  • The most economical way to carry four kayaks

CONS

  • Only includes tie-downs for a single kayak
  • Some users have reported units folding unexpectedly

Learn more about the Thule 830 Stacker.

 

When to Use a Roof Rack For Transporting Kayak?

There is no doubt that roof racks are the most common means of transporting kayaks. Compared to a trailer, they are cheaper, easier to use, and come in many different styles. But they are not perfect. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of using a roof rack.

Pros

man holding kayak by the parked car with roof rack

Easy to install, remove, and store

Most roof racks can be installed in minutes and just as easily removed when not in use or needed on another vehicle. If you do not want to remove your rack between uses, most can safely be left in place, reducing the need to find a storage place.

Economical

Even a premier roof rack is less expensive than a cheap trailer. If your car is already equipped with roof crossbars, there are no alterations needed to the vehicle either. Plus, a roof rack will not require additional registration or insurance coverage.

You do not need to learn new driving skills

Unlike a trailer, the roof rack will not have an effect on how your car handles or require a special skill set to master. Just drive a little slower.

 

Cons

man securing kayaks on roof rack

Limited space

Although there are racks designed for multiple kayaks, most can only hold one or two kayaks. Even the largest is limited to four. If you have a large family or find yourself needing to move multiple kayaks regularly with a single vehicle, it is unlikely a roof rack will meet your needs

Reduced clearance

Almost all roof racks reduce overhead clearance even if the kayak is not in place. This can affect your ability to access garages and other tight spaces. It also decreases gas mileage.

Hard to load or unload

Getting even a lighter kayak onto some roof racks can be difficult, especially if you’re doing it by yourself. Even those physically capable of lifting the kayak will find two sets of hands are often necessary to hold it in place while being secured.

 

In the long run, choosing the best method for transporting your kayak(s) is a personal decision. However, there are some circumstances when a roof rack is not an option, such as if you need to haul more than four boats or have customized boats with lots of extra accessories.

Not only are these outfitted kayaks too heavy to lift into place, but they are also unlikely to fit most rack unless the accessories are removed.

 

Buying Advice: How to Choose

hand on a Yakima roof rack installed in a car

When choosing a kayak roof rack, it is important to remember that not all roof racks are the same. You need to do some research and select the right roof rack for your situation. Here are some of the factors you need to consider before making a final selection.

 

Number of Kayaks

The number of kayaks you plan on transporting will be a big factor in deciding which rack is best for you. As stated earlier, most racks are designed for one or two kayaks. Some are rated for up to four, but that is it.

Of course, the more kayaks you transport the heavier the load, so it is important to ensure your vehicle’s roof can withstand the weight.

 

Vehicle Fit

man fixing a Yakima roof rack on his car

While most roof racks are advertised as “universal,” that means they will fit most vehicles, not all vehicles. You will need to ensure your factory or aftermarket crossbars fit the rack you select. If you do not have crossbars, the options are limited.

 

Overhead Clearance

Kayak owners who regularly park in garages or need to access areas with limited overhead clearance need to remember that most roof racks add to the height of the vehicle. If you need to drive through tight areas frequently, you may need to consider a design that folds flat when not in use.

 

Security

locked kayak on a roof rack

While some roof racks offer locks that secure the rack to your vehicle and your kayak to the rack, these are not standard features. If you are routinely traveling or leaving the kayak in place when the car is unattended, you will want to select a model with this feature.

 

Aerodynamics

Anything that you secure to your vehicle’s roof will decrease your vehicle’s aerodynamics, which in turn reduces gas mileage. Models that hold that kayak closer to the roof will decrease this problem.

 

Loading/Unloading

man loading kayak on car roof with load assist feature

Some racks are more difficult to load and unload than others. Those that allow the kayak to sit closer to the roof’s edge or have load-assist features are easier for solo users.

Models that sit near the centerline or accommodate multiple kayaks generally require more than one person to safely load and unload.

 

Top Brands

Yakima

Yakima logo

This Washington-based company pioneered the kayak transportation field. The owners, enthusiastic kayakers themselves, developed many of their products out of personal need and soon filled a worldwide niche.

Their products were featured at the 1984 Summer Olympics, and they continue to be one of the leaders in supplying top-end, high-quality roof racks and accessories.

 

Thule

Thule logo

Based in Malmo, Sweden, Thule is one of the world’s leaders in outdoor equipment. With over 40 production and sales sites worldwide, Thule supplies the modern adventurer with a wide range of items ranging from luggage and child strollers to tents and bedding.

Of course, they also offer multiple options for transporting your kayak or SUP. While their products tend to be in the higher price range, you get what you pay for.

 

Malone Auto Racks

Malone Auto Racks logo

With their headquarters in scenic Portland, Maine, Malone have a close connection with water sports and offer one of the widest selections of roof racks, trailers, carts and storage units for kayaks, canoes, and SUPs.

For over 20 years they have dedicated themselves to providing products that are “affordable to buy, easy to install and simple to use.” Whether you are new to the sport or an experienced yakker, Malone Auto Racks is sure to have a solution to your transportation problems.

 

FAQ

FAQ

How do I put a kayak on a roof rack by myself?

Loading or unloading your kayak can be a challenge, especially when you are paddling solo. Luckily, some techniques can assist you in completing this task with minimal difficulty or injury. Recreational and touring kayaks range in size from 40 to 80 pounds each, with sea or touring styles being the heaviest.

You want to ensure that you lift your kayak in a manner that allows you to control the boat as much as possible without injuring yourself or damaging it or your vehicle.

If you are strong enough to lift the kayak to your shoulder and roll it onto the rack, this is the simplest and quickest method of loading solo. Otherwise, it is recommended that you load from the end.

To do this, position the kayak at the rear of the vehicle and in line with the rack. Placing a life jacket, towel, or other similar items between the kayak and roof will prevent damage and make moving the kayak easier.

Lift the opposite end of the kayak as you slide the boat forward and onto the rack. Once in a place, open the nearby doors and use the ledge as a step stool to aid in tying everything in place.

 

How do I tie down a kayak on a roof rack?

The easiest and most secure method to secure your kayak is with cam straps. They eliminate the need to learn special knots, are less likely to loosen during transport, and are easy to release. Depending on your rack system, you may also need bow and stern lines.

A non-stretching rope is best for this application, as it vibrates less than nylon straps, reducing noise and possible damage to your vehicle.

Cam Straps

Ensure the kayak is centered on the rack.

Lay the cam strap over the kayak with the buckle a few inches above the crossbar.

Pass the tag end (the one without cam) under the opposite crossbar, ensuring it is placed on the inside (between kayak and crossbar-roof connection).

Toss the tag end of the strap back over the kayak to where the cam is located.

Pass tag end under the crossbar, again ensuring it is on the inside, and attach it to cam.

Repeat with second cam strap at the second crossbar.

Tighten each strap, ensuring a snug but not overly tight fit. Too tight, and you risk damaging the kayak’s hull.

 

Bow and Stern Lines

Again, lines with a ratchet system are the easiest to use. If these are not available, tie a bowline one one end of your line and proceed as outlined below:

Secure one end to the front of the kayak, either to the grab handle or a built-in anchor point. If using a line with a bowline, pass the tag end (the end without the bowline) through the handle or anchor point.

Secure the other end of the line to the vehicle. Use a tow hook or other secure point. If using a line with a bowline, pass the line through this secure point.

Pull the loose end to tighten the line. If using a bowline, pass the line through the loop and pull to tighten and tie off.

Then secure excess line to prevent flapping or loosening.

Repeat this process with the stern line.

Thomas Burrell
Tom is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys fishing , hunting and kayaking in his native Pennsylvania and anywhere else he find the time to travel to. When not recreating outdoors he is protecting it as a full time conservation officer and spending time with his wife and 3 children.

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