Kayak Transport and Carriers

Ok, you did your homework and got the right kayak – now you need to make another decision. How are you going to transport your new kayak?

Some kayaks are heavy and cumbersome – especially rigged fishing kayaks. You’ll need to put some thought into what will be the best transport method for you, your kayak, and your vehicle. Various vehicles will create different situations to contend with. For instance, if you have a very tall vehicle it may not be practical for you to load your kayak on the roof – maybe a trailer is the way to go, or a Hullavator. Maybe you have a health problem or an injury that will prevent you from lifting a kayak. Or maybe you just don’t feel like lifting a 60+ lb kayak over your head. All of these issues can be addressed.

Let’s go over some of the different methods to transport your kayak(s).

Transport Methods

Rack Systems

Most kayak transport needs can be satisfied by adding an after-market rack system. A rack system includes the bars and feet (adapters) that attach the system to your particular vehicle. The bars can be used alone or they can serve as the base for additional kayak carriers and accessories. The most widely used systems are made by Thule and Yakima. These types of racks offer the most weight capacity and are the safest way to transport kayaks on a vehicle.

Factory Racks

Many vehicles come with factory bars (usually the flat oblong shaped ones) and these can work fine to transport your kayak and can usually be fitted with most kayak carriers, but they lack the carrying capacity and long term strength of a good after-market rack system. So if you need to carry multiple kayaks or even one heavy single kayak, investing in a good rack system will be your best option.

Foam Blocks

This method is kind of like the duct tape approach to kayak transport. With this system the foam blocks are placed on the roof of the car and the kayak is strapped down sandwiching the foam between the roof and the kayak. The reason foam blocks are so popular is that they are a very economical transport system. However, care needs to be taken to make sure the kayak is secured properly to prevent any problems and or damage to your kayak and/or vehicle.


Car with with foam block carrier system

Trailers: This is fast becoming a popular alternative for individuals who are tired of lifting or for the family that needs an easy way to haul the fleet. Many trailers are well made, perfect for kayaks, and in some cases can be close to cost of an aftermarket rack system. We recommend Trailex Trailers.

Trailex makes a single kayak version that is light enough to unhook and use as a dolly to get right up to the water. For those who want to carry more than one kayak they also make multi-kayak trailers.

Rack Accessories

Rack Pads

Rack Pads were originally designed for surfboards but work well for kayaks. The pads wrap around your factory or after-market bars and are held in place by Velcro straps. Rack pads are a very good choice if you transport you kayak face down (the seat area facing the roof), by carrying face down you are placing the load on the gunwales (the strongest part of the kayak) and it is the way many kayak companies recommend to carry the kayak to prevent distorting or damaging the hull.

Pros: Like foam blocks, it can be a very economical set up, especially if you already have bars on your vehicle. Unlike foam blocks rack pads can’t fly off the vehicle.

Cons: Pads usually don’t have a lot of cushion and can dent some kayaks if transported with the hull down or if you over tighten the tie-down straps.

Cradles and Saddles: A very popular way to carry a kayak designed to carry the kayak right side up (just like it is on the water). Some examples of these are the Thule Set-To-Go and the Malone Seawing.

Pros: These tend to keep kayak in place and protect the hull from damage. These systems usually work well with other pieces of equipment that aid in getting your kayak on your vehicle like rollers and glide pads (we will discuss these later).

Cons: These set-ups are designed to transport your kayak right side up, not the ideal way to avoid distortion, but with care this will not be an issue. Also, if you are going to transport 2 kayaks, cradles do limit the usable space on your rack bars.

J-Carriers: These work by carrying your kayak(s) on their side in J-shaped racks.

Pros: J-carriers work well to protect the kayak hull from damage when tightening the straps. They will also maximize your roof space to allow for extra kayaks or other accessories.

Cons: It can be tough to maneuver the kayak on top of your vehicle and into the side position of the J-carrier, especially if your vehicle is tall. Also, be careful in parking garages as the added height could be a problem. Some examples of J-carriers are: Thule Hullaport and the Malone Autoloader.

Vehicle types


Cars with short roofs can be a challenge – especially 2-door cars. The shorter the distance between the straps/bars the less secure the system will be. Always, use bow and stern lines when transporting by car or any vehicle with a short roof span – a favorite of ours is the Thule Quickdraw.

While foam blocks will work, we strongly recommend putting a rack system on your car – this will make life easier, protect the roof of your car, and leave you more room for other accessories & gear. Most rack manufacturers make special rack adapters for 2 door cars with shorter roofs. Both Thule and Yakima make good system for cars.

SUV’s and Mini Vans

The longer roof frame of an SUV or a Mini Van does give you some advantages over cars, but sometime the added height of an SUV can make getting your kayak on top a little harder. Most SUV’s come with factory racks that work well to receive most kayak carriers and transport accessories. Factory racks systems do have weight limits, but most can handle 1 or 2 medium to light weight kayaks without a problem.

A popular way to transport two kayaks with a factory system is to transport one in a J-type carrier and the other flat or face down on the bars. You can really maximize space by using two J-Carriers.

Of course, adding a quality rack system to a SUV or Mini Van will offer the most room for accessories and carrying capacity. Note: It’s OK if the bars extend out past the roof. According to the law, they can extend as wide as your side-view mirrors. On tall vehicles this works well, on shorter ones make sure you won’t be hitting your head on the ends of the bars when you enter or exit the vehicle.

Pickup Trucks

Nothing is easier than strapping a kayak into the bed of a pickup and hitting the road. If the kayak is hanging over the end of your tailgate you must hang a flag on it for safety. Another option which makes this method of transport safer and more practical is a bed extender. An extender is a device that plugs into a standard 2- hitch mount and will give you up to 4′ more of support under your kayak. (An extender can also be reconfigured to support your kayak over the bed, with one end resting on the cab roof and the other on the extender in the vertical position.)

Helpers & Load Assist Devices

No matter what system you are using you will still have to physically set the kayak into or onto it. This may seem difficult and awkward at first, but you will find that it will get easier with repetition and ultimately you will find what works best for you and your situation. But a little help doesn’t hurt. So here is a list of products that can help make bearing the weight a little easier.

Thule Hydro Glide: helps when loading your kayak from one end of your vehicle and also acts to hold the kayak during transport. The kayak slides easily on felt covered pads.

Thule Roller Coaster: a roller attached to a set of saddles that allows you to push the kayak up onto the roof from the rear of the vehicle.

Loading Bars: Thule as well other companies make a bar that extends out so you can lift one end of the kayak on the bar and then lift the other side onto your rack. Thule makes the Outrigger

Lift Assist Accessories: Companies now make accessories to help you get your kayak unto your roof. One such product is the Hullavator by Thule, this hydraulic assist rack folds down the side of the vehicle where the kayak is loaded at waist height and the whole thing folds back onto the roof with the aid of mechanical assistance – Nice! We’ve had many customers tell us that without this system they wouldn’t have been able to continue kayaking because of physical limitations brought on by age or injury. Sure it’s expensive, but worth every penny.

Roller Loader: This little device works to help you get your kayak up on your vehicle. It basically is a dolly that suctions on to the back of your vehicle and you just roll the kayak on or off.

A very low-tech option that works particularly well with mini-vans, SUV’s and station wagons is a rubber backed bathmat. Just to place the mat (with rubber backing down – so it won’t slide) on the rear of the vehicle and place one end of the kayak on the mat and slide onto the rack. Here is a video clip of a kayak being loaded using a bathroom mat.

Tips for Transport:

Always give the kayak a good push and pull before driving away to make sure you are secure. As a general rule if you can rock the vehicle without the kayak shifting on its perch than you are fine. If the kayak is sliding back and forth on the bars or in the carriers than you need to go back and tighten the straps.

If using straps with auto-lock buckles, always put a half hitch in the strapping after tying down to insure that even if the buckle loosens the strap will not come lose.

If using ratchet style tie downs it is very easy to over-tighten and do damage to the kayak. So make sure that the kayak is snug, but don’t go overboard.

When transporting in a flat bed pickup don’t choose places on the kayak to fasten to that can fail – like the handles. We recommend passing the straps through the scupper holes of the kayak and tying that off in the bed of the truck.

Some cars roof areas can compress/dent in when using foam blocks, these dents usually pop back out. Always try to place foam blocks on the strongest part of the roof (this will be the areas closer to the front and rear windows)

Also, if you find that some part of your kayak is making contact with the roof after you tighten it down then placing a piece of rug or padding there is a good idea to protect the car from scratching.

Racks and kayaks will decrease your vehicles MPG. If you are not using your racks on a regular basis, it may be a good idea to remove them. Quality rack systems, such as those made by Thule and Yakima are often as easy to remove with the turn of a key. (Bars can even be kept in the vehicle so they remain handy, but won’t be affecting your mileage)

With the right equipment and techniques, loading, transporting, and unloading your kayak is very manageable.

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