Kayak Roof Racks: The Definitive Guide [2018 Update]

If you own a pickup truck, see kayak racks for trucks.
If you need a trailer, see kayak trailers.

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It’s one thing to pick up the coolest kayak in the world at a store near you and another thing to transport it to your destination. Whether you’re planning to take home your first kayak or venture to a remote location for the adventure of a lifetime, you’ll need a convenient and safe way of transporting your kayak. You could always buy plenty of rope and strap it to the roof of your vehicle, but chances are you’ll end up damaging both your best sit-on-top kayak and your roof in the process. If you are a new kayaker, you’ll be especially worried about the kayak flying off during transportation or about how you’re going to lift the boat off your vehicle and onto the ground without doing further damage. If these are your concerns be rest assured that this article will help you handle those initial anxieties and offer a hassle free, repair-free transport experience.

The most important gear you need to own for safe and convenient transportation is a rack, but with the sheer number of models available in stores, maybe you’re not quite sure where to start. Well, read on to learn a little bit more about the different types of kayak roof racks and which ones are likely to suit your needs.

My #1 Recommendation

If I had to pick one kayak rack to recommend above all others, especially on a modest budget, the crown would go to the Malone Downloader. Although not as famous as its competitors Thule and Yakima, Malone makes some of the highest quality racks on the planet, and their J-style line is the perfect general purpose roof rack line to meet the needs of pretty much any paddler. I prefer their Downloader model personally, as it offers very solid support for my kayak with its exceptional quality at an affordable price. And if you want more proof, there are over 300 reviews on the Amazon with an average of 4.5 stars to back me up. Here’s the list of all recommended models in case you want to quick-jump to the “best of” section:

Types of Kayak Racks

It is extremely important to understand the differences in the rack types and the pros and cons of each one before deciding which one to purchase. Practically, they can all be placed in two major categories:

  1. Temporary Pads
  2. Roof Racks

Temporary Pads

While some SUVs come with factory racks, many vehicles don’t and as far as cars go, you’ll more than likely have nothing at all. Since temporary pads don’t require any base rack system installed on your car’s roof, they come handy in this naked roof kind of situation. Beside, they are pretty easy to install and remove. Temporary pads basically consist of straps that go around the inside of your car along the roof and over the top, where they are attached to foam or inflatable padding.

Temporary Pads

Temporary racks are ideal for paddlers who don’t plan to travel long distances for kayaking, who rarely use the Interstate, who don’t plan to cart more than one kayak, and for those who are budget conscious. If you are one such paddler, a set of temporary pads is the perfect solution for transporting your kayak.

The major drawback of temporary pads is that they are not ideal for travelling long distances, especially on the Interstate. Another potential problem you might experience, if your car’s roof has a sensitive section like a sun roof, you’ll have to find a way to install these pads around it, and if you can’t, they may not be a good fit for you.

The bottom line is that if you are looking for an inexpensive solution for travelling short distances and carting a single kayak, temporary pads are perfectly adequate.

Jump to Best Pads

Roof Racks

It is almost always quicker, easier, and safer to load a kayak onto a properly accessorized roof rack. Kayak roof racks, also known as kayak carriers, can only be used if your car already has a roof rack setup in place. This can be something that came with the car (factory racks) or could be one of those aftermarket base rack systems you installed later. One way or another, you end up with a pair of cross bars connecting two sides of your car’s roof.

Note: Although they are essential for the use of kayak roof accessories, the cross bars can also be used without any attachments. In that case, they must be properly padded (see foam pads). You usually place the kayaks upside down on top of the rack and strap them with ropes to the bars.

Once your car’s top is equipped with a set of cross bars, you’re one step closer to the perfect setup. There are plenty of manufacturers who offer a wide variety of accessories that can make the whole process of carting a kayak a breeze. Here’s a look at some of the important ones:

Saddles & Rollers

Saddles are horizontal kayak roof racks that let your kayak rest on its flatter surface. These types of carriers offer more surface area contact to your boat hull than others. Saddles consist of two pads that extend from the base rack to the bottom of your kayak. They can be either part of a single cradle or two separate pieces that adjust to fit the width of your boat.
If you frequently drive through storms, two sets of saddles will offer a rock-solid support for your kayak. Saddles offer plenty of great benefits; they are easy to load and unload, they offer only the slightest resistance to wind and they take advantage of the aerodynamics of the kayak to reduce fuel usage.Saddles & RollersIf you are looking for more convenience, you can replace the saddles with a pair of rollers. Rollers allow you to lift almost half the weight of the kayak (the bow) onto the top of your car, then pick up and roll the stern onto the saddle placed on the forward bar so you can securely strap everything.

Rollers are especially recommend for cars with long rooflines such as SUVs as they hold the kayak firmly and securely. But you must be prepared for a little shuffling around on the rollers, especially if you drive in rough weather. You can choose saddles or rollers depending on whether you want your kayak to be more secure when transporting it or if you like the ease and convenience of loading and unloading it at your destination.

Jump to Best Saddles


J-Cradles or J-Style kayak racks are the world’s most popular kayak roof racks and are called so because they are designed in the J shape form. J-Style cradles are side-loading racks, sitting at about 45 degrees angle on your cross bars, leaving you with more room to cart other adventure gadgets. If your vehicle has a narrow roof and you plan to cart a couple of kayaks, saddles and rollers won’t work as they haul the kayaks in a vertical position.J-CradlesJ-Cradles on the other hand are very stable and secure and fast to load and unload as well. You don’t have to load your kayak from the back of the car, instead you can just pick the whole boat and side-load it. Just keep in mind that if you own a heavy kayak, you may have trouble finding the strength to haul them sideways. This is especially true when the weather is rough or when you have exhausted all your energy from hours of kayaking. J-Cradles are therefore not ideal for paddlers who are short or too old to lift the boat to the roof of the car.

Jump to Best J-Cradles


Stackers arrange your kayaks in an upright position on their sides, taking up about 50% less crossbar space per boat thereby offering maximum boat capacity. You can simply carry the kayak and stack it against the post or against another kayaks. Typically this means that you can carry as many as 4 kayaks on top of your car.StackersStackers are generally inexpensive but they tend to often slip on the smooth bars so you need some kind of fiction surface, like cross bar pads for additional support. A stacker works well with any type of kayak, with the exception of kayaks with very wide tandem sit-on-tops. Still, they can also be easily installed and removed and you won’t have to make any further adjustments at all.

Jump to Best Stackers

How to Choose a Kayak Roof Rack

Choosing the right kayak roof rack is never easy. There are a number of factors that you need to evaluate when choosing the roof rack that best suits your needs. In this guide we discuss all the specific needs of kayakers and how to choose the gear that meets those needs.

Do you own a pickup truck?

This is a really important question. If you are a truck owner, you’ll probably need some kind of bed extender or utility rack in order to use any kayak rack accessory. Wait no more and visit my special guide for choosing the right kayak rack for truck.

What’s your vehicle’s base roof setup?

Your choice of a kayak roof rack largely depends on the current roof setup. Basically, base roof setups fall into one of these major categories:

  1. Bare/Naked Roof
  2. Factory Rails
  3. Factory Cross Bars
  4. Aftermarket Cross Bars

If you own a car without rails or with factory rails but without cross bars, the best out-of-the-box solution are temporary pads with foam or inflatable pads. This is the cheapest option that doesn’t require further investment or installation of aftermarket cross bars. However, if you plan on taking up advanced solutions like saddles or cradles, be prepared to shell out some extra cash for upgrading the roof setup with crossbars.

If you plan on carrying multiple kayaks, you may have a problem, as many factory racks aren’t designed to hold a lot of weight. The load capacity will largely depend on your car model so you’ll need to check it up with your car manufacturer. Another thing to watch out for is aftermarket accessories compatibility. Customizing your loading options won’t be easy as most factory racks are designed to match their respective rack systems. So you’ll find that even the best of these accessories are not compatible with your factory settings. In most cases, factory bars will be more than enough for carrying at least one kayak. If necessary, you can still replace the factory bars with a good aftermarket cross bar system, which is likely to offer compatibility options.

Aftermarket cross bars offer complete flexibility, offering access to the most solid and convenient solutions such as saddles and j-cradles. They can also take more weight than factory ones so they’re ideal to pick up when you’re transporting multiple kayaks.

How many kayaks do you plan to carry?

The number of kayaks you are going to transport is another big factor to consider when deciding on a roof rack. Basically, if you don’t plan to carry more than 2 kayaks, most solutions will work for you as double kayak roof rack. However, if you plan on carting more than 2 kayaks, stackers are definitely your best pick, since they allow maximum boat capacity. This is limited only by the width of your vehicle’s roof and the size of your crossbars. So if you own 2 kayaks and own a car with a narrow roof, my suggestion is that you pick a pair of J-Cradle sets.

Do you plan long-distance driving on the Interstate?

If you plan to travel cross-country to seek out other lakes and coasts, you’ll probably want a more solid and secure solution. If that’s your situation, avoid foam or other temporary pads. In extreme conditions, such as stormy weather or when driving on bumpy roads, you’ll need to wrench down the temporary pads very, very hard which can damage your kayak. If you don’t do that, your kayak may shuffle around on top of the roof or the foam pads may blow right out from under it. Solid roof rack systems such as saddles and cradles are the best fit in this case.

How often do you intend to kayak?

If you paddle every day, you’d want to spend as little time as possible loading and unloading your kayak. A pair of saddles on the front of your rack and a pair of rollers on the back will be one of the most convenient kayak hauling systems to use. Some paddlers even find side-loading J-Cradles easier to load and unload. The bottom line is that with a good roof rack system, convenience is the real pay-off.

Best Kayak Carrier Brands

There are many companies that make kayak roof racks but choosing the right kayak brand depends largely on what you intend you use it for, your experience and your budget. While most of the top kayak carrier brands share plenty of features that are common to each other there are still differences that make each brand stand out from the rest. Some have created special features that make their racks better in certain aspects, and some have an all-round aspect to their products that puts them on top. Understanding these key differences is helpful in choosing the right kayak for your needs. That said, here is a list of the best kayak carriers in the market today.


Thule was founded in Sweden in the year 1942 and is the first company in the world that made it possible for car owners to transport their own sports equipment and luggage by themselves. Since its inception, Thule has expanded to provide a complete range of car rack products for different models of cars and for different types of outdoor activities.


Yakima, one of the world’s leading brand of car racks made its humble beginnings as a small machine shop in Yakima, Washington. Today, it produces some of the world’s best products that are available both under its own label as well under the popular Whispbar and Prorack brands. Currently operating out of Portland Oregon, Yakima continues to pioneer innovative designs in the industry in keeping with changing cars and gears.


Malone Auto Racks is one of the fastest growing rack accessory companies in North America with stores located across the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. Operating from the Coast of Maine, Malone has over 10 years of industry leadership and experience. It has many firsts to its credit including the introduction of the “J” style kayak carrier and the first company to offer economical load assist modules for single person loading.


Although TMS is not a pioneer in the industry, many of their products are listed as best-sellers in several kayak-related categories on Amazon. Over 900 mostly positive reviews make them the #1 candidate for purchasing kayak rack accessories.

Best Temporary Pads

Among the different pads that are available in the market, there’s one model that definitely stands out of the rest. Malone’s HandiRack Inflatable Roof Racks is without question my #1 pick for temporary pads.


  • Easy to inflate and relatively easy to attach to the roof.
  • Works with nearly all vehicles with the exception of ones that are fitted with side curtain airbags.
  • Offers the added benefit of transporting other cargo such as sports gear, furniture, and more.
  • Best avoided in rainy conditions as rain water is likely to seep into the car.

Best Saddles

There are a wide range of different saddles to choose from, if you consider their combination with rollers or glides. However, my vote goes to the classical Malone SeaWing Saddles for its highly affordable price compared to the Thule’s model.


  • Extremely easy to load and unload especially for short or elderly paddlers who may find it difficult to lift the kayak above the roofline.
  • Single cradle design offers a rock-solid support for the kayak.
  • The flexible material better conforms to the boat, as opposed to metal variants.
  • Comes with a lifetime warranty.

Runner-up: Thule Glide and Set 883

Best J-Cradles

It seems that all the major rack companies have invested the most time into their J-style models. It turns out that most quality products fall into this category, but all in all Malone won out with one of their cradles. For a price tag that is handily under the $200 mark, the Malone Downloader is of exceptional quality. It also has a great number of features that make it suitable for many different situations.


  • Very solidly built, with oversized padding on the arms, and heavy attachment system.
  • Built-in boarding ramp for easy loading.
  • Folds down flat when not in use thereby reducing drag.
  • More affordable for at least the same (if not improved) quality and versatility.

Runner-up: Yakima JayLow

Best Stackers

When it comes to picking the best stackers for transporting multiple kayaks, you have plenty of cheap options to choose from. However, considering that they sometimes tend to be a bit slippery, I decided to go with the option that is most sturdy, which is Thule The Stacker 830.


  • Can handle up to four kayaks if you have a big enough car roof.
  • Folds down flat when not in use thereby reducing drag.
  • Affordably priced given the Thule quality and versatility.
  • May be a tad tricky to load as you need to keep the kayak balanced against the posts when you’re tying it down.


  1. Rich said:

    Need a car rack for a kayak,But my car do not have built on racks,what type can I use with no bars on top of my auto?

    July 14, 2016
  2. John Benson said:

    I have 2004 Camry with a sunroof where can I get a roof rack the top is bare.

    October 19, 2016
  3. Andrey said:

    With a Thule kayak roof rack, you re all set to get the most out of your passion. Instead of a cumbersome trailer, you get a kayak car rack that is easy to load and unload as well as ensuring safe and secure transportation of your kayak. You can even choose between horizontal and vertical carrying positions to save space and carry even more kayaks.

    May 28, 2017
  4. peggy said:

    I have a double sun roof on a chevy Malibu. I’m short 5’2″ . I don’t have the greatest upper body strength. What kind of rack would be best?

    August 21, 2017
  5. watsapweb.com said:

    Integrated lift systems are the most expensive option, featuring roof racks and automated lifts to pull the boat into place for transporting.

    September 28, 2017
  6. Clay Hall said:

    Love your review. Very helpful. I do however have one question that you did not address and that is: “Are there any good kayak carriers that can be attached to a luggage rack?”. I own a Jeep Unlimited Rubicon and am shopping for a luggage rack to use for hauling hunting gear and would find it very laborious to have to remove that rack in order to load my kayak when I return from a hunting trip.

    February 3, 2018
  7. Joe said:

    I have a Murano s Nissan 2017 without roof rail. What is the best rack to this suv?

    February 17, 2018

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