Car-Topping and Strapping Down a Kayak

While there are many fancy attachments now-a-days to help transport your kayak, the strapping method for the most part remains unchanged as it is the kayak position and not the strap position that changes. If you’ve spoken to paddlers who have done this before, some will tell you to strap it real hard with all your strength (you may have even noticed people dangling their body weight on to the straps to strap them securely) while there are others who will tell you to simply secure it to a snug fit. So which is the best way to go about it? Well, this complete guide to strapping down a kayak should help answer all your questions and provide the best techniques to securely strapping your kayak.

If you’ve got your car, your kayak, and a roof rack system setup (including bars and/or pads and straps) you’re ready to get started. Some cars come installed with a factory rack on the roof with cross bars which are essential. Or you could get your car outfitted with an aftermarket rack from top kayak carrier brands like Thule and Yakima.

Car-Topping a Kayak

Many sit-on-top kayaks can be loaded directly onto the cross bars, provided the gunwales create a flat stable base for the kayak to rest on. Certain types of sit-in-side kayaks can be loaded hull-up, but there is the danger of the cockpit becoming weak with the weight of the kayak resting completely on it. On the bright side, should it rain, your kayak won’t collect rainwater on the inside.

If you have hull shaped saddles or U or V shaped foam pads on the crossbars, consider deck-up loading with the right side up. Some U shaped foam pads can be soft rack carriers that don’t need crossbars and can be simply placed on the roof. The advantage of deck up loading is that less saltwater will drip onto the car and windshield.

If you don’t have a saddle or U shaped foam pad, chances are the hull may rest on the keel line of the boat and deform the hull shape. In such cases, specialty kayak saddles or generic foam hull blocks come in handy as the former can easily be attached to factory or sports racks while the latter can be slotted to snug around crossbars.

Plastic kayaks don’t need padding, but if you own fiberglass or composite kayaks, you’ll need some extra padding such as a form fitting saddle or U shaped foam block to strap them.

Strapping Down a Kayak

Steps to Securely Strap Down a Kayak to Your Car

Step 1: Get the kayak onto the car. If this is your first kayak strapping experience, get someone to help you lift it up. One person can carry the stern while the other person can be at the bow.

Step 2: Place your kayak onto the rack system. If you have crossbars, place the kayak hull-up, if the gunwales allow. If you have U-shape foam blocks or kayak saddles, place your kayak mounted to the crossbars right side up. If you have flat, wide soft racks placed directly onto car roof, place your kayak hull-up, again, if the gunwales allow. And if you have U-shape soft racks on your car roof, place your kayak right side up.

Step 3: Tie your kayak to the car with two tie down straps per kayak. If you have crossbars, U-shape foam blocks or kayak saddles, tie the bow of the kayak to the front bumper and the stern of the kayak to the rear bumper. Tie down straps are long straps (about 8-20 feet in length) with a cam-buckle on one end. 10 footer straps should be perfect for small cars while 15 foot straps will suit tall cars, vans or SUVs. You will need one pair of straps per kayak.

When strapping, make sure the kayak is well centered on the crossbars. It should not be inclined to tilt to the front or the back, like a seesaw. Take care to see that the centerline of the kayak is parallel with the centerline of the car.

Kayak tied to the Crossbars

How to Tie the Kayak to the Crossbars

  1. Take your tie down straps and sling the buckle free end of the strap over the kayak on to the other side of the car.
  2. Now, take the free end of the strap under the crossbar, and inside the tower, looping it around the crossbar, but not winding it.
  3. Next, sling the buckle free end of the strap back over the kayak on to the other side of the car. Make sure that the two ends of the strap do not cross over the kayak.
  4. Tug the plain end of the strap so that the buckle end rises up on the side of the kayak and almost out of reach.
  5. Loop the plain end under the bar and around it.
  6. Then, thread the plain end of the strap through the cam buckle and snug it up tight and firmly, but not so tight as to squeeze the kayak.
  7. Repeat for the second strap.
  8. Test the strapping by holding the kayak’s gunwale and shaking it. If both the kayak and the car rock as one, then you have strapped your kayak well and good. If the kayak moves but the car does not, then the whole process of strapping needs to be repeated.

Note: Always ensure that the straps are behind the tower and under the bar. The straps must be in contact with the kayak as much as possible with no gaps between the kayak and the straps. Any loose ends should be secured to prevent it from flapping in the wind while driving. You can also wind it around something and tie it off.

Kayak Soft Racks

How to Tie the Kayak to Soft Racks

If you have flat, wide soft racks or U-shape soft racks on your car roof, you can strap down a kayak one of two ways; by attaching the kayak to the soft racks then lifting it all the way to the car roof or placing the soft rack on the car roof then putting the kayak on the soft racks. The latter approach is recommended for beginners. Before you begin, make sure your soft rack system has two foam blocks, one or two standard tie downs, and bow-stern tie downs.

1. Place the foam rack blocks on top of the car. The ideal placement is near the windshield and near the rear window. Avoid the center part of the car roof as it is flimsy and can dent very easily and also avoid the front and back sections of the roof as they are too stiff and strong.

2. Lift the kayak onto the foam blocks. You can have a friend help you with this. Remember to hull-up on flat blocks and deck-up on U blocks. The kayak should be placed in such a way that it is not inclined to tilt to the front or the back, like a seesaw. Again, the centerline of the kayak must be parallel with the centerline of the car.

3. Tie both soft rack foam blocks to the kayak securely. It is best to have built-in or dedicated straps for securing the foams to the kayak. The straps should first go under or through the block, then over the kayak and around it. The straps should fit snugly but shouldn’t be wound up tight so as to squeeze the kayak or cut into the blocks.

4. Next, secure the kayak to the car with center straps. The best way to do this is to open the doors of the car. Then toss a standard tie down strap over the top of the kayak. Bring each end of the strap inside the car, and secure it inside snugly, not too tightly. If you have a two door car you can use one tie down strap and if you have a four door car, you can use two straps. Close the car doors on the straps. Some vans and other vehicles may need a strap through open windows in the rear.

Note: Do not strap the kayak to the roof through open windows in a way that will prevent you from opening the doors.

This process may not work on cars that have automatic seat belts so you’ll have to think of something else. Some soft rack car roof accessories may have small hooks or clips to secure the center straps to the door frames or rain gutters. Once you’ve figured out exactly where you like to strap the soft racks to the kayak you can pre-mount the foam blocks to the kayak before lifting it to the roof.

Kayak Racks Tying Front and Back

How to Tie the Kayak to the Front and Back Bumpers of your Car

One more thing you need to do when strapping your kayak to the car is to have the bow and stern tie downs to the front and back bumpers to prevent it from lifting and swinging from side to side. To do this:

1. Tie off the grab handles located on the stern and bow of your kayak. If necessary, tie to strong points of the deck rigging but avoid tying down to the rudder. You can use any rope, straps, or bow-stern tie downs designed specifically for the purpose.

2. Look out for any loops welded onto the frame or brackets under the bumpers, which are good tie down points. These need to be evenly spaced with one in the center and two on each side. But if you find that there is only one, or it is off to one side or not evenly spaced, you still need to make the best use of it.

On some cars you may find a gap between the body panel and the bumper cover that is big enough to allow a strap or strong cord to pass through. You can use this gap to tie around the steel bumper that is behind the plastic cover. You can also tie a short loop of strong cord to a tow loop or frame member that is hard to reach.

There are plenty of commercially available bow-stern tie downs that have hooks to easily hold on to tow loops, bumper covers or the frame. Whichever accessory you use to tie down make sure that it will not interfere with the moving, sharp or hot parts of the car.

It is recommended that you have a couple of lines running from each side of the bumper to the grab handle of your kayak. This may give the appearance of an upside down letter V. Although one line is okay two is always better. If you have two kayaks on the car, you can tie the right kayak to the left side of the bumper and the left kayak to the right side of the bumper, which may give the appearance of the letter X. It is better to keep the lines centered to prevent misalignment of the kayak with the centerline of your car.

3. Tie off the stern of the kayak to the rear bumper and the bow of the kayak to the front bumper.

Note: Do not tighten the bow and stern lines to snug so that the kayak is bent like a banana. It should be almost loose.

You can tie only one line, but it is best to tie both the front and the back. If you tie the front it is likely to prevent lifting of the kayak but should be done in such a way that it does not impede your field of view or create a distraction. A light rope or thin strap is best. A line in the back is ideal, especially if the back of the kayak hangs over and past the rear bumper.

Bow and stern tie downs are not absolutely required especially if you have a lot of space between crossbars, your kayak is very short, you are traveling short distances at moderate speeds on smooth roads, and the design of the car, kayak, and rack system prevents the use of bow-stern tie downs.

If you don’t have bow and stern lines, take extra tie down precautions and drive at slower speeds.

Additional Tips

Additional Tips

When you tighten the straps use only your arm strength. Don’t throw your body weight behind the straps or jerk them violently.

Test the hold of the straps by gently lifting the bow of the kayak. It should not lift. Then push the bow from side to side. It should not wiggle.

All roof rack makers and car roof accessory manufacturers recommend that you do not exceed 55 MPH with a load on the roof.

Drive extra carefully when your car roof is loaded.

Be 100% certain your kayak is well secured to your car and will not fly off while driving.

If you are going on long trips or driving through rough weather, tie an additional rope around the bow of the kayak to a secure point on the front bumper. And tie another rope from the stern of the kayak to a secure point on the rear bumper.

Make sure all loose ends of the straps are tied off so that they don’t whip against your vehicle or kayak.

If possible, make sure your kayak rests on the crossbars at the strongest parts of the kayak. For a sit-on kayak, it is just behind the seat and at the front of the cockpit where you place your feet and for a a sit-in kayak it is the same but you can also consider the bulkheads if you have one.

If you strap two or more cars, make sure you independently tie each kayak with its own tie down straps.

If you are using a soft rack system on a convertible with the top up, you can place one pad on the windshield frame and the other one where the back of the roof ends, at the strong strut or double strut.

Check the kayak after the first 5 to 10 miles of driving to make sure none of the strips have loosened.

If you follow these simple guidelines, your kayak will arrive at its destination in one piece and in great shape and you won’t get the impression that you’re gliding on an oddly shaped banana.


  1. myd said:

    And always be mindful of your spacing between other cars if the ends of your kayak extend beyond the ends of your vehicle.

    June 4, 2017
  2. said:

    Kayaks can affect the handling of some cars in high winds or at high speeds, so keep your speed down.

    June 18, 2017
  3. date said:

    Test the tie down by grabbing the kayak’s gunwale and shaking it. If the kayak and the car rock as one then you have a good tie down.

    September 8, 2017
  4. said:

    Kayaks car topped deck up can collect rainwater, this will make them heavy after it rains, and will douse you when you take them off.

    November 12, 2017

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