Best Kayak Roof Rack for Cars Without Rails in 2024

Looking for the perfect kayak rack for cars without rails? We’ve done the research and found options to fit every budget, from affordable to premium.

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While many vehicles come equipped with roof rails, not having them shouldn’t deter your adventures. There are plenty of kayak racks for cars without rails, and we’ve sifted through the options to bring you the best of the best.

Types of Kayak Racks for Cars Without Rails

Before delving into the specific product reviews, it’s helpful to first understand the different styles of kayak racks available for cars without rails:

  • Clamp Attach Crossbars: These crossbars attach directly to the car’s roof using clamps. They’re popular due to their sturdiness and ability to mimic the traditional rail system.

  • Strap and Suction Attach Crossbars: Unlike the clamp attach variant, these crossbars use straps that go inside the car doors to secure the system. Additionally, some models employ vacuum towers. These towers create a strong suction on the car’s roof, ensuring the crossbars remain firmly in place.

  • Soft Roof Rack Pads: Perfect for occasional users, these pads cushion the kayak and protect the roof of your car. They’re easy to install and remove.

  • Inflatable Roof Racks: A newer entrant, these racks are inflated when needed, making them convenient and space-saving.

  • Foam Blocks: A straightforward and budget-friendly choice, foam blocks sit directly on your car’s roof. You just place the kayak on top and secure it with straps. For more on this method, see our guide on how to transport a kayak without a roof rack.

Our Top Picks

Thule Evo Clamp + WingBar Evo

Best Overall Rack for Cars Without Rails

Thule Evo Clamp + Thule WingBar Evo


Maximum Load: 165 lbs

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What we like

  • Exceptionally robust and designed for longevity
  • Aerodynamic WingBar minimizes noise and enhances fuel efficiency
  • A high load capacity that caters to a wide range of needs
  • Reliable support and service from Thule

What we don’t like

  • Comes with a premium price tag
  • The instruction manual could be more user-friendly

The Thule brand has long been known for quality, and their latest offering, the Evo Clamp coupled with the WingBar Evo, continues to uphold this legacy.

The robust design of this combo is immediately evident. A striking testament to this is the impressive maximum load capacity of 165 lbs. This ensures that, whether you’re carrying a light kayak or opting for a heavier model, this rack has your back. Its ability to firmly attach to a car’s bare roof without rails means you can confidently embark on long drives, knowing your kayak remains secure.

The WingBar Evo, an equally crucial part of this system, showcases a design influenced by aerodynamics. This approach means your trips are free from the typical wind noise that can plague other roof racks. Plus, its versatility to support various attachments means you’re not restricted in your choice of kayak mounts.

The inclusion of a torque wrench is a thoughtful touch. This ensures that you don’t over-tighten the rack and protects your vehicle’s roof from potential damage — a detail often overlooked by other brands.

While the Thule Evo Clamp and WingBar Evo combo is packed with features, there’s a learning curve involved, especially with the instruction manual. Despite being image-heavy, it can sometimes leave you scratching your head. But don’t let this minor hiccup deter you. Numerous YouTube tutorials detail the installation process step-by-step.

So, what sets this product apart from its competitors? Firstly, the blend of strength, functionality, and aesthetics is hard to find elsewhere. Furthermore, Thule’s legacy of excellent customer support adds a layer of trust.

Malone VersaRail Bare Roof Cross Rail System

Best Budget-Friendly Crossbars

Malone VersaRail Bare Roof Cross Rail System


Maximum Load: 135 lbs

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What we like

  • Affordable alternative to high-end brands
  • Uncomplicated installation
  • A respectable load capacity of 135 lbs
  • Drives are relatively quiet, with minimal wind noise

What we don’t like

  • Strap placement might interfere with some car interior headspace
  • Rainy conditions may warrant some extra precautions to prevent in-car leakage
  • Not the top pick for those looking for a long-haul, permanent setup

The Malone VersaRail system employs twin cup vacuum towers and straps to affix itself to your vehicle’s roof, and once they take hold, they don’t let go.

Despite its affordable price point, it boasts an impressive load capacity of 135 lbs. While this may fall shy of some high-end competitors, it’s more than adequate for most.

However, as with all things, the VersaRail does have its nuances. Rain, for instance, can be a slight challenge. The design, while brilliant in many respects, can allow rainwater to trail down the straps, leading to potential in-car leaks. It’s an inconvenience, but one that can be circumvented with some foresight and precaution.

Moreover, while its adaptability across various vehicles is praiseworthy, the placement of its straps may be a tad challenging for certain car interiors. For some users, these straps could reduce the interior headspace. This is less a design flaw and more a point of compatibility to be aware of.

To summarize, the Malone VersaRail Bare Roof Cross Rail System presents itself not just as an affordable solution but also a reliable one. It’s the answer for those setting foot in the kayaking domain. It may lack the permanence of its pricier counterparts, but as a budget-friendly crossbar, it’s fantastic.

Yakima EasyTop Universal Roof Rack

Best Soft Roof Rack Pads

Yakima EasyTop Universal Roof Rack


Maximum Load: 80 lbs

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What we like

  • Affordably priced
  • Straightforward installation
  • Thoughtfully designed with ample padding to protect both kayak and vehicle
  • Lightweight and easy to store

What we don’t like

  • Straps might interfere with the car’s interior headroom
  • Potential for rainwater to enter the car via the straps

The Yakima EasyTop Universal Roof Rack is an excellent choice for those desiring both convenience and practicality without committing to permanent fixtures.

Right off the bat, the beauty of the Yakima EasyTop shines through its simplicity. The term “user-friendly” gets thrown around a lot, but it genuinely feels apt with this rack. Picture this: No tools, no baffling manual to wade through; it’s as straightforward as securing a belt. This hassle-free approach seamlessly allows any ordinary car to bear up to 80 lbs of adventure gear, from kayaks to skis.

Its streamlined profile ensures that drag is minimized. But beyond this, what truly stands out is Yakima’s evident thoughtfulness towards both the carrier and the carried. The ample padding not only guards your vehicle against scratches and dents but also provides a cushioned bed for your kayak. Furthermore, the inclusion of a double-latching buckle ensures that what’s mounted atop stays atop, giving you that extra peace of mind on winding roads or bumpy terrains.

As with all products, the Yakima EasyTop has its set of considerations. The first, and perhaps most notable, is the strap design. While they provide robust support, their interior positioning may dip into your car’s cabin space, which could be slightly intrusive, especially for taller passengers. Additionally, while rain is a blessing for those downriver adventures, it may pose a slight challenge for the EasyTop. The strap design can channel water inside the car, especially during persistent downpours.

So, where does that leave us with the Yakima EasyTop Universal Roof Rack? If you’re an occasional adventurer or someone who loves spontaneity without the rigidity of permanent installations, the EasyTop is tailored for you. Its balance of price, convenience, and adaptability makes it an attractive choice. However, if you’re a regular on the kayaking circuit and anticipate frequently driving through varying weather conditions, you may want to look at a more permanent rack, like the one from Thule.

HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack

Best Inflatable Roof Rack

HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack


Maximum Load: 180 lbs

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What we like

  • Quick installation
  • Protective cushioning
  • Can accommodate various loads
  • Affordable compared to traditional racks

What we don’t like

  • Rainy days might usher in the possibility of water ingress
  • The provided tie-down straps warrant an upgrade
  • Questions surrounding the long-term durability of the inflatable tubes remain

If someone had uttered the words “inflatable roof rack” a few years ago, many of us would have exchanged puzzled looks. However, in today’s market, the HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack Bars are not just a reality, but they’re also setting benchmarks in kayak transportation.

Let’s start with the standout feature: ease of setup. The HandiRack doesn’t entangle you in a web of complicated mechanisms. Instead, armed with the provided pump, you can swiftly turn your car into a kayak-ready vehicle in mere minutes.

But the HandiRack isn’t just about swift installation. What truly makes it shine is the protective cushion it offers to your gear. With its capacity to comfortably bear loads up to an awe-inspiring 180 lbs, it’s versatile enough to accommodate not just kayaks, but also stand-up paddleboards, surfboards, and more.

Now, you might be wondering, “What’s the catch?” Well, there are a few. Like some of its peers, heavy rain can lead to water sneaking its way inside via the straps. Also, while the tie-down straps included serve their purpose, for those desiring extra assurance, upgrading to sturdier cam straps might be worth the investment.

As for the product’s longevity, though the HandiRack is designed to resist punctures, you can’t help but ponder the durability of the inflatable tubes as they age. So it would be prudent to frequently inspect them for potential wear and tear.

Overall, if you’re in the market for an innovative, user-friendly, and versatile roof rack solution that’s gentle on the wallet, the HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack Bars definitely merit your attention.

Buying Guide: Factors to Consider

Man loading gear on a roof rack for cars without rails

Selecting a kayak rack for cars without rails might seem overwhelming initially. To help simplify your search, here’s what you need to consider.

Ease of Use

No one wants to spend hours decoding complex instructions, especially when the open waters beckon. Here’s how the different styles of roof racks compare in terms of ease of use:

  • Foam Pads: These are arguably the most straightforward options available. No tools, no fuss. Lay them on your car’s roof, place your kayak on top, and use straps to secure everything in place. Sound simple? That’s because it is.

  • Inflatable Racks: Roof racks like the HandiRack require a pump and a few minutes of your time. Inflating them is quick, and once you’re done, deflate and store.

  • Crossbar Racks: Installing crossbar racks might initially seem daunting, especially with products like the Thule Evo Clamp + WingBar Evo. However, it becomes second nature once you’re familiar with the system. These racks are designed for those wanting a more permanent solution.

Consider your individual needs, the frequency of your trips, and how much time you’re willing to invest in setup and teardown. Sometimes, convenience might outweigh the stability factor, especially for shorter commutes. At other times, the peace of mind offered by a robust, fixed system might be worth the extra time spent on installation.


Durability might not be the first factor that springs to mind when considering a roof rack, but it is, without a doubt, one of the most significant. After all, what use is an easy-to-install, budget-friendly rack if it succumbs to wear and tear after a few uses?

While many brands boast impressive warranties, true durability goes beyond this limited time frame. A kayak rack isn’t just for one summer — it’s an investment for numerous adventures to come.

Given their robust construction, crossbar racks often promise longevity. High-end brands such as Thule have solidified their reputation in part due to the longevity of their products. Their offerings, made with superior-grade materials, promise a longer shelf life than some cheaper alternatives. But this doesn’t mean budget-friendly options are necessarily short-lived; it just underscores the need for diligent research and understanding the trade-offs.

But durability isn’t just about the initial product quality — it’s also about maintenance. Here are some steps to ensure your rack stands the test of time:

  1. Regular Inspections: Periodically check your kayak rack for signs of damage, especially before long trips.

  2. Cleaning: Dust, grime, and water residue can compromise the integrity of certain materials. Cleaning your rack after every use ensures its longevity.

  3. Proper Storage: When not in use, store soft roof racks in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

  4. Tightness: Regularly ensure that all fittings are tight, but not overly so, to prevent undue stress.


How much should you really invest in a kayak rack? The answer often revolves around the balance between quality, durability, and your frequency of use. Kayak racks come in a range of prices:

Foam blocks are the most budget-friendly options available. Typically priced between $20 to $60, they cater to those who kayak occasionally or are on a tight budget. While light on the pocket, they might not offer the stability or longevity that other systems provide.

A notch above in terms of price and functionality are the inflatable roof racks. Products like the HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack Bars fall within the $50 to $150 range. Their cost mirrors their adaptability and user-friendliness, making them apt for those who desire a blend of flexibility and affordability.

Soft roof rack pads, exemplified by the Yakima EasyTop Universal Roof Rack, usually hover in the $100 to $200 bracket. Striking a balance between cost-effectiveness and functionality, they appeal to occasional kayakers who seek more stability than foam blocks can offer.

On the premium end are the crossbar racks. Esteemed brands like Thule, Yakima, and Malone are prominent players in this area. With prices spanning from $150 to potentially over $500, these racks are an embodiment of durability, stability, and often aerodynamics that can boost fuel efficiency.

While the initial cost might be a bit steep for some options, remember that a durable kayak rack is an investment. Over time, the dividends it pays are not just in money saved from frequent replacements, but in the peace of mind it offers on every journey.

How to Install a Roof Rack on a Car Without Rails

While it would be exhaustive to detail the installation of every roof rack style, we’ve chosen to focus on clamp-style crossbars because they are by far the most complex.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to install a clamp-style roof rack on your car:

  1. Preparing the Feet: Ensure you have all the necessary components before you begin. Each foot of the rack will typically have an indicator or sticker showing its position (e.g., front left, rear right). Match each foot with its corresponding position and attach any protective rubber or padding. This ensures a snug fit and protects your car’s roof from potential scratches.

  2. Attaching the Crossbars to the Feet: Slide each foot onto the ends of the crossbars, ensuring they’re aligned correctly. Some racks may have a release mechanism or a button to help with this step.

  3. Adjusting the Scale (if provided): Some clamp-style racks come with a measuring device or scale. Based on the manufacturer’s instructions, adjust this scale to the recommended measurement, ensuring both ends of the bar align with this measurement.

  4. Positioning the Rack on the Car: Place the assembled rack (crossbars with attached feet) onto your car’s roof. Using a measuring tape and following the manufacturer’s guidelines, determine the optimal distance between the front and rear bars. This ensures the rack sits correctly and securely on your car.

  5. Tightening the Rack: Once positioned, begin tightening the feet. As you tighten, the rack will secure itself to the car. Some racks come with a unique tool or indicator that signals when the rack is sufficiently tight, ensuring you don’t over-tighten and damage your car.

  6. Final Touches: With the rack securely in place, attach any end caps or covers. These not only provide a finished look but can also reduce wind noise during drives. For added security, consider adding lock cylinders or additional security features if they’re available for your model.

  7. Safety Check: Before heading out, perform a safety check. Ensure the rack is sturdy and doesn’t move when nudged.

While the steps provided are general, always refer to the manufacturer’s official installation guide when setting up your roof rack to ensure a secure fit.

Frequently Asked Questions

Absolutely! Modern roof racks, especially those designed for cars without rails, are versatile. Whether you drive a compact sedan, a spacious SUV, or anything in between, there’s likely a roof rack tailored for your vehicle. However, always consult the manufacturer’s guidelines to ensure compatibility.

Universal roof racks are a boon for many car owners. They’re adaptable, fitting a wide range of vehicles, making them ideal for households with multiple cars. They offer a cost-effective alternative to permanent roof rails, combining easy installation with space-saving designs. When not in use, many can be disassembled and stored, ensuring they don’t become a permanent fixture on your vehicle.

Yes, most kayak mounts, such as J-cradles, saddle mounts, or stackers, require crossbars for attachment. While there are temporary solutions like foam pads or inflatable racks, they don’t support specialized kayak mounts. Instead, kayaks are placed directly on these temporary solutions without the need for additional mounts.

In Conclusion

The importance of a quality kayak rack cannot be overstated. It’s not just about transporting your kayak from point A to point B. It’s about ensuring your kayak’s safety, your vehicle’s protection, and, most importantly, your peace of mind.

So, which kayak rack should you choose? Reflect on your specific needs, preferences, and the nature of your adventures. Are you an occasional kayaker seeking spontaneity without the commitment of a permanent fixture? Or are you a seasoned enthusiast, hitting the waters every chance you get?

The Thule Evo Clamp + WingBar Evo stands out for those seeking a blend of durability, functionality, and aesthetics. On the other hand, if budget constraints are at the forefront, the Malone VersaRail or the Yakima EasyTop offer commendable performance without burning a hole in your pocket. And for those craving innovation and convenience, the HandiRack Universal Inflatable Soft Roof Rack Bars present an intriguing proposition.