How to Load and Tie Down a Kayak on a Roof Rack by Yourself

Learn how to strap a kayak to a roof rack by yourself and prevent costly mishaps in our step-by-step guide.

How to tie down a kayak

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Did you know most kayak damage happens during transport? It’s an ironic and unfortunate truth that your kayak is most vulnerable when it’s out of the water. This makes learning how to tie down a kayak an essential skill for every kayaker.

This article will guide you step-by-step through the process of securing your kayak to a roof rack, ensuring that it stays safe and undamaged.

What You’ll Need to Tie Down Your Kayak

Before we delve into the step-by-step guide, let’s make sure you have all the necessary equipment:

  • Crossbars: These are horizontal bars that go across your vehicle’s roof. Crossbars attach to the factory-installed rails that run from the front to the back of your car. If your vehicle doesn’t have factory-installed rails, you can find suitable options in our guide to the best kayak racks for cars without rails.

  • Kayak Carrier or Padding: When it comes to choosing a kayak carrier, there are several options available, and the right one for you depends on a couple factors, such as the number of kayaks you intend to transport and your desired level of convenience. Foam blocks or crossbar pads are cost-effective and provide a secure, cushioned surface for your kayak. However, for multiple kayaks or more frequent transportation, a dedicated kayak carrier, such as J-cradles or saddle-style mounts, might be more suitable.

  • Cam Straps: It’s crucial to avoid ratchet straps, as they can exert excessive pressure and potentially damage your kayak. Instead, opt for cam buckle straps, which provide the right amount of tension without risking damage. Get straps that are at least 12 feet long, as this extra length makes it easier to swing the entire strap over the kayak when tying it down.

  • Bow and Stern Lines: These lines secure your kayak’s front (bow) and rear (stern), preventing wind from lifting it while driving. While non-stretch, water-resistant rope is suitable, ratcheting lines can make the job quicker and easier.

  • Hood Loops: If your vehicle lacks a suitable attachment point for the bow and stern lines, hood loops are an excellent alternative. They can be easily installed and provide a secure tie-down point.

  • Protective Cushion: A gear bag, bath mat, towel, or blanket can act as a protective barrier when loading your kayak onto a roof rack. Additionally, they can cushion your kayak when it’s placed on the ground.

Video: How to Tie Down a Kayak on a Roof Rack

For those who prefer a visual guide to understand the process better, I recommend watching this video by Dan from Headwaters Kayak. He uses a truck in this demonstration, but the same technique applies to other vehicles. Just remember to use a protective cushion when loading a kayak onto a car!

Preparing Your Vehicle and Kayak for Transport

Now that you have all the necessary equipment, it’s time to prepare your vehicle and kayak for transport.

  • Ensure Proper Roof Rack Installation: Double-check that your roof rack and kayak carrier or padding are securely attached to your vehicle. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, making sure all bolts, screws, and straps are tightened.

  • Set Up the Straps on the Roof Rack Before Loading Your Kayak: Thread each strap underneath and around each crossbar (or through the upper U-shape of each J-cradle, if using). Even out each end of the straps, and set them down on the vehicle’s front and back, respectively, being careful with the metal buckle to avoid scratching your car.

  • Check For Loose Items on Your Kayak: Ensure there are no loose items or attachments that could fall off during transport. Remove any gear and accessories from your kayak and store them securely in your vehicle. If you have a detachable kayak chair, it’s advisable to take it off.

  • Use a Cockpit Cover for Sit-Inside Kayaks: A cockpit cover prevents water, debris, or insects from entering the kayak during transport and helps reduce wind resistance, making your drive more fuel-efficient.

Loading Your Kayak Onto the Roof Rack

With your kayak and vehicle prepared, it’s time to load your kayak onto the roof rack.

Loading a Kayak With Help

If you have assistance, the process becomes significantly easier:

  1. Position your kayak parallel to your vehicle with the bow at the front of the car.

  2. Grab the kayak at each end by the hull (not the grab handles) and lift the boat overhead, remembering to lift with your legs, not your back.

  3. Carefully place the kayak onto the roof rack or padding, adjusting the position as needed.

Loading a Kayak Onto Crossbars by Yourself

If you’re alone, the process is a bit more challenging but still doable:

  1. Place a towel or blanket on the rear of your vehicle to prevent scratches.

  2. Lift the bow of the kayak and set it down on the towel or blanket at the back of your car.

  3. Lift up the stern and carefully slide the kayak onto the roof rack.

Loading a Kayak Onto J-Cradles by Yourself

Depending on your car and kayak size, loading a kayak onto J-cradles can be a bit tricky:

  1. Align your kayak parallel to your vehicle, ensuring the bow is near the first J-cradle.

  2. Position yourself at the front of the kayak, lift the bow, and carefully place it onto the J-cradle at the front of your vehicle.

  3. Move around to the stern of your kayak and lift it while keeping your kayak sat on the first J-cradle.

  4. Gently slide the kayak up and forward until the rear of the kayak can be placed onto the other J-cradle.

  5. Make sure the kayak is on its side with the cockpit facing outwards.

Once your kayak is on the roof rack, it’s important to ensure it’s centered. The cockpit serves as a good reference point for centering. Aim to have the cockpit aligned with the middle of the two crossbars. If you have a sit-on-top kayak, the side carry handles indicate the center of the kayak.

If you frequently transport your kayak alone and struggle with loading, consider investing in a rack with an integrated lift system or rolling wheels. Lift systems typically slide down to the side of your vehicle, reducing the need to lift your kayak so high. Rolling wheels allow you to position the bow of the kayak in a cradle on the back of your car, and then roll the kayak into place. Both options have their merits and can make solo loading significantly easier.

Securing the Kayak with Cam Straps

With your kayak properly loaded onto the roof rack, it’s time to secure it using cam straps.

  1. Lift the strap you laid on the front of your vehicle over the top of the kayak and down the side of the car, ensuring it hasn’t crossed over itself.

  2. Adjust the strap so the buckle rests against the hull of the kayak towards the top.

  3. Add a couple of twists to the buckle-free end of the strap to prevent it from vibrating and making noise as you drive.

  4. Loop the end of the strap back underneath the crossbar, making sure it’s inside where the crossbar attaches to the vehicle.

  5. Thread the end of the strap up through the cam buckle and pull down the strap tight, but be careful not to overtighten. The kayak should be snug and secure but not crushed by the strap.

  6. Repeat these steps with the other strap at the back of your vehicle.

  7. Push on the kayak. If the boat moves independently of the car, tighten the straps more and test again.

  8. Wrap the loose end of the straps around the crossbar and tie them off, or fold them up and tuck them somewhere secure.

Tying Down the Bow and Stern

Securing the bow and stern of your kayak is a crucial step in the transportation process. These lines prevent the kayak from lifting due to wind. For this, we will be using the trucker’s hitch. However, ratchet bow and stern lines are available for a more straightforward tie-down.

For those who don’t have ratchet lines, here’s a video guide on how to perform the trucker’s hitch:

  1. Attach the hook end of the bow line to a secure point on your vehicle. If your car doesn’t have secure points on the frame, bumper, hitch, or tow loop, you can install hood loop straps to create attachment points. Remember, never attach the stern and bow lines to plastic parts on your vehicle as they’re not strong enough to hold the kayak in place, especially at high speeds or in windy conditions.

  2. Loop the end of the line through an attachment point on the front of the kayak. Most kayaks have a carry handle or a specific attachment point at the bow and stern.

  3. Pull the line back down and pass it back through the hook attached to your anchor point.

  4. Now, we will be using the trucker’s hitch. Start by making a loop in the middle of the line that runs from the kayak to your anchor point.

  5. Put your fingers through this loop, grab the bottom rope, and pull it back through to create a tight loop. This will act as a pulley.

  6. Now thread the end of the rope through the loop you’ve just created.

  7. Pull the end of the rope down to secure the kayak. Remember, the bow line is not for pulling a lot of pressure down, but for keeping the kayak from lifting up while driving.

  8. Finish by tying a couple of half hitches to secure the rope and tie off the loose end.

  9. Repeat these steps with the stern line.

Driving Safely with Your Kayak

With your kayak securely tied down, it’s time to focus on driving safely.

  • Hang a Red Caution Flag or Light: If your kayak overhangs the rear of your vehicle, it’s a good idea, and sometimes legally required, to attach a red caution flag to the end of the kayak during the day or a red light at night. This will make your kayak visible to other drivers and help prevent accidents.

  • Check All Straps and Secure Points Before Driving: Double-check all straps and secure points to ensure everything is tight and in place. A quick check can prevent many problems down the road.

  • Stop and Check the Straps Again: Even if everything seems secure, it’s advisable to stop after the first 15-20 minutes of driving to recheck the straps and lines. The vibrations and movements of the vehicle can sometimes cause straps to loosen, and it’s better to catch any issues early on.

  • Adjust Your Driving Speed and Style: Remember, you have added height and weight to your vehicle, so you must adjust your driving speed and style accordingly. Avoid sudden stops or sharp turns, and give yourself ample time to brake. Also, be aware of the added height when going under bridges or through tunnels.

Frequently Asked Questions

It’s not recommended to put a kayak directly on the roof rack without any padding or a carrier. The hard surface of the roof rack can damage the hull of your kayak, and it may not be as secure as when using a carrier or padding.

Whether you need to tie down the bow and stern of the kayak depends on the size of your kayak and how much it overhangs your car. But it’s generally advisable to tie down the bow at least, and preferably the stern too.

Avoid using ratchet straps as they can exert too much pressure and potentially damage your kayak. Opt for cam buckle straps, which provide the right amount of tension without risking damage to your kayak.

To tie down multiple kayaks, you’ll need additional carriers or padding and straps. Follow the same steps as outlined above for each kayak. Make sure each kayak is centered on the roof rack and securely tied down with cam straps and bow and stern lines.

In Conclusion

Taking the time to tie down your kayak correctly can save you from costly repairs or replacements. Always use cam straps, not ratchet straps, to avoid over-tightening and damaging your kayak. Additionally, tie down the bow and stern to prevent the kayak from lifting in the wind. Lastly, double-check all straps and secure points before and during your journey to ensure everything stays in place. Following these guidelines will help you transport your kayak safely and stress-free.