How to Tie Down and Transport a Kayak on a Roof Rack

kayak transport

While kayaks are fun to paddle, their large size makes transportation a challenge. Therefore, knowing how to tie down and transport a kayak on a roof rack is essential.

If you’re concerned about safely transporting your kayak to and from launch, worry not—we’ve got you covered. Up next, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know.

How to Carry a Kayak

Carrying a kayak in a way that’s safe for you and your gear is a vital skill that all paddlers ought to know. While moving a boat might seem pretty straightforward, some general rules of kayak transport are worth bearing in mind.

Unless your boat is cumbersome, many paddlers find that they can carry their kayak by themselves. Here’s how it works:

  1. With your kayak on the ground and the cockpit facing the sky, stand on one side of your boat.
  2. Squat down next to the cockpit of your kayak.
  3. Using both hands, grab the side of the cockpit that’s closest to you.
  4. While gripping the edge of the cockpit, stand up slightly and lift the kayak off the ground so that the hull is resting on your thighs.
  5. As your kayak’s hull is resting on your thighs, stabilize the side of the cockpit that’s closest to you with one hand. Then, use the other hand to grab the other side of the cockpit. 
  6. Using the hand that’s furthest from your body, pull the far side of the boat toward you until it is resting on your shoulder. 
  7. If you haven’t already, stand up completely and take a minute to ensure that your kayak is well-balanced on your shoulder.
  8. Once you feel comfortable, you can start walking with your boat toward your destination.

Warning: Kayaks are heavy, so do not attempt to lift or carry one by yourself if you have a history of back pain or another similar condition. If you are concerned about your ability to lift a kayak safely on your own, please consult a physician before doing so. As with any lifting motion, carrying a kayak requires proper lifting technique, including lifting with your legs, not your back.

Carrying a Kayak With Help

The two-person carry is generally the easiest and most convenient method of carrying a kayak. To carry a kayak efficiently with a partner, do the following:

  1. Place your kayak on the ground with the cockpit facing the sky.
  2. With one person at the bow and one person at the stern, squat down to the ground.
  3. Each paddler should grab their end of the boat. If you have an empty, unloaded kayak, it’s okay to grab the boat using the carry handles. However, for a kayak loaded with gear, do not lift your boat using the carry handles. Doing so can snap the handles and damage your kayak. Instead, with a loaded kayak, wrap your arm around the hull of the bow or stern and lift.
  4. Verbally or visually confirm with your partner that you are ready to lift your kayak. Clarify which way you want to walk and where you will place your kayak back on the ground. 
  5. Using your legs—not your back—stand upright and lift the kayak off the ground.
  6. Start walking toward your destination. The person at the front of the kayak should also notify the person at the back of the kayak of any potential tripping hazards while you walk, as they may not be able to see underneath the boat.
  7. When you arrive at your destination, confirm with your partner that you are ready to place your kayak back on the ground.
  8. Lower your kayak to the ground by bending your legs. Take care not to place your kayak on any sharp or jagged objects that could damage the hull.

We should also mention that some people like to carry two kayaks when transporting with a partner. This is a common technique, but please do so with caution. When doing this, it’s challenging for the person at the rear of the kayaks to see the ground in front of them, so clear communication is key.

How to Load a Kayak on a Roof Rack

Whether you’re new to kayaking or you’re a seasoned paddler, putting a kayak on a roof rack can be tricky. Therefore, knowing how to load a kayak onto your vehicle is a skill that’s worth developing before your next trip. 

What You’ll Need

Putting a kayak on a vehicle and preparing it for safe transportation requires having a few essential pieces of gear. These include:

  • Roof Racks & Crossbars Properly transporting a kayak on the roof of your vehicle involves having a suitable set of roof racks and crossbars. Most crossbars and cars are strong enough to hold a kayak but check the maximum dynamic load rating of your vehicle and rack before getting started.
  • Kayak-Specific Rack or Foam Pads – In addition to the actual roof rack and crossbars on your vehicle, you’ll also need a place to mount your kayak. For some paddlers, a set of foam pads will do. However, others prefer to invest in a set of J or V-shaped racks that cradle your kayak.
  • Kayak Lashing Straps – Kayak lashing straps are a must for boat transport. We’ll dive into the details of whether rope is a suitable replacement for tying down your kayak in a bit, but purpose-built kayak straps are ideal.
  • Static Rope/Cord – Having rope or cord on hand to tie down your kayak’s bow and stern can help. This is particularly useful when you’re heading out on a long road trip. Any low-stretch cord that’s smaller than about 8mm in diameter will work.
  • Kayak Cover A kayak cover is an optional accessory, but it’s a solid choice if you’re traveling a long distance. Quality covers will keep the inside of your kayak dry and free of debris during your travels.

Loading a Kayak by Yourself

Now that you have all the gear you need to load your kayak, it’s time to talk about the kayak loading process. 

While most folks prefer to get help from a friend when loading a kayak onto their vehicle, you may have to do so independently. So, having a good idea of how this works is very helpful.

The easiest way to load a kayak by yourself is as follows:

  1. Place your boat behind your car with the bow of the kayak facing the trunk of your vehicle.
  2. Pick up the bow of your kayak and place it on the rear part of your vehicle’s roof. If you are concerned about scratching your car or your kayak, consider placing a towel or blanket on your vehicle during the loading process for extra padding.
  3. Lift the stern of your kayak off the ground.
  4. Push your kayak forward and into place onto your vehicle’s roof rack.

Warning: Loading a kayak on your own can be difficult. If you do not feel comfortable lifting a heavy object above your head on your own, please do not attempt to load a kayak by yourself.

Loading a Kayak With Help

If you have the luxury of a second set of hands when loading your kayak, take advantage of your good fortune. It’s substantially easier to load a kayak with two people than on your own. So, this is the preferred loading method for the majority of paddlers.

To load a kayak with two people, do the following:

  1. Place your kayak on the ground on one side of your vehicle so that your boat is parallel to your car.
  2. Have one person stand at each end of the kayak.
  3. Confirm that you and your partner are both ready to lift your kayak.
  4. Each person should grab the hull of their end of the kayak and lift it with their legs to bring it up to torso height.
  5. Check-in with your partner to ensure that you’re ready to lift your kayak onto the roof of your car.
  6. Lift the kayak overhead and place it down in position on your roof rack.

When loading a kayak with a partner, communication is critical. Be sure that everyone is in complete control of your kayak at all times so that you don’t accidentally drop it, damage your car, or hurt yourself in the process.

Loading Multiple Kayaks

If you’re looking to transport multiple kayaks at once, you have several options for loading them onto your roof rack. However, not all of these options will work for every vehicle, roof rack, and type of kayak, so it’s important that you find an appropriate solution for your situation.

The simplest option for sea kayaks and recreational kayaks is to invest in two sets of J-shaped kayak roof racks. These J-shaped racks place your boats mostly on their sides so that you have enough room to transport two kayaks at once.

Alternatively, people looking to transport small recreational kayaks or whitewater kayaks can use a type of high-capacity roof rack called a stacker bar. These bars are designed to store your kayaks directly on their sides, maximizing the amount of space on your roof rack and allowing you to transport up to four kayaks at once.

Once you find a solution that works for you, the actual loading process of getting the kayaks on your car isn’t any different from loading a single kayak. Do remember, though, that you’ll need a separate set of straps for tying down each kayak on your roof.

How to Tie Down a Kayak On a Roof Rack

As soon as your kayak is on your car, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to strap it to your vehicle. 

While we can’t speak to the specifics of every single roof rack system on the market, most kayaks can be tied down using the same guiding principles. So, here’s a quick run-through of how to tie down a kayak onto a standard roof rack using kayak straps:

  1. Ensure that your kayak is well-balanced on your vehicle. Your kayak should be able to sit comfortably on your car without sliding in any direction.
  2. Pass the buckle end of your kayak ratchet strap over your boat and position it so that it rests on the side just a few inches away from your crossbar.
  3. Throw the other end of your kayak straps (not the part with the metal buckle) over your kayak, and then walk around to the other side of your car.
  4. Thread the kayak strap under the crossbar.
  5. Throw the kayak strap back over your kayak and walk around to the other side of your car.
  6. Thread the kayak strap under the crossbar.
  7. Insert the strap through the metal camming device. Pull down on the strap to cinch the kayak into place. Tighten the straps until your kayak is snug but take care not to over tighten, which can damage your kayak.
  8. Repeat steps 1–7 for the other crossbar on your roof rack.
  9. Test the integrity of your steps by attempting to wiggle your kayak from side to side and from front to back.
  10. If your kayak is secure, wrap any excess strap webbing around the nearest crossbar and tie it off in a knot to stop it from flapping around in the wind.

In addition to using kayak straps to tie down your boat, we also highly recommend that you use rope to secure the bow and stern of your kayak to your vehicle.

Doing so involves looping your rope around a secure point at the front and back of your vehicle, such as a metal tow hook. Once the rope is attached to a secure point on your car, you can thread it through the carry handle of your kayak. 

Tighten the line back onto itself using a trucker’s hitch or a similar knot until it is reasonably snug (don’t overtighten). Tie off any excess line.

Straps vs. Ropes

When transporting kayaks, proper kayak lashing straps with a built-in camming device are considered the gold standard. These ratchet straps make tying down your kayak as straightforward as possible, and they are reliable enough for use on long road trips.

But kayak straps can be somewhat pricey, so many folks wonder if they can use rope instead.

While we’re not going to say that you should never use rope for tying down your kayak, we would highly discourage you from doing so whenever possible. 

It is much harder to securely attach a kayak to a vehicle when using regular rope than it is with ratchet straps. The comparatively thin diameter of rope is also more likely to damage your kayak on longer drives. Plus, kayak straps are much easier to use, so they’ll save you time in the long run.

There is one situation where ropes are helpful, though: when tying down the bow and stern of your kayak. For this purpose, some moderately thick rope (less than 8mm in diameter) is perfect.