LAST UPDATED: May 24, 2019
Best Kayak Carriers: Transport Your Kayaks Anywhere You Want
Take your kayak anywhere you want to have new adventures
The Review Team
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PUBLISHED ON May 24, 2019
Kayaks are quite versatile when in a lake, river, or ocean. They cut through the water with ease and can survive challenging conditions like whitewater rapids with the right design and person at the paddles. Out of the water, however, is a different story. If you want to take your kayak around to different watery locations, you will need the right carrier. A good kayak carrier protects your watercraft and makes it easy to load and unload it quickly. Here's our guide to everything you need to know about finding the best kayak roof racks for your needs.
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Why Buy a Kayak Carrier
- Keep the kayak safe. More than anything else, a good kayak roof rack is all about protection and safety. While many kayaks are durable in their own right, damage can still happen when driving on rough roads or in bad weather conditions. A good carrier secures the kayak to the roof of your car while supporting it with padding to avoid damaging the exterior.
- Explore different locations. The point of taking a kayak with you is to explore different areas. The same old lake or river can get boring after a while. If you fancy a weekend kayaking trip, for example, you are in store for a new adventure provided you have the right means of transportation. Kayak carriers give you this means so you can enjoy the adventure instead of worrying about the kayak itself.
- Carry other watercraft. With the right design, many kayak carriers are more versatile in their compatibility with other watercraft. This means you can carry similar craft like canoes and surfboards with the same hardware, saving you time, money, and headache when trying to carry other toys around.
Types of Kayak Carriers
The most basic design of kayak carrier is the horizontal variety. This design simply sits and holds the kayak on top of the roof, holding it down with straps across the top. Sometimes, a horizontal carrier is nothing more than a few pads that sit above the roof rack to cushion the kayak.
Literally opposite of horizontal kayak carriers is the vertical design. This simply mounts the kayak on its side, saving more space on the roof at the expense of a slightly more complicated loading and unloading process. Like the horizontal design, however, these carriers use a basic set of straps over the top to hold everything together.
J-Style Hook Carriers
When it comes to a good balance of convenience and security, J-hook kayak carriers sit right in between traditional horizontal and vertical designs. Quite often, they hold the kayak at an angle that is more natural when loading and unloading the kayak. More than that, however, the cradle design offers more support and padding for the kayak for better security and protection.
Some watercraft are heavy and difficult to load onto the car roof. This is where a lift-assist carrier comes in handy. This type of carrier includes some kind of feature that takes some of the weight of the kayak off your hands, making it easier to get it on and off of the roof by yourself. There are many different types of assists, from simple bar assists to complicated pulley and strap systems, you can consider to find the right design for yourself.
Top Brands of Kayak Carriers
Based in the Pacific Northwest, Yakima is the brand that is synonymous with roof and hitch accessories to carry any number of cargo and weekend toys. In fact, it offers complete systems of roof racks and hitch carriers that are compatible with a long list of individual mounting accessories that can carry bikes, kayaks, paddle boards, skis, and much more. For carrying watercraft, the company makes an entire line of kayak carriers and cradles, some of which are compatible with other boat types as well. Check out the JayHook for a good idea of the company's build quality.
Noted roof and hitch accessories manufacturer Thule has been making a number of cargo accessories since 1942. The company is particularly well-known for creating heavy-duty, durable carriers that can survive rough operating conditions. In addition to roof racks and hitch carriers, the company's lineup includes a number of accessory amounts, with a focus on bikes and watercraft. The Hull-a-Port Pro is a prime example of Thule’s design approach to kayak racks.
Kayak Carrier Pricing
- $100 and under: There are a lot of budget kayak carriers available on the market. Unfortunately, good quality and construction is never a guarantee. In fact, you are likely to see a wide range of quality and capability. If you want to shop in this range, look for carriers with solid-steel construction and plenty of padding and invest in your own straps and tie-downs.
- $100-$200: This is the range that is more well-known, well-respected kayak carrier manufacturers begin to price their offerings. Near the middle part of this range, you will find several basic, light-duty carriers that are perfect for anyone new to kayak carriers not wanting to spend too much on a set.
- $200 and above: The high-end range of kayak carriers is full of high-quality, versatile cradle designs. There tends to be a healthy mix of kayak-only and multi-boat cradles as well. If you really want the best in terms of protection and security for your kayak, this is definitely the range to focus on when you begin your search for the perfect carrier.
Cradle or Saddle
The design of the point of contact between the carrier and the kayak is important in terms of overall protection. Since kayaks can be awkward in length and design, the style of the cradles or saddles, along with the distance between the two using the cross rails of the car rack, influence how the kayak is supported in different driving conditions. Aluminum and steel designs with plenty of padding are preferable.
The padding on a kayak carrier is important for keeping the surface of the kayak protected in transport. Typically, a carrier will have padding around the bottom of the kayak, separating it from the cradle or saddle. Thicker padding, like foam blocks, offers more protection, but the added bulk can make it difficult to fold (if available) and store the cradle when not in use. Additional padding, like around buckle protectors or the factory crossbars/mounting bolts, can also help
Kayaks can start to move around on the carrier without the proper securing support. Basic straps and tie-downs are typically all that's needed to fasten down different points on the kayak to the vehicle or rack. Some kayak carriers come with included or built-in straps, while others have the carrier by itself so you can choose your own securing support to use in conjunction with the kayak’s aft and stern tie-downs.
- Number of Kayaks: Kayaks take up roof space. Their size and mounted position both determine how many you can actually carry. If you have more than one kayak you want to transport, it's important to think ahead about the right carrier style. Vertical and J-hook carriers, for example, tend to offer the most space-saving setup.
- Roof Rails: Unless you are using the bare top of your car, any kayak carrier you consider needs to be compatible with the roof racks and crossbars on top of your vehicle. The size of the crossbars combined with the mounting accessories that come (or are available) with the kayak carrier will influence the compatibility of the carrier with the racks. Aftermarket crossbars give you the most options to choose over typical factory racks.
Best Kayak Carriers Reviews & Recommendations 2020
The Yakima Jaylow is a traditional J-cradle kayak carrier that comes with two cradles and the necessary mounting hardware. The design makes it very simple to use, requiring you to lift the kayak up and over on its side into the hooks. Straps that attach around the middle and ends hook to the car to stabilize everything during transport.
The best thing about the design is its compatibility with many different sizes and styles of the kayak. Depending on the roof rack system, they can also be adjusted to different spacings for longer kayaks. The hooks also do a good job of protecting the kayak from damage using padding around key areas. When not in use or for storage, half of the hook folds down to minimize its profile.
There are a few drawbacks this carrier experiences that are common with most kayak carrier models. First and foremost, you will likely hear a whistling noise coming from the hooks while cruising at highway speeds. The noise varies in volume and pitch depending on the speed and wind. Second, the carrier lacks security locks to keep them in place, which must be purchased separately.
The real attractive feature of the TMS J-Bar Rack, beyond its price tag, is the fact that it comes as a set of two pairs of cradles. While most competitors offer just a single pair, you get enough to carry two kayaks for the price of one or less. Beyond that, these kayak cradles are similar to most other carrier options available, featuring a J-hook style design with included straps and mounting hardware.
Unlike many higher-end kayak carriers, however, this one is designed to be more universal in use. This means you can fit more than just traditional kayaks into the cradles. With the right security (in the form of straps and tie-downs), you can carry other types of watercraft, like canoes, surfboards, and smaller paddle boards.
Unfortunately, there are a few trade-offs to get two pairs of cradles for a small price. Assembly, for example, is more complicated compared to higher-end carriers with higher-quality mounting hardware. The design of the cradles also leaves a bit to be desired since they don't fall down and are difficult to store when you aren't using them for long periods of time. Finally, the included straps are on the cheap side in terms of quality.
The main problem with many kayak carriers is the fact that they could damage the kayak during transport if not properly padded. Seeing this, the folks at Handirack took a different approach in the overall design of the Inflatable Rack. As an inflatable set of roof racks, this functions as a general cargo carrier with many design perks that make hauling kayaks easier.
First and foremost, the increased protection and safety the inflatable design offers can't be understated. Without any hard edges coming in contact with the kayak, there isn't much that can scratch or dent the exterior. The bars also give some cushion support to the kayak when traveling on bumpy roads or in bad weather conditions. Finally, the bars span the entire width of the roof, meaning you have extra room to use compared to the traditional J-hook kayak cradle.
On the other hand, this isn't a dedicated kayak carrier set. With the design, you lose out on the convenience a true J-hook cradle offers when it comes to loading and unloading a single kayak. The installation is also a bit more complicated since you have to actually inflate the bars before you can load them on and use them. Finally, there is no extra security for the rack itself, so theft is an increased possibility compared to kayak carriers with built-in locks.
This kayak roof rack kit uses a sturdy four-point gunwale support system. The supports are constructed from polycarbonate to give them strength and stability. The deck area of each support is padded to protect your kayak. There's also padding on the bottom to protect your rails. The kit comes with a 12-foot bow and stern buckled tie-down straps to secure the kayak to your vehicle.
What’s nice about this kit is that you can attach the universal platforms to almost any cross rail system you have on your vehicle. You’ll find these supports easy to install and uninstall. The supports are corrosion- and UV-resistant, so they’re safe to leave on your vehicle.
The downside of this kit is that you need to have car rails installed on the roof of your car. If you don’t have these, you’ll need to buy and install these first. You’ll need to be careful tightening the bolts down. If you make them too tight, you risk cracking the plastic.
These steel racks come with adjustable padding to create the perfect support system for your kayak. The rack measures 17.5 inches long x 12.5 inches wide x 6.5 inches high. The carrier comes with two J racks and two tie-down straps. This carrier can accommodate kayaks that are up to 36 inches wide and weigh up to 75 pounds.
You’ll like using this rack system because it has an open J design that makes loading and unloading your kayak easier. It also has easy-to-use hardware that makes installing and removing your rack quick and easy.
Unfortunately, the bolt included in this rack can be too long. The bolt head can drop through the rack mount; this causes them to move around. Installing the carrier system is also a pain. Each individual piece is vacuum-wrapped, which means it takes forever to unwrap everything.
This J-style kayak carrier comes with two supports, two tie-down straps, and all of the required support hardware. The mounting system included with this carrier will fit round, square, and most factory oval roof rails.
What makes this carrier stand out is the additional boarding ramp that makes positioning your kayak into the carrier easier. They also have extra padding to protect your kayak during transport. The J rack also folds down, which creates additional clearance and reduces the need to continually install and remove the carrier.
Unfortunately, the mounting and folding mechanisms aren’t very durable. They can break during normal use. The rubber lining on the mounting bracket can come loose, which can cause the J rack to move about.
This universal kayak is compatible with most factory roof rails. The hull cradles are designed to fit the bottom of your kayak. The rear cradles are covered in felt and spring loaded to make it easier to load and unload your kayak. The kit comes with two rear cradles, two front cradles, two tie-down straps, and two rapid straps with buckle protectors.
What’s nice about this carrier is the extra large neoprene contact surface on the front cradles. They measure 2.95 inches x 7.87 inches. This carrier is durable thanks to the stainless steel hardware, corrosion resistance, mold resistance, and UV protection.
Unfortunately, this carrier system isn’t compatible with round roof rails. The hex key tool isn’t high-quality and will start to wear by rounding down on the edges. This carrier won’t work well if you have a wide kayak.
This J-style kayak carrier can accommodate kayaks that are up to 42 inches wide and up to 158 pounds. You can mount it on round, oval, and square roof rails. There are two included heavy-duty tie-down straps with a break strength of 750 pounds. It has a quick rise and fold-down design to give you increased overhead clearance.
What makes this carrier stand out is its high-quality construction and durable build. It’s made from anodized aviation-grade aluminum alloy. This makes the carrier lightweight, corrosion-resistant, waterproof, and rustproof. This carrier also lets you carry two kayaks, canoes, or SUPs on one rack.
The downside of this carrier is that the instructions are confusing and missing key steps. The bolts are also very long, which can make them incompatible with your roof rack.
This J-style universal car kit comes with two mounts and two tie-down straps. Each rack is E-coated steel to prevent corrosion. It comes with JAWZ universal mounting hardware so that it’ll fit factory rails that are round, oval, or square. There are two 12-foot cam buckle tie-down straps for the bow and stern.
What’s nice about this carrier is the level of protection for your kayak. The J-style mount has foam wrapped around the upper and lower bars. The base has a supportive solid block for your kayak to sit on. The lower side of the J mount has a “boarding style” of slant to make loading and unloading your kayak easier.
Unfortunately, the universal mounting hardware doesn’t fit all factory roof rails. High winds can cause the J mount to flex or bend. This will cause the carrier to shake and wobble.
This kayak carrier system is quick and easy to use with two foam blocks and two tie-down straps. You’ll also get 15 feet of polypropylene rope for securing the bow and stern to your car. The blocks measure 15 ¾ inches long x 3 inches wide x 4 inches high.
What’s nice about this temporary carrier system is that it doesn’t require any tools to use. You also don’t need any roof rails. The blocks have slits in them, so if you do have roof rails, you can wrap them around the rails.
The downside of this carrier system is that without roof rails, the blocks can slide around and move while you’re trying to load your kayak onto them. The bow and stern cord is more of a bungee material, which can stretch and allow your kayak to bounce and shake while driving.
- Loading a kayak onto the roof of a car is easier to do with multiple people. Have a friend help lift the kayak and tie everything down.
- Ratchet straps make securing a kayak easy since you don't have to tie knots. Make sure, however, the strap has enough padding to avoid scratching the kayak.
- Use kayak rollers as a cost-effective lift assist. These help you roll the kayak from the front or back of the vehicle.
Q. What is the best type of kayak carrier?
A. J-hooks offers a good compromise between space and security, but any type can do a good job depending on your needs.
Q. Do I need a load-assist rack?
A. Not necessarily. Lift assists make it easier to load a kayak onto the carrier, but it's possible to get the job done without one. A multi-person lift makes it easy to get the job done.
Q. Are there any alternatives to a roof rack kayak carrier?
A. Roof-mounted pads are a typical alternative to kayak carriers. These sit on the top of the roof to separate the kayak from the vehicle.
Our pick for the best kayak carrier available is the Yakima Jaylow. Coming from a respected brand, this J-hook carrier offers a good blend of convenience and protection.
Offering a full set of paired cradles and a good value price, our top budget pick is the TMS J-Bar Rack.