When it comes to kayaking and other water sports, the act of paddling across a lake or down a river is only half the battle. Just as important is being able to safely transport equipment from your home to a water source or campsite miles away. For cars and SUVs, the most elegant way is to strap the kayak to the roof of your vehicle.
For that purpose, you’ll want a specialized rack or pads to give the boat a stable mounting surface while saving the car from potential scuffs and scratches. Popular Mechanics has selected an array of these products, suiting a range of functional needs and budgets.
What to Consider
The first thing to think about when looking for a kayak carrier is your current roof setup. Many hard-mounted solutions require the installation of a standard “crossbar” roof rack, along with ratchet-style tow straps. Softer fabric or foam pads often attach directly to the roof, but don’t offer as tight of a grip on cargo.
Racks, carriers, and roof rails are also rated for varying levels of cargo capacity. You’ll want to be sure that a preferred carrier can handle the weight of your kayak. While the vehicle should be able to haul the total weight of kayak, carrier grips, and any crossbar racks installed.
How We Selected
Popular Mechanics uses a combination of firsthand experience with these products, and review data gathered from publications like AutoWeek, Trucks.com, and Outside. Item prices are also taken into account to create a selection which may satisfy both lower and higher budgets.
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Orion Soft Pad Rack
Orion Motor Tech amazon.com
This Orion product makes for cheap alternative to a crossbar rack and provides its own cushioning. Straps are fully integrated, with a lower band on each pad looping under the vehicle’s roof, and a top one hugging the midsection of the kayak. You may want to purchase a couple additional straps for the front and rear tips of the boat, depending on size.
Both pads are 33.5 inches wide, and rated for 165 pounds of distributed weight. The carrier features nylon outer layers that protect vehicle paint from scratches, while polyethylene foam cores softly cradle the cargo.
No roof rack needed
Larger kayaks may need extra straps
Yakima Aero Pads
For those that already own crossbar racks, these Yakima pads can be Velcroed over the top to provide a little extra grip and cushioning. Two pads are all that are included in the pack, so ratchet straps will have to be purchased separately.
Sets come in either a 20- or 30-inch width. Since they’re mostly fabric, weight capacity should match whatever the installed crossbar can hold. An advantage to this setup is that it can easily carry cargo like surf or paddle boards without modification. If you plan on hauling a kayak over long distances, though, you’ll probably want the extra security of hard-mounted options.
Good for varied cargo
Simple to use
No strap included
Not as stable as hard mounting
The J-bar is one of the most popular kayak carrier varieties out there, because the shape offers inexpensive strength and security. Two of these mounts are included in the TMS set, which bolt on top of roof crossbars. The kayak is then lashed into the carriers tilted at a 45-degree angle using two included straps.
This method of storage allows room for two additional J-bars and a second kayak, provided the roof is large and strong enough. Each set supports a boat up to 75 pounds and 36 inches wide. The bars themselves are hollow steel with some foam padding added for hull protection.
Add another set for two kayaks
Sturdy steel construction
Relatively low weight capacity
AA Racks Folding J-Bar
These are J-bars very similar to the TMS set, and feature all the same advantages, but with a couple things extra. The most obvious is the folding mechanism, which allows the bar to accommodate wider kayaks, and also lets it collapse completely flat when not in use. In the folded position, drivers can easily store the carriers, or just leave them on the roof without worrying about height clearance issues.
Each set of two J-bars can also hold a hefty 150 pounds, with up to 40 inches of width. The assembly is mostly steel with grips made from rubber and foam. Two ratchet straps are also included.
BougeRV Bilateral J-Cradle
This bilateral carrier is basically two J-bars combined into one, providing the most convenient way to haul a couple kayaks at the same time. The product is fully adjustable, with each of the two carriers coming with three hinge points. The side grips can be positioned closer to center for secure grip, while the upright bar can be set at an angle for kayaks of two different sizes. It also folds completely flat for low profile driving.
The assembly’s stainless steel frame and rubber grips hold a combined weight of 150 pounds, supporting kayaks up to 40 inches. Straps are not included with the set.
Two carriers in one
Adjustable and folds flat
Straps sold separately
HandiRack Inflatable Carrier
The HandiRack acts as a temporary crossbar and cushioned pad in one. The set’s nylon outer layers hold inflatable rubber chamber, which are easily blown up with the included hand pump. When not in use, they can be deflated to lie flat, or be balled up and tossed into the trunk. The cushions are fixed to the roof by lashing through the interior, while the kayak is secured front, rear, and center with the set’s four ratchet straps.
The HandiRack supports cargo up to 38 inches wide, with an exceptional load capacity of 175 pounds. One caveat with this system is that the cushion may become over-inflated while sitting in the hot sun, so you’ll want to let out some air as the temperature rises.
Easy setup and removal
Huge weight limit
Four straps included
AA Racks Steel Jetty
The Jetty set is made up of four individual grips, which give a crossbar great stability while hauling one kayak, and can easily be adjusted for a particular width. The bottom of each saddle features a clamp which bolts to the roof rack, and the top is a rubber pad with a hinge for angle adjustment. Two ratchet straps are included in the pack.
Weight capacity is at 100 pounds, with about as many width adjustments as the installed roof rack can physically allow.
Four contact points
Lots of adjustability
The SeaWing’s bow-like design cradles a kayak gently, with a body made from flexible polycarbonate and rubber. Two straps are built right into the assembly, saving the headache of them getting tangled up or lost. An additional two bungee cords also come with the set to better secure bow and stern. The bottom of each wing mounts to a crossbar using four small screws.
Max weight load, however, is a low 70 pounds, with about 35 inches of cargo width. The carrier itself is also quite wide, so smaller vehicles may only be able to mount one set without clearance issues. The tradeoff for this width is that the unloaded carrier is practically flat, with no need to mess with folding mechanisms.
Holds cargo firmly but gently
Handy integrated straps
Always low profile
Low weight capacity
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