Kayak Rack Systems – Which One Is Right For You?

Unless yours is an inflatable kayak, then you must have a transport option for your boat. Many kayakers use a kayak rack system, which they mount to the top of their vehicle to take their kayaks to and fro. How do you choose the right kayak rack system?

When shopping for a kayak rack system, you should consider the type of vehicle you have and then select a rack type that’s easily mounted to that vehicle’s make and model. Options include vertical, horizontal, and J-style kayak racks. 

This guide to kayak rack systems will tell you everything you need to know. First, we’ll explain the various types of kayak rack systems in detail. Then we’ll delve into pointers for choosing one. We’ll even tell you how to mount a kayak rack system, so keep reading! 

The Types of Kayak Racks

You have several kayak rack types that are available in different styles and price points to suit any vehicle and budget. The types we’ll cover in this section include the vertical, J-style, and horizontal kayak racks.

Vertical Kayak Racks

A vertical kayak rack is also referred to as a kayak post. As you might have guessed, this type of kayak rack stores your boat vertically on your vehicle. The benefit of doing so is that you get more carrying capacity out of the rack. 

Vertical kayak racks use on/off hardware that makes installation simple. When you want to detach your kayak rack, that’s also very easy to do. Even better is that a vertical kayak rack doesn’t require adjustments. 

Although it varies by model, vertical kayak racks can usually carry up to four boats, so be sure to load your friends in the car and adventure together! 

J-Style Kayak Racks

The J-style kayak rack is known as the J-cradle. Of all the types of kayak racks, this might be the most popular, and for very good reason. J-style kayak racks can fold down so they don’t hog up valuable room on your vehicle when you’re not using them. 

The 45-degree angle of installation that a J-style kayak rack utilizes allows for the crossbars to have greater carrying capacity than they would if they were oriented at a different angle. You can even bring other boats on a J-style kayak rack.

When mounting your boat to the rack, you have the option of doing so from the rear of your vehicle or the side, whichever is more convenient for you. Then you can lock the kayak rack so it’s safer from thieves.

Horizontal Kayak Racks

The third style of kayak rack is the horizontal rack. To use this rack, you place your boat bottom-down on the rack. The sizable surface area of a horizontal kayak rack makes this style much sought-after among kayakers. 

Using a horizontal kayak rack is simple due to how you place the boat on the rack. When the time comes to unload your boat, you also shouldn’t struggle. Some horizontal kayak racks even have assisting features to guide you as you mount your kayak on the roof of your vehicle. 

If the roof or your vehicle is rather wide, then you can bring several kayaks at once with a horizontal rack. For smaller vehicles such as cars, you might be limited to transporting only one or two kayaks at a time. 

The wind resistance of a horizontal kayak rack is another major selling point. The position of this rack takes advantage of your kayak’s aerodynamics so your fuel consumption during transport is less. 

Kayak Rack Accessories

Outside of the kayak rack system style, you might also consider a series of accessories to make loading and unloading easier as well to prevent your car from getting scratched or dinged up when you transport your kayak. Here’s what you need to know. 

Lift Assistance Options

If you’re struggling to load your kayak atop an SUV or truck, you don’t have to anymore. You can always use lift assistance tools to get your boat up there. 

A lift pole is one such option. This simple means of assistance lets you raise your boat over your head with more ease.

You can also try a roller system mounted to the roof of your vehicle. The roller lifts will roll your kayak into place automatically so you don’t have to expend manual effort. 

Full lifts feature pneumatic gas struts to carry most of the kayak’s weight for less handling on your part. 


If you have a smaller vehicle, a stacker can be a godsend. With a stacker, you can mount your kayak upright so it doesn’t need to hog up as much room on the roof crossbar. Some stackers can free up the crossbar at a rate of 50 percent!

Stackers can accommodate up to four kayaks. Installing one isn’t usually too hard, and this small but useful accessory doesn’t cost a lot of money either. 


A saddle is a type of pad that goes from the bottom of your boat to the base rack. The purpose of a saddle is to increase the surface area for the kayak to sit on. 

This accessory can also keep your boat secure, giving you the assurance that during travel in inclement weather, your kayak will come back in one piece.

Saddles have wind resistance to increase your fuel economy and reduce noise associated with transporting a kayak. 

Temporary Pads

The last accessory you might consider with your kayak rack system is a temporary pad or two. 

Temporary pads allow you to mount a kayak to your vehicle even if it doesn’t have a base rack system, which is the case for any vehicles outside of SUVs. 

With your temporary pads are straps that attach to the top of your vehicle. Padding made of inflatable or plush material prevents your car roof from being scratched when carrying a kayak. 

That said, temporary pads are not designed for long-term travel, nor are they a good option in inclement weather. If you’re doing a lot of highway driving, we would also disincline you from using temporary pads, as they don’t stay as secure at high speeds. 

How to Choose a Kayak Rack System

 Now that you’re aware of all your options for a kayak rack system, it’s time to begin narrowing those options down. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as you shop for a kayak rack system. 

Your Kayaking Frequency

Do you go kayaking nearly every day? In that case, then a J-style kayak rack with rollers or saddles is your best setup. You won’t struggle to mount the rack, and getting your kayak on and off the top of your vehicle will be a breeze. 

For those who don’t go kayaking nearly as much, you have your pick of rack system mounts and accessories. We’d again advise you to err on the side of easy so you don’t waste valuable time struggling with your kayak.  

Your Rate of Travel for Kayaking

Do you know a great lake or river a few miles from your house that’s awesome for kayaking? In that case, you don’t have to worry as much about wind resistance and fuel economy since you’re traveling a short distance.

In your case, you can use a kayak rack system that you like. We’d recommend temporary pads as well since these can ease your installation efforts of the rack system. That said, if inclement weather is on the horizon, you wouldn’t want to bring temporary pads.

Maybe you’re not so lucky and the closest lake or ocean is dozens and dozens of miles away. In that case, you need a kayak rack system that’s built for longer-distance travel. J-style and horizontal kayak racks are great picks.

Refrain from using a temporary pad and instead choose a saddle. Between your kayak rack and your accessories, your fuel economy won’t be dragged down so much that you’re forced to frequently refuel. 

Your Kayak Carrying Capacity

Are you a solo kayaker? Maybe you have one boat that can fit two people. If so, then you can choose any kayak rack system you like. For those kayakers who bring a group with them and want to transport several boats on one vehicle, a horizontal rack is a good option, as is a J-style kayak rack.

You should also buy a stacker to maximize your carrying potential. 

Your Vehicle’s Roof 

What does the roof of your vehicle look like? It may have no crossbars at all, or perhaps it has factory crossbars. Some vehicles use aftermarket crossbars and others have side rails. 

For side rails or vehicles with nothing on the roof, use foam or inflatable pads, but be sure to limit your traveling distance. A vehicle with factory crossbars needs a stacker or saddle. We’d suggest a J-style kayak rack system as well. 

Our 4 Favorite Kayak Rack Systems

Now that you’re in the market for a kayak rack system, we wanted to recommend 4 of our top picks. 

Thule Hull-a-Port Aero Rooftop Kayak Carrier

Thule is one of the most renowned names in kayak rack systems, and their Hull-a-Port is a big reason why that is. 

This kayak carrier features StrapCatch, which is tie-down technology for helping you strap down your boat with ease. The Hull-a-Port folds down and raises fast so you can easily get your kayak loaded in and out.

Installation requires no tools, and the Hull-a-Port is a universal mount. It features padding for upright kayak storage and rubber saddles that will safeguard your car. Choose from stacker mode, saddle mode, J-style mode, or single-kayak mode. 

Locks attach to the load bar so you don’t have to worry about nefarious characters trying to make off with your kayak rack system. 

Rhino-Rack Nautic 580 Series Kayak Carrier

The kayak and canoe carrier from Rhino-Rack is mold-resistant, corrosion-resistant, UV-resistant, and waterproof, so it’s very tough. 

Included in the box is a buckle protector, two rapid straps, and two tie-down straps. The contact surface of the Nautic 580 is larger than average to increase the stability of your setup as you drive. 

The rear cradles come spring-loaded to promote faster and simpler rear mounting. A C-channel fitment should be compatible with many roof rack crossbars.  

Rubber pads across the Nautic 580 protect your boat. You even get a hidden cover plate and locking crossbar cradles for better peace of mind. 

Yakima JetStream Bar Aerodynamic Crossbars for Roof Rack Systems

We have to talk about the Yakima JetStream crossbars as well. 

Using a trademark teardrop shape, the JetStream crossbars lessen drag to improve your fuel economy. JetTruss internal supports strengthen the aluminum framework of the crossbars, enabling them to carry 165 pounds. 

All Yakima kayaks and kayak-carrying equipment will work with the JetStream, including StreamLine Towers. You can select the mount sizes too. The smallest mounts are 50 inches and the largest are 70 inches. 

To install, just insert the T-slot rubber infills into place. Then put on the polymer endcaps. The caps feature an appealing glossy finish to further enhance the beauty of these crossbars. 

Malone SeaWing Saddle Style Universal Car Rack Kayak Carrier

If you’re looking for a saddle for your kayak rack, the Malone SeaWing is a favorite.

The SeaWing features mid-point mounting and a low profile. It’s capable of carrying up to two kayaks and is one of the only bottom-down carriers with that kind of capacity. 

The frame is built from corrosion-resistant polycarbonic while the cam-style load straps feature protective buckles. The padding is enhanced with ribbed synthetic rubber. 

The style of this kayak carrier reduces air resistance for less noise on your treks to and from the lake or ocean. Mount the SeaWing easily with JAWZ hardware, which is universal for oval, square, or round cross rails. 

How to Mount a Kayak Rack to Your Vehicle

As we’ve explained throughout this guide, mounting a kayak to your vehicle roof can be done in several ways. This section will present a general guide on how to mount a kayak to your roof if the roof has crossbars and temporary pads.

Here are the steps to follow.

Step 1

Your temporary pads should already be attached to your vehicle by the time you begin, so if you have yet to install them, do that first.

Step 2

Have another person with you. One of you should carry the kayak by its front and the other by its rear using the grab handles on either side. As you lift and carry the kayak, position it so the boat’s bow is parallel to the front of your vehicle.

Step 3

Now switch your hold on the kayak to its hull, but still keep one person holding either side of the boat. Begin to raise the kayak over your head. As you lift, make sure that you’re doing so more in your legs than your back, as the latter lifting technique can lead to injuries.

Step 4

Keep raising your kayak so it’s over the rack. Then you and your partner can place the kayak on the rack. Gently lower the boat, taking care not to drop it. 

Step 5

Now it’s time to secure your kayak using cam straps. Position your kayak on the rack so it’s in the middle of the crossbars. The kayak should still be parallel to your vehicle crossbars.

Step 6

Grab one cam strap and position it so its buckle is on the boat’s side and several inches from the closest crossbar. The other end of the cam strap should be over your boat.

Step 7

Take that other cam strap end and make a loop under the crossbar, then take the remaining strap and place it back over your kayak. The strap should be tucked inside the area where you wrapped it over the crossbar.

Step 8

Take the other end of the cam strap and tuck that under the crossbar as well. You might have to cinch this end before tucking it. As you tuck on the straps, pull them so they’re firm but not too tight. You could damage your kayak and even your vehicle’s crossbars like that.

Step 9

Test the security of the kayak. If it has any wiggle room, then go back and check each cam strap and pull on them until they’re tighter.

Step 10

It’s not a bad idea to secure the stern and bow of your kayak with additional cam straps, especially for high-speed driving such as highways and freeways or for long-distance travel. 

To do this, begin by taking the hook end of a ratcheting bow and attaching it around the kayak’s grab handle or another secure location. Then hook your stern line to your vehicle’s securest point, likely a tow hook.

Step 11

Pull on the line until it’s snug but not too tight and tie off the stern line under the ratchet. 

Final Thoughts

Kayak rack systems come in different styles to accommodate various types of vehicle roofs, including those with crossbars and those without. Now that you know the different types of kayak rack systems, the various accessories you can use, and how to mount your kayak rack, you’re ready to begin enjoying kayaking to the fullest!

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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