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Kayaks are a fun bit of kit, but unless you have water right in your backyard, you’re going to need to transport your kayak elsewhere.
Luckily, a kayak roof rack can easily be installed, can fit on most vehicle types, and depending on your budget, doesn't need to cost an arm and a leg.
There are many kayak roof racks on the market and all are slightly different in their own way. We’ve narrowed down the 19 best kayak roof racks for all budgets that’ll get you transporting your kayak to the water in no time.
Table of Contents
Before you purchase a kayak roof rack, you need to decide which type would suit you best. There are 4 types of roof racks, j-cradles, saddles, stackers, and temporary pads.
The type you choose will depend on your specific kayak and the vehicle you’ll be using to transport it.
J-cradles or J-style racks have a versatile shape and are one of the most popular kayak roof racks on the market.
They have a side-loading mechanism so you can load and unload your kayak onto the roof from the side of the vehicle.
J-cradles are a great option if you want to carry your kayak and extra gear on the roof of your car because they leave you with adequate space once installed. Using a J-cradle also means that you can install another J-cradle on the other side, and carry two boats at once.
When using a J-cradle, you’ll need pre-installed crossbars on your car to mount them to.
J-style racks add extra height to your vehicle when in use, so this is important to keep in mind if you’ll be traveling through height-restricted areas.
Saddle or horizontal racks are a great choice if you plan on only transporting one kayak at a time.
The saddle involves single or double interconnected cradles that adjust to the width of the vehicle. They act as a seat for the hull of your kayak and the kayak can either be transported horizontally or the right way up.
Saddles are a secure way to transport your kayak because they have a large surface area supporting them and won’t move when traveling at high speeds or over long distances.
Most saddle racks need to be mounted to pre-installed roof crossbars.
Heading out on a kayak trip with your buddies? Then a stacker or vertical roof rack will be the best option.
These racks can carry multiple kayaks at a time because they are held vertically on their sides instead of horizontally.
Depending on the width of your car, you’ll be able to carry up to 4 kayaks at once and a stacker rack will require crossbars installed on your car roof.
Temporary pads are easy to install and remove. The straps of the pads are placed both inside and outside of the car and hold your gear securely in place.
Foam or inflatable padding is then attached to the racks to protect your kayak while it is on the roof. They are favorable for short journeys but are not designed for frequent or long-distance travel.
If you plan on taking your kayak out regularly and traveling down roads at high speeds, temporary pads aren’t for you.
Temporary pads can be mounted onto most vehicles and they don’t require pre-installed crossbars or rails.
Your car could have one of four base roof possibilities, and whichever your car has will influence the roof rack system you purchase.
Having a bare roof or one fitted with side rails only limits your kayak rack system to temporary pads. Temporary pads don’t need to be mounted to anything and can be strapped onto any type of vehicle.
If you have factory or aftermarket crossbars, then a J-style rack, saddles, or stackers can mount onto the bars and carry your kayak. Factory fitted crossbars may have a weight capacity, so it is important to check before loading your kayak.
The amount you use your kayak can also influence the roof rack system you install on your car. If you paddle numerous times a week, you’ll want a system that is easy to load and unload, so you aren’t wasting time.
Saddles at the front and rollers at the back are some of the most convenient hauling systems for people who paddle regularly. J-cradles are also durable and easy to load and unload from the side of your vehicle.
If you usually paddle by yourself, you may want to invest in a load-assisted carrier to help you get the kayak on and off the roof.
For those who only plan on taking their kayak out occasionally, a temporary roof rack might be sufficient for your lifestyle.
For long-distance travel where you’ll most likely be driving at high speeds, you’ll need a fitted and secure roof rack.
Temporary pads should only be used to take your kayak to local waterways. In other words, on journeys where driving at high speeds isn't necessary.
The number of kayaks you want to transport at any one time will also play a huge factor in your kayak rack decision.
If you plan to carry over one kayak, then a stacker-style rack would be your best option. Some J-style racks can hold two kayaks, but it’s best to check the product description to be sure.
If you’re only taking one kayak out, most solutions will work for you depending on your car type.
If you want to stick to a specific budget, we’ve clearly categorized the best kayak roof rack systems by price to help make your search and decision-making 10 x easier!
Good things don’t always need to cost a lot of money. These budget roof racks will keep your kayak secure and your wallet happy.
These mid-range kayak racks will meet all your roof rack needs and won’t leave too big of a dent in your bank balance.
If you’re an avid kayaker and you paddle multiple times a week, you may want to invest in a premium roof rack to make your loading process the easiest it can be.
If you only take your kayak out a few times a year, you may not want to spend a large sum of money on a roof rack. We’ve gathered together the best budget kayak roof rack systems for those who are shopping on a budget.
The TMS J-Bar Kayak Rack is a great example of how a low price point doesn’t mean low quality.
The rack comes with different length bolts and fits on most types of crossbars. The J-Bar can carry a range of different water toys, like kayaks, canoes, surfboards, and even bikes, so you really get a great deal with this rack!
The J-style cradles are made from steel and are covered with adjustable padding to keep your board secure and damage-free during transit.
J-cradles allow you to have more roof space and, depending on the width of your car roof, you can purchase two sets of the TMS J-bars and carry two kayaks at once.
The maximum weight limit that the J-bars can hold is 75 pounds and the maximum width of the kayak is up to 36 inches.
The Malone HandiRack Inflatable Roof Rack Bars are a temporary rack system that can be inflated and deflated when not in use.
They fit onto most vehicle types and don’t need pre-installed crossbars to mount to. Installation of the HandiRack Inflatable Bars takes 5 minutes and no tools are required, you simply pass the straps through the car doors, inflate with the pump and close the doors on them.
Each of the inflatable crossbars has integrated metal D-rings to secure your kayak, canoe, surfboard, or SUP of up to 175 pounds down with the included attachment straps.
The Malone HandiRack Inflatable is made from durable non-abrasive 400D nylon and the metal parts are coated with an anti-corrosion coating.
Included in the ECOTRIC J-Bar Kayak Rack are two sets of J-bars, meaning you can carry two kayaks for an incredibly low price.
They are made from rugged steel and adjustable padding, so you can place your gear in your desired position.
Crossbars that are thicker than 1” or wider than 2.5” won’t work with the ECOTRIC J-bar system, but they will work with most factory standard flat or square crossbars.
Four straps and mounting hardware are included in the package, so no extra equipment is needed.
The J-bars will comfortably fit kayaks up to 36” wide and up to 165 pounds in weight.
The Malone Stax Pro 2 is a stacker-style carrier and will fit onto most square, round, and oval factory crossbars.
Two boats can easily be transported on the Stax Pro, however, depending on the width of your car and crossbars, you can carry up to four kayaks at once.
The rack comes with tie-down straps and stacker blocks to cushion the kayaks during transport. The Malone Stax Pro 2 has a tool-free assembly, making it easy to install and go.
The octagonal aluminum posts mount directly to the roof load bars and the universal-fit JAWZ mounting hardware means you can load the bars without the use of any tools.
The Malone SeaWing is a saddle-style kayak carrier that only takes up half the roof of your car. The benefit of this is that you can add another SeaWing on the other side of your car and carry two kayaks at once.
The hardware used for mounting it to your vehicle is compatible with square, round, and oval cross rails. Mounting the rack is simple and doesn’t require any tools.
The frame of the SeaWing is made from corrosion-free polycarbonate and is then padded with rubber to protect the kayak while driving.
Bow and stern straps are included in the package to help tie your kayak down and prevent it from moving when you’re transporting it on your car.
The WOOWAVE Kayak Roof Rack Pads are made of EPE foam interior and a UV-resistant nylon cover exterior.
These pads are a temporary rack system, so you don’t need pre-installed crossbars to attach them to.
Included with the pads are two waterproof polyester straps with metal buckles that can tighten around the roof and securely keep your kayak in place. When the pads aren’t in use, they can be stored in the included carry bag.
The DrSportsUSA Universal Kayak Rack has 4 universal adapters with 50 and 60 mm bolts so you can attach them to round, oval, and square crossbars.
They are made of corrosion and UV-resistant polycarbonate that can withstand the outdoor elements and the extra padding creates a layer of protection for your kayak.
Two tie-down bow and stern straps, buckle load straps and loop handles are included with the rack so you can safely and securely tie down your boat.
The Rhino Rack Nautic 570 gives you the option to load and unload your kayak from the side or the rear of your vehicle. The pads can swivel 180 degrees, which is beneficial if you’re towing gear behind your car.
The four waterproof and UV-protected rubber pads have flexible joints to grip your kayak securely and create a stable rooftop storage space.
The mounting hardware fits most factory-fitted roof racks and can hold a variety of kayak hull shapes. All straps and tools you’ll need to install the system are included in the package.
The Yakima JayLow Kayak Carrier can be used as a J-style carrier or a vertical stacker carrier, allowing you to transport two kayaks at once.
If you’re carrying a singular kayak in the J-cradle position, the kayak can weigh up to 80 pounds. If you stack two kayaks, the combined weight can be no more than 110 pounds.
The minimum crossbar spread needed for the JayLow is 24” and the mounts are compatible with most factory roof racks.
The cradles are padded to improve the grip on the kayak and the integrated cam lever makes it easy for you to adjust it to an upright position.
Everything you would need to strap your kayak down is included in the Yakima JayLow package and the rack can fold flat when not in use.
The mounting system of the Rhino Rack J-style Kayak Carrier fits most roof racks and is easy to install.
The heavy-duty coated steel cradle mounts to the crossbar and carries your kayak on its side, only taking up half of the roof. If you want to carry two kayaks, you can purchase a second Rhino Rack J-style carrier and place it on the other side of the roof.
A cool feature of this kayak carrier is that it has built-in paddle cradles, so you can transport your paddles safely and securely on the top of your car.
An attachment for the cradles is also available so you can extend the cradle and carry two kayaks with just one carrier system.
If you plan on carrying multiple kayaks at once, you may want to consider the Thule 830 Stacker Kayak Carrier. The stacker allows you to carry four recreational kayaks but also includes everything you would need to just carry one kayak.
Included in the package are the two aluminum stacker racks you need to carry the kayaks and the straps and tie-downs to handle two boats. Additional straps can be purchased if you’re wanting to transport 3-4 kayaks.
The Thule rack stacker can be mounted to most cross rails and can be folded down when not in use.
Malone’s J-style rack is made from corrosion-resistant aluminum and covered with adjustable oversized padding.
The universal mounting hardware fits round most factory standard oval, round, and square crossbars and includes both 60 mm and 70 mm mounting bolts.
The Downloader has a built-in loading ramp to help load heavier boats onto the roof and when not in use, the rack can be folded down to improve overhead clearance.
The total weight capacity of the Downloader is 75 pounds, and the package includes all straps and necessary hardware.
Another saddle-style kayak rack is the Yakima EvenKeel that fits onto most crossbars with a minimum spread of 24”.
The four saddles can hold boats weighing up to 80 pounds and their tool-free installation means you can get them up and running in as little as 10 minutes.
The all-important hardware and heavy-duty straps are included in the package so you can be out on the water in no time.
The IKURAM R Kayak Roof Carrier has thick rubber saddles that protect your kayak from rubbing and getting damaged.
Two boats up to 42” wide and 158 pounds can be easily transported on the rack and everything you would need to carry two boats is included in the package.
The IKURAM R Roof Rack fits round, square, and oval factory crossbars and its heavy-duty straps will keep your kayaks securely in place.
If you aren’t using the rack, the J-bars can be folded down by the front release handle and you can also adjust the angle of the bars to accommodate different kayak shapes.
Slide rails make loading and unloading a breeze while also protecting your car from scratches.
The Thule Hull-a-Port Pro is a compact J-style rack that only uses up half of your roof and leaves space for another boat or other gear.
It is easy to install, can fold down when you aren’t using it, and its j-style mouth makes it easy to load and unload your boat.
Loading straps, tie-down straps, and buckle protectors are included with the kayak roof rack system, so your kayak will be securely stored on your roof while you drive.
The padding on the Thule Hull-a-Port Pro is thick and will hold your singular boat vertically in place without causing damage to the hull.
The Thule DockGrip Kayak Carrier can hold a variety of hull shapes as well as SUPs thanks to its independent pivoting saddles that can be adjusted to any desired angle.
Cushion pads on the rack create a comfy platform for your boat to sit on and the included center load straps will help you secure it in place.
The DockGrip kayak carrier fits a variety of Thule rack systems, round bars, and factory-installed racks because of its t-track and flip-fit brackets.
If you’re a solo kayaker and you have trouble loading and unloading your boat onto your roof, then the Hullavator Pro could be a great option for you.
The Hullavator makes it easier to load your kayak with its lift assist feature. The two cradles can lower down up to 3 feet, meaning you can load your kayak at waist level at the side of your car.
The gas-assist struts lift and lower 40 pounds of the kayak’s weight so you can easily push the rest up onto the roof.
Although the Hullavator is one of the pricier kayak roof racks on our list, the load assistance is a unique feature that’ll give you the independence and freedom to take your kayak out on trips alone.
The cradles have eight touchpoints to support your boat while it’s on the roof and the corrosion-resistant aluminum cradles expand to fit wide hull shapes.
Yakima’s Showboat has slide-out load-assist rollers that fit onto a variety of different crossbars.
The package includes corrosion-resistant stainless steel crossbars and hardware that can be installed in 30 minutes without the use of tools.
The rails are extendable up to 24 inches at the back of your vehicle, so it is easy to load the bow of your kayak onto the roller and push it up onto the roof.
80-pound boats of all sizes can fit onto the rack, and you can buy extra cradles or saddles for extra support.
Another Yakima kayak carrier is the SweetRoll. The SweetRoll system is a back-to-front loading system, meaning the rear saddles have integrated rollers so you can easily push your boat onto the roof.
The tilting saddles will accommodate most hull shapes and the mounting hardware is compatible with most factory crossbars.
Padded protection on the saddles prevents dents, scratches, and dings from occurring during transit and the SweetRoll system can be installed onto your roof in 10 minutes, without the use of tools.
The type of kayak rack you buy depends on a few different factors.
If you have numerous kayaks that you want to take out with you, you’ll need crossbars installed on your car and a stacker-style roof rack.
If you’re traveling short distances and at regular speeds, a temporary roof rack may be sufficient for you.
If you’re a keen paddler and you take your kayak out at various times in the week, you will want to invest in an easy loading rack like a saddle or a J-cradle.
It’s a personal preference of which kayak racks are the easiest to use and it depends on the amount you use them and your strength.
With that being said, J-cradle racks, with load assistance, help you get your kayak from waist level to the top of your vehicle easily.
Most kayak racks can fit on SUVs, so choosing which kayak rack is best will depend on what you’ll be using the rack for and how often you’ll be using it.
The best kayak carrier for a car will depend on your individual circumstance. However, if your car has crossbars installed on the roof, all styles of racks will fit your car and allow you to place your kayak on top.
If your car doesn’t have crossbars and you’ll be traveling for short distances, you’ll be able to use temporary pads to transport your kayak to the water.
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