When deciding to buy a kayak, one important factor to consider is how you will be transporting it. Unless you’re lucky enough to live right on a river, ocean, or lake, you will need to have a way to get your kayak between your house and your kayaking destination. The easiest and probably most common way to do this is with a roof rack. But roof racks are not always the ideal option for everyone, and you may want to know how to transport a kayak without a roof rack.

Ways to Transport Kayaks

Option 1: Buy an Inflatable Kayak

how to transport a kayak without a roof rack

If you’re looking to spend as little as possible when beginning to kayak, then this is probably the best option for you. Many inflatable kayaks are cheaper than hard shell models to begin with. But even better, you won’t have to purchase any additional supplies in order to transport your kayak. Most inflatable kayaks deflate and roll up small enough to fit in the trunk of a car. This is also a great option if you are lacking storage space for the kayak when not in use.

When I first got into kayaking about four years ago, this is the option I went with. I have the Intex Explorer K2 Kayak and it is so convenient to have the entire kayak (including the paddles if you break them down) fit into one carry bag. The bag is a bit on the heavy side, but not an issue as long as you don’t have long distances between your vehicle and body of water.

I have had two minor issues with the kayak. The first is that it got two small punctures in the bottom chamber. But this didn’t happen until having the yak for over three years, and they were easily repaired with some E6000 glue. The other issue is that since there are so many separate parts, I have misplaced both a valve and the fin over the years and had to purchase new ones. So if you do go with an inflatable, make sure you’re careful to keep track of all the parts!

The great thing about inflatable kayaks is that you don’t need any additional supplies to transport the kayak. It comes with the bag to carry it in, so all you need to do is throw the kayak in your car and you’re ready to go!

Option 2: Use a Trailer

how to transport a kayak without a roof rack

Using a kayak trailer definitely isn’t the most budget friendly option. But it can be a good choice if you prefer a method that doesn’t involve making more permanent modifications to your car, like a roof rack would. It’s also a good option if you have multiple vehicles that you want to use to transport your kayak, but don’t want to invest in installing roof racks on all of them. Trailer’s are also nice because they can double as a place to store your kayak when its not in use. Of course, you will then have to find a place to store the trailer.

One thing that is important to consider with trailers is whether or not your vehicle has a hitch. If not, there are still possibilities for pulling a trailer.  You will just have to do a little research to determine how much weight your car can pull and what trailers are compatible with it. If you don’t have a hitch but want to use a trailer, check out this helpful article on How to Pull a Trailer Without a Hitch.

A kayak trailer can be a great option compared to other methods for transporting a kayak because they are so versatile. Many trailers allow room for other items in addition to your kayak, such as bikes, paddleboards, or other “toys” you may want to bring along on your adventures. They can also come in handy in other situations where you need to transport large items, such as moving.

Here is a quick comparison of three kayak trailers you may be interested in. If you would like more information on kayak trailers, check out this in depth kayak trailer guide.

Ironton Folding Trailer CAPACITY: 1,170 lbs OUR RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Ultra-Tow Aluminum Utility Trailer CAPACITY: 1,715 lbs OUR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
MALONE XTRALIGHT TRAILER CAPACITY: 275 lbs OUR RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Option 3: Foam Car Top Carrier

how to transport a kayak without a roof rack

If you like the idea of carrying your kayak on the roof of your vehicle but are lacking the necessary side rails/cross bars needed for a roof rack, then a foam car top carrier is a great solution. The foam carrier consists of two foam blocks that are secured using ratchet straps that run through the inside of your car in both the front and the back. You then place the kayak on top of the blocks, and secure them using more rope or straps, which may or may not be included depending on the specific product you purchase.

A couple things to keep in mind if you do go with this option, one is that you need to make sure you fasten down the foam blocks BEFORE fastening down the kayak. If you don’t fasten down the foam blocks then they will be sliding all over the place. The ropes also make a bit of an annoying sound while driving, especially at higher speeds, but I think this is a small price to pay for such an inexpensive kayak carrier.

Option 4: DIY Kayak Rack (For Less Than $30!)

This is basically the same as option 3, but may be slightly cheaper depending on the model of foam carrier you go with.

What You’ll Need:

Tools:

  • Small diameter metal drill bit (#40)
  • Drill motor
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Small flat jewelers file
  • Rasp file
  • Sharp knife

Supplies:

  • 1 in x 12 in lashing straps (2 of them)
  • 3 in diameter pool noodles (2 of them)
  • 1 in x 1 in aluminum plain square tube (one 8 ft piece or two 4 ft)
  • Protective rubber tips

 

NOTE: He doesn’t mention it in the video, but he recommends adding protective rubber tips to all of the tube ends. You can use any chair leg tips like these: FISHBERG Chair Leg Tips Caps

I have to admit I was skeptical when I first saw this method of DIY kayak rack. But after some research I found many similar tutorials using foam pool noodles to make the rack, and everyone says it works! I personally would most likely just purchase a premade foam rack because I don’t have the tools necessary to build this one. But if I did I think this would be a fun project to try!

Option 5: Inflatable Roof Rack

how to transport a kayak without a roof rack

An inflatable roof rack has all the benefits of installing crossbars on your car, without the high cost or commitment. You don’t need to have side rails pre-installed, so they already save you some money there. But they are also much cheaper than most metal crossbars. What’s nice about them too is that they aren’t made to stay on your car when not in use. So if you don’t like the look of crossbars but like how they function, then this is a good option.

What I love most about the HandiRack is that it comes with the load straps to secure the kayak already attached to the inflatable “bars.” So you don’t need an extra set of straps to attach the kayak to the rack.

This one has a capacity of 180 pounds, so it should hold any kayak without a problem. The set up seems quick and easy enough, so it won’t add too much time to hitting the road for your kayak trip. The only downside to the HandiRack is that since it is inflatable, you need to take some precautions so as not to pop it. Be careful not to overinflate it or put too much weight on it. Also, it is recommended to deflate it and put it in your car when its not in use. This is because too much heat exposure can cause the material to deflate more quickly.

So What Exactly Is a Kayak Roof Rack?

Before deciding if you even want to transport a kayak without a roof rack, I think it’s important to know what a roof rack consists of. The most popular type of kayak roof rack is a J-bar rack. In order to use a J-bar rack to transport your kayak, there are several separate pieces of hardware that you will need.

1. J-Bar

The J-bar itself is the fittingly named “J” shaped bar that actually holds the kayaks during transport. They aren’t extremely expensive on their own, ranging from around $30 to $130 for a set (you need two per kayak). Unfortunately the J-bars aren’t able to be attached directly to the vehicle, and require some additional hardware

2. Crossbars

The crossbars are the set of railings that the J-bars are mounted onto. They run across the width of the roof of your car, between the driver’s side and the passenger’s side in both the front and the back. There are two main types of of crossbars. The first are designed to attach to pre-existing side rails. This type usually ranges from about $50 to $200. The second type is able to be mounted on roofs without side rails, or “naked” roofs. This type is typically more expensive, closer to the $200 to $400 range. There are other types of crossbars, such as ones that attach using ratchet straps, but they tend to be more flimsy and not as reliable for long term use. 

3. Side Rails

The side rails are the bars that run down the length of the roof of the vehicle on each side. Many larger cars and SUV’s come from the factory already pre-installed with side rails or another type of track system that crossbars can be mounted on to. However if you do not have side rails pre-installed, they can be quite spendy, usually ranging between $200 – $400. If it were me, I would probably skip installing the side rails and opt for the more expensive crossbars that can be installed without side rails. It would save some money, and the hassle of having to install both systems.

Why Wouldn’t I Want to Use a Roof Rack?

A typical roof rack system for your kayak can cost you anywhere from $30 to near $1000. It all depends on what systems your vehicle is already equipped with, in addition to the quality of rail systems you decide to purchase. If you already have side rails and cross bars, then a J-bar rack really isn’t a bad option. But if you don’t, the costs can really add up quickly.

The startup cost of kayaking is generally inexpensive compared to many other outdoor hobbies. But having to install side rails, cross bars, and a J-bar just to transport the kayak can significantly increase this cost. Not to mention the hassle of figuring out what side rails and crossbars your vehicle is compatible with, and then going through the trouble of installing them.

You may also not like the fact that roof rack systems are more permanent than many other options. While the J-bars are easy enough to take on and off, the other mounting systems may not be designed to do so as easily, and if you don’t like the look of a permanent rack on your car than this is something to think about.

Things to Consider With Kayak Transportation Methods

How much money do I want to spend?

If you are looking to spend the littlest amount possible, I recommend going with the foam car top carrier or the DIY pool noodle version. Both are very inexpensive, but still get the job done. If you don’t have a kayak yet though, the inflatable kayak is the way to go for lowest start-up cost and ease of transportation.

However if you’re not concerned about money and are just looking for the most effective way to transport your kayak, kayak trailers are a sturdy and reliable way of doing so. They are definitely on the more expensive side, but the nice thing about trailers is that you don’t have to worry about lifting a heavy kayak to the roof of your car, especially if you’re on your own.

How many kayaks do I have?

The number of kayaks you will be wanting to transport should affect the type of transportation you choose to utilize. While most methods can accommodate more than one kayak, some certainly make it easier than others. For just one kayak, really any of the options are a good solution.

However if you have multiple kayaks, I really wouldn’t recommend the foam car top carrier or DIY pool noodle rack. Some people have used the HandiRacks to carry multiple kayaks, but with a max capacity of 180 lbs you want to be careful of how much weight you are putting on the racks.

That doesn’t leave a lot of options for transporting multiple kayaks without using a roof rack, but I think a kayak trailer would be the best way to go, as most of them are designed to hold a higher weight capacity. Inflatable kayaks are another great option, because they fold down small enough to where fitting even two or three in your car shouldn’t be a problem.

How easy do I want loading the kayaks to be?

When getting ready for a kayaking, or any other type of adventure, it’s always a struggle when you are excited to get going but still have to spend a ton of time preparing your gear. You don’t want to spend all of your time loading and strapping down your kayaks when you could be spending it out on the water.

Inflatable kayaks are by far the easiest to load; all you have to do is throw the bag in the car. However you make up for this time when you get to your destination and have to spend time inflating and assembling the kayak. For me, this is worth it because at least I get to see the water sooner, and inflating the kayak really doesn’t take all that much time.

Kayak trailers are probably the second quickest option. All you have to do is strap the kayaks to the trailer, and the trailer to your hitch. The other three options all take slightly longer because you have to secure the makeshift crossbars to your vehicle using ratchet straps, then hoist the kayak up onto the car, and finally secure the kayak to the rack. If you have multiple people to help load and secure the kayak then it really shouldn’t take too long, but is still something to consider if you want it to be as quick and easy as possible.

Conclusion

If you already have the necessary equipment to install a J-bar, then it is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to transport your kayak. But if it is not a feasible option for you then fortunately there are ways to transport a kayak without a roof rack. Although I am currently using an inflatable kayak, my favorite option for hard shell kayaks is the foam top carrier. You can’t beat the price, and although the inflatable HandiRack is pretty ingenious, I like the idea of having equipment that I don’t have to inflate before using.

Hopefully now you have the information you need to know how to transport a kayak without a roof rack. If you’re also interested in methods for storing your kayak when not in use, check out our article on Do-it-Yourself Kayak Storage. If you have any experience with these kayak transportation methods or other ideas that you think should be added to the list, let us know in the comments below!

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