Best Kayak Roof Racks of 2023 | Outdoor Life
Fishing kayaks are typically 11-13 feet long, and if you don’t have a truck or trailer, the best way to transport them is a kayak roof rack. In my 20 years of kayak fishing and managing a provider on the gulf coast, I have used many racks and recently tried several of the best ones head to head.
When it came to deciding which products to try, I had a pretty specific list of things each had to be able to do. I wanted to make sure that each shelf could handle loads over 100 pounds. I also tried them for rear loading because lifting a kayak up and onto a roof rack takes a lot of force. Here are the products that met those requirements and became my test of the best kayak carriers.
Reading: Kayak car carriers reviews
- Best Overall: Thule Compass
- best quote: malone foldaway-5
- easiest to load: malone megawing
- Best Inexpensive Multikayak: Malone Stax Pro
- best multi kayak: Thule stacker
- best saddle system: yakima big catch
- Best Simple: Malone Foam Blocks
- carry styles: single kayak in j-style or saddle configuration, two kayaks in stacker mode, and up to two kayaks in saddle mode
- thick rubber saddles and padded footrests
- folds flat when not in use
- fits all rack systems with universal mounting hardware
- no tools required to install
- accommodates kayaks up to 36 inches wide and a maximum kayak weight of 130 pounds
- extremely resistant construction
- thick rubber pads eliminate kayak movement
- multiple configurations to choose from
- wide contact points with the helmet that avoid pressure points
- thick rubber pads make loading difficult
- quick release folding frames for tight spaces
- universal mounting adapters that fit most load bar designs
- multi-rack extension modules to transport sups & canoes
- sup pads to cushion and protect the helmet during transport
- holds two kayaks
- carrying capacity: 75 pound weight limit per kayak
- compatible with most cargo bars up to 1.5 inches high x 3.5 inches wide
- multiple points of contact with the crossbars
- wide weight distribution
- multipurpose design
- multiple high pressure points that contact the hull of the kayak.
- the need for a pad for the use of the saddle.
- weight: 12.2 pounds
- length: 27.5 inches
- width: 6 inches
- height: 4.5 inches
- load capacity: 150 pounds
- These reinforced v-shaped racks accommodate a variety of helmet shapes and sizes.
- comes with 15-foot cargo straps and universal hardware
- limited lifetime warranty.
- easy loading
- large contact surface with the hull
- weight capacity
- the entire weight of the kayak rests on a 3-inch gap in the crossbars
- wide kayaks are harder to secure on megawings
- long-term use will damage the crossbars.
- open gate head design captures load straps easily and securely
- universal fit mounting hardware
- foldable design for low clearance needs
- Limited Lifetime Warranty
- cargo capacity: 50 pounds per kayak (four maximum capacity)
- easy installation
- the addition of helmet protectors
- single point of contact with crossbars
- the mast is not up to the task of having the full weight of the heavy drunk on it.
- folding steel design with a non-scratch outer coating
- Optimally sized roof rack leaves room on the roof for other accessories
- carries up to 4 kayaks and requires 1-2 people to load and unload
- includes straps to carry a kayak
- accommodates kayaks up to 36 inches wide and weighing 75 pounds
- great weight distribution within the product frame
- barely makes any noise when not in use
- general shape and construction
- lack of hull protectors to prevent pressure points on the sides of kayak hulls
- specially designed to support the extra weight of sit-on-top and fishing kayaks
- handles up to 150 pounds
- oversized cradle protects the kayak and accommodates a variety of hull shapes
- soft rubber pads protect the kayak from bumps and scratches
- felt pads for easy kayak loading
- weight distribution on the crossbars
- carrying capacity
- high-quality construction
- lack of pressure points on the hull
- very easy loading
- can only be used for individual applications
- leaves little to no space for other kayak racks or baskets.
- 14-inch long foam blocks to carry most kayaks
- two 15-foot cargo straps for secure transport
- weight distribution
- secure retention
- too long
- lacks durability
- not a long-term solution
how i evaluated kayak roof racks
When it came to testing the racks, I wanted to be as thorough as possible. my first test was to have a kayak on my roof for my commute. this allowed the kayaks to reach highway speeds and have at least eight hours in the stands. The road test checked the pressure points and made sure the racks could take the load for long periods of time. I have also uploaded and downloaded them several times to test ease of use and any issues.
The kayaks I used for the tests were the Nucanoe Pursuit, Nucanoe Flint, and Nucanoe Unlimited. These kayaks are 11 to 13.5 feet long and 33 to 42 inches wide. The real trick is that these kayaks, once equipped with the seats and pivot drive units, weigh between 115 and 130 pounds. when testing individual kayak racks, these kayaks were fully loaded. I’ve also tried roof racks made for multiple kayaks, but removed the pivot units. this removed about 30 pounds from the kayaks.
Best Overall: Thule Compass
why he made the cut
this versatile roof rack accommodates multiple kayaks, large kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards.
When I used the compass in the saddle configuration, it was rock solid. the thick rubber of the saddles did not allow the boat to move one bit. It was the safest rack I’ve tried in that regard. but the disadvantage of the thick rubber was that it was very difficult to slide the boat into position if the hull was not wet.
the compass has a much more secure footing than the malone megawing or the staxpro, but it loses out to the folding-5 in that regard. Going back to the ultra-secure rubber pads on the rack, it made it much easier to fit two boats on it, plus the saddle flattened out and provided ample surface area to secure taller kayaks. this also eliminated the pressure points i experienced with the foldaway-5. the neck and its locking-in-place method is the best deal I’ve tried. If you choose to use this rack in the J-style configuration, it doesn’t allow any movement, and I’ve never worried about the weight of the kayak being held up by the mast assembly. There are also no pressure points that need to be addressed through the use of pads. its safety and versatility are the reasons why it is my top pick among the field of best kayak racks.
best quote: malone foldaway-5
why you made the cut:
This rack can carry one or two kayaks and the mast allows you to carry your kayak in multiple positions. it can haul two 75-pound kayaks and even your favorite stand-up paddleboards. This rack was ideal for carrying a large sot in the j-style or saddle configuration, and had a very wide base with four sets of thumb screws and cross plates to support the weight of the kayaks.
when used as a single kayak rack it worked great and had a super secure grip on the kayak. it was also very easy to load the kayak. just be sure to use the foam block for the saddle setup. otherwise, the assembly that supports the mast and allows for multiple angles of use puts terrible pressure on the bottom of the helmet right on the center line.
the weakness of the foldaway-5 was trying to transport two large boats. the tubing used in the construction was a huge pressure point for these taller kayaks used in testing. The overall width of the foldaway-5 is only 19.5 inches, and even though I used the aforementioned pad, there wasn’t much I could do. If you have smaller boats this would be a great way to transport multiple kayaks, but for larger boat deals I only recommend using it for one kayak in the saddle configuration.
easiest to load: malone megawing
why he made the cut
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The Megawing Sot Heavy Duty Fishing Kayak Carrier from Malone is a v-style rear-load kayak carrier from Malone that is made to handle a large sit-on-top kayak up to 150 lbs. It’s rear-loading and very easy to install, and it comes with all the straps and hardware you’ll need.
in testing, i found it was easy to slide a kayak on the wings. they gave way and flexed with the kayak, providing a wide surface for the hull to rest on. once I had the kayak loaded and properly secured, I hit the road. It handled great on the road, but the kayak would move if it hit rough ground. Once I stopped and readjusted the load and re-timed the straps they did fine. overall there was good movement as the mega wings bend and give way under load and respond to bumps in the road.
The biggest problem with this kayak rack is that the entire weight of the kayak rests on only 3 inches of the cross bars. trust me when I say you don’t want to have a heavy kayak on this rack overnight. it will deform your crossbars. Also, when I tied my kayak to the mega wings, I felt that the nucanoes I tried were too wide for the mega wings. the straps were sandwiched between the helmet and the mega wings, making it difficult to fit and securely hold with the straps.
The biggest advantages of this rack were the ease with which the kayak slid into position on the mega wings and the width of the contact points on the hull. but for me these advantages were outweighed by the way the entire weight of the kayak was focused into such a small space on the cross bars and there was only one cross piece and one set of thumb screws to secure it to the cross bars .
Best Inexpensive Multi-Kayak Stand: Malone Stax Pro
why you made the cut:
Staying in the Malone family, the next order of business was to see if it was possible to top off two large sit-on-top kayaks. This multi-kayak carrier system holds up to four smaller kayaks for a total weight capacity of 200 pounds.
The malone stax pro was very easy to install and came complete with all straps, ropes, and hardware. Once you have the kayaks in the racks, simply lift the kayaks on their side, letting them rest against the Stax Pro, and then attach the kayak to the Stax Pro and then to the cross bars. once this is done, secure the kayak at the bow and stern, and you are ready to roll.
I liked the pads they provided because they helped keep the kayaks securely in place while being loaded up and underway.
I didn’t have a great way to load these kayaks from the rear with the stax pro, but with the drive units outside the kayak it was much easier to lift the kayaks up and onto the crossbars. I definitely suggest having a friend help you here. the small base and unique square neck that is held in place by knobs caused the same problems as the megawings.
best rack for multiple kayaks: thule stacker
why he made the cut
When it comes to Thule’s offering for transporting multiple kayaks, the Thule Stacker far exceeded the weight capacities of the kayaks and provided the best support for the width of the kayaks tested.
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this was a great piece of hardware that really made it so much easier to support the kayak while you had everything tied up. I also really liked how the straps were secured on the stacker. the stacker does not use hooks from which the straps can detach; instead, the straps go through the unit itself. the general shape of the stacker handled the weight of the kayaks that rested against it much better. The oval shape of the stacker and the best choice of construction materials made this easily the best multi-kayak car roof system I’ve tried. i suggest grabbing a couple kayak stacker blocks that you can buy from malone. they make for a safer ride and help avoid putting too much weight on such a small part of your kayak’s hull when your kayak’s hull is on its side and pressing against the crossbars.
It folds up easily when not in use and also has very little wind noise. overall I am very happy with this offer from Thule. I would only recommend the addition of foam blocks to avoid putting too much weight on the sides of your kayak’s hull. simply the hulls resting on their sides put all the weight on a small surface of the kayak, which is not made for that like the keel.
best kayak saddle system: yakima big catch
why he made the cut
If you’re not worried about hauling multiple kayaks and just want the best heavy-duty rack option, I suggest the yakima bigcatch kayak saddle system. This saddle system is rear-loading and provides wide contact points with the hull of the kayak. this rack also features a 150-pound capacity.
A saddle system is superior to other styles of racks because of the way it distributes your load closer to the outside of the crossbars. the closer to the towers that support the crossbars, the more weight the crossbars can support. this takes advantage of the strongest points of the crossbar structure. The way the BigCatch adjusts to the weight of the hull and your ability to adjust it to perfectly fit the shape of your kayak was also a big part of why I liked this product so much. I also liked the use of replaceable felt pads on the bigcatch to make rear loading even easier.
My only problem with this product is that it is one dimensional. As a father and husband, I always take my wife or one of my children with me. this is such a big rack that there isn’t much room for another kayak. it requires me to purchase another kayak rack like a mega wing set to accommodate another kayak and doing so renders my rear-loading technique ineffective. Other load assist systems exist, but the extreme weight of kayaks far exceeds their weight capacity.
best simple: malone carrier blocks
why he made the cut
although this is not a rack at all, it does meet the requirements for use. If you’re looking for the most cost effective way to transport your big sot, I think the tried and true foam blocks are pretty hard to beat. they fit any kayak, and you secure your boat to the transoms, providing a very secure fit.
These extremely cost-effective foam blocks have been helping people get to the water for decades and doing it very well. With all the advantages, they’re not the most durable way to go, and you’ll find yourself replacing them time and time again. But at $14 each, you’ll have to replace them many times before you get to the price of some of these racks. My biggest complaint is that you have to put the kayak on the cross bars first and then slide the foam blocks onto the cross bars and under the kayak. it just takes a long time. it is extremely simple, cost effective and very gentle on your kayak hull. the foam blocks compress against the pressure of the hull and transoms when you tighten the straps. that is why it avoids high pressure points that can deform the helmet.
I love the fact that the weight of the helmet is not concentrated in a few centimeters of the cross members. the load is over the entire width of the hull. If you’re just starting out and want to save some money to get other gear for your adventures, this is a wonderful way to go and the way I’ve used myself for years. in fact, the foam blocks allowed me to keep my old native ultimate 14.5 in my luggage rack permanently while in college.
frequently asked questions
tips for loading kayaks
No matter which roof rack you choose, the most important element to having a great time car atop a large sit-on-top kayak is having crossbars that are up to the challenge. I recommend that you make sure your cross bars are rated for the weight of your kayak.
The next tool I can’t recommend is a good kayak roller loader for the rear window. this will allow you to place the bow of the kayak on the roller and then push the kayak onto the racks. You want to make sure that whatever you choose has adequate cargo capacity and is tall enough to go over the back of your car.
The final tool I also recommend is a car door step. I suggest making sure it’s sturdy enough for your weight and wide enough to put both feet on it. these are easy to find online and relatively inexpensive. both tools will make topping much easier.
There are quite a few options available. And topping off the car, even the biggest and heaviest of fools, is a viable way to go. With that in mind, each offer has its pros and cons. therefore, you need to ask yourself which factors are most important to you. Is cost the biggest concern, is multi-kayak usage your biggest concern, or are you more concerned with not putting stress on your cross members? I don’t think any of the best kayak racks I tried were bad or that they weren’t all the best tools. It’s up to you to get the roof rack for your needs.
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