How To Strap A Kayak To A Roof Rack | A Step-By-Step Guide

how to tie down a kayak on a roof rack

The first time you do it, figuring out how to strap a kayak to a roof rack can be a bit daunting. Whether you’ve simply got a set of cross bars or you even have a kayak rack mounted to it, getting it right is incredibly important. When you are strapping a kayak to a roof rack you are taking responsibility for both the kayak & the safety of the people behind you. In this step-by-step guide, we’ll show you exactly how to properly tie down a kayak on a roof rack. We’ll go over how to:

  • Put A Kayak On A Car: Whether you’re alone or with another person, we’ll show you the safest ways to put a kayak on a vehicle.
  • Identify Proper Anchor Points: Making sure that you tie down your kayak on a roof rack using the best anchor points
  • Strap A Kayak To A Roof Rack: Including how to properly position the kayak & how to use your tie down straps
  • Double Check That Your Kayak Is Secure: Running through a simple checklist to ensure that you have everything covered & secured
how to strap a kayak to a roof rack

How to Put a Kayak on a Car or SUV

Before putting a kayak on top of your car or SUV, you need only a handful of essential gear:
  • Roof Rack: This is most commonly going to consist of cross bars & an attachment for your kayak. Most crossbars attach to factory-installed bars that run front to back on your car, but this depends on your vehicle type. If you are looking for a kayak rack for a pickup truck, you’re going to want to read our article here.
  • Kayak Rack/Padding: Specific kayak rack systems that attach to the crossbars and cradle the boat in J- or V-shaped forms are most secure.
  • Cam/Lashing or Ratchet Straps: Sometimes referred to as lashing straps, cam straps quickly and securely hold your kayak down. Ratchet straps are a bit more complex but are significantly more secure. You’ll need two straps (per kayak) that are about 8 feet long or longer.
  • Bow and stern lines: There are a few options here. You can use a rope that doesn’t stretch, lashing straps, or special ratcheting lines (see below) that really make this easy. You’re likely going to need two, one for the bow & one for the stern.

How To Put A Kayak On A Car With Two People

how to tie a kayak to a roof rack
Vault’s universal folding kayak rack is a “J-Style” rack that cradles your kayak on it’s side.

This is by far the easiest way to load a kayak on a car. With the crossbars and rack/padding installed and the straps/lines ready, you can place your kayak on top of your vehicle.

  1. With one person at each end, pick up the kayak by the grab handles and position alongside your vehicle. The bow (front) should be towards the front of the car.
  2. Grab the kayak at each end by the hull (not the grab handles) and lift the boat overhead. Make sure to lift with your legs, not your back.
  3. With the boat overhead, place the kayak so it’s directly above the rack. Once you have it in position you can then set it down gently on the roof rack. The proper position for the kayak is going to be determined by the type of rack you have. A J-Style rack like Vault’s universal folding kayak rack is going to act like a cradle with the kayak on its side (the top of the kayak will face out). A simple foam pad is going to have your kayak sitting on top of your vehicle, most likely upright like it would sit in the water. Always follow recommendations from the manufacturer of the kayak rack to properly put a kayak on a car or SUV.

Putting a Kayak On A Car by Yourself

If you’re strong enough to lift it over your shoulders, figuring out how to put a kayak on a car is easy enough. For most of us that’s not the case though. If you aren’t able to get a kayak over your head on your own, we’ve got some tips for you:

  • Use a kayak rack with a lift system: A few brands out there have kayak racks with integrated lift systems. This makes loading the kayak on a car incredibly simple. Typically they are going to slide from the top of your vehicle down to the side. This makes it so that you don’t have to lift your kayak as high. Once your boat is properly loaded & strapped down, the rack system can then be lifted on top of your vehicle. It’s worth noting that these lift systems are considerably more expensive than other kayak racks.
  • Get rolling wheels: Another rack solution is to use one that incorporates rolling wheels. These allow you to simply set the bow of the boat into the rear rack cradle, pick up the stern end and roll the kayak forward into the front cradle. These are less expensive than racks with integrated lift systems.
  • Use a towel or blanket: For a low-tech, low-cost solution, try placing a towel or blanket on top of the rear of your vehicle and then setting the bow of the boat on the towel or blanket. Pick up the stern and push the boat up and forward onto the rack.
how to tie down a kayak on a roof rack

Loading Multiple Kayaks

Kayaking in general is a great time, but it’s always more fun if you have friends or family to go with. If that’s the case, you’re likely going to have to transport more than one kayak on top of your car. You’ll need to make sure you have enough straps for both of them, but it’s definitely possible to load multiple kayaks on one car if done correctly. Here are a few tips on how to carry multiple kayaks:

  • Add a second kayak rack: This is obviously the simplest approach. You’re going to add another kayak rack to the crossbars (hint: they’ll face back to back so you can access a kayak from each side of the vehicle). This will depend on the size of the boats & your crossbars, but for most standard sized kayaks & crossbars you should have plenty of space for multiple kayaks on top of your car.
  • Using stacker bars: This is a great option if you’re trying to get two, three, or even more kayaks on top of your car. They’re essentially going to let you put the kayaks on their sides so they take up the least amount of space. You’ll typically see stacker bars used with lighter, shorter whitewater kayaks. However, they can still be used with your everyday recreational & touring boats.

How to Tie Down a Kayak

The easiest & most common way to tie down a kayak to your car is with cambuckle straps. With these, special knots aren’t necessary. You’ll simply need to feed the straps through the buckles, pull them tight, & cinch them down.
  1. Ensure that your kayak is centered (front to back) between the crossbars with your car. It is also critical that the boat is as horizontal as possible to avoid unnecessary wind resistance. This will make the ride safer, and easier on the kayak & roof rack system.
  2. Take your cambuckle strap & position it so that the buckle is resting on the side of the kayak. It should be a few inches above & to the side of one of the crossbars, and you can then throw the other end of the strap over the kayak to the other side of the car.
  3. Go over the to the other side of the vehicle and grab the loose end of the strap. Loop the strap underneath the crossbar to the inside of where it attaches to the vehicle. This helps prevent the strap from slipping off the end of the crossbar while driving.
  4. Now go around to the first side again and grab the remainder of the strap. Loop it around the crossbar, once again keeping it to the inside of where it attaches to the vehicle). Bring it into the cambuckle, and cinch the strap down.
  5. Repeat those same straps with another cambuckle strap on the other crossbar.
  6. Once both straps are in place, tighten both of them. Be sure not to overtighten them though, as too much tension is going to deform the plastic hulls on your kayak or potentially crack a fiberglass kayak.
  7. Now for the loose ends of the cambuckle straps. Tie them off just below the cambuckles, and if you have extra remaining go ahead and tie them off again to the crossbars. This gives you an extra layer of security and also prevents any slack from flapping around while you’re driving (which is the primary reason for frayed ends of straps).
  8. The kayak should now be secure. Check to ensure they are solidly tied down to the top of your car by grabbing each end of the kayak and shaking it. You will have a little bit of movement, but there shouldn’t be too much.

Bow and stern straps

While some people choose to skip it, we strongly recommend securing the bow & stern of the kayak to your car, particularly if you’re going to be driving on the highway. Winds are considerably stronger at these speeds, and a bow and stern line will make your kayak considerably more secure. Here’s how to install ratcheting bow & stern lines:
  1. Take the end of the line with the ratchet & hook it to a solid point on the front of the kayak. If your kayak doesn’t have a dedicated tie down point, go ahead and use the grab handle.
  2. Attach the remaining end of the line to a secure anchor point on your car. If you don’t have a secure anchor point readily available, consider investing in a hood loop strap. Remember that you should never attach tie down straps to plastic components on your vehicle.
  3. Pull the loose end of the line in order to snug up the kayak. As with the tie downs on the hull of the kayak, be sure not to overtighten the straps.
  4. Tie off the loose end of the line just below the ratchet.
  5. Repeat with the stern line.
how to strap a kayak to a roof rack

Tips for tying down a kayak:

  • Keep it simple: Don’t overthink things as you’re tying down your kayak to your car. Using exotic knots & running straps through every possible area could look cool, but a simple approach is almost always the most effective approach.
  • Use a ladder: For shorter people or those that have a larger vehicle, keep a small stepladder with you. It can make reaching the straps considerably easier, saving your back for when you’re out on the water.
  • Do the twist: Twisting the tie down strap once or twice where it is exposed to open air great reduces the amount of flapping in the wind that it does.
  • Check your work: Any time you are securing anything to your car or vehicle you should stop & make sure everything is secure after about 10-15 minutes of driving. Even when properly tied down, loads can shift & cause the tie down straps to loosen up.
[{"code":""
[{"code":""
"label":"$500 Gift Card"
"label":"$500 Gift Card"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"10OFF"
{"code":"10OFF"
"label":"No luck today"
"label":"No luck today"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"FREESHIPPING"
{"code":"FREESHIPPING"
"label":"Save 75% OFF"
"label":"Save 75% OFF"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"10OFF"
{"code":"10OFF"
"label":"Almost"
"label":"Almost"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":""
{"code":""
"label":"Save 50% OFF"
"label":"Save 50% OFF"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"10OFF"
{"code":"10OFF"
"label":"Nothing"
"label":"Nothing"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"LOCKDOWN10"
{"code":"LOCKDOWN10"
"label":"Save 10% OFF"
"label":"Save 10% OFF"
"win":true}
"win":true}
{"code":"10OFF"
{"code":"10OFF"
"label":"Sorry!"
"label":"Sorry!"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"15UNLOCKED"
{"code":"15UNLOCKED"
"label":"Save 15% OFF"
"label":"Save 15% OFF"
"win":true}
"win":true}
{"code":"FREESHIPPING"
{"code":"FREESHIPPING"
"label":"Nope"
"label":"Nope"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":""
{"code":""
"label":"Save 20% OFF"
"label":"Save 20% OFF"
"win":false}
"win":false}
{"code":"25OFF"
{"code":"25OFF"
"label":"Next time"
"label":"Next time"
"win":false}]
"win":false}]