Selecting A Kayak Roof Rack For Cars Without Rails

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Are you looking for an inexpensive kayak roof rack for a car without rails? Join the club. Unless you bought a car with the intention of needing a kayak roof rack at some point, chances are you may have a car without rails for a crossbar or rack; or worse, a car without anyway of attaching a rack of any kind. Roof racks are not a feature many people think of when they’re buying a new car because newer cars usually have a rail system, either designed or concealed in the roof. Yet, most newer cars do have the basic features necessary for those who want a rack later.

However, older cars, certain models or makes, and even some SUVs or minivans just don’t have racks or rail systems. Worse, some systems require you have a four-door vehicle to use the racks as the clamps wrap around the upper or top part of the door.

What is a Roof Rack?

A roof rack is simply a framework for carrying luggage, boats, bikes, or other equipment on the roof of a vehicle. Roof racks come in a dizzying assortment of designs, attachments, and configurations for carrying everything from ladders to surfboards to suitcases. For this article, we’re sticking to roof racks for kayaks, and to how to buy a roof rack for a car without rails. 

What is a Rail?

A rail is a bar that runs from the front of your roof to the rear of your roof, parallel with the side of your car. Not every make, model or vehicle has a rail system. Rails have a variety of dimensions that vary from vehicle to vehicle. It’s important that you check to see if the rack you’re buying will fit the rails you have. Many systems will fit any rails, or can be adjusted to fit, while others are brand and model specific.

In cars without rails the vehicle’s “rain gutters” are used to attach a rack system to. If your car doesn’t have rain gutters or a rail, or a fix point (see below), then you’ll probably need to have a system installed. That means drilling into your car’s roof, and the potential for leaks. Fortunately most cars have one or more systems in place so that won’t be necessary.

Fix points

Fix points can be found on any almost any car body style. Often called “concealed racks,” a ‘Fix Point’ is a designed point on a car roof or inside the door jamb, specifically for mounting a roof rack to. There will be from 4-6 of these points, usually four. They’re hidden under a plastic cap or cover that you pry up with a screwdriver.  Once you pry the cap off you’ll see a small, one to three-inch-long point for attaching a separate railing system to.

kayak roof rack for cars without rails[1] Illustration showing just a few of the different types of ‘fix point’ mounting system on the market

These are great systems, and very secure, despite their small footprint. But they’re not really fast or easy if you want to install or remove a roof rack each time you go out, unless you enjoy spending 30 minutes or more every time you want to attach or detach your rack.

Related: Best Kayak Cooler Options

As we said earlier, some cars have rain gutters, but no rails. There are roof rack systems that have clamps or “feet” that fit into these gutters, which allows you to attach different kinds of roof rack. Then there are cars, like some older models of the Dodge Caravan, that have no rain gutters, no concealed system, and no way to attach anything to the roof without drilling into the roof, or running ropes through open windows — not the most practical option, especially if you need to enter and exit your vehicle along the way. Plus, even if you are okay about running ropes through your car windows, some cars, again – the Dodge Caravan, has side windows which don’t open. This can be a safety hazard as well – tying doors closed that might need to be opened quickly in an accident or emergency.

Three Options If You Don’t Have a Rail System:

  • Install a rack or hire a professional to install it for you. If you have no rail system, and no rain gutters or fix point system this may involve drilling into your roof, and ensuring the roof doesn’t leak later. Thus, the keyword “professional.” You can find DIY engineered systems on Youtube for creating your own systems—but most solutions require basic welding skills, a shop, and having a lot of time on your hands.
  • Do a little research on Youtube, or talk to company who sells roof rack systems to come up with a solution for your make and model vehicle.
  • Purchase a rackless kayak and boat transportation system. These systems can range anywhere from devices that look like pool noodles, to rigid foam blocks and a system of straps, ropes, and ways to secure your boat(s). The strap systems either run through open windows so they don’t go flying through the windshield of the car behind you, or attach to a rain gutter if you have one.
  • Use an inflatable rack system like the Malone Handirack System.

Terminology

Different manufacturers have different names for their products, but the basics are the same. Understanding the terminology is critical if you’re ordering a kayak roof rack for a car without rails.

Roof rack

A roof rack is a basic system of Rails, Crossbars, and Towers (or Feet) that sits on and fastens to your car. Roof racks are designed to carry a variety of loads—from kaykaks and canoes, to bikes, luggage, skiis, and surfboards.

Towers or Feet

Towers, which are also referred to as Feet, sit on each of the four corners of your roof directly across from each other. They attach to either your bare roof (with the addition of a specific kit/clip), or to your existing factory roof rails or factory mount track/fixed points. Some racks, like inflatable racks, do not have towers or rails, but simply stretch across your vehicle roof.

Load Bars or Crossbars

Load Bars or Crossbars, attach to your towers/feet and run from driver-side window to passenger-side window to create a mounting point for your accessories.

Fit Kits or Landing Pads

Fit Kits or Landing Pads are vehicle specific parts which mount the tower/feet to your vehicle. Some vehicles, such as a vehicle with factory installed raised rails, do not need these.

Rails

Roof rails run along the length of the vehicle’s roof, from front-to-back rather than side-to-side. Roof rails are a common sight on modern vehicles such as SUVs and mini-vans. If you look at any SUV on the road today, you can see them. Their purpose is to provide an attachment point for crossbars and other devices designed to secure loads carried on the roof of the vehicle. Roof rails are attached to the vehicle’s roof by feet or other mounts. This is one attribute that distinguishes roof rails from other attachment devices, such as tracks, which are typically built directly into the roof of the vehicle.

Related: Different Types of Kayaks

Aftermarket roof rails are available from some manufacturers if your model did not come with rails. These roof rails come in a variety of lengths to suit various vehicles. Aftermarket roof rails must fit the vehicle for which they are intended. Some manufacturers offer a sizing guide to ensure a good fit. Some aftermarket manufacturers also offer roof rails designed to mimic the roof rails produced by the original equipment manufacturer.

Tracks

A track system attaches permanently to your roof in existing groves. Bars then slide along the tracks with different heights and spacers allowing you to match the bars already on your vehicle. Tracks for your vehicle and sold as a pair, come in different lengths and include rivets and end caps.

OEM and After Market

OEM means Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). These rails come from your car’s dealership and are designed specifically for your make and model. After market rails can come from a variety of manufacturers and will fit your car, but not as well as the rails designed for it. The difference for most people however, is so small as to be undetectable. After market parts are generally less expensive than OEM parts and the quality is generally the same. 

Lock Cylinder

A Lock Cylinder is a locking device, almost always ordered separately, that is used to lock your roof rack to your rails and roof so your rack system isn’t stolen. 

J Hook or J Cradle

The “J” hook or cradle gets its name because it looks like the letter “J.” The inside portion of the J is a sort of scoop designed to hold your kayak on its side. This allows you to load up to four-to-six kayaks (depending on the width of your vehicle) on your roof. They’re very popular devices as they keep your boat(s) from moving around on top of the vehicle and give you more security. They have other advantages as well, including making it easier for women, children, those without upper body strength strong enough to manhandle a 50 pound kayak, and the elderly to load their boats unaided. It’s simple enough to attach a bully system that allows the user to easily and safely pull their boat into the “J” rack quickly. Other advantages of a J hook:

  • If positioned on the outside of the rack, there is room inbetween the J hooks to have a storage unit, or more boats in between the two J hooks
  • Kayaks and canoes are easier to secure using locks and cables threaded through the J
  • Boats are more secure and less likely to move around or become loose in a J hook
  • You can load more boats, more securely with J hooks
  • J hooks allow you to attach your straps before you load your kayak

Hand Roll or Roller Assisted Mount

A roller-assisted boat mount is a set of what looks like two small wheels on the back end of your racks—near the rear of your vehicle. These mounts allow paddlers to load the tip of their boat first, then roll the boat to the front of the vehicle. The rollers reduce friction and make loading and unloading any size kayak an easy, one-person job.

5 Things You Need to Know Before Buying a Roof Rack for a Car Without Rails

How wide is your car?

Check the width at the front (about 6-12 inches from the top of the windshield) and at the rear (about 6-12 inches in front of the rear of the roof). Not all roof racks will fit all cars. Most racks are adjustable for 6-to-12 inches, but you need a rack that will comfortably fit the width of your car.

Is there a rain gutter, or fixed point system?

Some cars have rain gutters, narrow channels with a lip that allows rain to run off the front and rear of your car’s roof. There are a variety of roof racks that can attach to rain gutters permanently, or temporarily. Is there a fixed point system? A fixed point system is built into your car roof to allow you attach a rail system.

How much do you want to spend?

What’s your budget? To find a safe, dependable roof rack for a car without rails, you’ll most likely end up needing a brand name like Thule, or Yakima. With a variety of carriers out there, there are many good, well-made, and durable rack manufacturers, so look around.

What is the warrantee?

For systems like Thule or Yakima, if properly affixed, you’re covered under most insurance plans if, for some reason, your kayak comes off. Make sure to check with your auto insurer to see what is required when adding a roof rack, or carrying items on your rack.

For the DIYer, there are free plans on the Internet and Youtube that show you how to build a roof rack system using rack towers/feet.

Consider the weight

If the roof rack is going to be attached to an existing rack on a car, you must consider the heaviest weight that will be carried on the rack. Consult the car manual or call the car manufacturer and describe what you intend to use the car rack for. If the roof rack is going to be mounted gutterless or in the rain gutters of the car, make sure the largest weight can be accommodated.

Accessories

Not all roofracks for cars without rails have accessories, but some do. Those accessories can make it much easier to mount and maintain your system – if you know about them. So ask the salesperson what accessories are available for your system. Make sure they are exactly the accessories you need now, or that you might need in the future. Ask if the design of the roof racks have changed in the last 5 years. In other words, is there a good chance that an accessory purchased a few years later will still fit the roof rack system that you are considering purchasing.

Extra accessories for maintenance

Sometimes there are extra accessories (like a rubber plug that goes into the end of the rack pole) to help keep water out of the crossbar to keep the rack from rusting, etc. Ask the salesperson if there are any additional accessories that you should know about. Then decide what is right for you.

Ask for Help or Good Instructions

Some retail stores will not only sell you a rack, but install it or show you how to install it. Sometimes this is a free service, sometimes there’s a fee. Either way, make sure you understand how to properly and safely install your rack.  If it’s possible for you to watch the whole installation, do so. Otherwise, ask for any helpful suggestions on what people do wrong the first time a roof rack is installed. Always center and balance the roof rack when installing it on your car.

Purchase From a Reputable Seller

On average roof racks cost between $249 to $900. So, this is a very important purchase and you want to make sure that you’ve chosen the correct rack for your needs. Don’t buy a rack sight unseen on a phone tech’s assurance if possible, unless there is an excellent return policy. You must see the rack, understand the accessories and have your car with you. If you have purchased car racks before and you have done an rack installation, you can then consider choosing a car rack over the Internet.

Don’t forget to learn how to maintain your roof racks correctly because incorrect methods might damage your roof rack and choose a roof rack wisely. 

Kayak Roof Rack for Cars Without Rails

There are a variety of popular and affordable roof racks for cars without rails. Some attach inside your car doors, like the Malone Handirack Inflatable Rack System. Others are makde of foam blocks that sit on top of your vehicle, like the

Malone Handirack Inflatable Rack Systemkayak rack for car without roof rack

The HandiRack® Inflatable Roof Rack is the world’s first inflatable roof rack. It comes with two twin-tube inflatable racks. Easy to use, the Inflatable Roof Rack installs in minutes and requires no tools to assemble. Use year-round to transport your surfboard, paddleboard, kayak, snowboard or any cargo weighing up to 180 lbs. Comes with travel bag, load straps and a 1,000cc double-action air pump. Crafted of 420 denier nylon with five D-ring anchor points. Dimensions when inflated: 38” L x 9.5” W x 3.5” H. One year manufacturer’s warranty. Imported.

  • Universal Fit
  • Stows in trunk when not in use
  • Installs in minutes
  • Reinforced nylon stitching plus D-ring anchors
  • Easy to use
  • Includes travel bag, load straps and air pump
  • Manufacturer’s one year warranty
  • Weight capacity: 180 lbs.

Apex RCB-3745-U Universal Strap-Attached Roof Crossbars

roof rack for car without railsA good alterantive for a roof without rails is an all in one system like the Apex RCB-3745-U strap attached roof crossbars. You don’t need rails with this system if you are carrying long items like kayaks, skiis, canoes, or a surfboard. These straps go through your car’s doors, so unless you have a four-door, or at least a four-window vehicle, they may not work.

  • The set includes 1 pair of 48″W roof bars
  • Quick vehicle attachment and removal
  • Protective rubber end-caps and non-mar rubber feet
  • Sturdy steel tube construction
  • Black & gray textured finish 

Sea Sucker Monkey Bars

roof rack for car without rails 2018

These are unusual bars in that they attach to your bare roof with suction cups. The Monkey Bars are 48″ round aluminum cross bars that allow for a multitude of attachments, such as kayak, ski, board, bike & cargo.  Powered by 6″ SeaSucker vacuum cups (4 up front and 2 in the rear), the Monkey Bars fit on just about any car with a roof.  Have a wide or narrow roof? No worries, the vacuum cups can be moved to any position on the bar to ensure a perfect fit for any vehicle.  A folding option allows bars to break down from 48″ to 24″ for travel and storage.

Pool Noodle DIY Roofrack Systems

kayak rack for car without roof rack

If you’re a DIY’er,  or on a budget, you can use pool noodles and webbing to create your own roof rack system. Be sure and buy the noodles with holes through the centers, not the solid noodles. There are a variety of “how-to” build these systems on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkYI40dukpY 

Roof Kayak Carrier Foam Blocks 

There are a variety of styles of foam blocks which are secured to your rooftop with straps that also provide a safe, lightweight system designed for kayaks and canoes.

 kayak roof rack for cars without rails 2018

Secure and transport a single kayak on a vehicle’s roof without requiring side rails or cross bars with an Apex kayak carrier kit. Each kit includes a pair of 3.125″ x 15.75″ x 4″ foam blocks with an angled profile that compresses to fit a most kayak hull shapes and create a buffer between the vehicle roof and kayak. Includes (2) pair of cam buckle tie-down straps and (2) tie ropes for bow and stern securing. One pair of the cam buckle straps attach to the vehicle, the other pair to the kayak, and the tie ropes connect the two together. Foam blocks are made with high-density polyethylene foam for a firm grip to the vehicle roof and kayak.

  • Great for securing a single kayak to a vehicle roof without crossbars or side rails
  • Angled profile kayak hull-shaped foam blocks measuring 3.125″ x 15.75″ x 4″ each
  • (2) Pair cam buckle tie-down straps
  • (2) Tie-down ropes for kayak bow and stern securing
  • High-density polyethylene foam creates a buffer between the kayak and vehicle roof
  • These lightweight foam blocks are dense and will support any size, weight, or shape kayak you can put on them without a problem. 

[1] https://www.micksgarage.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-roof-racks/