Transporting Your Kayak

Maybe you've just found the perfect kayak, and you're itching to take it home from the store. Or perhaps you're planning to drive halfway across the country to paddle in a remote corner of the wilderness. Well, whether you're going two miles or two thousand miles, you're going to need a safe, convenient way to transport your kayak. You could just buy some rope and start lashing your kayak to the roof of your car, but don't be surprised if your kayak (or your roof) ends up damaged before you get where you're going. If you want to do it right, read the tips below. I promise they'll spare you a lot of hassle, heartache, and repair bills.

Foam Blocks vs. Roof Racks

There are two major ways to transport a kayak: use a simple set of foam blocks with tie-down straps, or use a full-blown roof rack system. Foam blocks are cheap, handy, and relatively effective, but they are best suited to paddlers who (1) need to get their kayak home from the store, (2) rarely transport their kayak more than a few miles, (3) don't plan to drive on the Interstate, and (4) rarely kayak more than once per week. If you fit this description, a set of foam blocks and tie-down straps may be all you ever need to transport your kayak.

The major drawback of foam blocks is that to use them effectively for long-distance driving on the Interstate (where sooner or later you will encounter fierce winds or severe storms), you often need to wrench down very, very hard on the tie-down straps, which can damage your kayak (see Strapping Down a Kayak below). If you don't, your kayak may shuffle around on top of the roof or the foam blocks may blow right out from under it. The other drawback of foam blocks is that, under windy conditions, they can make it exasperating or impossible to load your kayak onto the car. Most foam blocks simply rest on the car's roof, so if it's windy, they can blow right off before you manage to lift and set the kayak on top of them. Of course, if your car has a factory rack, you can cut a slot into the foam blocks and slide them over the rack to keep them from blowing away (most foam blocks are already slotted for this purpose); however, on very windy days, your kayak may try to do a cart-wheel as you lift it into the wind to put it on or take it off the roof. In these situations (yes, you will encounter them sooner or later), a roof rack system works considerably better. In fact, even under normal conditions, it is almost always quicker, easier, and safer to load a kayak onto a properly accessorized roof rack.

Saddles and Rollers

Due to the widespread (and growing) popularity of kayaking, roof rack manufacturers such as Yakima and Thule offer a superb variety of kayak-specific roof rack accessories designed to simplify the process of transporting a kayak. Yakima, for example, makes a very secure kayak holder called the "Mako Saddle," and a cool set of rollers called "Hully Rollers." With a pair of Mako Saddles on the front of your rack and a pair of Hully Rollers on the back, you end up with one of the most convenient kayak hauling systems available. When it's time to load up the boat for a trip, just lift the bow of the kayak into the rollers, pick up the stern, and roll the kayak forward onto the roof. Fasten everything down with a couple of webbing straps and you're set to go! Simple, secure, and safe. For even better security (but a little less convenience), replace the Hully Rollers with a second pair of Mako Saddles. Then you'll have a rock-solid setup that should outlast any storm you'll ever drive through. I especially recommend the latter setup for cars with short rooflines. Hully Rollers only hold the boat securely when they have a lot of leverage against the boat, so they are best suited for vehicles with long rooflines, like full-size SUVs. Of course, on any vehicle, Hully Rollers generally seem to work as well as foam blocks. Just keep in mind that your kayak may shuffle around a little on the Hully Rollers if you drive in high winds. It's up to you whether you prefer more secure hauling on the road or more convenient loading and unloading at the lake.

Cradles

If you drive a vehicle with a narrow roof, it may be difficult (or impossible) to fit two kayaks side-by-side using a loading system like the Mako Saddles and Hully Rollers, which haul the kayak in an upright position. As an alternative, you can invest in J-shaped cradles like the "Hullraisers" made by Yakima. These cradles carry the kayak up on its side, reducing the amount of width required on the roof. Since they are side-loading, some paddlers find them quicker to load and unload, too. Instead of loading your kayak from the rear of the vehicle, you pick the whole kayak up and load it from the side. Of course, depending on how much your kayak weighs, this feat can require a certain amount of strength (especially on windy days, or when your arms are exhausted from hours of paddling), so it may not be ideal for smaller, shorter, or elderly paddlers who cannot easily lift their kayak above the roofline of their vehicle.

Some paddlers consider the Malone Autoloader to be the ultimate cradle system. Unlike the Yakima and Thule brand cradles, Malone constructs their Autoloader cradles from a flexible polymer, which allows the entire cradle to flex under stress, creating a shock-absorbing effect that might protect your kayak from the minor stress damage which could result when driving in high winds or when your car hits a pothole at high speed. Of course, I've used the stiffer-framed Yakima HullRaisers for several years with complete satisfaction and no adverse effects to my kayaks. Any of the major brands should work well, so I would purchase the system that offers the best price.

Strapping Down a Kayak

There are two schools of thought on how to tie down a kayak: Those who tell you (calmly) "Snug up the straps to a nice, tight, secure fit," and those who tell you (with vigor) "Yank down as hard as you can! We don't want that sucker flying away!" The first philosophy is the proper one. However well-intended, tugging too hard on the tie-down straps will do far more harm than good. I've seen plenty of kayaks with hulls that have been warped, cracked, or otherwise distorted after being tied down too tightly. I've also watched (cringingly, of course) as people dangled their full body weight from tie-down straps or nearly jerked their arms out of socket trying to "secure" their kayak to the roof of their car. Of course, I try to reason with these people whenever I see them, but their reply is often the same: "Are you kiddin'? You gotta jerk hard on those puppies [the straps] if you don't want that sucker [the kayak] flying away!" While this desire is perfectly understandable, I would like to point out that the straps don't need to virtually fold your kayak in half or leave crease marks across its hull to be adequately "secure."

Here is some simple advice to ensure your kayak will stay securely fastened to your roof:

  1. Set the kayak on top of the car roof (on foam pads, or on a roof rack). Turn it upside down if you're using foam pads, otherwise place it in the position your roof rack equipment requires.

  2. Align the kayak to be perfectly parallel with the car, ensuring the bow points as straight forward as possible (to reduce windage when driving).

  3. Use two 1-inch wide nylon webbing straps with spring-loaded buckles to strap the kayak to the roof; space these straps as far apart as your roof (or roof rack) will allow.
    Note: When using foam pads, wrap the straps up over the kayak and down around its hull (essentially making a loop around the kayak) before passing the strap over to the other side of the roof. Looping around the hull in this manner will help prevent the kayak from sliding forward or backward on the roof.
  4. Tighten the webbing straps using arm strength only. Don't hang your body weight on the straps or jerk violently. Pull the straps until they are snug, then give a moderate tug to tighten them securely. Watch the kayak to ensure you don't overtighten the straps and collapse or distort the hull. Some downward compression (against the foam pads, saddles, or cradles) is normal, but the shape of the kayak should not distort under the pressure.

  5. Test the secure hold of the straps by walking to the front of the car and lifting up gently on the bow of the kayak. The hull should not lift up from the roof.

  6. Test the secure hold of the straps by pushing gently from side to side on the bow of the kayak. The kayak should not wiggle easily (some minor wiggle is unavoidable).

  7. During long trips or trips through rough weather, tie an additional rope around the bow of the kayak (through the front grab handle) and down to a secure point on or under the front bumper. Add just enough tension to the rope to take out the slack and to maintain gentle downward pressure on the bow. Watch the kayak to ensure you don't bend or crack the hull as you tighten the rope. In the same manner, tie another rope from the stern of the kayak down to a secure point on or under the rear bumper.

  8. Tie off the loose ends of the webbing straps and the bow and stern ropes so they cannot whip against your vehicle or your kayak in the wind.

  9. Check the kayak after the first 5 to 15 miles of driving to ensure that none of the straps has loosened and the kayak has not shifted. If necessary, re-tighten the straps or re-position the kayak.

If you follow these rules (and restrain your natural desire to overtighten), your kayak will arrive at its destination in one piece. Even better, it will still perform like a kayak, instead of like an oddly-bent banana.

Read Low-Hassle Tie-Down Straps to learn how to make your tie-down straps quicker and easier to use.

Roof Racks and Damage to Composite Boats

With composite boats (fiberglass, aramid/kevlar, etc.), be very careful when using roof rack systems such as the Mako Saddles and Hully Rollers. The durable plastic Mako Saddles may look nice and smooth, but the plastic has just enough grit to sand the gelcoat right off the bottom of your boat. The solution? At one time, you had to buy closed-cell foam, cut it to match the shape of the saddle, and glue the padding on securely; but now Yakima sells "Mako scuff pads" which are essentially the same thing, except pre-cut with an adhesive backing. Definitely purchase and install a set of these pads on your Mako Saddles before you transport a composite boat. (Another, short-term solution is to lay towels between the saddles and the hull before you strap down the kayak.)

You may want to avoid Hully Rollers altogether for a composite boat. Under high winds, the rollers (which offer far less surface area to support the hull than Mako Saddles) are very likely to dent your hull or put stress cracks in the gelcoat. (With plastic kayaks you shouldn't need to worry about this problem because plastic hulls flex more freely than their composite counterparts.) If you still want the convenience of the rollers, you could use two pair of Mako Saddles to carry your kayak during transport, but attach an additional set of Hully Rollers off to one side on the rear of your rack. When it comes time to unload, just lift the kayak sideways into the rollers and roll it off the back of the car as usual. Of course, if you're transporting two or more kayaks, you might not have space on your rack to do this, in which case it might be easier to switch to a side-loading set of cradles.

Cockpit Covers and Rain

Kayaks are waterproof, of course, but they also hold water—and water is heavy. If your roof rack requires you to haul your kayak in an upright position (with the cockpit pointed skyward), invest in a durable cockpit cover. Why? Because if you get caught driving in the rain and your cockpit fills with water, the extra weight may put too much strain on your roof rack, or the hull might buckle under the stress, or the swishing gallons of water inside the kayak might adversely affect the handling and tippiness of your vehicle. At the very least, you will strain your back when you try to unload the water-logged kayak from your roof. Regardless, it's safer and more convenient to keep the water out. A good cockpit cover will not only keep out water, but wind too. Your kayak will ride better on top of your car if the cockpit doesn't have to scoop wind all the way down the Interstate. For this reason, you may want to invest in a cockpit cover even if you haul your kayak upside down. I highly recommend the heavy-duty Outfitter Series PVC cockpit covers made by Snapdragon Design. They are designed with an adjustable bungee cord so you can adjust for a tight fit on virtually any cockpit. Tightness is crucial because a loose cockpit cover will fly away when you're driving.

Other Weather-Related Hazards to Kayaks

Kayaks are really only intended to ride on your car just long enough to get where you're going. They're not meant to live on top of your roof 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Why? Because aside from jagged rocks and dumping surf, the only other major danger to a kayak is the weather that it has to endure when sitting on top of your car. Heat and UV can take quite a toll on a kayak. With plastic boats in particular, heat is a dangerous enemy. If you let your plastic kayak bake on top of your car long enough when the weather is hot, you might just end up with something which resembles a soft, mushy banana more than a kayak. For airalite and composite kayaks, heat is less of an issue (though still something to be minimized, if possible). The real enemy of airalite and composite kayaks is ultraviolet (UV) light. Combined with heat, UV rays can break down glues, sealants, gaskets, fabrics, and paint. That means your composite kayak might quickly develop a leaky bulkhead, torn seat cover, or dried and cracked grab handle. Its gorgeous, glossy paint might also fade from bright sunny yellow to the color of a soft pastel lemon. Of course, these problems can be effectively reduced (if not eliminated) with a little diligence and effort on your part.

Here are a few simple tips to help protect your kayak and extend its life significantly:

  • Don't leave your kayak on top of your car any longer than it needs to be. Ideally, only put it up there long enough to get it to the water and back again.

  • Whenever possible, park your car in the shade to protect your car-topped kayak from heat and UV.

  • Wipe down your kayak and your paddling gear with 303 Protectant (basically, sunblock for your gear) at least once every three to five weeks.

  • Make a full-length kayak cover out of UV and weather resistant fabric (we recommend cutting down an inexpensive weatherproof car cover and sewing on some webbing buckles). Keep the cover in your car and throw it over your kayak whenever you stop at a grocery store or shopping mall on your way home from paddling.

  • Always store your kayak in a covered area, where it will be protected from UV and heat. If you need to store your kayak on top of your car for some reason, always put a cover over the kayak when you're not out driving around.

  • On paddling day-trips or expeditions, whenever you stop to rest or setup camp, try to find a shady spot on the beach to protect your kayaks instead of leaving them to bake in the sun and hot sand.

There is one last major weather-related enemy to a kayak strapped to your car's roof: hail. If you hear any talk of hail in the forecast, it's probably best to stay home. However, if for some reason you do need to travel (or if you get caught in a storm on your way back from paddling), always have a plan in the back of your mind for getting out of the weather. Perhaps you can pull under the awning at a gas station, or maybe you can drive off the side of the road and park between some tall trees. In a pinch, you might try throwing blankets on top of the kayaks to cushion the blow. Or maybe you can take the kayaks off the roof and slide them under your vehicle. Whatever you do, make sure you protect your kayaks as much as possible. Depending on its size, hail can seriously dent or crack any kayaks. If you see any hail at all (big or small) take action fast.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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