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How to Transport a Kayak – Useful Tips and Tricks

Temporary racks from Yakima on a car

Every now and then you need to get some kayaks from Point A to Point B. Here’s a look at the best ways to attach those kayaks to the roof of your car. 

What you’ll need:

  • A kayak strapped to the roof of a car for transport

    Two tie downs per boat (made of either webbing or rope) for the center area tie down. While it is possible to tie down a boat with a single long piece of material, two separate pieces allow for a much more secure tie-down.

  • One or two long pieces of webbing or rope for bow and/or stern lines.
  • Protective padding (could be a rack system, but there are many options, from folded towel to spare pool noodles).

Using roof top bars

Flat bars

Flat bars are the simplest way to tie boats to your roof. Simply throw the boat up there and tie down tight as described below. The downside of a flat bar (whether it is round, square, or rectangular) is that it can leave dents in your boat’s hull, effecting the performance on the water. You can mitigate this by placing a rolled up towel, stiff foam, or manufactured “board protector” product between the bar and your boat. You can also place the kayak deck side down on the bars, or on its side, but this can make it more difficult to tie in place, depending on the placement of your bars and shape of your boat. The sides and deck of a kayak are less likely to be deformed when in contact with bars while cinched down than the hull.


Cradles come in two main types: “J bars” that hold the boat vertically on its side and “saddle” or “V” cradles that hold the boat in a horizontal position. Cradles can provide added security to hold the boat in place, and padding to prevent hull deformation. When tying down with cradles always wrap the webbing or line around the bar itself, don’t use the cradle as an attachment point.

What To Do If Your Car Doesn’t Have Bars

If your car does not have bars to rest your kayaks on you can still transport a boat or two by running tie-down webbing through the doors of your car and then over the kayaks on top. You’ll just need to protect the roof of your car with some sort of padding. Always go through the car doors rather than the windows so that you can open the doors even with the boat up there! Additionally, ALWAYS use both bow and stern tie down lines when using temporary protection systems.

Here are some options for protecting your roof:

Simple foam blocks Malone foam blocks for kayaks and roof bars

Place foam blocks centered underneath your kayak so that it is resting fully on them. Run the webbing over the kayak then through the rear doors so that it exits back on the side you started. Create a loop in one end and run the other end through it. Full directions are detailed below.  Next, run another piece of tie down material through the front set of doors in the same manner.

Blanket or towel

An even simpler method, though it provides less protection for both your kayak and your car, is to place a soft blanket or towel between the kayak surface and the car. This will protect the car roof from getting scratched, but wont protect either vehicle from potential denting.

Temporary padding or inflatable style “bars”

Temporary racks from Yakima on a carThe most “advanced” of the temporary protection methods, these ingenious devices offer a low cost, transferable alternative to fixed metal bars.

The temporary racks are secured to your car by running webbing through the car doors, then tightening the straps through the camming device. Many provide some form of secure attachment point, allowing you to tie the kayak(s) down without running additional webbing or ropes through your vehicle. Follow the instructions below, and simply treat the tie down point features on your temporary racks as if they were the metal bars of a permanent roof rack.


Tying Down Using Cam Straps

Camming tie down straps from NRS. Cam straps, or tie down straps, are manufactured products which consist of a flat piece of webbing, usually one inch wide, and a metal cam buckle. The strap is wrapped around the kayak and the object it is being tied to, then the free end is inserted into the buckle. The buckle holds the strap in place, a form of “progress capture”, which allows you to tighten down the strap as much as you would like without needing to manually maintain tension or tie a keeper knot.

Tying Down Using Rope and Knots

The best way to tie down a boat using rope is with a modified version of a trucker’s hitch system, a series of knots which working together can act like a cam strap. This can be accomplished one of two ways.

Option #1: Fixed End

  • Tie one end of the line to a fixed point near the center of the car with a loop knot like a bowline.
  • Drape the line over the kayak and then under the outside of the bar.
  • Near the top of the kayak, tie an improved slip knot (aka a slippery 8, or a two twist slip knot) in the middle of the line.
  • Run the end of the line through the loop to create a pulley system, cinching the kayak down to the bars.
  • Squeeze where the line runs through the slip know to maintain tension then tie a keeper knot such as a half hitch.

Option #2: Loop

  • Run the line underneath the bars near the center of the car so that the mid point is touching the bars.
  • Drape both ends over the kayak.
  • In one end, tie a loop knot like a bowline or figure eight on a bight.
  • Arrange the line so that the loop knot is resting on the top of the kayak.
  • Run the untied end under the bars near the outside edge, then up to the loop and through, creating a simple pulley system.
  • Pull down until the kayak is cinched tight to the bars.
  • Pinching where the line runs through the loop to maintain tension, tie a keeper knot such as a half hitch.

Stern and bow lines

Stern and bowlines are an excellent way to ensure that your boat doesn’t swing from side to side while driving, especially when on the highway. A diagonal boat in enough wind is actually capable of ripping the bars right off of your car! The more security your boat has at the center the less they are needed (e.g. a tightly secured boat in j cradles vs one flat on the roof), but it is often a good idea to put at least one on regardless just in case. As they say, better safe then sorry!

Bow and stern lines can be attached from the boat(s) to fixed points on your car using modified truckers’ hitch systems described above. Any metal attachment point on the car will do, as long as it does not put the rope or webbing in danger of melting from contact with the exhaust pipe. Plastic products are also made which allow you to create attachment points by pinching the device in the hood or trunk of your car. You can also make your own by bolting a loop of webbing to a point on the frame if you’re a DIY kind of person!

If you are carrying multiple boats on your roof, I recommend always running a line through their bows and sterns connecting the boats to each other, and ideally to the car as well. This gives you an added level of security if anything shifts while traveling. Boats strapped together have been known to shift and come loose on the road!

Additional Tips and Tricks!

  • Always thoroughly wipe off your boat’s bottom before putting it on top of your car! This will protect your car from scratches caused by sand, salt, and rocks.
  • Learning to tie knots is an invaluable skill! If a camming strap breaks or can’t be found it is easy to find an alternative with a spare bit of rope. Plus, those knot skills can be applied to a host of other situations such as setting up tents and tarps, securing anchor or dock lines, repairing parts of your kayak, and more!
  • When tying your trucker’s hitch or camming strap system to secure your kayak, running one piece of line under the boat’s perimeter deck lines or through another hard point such as a metal d-ring, adds an extra level of security. The boat won’t be able to escape the closed loop, so even if the boat comes loose (or was tied poorly in the first place) you’ll have time to pull over and fix it before it goes flying off your car.
  • For the most part you want your tie down straps to be flat so that you can tighten them efficiently, but a single twist can reduce vibration noise while driving.
  • If transporting more than two boats you’ll need some form of center bar like a “stacker” roof rack accessory. This allows you to lean the boats on their sides against the stacker. It also allows you to run your line around the stacker instead of the flat bars, which is easier to reach when a lot of boats are in the way.
  • Even when using cam straps it is often a good idea to throw one keeper knot in the end of line so that the buckle can’t slip. When tying your own knot many guides like to do a double keeper for extra security. Additional line can be wrapped around the bars, stuck in a door, daisy chained, or a number of other solutions.