June 18, 2018
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Loading a kayak onto your vehicle

By Jeff Strout, BDN Staff

One of the joys of kayaking or canoeing is being able to get on the water just about anywhere — have boat, will travel.

For some, therein lies the rub. Getting a kayak on the roof of a vehicle is a downright daunting exercise. Securing it there is almost as bad.

Let’s go through the exercise and demystify it.

First, we need to assume you have some sort of roof rack. The choices are varied — from a simple foam block that fits over factory crossbars to after-market racks by Thule and Yakima and others with accessories such as saddles, J-racks or stackers. Saddles support the boat from the bottom and should be spaced as close as possible to the bulkheads of the boat. J-racks or stackers hold the boat on its side, the strongest part of the boat.

The width of your vehicle’s roof will determine how many boats you can squeeze aboard. A full-sized vehicle, say a van or SUV, might carry four boats on their sides, whereas a compact will carry a couple of boats. Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual to see what the weight limit is. Single kayaks vary from about 40 to 70 pounds apiece.

You also will need a suitable means of securing the kayak to the roof rack. Woven synthetic straps such as the NRS brand are my choice. I’ve used rope in a pinch, but I prefer the security and ease of use of a cam-lock buckle. You also will need some lines for the bow and stern, although some people consider them optional.

Assuming your vehicle’s all set up with the racks and appropriate saddles, let’s see about getting that long, skinny boat on top.

The easiest way is to grab a friend and have him or her pick up one end of the boat and you grab the other. One quick burst and up it goes! Right?

Yes, it’s simple with two people. But what if you’re by yourself? The task is way more daunting, you say.

True. But using a few simple tricks makes it less so. And you don’t have to be a cave man.

One method is to place your kayak parallel with your vehicle, the bow overlapping the back of the car by a few feet. Place a blanket over the trunk-rear window or back of your car-van-SUV. This will prevent scratching the paint. The major rack-makers sell an accessory to do the same thing.

Now go to the bow, lift it up, and place it on the blanket. You’ll have to turn the boat at least partially on its side because it won’t balance on the sharp bottom V of the bow and stern.

When the boat is stable and won’t slide one way or the other, go to the stern, turn the boat upright and push it forward. The bow will slide over the blanket and up into the saddles. Continue pushing until the kayak’s where you want it. In this method you’ll lift only half or so of the boat’s weight.

A variation of this involves an accessory Thule sells. It’s basically an extension of the crossbar that pulls out of the end of the bar. With it extended, place your kayak parallel to the vehicle, overlapping the bar’s position by a few feet. Lift the bow and place it on the extension. Again, you will need to turn the boat on its side to make it stable.

Go to the stern, lift it and pivot it onto the rear saddle. Using the rear saddle as a fulcrum, pull down on the stern and pivot the bow into the front saddle. Sounds difficult, but it’s not. You’re lifting only part of the weight and then using your own weight to finish the job.

A J-saddle requires more lifting to get the boat up and over the lip of the rack, and depending on the height of your vehicle it can be work. Again the rack extension accessory makes the job easier.

When the boat is situated on the rack you need to secure it in place. This is where some finesse is involved. You don’t have to reef down on the lines or straps with all your weight. You can crack a composite boat and flatten or dent a plastic-hulled boat.

I like an NRS-style cam buckle strap of about 10-12 feet. It’s a little long, but extra length comes in handy at times (even for those trips to the lumber yard). Hold the buckle end, throw the rest of the strap over the top of the boat and bring it under the crossbar. Go around the bar once and then bring the end back up and over the boat, then under the near end of the crossbar and through the cam buckle. Cinch it tight. (Don’t be too aggressive here.)

Some saddles have their own slots for the tie-down strap. Use them, but it’s good to take a wrap around the crossbar as well.

You’ll have a bit of strap left over that you can wrap around the rack and bar in your own creative way, securing the tag end so it doesn’t flap in the breeze.

If your choice is a rope, make sure it’s a sound piece of line and about three-eighths-inch diameter. Run the line in as just described, and secure it with a trucker’s hitch. Don’t overtighten.

A bow and stern line can be fastened to the vehicle’s frame and to the kayak’s end toggles. Don’t reef down hard on these lines or you’ll bend (or break) your boat. Some folks like to take two lines on each end and secure them to the outer width of the vehicle to keep the bow and stern from moving side to side. It’s up to you. I’ve transported boats many miles without bow and stern lines at highway speeds. I always check the racks to be sure they’re firmly attached to the roof. And at rest stops it’s good to check the tie-downs for tightness.

My preference when hauling boats on the highway is to use bow and stern lines. I like the peace of mind it gives me. A kayak flying off the roof would be a lethal weapon for others on the road.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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