The weather is hot, the sun is shining, and the rivers and lakes are calling. It’s time to break that kayak or canoe out of storage (or buy one) and hit the water! But wait, is your car properly outfitted for the trip there and back? This simple guide will help make sure you get the most out of your summer paddling in a safe and affordable manner.
The first factor in determining how you should move your gear around is determining what kind of car you have. The second is the size of your kayak or canoe. If you have a tiny car and a huge kayak, for example, you’ll need to have a different configuration than someone with a small canoe and a large pickup.
There are a few basic components you’ll need:
If you have a full-size pickup truck with a long bed, and a shorter kayak or canoe, it can be as easy as tossing it into the bed and tying it down before hitting the road.
Longer kayaks (10 feet or longer) and canoes can be rested against the cab or headache rack (if so equipped). Be sure to provide the appropriate padding, and with the rest of the boat extending into the bed, properly secure it.
For SUVs, you’ll need a rack on top for all but the shortest of kayaks and canoes—anything too long to fit inside. Many SUVs and crossovers come with factory rails installed, which are likely to be compatible with major rack companies’ equipment, such as that from Thule, Yakima, or Rhino Rack.
Check your owner’s manual to see which rack system you need, and be sure to consult the website of the rack manufacturer to find the fitment specific to your vehicle and kayak or canoe needs.
Installing a rack on factory cargo rails is a simple and relatively quick process, and typically can be accomplished by just about anyone who’s fairly handy with a wrench and a screwdriver in two hours or less.
If your SUV or crossover didn’t come with factory cargo rails, there are a number of options, including roof-mounted rails, racks that mount to the drip rails that run along the sides of your roof (typically only on older vehicles), or racks that attach by other means.
If you’d like to have hard-mounted rails attached to your roof, you’ll probably be best served by locating a local installer and having the job done professionally. A poorly installed roof rail system can cause leakage, electrical issues, and other problems.
Rack solutions for hatchbacks and wagons (cars like the Subaru Outback and XV Crosstrek, or VW Jetta Sportwagen, for example) will be very similar to those for SUVs and crossovers, as many of these cars were equipped with roof rails from the factory.
For sedans, which only rarely come with any type of factory-installed cargo management system, you’ll need to visit a roof rack installer for the most secure installation, though a number of racks on the market can be installed at home by regular folks.
The less permanent installations can make good sense if you’re only planning a single trip, as they often cost less than the hard-mounted rack systems, but if you’re going to be hauling a kayak or canoe frequently, you’ll want a more rugged solution.
Some things to know about racks: different racks come with different weight ratings, so be sure the rack you choose is rated to haul your kayak or canoe and any other gear you’ll be putting on the roof.
If your kayak or canoe is very long, it may require more than the basic two crossbars for proper attachment and support, or it may not fit on the roof of your car at all. Don’t worry, that’s what trailers are for (more on those later).
Once you have the rack, you’ll need some way to attach your kayak or canoe to the rack. The major rack brands all make attachment systems designed specifically for canoes and kayaks, which will ensure you can safely attach one or the other without damaging it or your car. Use their web configurator systems to decide which is right for you and your gear.
If you’re going to be hauling kayaks or canoes on the roof of your car, that’s all you really need. Toss the paddles, cooler, dry bags, and other gear inside the vehicle and hit the water!
If, however, your car isn’t well-suited to roof hauling, or you don’t want to deal with lifting a long or heavy canoe or kayak onto the roof, a trailer may be a better option—and they work with almost all vehicles.
Trailers for canoes and kayaks are usually more expensive than rack systems, but they are relatively compact compared with other trailers and can double as handy places to store your boats when not in use.
Trailers are also great if you need to haul two, three, four, or even more kayaks or canoes, as most vehicles can’t safely fit more than two medium-sized canoes or kayaks on the roof.
Fortunately, canoe and kayak trailers are lightweight, and even when loaded, will typically fall within the tongue weight and tow ratings of most passenger cars. If your car doesn’t have a hitch and trailer wiring installed, you’ll want to have that done by a professional unless you are confident you know what you’re doing and have all the right tools.
The hitch is the only point of attachment for the trailer and all your kayaks, so it’s important to get the installation right.
Unlike the roof rack system, most trailers designed for kayak and canoe use come with the attachment systems pre-installed, so all you need to do is hit up the local sporting goods or trailer store and find one that works for your vehicle and your boats, and you’ll be ready to start paddling.
Whether you choose a roof rack or a trailer, it’s important to be aware of the extra height and/or length they add to your vehicle. It’s surprisingly easy to forget you have another 2-3 feet of height when driving through a low-clearance drive-through or ATM, and the results could be disastrous.
Likewise, if you don’t have much experience hauling a trailer, you might want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the space necessary to make turns, U-turns, and how to reverse with a trailer before hitting the highway.
Armed with this new knowledge, you’ll be in the sun and on the water safely and affordably in no time.
automotive freelance journalist