How to Transport a Kayak Without a Roof Rack? – No Rack, no Problem!

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Sam OBrien

In an ideal world, when it comes to hauling a kayak everyone would own a purpose-built kayak roof rack or kayak trailer to transport their hard-shell kayak around on.

But we don’t live in an ideal world and there are many valid reasons to why it is not always possible.

Maybe it’s – A lack of budget? – Your car or truck doesn’t have rack mounting points? – You are looking for a kayak rack for car without rails.

Or, simply you don’t want to buy one! 

So, how do you transport a kayak without a roof rack?  It’s a jolly good question and one I intend to answer.

Well short of selling your hard-shell and buying a fold-up or inflatable kayak, or trading the car for a stretched limo, we will need to find you a suitable alternative.

Have no fear, we have a plan.  A plan as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.

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The DIY Kayak Roof Rack System

Car with Kayak on DIY roof rck

The DIY kayak rack – the answer to the burning question; How to transport a kayak without a roof rack system

I would like to claim credit for inventing this roof rack tip but sadly I can’t.  I first came aware of this method from a couple of surf bums who were using it to attach their kayak and long-board to the roof of their camper van. 

The idea was so simple, and cheap, using just a set of racket straps and some foam tubing or foam blocks. I was shocked that it wasn’t commonplace practice – and more people weren’t hauling their kayak without a rack.

Its an excellent choice for anyone on a restricted budget or if needing a roof rack for cars without rails.

Although a few similar methods are floating around on the web, I feel this is the most practical and scalable.  Other methods I’ve seen rely on the weight of the kayak to hold the protective foam in place.

Until the kayak is placed on top, the foam is free to move.  This could easily lead to you damaging your vehicle whilst loading.  Loading on a windy day is just a prime example of where things could go wrong. 

We would strongly recommend that you secure the foam to the vehicle to create a rack.  Then the kayak to the rack, this way the rack remains on the vehicle regardless of the kayak has been loaded or not.   And always check you local laws regarding to ensure this isn’t an unlawful modification in your state, especially if you wish to transport 2 kayaks.

Kit List

I have included links to amazon just for ease, but all of these items should be readily available from most hardware stores.  But if you are lazy like me then, you will just order them online 🙂

What is a Ratchet strap?

Ratchet Strap

Ratchet straps or tie-down straps are a length of flat cord, typically nylon, which are used to restraint cargo during transportation.  The strap is fitted with an adjustable clasp with a ratchet action, this helps tighten the strap thus ensuring the cargo is secured firmly.

Many people struggling to use the ratchet clasps on a tie-down strap.  Often, they will incorrectly tread the strap through the bucket causing the buckle to jam or operate poorly. Or, they are confused about how to correctly release the ratchet to discharge the strap from the mandrel.

How to Tread and Tighten a Ratchet Strap

To use a ratchet correctly follow this 5-step guide

How to Use Ratchet Straps and Cam Buckle Straps - Beginner's Guide
  1. Open the ratchet so that the top of the buckle releases away from you.
  2. With the buckle open, thread the strap through the slot of the ratchet, also known as the mandrel. The strap should return along the length of the strap so it overlaps.
  3. Pull back on the strap, feeding it through the mandrel, until it’s tight
  4. Pull and push the ratchet back and forth until the strap is tight and the cargo held securely in place
  5. Return the ratchet bucket to the closed position to lock the strap in place.  It would click into place.

How to Release a Ratchet Strap

To release a ratchet correctly follow this 2-step process

How to Use Ratchet Straps and Cam Buckle Straps - Beginner's Guide
  1. Pull back and hold the release tab, this will disengage the ratchet mechanism
  2. Once open, remove by pulling on the strap.

Step 1 – Is My Car Suitable for This Roof Rack Method?

Firstly, you will need a 4-door car or truck. The pool noodles will be laid across the width of the roof – a noodle at each the bow and stern – between the doors – the ratchet straps will then be secured through the body of the car. Forming the DIY roof rack.

Next, your car ideally must be wide enough to allow at least a 6-inch gap either side of the kayak and the edge of the car. 

Why 6 inches from the edge? There is not hard and fast rule – just my own obversions.

It’s my experience that most car’s roof arch towards the last 6 inches, so best to leave a gap from the pool noodles to the roof edge, to ensure everything is safely secured. 

Step 2 –Noodle length

Pool noodles

So, your car is wide enough but are the pool noodles the right size?  

If your car is narrower than the noodle, you might need to cut the pool noodles to length. 

Or, if you wish to transport two kayaks without a rack or you have a super-wide Kayak then you may need to modify or join two pool noodles together.

For most people, there will be no need to cut the pool noodles and you can just skip this step. 

The length of the noodle needs to able to fit the kayak with a minimum 3-inch gap either side, while remaining 6 inches from the car edge.

But how do you know?   Well, all you need to remember is;  Noodle length >= Kayak width plus 6 inches.

How to Transport Two Kayaks without a Roof Rack?

If you have the room to transport more than one kayak then I prefer a single pool noodle for each kayak.  I find this helps you easily position them next to each other on the car roof.  Best of all, pool noodles can be easily cut to size using a craft or hand saw. 

Noddle length 1 = Kayak 1 width plus 6 inches

Noddle length 2 = Kayak 2 width plus 6 inches

Always make sure the total length of the pool noodles doesn’t exceed the car width

Step 2 – Secure the Pool Noodles to the Car

Tread the Pool Noodles

  1. Take the noodle, or noodles, and tread the strap ends, aka the non-buckle end, of the ratchet strap through the pool noodle.  Some gentle persuasion might be needed using a broom handle or fishing pole
  2. Once threaded, ensure that the pool noodles are positioned in the middle of the strap.
  3. Repeat for the second noodle/strap pair.

Position the Pool Noodles on the Car

  1. Lay the first noodle/strap set across the width of the roof so that it aligns with the centre of the front doors.
  2. Ensure that noodle is equally across the width of the car.
  3. Pass the ratchet straps through the body of the car
  4. Repeat for the second noodle or noodle pair.

Tighten Straps

  1. Sitting in the car, thread the ratchet strap.
  2. Pull hand tight, ensuring that the buckle is positioned in the centre of the car.  This avoids the strap obstructing the passenger or driver
  3. Once positioned, crack the racket to firmly tighten the strap and pool noodles to the car.  Make sure you don’t over tighten the strap as it will cut into the noodle.  The perfect tightness is at the point where the noodle can’t be moved by hand.
  4. Repeat for the second noodle or noodle pair.

Step3 – Load the kayak on to the Roof Rack

Being 6ft3 and 230lbs picking up and loading a kayak onto the roof of the car is an easy enough task but that’s not the same for everyone. 

If possible, ask another kayaker or buddy to assist you with lifting the kayak on to the roof rack. A bit like asking someone for a spot at the gym, most people are happy to oblige.  And, it’s a reciprocal arrangement, so make sure you share the love.

I will outline a super easy method that assumes; 1) you are alone 2) unable to lift the kayak above your head.

Lifting a kayak on your own

The Easiest way to Load a Kayak on Top of a Car or Truck by Yourself
  1. Before you start, it’s wise to lay something, such an old blanket, on the roof edge to protect the kayak from damaging the paintwork.
  2. Lay the Kayak parallel to the vehicle, about the length of the kayak apart.
  3. Ensure that middle of the Kayak is level with the front roof rack
  4. Walk to the top of the kayak and face down the bow. Lift the kayak at the bow, walk up underneath the kayak until the front is above your head.
  5. Next, rotate the kayak by 90 degrees and lay the bow of the on the roof of the vehicle, on the noodle or foam blocks.
  6. With the roof now supporting the weight of the Kayak, walk to the stern.
  7. Lift the stern and push the bow of the kayak onto the front roof rack strap.
  8. Once the bow is in position, rotate the kayak by 90 degrees and lay the stern on the rear roof rack strap.
  9. Now the kayak is in position, remove the protective blanket.

Step 4 – How to Secure the Kayak to the Rack/Car

oyota 4runner and whitewater inflatable kayak on roof rack

The final step in the process how to transport a kayak without a roof rack system is to firmly secure the Kayak to the car. 

  1. Open the car doors
  2. Lay one ratchet strap, non-buckle end, over the top of the kayak and in line with the front pool noodle and car doors
  3. Make sure that the strap length is spread equally across the width of the car.
  4. Pass the strap through the body of the car. (front doors)
  5. Whilst sitting in the car, thread the ratchet strap.
  6. Pull hand tight, ensuring that the buckle is positioned in the center of the car.  This avoids the strap obstructing the passenger, driver, or hitting the window when cornering.
  7. Once positioned, crank the ratchet to firmly tighten the strap.  Make sure you don’t over tighten the strap as it will damage the kayak. 
  8. Repeat the process for the rear of the kayak.
  9. Once the front and rear ratchet straps have been secured; check there is no side ward, front, or rearward kayak movement.  If there is, slightly increase the strap tightness at the bow and stern until the movement stops.

How to Transport a Kayak Without a Roof Rack – Wrapping Things Up

So, I hope you have found this guide useful is learning how to transport a kayak without a roof rack. I am sure you will agree it’s a simple and inexpensive work around but is better than a roof rack system, sadly not! Although cheap to purchase and install, its not the most efficient and will negatively impact your gas mileage when compared to a standard commercial roof rack.

Nonetheless, this little DIY roof rack has certainly gotten me out of a predicament or two and I wouldn’t be without it – give it a try.

But whilst we are on the topic of how to haul a kayak without a rack, although roof racks are an excellent way to transport your kayak, they are not the only method of kayak transportation; kayak trailer are an excellent alterative and one to consider if you are a multi-sport family and need to transport bike, boards and bike all at one time. Why not check our kayak trailer reviews – go on, I know you want to.

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Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.