How to Strap Your Canoe or Kayak to a Roof Rack

Kayak roof strap
A kayak and a canoe are creatively strapped to the roof rack of a Honda Element. Photo © by George E. Sayour

 Anyone who paddles a kayak or canoe must have a way to transport them to and from the water. Serious paddlers have this fact in mind whenever they purchase a vehicle.

While canoe and kayak roof racks can be fitted to virtually any type of car, truck, or SUV, some manufacturers make it easier than others. This step-by-step guide will describe how to secure a canoe or kayak to a factory installed or aftermarket roof rack.

While there are many fancy attachments available to help transport boats, the method of strapping them onto the roof remains unchanged. This is because it is the kayak position and not the strap position that changes. 

When in doubt, always consult the instruction manual that came with your car or roof rack.

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Lay the Kayak Straps Over the Bars of the Roof Rack

Kayak Roof Rack
Kayak Roof Rack Step 1: Lay the straps over the roof rack bars. Photo © by George E. Sayour

The first step in tying your canoe or kayak down to your car is laying the straps over each bar. Of course, you will want to make sure the buckles on the end of the straps don't scratch your car door.

  • Thread each strap underneath and around each bar and let the kayak straps lay flat against your vehicle. 

Typically, boat straps have two ends: one with a metal buckle or clamp and one without. To avoid damaging your paint, carefully rest the clamped end against the window and allow the non-metal end to hang longer along the car's body.

If you haven't already done so, it is a good idea at this point to check the crossbars of the kayak rack. Make sure they aren't loose and if they are, tighten them. Each rack will vary but most simply require an allen wrench (a good tool for your paddling gear).

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How to Place a Kayak or Canoe on a Roof Rack

Kayak Roof Rack Step 2
Kayak Roof Rack Step 2: Place the kayak on the vehicle. Photo © by George E. Sayour

Now, get ready to place the kayak on the roof rack. These steps assume you are only transporting one boat on the roof of your car at a time, though they also can be adapted to two boats.

  • If you are tieing the kayak directly to the crossbars of the roof rack, place the boat upside down on the rack. Placing a plastic boat hull-side down can cause indentations—sometimes called 'oil canning'—and while it can be removed, it will affect your boat's ability to track straight.
  • If you are using kayak carrier pads or special attachments like hooks or rollers on the roof rack, you can place the kayak right-side-up.

For sea or recreational kayak, make sure nothing is hanging off the deck that will dent and damage the roof of the car. Straps that flap in the wind can wear the paint off your car and your hatches should also be secured.

The Placement of Your Boat

Whether your boat is better off facing the front or rear will depend on the type of kayak. Some sea kayaks are more aerodynamic from the bow—it's how they ride in water—and you'll get better gas mileage the less resistance you create. Recreational kayaks are often less defined from front to back, so you can go either way.

Try placing whitewater kayaks backward first and push the cockpit combing up against the inside of the back crossbar. The air pressure from the wind against the kayak will keep the kayak pushed up against the rear crossbar. 

When placing a canoe on a roof rack, it should be centered on the crossbars for even weight distribution.

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Bring the Canoe Straps over the Canoe

Kayak Roof Rack Step 3
Kayak Roof Rack Step 3: Bring the straps over the kayak or canoe. Photo © by George E. Sayour

Once the boat is on the roof of the car and the straps are around the bars, pull the straps over the canoe or kayak to the other side of the roof rack to avoid car damage or even a broken window. It can be tough to get the canoe straps over a large canoe, but doing this correctly is worth the extra effort.

If you are using long enough straps, you might have some slack to work with:

  1. Pull on the buckle end (ensuring the strap remains over the bar) and walk it around the end of the vehicle and over the boat. 
  2. Let this end hang freely while you pull on the other end to get more length, then toss the non-metal end over the boat.

You can also try both sides of each strap around the car and over the canoe or kayak at the same time. Whatever the case, the trick will be to get the straps over the canoe without damaging the car, boat, or yourself. It's a tricky business and you will quickly learn the best method for your set-up. 

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Secure the Kayak Straps

Kayak Roof Rack Step 4
Kayak Roof Rack Step 4- Bring the straps around the crossbars and through the buckles. Photo © by George E. Sayour

Once the kayak is in position on the roof rack and the straps are laying over the kayak it is time to strap it down.

  1. Ensure the straps are laying flat against the kayak and that they are not crossed.
  2. Slide each kayak strap so the buckle is laying against the hull of the kayak.
  3. Bring the other end underneath the crossbar and back up to meet the buckle.
  4. Thread the kayak strap up through the buckle by pushing the button on the clamp and opening a slot for the strap to fit through.
  5. Pull the straps to take up the slack but don't pull too tightly at this point.
  6. Do the same to the other strap.

Now that the kayak straps are threaded through their buckles, it's time to tighten them up.

Pull each strap down, allowing the straps to slide through the buckle. These buckles are really one-way clamps that allow the straps to slide through them one way (against some resistance) but not the other. To undo a strap, simply push the button and give it a tug to loosen it up.

You want the straps tight. It is okay if a plastic canoe or kayak seems to compress in the process as they will regain their form once they are free. However, if you're leaving them on the roof overnight at your camp or hotel, loosen up the straps for the night and tighten them in the morning. This takes some of the pressure off them and prevents damage.

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Roll and Tie the Kayak Straps Up

Kayak Roof Rack Step 5
Kayak Roof Rack Step 5- Roll and Tie the Straps Up. Photo © by George E. Sayour

Now that your boat is securely strapped down to your vehicle, its time to go, right? Wrong, there is one last step. To avoid kayak straps flapping in the wind and whipping against your car, you'll need to tie them up somehow. 

The best way is to wrap each strap around and around the part of the roof rack that attaches to the car. Then, take the end of the strap and knot it against the rest of the straps or wedge it under them.

Don't think you'll just slam them in the door of the car to keep them from flapping outside. This will only damage your kayak straps over time and it will wear the paint.

Once you've done this, your kayak should be secure, and you're ready to go.