Best Kayak Rack for Car Without Rails

Best Kayak Rack for Car Without Rails

Paddling out onto the clear, open water in your kayak is one of the most peaceful feelings there is. But actually getting your kayak to the water in the first place? Not so much. 

For kayak owners who drive cars with roof rails, the struggle is easily minimized. With roof rails at your disposal, the world of compatible roof racks is your oyster!

But if your car doesn’t have any rails, things can get a little more complicated. Cue hours of struggling with ratchet straps and praying your roof doesn’t get scratched. 

If you can relate to this problem, you’ll be glad to hear that your days of heavy lifting and makeshift transport systems are behind you!

We’ve used our expertise in automotive portability systems to compile a selection of the best kayak racks for cars without rails. 

BEST OVERALL

Alfa Gear Universal 34' Long Folding Lightweight Anti-Vibration Kayak Soft Roof Rack pad for Kayak/Canoe/Surfboard/Paddle Board/SUP/and Water Sports with Hood Loop and Trunk Straps

Let’s start out with our best overall choice: the Universal Folding Lightweight Anti-Vibration Roof Rack from Alfa Gear. 

Despite not being a traditional metal or resin roof rack, this Alfa Gear roof rack is strong and sturdy enough to keep both your car’s roof and your kayak safe and secure on the road. 

This kayak rack consists of multi-layer foam pads, tie-down straps, and nylon 1.5-inch lashing straps. The multi-layer padding has a high compression rating, which allows it to support up to 200 lbs of weight. This is over double the average weight of even a tandem kayak, so you’ll never have to worry about exceeding your capacity. 

Meanwhile, the padded straps, which connect the rack through the car’s door frame, are extremely heavy-duty with a total weight capacity of 1,200 lbs. The installation process is easy and quick to execute, and once it’s completed, it’ll take a lot to budge this rack!

However, the 1.8-inch tie-down straps may be too short for some wider car models, so make sure you know the width of your car roof before purchase. The rack also comes with 2 lengths of PP rope for securing the kayak after installation. 

Additionally, this kayak rack is sold for quite an affordable price compared to competitor models. You won’t have any holes in your kayak or your wallet with this roof rack!

Pros

  • 200 lbs weight capacity - Strong 
  • Universal fit - Widely compatible 
  • Multi-layer foam padding - Highly protective 
  • Nylon strap system - Easy to install 
  • Affordable price - Budget-friendly 

Cons

  • 11.8-inch tie-down straps - Straps may be too short for larger vehicles

BEST VALUE

wonitago Soft Roof Rack Pads with Single Wrap-Rax Straps for Surfboard, SUP Paddleboard, Snowboard, 16inch (Pair) Black

If you’re looking for a top of the range, stylish and light-weight helmet that will provide ultimate protection, then this helmet would be ideal for you.

Created by the excellent Tontron Sports, this helmet boasts an ABS outer shell and quick dry soft EVA absorption liner- satisfying the necessary criteria of both safety and comfort.

Available in over a dozen colors, the Tontron helmet is suitable for a wide range of not only surfers but canoeists, kayakers, rafters, sailors and water skiers of all genders and sizes.

This universal quality proves brilliant value for money as it allows for the possibility to try out another water sport that you may not have attempted before.

With removable ear protection pads and an adjustable back-of-head dial, this helmet is not only adaptable but fits comfortably and snug around the head.

This helmet is rated as being extremely non-imposing due do its lightweight feel, which is exactly what you should be looking for as a surfer who wants no distractions.

You should feel reassured in knowing that this helmet has passed a security testing program which assures that the helmet will protect you against damage when being faced with impact.

Not only is this helmet perfect for keeping you safe, but with its sleek design, impressive air-ventilation system, and impact resistant shell, it proves to be an all-rounder in terms of satisfying your needs as a surfer.

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Adjustable straps
  • True to size
  • Handles elements very well
  • Removable ear pads

Cons

  • Plastic tension straps around the neck can be uncomfortable

PREMIUM OPTION

Thule Hullavator Pro Rooftop Kayak Carrier

The safety of your car roof and kayak is no trivial matter. The budget-friendly options on our list are all safe and reliable to use.

However, if you really want to ensure maximum security as well as high quality, we’d recommend a premium option, like the Thule Hullavator Pro Rooftop Kayak Carrier! 

If you don’t mind paying extra for superior quality, this roof rack is an excellent solution to the issue of kayak transport on rail-less cars. 

This roof rack does technically require crossbars for mounting, but that doesn’t mean you need built-in rails to make it work.

When used in conjunction with a door-jamb-mounting rack system like Thule’s Squarebar Evo or a gutter-mounting system like the Thule Rapid Gutter Foot Pack, this rack will revolutionize the way you transport your kayak from now on!

The Thule Hullavator Kayak Carrier provides excellent protection for both your roof and your kayak, with padded touchpoints in 8 different areas. 

However, the best thing about the Hullavator Kayak Carrier, in our opinion, is that it allows for safe, ergonomic loading and unloading. This rack uses gas-assisted struts to raise and lower, allowing the user to load the kayak at waist-height.

Then, the mechanism does the rest! No more putting your back out while lifting your kayak onto your car. 

The Thule Hullavator is coated with a corrosion-resistant finish, which makes it weatherproof and enhances the product’s longevity. You won’t need to worry about transporting your kayak in the rain because this rack can handle it. 

Unfortunately, on top of being the most expensive rack on our list and requiring aftermarket Thule rails, the Thule Hullavator requires the separate purchase of Thule’s one-key-lock cylinders for theft-proofing. 

Pros

  • Waist-level gas-assist loading - Ergonomic functionality
  • 8 Padded Touchpoints - Roof and kayak protection
  • Corrosion-resistant coating - Durable and weatherproof 

Cons

  • Thule rails required - Thule aftermarket rails needed for attachment 
  • Locks sold separately - Extra purchases required for total security

BEST FOAM ROOF RACK

Orion Motor Tech Lightweight Anti-Vibration Universal Car Soft Roof Rack Pad for Kayak/Canoe/Surfboard/Paddleboard/SUP/Snowboard and Water Sports Accessories with Adjustable and Substantial Straps

We’ve already reviewed a couple of foam roof racks, both of which would make superb additions to rail-less cars.

However, if you’re looking specifically for the best foam quality, the Orion Motor Tech Lightweight Anti-Vibration Soft Roof Rack is the undisputed winner. 

Everything about the Orion Motor Tech roof rack foam pads has been manufactured with durability, safety, and ease of use in mind - everything you want from a kayak rack! 

This rack consists of heavy-duty, high-density foam with a load-bearing capacity of 165.3 lbs. That’s enough capacity to (theoretically) load between 2 and 3 tandem kayaks!

However, despite its high compressive strength, the foam remains soft and lightweight. This helps to prevent damage to your roof and kayak during transportation and also makes the rack easy to install and handle. 

Another benefit of the lightweight foam in this rack is that it causes minimal vibrations at high speeds, so your car ride won’t be ruined by excessive noise. 

The Orion Motor Tech foam rack uses extra-long straps for doorframe attachment. The straps are 90.6 inches and 145.7 inches long, respectively, ensuring more-or-less universal compatibility. 

Moreover, the straps fasten tightly and securely with aircraft-grade buckle closures, so you can trust that your kayak will stay firmly attached to your car roof throughout your journey. 

In theory, this rack is pretty easy to install. However, the instructions could use some refinement since they’re currently quite unclear and make the installation more difficult than it should be. 

Pros

  • 165.3 lbs load capacity - Strong 
  • Soft, lightweight foam - Damage prevention
  • Extra-long straps - Wide vehicle compatibility 
  • Non-vibrational - Less noise 
  • Aircraft buckle closures - Safe and secure 

Cons

  • Unclear instructions - Not the easiest installation

BEST ROOF RACK FOR BARE ROOFS

Thule Evo Clamp Foot Pack

Thule’s Evo Clamp Foot Pack is one of the easiest and most convenient (if not cheapest) ways to transform your car’s bare roof into a kayak-friendly roof rack. 

This isn’t technically a full ‘roof rack’ in the sense that the other products on this list are. This foot pack is designed to create the foundation for kayak transport on a bare car roof, with crossbars sold separately

The Thule Evo Clamp Foot Pack can attach to vehicles without existing roof attachment points. It’s able to do this because of Thule’s patented clamping technology, which allows the ‘feet’ to clamp into a vehicle’s doorframe system. 

Installation is simple and quick to execute, thanks to the click-on mounting brackets. You don’t even need any tools to mount the brackets to your car! 

The torque limiter key that comes with the pack provides an indication of the security status of your rack, letting you know when it’s properly fastened. The rack can also fasten more securely using Thule’s one-key-lock cylinders, although these are sold separately. 

Pros

  • Doorframe attachment system - Universally compatible 
  • Includes torque limiter key - Security indication 
  • No-tools installation - Easy to install

Cons

  • Expensive - High-end price 
  • Bars and key lock not included - Separate purchases required 

BEST INFLATABLE RACK

HandiRack Universal Inflatable Roof Rack for Kayaks, Canoes, Surfboards and SUPs; Tie-Downs and Bow & Stern Lines Included; 175 Lbs Load Capacity

Did you know that there are also inflatable roof racks available on the market? Well, now you do! If this is your first introduction to inflatable roof racks, you’re in for a treat, because this model is the best of the best! 

HandiRack’s Universal Inflatable Roof Rack Bars are made with thick, 400D (denier) nylon for wear-resistance. When inflated, the air cushioning provides excellent levels of protection between your kayak and roof. 

You’ll never need to be concerned about the security of this roof rack because of its long, cabin-fitting straps and heavy-duty buckle closures. 

All the inflation equipment, including the tubes and pump, are included with the purchase, so there’s no need to go out and buy anything else. 

However, as is the case with any inflatable roof rack, all the advanced fabric technology in the world can’t 100% guarantee that a puncture won’t occur.

Granted, it would take a lot to puncture this rack, but that doesn’t make it impossible, which is something to consider before purchase. 

Pros

  • 400D nylon fabric - Wear-resistant 
  • Universal fit - Compatible with all vehicles (barring soft-tops and cars with curtain airbags)
  • Heavy-duty buckle straps - Secure fastening 
  • Inflation equipment included - No separate purchases 
  • Includes drawstring bag - Portable and easy to store 

Cons

  • Not 100% puncture-proof - Minor risk of puncture

Best Kayak Rack for Car Without Rails Buying Guide

If you own a vehicle without roof rails, you might need a little extra guidance on how to choose the best kayak rack for your car.

If that’s the case, keep reading! We’ll be covering roof rack types, 

Rack Type

We’ve given you a lot to think about in terms of roof rack types. If you’re struggling to decide which kind of roof rack will work best with your car and kayak, read on!

We’re about to go through the benefits and disadvantages of each type to help you make the most informed possible choice. 

Foam roof racks make great protective layers between your kayak and your roof. These roof racks are affordable, easy to install, lightweight, and easy to handle.

However, you do need to make sure that your foam kayak rack is made of high-density foam with a high compression rate. This is because a low compression rate and low density can cause a foam layer to flatten too drastically under pressure.

If your foam roof rack becomes overly compressed under the weight of your kayak, it won’t provide enough protection, and either your roof or kayak (or both) may be damaged. 

Inflatable roof racks are great for storage and portability purposes because they can be deflated and rolled up compactly when not in use. However, there’s always the risk of a puncture with this kind of rack. 

Of course, trusted manufacturers use modified fabrics and new fabric technology to minimize this risk, but it can never be discounted completely.

Therefore, if you’re planning on trying out an inflatable roof rack, you may need to be prepared to spend a little extra on enhanced quality to ensure durability. 

Bare roof racks usually attach around the doorframes of car builds as opposed to rails or bars using clamping technology. This kind of rack can definitely be a lifesaver if your car didn’t come with a factory-installed rail system.

However, they are usually significantly more expensive than other roof racks. 

Materials

To make sure that your roof rack will stand the test of time, it’s important to consider specific materials as well as general rack type. 

We’ve already discussed the importance of high-density, high-compression foam in foam-based roof racks for protective purposes. 

However, something else to think about is that you don’t want your foam to be too high-density. If there’s no softness to the foam at all, you risk the rack being too abrasive against both the kayak and the roof.

Therefore, we’d advise looking for a foam rack advertised as ‘soft’ with a load-bearing capacity of over 150 lbs.

Specifications like this suggest that a rack provides good cushioning while being strong enough to support the weight of your kayak. 

Something else to consider with foam racks is the external fabric covering. You want this fabric to be as waterproof and wear-resistant as possible to ensure durability.

The same applies to inflatable racks if you want to avoid punctures. We’d recommend seeking out fabrics with deniers (thicknesses) of at least 400, aiming for closer to 600 if possible. 

If you’re interested in a metal roof rack (like the Thule Hullavator, for example), one of the most important features will be the finish.

A protective paint covering will go a long way towards enhancing the durability of your rack by minimizing corrosion.

Vehicle Compatibility

Most roof racks designed for cars without rails are more-or-less universally compatible.

However, there are always exceptions, so it’s a good idea to know the dimensions of your vehicle’s roof before purchase. 

The most common issue customers run into when buying a roof rack for a car without rails is strap length.

Most standard-length straps won’t fit wider car models. This is why we’d advise you to measure your car’s roof before you start your search so you know how long your straps will need to be. 

You can find roof rack straps ranging from under 12 feet to over 20 feet, so you should be able to find a system that works for you no matter how big your vehicle is. 

Installation

If you’ve been feeling nervous about installing your kayak rack, we have good news for you! The installation processes for rail-less kayak racks are typically easier than those for standard roof racks.

This is mostly because, while regular kayak racks normally use hardware like nuts and bolts for installation, rail-less models often use straps and ropes instead. 

First of all, it’s a good idea to ascertain what kind of attachment system a rack uses. Generally speaking, if it’s a strap or clamp-based system, you can expect an easy installation process. Luckily, this accounts for most roof racks designed for cars without rails. 

The next step to ensuring that a roof rack’s installation procedure won’t drive you round the bend is to take a look at what (if any) hardware is included with the purchase. If it comes with all the straps, bolts, and attachments you need for installation, you’re in for an easy time!

If not, you may need to make separate (and quite specific) purchases, so make sure to be prepared for this if you choose to go ahead.

If you can, we’d also advise checking customer testimonials for comments on the provided instructions. Poor instructions can be the detriment of a theoretically simple installation procedure, so try to prioritize simple, clear instructions if you can. 

Accessories

Leaving your roof rack attached to your car unattended isn’t recommended.

From the risk of theft to unpredictable weather conditions, it’s always a good idea to detach your rack at the end of the day and bring it inside with you. 

Of course, this can be a pain - unless you have a dedicated storage bag! We’d highly recommend looking out for rail-less kayak rack systems that come with a storage bag included.

This will help you to keep your rack neatly, compactly stored out of the way when it’s not in use - and it’ll also provide a helpful transportation method. 

If you’ve opted for an inflatable rack, we’d recommend making sure that all the inflation accessories are included with the purchase, otherwise all your separate purchases will add up quite quickly. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you transport a kayak on a car without a rack?

Generally speaking, we wouldn’t advise transporting a kayak on a car without a roof rack.

As we’ve demonstrated through our selection of products, there are so many roof rack models for cars without rails available on the market that there’s really no need to put your kayak or your car’s roof in jeopardy with a DIY transport system. 

With that being said, if you need to get your kayak from A to B before your new roof rack arrives, there’s a simple makeshift rack method you can try. 

All you’ll need for this method are a pair of pool noodles and some ratchet straps.

Your pool noodles will act in place of the padded bars of a roof rack. You could think of them as makeshift crossbars. 

First, take your pool noodles and lay them horizontally across your car roof. If they protrude from either side of the roof, now is the time to trim them down to size. You want them to match the width of the roof. 

Next, take your ratchet straps and feed them through the holes in the noodles. Once the straps are threaded through the noodles, open your car doors and pass the straps through the inside of the car, pulling them tight before securing them. Now you have the foundations of your DIY roof rack. 

Now it’s time to secure your kayak. Turn it over so it’s facing downwards, and lay it vertically across the secured pool noodles. Take another set of ratchet straps and pass them over the kayak and through the car the same way you did with the first set. 

Do you need crossbars for a kayak rack?

In the majority of cases, yes, you will need crossbars for a kayak rack. Most kayak racks or carriers on the market are designed to be used in conjunction with crossbars for the protection of both your roof and your kayak. 

Can you use a roof rack without crossbars?

If your car has built-in protection ribs, you’ll be pleased to hear that you could potentially use a roof rack without crossbars.

If your kayak is light enough, you may be able to get away with relying on these ribs for protection. 

With that being said, we’d still advise against trying to use a roof rack without crossbars. You might be able to manage it successfully, but it’s still risky for your vehicle and your kayak.

How do you transport a kayak alone?

Even if you have a kayak rack for your car, it’s still important to know how to (safely) transport a kayak alone. You’ll still need to lift your kayak onto the roof of your car in most cases. Then, you’ll need to unload it and carry it to the water’s edge. 

A one-person kayak can weigh anywhere between 35 and 50 lbs, which is heavier than it sounds, especially if you aren’t using the right technique. 

When lifting your kayak onto your roof rack, you should approach the process incrementally. Start by bending your knees (while keeping your back straight!) and taking hold of your kayak by the cockpit.

You should have one hand on the front and one hand on the back. Then, you can use your thighs as a kind of stepping stone to take some of the weight. 

Once you’ve braced the kayak on your thighs, use one knee to give it an upwards boost. At the same time, engage your arms and lift the kayak above your head. 

Even if you’re happy to do the lifting by yourself, it can be helpful to have someone to ‘spot’ you while you’re doing this. 

When unloading, you basically want to perform this process in reverse, starting with the kayak elevated above your head and carefully bringing it down to your thighs before lowering it to the floor. Remember to keep your back straight!

Alternatively, if all this sounds like a lot of hassle, you could invest in a waist-level-loading rack. See the Thule Hullavator Pro for more information. 

Can I add roof rails to my car?

Yes, you can add roof rails to your car if it doesn’t come with factory-installed rails. 

There are plenty of aftermarket roof rails or ‘roof bars’ on the market - you just need to make sure they’re a suitable length for your vehicle. 

Roof rails are usually fitted with bolts. You can do this yourself if you have the correct hardware and tools on hand.

However, if you prefer, you can have a professional conduct the installation for you. This may cost you more in the short-term, but it might save you money in the long run. 

What is the difference between roof rails and roof racks?

The terms ‘roof rails’ and ‘roof rack’ are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually completely different structures - although they do work together!

Roof rails are raised rails that run longitudinally from the front to the back of your roof. They are positioned parallel to one another on either side of the roof. 

A roof rack, on the other hand, is the unit that mounts to the roof rails and does the actual supporting work.

The bars on a roof rack run horizontally across the roof between the rails. A roof rack may also be referred to as the ‘crossbars.’

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