Roof Racks: Do's and Dont's | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
Roof Racks: Do's and Dont's Photo:

With the right equipment, a little foresight and some preventative main- tenance, you’ll never have to go back to pick your boat out of a ditch

No matter how monstrous your SUV may be, your sea kayak is never going to fit inside like a pair of Rollerblades. (Maybe that’s why there are more in-line skaters than kayakers.) It’s just a matter of fact that sea kayakers need roof racks; in truth, if kayak dealers were serious about getting more paddlers on the water they would include a set of racks with every boat going out the door. Even if you do live on the water you’ll eventually want to load your boat and travel to another shoreline.

Ask any sunburned guide from Black Tickle, Labrador, to Puerto Penasco, Baja. After some goading they’ll sheepishly tell you their stories. Sometimes the boats dove off into lush clover- filled ditches. Others left gel-coat (then fibreglass) scars on the interstate blacktop as they were dragged by a single sternline. It happens to the best paddlers. And it only happens once before you’re shopping for a decent set of racks and tying down your load as diligently as a trucker.

In case you haven’t yet had to explain why you showed up at the weekly race with a wrecked boat let us, your humble editors, offer some solid roof rack advice. 


  • Upgrade your factory rack system to a base rack from a rep- utable roof rack company. A base rack system is simply a good set of feet and bars, upon which all other rack acces- sories are mounted.
  • Ensure you purchase the correct rack for the model and year of your vehicle. Vehicles are much more aerodynamic these days and are without the easy-to-rack rain gutters found on older vehicles. Racking these late model vehicles is a constant marvel of innovation (and maybe some voodoo) on the part of the rack companies. The short story is: if it doesn’t say it’s made for your vehicle, don’t trust it.
  • Place your bars as far apart as possible. The less bow and stern hanging past the front and rear bars, the less likely it is the boat will move from side to side. Some vehicles are limited by the length of the existing factory rack mounts or by specific roof rack placements. For example, our ’94 Volkswagon has little arrows under the weather stripping indicating where the racks are to be mounted. Check your owner’s manual for the best rack placement positions.
  • Periodically check and tighten the fasteners securing the rack to your vehicle. Most racks are rubber-mounted in some way. As the rubber compresses and hardens with age the friction holding it in place is reduced. The only thing worse than los- ing one kayak from the rack is having the entire rack lift off. Check this today, I’m sure you’ll get a few turns of slack.
  • Lube the locks and periodically use the keys in them. Roof racks are exposed to the brunt of the weather for all four seasons. We typically don’t remove our racks, we leave them on for ski season (and then another paddling sea- son). When it’s time to remove them you may find that the reason they were never stolen is that they are seized in place. Shoot a little WD-40 on the moving parts, in the locks and on the threads. 


  • Don’t overload your factory racks with anything you don’t want to lose. Most factory racks are recommended for a maximum load of 70 pounds or so but they don’t mean 70 pounds of kayaks teetering in the wind. Factory racks also tend not to provide enough clearance between the boat and the vehicle, and any sort of tension applied to the bars will warp them out of shape. Bottom line: factory racks are fine for coolers and lawn chairs—not kayaks.
  • Don’t get bars that extend past your roof... unless they are well overhead or you like black eyes. Once you have the correct feet for your vehicle you can purchase different bar lengths of up to 78 inches. The pleasure of loading four kayaks across on long bars is hardly worth the pain of walking into them just once.
  • If you use uprights of any sort, don’t get in the habit of leaving them in the upright position. This is especially important if you own a truck, van, or SUV and park in a garage. This seems pretty obvious but we all know someone who has peeled off bikes or boats. Could there be a more horrible sound followed by a more sickening feeling?
  • Car washes should be avoided, even the no- touch ones. Yes, you’ve probably gone through okay, but you had your fingers crossed didn’t you? The fuzzy-roller car washes are sketchy on the best of days and even the no-touch car washes have sensors that “see” the surface of the vehi- cle but don’t always “see” the narrow tube bars of our roof racks. Once your wheels are locked into the tracks and the light turns green you’re committed.
  • Lastly and most importantly, if you lose a boat, luggage or your entire rack, DON’T admit it. Instead, try these lines: “The missing gel- coat and smashed rudder? That was from an epic surf landing. You should have seen it.” Or, “Where’s my boat? Umm. I just came to volunteer and help with the race. Then I’m going Rollerblading.” 

akv5i3cover.jpgThis article first appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak's print and digital editions here.

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