Best Kayak Roof Carriers - 2019 Reviews & FAQ

Red Kayak on the Car Roof

So you’ve picked out your very favorite kayak, now it’s time to get out on the water! Unfortunately, unless you live next to your favorite put-in point, you’re going to need a kayak carrier for your vehicle; so one more decision to be made.

Most kayak carriers are incredibly easy to mount to your vehicles existing roof rack or an aftermarket setup though – you’ll just need to figure out your cross bar situation before picking out a carrier. They’re also quite simple to use, with most of them designed for solo loading and unloading. 

These are five of the best kayak roof carriers for 2019.

ABN Kayak Roof Rack J Rack Mounted Roof Top Carrier - Kayak, Canoe, SUP, Ski, Surf J Bar Vehicle Attachment Holder
yakima - JayLow Rooftop Mounted Kayak Rack for Vehicles, Carries Up to 2 Kayaks

Yakima is perhaps the biggest name in kayak roof racks, so it should come as no surprise that one of the best kayak carriers out there is made by them. Let’s start with the Jaylow’s J-shaped design, one of the most common styles of kayak carriers. It has a small cradle to hold the boat on its side and an angled tower for the hull to brace against in a near-vertical position. While such a shape holds the boat just fine if the vehicle is stationary, to keep it tight during transport a ratchet strap is attached to the tower and over the top of the hull to cinch down tight on the cross bar. With a J-carrier you should be able to strap down your kayak in about three minutes or less.

So how does Yakima’s version of the J-carrier stack up? Firstly, it folds down when not in use, which lessens your vehicles wind resistance and cuts down on noise. Many of the higher-end carriers have this feature though. What they don’t have is towers that can lock in to place at a variety of angles. Most models just fold up and down, and that single “up” position may not be the best fit your kayak’s hull.

Another advantage to buying a Yakima carrier though is the fact that you know it will fit on your Yakima rack. The Jaylow comes with hardware to fit rectangular bars (like those found on Thule racks) and oval-shaped crossbars like some vehicle’s factory racks, but if you’ve already purchased a Yakima crossbars setup you can be positive that the Jaylow will fit snugly on your road crossbars.

The Jaylow isn’t perfect though, and in fact, one of the biggest flaws comes from its most innovative feature. The carrier’s ability to lock at a number of different angles is controlled by a fairly weak, plastic mechanism. After some abuse, particularly the forces exerted by the wind when driving down the Interstate at 75 mph, the plastic can wear out and the Jaylow won’t keep a tight hold on your boat. Thus, they’re not the best choice if you know you’re going to be rough on them.

Yakima also touts the fact that the Jaylow is theft-proof when folded down and locked. However, the locks are sold separately and are somewhat expensive for what they are. Just something to keep in mind when pricing out your kayak roof rack.

Admittedly, this is one of the most expensive kayak roof racks, but it fits perfectly on Yakima’s crossbars, so if you’re already using a Yakima rack, you’ll probably want to pay the extra cost and get something you know will work well with it. 

yakima - JayLow Rooftop Mounted Kayak Rack for Vehicles, Carries Up to 2 Kayaks

Pros:

  • Can set the towers to different angles to fit any kayak
  • Folds down when not in use
  • You know it will fit Yakima cross bars

Cons:

  • A weak locking mechanism on the towers
  • Doesn’t come with locksets
  • Expensive
Malone Downloader Folding J-Style Universal Car Rack Kayak Carrier with Bow and Stern Lines

A few years ago Yakima and Thule were really the only companies producing kayak roof rack systems and carriers, but then Malone came along and shook up the whole system. Their Downloader is an excellent alternative to the big names kayak carriers, containing many of the same features at a slightly lower price point, including a folding mechanism to reduce vehicle drag when they’re not in use.

One nice little addition to the Downloader is that it has nylon sleeves encasing the J cradle’s foam pads. On other carriers, those pads are often one of the first things to wear out, especially if they’re exposed to a lot of UV light (left on the vehicle for long periods of time) or saltwater (carrying a sea kayak).

Another point in Malone’s favor is the fact that they include a bow and stern rope along with the Downloader’s ratchet straps. The straps are sufficient for shorter boats and short distances, but if you’ve got a fourteen-foot or longer kayak on top of a small car, there’s a good chance the tips of your boat will sway a little, even with ratchet straps cinched down perfectly. With these extra ropes hooked to the bow and stern of your boat and to your car’s frame will give a little extra rigidity to fight highway winds. Just be sure that what you attach the rope to on your vehicle is solid, and not a flimsy plastic panel.

So is there anything that the Downloader doesn’t do as well as its competitors? Well, for one, the Malone claims that Malone auto racks fit almost all vehicles and rack setups, but in actuality, that doesn’t mean it fits all them very well. They say the hardware will fit round, square, or oval-shaped bars, but they’re not going to have the same tight fit that you’d see with Yakima’s Jaylow on a set of round Yakima bars.

The biggest issue is that the Downloader doesn’t cost that much less than its big-name competitors. While some of the other carriers cost a quarter of what Yakima charges, the Downloader is only a little bit less. That being said, if you want quality, without paying full price, the Downloader could be a good option for you.

Malone Downloader Folding J-Style Universal Car Rack Kayak Carrier with Bow and Stern Lines

Pros:

  • Comes with bow and stern lines
  • Folds down when not in use
  • Nylon sleeve keeps pads in working condition

Cons:

  • Costs almost as much as the Yakima carrier
  • Doesn’t actually fit all roof racks
ECOTRIC J-Bar 2 Pairs Universal Kayak Canoe Top Mount Carrier Roof Rack Boat SUV Van Car with One Year Warranty

Don’t have a lot of money to spend on your kayak carrier? The Ecotric Kayak and Canoe Carrier might be one of the best budget options for transporting your boat.

For about a quarter of the price of one Yakima carrier, you can get carriers for two kayaks from Ecotric. That’s a great deal, especially if you’ve got a paddling partner that needs a carrier too.

Ecotric’s carrier is also really well made, with a strong steel tube frame and tough plastic hardware to mount them to your vehicle’s cross bars. They’re very easy to install, with no tools needed and hardware that should work with just about any roof clearance.

Unlike many of the other carriers being reviewed though, these don’t fold down when not in use; this can be seen as a positive or negative aspect. On one hand, you’ll lose precious gas mileage if you leave them on your roof all the time. On the other, they’re much less prone to breakage as the folding mechanism is the weak point in every one of these carriers. You’ll have to decide whether the hassle of removing the carrier (or losing the gas mileage) is something you’re willing to deal with.

Perhaps the biggest gripe with the Ecotric carrier is that it claims to have a universal fit when it is anything but. The mounting hardware will not work with round and oval-shaped cross bars (this includes Yakima and many factory cross bar setups). So be sure to check that you have square or flat bars before purchasing this carrier. 

ECOTRIC J-Bar 2 Pairs Universal Kayak Canoe Top Mount Carrier Roof Rack Boat SUV Van Car with One Year Warranty

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive
  • Strong materials
  • Easy to install

Cons:

  • Towers don’t fold down
  • Doesn’t fit round or oval crossbars
Rooftop Universal Kayak Carrier Car Roof Rack Set of Two J-Shape Foldable Carrier for Canoe, SUP and Kayaks Mounted on Your SUV, Fits Most Size Crossbar (2 Set)

Not everyone wants to shell out a hundred dollars for a name brand kayak carrier though, and for them, there’s the Rooftop Universal Kayak Carrier. It looks quite similar to the Yakima with the shape J-shaped cradles that fold down when they’re not in use.

The biggest difference here is that you get two sets of cradles, to hold two boats, for about half the price of one set of cradles from Yakima. If you’re consistently paddling with a friend or a family member, this is going to save some cash. But do they hold us as well as the big-name carriers?

The answer is a little complicated. The carriers are constructed from the same steel tubing, which are rated to hold a boat weighing up to 150 lbs. (far more than any boat you could lift on top of your vehicle). There are a couple of spots on the cradles that are more prone to wear though, like the mechanism for folding the towers down. It’s a set of toothed plastic wheels that lock together when the adjustment knob is tightened. A kayak vibrating against the cradle eventually wears them down, and at that point, the carrier is no longer safe to use. Additionally, the foam pads that protect your kayak’s hull from the tower’s steel tubing will disintegrate with time and exposure to sunlight. Best to take the carrier off if you park outside most of the time.

It should be noted that this universal carrier does have one innovative little feature. The tower has a little bracket at the top, which you thread the ratchet strap though to keep it from sliding down the sides of the tower. While it’s a rather small feature, it’s actually quite helpful.

So is this the right carrier for your boat? If you’re a budget-minded paddler that is willing to take good care of the carrier to prevent wear, it certainly might be. It should be noted that it doesn’t have a completely universal fit though. The bolts attaching it to the crossbars are quite long, so you’ll need a vehicle with plenty of clearance between the roof and the bars.

Rooftop Universal Kayak Carrier Car Roof Rack Set of Two J-Shape Foldable Carrier for Canoe, SUP and Kayaks Mounted on Your SUV, Fits Most Size Crossbar (2 Set)

Pros:

  • Inexpensive
  • Has a bracket to hold ratchet strap in position on the tower
  • Folds down to reduce drag

Cons:

  • Folding mechanism is easily broken
  • Hardware won’t fit all crossbar setups
ABN Kayak Roof Rack J Rack Mounted Roof Top Carrier - Kayak, Canoe, SUP, Ski, Surf J Bar Vehicle Attachment Holder

Another solid choice for the budget-minded consumer is ABN’s kayak carrier, which costs less than half of what the Yakima carrier does. The cradles don’t fold down, which is one way that ABN has kept them cheaper than their competitors but otherwise has most of the same great qualities.

One of the bigger problems with the ABN though is it won’t install on crossbar setups that don’t have a lot of clearance between them and the roof. The bolts are unnecessarily long and won’t fit in a small space. This is usually more of a problem with factory racks – most aftermarket crossbars have plenty of room to accommodate them.

There’s also the issue of capacity. ABN claims the carrier has a maximum capacity of 75 lbs., which is considerably lower than the stated capacity of many other carriers. While that probably seems like plenty of capacity for all but the largest sea kayaks and fishing boats, this is a maximum capacity when everything is secured perfectly. In reality, the cradles have a capacity closer to 50 lbs., which would preclude hauling many moderately sized touring kayaks.

As such, the ABN will appeal to a niche market that wants an inexpensive carrier that doesn’t fold down, to be used on a lightweight boat and won’t be installed on a set of crossbars will low clearance. If those traits describe you though, the ABN might be the perfect carrier.

ABN Kayak Roof Rack J Rack Mounted Roof Top Carrier - Kayak, Canoe, SUP, Ski, Surf J Bar Vehicle Attachment Holder

Pros:

  • No folding mechanism to break
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Won’t fold down when not in use
  • Bolts attaching the cradle to the crossbars are too long
  • Lower stated load capacity than other carriers

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why do all of the recommended carriers have the same design?

The J-shaped carriers are some of the most popular kayak carriers for a reason; it’s a stable and easy to use design that doesn’t take up a lot of space. There are a number of carriers that hold the boat in a horizontal position with the keel pointing down, which are referred to as saddles. Unfortunately, only the widest vehicles can fit two kayaks this way. There’s also the stacker design, a vertical pole that can have a strap looped around it and over the boat. It’s a common method of lashing together multiple short kayaks, but you have to be careful with them as they only hold the kayaks securely when strapped down just right. You can also just lay your boat on some Styrofoam and use a ratchet strap to secure the kayak to your bare roof. It’s an acceptable temporary solution, but cumbersome and not secure enough to use on a regular basis.

Are there any disadvantages to the J-shaped carriers?

Yes, you’ll need to get your boat on its side and up on your vehicle’s roof. With a heavier boat, this is no easy feat and something to think about before purchasing a carrier. Saddle-type carriers are easier to use solo because you can prop the boat up on the rear saddle and then slide it forward. If you’re doing a significant amount of solo paddling, this might be the better option since you won’t need to worry about fitting two carriers on your vehicle’s roof.

Why would I want a folding carrier?

Your car was designed with aerodynamics in mind, and when you mount a carrier or two on your roof that’s a foot or more taller, that’s definitely going to affect your vehicle’s performance. A carrier that can fold down when not in use will reduce drag, especially on the highway, and improve your gas mileage. The alternative is to remove the carrier and crossbars (if they’re not permanently mounted), which can be a real hassle.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *