- Meg McCall
J Bar Kayak Roof Racks 101 (and Other Tips for Transporting a Kayak on Your Vehicle)
I was fortunate to grow up on a lake during my formative years, so “transporting” a kayak usually consisted of moving it from a dock into the water or, at worst, carrying it 15 yards from the shoreline.
Fast forward 30 years, and I found myself living on the Central Coast of California about 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 25 miles from the nearest lake. I had no choice but to begin using my mid-sized SUV to carry my kayak(s).
Sometimes, I’d be lazy and just stick one through the back window and call it a day. Most of the time, though, I’d find a way hoist it onto the top of my Ford Escape, which has built-in rack, center it, put some padding on the crossbars and tie it down with a couple of straps. It always felt like a major production, mostly because I’m a little stubborn so I usually tried to do it all myself, albeit with the help of a small step ladder that I’d toss into the back of the car.
I would never say that I was cavalier about my approach to transporting my kayaks, but I certainly didn’t know then what I do now. I definitely made some mistakes, but thankfully, the only thing that got hurt was my pride.
Recently, I began using J Bar Roof Racks, also referred to as cradle racks, J hooks or J racks. I have to admit that before I started using them, I was a little skeptical. They seemed rather precarious-looking, but since I was seeing them everywhere, I did some research. I watched videos, read blogs and asked plenty of questions from other experienced kayakers, some of whose tips you’ll see in this article.
This blog takes a deep dive into my experience using J Bars, from installing them, to strapping down the kayak, to helpful tips for transporting kayaks using any type of roof rack.
Installing J Bar Racks
As far as installing new equipment goes, this was a pretty straightforward and easy experience. Most of the assembly itself can be done in your house, and the only tool you’ll need is a wrench to tighten some bolts. Since Angle Oar now carries the specific J Bar Roof Racks I would be using, I put together this short installation video. Two of these J Bar sets hold up to 150 pounds and come with mounting hardware and two cam buckle tie-down straps.
The “hard” part of installation, if you want to call it that, was tightening the two J hooks onto the crossbars. My socket wrench wouldn’t quite fit in the space between the longer bolts and the top of my car, so I used an open-ended wrench to tighten them. I brought out a step ladder so that I didn’t have to balance on the ledge of the open car door.
J Bars usually fit a range of crossbar shapes, including round, square and oval. My cross bars were none-of-the-above, but rather a sideways teardrop shape that angled downward. I was concerned the result would be two cradles that were slightly slanted, but fortunately I was able to tighten them so that they remained perpendicular to the bars themselves.
Side Note: For J Bars to work, you need to have horizontal crossbars, meaning those that run from the passenger side to the driver side, not just front to back. Otherwise, the J Hooks won’t be adjacent to one another and facing the same direction.
In total, it took about 15 minutes to attach the two J hooks. That included the time it took to go find the right sized wrench, haul out the ladder, etc.
Loading the Kayak on the Car Roof Top
I had watched a couple of videos on YouTube to see how to properly attach the straps, so I knew it would be easier to start with the two straps already looped over the hooks. Then, I had my teenage son help me lift my 10-foot kayak into the cradles, being careful to position it in the center.
I knew that the open cockpit side of the kayak should be facing the outside of the vehicle, with the back slanted against the longer side of the J Hook. My inner physicist surmised it would be better to have the bow of the kayak towards the front of my vehicle so that the force of the wind from driving wouldn’t blow directly into the underside of the bow. On this particular kayak, the seat closes off the area in the stern, so I figured the wind would flow up and over the seat instead.
One nice thing about strapping a kayak with a cradle roof rack is that you simply flip the straps over the top of the kayak and then all your tightening happens in one spot. When I used to lay the kayak flat on the roof rack, I’d have to go back and forth to each side of the car, with my step ladder, to get the positioning just right.
A trick I learned was to keep the side of the strap with the cam buckle or ratchet end short and the other tail long, so that when you throw over the short side, it doesn’t ding your car door. Do keep in mind, however, that you’ll want to hold on to the long end of the strap because the cam or ratchet handle may go farther than intended due to its weight and ding it anyway.
Securing the Straps
Getting the kayak tied down properly is the most important of the process. Failure to do so can lead to disaster. Here are some helpful tips, some more critical than others.
You can use cam buckle or ratchet straps to secure the kayak. The straps will cross through the longer J Hooks (facing the back of the kayak) over the kayak to the front, shorter hooks. They should also be looped under the rack itself, not just the J hook.
If you’re feeding the strap through a ratchet for the first time, be prepared to be frustrated. It took me at least four tries before I had the strap going through the center spool in the right direction and at the right length. And figuring out how to loosen the strap if it’s too tight? Let’s just say there’s a learning curve and a need for finger dexterity.
“The straps may damage the paint. A strap damaged my truck tail gate by rubbing. (You) need something soft (like a cloth) under the straps, maybe taped onto the strap.” -- Randy M.
You’re doing it correctly if, when the ratchet is collapsed into an inverted v-shape, the handle moves from top to bottom, facing you, as you tighten it. (Another Tip: if the spool gets too congested with the strap as you’re ratcheting, start over but pull more of the loose end through before you begin ratcheting again. You shouldn’t ever need to cut the strap to get it to work.)
As noted in the first bullet, you should also loop the straps under the car rack itself, not just through the hooks. This will provide extra security.
“I like (to see that) tie downs are connected to the car itself and not just the roof rack, and that you have front and rear tie downs. So many people don't get that part right.” – Barry G., New Jersey
Try to position the buckle or ratchet on a flat area of the kayak, such as the deck area, so that it’s better protected from the wind and can be tightened more easily.
Secure the loose ends of the straps to minimize flapping and/or the vibrational “singing” that can occur from the wind. (Nothing will put you on edge more than hearing that noise as you’re speeding down the highway.)
Make sure the two main straps are tight and secure. Give the kayak a firm shake to make sure it is held firmly in place.
About Bow and Stern Straps
There are some misconceptions about the purpose of bow and stern lines. You may be surprised to learn that bow and stern lines are not there to further tighten down your kayak onto your vehicle. Rather, they’re there solely to prevent the kayak from thrusting forward or backward in the event you suddenly have to slam on the brakes, or worse yet, to prevent it from flying through the back windshield of the vehicle in front of you.
For this reason, these two additional straps should be taut and secure, but they don’t have to be overly tightened. In fact, doing so can damage your kayak in some cases.
“My advice would be to not make the bow and stern lines overly tight. They're only supposed to be there to prevent the boats from sliding forward and backward if you accelerate or brake hard. You can tighten them down a fair bit on plastic boats and get away with it, but if you ratchet strap bow and stern lines on a fiberglass boat, you're going to crack it the moment you hit a large bump.” – Chris Mac, Canada
The bow line should be attached to the front of your kayak, usually through the handle, and secured somewhere in the front of your vehicle. Many vehicles will have a factory installed tow hook or latch of some sort beneath the bumper or hood, but for those that don’t, there are still good options. One is to invest in a hood loop strap which attaches to an available bolt head located under your hood. Even easier is to purchase a looped trunk anchor strap which simply lodges inside your closed front hood or rear trunk door. This video shows a demonstration of all three methods.
“Use something like these (quick loops) for the bow and stern tie downs and you won’t have to crawl looking for tie down points.” – Mike B., California
In my case, I didn’t attach a bow and stern line until the morning I was to depart on a 235-mile road trip with my kayak. Only then did I discover I didn’t have any hooks on the underside of my car. I also didn’t have time to go out and buy a pair of anchor straps, so I improvised. I had two additional cam straps, but no looped straps. I shuffled through my kitchen drawers and found a cylindrical cheese grater, about two inches long and hollow in the middle, to use as one anchor. I thought that since it was made of metal, it wouldn’t run the risk of melting from the heat of the engine. For the stern tie down, I found an empty plastic hand soap dispenser, took off the cap and cut off the bottom. I ran a strap through each of the items and tied them off. Both were large enough to prevent the straps from sliding through the closed hood and rear hatch. I wouldn’t win any design prizes for this method, but it did the trick!
Take a Road Test
I had just spent the previous weekend hauling a Queen-sized mattress on the top of our other car. After white knuckling it the entire way on that four-hour trip, I wanted to be sure I felt 100% confident that the new J Bars and kayak would be secure and safe. I knew if there was any humming from the straps or if I could feel or hear any movement on top of the roof, I would feel anxious the entire trip.
So, after I had the bow and stern lines (which I purchased separately) attached, I took a test drive on a nearby highway. I started on city streets at about 35 mph then eventually went up to 60 mph on the highway. It was during this test trip that I realized I needed to fasten the loose ends more securely because even though they weren’t vibrating, it was slightly disconcerting to see them flapping around.
With a 20-minute highway test and a few quick turns under my belt, I felt mostly satisfied. The other thing I did was check the forecast. I had read that J Bar Racks were very reliable, but that caution should be taken when using them in high winds. My entire trip was down Highway 101 in California, so I knew it could get windy in certain spots. To my relief, the forecast didn’t call for excessive wind.
As it turns out, I did check the wind strength at three different points during my six-hour trip. It ranged from 11 to 16 mph, and I can honestly say I never felt worried or unsafe. (Oddly enough, the very next day there were gusts up to 25 mph, and I do feel like that wouldn’t been a bit too much for my own comfort, at least for travelling a long distance on a highway with kayaks.)
“I think tying (your kayak) from the bow AND stern are essential. I didn’t go above 60, though (my tie downs) were pretty secure. I stopped every 30 miles to check them and let everyone going fast pass me. If it’s possible to go slower, I think that’s always better. “ – Hanadi Succar, Oregon
One of the common refrains I’ve heard from experienced kayakers is to test your tie downs before you leave on your journey and check them regularly during the trip itself. In addition to my test run, I made three separate stops during our road trip. The only minor adjustment I made was tightening the stern strap which had become slightly slack during the first leg of the trip.
“Just check every 35 seconds for the first hour on the road. (You will anyway!)” – Harold Sturgis
I am happy to report that I arrived safely at my destination, albeit two hours later than planned. That wasn’t because of problems with the kayak rack though, it was simply weekend rush hour traffic between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. When we weren’t crawling along, my top highway speed was around 70 mph with an average more like 65 mph. I also stayed mostly in slow lanes.
Pros and Cons of J Bar Roof Racks
Here is my ultimate assessment of the entire experience using J Bars.
Very affordable, especially relative to other styles of roof racks
Easy to assemble
Easy to install and remove
Stable and secure
Can tighten from one side of car
Doesn’t require any extra padding
Fits up to two kayaks on a narrow roof
Requires horizontal cross bars
Still have to lift kayak onto car roof
May not be suitable in very high winds
Tips for Using a Kayak Roof Rack Safely
Regardless of what type of kayak vehicle rack you use, these tips may come in handy.
Before you buy a new rack, make sure it will fit your vehicle (e.g., does it require horizontal crossbars, does your car have permanent hooks beneath it, is the weight and size limit of the rack sufficient for your car or kayaks, etc.)
If straps are directly rubbing against your vehicle (e.g., they go through the interior of your car), use padding or tape to avoid damage.
Secure loose strap ends so they don’t vibrate in the wind.
Use looped hood and trunk anchor straps on your bow and stern lines if you don’t have hooks.
Never use bungee cords. Bumps and wind cause them to stretch, and your kayak can easily fly off the roof. (We’ve actually seen it happen!)
Give the kayak and rack a firm shake to check for laxity in the straps.
Take a test drive before you head out. Start at 40 mph and gradually increase speed.
Inspect your tie downs regularly throughout the trip (e.g., every 30-50 miles).
Check the weather forecast before you depart.
Other Types of Kayak Roof Racks
J Hooks are just one of many styles of available kayak and canoe roof racks. They range in price from virtually nothing for do-it-yourself roof racks to as much as $2,000 for the Thule Hullavator Pro Rooftop Kayak Carrier.
For some, the decision to use a roof carrier is pragmatic: they need to get their kayak from Point A to Point B. For others, it’s a matter of necessity. Maybe they’re not as strong as they once were, or maybe they have a bad back and can no longer wrestle the kayak up onto the roof by themselves. Whatever the reason, there are lots of styles from which to choose.
Here are a few of the most popular categories of racks, though there may be others.
J Bars, including foldable bilateral J-style racks.
For cars without built-in cross bars, there are roof rack pads, like these from Best Marine, aluminum crossbar sets, and window frame roof racks. Many automobile dealers also offer factory installed versions of their own racks.
Another common style is the saddle rack, like these from Malone (shown) and Rhino Rack.
There are several types of carriers that do the lifting work for you, such as Rhino Rack’s Nautic Kayak Lifter which uses a manual winch to slide your kayak up two poles on the side of the vehicle. Thule’s Hullavator is often considered the gold standard for this type of rack.
And finally, there are a wide variety of truck bed extenders and good old fashion trailers for hauling kayaks, though the latter aren’t roof racks per se.
Angle Oar LLC's mission is getting people who didn’t think they had the strength or endurance to kayak out on the water and keeping experienced paddlers there longer! We provide adaptive paddles, outriggers and other equipment to people with shoulder problems, physical disabilities or limited upper body strength due to age, injury or ability.