How to Tie Down a Kayak – A Step-by-Step Guide

Written by: Ash James

Do you want to know how to tie down a kayak on the roof of your vehicle so you can hit the water without any dramas? You’ve come to the right place.

We’ve put together step-by-step instructions to show you different methods to secure a kayak to your vehicle whether you have a roof rack, crossbars, or a bare roof.

Kayaking is fun, right? You get out on the water and enjoy whatever nature throws your way. You know what’s not so fun? Tying down a kayak.

It can be a downright pain if you don’t know what you’re doing. Know what else isn’t fun? Having your kayak slip off your car while you’re driving.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your kayak (but also your sanity) is to get a roof rack. It’s the most secure way to ready your kayak for transportation, but there are ways to tie down kayaks without a roof rack using the crossbars. 

Of course, no matter what you do, you need to ensure that your bow and stern lines are secured for safe transportation. The last thing you want is that bad boy coming loose while you’re in transit.

How to Transport a Kayak

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to at least try kayaking. Because not everyone can live right on the water, vehicle transportation for kayaks is necessary. 

Transporting kayaks, if not done correctly, can destroy the kayak and even damage your vehicle. Worse, if you tie it down poorly, you may even lose your kayak when driving, just like this guy!

Knowing how to tie down a kayak for transportation is a must if you love to hit the water but want to avoid any pesky lawsuits from cars behind you on the freeway.

That’s where a roof rack comes in! Using a roof rack to secure your kayak onto the top of a vehicle is a preferred transportation method, but if you don’t have a roof rack, there are alternative ways to transport your kayak safely to the water.

tying down a kayak

Supplies Needed to Tie Down a Kayak

You can’t just slap that bad boy on the roof of your car and call it a day: you have to have specific items to safely tie your kayak down.

  • Kayak roof rack – a kayak roof rack is a rack that you mount on the top of your vehicle specifically designed to transport a kayak. 

Kayak roof rack alternative: if your vehicle has a naked top with no crossbars to mount a roof rack, you can use temporary inflatable pads or pads to prevent damage to your kayak or vehicle. 

  • Padding for your roof rack – roof rack padding helps prevent damage to your kayak during the transportation process. There is no telling what debris could fly up from the road and hit your kayak, resulting in unnecessary wear on your kayak. You’ll also be protecting your car’s paint job at the same time.

Roof rack padding alternative: While padding designed for a roof rack is best, there are alternative options. Use a towel or a cut pool noodle to pad the areas where your kayak comes in contact with the rack. 

  • Kayak straps with cam buckles – kayak straps with cam buckles are straps specifically designed for transporting kayaks. Cam buckles make it safer and easier to tie down the kayak, letting you strap that sucker in and hit the road, carefree. 

Cam buckle alternatives: If cam buckle straps are unavailable, cinch straps are the next best option. 

  • Bow and stern lines – the bow and stern lines safely secure the (you guessed it!) bow and stern of the kayak to your vehicle. They are essentially straps that prevent the kayak from rising off the roof of your car while driving down the road. 

Bow and stern line alternative: Using paracord or another type of thin, sturdy rope, you can secure the bow and stern to a vehicle for safe transportation. 

How to Tie Down a Kayak – Step by Step Instructions

First, let me start by showing you how NOT to tie down a kayak. 

kayak transportation fail

Ok… the guy didn’t really tie it down that way but he obviously hadn’t secured the kayak properly and it got pushed back by the wind. To avoid this happening to you, follow these steps…

Tying Down the Kayak on the Roof Rack

Tying your kayak down on the roof rack may seem like a task liable to turn into a Monty Python sketch, but it’s relatively easy to do once you understand the proper technique.

Step 1: Center your kayak on the roof rack

It seems obvious, but you want your kayak in the middle of the roof rack to ensure even weight distribution. If the weight of the kayak is not centered, the pressure from the wind can cause it to come loose, or, heaven forbid, fly off as you drive. 

To ensure the kayak is centered on the roof rack, use the side handle of the kayak as a guide. Place the kayak on the roof rack with the center handle in the middle of the roof-rack cradles. 

If your kayak doesn’t have a center handle, you’ll have to measure the length of your kayak and find the center, then adjust accordingly.

When your kayak is placed in the center of the rack, it should fit snugly and won’t easily fall over.

Step 2: Run one of the straps over your kayak and loop it under a roof rack bar

It’s easiest to run the end of the strap that doesn’t have the buckle on it under the roof rack bar. The side with the cam buckle can cause obstruction when attempting to loop it under the bar.

Above all, when putting the straps in place, do not cross them. Doing so lets you tighten things up without the potential problem of the strap working against itself. You don’t want to have the strap rub until it’s frayed. A frayed strap could snap, sending your kayak into traffic.

Step 3: Take the bare end of the strap and move it across the kayak to the other side

This is where a buddy comes in handy. If you have someone there to help, throw the bare end of the strap to the person on the other side. If you’re working solo, throw the strap over far enough to stay, then trudge over and get it.

Step 4: Loop the bare end you just threw over under the same roof rack bar

Once on the other side of your car, loop the strap end over the roof rack bar, but don’t wind the strap as this will prevent you from being able to tighten it. The plain strap end should now be on the same side as the buckle end.

Step 5: Run the bare end of the strap through the cam buckle.

Once you have your straps wrapped around the kayak and through the rack bars, run the bare ends of the strap through the cam buckle. Then, start pulling on the strap through the buckle until you feel it get tight, but not so much that it moves the kayak.

Now, the best way to tighten the strap is to hold the side of the strap that doesn’t have the buckle away from the kayak. As you’re doing this, pull the strap through the buckle.

With this approach, you’ll be able to tighten the side with the buckle with minimal effort. 

Step 6: Tighten the straps on both racks with the cam buckle to secure your kayak

After pulling the strap through the cam buckle until it’s nice and tight, begin to further tighten the straps by using the cam buckle lever. 

You don’t want to tighten the strap so much that the kayak begins to bow under the pressure of the strap, but you do want to ensure that it is tight enough that the wind won’t catch the kayak and loosen the straps during transport. Remember our friend in the photo above.

Step 7: Wrap the strap ends around the roof rack bars

Nothing is quite as distracting as driving down the road with your kayak secured to the top of your vehicle with the strap ends hitting the side of the car. I mean, who knows? Maybe you enjoy that melodic slap-thwack sound every thirty seconds. I personally don’t.

Not to mention, loose strap ends can get caught, resulting in the loosening or tightening of your straps. Be sure to contain the excess trap and strap ends by wrapping them around the roof rack bar.

You can secure the excess strap by binding it and wrapping it around the roof rack bars. Binding the strap means there are no knots or need to unravel the strap when it’s time to unload. 

Tying the bow and stern

Step 1: Hook the end of a bowline to the front end of your kayak

One of the most important things to remember is that it’s essential that the bow of the kayak be connected to the transport vehicle. If the bow and stern are not connected to the car, the wind gusts can rip the kayak off the roof rack. 

That could mean damage to your car, or someone else’s. At the least, it’s going to lead to a sad-looking kayak and an abrupt end to your trip. 

Therefore, the purpose of connecting the bow is not to prevent the kayak from falling off the roof rack but rather, to prevent the wind from picking it up and causing damage.

Connect a rope to the grab handle located at the bow by looping the bow rope through the grab handle. Once looped through the grab handle, it’s time to connect the strap to the vehicle bumper. 

Step 2: Hook the other end of the bowline to the tow hook under your bumper

Grab the opposite end of the bow tie and connect it to the front bumper of the transport vehicle. It’s best to connect the bowline to a tow hook or any loop welded to the frame. Just be sure that it doesn’t get hot or interfere with the function of the vehicle.

It’s good to have two separate lines from the bumper connected to the grab handle of the kayak. This is simply due to safety protocols. While one connection will work, having a backup just in case is probably for the best.

If connecting two bowlines, ensure they are evenly spaced across the front bumper to create a V shape.

Step 3: Tighten the bowline

Once you’ve connected the bowline to both the grab handle of the kayak and the car’s bumper, tighten it. You can do this by pulling the line through the grab handle.

Pull until the rope is tight enough to where the kayak won’t move but loose enough that the kayak doesn’t start to look like a banana shape.

Once tight, tie off the rope.  

Step 4: Repeat on the back of your kayak and car with a stern line

Once you’ve attached the bowline to both the bumper and the kayak and tied off, it’s time to repeat the process to the stern line at the back of the kayak and vehicle. 

Step 5: Secure the loose ends to the rest of the line

Excess bow and the stern line is common. Just like with the kayak straps, it is vital to secure any loose or excess ends of the rope. To do this, bind the rope up like you did the kayak straps, and tie it off to the kayak or the bumper, whichever is most convenient. 

How to Secure a Kayak to Crossbars

When a roof rack is not an option, you can secure your kayak to the crossbars on top of the vehicle’s roof. It’s a pretty quick process too, which is nice when you’re itching to get out on the water.

Step 1: Run the strap over the kayak

Using the tie-down straps, toss the end of the strap that doesn’t have the buckle over the top of the kayak to the other side. Tricky, I know.

Step 2: Secure strap to the crossbar

Once you’ve done that, head to the other side of the vehicle and grab the end of the strap that was tossed over the kayak. From there, loop it through (not around) the crossbar.

Step 3: Throw the strap back over the kayak

Things are progressing! Next, toss the buckle-free end of the strap back over to the side with the buckle strap end. Voila! They’re now on the same side.

Step 4: Align the buckle

Now, tug on the side of the strap that doesn’t have the buckle. Continue until the buckle slides up the side of the kayak but is not out of reach.

Step 5: Loop strap through the opposite crossbar

Loop the plain end of the strap around the crossbar. 

Step 6: Thread cam buckle with the strap

You’ve reached the stage where it’s time to thread the buckle-free end through the cam buckle. This can be tricky, so remember to grab both ends of the strap. As you do, weed the plain end through the cam buckle and tighten to firm up the strap, but not so tight that it begins to squeeze the kayak.

Step 7: Repeat for the second strap

You may have seen this coming, but you’ll need to repeat the process for the second strap. You want to ensure that both sides of the kayak are uniform and secured to the crossbars. 

Step 8: Test strap stability

To test the security of the straps, hold the kayak’s gunwale and begin to shake it. The straps are secure when the kayak and the vehicle shake like one. If the kayak starts to move and the car doesn’t, you will need to redo the strapping process to ensure a secure, tight fit. 

Just as with securing the kayak to the roof of your vehicle with a roof rack, you will have to secure the bow and stern of your kayak to the front and back bumper of your vehicle. 

How to Transport a Kayak Without a Roof Rack

What if you don’t have a roof rack or crossbars on top of your vehicle? Fret not! While not as efficient as a roof rack or crossbars, you can still transport a kayak on top of your vehicle. 

Step 1: Place foam blocks evenly on the roof

Think of these foam blocks as pillows for your car. They provide a cushion for the kayak to sit on during the transportation process, keeping your paint job nice and pristine.

Place one block towards the front of the car roof and one towards the back, ensuring they are even.

Step 2: Place the kayak upside down on the roof between the foam blocks

Make sure the kayak is centered on the roof for even weight distribution. This is the perfect opportunity for a bit of teamwork. Whether you rope in your kid or a friend, it’s always easiest to place the kayak upside down on the roof when you have someone on one end of the kayak and someone on the other working together to lift it up. 

Step 3: Throw the straps over the kayak

Next, ensure to keep the cam or buckle on the passenger side of the vehicle. It’s also vital to make sure the strap has no twists on the area that is on the kayak. 

Step 4: Make a twist in the strap on the sides of the kayak

To do this, twist the end of the strap while gripping above the buckle. Ensure that the twist doesn’t take place on the kayak. Doing this helps with wind vibration resulting in a smoother ride. 

Step 5: Open the vehicle doors and run the straps through the doors to the other side

Follow this step for both the front and back straps. Since there is no roof rack or crossbar to keep the kayak in place, the doors are the best option for securing the straps—and they must be secure! 

Step 6: Take the loose end of the strap and run it through the buckle

Just as in step 4, make a twist in the strap before running it through the buckle to reduce wind vibration. Keep the clasp vertical if possible for better leverage, then pull tightly to secure the kayak. Repeat this for both straps without pulling things too tight. 

Step 7: Tie off the excess strap

The best way to do this is to tie the strap to itself inside the vehicle. No one wants to hear that repetitive smacking as you drive.

Step 8: Test strap security

As with any other tie-down process, shake the kayak to ensure minimal to no movement. If the vehicle moves with the kayak, it is secured. 

Once the kayak is secure, it is then time to tie the bow and stern lines to ensure the wind pressure doesn’t rip the kayak off the car. Think of the carnage.

Kayaking with friends

Final Advice

Installing a roof rack is the best way to ensure your kayak travels without any hiccups, but if you find yourself without a roof rack, you can use the crossbars on the roof of your car or temporary foam blocks to secure your kayak for transportation.

Was this tutorial helpful? Was there anything we missed? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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Ash James

Ash has always loved camping, fishing, and being outdoors. His idea of a perfect day is finding new trails to explore, driving to a remote location, and camping off the beach with Karyn and their two kids. He's pleased to share the knowledge and skills he's learned over the years. You can find out more about Ash here.

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