We want to carry a kayak while vacationing this summer, and maybe add a second if possible. What are the basic vehicle requirements and what are our carrying options? – Priya in Toronto
Some motorists take a cavalier approach when transporting cargo on the exterior of their vehicles. Glance around the freeway and I'll bet you'll see twine, kitchen string, and even twist-ties "securing" everything from drywall and mattresses to oversized picnic baskets and toys. I recommend you study these – from a safe distance – as examples of what not to do.
Once a vehicle is moving, aerodynamic forces come into play. To safely travel with a kayak up top, you'll need tie-down straps and rooftop cross bars. If they're not factory-installed, these can usually be added.
"To carry a kayak on top there must be at least two feet of space between the front and back cross bar. There are certain two-door vehicles which are just too small, such as the Nissan Z series or the Smart car," says Madeleine Becker with Thule Inc.
Transport Canada reminds us that rooftop cargo can make a vehicle less stable and increase the risk of a rollover. Don't exceed the roof rack load limit, which you can find on the rack or in your owner's manual.
"Typically, and generally, roofs can handle 165 pounds. That's what we test at, but occasionally you'll get a car that only has a weight limit of 75 pounds," says Meko Thomson with Yakima.
Kayaks can vary in weight, from 35 pounds to much more than 100 pounds. How many can you carry will also depend on the size of the vehicle.
"Usually, it's two full-size kayaks. I've seen SUVs with 65-inch load bars that actually carried three: one flat in the middle and two up on their sides in the J-style carriers on the end," says Becker.
Carriers shaped like the letter "J" hold a kayak at an angle. In a "saddle" carrier, the kayak sits flat, as it would in the water. Both carriers are secured to the cross bars, and the kayaks are fastened in with straps.
"If you do a saddle setup, depending on how wide your vehicle is and how wide your crossbars are, you can maybe get away with carrying two. More than that won't work because of the horizontal width," says Thomson. "With our J-cradle style, where kayaks tilt on their side slightly, you can definitely get more than one up there because it doesn't take up as much space. We also have a product called the Big Stack, it's two pieces of equipment that clamp onto your cross bars and stick straight up. The kayaks are tied-down on their side, and if they're small, such as those little plastic ones, you can typically get two on each side."
For safety reasons, always use tie-downs at each end, which secure the front and rear of the kayak.
"If you're driving without them and need to slam on the brakes, even though you have the belly of the kayak strapped down there's a chance that slamming on the brakes could force it forward. The same goes if you're driving at a high speed, the faster you go the more updraft there is on the kayak and it could eventually break loose. We include bow and stern tie-downs with all of our kits, and always recommend using them," says Becker.
Becker adds something to keep in mind on very hot days: if your boat is tied down tight and you're not going anywhere, you'll want to loosen the straps. Otherwise, the heat can actually deform a boat made of polyethylene plastic.
When it comes to transporting water products, there are many opinions as to which carrier and which brand work best. Go to your local paddling club, or talk to friends, relatives and colleagues about their experiences. No matter what you decide to go with, don't ignore your rack manufacturer's guidelines, or you'll be left without a warranty – and in harm's way.