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Car Topping 101

For many paddlers and cyclists the most stressful part of the day is transporting their canoe, kayak, paddleboard, or bicycle to the place they intend to use it. Feeling a rush of panic every time a semi approaches or fretting over damage you may cause your boat or car simply means you’ll find something else to do the next time someone invites you to join them for a day of fun.

Fortunately, getting your boat or board to the water or your bicycle to the trail doesn’t have to be difficult. There are numerous options available for transporting your toys. The equipment you purchase to do the job will likely depend on how much those toys cost.

In general, there are two simple things you need to avoid whenever you transport anything on top of a vehicle. First, don’t create UFO’s (Unintended Flying Objects) that will endanger other drivers. Nothing will ruin your day faster than looking into your rear view mirror and seeing your boat or board trying to fly.

Secondly, be sure you don’t cause any damage to your vehicle or whatever you happen to be carrying. Most serious damage to canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards happen during car topping. We won’t even talk about how a bicycle looks after it skids down the highway at 70 mph.

Anything Is Possible! Some Things Aren’t Sensible

There are a lot of ways to carry boats, boards, and bikes on top of a car. Some of them are very inexpensive. I’ve seen people put boats on the roof of their car with no padding and simply use bailing twine to tie them on. Once I saw someone stack five kayaks into the back of a pickup and squish them all down with a single rope over the top. They drove off oblivious to the likely damage they were causing to their new boats and the obvious scratches they added to their vehicle. What they did worked for them. For the rest of us these methods just aren’t sensible. So here are a few things to think about to keep your car free from scratches, your boat and board free from deformities, and your bike safe and sound.

Bare Roofs

If you have a bare roof you can get by with foam blocks. I recommend this for short distances only. Typically a boat secured in this way will slide across the roof or twist when cars pass by at high speeds. This isn’t good your nerves and if there happens to be any sand under the foam blocks it also won’t be good on the car roof. Bow and stern lines should be added and the straps over the hull can be cranked down. This may help stop most of the movement but you’ll likely dent the roof of the car and/or cause damage to the boat.

I’ve never seen anyone carry a bicycle on a are roof. I suppose it’s possible but I wouldn’t recommend it if you actually want the bike to work well when you take I down.

With nothing on top the best thing to do is purchase a rack system from Thule or Yakima. Both make excellent systems with clips that go inside the door. These allow a variety of cradles to be used that provide additional support to your boat or board. These crossbars have a high weight capacity and accept a variety of bike carriers as well.

Manufacturer Racks

(Rack that is installed by dealer or car manufacturer)

Many vehicles already have a basic rack installed. These crossbars will accept foam blocks and the boat can be secured with straps over the top. With bow and stern lines added this is a relatively safe and solid way to transport a boat or board. Many bicycle carriers will also attach directly to the existing cross bars.

The downside to manufacturer racks is their width and weight capacity. If you wish to carry a canoe and a kayak on top they likely will not fit on the narrow rack. In addition, many of these racks are made with a lot of plastic and don’t have the weight capacity and strength to haul long boats in high winds. The addition of either Yakima or Thule crossbars will provide more width and strength to allow multiple items to go on top. You can carry a variety of combinations such as a canoe and two bikes or two kayaks and two bicycles.

Back of Car

The back of a vehicle is often a good place to put a bike rack. It’s low for easy accessibility, easily removable for times when not in use, and relatively inexpensive. These types of bike racks are fairly easy to install and you don’t need any other equipment to mount these carriers. There are no options for carrying a boat off the back of your car.

Truck Racks

A truck opens up a lot of possibilities for carrying boats, boards, or bicycles. Racks can be mounted to the cab, the bed, or the hitch in various combinations. This type of rack will often provide a wider bar spread (more distance between the bars) allowing the boat or board to be tied down more securely. Bikes can be placed on top of the cab or mounted inside the truck bed. A truck bed will also serve as a step up making loading and unloading of items easier.

Hitch Racks

Having a vehicle with a hitch opens up some options for both bike and boat carriers. The hitch being solidly attached to the truck provides a very solid connection. This will accommodate higher weight loads and allows the carrier to be mounted away from vehicle potentially eliminating scratches to the paint. However, the biggest advantage to having a hitch is the ability to haul a trailer!


Trailers are a versatile way to carry boats, bikes, boards, and more! Many people choose to build their own trailers as a relatively inexpensive option. There are a variety of companies building high quality, lightweight aluminum trailers. Most provide quality shocks, as well wheels large enough to handle high speeds and long distances. Also be sure the wheelbase and height of the trailer will reduce the need to worry about tipping in high winds.

One last thing to remember with trailers! When hauling longer boats, be sure your tongue can accommodate the turning radius. It really sucks to arrive at your put-in point and discover the bow of your kayak has dented the back of your car. More than likely you’ll find your kayak is in less than perfect shape as well.

Other Car Topping Tips and Tricks!

Tip: When tying a kayak pass a strap or piece of rope both in front of and behind the cockpit. For a canoe be sure each strap is beyond the widest point of the hull allowing the straps to actually become tighter if the canoe moves forward or back.

Tip: Whenever you transport a kayak, try to space the bars so they are under the bulkheads. The added stiffness provided by the bulkheads will allow straps to be tightened without causing damage or deformities to the hull.

Tip: Always tie a line or strap to the bow. I’d also recommend tying another to the stern. Straps sometimes fail and if they do the these lines will keep the boat on top of your car long enough to pull over to the side of the road.

Tip: No matter how tightly you tie your boat, you will need to check it and retighten straps and ropes as you travel. Ideally you should check at every gas stop.

Tip: Don’t over tighten straps and ropes. If your boat or car top starts to bend or dent as you tighten your straps, stop. Do something different. Reposition the boat, your blocks, your bars, or find another way to transport it.

Tip: Don’t use ratchet straps and if you do snug them rather than tightening them too much. Also be sure the metal on the strap doesn’t come in contact with your boat. A thousand miles of vibration won’t be kind to your boat or board

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To learn more about how and where to purchase a roof rack please visit

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