Lift-Assist Kayak Racks (Ultimate Guide for 2023)
As a white water guide for the last 7 years, I've seen a lot of lift-assist kayaks in action.
Let me share with you my expertise about lift-assist kayak racks, which are one of the 5 main types of kayak racks.
Lift-assist kayak racks help those who have difficulty lifting their kayak onto the roof of their vehicle, therefore they can be extremely useful. Whether you're a seasoned kayaker or just starting out, these racks can make your life so much easier. They make loading and unloading your kayak a breeze, allowing you to spend more time on the water.
In this article, I'll share with you all the information you need about lift-assist kayak racks including the top product recommendations, pros & cons, and installation tips.
If you want to skip to best lift-assist kayak racks in detail, click here.
Thule Hullavator Pro (May be temporarily unavailable due to popularity) Best Overall Kayak Lift-Assist
Seattle Sports Sherpak Boat Roller Best Affordable Kayak Lift-Assist
INNO INA453 Kayak Lifter Best Side-Loading Kayak Lift-Assist
So, if you're ready to take your kayaking experience to the next level, keep reading. I promise you'll find all the information you need to choose the perfect lift-assist kayak rack and make an informed decision.
What is a Lift-Assist Kayak Rack?
A lift-assist kayak rack makes it easier to lift a kayak onto your vehicle’s roof. They come in many different designs, styles, and levels of lift assistance.
Lift-assist kayak rack designs vary depending on the type of kayak rack. There are different types of lift-assist for j-style racks, horizontal racks, etc.
Some lift-assist racks are complete rack sets that include everything you need, while others may simply be an attachment to an existing kayak rack.
Many lift-assist systems are simple and make the job of loading your kayak slightly easier. For example, some lift-assist racks have a rolling system, that allows you to easily slide the kayak onto the roof.
There are also advanced lift-assist kayak racks available that make it very easy to load your kayak. For example, the Thule Hullavator Pro lifts up to 40lbs of the kayak’s weight, which is often more than half of the entire weight of the kayak rack!
Benefits of Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
Lift-assist kayak racks have great benefits which makes them very popular.
Most importantly, lift-assist kayak racks allow people who are not capable of loading a kayak on a vehicle to enjoy the sport of kayaking.
Often, loading a kayak by hand can stop someone from kayaking in general, since this is a very physically demanding task.
Disadvantages of Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
There are two main disadvantages of lift-assist kayak racks: compatibility and price.
The main disadvantage of a lift-assist kayak rack is compatibility. Most lift-assist systems only work with certain brands or styles of kayak racks. It may be difficult to find a compatible lift-assist system if you’ve already purchased your kayak rack or crossbars.
Although it isn’t technically a disadvantage, price is an important factor to consider when purchasing a lift-assist kayak rack.
Some lift-assist kayak racks can cost more than $600, depending on the complexity of the lift-assist system. This isn’t necessarily bad, since lift-assist kayak racks are extremely valuable to those who can’t load their kayak by themselves.
Lift-Assist Kayak Racks: Pros and Cons
- Makes it easy to load your kayak
- Reduces the lifting weight of the kayak
- Easy to use
- Wide range of lift assistance levels
- Limited compatibility with racks and crossbars
- Some models can be very expensive
3 Types of Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
There are three main types of list-assist kayak racks available on the market. These include those that offer full lift assistance, roller lift assistance, and simple lift assistance.
1. Full Lift Assistance
These lift-assist kayak racks are some of the most popular among consumers, as they allow side-of-vehicle loading, unloading, and strapping.
As a result, these products can lift up to half of the kayak’s entire weight for you.
Here’s a demonstration video of the Thule Hullavator Pro, the best full lift assist kayak rack:
These kayak loading systems fold down to the side of your vehicle, which allows you to lift your kayak to a comfortable height. Pneumatic gas struts then do the rest of the heavy lifting and allow you to securely glide your kayak outwards and upwards onto the roof of your car.
Learn more about the Thule Hullavator Pro
2. Roller Lift Assistance
With a roller lift system, you can simply roll one end of your kayak up to the top of your car, then pick up the other end and roll the kayak forward onto the roof.
Here’s a video example of a roller lift assist system:
The rollers are then locked in place to keep the kayak secure when traveling.
3. Simple Lift Assistance
The most basic form of lift assistance is a pole that pulls out of your roof rack and allows you to raise only half of your kayak at a time.
This mechanism essentially serves as the extra pair of hands you need to slide your vessel on or off your crossbars.
The INNO Kayak Lifter is a good example of this.
Although it is simple, it is quite useful and affordable!
Choosing the Best Type of Lift-Assist for Your Needs
With multiple types of lift-assist kayak racks available, you might be wondering which type of rack is right for your situation.
In order to determine which lift-assist kayak rack is ideal, you should first take the following elements into consideration:
Level of Assistance
Lift-assist kayak racks are best for those who struggle to lift kayaks onto their roof. However, the amount of assistance each type of rack offers varies.
For those who only need an extension bar to make it easier to slide the kayak onto or off their roof, a simple lift assistance (such as the Sherpak Boat Roller) would suffice.
For those who are physically unable to lift their kayak (whether due to impairment or the weight of the vessel), full lift assistance – like the Thule Hullavator Pro – is recommended.
Compatibility with Existing Racks
If you have existing kayak racks set up on your car, then it’s worth pointing out that some lift-assist racks may only work with specific brands or styles of racks and crossbars.
The Hullavator Pro, for example, is only compatible with Thule crossbars.
Understandably, your budget will also play a major role in your final decision.
Generally, the more assistance a lift-assist kayak rack offers, the higher in price it is.
Prices usually range from $100 for simple lift assistance (like rollers or bars) to $650 for top-of-the-line, full assistance.
Should You Buy a Lift-Assist Kayak Rack?
If you struggle to load your kayak or are completely unable to load it, you should definitely invest in a lift-assist kayak rack. They are also great if you are physically capable, but often need to load your kayak by yourself.
Lift-assist kayaks will also benefit those who own larger, heavier kayaks, since lift systems will help reduce the weight of the kayak.
How Much Does a Lift-Assist Kayak Rack Cost?
Since there are so many different types of lift assistance available on the market, the prices of lift-assist kayak racks vary greatly.
Lift-assist kayak racks can cost anywhere from $100 to $650 or more, depending on the type of lift assistance offered.
The most expensive lift-assist kayak racks carry the majority of the kayaks and drastically reduce the effort needed to load a kayak.
Cheaper lift-assist systems may feature simple attachments to make it easier to load the kayak by hand, such as rollers or bars that extend out from the crossbars.
Also check out: How Much Do Kayak Racks Cost?
Best Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
With a wide variety of lift-assist kayak racks available on the market, it can be difficult to choose the best one for your situation. We’ve researched and chosen our top 3 lift-assist kayak racks to help you find the best lift-assist system.
1. Thule Hullavator Pro – Best Overall Lift-Assist Kayak Rack
The Hullavator Pro is one of Thule’s most notable products.
This lift-assist kayak rack handles up to 40 lbs of the kayak’s weight so you can load and unload on your own.
It extends from the crossbars and down the side of the vehicle, allowing you to load the kayak at waist level!
The Hullavator Pro fits kayaks up to 36 inches wide and 75lbs heavy. The system features dual extending arms that lower the kayak as much as 3 feet. It’s made of strong, durable materials and the kayak cradles are heavily padded to keep your kayak safe. The rack also includes bow and stern tie-downs.
People who purchased the Thule Hullavator Pro were very impressed with the lift-assist feature. The system is very easy to use and allows people to enjoy the sport of kayaking when they previously couldn’t due to physical limitations.
There aren’t many negative points associated with the Hullavator Pro, but there are a few important points to consider before purchasing.
When the rack is attached, it will add an extra 18 inches to your vehicle’s clearance. This is important to remember when driving under low structures, such as garages.
Additionally, the Hullavator Pro is only compatible with Thule crossbars. You should verify that the rack fits your vehicle before purchasing.
Overall, the Hullavator Pro by Thule is an outstanding product that has improved the loading and unloading experience for many people’s kayaking trips. Its quality and lift-assist technology make the Hullavator Pro our pick for the best lift-assist kayak rack available on the market.
2. Seattle Sports Sherpak Boat Roller – Best Affordable Lift-Assist System
The Sherpak Boat Roller by Seattle Sports is a rear-loading kayak lift assist system that suctions onto your rear window/roof which allows one person to easily load and unload kayaks, canoes, and more.
The Sherpak Boat Roller attaches to your car using suction cups. It has a foam roller that you use to slide the kayak onto the roof.
This lift assist system is not something you use while you’re driving. Rather, you attach it temporarily to load your kayak then remove it once the kayak is on your roof.
People who purchased the Sherpak Boat Roller were very impressed with the results and highly recommended it. The only major issue people had was using this product with a curved rear window. If you have a curved rear window, the suction cups may not get enough suction to the window.
Overall, the Sherpak Boat Roller is great because it is one of the cheapest lift-assist systems available on the market and it works very well.
3. INNO INA453 Kayak Lifter – Best Side-Loading Lift-Assist System
The INNO INA453 Kayak Lifter is a kayak lift-assist system that loads from the side of your vehicle.
It is more expensive than the Sherpack Boat Roller that we mentioned above, so why might you want a side-loading lift-assist system?
A side-loading lift-asset system will allow you to load your kayak when you may need to park bumper-to-bumper.
Side-loading may not seem like a huge benefit, but if you park your car on the street you may have cars parked behind yours, so you’ll need to load from the side. Additionally, if you’re unloading your kayak on a road pull-off, parking is often in a “bumper-to-bumper” layout.
Tips for Using a Lift-Assist Kayak Rack
Although lift-assist kayak racks make transporting your kayak easier, there are still some things you should keep in mind to ensure you’re using these systems safely.
- The kayak should be balanced on the rack’s bars, so it doesn’t tilt forward or backward. Additionally, position the kayak so it’s parallel to your car. If it’s slightly uneven, the wind will apply unbalanced pressure on one side of your kayak throughout the duration of your drive.
- If you’re only transporting one kayak (and using cam buckle straps), it’s safer to buckle on the passenger side in case you need to make a roadside adjustment. This means you won’t be standing in traffic when making an adjustment to the rack.
- Shake the kayak with both hands to check if it’s secure. On the bars, the kayak shouldn’t move. As you try to move the kayak, the vehicle’s suspension should rock instead.
- Make a habit of checking all straps and lines on a regular basis, especially after they get wet in the rain.
The Bottom Line
Kayaks can be heavy and cumbersome, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this fun activity. Lift-assist kayak racks are perfect for those who need extra hand loading and unloading their kayak from their car.
There are plenty of lift-assist kayak racks on the market to suit your needs. Whether you’re looking for a budget-friendly simple lift assistance, or a more expensive rack providing full lift assistance, there’s a kayak rack to suit you.
After thorough research, I have identified the top recommendations for lift-assist kayak racks.
- Thule Hullavator Pro: Recognized as the best overall lift-assist kayak rack, the Hullavator Pro stands out with its ability to handle 40 lbs of a kayak's weight, allowing solo loading and unloading. It extends down the vehicle's side for waist-level loading and is compatible with kayaks up to 36 inches wide and 75lbs. Its lift-assist technology and robust design make it the top choice for many kayakers.
- Seattle Sports Sherpak Boat Roller: As the best affordable lift-assist system, this rear-loading solution uses suction cups to temporarily attach to your vehicle, facilitating easy kayak loading. However, it might not suit cars with curved rear windows. Its cost-effectiveness and efficiency make it a popular choice for budget-conscious kayakers.
- INNO INA453 Kayak Lifter: Touted as the best side-loading lift-assist system, the INA453 is ideal for those who often park in bumper-to-bumper situations or on streets. While pricier than the Sherpak Boat Roller, its side-loading feature offers a unique advantage, especially in tight parking scenarios.
I hope this guide has given you a great overview of what a lift-assist kayak rack is, as well as the top products currently available. As with any purchasing decision, I recommend you also do your research to determine which product is the most perfect for your needs.
Remember, conquering rapids and exploring lakes and rivers is an exhilarating experience, but it's equally important to prioritize safety and convenience.