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 ultimate guide for 2023, we will delve into the world of lift-assist kayak racks, exploring their benefits, key features, types, maintenance and care, safety tips, and frequently asked questions.
By the end of this guide, you will have the knowledge and confidence to choose the best lift-assist kayak rack for your needs
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
Yakima Showdown Also Great
Seattle Sports Sherpak Boat Roller Best Affordable
Malone SeaWing/Singer Also Great
TOOENJOY Elevate Universal Runner up
INNO INA453 Kayak Lifter Best Side-Loading
What is a Lift-Assist Kayak Rack?
Before diving into the details, it is crucial to understand the fundamentals of lift-assist kayak racks.
A lift-assist kayak rack makes it easier to lift a kayak onto your vehicle’s roof.
They incorporate innovative mechanisms, such as gas struts or pulley systems, to assist with lifting heavy kayaks. By reducing the physical strain involved in transporting kayaks, lift-assist kayak racks provide convenience and ease of use, ensuring that your kayaking adventures start and end smoothly.
They come in many different designs, styles, and levels of lift assistance and 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.
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!
The Basics of Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
When it comes to lift-assist kayak racks, there are a few key components that you should be familiar with. One of the most important features is the gas strut system.
This system uses compressed gas to provide the necessary lifting force, making it effortless to raise and lower your kayak. The gas struts are typically adjustable, allowing you to customize the lifting force to suit your specific needs.
In addition to the gas strut system, some lift-assist kayak racks utilize pulley systems.
These systems involve a series of ropes and pulleys that help distribute the weight of the kayak, making it easier to lift. With the help of these pulley systems, you can effortlessly hoist your kayak onto the roof of your vehicle, saving you time and energy.
Benefits of Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
Lift-assist kayak racks have great benefits which makes them very popular.
- Most importantly, lift-assist kayak racks eliminate the need for excessive physical exertion when loading or unloading your kayak. This is particularly advantageous for individuals with limited strength or mobility.
- Lift-assist kayak racks prevent potential damage to your vehicle by providing secure and stable kayak transportation. With their sturdy construction and reliable mechanisms, these racks ensure that your kayak remains securely in place during transit.
- These racks save valuable time, allowing you to spend more time on the water and less time struggling with kayak logistics. With a lift-assist kayak rack, you can quickly and easily load and unload your kayak, getting you on the road and to your destination in no time.
Often, loading a kayak by hand can stop someone from kayaking in general, since this can be 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
Types of Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
When it comes to transporting your kayak, having a reliable and efficient rack system is essential.
Lift-assist kayak racks are designed to make the loading and unloading process easier, allowing you to spend more time on the water and less time struggling with your gear. Let's explore the different types of lift-assist kayak racks available:
Roof-mounted lift-assist kayak racks are a popular choice for many kayakers.
These racks are designed to attach to the crossbars of your vehicle's roof rack, providing a secure and elevated platform for transporting your kayak.
One of the key advantages of roof-mounted racks is their versatility – they are compatible with a wide range of vehicles, from sedans to SUVs. Whether you have a small recreational kayak or a longer touring kayak, roof-mounted racks can accommodate various sizes and shapes.
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!
With roof-mounted racks, loading and unloading your kayak becomes simple and easy.
These racks often feature integrated lift-assist mechanisms, such as gas struts or pulley systems, that help you lift the kayak onto the roof with minimal effort. Once secured, your kayak will be held firmly in place, ensuring a safe and stable journey to your destination.
Hitch-Mounted Racks (vertical or upright racks)
If you have a hitch receiver on your vehicle, a hitch-mounted lift-assist kayak rack might be the ideal option for you.
These racks attach directly to the hitch receiver, offering a lower loading height and ease of access. With a hitch-mounted rack, you don't have to lift your kayak overhead, which can be especially beneficial for individuals with limited upper body strength or mobility issues.
The racks are very common options for camper vans, RVs and motorhomes because they allow you to carry to cargo at the back of the vehicle instead of the roof.
Hitch-mounted racks typically feature a tilting mechanism that allows you to lower the rack to ground level, making it effortless to load and unload your kayak. Some models even have built-in ramps, eliminating the need for lifting entirely. Hitch-mounted racks are known for their sturdy construction and ability to handle heavier kayaks, making them a popular choice among those who frequently transport multiple kayaks.
In addition to roof-mounted and hitch-mounted racks, there are also specialty lift-assist kayak racks available.
These racks cater to specific kayaking needs, providing customized solutions for unique transportation requirements.
For those who enjoy kayaking with a partner or a group of friends, there are specialty racks designed to transport multiple kayaks simultaneously. These racks feature multiple tiers or extendable arms that can accommodate two or more kayaks side by side. They ensure that each kayak is securely held in place during transportation, preventing any potential damage or shifting.
Furthermore, specialty racks are available for kayakers with non-traditional kayak shapes and sizes. Whether you have a fishing kayak with a wider hull or a whitewater kayak with a unique design, there are racks specifically designed to accommodate these variations. These racks often come with adjustable padding or cradles that can be customized to fit your kayak's shape, ensuring a snug and secure fit during transport.
Whether you opt for a roof-mounted rack, a hitch-mounted rack, or a specialty rack, investing in a high-quality and reliable system will make your kayaking adventures more enjoyable and stress-free.
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:
Key Features to Look for in Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
When it comes to choosing the right lift-assist kayak rack, there are several key features that you should consider. These features not only enhance the functionality of the rack but also ensure that your kayak is securely transported. Let's take a closer look.
Material and Durability
One of the first things to consider when evaluating lift-assist kayak racks is their material and durability. It is essential to choose a rack that is constructed from high-grade materials, such as aluminum or stainless steel. These materials provide excellent strength and resistance to corrosion, ensuring that your rack will withstand the test of time.
Additionally, a durable rack will be able to handle the rigors of transportation without any issues. Whether you're driving on rough terrains or encountering inclement weather conditions, a sturdy rack will provide long-term reliability and performance.
The weight capacity of a lift-assist kayak rack is another crucial feature to consider.
Different racks have varying weight limits, so it is vital to choose one that can safely support the weight of your kayak. The weight capacity should not only include the weight of your kayak but also any additional gear or accessories that you may have like paddles.
Always check the manufacturer's specifications to ensure compatibility. It's better to choose a rack with a slightly higher weight capacity than you need, as it provides an extra margin of safety and prevents any potential damage to your kayak during transportation.
Ease of Installation
Another important factor to keep in mind is the ease of installation. Nobody wants to spend hours struggling with complicated installation processes. Look for lift-assist kayak racks that offer straightforward installation, with clear instructions and minimal tools required.
Some racks even feature quick-release mechanisms, allowing for rapid attachment and detachment. This can be especially useful if you frequently need to remove the rack when not in use or if you have multiple kayaks that you alternate between.
By choosing a rack that is easy to install, you can save time and effort, allowing you to spend more time enjoying your kayaking adventures.
So, when you're in the market for a lift-assist kayak rack, make sure to consider these key features. By choosing a rack with the right material and durability, weight capacity, and ease of installation, you can ensure that your kayak is safely and securely transported, giving you peace of mind and allowing you to focus on the thrill of your next kayaking expedition.
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.
4 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.
Tip #1 - 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.
Tip #2 - 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.
Tip #3 - 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.
Tip #4 - Make a habit of checking all straps and lines on a regular basis, especially after they get wet in the rain.
Frequently Asked Questions about Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
How to Choose the Right Rack for Your Vehicle
Choosing the right lift-assist kayak rack for your vehicle can be overwhelming with the plethora of options available.
- First, consider factors such as your vehicle's roof type, hitch compatibility, and kayak storage capacity.
- Second, compare different rack models to ensure a suitable match for your specific requirements.
Recommended: Side-by-side product comparison tool
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?
Troubleshooting Common Issues
Like any piece of equipment, lift-assist kayak racks may encounter occasional issues.
Common problems include malfunctions with the lift-assist mechanism, loose or damaged components, or compatibility issues.
If you experience any difficulties, the best thing is to do a quick Google search, consult the rack's user manual or reach out directly to the manufacturer for troubleshooting assistance.
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 assist 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!
Check out our detailed review of the Hullavator Pro
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. Yakima Showdown - Also Great load-assist
The Yakima ShowDown Load-Assist reduces lift weight by up to 45%, accommodates kayaks, canoes and boards.
Check out our detailed review of the Yakima ShownDown
It folds down to save space, and is easy to install because it requires no additional tools
The tilting mechanism makes easier loading as the design is light.
The ShowDown fits most roof racks and is ideal both for individuals or bigger groups like families.
Despite its high price, its premium offering, robust build, and brand reputation provide good value, making it a suitable investment.
Thule Hullavator Pro vs. Yakima ShowDown
For loading and unloading, the Thule Hullavator Pro's gas struts provide a significant advantage by allowing the user to load and tie down the kayak at waist level before easily lifting it onto the roof
If ease of installation is a priority, the Yakima ShowDown might be the better choice as it doesn't require any additional tools for installation.
3. 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.
4. Malone SeaWing/Singer - Also Great load-assist
The Malone SeaWing/Stinger Load Assist offers easy single-handed kayak loading, reducing the risk of vehicle or kayak damage.
Check out our detailed review of Malone SeaWing/Singer
The rack fits a variety of vehicles and has a load capacity of up to 70 lbs.
It features an extendable loading frame, V-style carrier cradles for a secure fit, and corrosion-resistant construction.
Although installation can be time-consuming, its utility for solo kayakers or small groups, along with its reasonable pricing and decent resale value, highlight its value.
The ease of use post-installation, durability, and protection it provides for both the vehicle and kayak make it a reliable choice
5. TOOENJOY Elevate Universal - Runner up load-assist system
The TOOENJOY Elevate Universal Lift Assist simplifies the loading and unloading process, adapts to various items and vehicle models, and boasts a durable construction.
This roof top rack accommodates anything from kayaks, canoes, boards, bikes, cargo, ladders and more.
Check out our detailed review of TOOENJOY Lift Assist
It features an innovative lifting mechanism, adjustable mounting points, and an advanced locking system.
The rack is suitable for a variety of vehicles and has a high weight capacity of 100 lbs.
It's ideal for individuals, couples, and families frequently transporting kayaks, bikes, or other equipment.
Although it's from a lesser-known brand and the initial setup might require some time, its functionality, ease of use post-installation, and competitive pricing compared to market leaders like the Hullavator Pro, make it a promising choice.
The Bottom Line
In conclusion, lift-assist kayak racks offer a practical solution for convenient and safe kayak transportation.
By understanding the basics, benefits, key features, types, maintenance and care, safety tips, and frequently asked questions, you are now equipped to make an informed decision when choosing a lift-assist kayak rack.
Remember to prioritize material and durability, weight capacity, and ease of installation. Consider the different types of racks available, and select the one that best suits your needs and vehicle.
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.
- TOOENJOY Elevate Universal: This is a fairly new rack on the market and definitively a runner up in the lift assist category. Although the brand is less known, user review have been solid, mainly due to its versatility because the rack can carry anything from kayaks, bikes to cargo.
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.