4 Types of Kayak Racks & Carriers (Ultimate Guide)

kayaks with gear on the beach

Welcome to my expert guide on choosing the perfect kayak rack! I've been a white water instructor for the last 7 years and I've transported more canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and windsurf boards than I can count.

I'll take you through the different types of kayak racks and help you determine which style is best for you.

Kayak racks are available in a variety of styles. Every style has advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to know about the different types of kayak racks before purchasing one.

The 4 types of kayak racks are:

  1. J-Style Kayak Racks
  2. Horizontal (Saddle) Kayak Racks
  3. Lift-Assist Kayak Racks
  4. Vertical (Stacker) Kayak Racks

By the end of this article, you'll have all the knowledge you need to choose the best rack for your needs. Whether you're a seasoned water pro or just starting out, this guide will help you find the perfect rack to transport your favourite watercraft.

J-Style Kayak Racks

A J-style kayak rack is one of the most popular types of kayak racks. It is shaped in a “J” and allows the kayak to sit inside it. They are also called j-cradles.

j-rack set

After the kayak is placed inside the cradles, straps are wrapped around the kayak to hold it in place. The shape of a J-style kayak rack makes it easy to slide the kayak into the rack since the open end of the holder is faced toward the side of the vehicle.

Most J-style kayak racks fold down when not in use, increasing aerodynamics and appearance. Additionally, they use space efficiently on your roof which allows you room to carry additional cargo.

More expensive J-style kayak racks may offer special features, such as increased padding, locking, and higher quality overall.

View J-style kayak racks on Amazon.


  • Inexpensive
  • Secure and stable
  • Aerodynamic
  • Easy to load


  • Limited to 2 kayaks per vehicle

Also check out: Best J-style kayak racks

Should I Buy a J-Style Kayak Rack?

J-style kayak racks are best for the average kayaker. They’re simple, inexpensive, and secure. You can’t go wrong with a J-style kayak rack unless you need to carry more than 2 kayaks.

If you’ll only be transporting your kayak a handful of times for short trips, you can spend around $50 on a J-style kayak rack.

If you’ll be using your kayak more than that or taking it on a long trip, you’ll want to invest a bit more into a solid J-style rack.

Regardless of the situation, any J-style kayak rack is worth purchasing to easily and safely transport your kayak.

Horizontal Kayak Racks

A horizontal kayak rack holds the kayak from the bottom, allowing the kayak to sit flat on the roof of your car. This type of kayak rack provides the most surface area contact when transporting the kayak.

horizontal kayak racks

This type of kayak rack holds a wide variety of kayak shapes and sizes due to its design. The design is aerodynamic to help increase gas mileage. Along with the aerodynamics, the sturdiness of the kayak rack makes it great for long trips.

Additionally, more expensive horizontal kayak racks offer lift assistance. There are many different levels of lift-assist kayak racks available depending on your needs and budget.

View horizontal kayak racks on Amazon.


  • Very sturdy
  • Aerodynamic for increased gas mileage
  • Some models offer lift assistance


  • More expensive than other styles

Also check out: Best horizontal kayak racks

Should I Buy a Horizontal Kayak Rack?

Horizontal kayak racks are best if you are looking for the most stability. This stability is a result of the high amount of surface area contact that this type of rack has with the kayak.

A horizontal kayak rack is also best if you need to fit multiple sizes of kayaks. Horizontal kayak racks are highly adjustable, and most models can also fit canoes.

Lift-Assist Kayak Racks

A lift-Assist kayak rack makes it easy to load the kayak onto your car. They are available in several levels of lift assistance.

lift-assist kayak rack

More expensive lift-assist kayak racks will lift the entire kayak onto the roof with minimal assistance. They reduce the height that the kayak will need to be lifted without assistance by extending down along the side of the vehicle, depending on the style. While you’ll still need to push the kayak onto the roof, a full lift assistance rack will greatly reduce the lifting weight of the kayak.

Cheaper lift-assist racks offer simple solutions to make it easier for you to load, but still require you to lift most of the kayak’s weight. They may offer rollers to help slide the kayak in place, or adjustable arms that extend out beyond the roof of the vehicle.

View lift-assist kayak racks on Amazon.


  • Easy to use
  • Sturdy
  • Wide range of lift assistance levels
  • Reduces lifting the weight of the kayak


  • Most expensive type of rack

Also check out: Best Lift-assist kayak racks

Should I Buy a Lift-Assist Kayak Rack?

A lift-assist kayak rack is best if you have physical limitations that make it difficult to lift heavy objects, or if you will often need to load your kayak by yourself. It is also best if you have a large or heavy kayak.

A lift-assist kayak rack can be beneficial for many people, even if you don’t need full lift assistance. Kayaks are heavy and awkward to handle, especially when lifting overhead.

Vertical Kayak Racks

A vertical kayak rack, also referred to as a “stacker,” holds the kayak on its side, allowing for high-capacity kayak carrying. By positioning the kayak on its side, space is used vertically rather than horizontally. This clears up space for more kayaks (or other cargo). Vertical kayak racks typically hold up to 4 kayaks.

vertical kayak rack

Vertical kayak racks must be strapped down after being loaded, but straps are usually included with the purchase. Most racks fold down when not in use to improve appearance.

View vertical kayak racks on Amazon.


  • Allows for maximum loading capacity
  • Folds down when not in use


  • Less secure than other styles

Also check out: Best vertical kayak racks

Should I Buy a Vertical Kayak Rack?

Vertical kayak racks are best if you are looking to carry the maximum amount of kayak on your vehicle. This is the major benefit of a vertical-style rack. A vertical kayak rack may also be useful to save space for other rooftop cargo if you won’t be loading the maximum amount of kayaks.

Summary of Different Kayak Type Racks

When it comes to choosing the right kayak rack for your needs, it's important to consider the different types available.

Each style has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it's crucial to understand them before making a purchase.

J-Style Kayak Racks offer a secure and space-saving solution, allowing you to easily transport your kayak on its side. However, they may require more effort to load and unload the kayak.

Horizontal (Saddle) Kayak Racks provide excellent stability and versatility, accommodating different kayak sizes and shapes. They are also easy to load and unload. However, they may take up more space on your vehicle.

Lift-Assist Kayak Racks are perfect for those who need extra help in lifting their kayak onto the roof of their vehicle. They make loading and unloading a breeze, but they may be more expensive compared to other types.

Vertical (Stacker) Kayak Racks are ideal for those who need to transport multiple kayaks. They allow you to stack kayaks vertically, saving space on your vehicle. However, they may require more effort to load and unload.

To determine the best kayak rack for you, consider your specific needs and preferences. Think about the type of kayak you have, the frequency of use, and the available space on your vehicle.

Additionally, consider your budget and the level of convenience you desire.

Remember, safety should always be a top priority when transporting your kayak. Make sure to properly secure your kayak to the rack and follow all manufacturer instructions.

By understanding the pros and cons of each type of kayak rack, you can make an informed decision and choose the one that best suits your needs.

Happy kayaking!

Bill Nikolaou
I live for wild rides on rivers, and have passion for digital marketing. With 7 years of experience in white water guiding, I've transported more gear than most folks will in a lifetime. Need a reliable rack or carrier? I got you covered!