Kayaks and roof racks

Every so often people ask me about roof racks, and attaching canoes/kayaks, so here is my current advice.

If you’re serious about kayaking, you need to have a good quality roof rack. Please DO NOT buy the cheapest Halford one (or similar). I’ve used Thule roof racks for many years; they are very good quality, though they are not very cheap.

Useful links:

Thule do a few styles of bars. We use ‘WingBar’ bars; these are supposed to be aerodynamic, to reduce noise and help fuel consumption, but I’m not sure that has very much effect. They have a slot along the upper side for attaching things to, this makes it very easy to change the bars from carrying kayaks to bicycles. The cheaper bars need to have the attachments bolted on instead.

You buy the bars and a fitting kit (the ‘feet’) separately. That’s because all the cars need different ways of attaching. If you have an estate car it is likely that you will have longitudinal rails along the edge of the roof above the doors, this makes it very easy and secure to attach the bars, but you’ll still need to buy basic ‘feet’ for these rails.

The various websites (Thule, Halfords, and other specialist roof rack shops) all have a page allowing you to specify your car make & model, and it will tell you which feet and bars you should use.
We recommend getting bars slightly wider than they recommend, but not too much wider. This means you should be able to get four boats stacked up on the roof. Don’t get the bars too wide, because you will then hit your head on the bars when you get in or out of the car!

Attaching the boats. I recommend using an upright attached to the roof bar, so that you can carry the kayaks on their edges. Some people don’t bother with this, and instead carry the boats flat, and can carry two pairs nestled cockpit to cockpit. I think that this is slightly more hassle when loading and unloading.

Thule sell a folding, U-shaped upright: https://www.thule.com/en-gb/winter-and-water-sports-carriers/kayak-roof-racks/thule-kayak-support-_-520100
Slightly cheaper from here: https://www.roofbox.co.uk/scripts/rbvehsel4_tab.php/car-specific-accessories/thule_kayak_carrier_for_2_kayaks_no_tu520_1/Qx%40w%2C6M42VAwp3%40Rb%7B~cC4ure5HvA
We normally have ours located three-quarters along the bar, so we can load one boat on one side, and three boats on the other. We can even fit an open canoe on the wider side.
You can get cheaper bolt-on uprights too.

Note though, that if you have an expensive (carbon/kevlar) racing kayak, or a nice sea kayak, then you will want to use proper V-bars or similar to support the boat on the roof.

It is worth putting some padding on the roof bars; this makes the boats much more secure once they’re tightened onto the bars. Thule have a rubber strip which fits along their slotted bars; alternatively, but less elegantly, you can simply tie pipe lagging to the bars. If you’re flashy you can by branded Palm padding…

We have multiple sets of straps, of different lengths. A ‘short’ pair of 3.5m straps works to hold the single boat on one side, and a ‘long’ pair of 5.5m straps for the three boats on the other side. It really helps to make sure that the straps are different colours, so that you don’t get them mixed up every time you pick them up. Palm sell coloured straps, but some other makes only come in black.
The shop in Thornbury sell them: https://www.canoeandkayakstore.co.uk/products/palm-cam-straps#foo&gid=1&pid=4
These straps have simple ‘ratchet cams’, which are entirely sufficient. We throw the blue rubber end protectors away; they are intended to help prevent scratching your car, but they get in the way a bit when using the ratchets.
Some people use straps with lorry style ratchets; I think these are a bit more hassle.

Locks. In practice, we are lucky that very few thieves seem to bother stealing kayaks. However, we do have the roof rack with locks, so that the rack is locked to the car. Thule allow you to buy a matched set of locks so that you have a single key for all of them (and for the bicycle racks too, see a bit further down). We also have a long cable-lock so that we can lock the boats to the car, but we only use that when we feel that we’re parked in a particularly vulnerable location: https://www.canoeandkayakstore.co.uk/products/rackguard-lockwire


Thule also sell various bicycle racks which attach to the roof bars. We use these ‘ProRide’ carriers. Again, these are not cheap, but they make it very easy to load bikes onto the roof. https://www.thule.com/en-gb/bike-rack/roof-bike-racks/thule-proride-_-598001
We don’t even need to take the kayak U-upright off when we use these; we just fold it down. And you can get the locks for these bicycle racks to use the same keys as the rest of the bars.
But bicycles are most definitely targetted by thieves; if we ever have to leave any bikes on the car roof, we always add extra big locks (D-locks and big fat chains); we don’t rely just on the basic Thule locks.

Mixing kayaks and bicycles

We sometimes leave one bike carrier on the roof on the ‘single kayak’ side of the upright; this means we can carry one, two, or three kayaks on the other side, plus a bike.
With some effort you can carry two kayaks in the middle of the car, and then add the second bike carrier on the outside to add a second bike too.
And, if you have friends who have the same racks, you can fit four bike carriers onto one roof rack to carry four bikes (but no kayaks at the same time, though).

Beg, borrow, etc

Finally, please feel free to chat with us about this. We can show you how easy it is to install the bars. And if you ask nicely, and have the same slotted roof bars, we can lend you some of our stuff…


I’m new to kayaking, how do I get started?

Over the summer we ran four beginners courses each for six people, these have now finished and we won’t be running anymore courses until next spring. Dates will go on the website in the spring as soon as we have them, just keep checking back to see if we’ve posted them.

Meantime, if you’re keen to join us paddling and are a complete beginner then it’s best to do a course first to give you the skills to paddle entry-level rivers with us, this is especially important as we head in the autumn/winter season when the rivers are higher and the weather more challenging. Look for providers of the “Start”, “Discover” and “Explore” awards. Check out the gopaddling website to find which is the most appropriate course for you https://gopaddling.info/category/paddling-awards/ There are many providers who run courses over weekends that will give you the skills you need to enjoy paddling with us

If you are over 50 then you might like to look at All Aboard Watersports which is also at the Baltic Wharf, next to where our canoe store is. They run sessions for over 50s (don’t worry, many of us in the club are over 50!) that are very reasonably priced at £10 a session. Look here: https://www.allaboardwatersports.co.uk/book-with-us/courses/course/50-kayaking-come-on-board/

If you are interested in white water paddling, then check out the Cardiff International White Water Centre’s courses here https://www.ciww.com/courses/adult-zero-to-hero/ This is a fantastic resource and a good intro to white water training, and very accessible from Bristol.

We do run pool sessions during from Sept to March at Bristol South pool where we do some informal coaching and provide an opportunity to practice skills learned on courses and on rivers. It’s better to learn the skills to paddle first then get some practice in at the pool to hone those skills. Everyone of course wants to learn to roll a kayak, but as one of our longest standing members says, “better to learn how not to need to roll a kayak so you don’t have to!”