How to make your own car-top kayak rack

I designed and built what I think turned out to be a pretty decent car-top carrier rack for my kayaks.  Here is a photo of the final product mounted on the roof of my PT Cruiser.

I built the rack out of PVC pipe bought from my local home improvement store.  I designed the rack so that it can be attached to the roof of my car using standard ratcheting straps that loop around the car roof with the doors open.  The ratchets are inside the cab of the car.

Before I built this rack, my best solution for hauling my kayak to the river was just to strap the kayak itself to the roof of my car.

One problem with that scenario was that I could only haul a single kayak that way.  Another problem was that the ratcheting straps outside the cab would vibrate and buzz loudly when I was driving down the road at highway speeds.  But the rack I designed and built solved both of these problems.

Below is a photo of the rack after I glued all the PVC pieces together.  I designed the left side of the rack with a single upright that sits up into the seat hole in the first kayak which will hold it at the angle I want.  Then the other two kayaks lean up against the first one.  The right side of the rack has 2 uprights to cradle the bottom side of the third kayak.

I used T’s rather than 90’s for the 4 corners so that I could feed the ratcheting straps through the pipe and keep the straps out of the winds, thus keeping them from vibrating and buzzing.

I’m not going to give specific parts lists and specific measurements because this rack needs to be custom sized for your kayaks and also custom sized for your car.  But cutting these PVC pipes and gluing them together is very very easy.  So this is a project that just about anyone should be able to take on.

The below photo shows how 3 kayaks fit perfectly into this rack.

But I actually own 4 kayaks, and occasionally I will want to haul all 4 of them to the river.  It turns out that my SUV has a roof wide enough to hold all 4 kayaks, so I designed my kayak rack to be expandable from 3 kayaks to 4 kayaks.  So now I can use the rack on my car or on my SUV.

You can see in the below photo that the rack is now wider.  The PVC pipes on the left are all 2 inch pipes and the PVC pipes on the right are all 1 and 1/2 inch pipes.  The 1.5 inch pipes fit nicely inside the 2 inch pipes with not very much wiggle room, so that worked out nicely for this application.

If I was making a single size rack that didn’t expand, I would probably just use the 1 and 1/2 inch PVC pipe for the entire rack.  It feels to me like it is strong enough to do the job of holding up these 10 foot kayaks, but also flexible enough to bend a bit around the contour of the car’s roof.  In my case, the 2 inch PVC pipe I used for most of the rack doesn’t give very much and it ended up denting part of the roof of my car a bit when I torqued the rack down using the ratcheting straps.

Here is a photo of the rack holding 4 kayaks.

The detail photo below shows you the single upright on the rack that fits up into the seat hole of the first kayak and basically holds the first kayak upright at a slight tilt from vertical which is good for leaning the other kayaks up against the first kayak.

The photo below details the other side of the rack where the two uprights are there supporting the bottom of the third kayak.  This photo also shows my solution for holding the kayaks down.  I used black rubber bungee cords.

The photo below details the attachment points of the bungee cords.  I bought a bungee cord that was the right length to go all the way around each kayak.  And I drilled holes into my PVC pipes to attach the bungee cords.  These bungee cords hold the kayaks down tight to the rack and they also keep the kayaks from moving very much left and right.  And also, thankfully, these bungee cords don’t vibrate and buzz at highway speeds.

IMPORTANT:  This photo shows the PVC sitting down directly onto my roof.  Do not do this!  The PVC is plastic, but it’s a very hard plastic and it WILL damage your paint job!  Make sure you put something soft or rubbery between the PVC and your vehicle!  My suggestion is to buy 2 inch wide self-stick Velcro in bulk rolls and apply the soft side to the bottom surface of your PVC rack!  Also don’t ratchet it down so tight that it dents your roof!  The idea is to use PVC that is flexible and conforms to the contour of your roof!

This photo shows you the inside of one of the PVC pipes.  You can see the ratcheting strap and also the bungee cord attachments.

And here is the final rack.  I tested it at highway speeds and it worked quite well.

Another photo of the final rack.

And one last photo of the final rack.

And just for fun.  Here are a couple drawings I drew up during the process to help me decide on the design and to help me come up with a parts list to go buy.

Thanks for your interest!  Please leave questions or comments below!  Or use the “Email Us” link at the bottom of the website!

Kurt

15 thoughts on “How to make your own car-top kayak rack”

  1. You probably want to connect the uprights together in case of failure of a glue joint so all the kayaks don’t fall off and get you stranded somewhere with four kayaks (and only able to mount one to continue). It would also make the single upright not have to bear the load of all the kayaks if you hit a bump (or something else) in the road. The loads on the rack on a smooth road going “high” speeds are much different than a not so smooth road, even going low speeds.

  2. I’m sorry, but I think this is a terrible idea. Firstly, PVC pipe is not a good material to make a roof rack from. When was the last time you have seen a Thule or Yakima rack made from plastic and not steel? Also, those bungee cords are not really sturdy enough for that kind of wind resistance – certainly at highway speeds. Use proper tie down straps or rope. Nice design work, but by the time you put that effort and PVC glue/cost in, you might as well have just purchased a safe and reliable used rack from CL for $50. I would hate to be a motorbike rider behind you on the highway if this system failed….

  3. This is a fair assessment. This system has NOT been tested for strength and has NOT been proven to be safe at highway speeds. This system is probably best for short local trips. It’s definitely risky at highway speeds.

    Kurt

  4. Most elegent design I have seen for 3 or 4 kayaks. Am also looking for something to get to nearby lakes so this is perfect. One could certainly make the same design with square metal tubes and straps if you had a welder.

    Would also be easy enough to modify to fit on a roof rack.

  5. Howdy!

    Looks like you and I are in the same “boat,” except my three kayaks are all different models so they don’t nest so nicely. I have a van with a roof rack, and I wanted a cheap alternative to the “stacker” style racks; verticals that you can strap 2, 3, or 4 boats to.

    I have 10’ and 8’ sit-insides and a 10’ SOT. All my solution does is hold the SOT upright so I can strap the others to its sides. My rack is made of cheap 2×2” lumber coated in rubber (flex seal) but all the stress is placed on the actual roof rack and kayaks: I use three heavy ratcheting tie-downs. I didn’t see your page until today (halfway though a big trip with kayaks and freeway speeds) so I was surprised that the basic design is so similar: a rectangle with three uprights. But mine is smaller, sized to exactly fit the SOT, and the rectangle just sits inside the roof rack, held in by nothing but gravity, the straps do all the real work.
    It works so well and cost so little, I think (after I get home from vacation) I’ll post an Instructable about it…

    Happy paddling!

    Mike

  6. Great idea, follow-through and photos. I am sure PVC has limitations, as one reader noted. But you are not pushing the limits here and I plan to give it a try! Thanks for sharing this with others!

  7. Very good design and the PVC is more than strong enough to provide support for the kayaks. If you were to use a different tie down that was static (e.g. ratchet straps or rope) around the kayaks, this would improve safety during transport.

    Clever and efficient design. I will be making a similar design for my son’s PT cruiser.

  8. Yes, that’s a very good point. Ratchet straps or tie downs are a much more secure and much safer option for holding the kayaks down to the rack. Thanks.

  9. Hi, I appreciate your post So Much! My husband is paralyzed, he can Build Things! We have 2 sons who are disabled, I take them Up North, Michigan, Want to take 3 kyakes up 7 hours drive, mostly freeway, from our house. I have an 2016 Escape 4 wheel drive, thinking this would Work??

  10. I would think this rack would not stand up to highway speeds or bumps. pvc and glued joints are not that strong. There is a lot of stress on those glue joints and on the verticals. I might put this IN a trailer to keep kayaks from bouncing around, but definitely not use it as a roof rack.

  11. Yeah, that’s fair. Thank you for your assessment. If the straight line wind forces don’t damage the stiff glue joints then the vibrations will likely do a number on them. Let’s all agree to stick to local water sources that don’t require high speed travel. Thanks. Be safe.

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