How to Load a Kayak on a J Rack (Step-by-Step With Pictures)

Kayaks are heavy and awkward to lift; transporting your kayak to your favorite spot can be a challenge. One popular way to get your kayak to and from the water is by using a J rack.  In this article, we will demonstrate how to load a kayak on a J rack. 

There are many different ways people transport kayaks from point A to point B. Some people use a truck. Others use a trailer. Some people go so far as to jam a kayak inside their SUV.  If you own an inflatable kayak, transportation is pretty easy. 

For those who own a hardshell kayak, using a J rack is an excellent way to go.

What is a J rack?

J racks (also known as J cradles) are aptly named because of their shape.  Yep, you guessed it, they are shaped like the letter J.  The rack cradles the kayak on its side on top of your vehicle. Pictured below are the Yakima JayLow fold-down style cradles. You can buy these on Amazon and check the price here.

Kayak J RackPin
Yakima J Rack

This rack system is popular because it can fit on existing crossbars on top of the vehicle.  If you have a roof rack on your car, a J cradle is easy to add.  Depending on the configuration, you can haul one or multiple kayaks.

The cradles have padding on the upright portion and on the bottom of the cradle.  The padding helps protect your boat from scratches and from slipping.

Type of vehicle

J racks can be used on various vehicles, including compact cars, sedans, SUVs (large and small), and trucks. Taller vehicles, like SUVs and trucks, are more difficult because you lift the kayak high overhead. 

Generally speaking, smaller cars are easier to use a J cradle, but it depends on the size of the vehicle and the person doing the lifting.

Some vehicles come with a factory-installed roof rack, and it’s easy to add J cradles.  If your vehicle does not have a roof rack, you can buy the crossbars, but this setup can get pretty expensive. 

Who is a J rack good for?

J racks are great for folks who don’t have a truck or trailer to transport a kayak.  Smaller cars are best, but if you can lift your yak on top of your vehicle, a J cradle is a great option. 

If you already have a roof rack with crossbars, a J cradle is an easy add-on.  You can transport one or more kayaks, depending on the configuration.

Who shouldn’t use a J cradle?

One of the most difficult aspects of using a J cradle is lifting your kayak on top of your vehicle. Usually, this isn’t an issue on small cars, but it requires lifting your kayak (s) overhead if you have a large vehicle.  If you can’t lift your kayak on top of your car, it might be best to explore other options.

How to install a J cradle

Installing a J cradle is pretty easy.  There is a clamp that mounts the cradle onto the crossbars.  Typically the rack will include adapters to fit different styles of crossbars.

J rack attached to crossbarsPin
Yakima J cradle. Use the knobs on either side of the Yakima logo to tighten the cradle

Some crossbars are round, some square, etc.  Clamp the cradle nice and secure to your crossbars, and then you are set.

Lock it down

Some J racks have a lock on them so you can secure them to the crossbars.  This is an added layer of security, so hopefully, no one will run off with your cradles while you are on the water. You will notice in the image above the lock on the front of the J rack.

There is nothing worse than returning from your paddle to find your J racks are missing.

How to load a kayak on a J rack

Now that you have your J rack securely fastened to the crossbars, next comes the fun part, loading your kayak. Next, we will discuss how to load from different positions and best practices.

Please note a lot depends on how big and heavy your kayak is and how much weight you can lift. It’s always easier to lift and load a kayak with a buddy. These are general instructions; you will have to tweak them for your specific needs.

Put your straps on first

J cradles in the upright positionPin

Once the J racks are attached to the crossbars, loop your straps through the upright. Pull the straps in line with the front and rear of your vehicle. This makes it much easier to strap your kayak down, instead of wrestling with the straps after the kayak is in place.

Angle adjustments

With your straps in place, next, you can adjust the angle of the J cradle uprights.  Depending on the model, J racks can often be adjusted to accommodate different angles. They can be situated at 90 degrees or tilted back. 

The 90-degree option allows you to transport two kayaks, one on each side of the upright. Set the upright to the desired angle and lock the cradle in place.

Situate your kayak on the ground

Load a kayak on a j rack - kayak positioned next to the carPin

It’s a lot easier to position your kayak on the ground before you lift it in place. We will discuss loading the kayak from the side. 

It’s essential to have the vessel positioned before you start lifting. This way, you can lift the kayak one time and set it on the cradle. 

This is an important step to remember, and it’s easier on your body to have the kayak in the ready position before you lift.

Loading from the side

Loading from the side is probably the most popular way to load a kayak on a J rack. As mentioned above, it’s important to have the kayak positioned correctly before you the heavy lifting begins.

To start, have the lying on the ground next to the car with the kayak bow facing toward the front of the vehicle.  From here, it’s kind of up to you how you lift the kayak, and it also depends on how tall your vehicle is.

Some people pick up the kayak by the coaming, cradle it with their hand and shoulder before hoisting it on top of the car.  Other folks will lift the kayak in a deadlift or clean and press motion.

Kayaks are heavy and awkward, so this may take some time to figure out what works best for you.

Once you have the kayak at the same height as the J cradle, you can rest it against the side of the cradle and then push the boat up into place. 

How to load a kayak on a j rack - kayak leaning against the edge of the cradlePin

If you have a long or heavy kayak, you can also try another method. For this option, it’s a good idea to drape a towel or a bathroom mat with a rubber backing over the side of your car.

To start, position the kayak next to the side of your vehicle, bow facing forward. This time, the back of the kayak will be at an angle away from the car.  You can then pick up the front of the kayak and lean it against the front cradle.

Remember, the side of the car is protected with a towel or bath mat.  You can use the front cradle to hold the kayak bow while you lift the back of the boat. 

As you lift the stern of the kayak, you can slide it forward onto the front cradle.  Next, put the back of the kayak in the rear cradle.

Distribute weight evenly

Try to place your kayak, so its weight is distributed evenly on the cradles.  If the kayak is too far forward or backward, this can make for a lousy transport experience. Depending on how long your kayak is, you can only do what you can do.

Strap it down

Cam straps are a great way to secure your kayak to your J rack. Cam straps are easy to use and will hold your boat securely in place during transport. But be careful when you tighten the straps.

Cam strap to load a kayak on a J cradlePin

You want the straps to be snug, but don’t be too aggressive, as you can damage your kayak if you are overzealous.

Next, you want both straps on top of the kayak. Lasso both straps over the bow and stern, so they are on top of the kayak. 

loading a kayak on a j rack - straps are draped over the front of the kayakPin

Depending on how long your kayak is and how tall you are, this might take a little creativity.

Then position the straps so that the cam buckle is lined up on one side of the crossbar. The other end of the strap should be lined up on the opposite side of the crossbar.

Loading a kayak on a j cradle - straps are positioned on either side of the crossbarsPin

Ensure the cam buckle is within reach but high enough to give you some room to pull the strap tight. Loop the opposite end of the cam strap underneath the crossbar to meet up with the buckle.

Strapping a kayak to a j rack - looping the straps around the crossbarPin
Loading a kayak on a j rack feeding the strap through the cam bucklePin

Feed the end of the cam strap through the buckle and pull tight.

Straps tightened in place using a j rack with a kayakPin

The goal is to have the cam buckle on one side of the crossbar and loop the other end underneath the crossbar, so you have a snug fit.

Rinse and repeat on the rear of the kayak.

Front and rear tie-downs. 

Often you can hook a strap to the handle on the front and rear of the kayak and find an attachment point on the front and back of your vehicle.  This helps keep the kayak in place while you are en route.

Tie down anchor for a car hood to strap a kayak to a j rackPin

Sometimes it’s hard to find a tie-down on the front of the vehicle. If you need, you can buy tie-down anchor straps that fit under the hood of your car.  This gives you a spot to tie down the bow of your kayak.

Hood tie down anchor in place under the hoodPin

Other tips for loading a kayak on a J cradle

It’s easier to load a kayak on a J rack with two people, but if you must do it yourself, help is on the way. Depending on which brand of J rack you buy, such as Malone or Yakima, there are load-assist options available.

These load-assist accessories can make lifting the kayak in place a lot easier.

Pros of using a J rack

J racks are a convenient way to transport your kayak, or kayaks, to and from the water. Some people use J racks on top of a truck, leaving the truck bed open for all your other gear.  J cradles get the kayaks up out of the way.

Another pro of using a J cradle is cost. If you already have crossbars on your vehicle, adding cradles can be cost-effective for transporting your vessel.

You can also fold the J cradle when you are not using it, so you can still fit your car in the garage.

how to load a kayak on a j cradle - cradles laying flat for storagePin

Cons of using a J rack

The biggest drawback of using a J rack is lifting the boat up and putting it in place. For some people, this is no problem, but it’s a huge deal for others.  The load assist comes in handy for these situations.

Another con of using a J cradle is cost. If you don’t have crossbars already on your vehicle, that is an added expense. Depending on which brand you buy, you can spend a lot of money on a roof rack system.

J cradle weight limits

Something to pay close attention to is the weight limit of the J rack.  The last thing you want is for your J racks to break while traveling down the road.

Check the manufacturer’s specs to make sure you are not exceeding the weight limit of the cradle. If you have an extra heavy kayak, you might need to figure out a different way to transport your kayak.

Also, you want to pay attention to the weight limit of your crossbars. Check the specs for your vehicle and the rack manufacturer to be safe.

Alternative ways to transport a kayak

If a J rack is not in your future, there are other ways to transport a kayak. You can use a trailer, or if you have a pickup, you can strap it down in the back.

Some people strap their kayak directly to the crossbars and forego a J rack altogether.  An inflatable kayak is also an attractive option because they are very easy to transport.


Loading a kayak on a J rack takes a little bit of planning. Once you get the hang of it, a J cradle is a great way to transport your kayak to and from the water. 

It’s a good idea to practice a few times until you get the hang of it. After a long day on the water, you might be tired, which can make it more challenging to hoist your kayak on top of your vehicle. Practice a few dry runs ahead of time.

Go slow, take your time, and make sure the kayak is secure before you head down the road. 

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.