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Kayak Rack for Jeep Wrangler: How to Install (7 Steps)

If you are a water sports hobbyist, you surely understand how crucial having a durable roof rack is. Because even if you had a Jeep Wrangler, you would not be able to fit a full-sized kayak inside its cabin. Thankfully, kayak racks come in several shapes, structures, and designs. More importantly, installing one for your Jeep Wrangler can now be done in a breeze.

For the most part, installing a kayak rack for your Jeep Wrangler involves measuring your vehicle’s roof and choosing the appropriate roof rack system to install. You may need to consider if you have a 2-door or 5-door trim and how many kayaks you intend to haul during your selection process.

For a more detailed rundown, below are 7 easy-to-follow steps on how to install a kayak rack for a Jeep Wrangler:

  1. Determine your designated kayak transporter.
  2. Prep the roof of your vehicle.
  3. Unbox the rack system and loosen the screws.
  4. Attach pads and caps to the crossbars and mounts.
  5. Affix the crossbars.
  6. Position the kayak rack for your Jeep Wrangler.
  7. Fasten your kayak roof rack in place.

This guide will cover the kayak rack installation process and look into top-of-the-line kayak rack systems that would best match the spirited nature of your Jeep Wrangler. I know spring is not around the corner just yet. But if you want to get a head start before the upcoming kayaking season, stick around and continue reading this article.

Person Tying Kayak on Car Roof in Forest

Installing a Jeep Wrangler Kayak Rack

Factory Jeep Wranglers usually have a bare roof (otherwise called rain gutters) with no rails or built-in mounts. On the other hand, secondhand units may have some sort of custom kit – depending on if you bought a special-edition trim or the previous owner was a paddling enthusiast. Likewise, having a 2-door versus a 5-door version makes a huge difference in how many components you need to complete your Jeep kayak roof rack system. That said, the steps below are non-universal and will most likely differ based on the dimensions and current setup of your Jeep Wrangler.

1. Determine your designated kayak transporter.

This is a necessary step for those who own more than one vehicle. You would want to install your Jeep kayak rack on that one car that is sure to carry your kayak to whichever destination your heart desires. Going for the bigger vehicle would mean you may have a tougher time loading or unloading your kayak/s. Similarly, going for the smaller car may prove less of a hassle when installing a kayak roof rack for your Jeep Wrangler.

2. Prep the roof of your vehicle.

Prepping the roof of your car entails cleaning the entire roof (not just the area where the rack system will go) and masking the spots where the aftermarket racks will be laid. Doing the latter is important, as it helps ensure you do not scratch up the roof of your vehicle while installing the kayak rack for your Jeep. However, this step will no longer be needed if you were to go for a no-drill rack system or own a soft-top Jeep.

3. Unbox the rack system and loosen the screws.

Depending on the rack system purchased, your standard set may include either two (2) crossbars and two (2) gutter mounts or more than four (4) crossbars and foot mounts. If this is what you have, it is advisable to lay all the rack components upside-down on a table to see where each part goes. Gutter mounts can already be assembled and placed on top of your vehicle’s roof for marking purposes (not to be permanently affixed yet — that comes much later). Other types of kayak racks like stacker, j-cradles (or j-bars), and pads do not require loosening screws and bolts in advance.

4. Attach pads and caps to the crossbars and mounts.

Most aftermarket rack systems, including some Jeep Wrangler kayak racks for soft tops, come with pads and caps that prevent the kayak rack from scratching the roof and water from entering the crossbars (modular crossbars are usually hollow). J-bars and stackers already have their caps permanently affixed to them, so no need for this step if you go for any of these options. Depending on the construction of your chosen roof rack system, you may have to affix the crossbars first before doing this step.

5. Affix the crossbars.

Attaching the crossbars to the foot mount should be pretty easy for rack systems with a square-shaped mount. However, some aftermarket variants only come with two (2) foot mounts, requiring you to estimate the gap between them for crossbars to fit. With rack systems like these, it is best to lay out all the components on a table (as mentioned in an earlier step) for easier assembly. Loosely attach all ends first and once the pieces are correctly aligned, tighten them into place.

The procedure above applies to kayak racks for Jeep Wrangler hard tops or those with naked roofs. Jeeps with solid or raised roof rails require a different mount type. A solid roof rail will have mounts bolted to the rails before crossbars can be attached. Meanwhile, raised roof rails will have their foot pack designed in two (2) pieces — one piece goes above the roof rail and one below it, sandwiching the crossbars in place. 

For both roof rail types, installation of the crossbars will have to take place on the roof — meaning they cannot be assembled beforehand on a table. The procedure for kayak rack installation will also slightly vary for Jeep Wranglers with soft tops, as they will usually require a backbone structure bolted to the four corners of the Jeep before a kayak rack can be set correctly in place.

6. Position the kayak rack for your Jeep Wrangler.

Centering the kayak rack on the roof of your Jeep Wrangler should have already been done in step #2. But if you haven’t done this yet (or your rack of choice does not permit you to pre-assemble it), now is the time to do so. Correctly position your kayak rack on the roof, considering OEM safety guidelines and any other parameter that may void your vehicle insurance (if you have one). You might need to do things a bit differently if you opted for kayak pads, stackers, rollers, or J-bars.

7. Fasten your kayak roof rack in place.

Supposing you are working with a standard rack system with gutter mounts and crossbars, this final step entails affixing the entire kayak rack permanently on the roof of your 4×4. If your rack came with light brackets and the like, these parts should have already been loosely assembled and just waiting to be tightened. Depending on the surface area of your roof, you may need to install short-roof adapters to increase not only your kayak rack’s load capacity but also support proper spacing between crossbars for improved weight distribution.

Some roof rack systems do not require drilling. But for the most that do (including Jeep Wrangler Unlimited kayak racks), one best water-proofing practice is putting an ample amount of silicon in the holes where bolts go through to ensure water does not seep through them during inclement weather. As for temporary pads, ensure your Jeep’s weather stripping is tight since this rack type passes through the doors and over the roof of your vehicle.

Choosing the Best Kayak Roof Rack: 4 Tips

While installing a kayak rack system is relatively easy, selecting the right kind of kayak rack to go with a Jeep Wrangler may be more difficult. To make this task less tedious, here are a few helpful pointers to take note of:

  • Your Jeep Wrangler’s base roof setup – The kind of kayak rack system that will suit your 4×4 the most will depend on what you already have on your roof – whether it be side rails, factory-installed or aftermarket crossbars, or nothing. A bare or naked roof tends to limit your out-of-the-box rack solutions.
  • The number of kayaks you regularly transport – All kayak rack systems support carrying a single recreational kayak, while stackers and J-cradles do a better job transporting two (2) or more kayaks.
  • The usual length of drive to your kayaking destination – While all rack systems can support single-kayak hauls, not all of them can withstand strong winds or cross-country driving. So, if interstate driving is your thing, better choose saddles and J-bars over inflatable/foam pads.
  • Your kayaking schedule – If you frequent the rapids weekly (or almost every day at most), then you would want to look into installing a more permanent type of rack system. While saddles and stackers are robust, they disrupt your overhead clearance and need to come down outside of kayaking season. Meanwhile, most J-bars can fold down when not in use and can stay on your 4×4’s roof for as long as you need to.

8 Top Picks for Your Jeep Wrangler

Person Fixing Car Roof Rack Outdoors

Now that we’ve covered how to install your preferred kayak rack system, it is time to go over the best aftermarket options available for transporting your kayak on your Jeep Wrangler:

Malone Downloader J-bars (view on Amazon)

The J-bars feature oversized padding for improved kayak protection and offer solid kayak support at an affordable price point. It works on 4x4s, minivans, and SUVs with raised roof rails or factory crossbars (square, oval, or round); 75-lb load capacity.

Malone Handirack Inflatable Pads (view on Amazon)

The Handirack features inflatable temporary pads that can support a single kayak. It offers superb roof and kayak protection and comes with a hand-held pump. It works on 4x4s, minivans, and SUVs with no factory-installed side rails or crossbars; 180-lb load capacity.

Rhino Rack Aero Bar

The Aero Bar is compatible with the 2011-2020 versions of Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator hardtops. It features flexible installation either by way of crossbars or directly to the vehicle’s roof, OE side rails, or gutter mounts. It includes non-corrosive, anodized aluminum construction, incorporates front-to-back slats and black powder coating.

Rhino Rack T-Loader

Regarded as one of the best hitch mount kayak racks for Jeep Wrangler, this rack system supports longer kayaks. It comes with a t-loader that slides right into a Jeep Wrangler’s 2-inch hitch receiver and adjustable straps for added stability. It may require a hitch extender for Wranglers with their spare tires attached to the rear.

Thule 958220 WingBar Edge Complete All-in-One Racks

The WingBar requires no permanent modification or drilling. The complete kit includes all mounting hardware needed for installation. It is great for vehicles with raised roof rails, offers no width overhang and a 165-lb load capacity.

Thule Hull-a-Port Pro (view on Amazon)

This is another highly recommended J-bar kayak rack. The design allows for easy kayak loading, overhead clearance, and convenient installation. It works only with Thule rack systems and has two ratcheting bows, tie-down straps, and buckle protectors.

Thule: The Stacker 830 (view on Amazon)

The Stacker 830 Features sturdy steel construction with a non-scratch exterior coating and offers fast removal and installation. It makes better use of your roof surface area, allowing more than one kayak to transport at a time, and works with Thule rack systems and most factory-installed racks; 75-lb load capacity per stacker.

Yakima JayLow

Among the most recommended kayak racks for Jeep Wranglers, the JayLow Features fold-down technology, allowing this J-bar rack to stay on top of your vehicle without adversely affecting overhead clearance. It works with different roof racks and has overly padded contact points for added scratch protection.

Special Mentions:

  • Malone SeaWing Saddle (view on Amazon)
  • Malone Stax Pro2
  • Thule ARB60 Aeroblade
  • Thule DockGrip Carrier
  • Thule Hullavator (Lift-assisted rack)
  • Yakima JetStream Crossbars

Owning a Jeep Wrangler already equipped with factory-installed mounts or roof rails will give you more options to choose from as far as aftermarket kayak racks go. Conversely, bare or naked roofs (a.k.a. rain gutters) and interstate driving will require sturdier rack systems like saddles and J-bars to go on your Jeep Wrangler. Whichever kayak rack you choose, personal preference and functionality should always form part of your primary considerations.

Conclusion – How to Install a Kayak Rack for a Jeep Wrangler

Jeep with Red Kayak on Top

In conclusion, here are 7 easy-to-follow steps on how to install kayak racks for Jeep Wranglers:

  1. Determine your designated kayak transporter.
  2. Prep the roof of your vehicle.
  3. Unbox the rack system and loosen the screws.
  4. Attach pads and caps to the crossbars and mounts.
  5. Affix the crossbars.
  6. Position the kayak rack for your Jeep Wrangler.
  7. Fasten your kayak roof rack in place.

The simple 7-step rack installation process in this guide should be enough to convince you to ditch your makeshift kayak carrier contraption (if you have not already done so). Otherwise, it should give you more confidence in taking on this DIY task. No other time can be more perfect for installing your own kayak rack system than now.