Spending time on peaceful lakes, calm streams or even a bit of fun whitewater, is the best part of stand-up paddling. It really is a wonderful feeling and a great way to spend the day.

A less wonderful feeling is the first time you try to strap your brand-new stand-up paddleboard to the top of your car. To be fair, loading anything on top of your car is a challenge.

Unless you stand 8-feet tall and have 6-foot-long arms, getting a paddleboard, kayak, canoe or even your skis on top of your car is a challenge.

You’ve paid a good amount of your hard-earned money on a paddleboard, the last thing you need is for it to fly off your car while you’re cruising down the highway.

Stand-up paddleboards are a little more challenging to mount on your car than say a canoe or kayak. They don’t have good tie-down points, and their size and shape make them, well, awkward to hoist above your head.

However, it doesn’t have to be a difficult and trying experience to get your SUP on your car, and there really is a technique and option for every car.

Any given weekend at your local lake, river or whitewater park you’ll get a crash lesson on how to load a paddle board on your car. And if you’re lucky, you may even get to see how paddleboards are loaded on campers and motorhomes.

However, if you’re not ready to mingle with your fellow paddlers, a bit of a tutorial before you head out can certainly make loading your stand-up paddleboard a little easier.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the steps for loading your stand-up paddleboard on your car and give you some helpful tips and tricks to make the process easier, and a lot less awkward.

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Inflatable paddleboard are a lot easier to transport if you fully deflate them. We’ve written an article covering how to deflate a paddleboard.

How to strap your paddleboard to a roof rack

Photo by Brandi Alexandra / Unsplash

If you are really serious about stand-up paddleboarding, and you’re fully committed to the sport, you should invest in a roof rack that is made for transporting a paddleboard.

It makes life so much easier. However, if you’ve just invested in your first board, and you’re not ready to make the big investments, you’ll find yourself using cam straps to attach your SUP to the roof of your car.

Here is a step by step walk through using cam straps to attach your SUP to your car:

  1. Set your paddleboard on the roof of your car, so that it is parallel to your car. The widest part of the board should be centered between the crossbars of your roof rack.
  2. Place the buckle of one of your cam straps along the outside edge of your board, near one of the cross bars. Toss the rest of the strap across your SUP, to the other side of your vehicle.
  3. Wander around to the other side of your car, and grab the end of the strap that you just tossed. Loop the strap around the crossbar and toss the strap back over your paddle board. (Hint: make sure you loop the strap around the cross bar inside of where it attaches to your car. This way it won’t slide off the end of your cross bar.)
  4. Take another wander back to the other side of your car, and grab the end of the strap that you’ve just tossed back to where you started. Loop the strap around the crossbar (see hint in #3), and slide the strap into the cam buckle. Cinch down the strap using the cam, as tight as possible, without damaging your board or your car.
  5. Repeat this process with the other end of your paddle board, using the other crossbar on your roof rack.
  6. Make sure to tie in the loose ends of the straps before you hit the road. These flapping ends, if not properly managed, can damage your car, make annoying noises, and over time fray the ends of your cam straps.
  7. Finally, give your board a few good tugs, just to make sure that it is securely attached to your roof rack.

If you’ve got a really long stand-up paddle board, or if you anticipate high winds in the area you’ll be traveling to, you will want to also use a bow and stern strap along with the cam straps on your roof rack.

This adds extra security to your board, and reduces the risk that your SUP will turn your car into something like a sailboat.

Here’s how to attach bow and stern straps to your SUP:

  1. Invest in ratcheting straps. They are available at your local home improvement or auto supply store. They will make your life so much easier.
  2. Slip the strap through a secure point on the tail end (stern) of your SUP (the leash loop works great), pull through until the ratchet is snug against your board.
  3. Loop the strap around a secure point on your car (and yes, you should loop, don’t just pass the strap under, make a good secure attachment). Ideally you should use the tow hook or even your trailer hitch if you have one that works great. Don’t ever attach a bow or stern strap to a part of your car made of plastic. You’ll end up trashing your car.
  4. Return the loose end of the strap to the ratchet, and thread it through the ratchet. Pull the loose end of the strap down to tighten the strap. Don’t over tighten. You’ll want a bit of slack for the opposite end of your board.
  5. Tie off the loose ends so they don’t flap around.
  6. If your board doesn’t have a secure attachment point on the nose (bow) of your board, you’ll need to attach one. Suction cup anchors work well.

Tips for tying down a SUP

Photo by Ross Sokolovski / Unsplash

Tying down your paddleboard using the method above only gets you so far. Knowing the few tips below will get you a lot further and fully secure your board.

  • Don’t try to be fancy. Use simple knots and ratchet straps whenever possible. You might impress your friends with your nautical knot tying skills, but they’ll just be a pain to undo when you get to your put-in point.
  • Invest in a ladder or step stool. Shorter people with taller cars, or paddleboarders that just don’t want to hurt themselves reaching for the top of their cars, use ladders or step stools. If you’ve got an SUV, look into ladder options that attach directly to your roof rack.
  • Always position your board with the widest point between your crossbars. This will keep your board from slipping out of the tie-downs. Also, keep the straps on the inside of the cross bars. This will also help keep your board from sliding around.
  • Add a twist to the strap. Even if you’ve done a good job of tightening your straps down to your board, you can get some weird vibration noises from the straps, especially if it’s windy. Add a twist to the strap as it crosses over your board. This will eliminate vibration noises.
  • Lock your straps. Invest in locking cam straps that require a key to release them. These keep nefarious people from snagging your board. For added security, use a locking cable, like a bike lock if you’re worried someone might cut the straps.
  • Learn a trucker’s hitch. This knot can come in handy if you don’t have cam straps or ratchet straps for bow or stern lines. If you know the trucker’s hitch you can use simple, non-stretch, water-proof rope instead of cam or ratchet straps.
  • Check and check again. We know you’re excited to get to your put-in point, but it won’t be fun if your board slides out of the straps or is damaged because it comes loose. Pull over after about 15 minutes of driving (especially if you’re highway driving) and check that your board is still secure. If it’s not, retighten all of your straps. Do this process every time you stop for gas or food, just to make sure nothing has come loose.
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If the entire tie-down process seems a bit too much for you, we’ve written another article covering the costs of an inflatable paddleboard.

Understanding the parts of a roof rack

plastic injection moulding
Photo by Mastars / Unsplash

When thinking about how to explain the parts of a roof rack, it’s hard not to start singing that funny kids song, about the bones in the body.

The roof rack is a lot like that, and if you’ve not had a roof rack before, or if you just get confused trying to decipher between the rails and the crossbars and mounting feet and drip rails, it’s helpful to have some easy ways to remember the parts and how they all work together.

If it helps to sing a song to make it easier, well, then go for it. Meanwhile, here’s some clarification on the parts, and how to use your roof rack for your paddleboard.

If you have a new model SUV or even some car models, you probably already have factory installed rails. These run parallel with the vehicle and are attached to your car with feet.

To the rails you attach crossbars. They run perpendicular with your vehicle. Crossbars are handy for mounting racks like ski racks, bike racks or paddleboard racks.

Your paddleboard can attach to either the crossbars or a board specific rack.

If your car, SUV or truck doesn’t have factory installed rails or crossbars, you can order and install feet and rails as well as crossbars using after-market products. Most racks are already after-market add-ons, so even if you have feet, rails and crossbars that are factory installed, you’ll need to purchase a board rack (if you want, they’re not necessary).

Now, how do you use the roof rack for your stand-up paddleboard?

You have two options for attaching your stand-up paddleboard to your roof rack: you can mount the board directly to the crossbars or you can install a paddleboard rack.

First, let’s talk about the SUP rack. These are handy. They make life a lot easier, and many come with built in straps, supports, and even strap locks. They’re great. They are also a bit on the expensive end.

If you don’t have the cash to invest in a SUP rack, you’re probably using your roof rack crossbars to secure your paddleboard to your car. If this is your option, here are some helpful hints.

  • Cover the cross bars with padding. You don’t want the crossbars to dig into your paddleboard when it’s securely strapped down. You can buy padding specifically for protecting your board from your cross bars, but that can be expensive. For an inexpensive, but effective option, Styrofoam pool noodles, split down the length, slip nicely over the crossbars of your roof rack, and they only cost a couple bucks each.
  • Position your board as evenly over the top of your car as possible. You don’t want your board to hang over your windshield or off the back of your vehicle too far. In some places this can be considered a hazard. If you just have a tiny car, and this is your option, extend your board further off the back, and attach a red flag from the end to warn other motorists of the item extending beyond the back of your car.
  • Don’t rush tying down your board. You don’t want your car or your board to become a UFO (unexpected flying object).
  • Some vehicles don’t have rails, only cross bars attached to feet. If this is the case with your vehicle, loop your straps as close and as securely to the board as you possibly can.
  • Install both the front and back straps before tightening down either. Make both snug as you install but come back and tighten when both are completely set, to ensure that you don’t damage your board.

The basics of loading and unloading your paddleboard

While paddleboards are relatively light, and easily carried by one person, there can be challenges when you start thinking about loading your SUP onto the top of your car.

When it comes to loading your paddleboard on your car, it’s not so much about weight, (though some boards can be a bit heavy), it’s more about balance, length and process.

First, check out your surroundings. Make sure you have a clear path to your car. Make sure the back hatch and doors are closed, and make sure that your roof racks are securely attached and free of other objects. If your car is ready for your board, you won’t have to stop, set down your board and start all over.

When you’re positioning your board on your roof rack, face-down with the fin to the back is the most common loading position. The nose of most boards are a bit pointier, having this end at the front of the car improves aerodynamics and reduces drag (which equals better gas mileage).

How to strap two paddleboards to a roof rack

Found this surfer van parked in a parking lot in Hawaii. Pretty epic.
Photo by Cody McLain / Unsplash

If you want to travel with two (or more) paddle boards, you’ll need to know the proper way to strap multiple boards to the roof rack of your car.

Now, ideally, you will have two paddleboard racks that are installed on your roof rack. This will allow you to easily mount your boards to the rack and secure them using the included straps and locks.

However, that may not be the case, and you’ll need to figure out how to safely stack boards on your roof rack for traveling.

The key to doing this safely, without damaging your boards or your car is padding. Lots of padding. Make sure you start by padding your crossbars with foam or some other soft covering. Then place the first board on the crossbars.

Set a couple of pool noodles, or lengths of plumbing foam on the first board. This will create a gap between the two boards so they don’t rub against each other. Offset the boards slightly so the fin of the top board is just in front of the fin for the bottom board.

If you need to add more boards, repeat the process, and then follow the instructions we detailed earlier for strapping the boards to your roof rack.

Can you lock a SUP on a roof rack?

If you are worried about leaving your SUP on top of your car for an extended period of time, you’ll want to think about how to lock them to your car. This is super easy if you’ve invested in a paddleboard rack, many of which come with locking straps.

However, if that’s not ideal for you, check with your local auto supply store or outdoor equipment store. Many will carry locking cam or ratchet straps that will improve security.

If you don’t want to make that investment, a steel cable bike lock works great, too. Just attach it to your leash loop and roof rack and you’re good to go.

Final thoughts

Most of us don’t live on a lake or a perfect paddling stream, so the chances are good that if you want to put-in on your favorite body of water you’re going to have to drive somewhere. This means loading your paddleboard on your car and heading out.

Taking the time to load your board correctly and using the right equipment will allow you to easily load your SUP and head out to your favorite paddling spot. Done right, your board should transport safely, and arrive every time in perfect condition, for a perfect day on the water.