Subaru's offer a ton of features designed to support the needs of kayak enthusiasts. These vehicles were made to be efficient in the streets, but durable enough to handle off road conditions. The challenge is finding a roof rack that can do the same thing for your kayak.
In this article, we outline the best kayak roof racks for the Subaru Outback, Forester, Impreza and Crosstrek based on the different features of each car. We vetted every kayak rack on the market in our article Best Kayak Racks of 2018 and chose the best options for each Subaru.
Comparison at a Glance
Choose the best rack for your situation!
We choose the best kayak racks based on a variety of factors relating to the product features and vehicle attributes. Keep in mind, the best rack is the one that fits your needs the best so don't be afraid to mix and match!
I personally love the Subaru Outback. The vehicles mix of versatility and durability make it one of the most practical vehicles on the road and off the road. The only thing missing is a roof rack to carry your kayaks safely to shore.
The Outback's Crossbar System 2010-Present
Subaru decided to do something new starting in 2010, when Toyota bought a large interest in the company, by creating roof rails that house their own cross bars. Finally, a vehicle that comes stock with a complete roof rack foundation... or so you may have thought!
All Outback models 2010-2019 except the Touring starting in 2017 come with the pullout crossbars featured in the video below. The Touring models have low-profile, Euro roof rails. The Euro roof rails will require an aftermarket crossbar setup before a kayak rack can be mounted to it.
The Touring will need 3rd party crossbars and a kayak rack, while all other grades already come with crossbars so they will only need a kayak rack.
How to Use the Outback's Crossbars
The Problem with the Outback's Crossbars
Subaru's crossbar innovation makes selecting a kayak roof rack a bit of a chore. In order for the roof rails to slide into crossbars required Subaru to create a uniquely shaped bar, which is not compatible with most kayak roof rack mounts.
This has enraged Subaru Outback truthers who claim the factory bars are too flimsy and narrow compared to after market crossbars. However, the manufacturer boasts a respectable 150lb. max weight rating, which is more than enough to carry the average kayak at 70lbs.
From roof rail to roof rail the Outback measure 39 inches to comfortably accommodate a single kayak laying flat or two kayaks carried in angled or vertical positions.
The Outback's crossbars has two options for cross bar spread at either 30in. or 39in.. At it's longest a cross bar spread of 39in. is relatively short for kayak transportation. Bow and stern tow lines are always my recommendation but even more so in this case.
Outback Touring Owners are in Luck
In the summer of 2017, Subaru launched their highest grade Outback in the Touring. It came with all their latest bells and whistles but most importantly with a sleek new set of low profile silver roof rails.
Kayak enthusiast alike can rejoice in Subaru simplifying their roof rail design because they are easily compatible with most aftermarket crossbars. This gives Touring owners the pick of the litter for kayak racks.
As a car manufacturing insider, I can say with some authority that the features on high-end models become standard on lower grades as the years pass. There is hope for the Subaru Outback kayaker after all!
Dimensions: 18.1"L x 7.9"W x 17.3"H
Weight: 8.1 lb./3.7 kg.
Crossbar Compatibility: Fits stock Outback roof rail/crossbars and adapts Thule crossbars. Adapter kit available for other brands.
Pros & Cons
The convertible crossbars present a unique problem in the kayaking world. The result is limited options for those not wanting to pay the Piper for the Touring model.
Recently Subaru partnered up with Thule by proclaiming them the official rack supplier of Subaru. Thule products are pricey but well made so typically alternatives, but the Subaru-Thule partnership adds special value in this unique case.
The crossbars are 3in. wide, very flat, and thin. The unique shape requires a unique special kayak carrier to mount to it. The Thule Hullaport fits the bill for this one.
The Subaru Outback is 66 inches tall meaning kayaks will not have to be lifted too high to get onto the roof. Lift assistance is likely not needed so I would save the money.
The Thule Hullaport is a set-and-forget quality product. High quality parts consisting of premium component parts construct a sturdy, folding J-cradle that transports a single kayak securely.
I am recommending only j-cradles with no assistance for this model unless lift assistance is a personal need. The 66in. height of the Outback allows most people to work at a comfortable chest height for loading and strapping down the kayak. Additionally, a second set of J-cradles can be purchased if you want to haul two kayaks in the future.
The Subaru Forester is the ideal SUV for taking dirt roads down to the river's edge for a weekend on the water. A generous ground clearance and spacious trunk provide room for you and your friends camping amenities. You can stash everything except the most important piece of equipment, your kayak!
The Forester's Crossbar System 2013-2019
Fortunately, the Forester did not follow suit of the Subaru Outback's convertible crossbars and opted for traditional roof rails on all models except the base (simply labeled the Forester). These roof rails are compatible with nearly all 3rd party crossbars, which gives you the pick of the litter when it comes to kayak carriers themselves.
We wrote a separate article on the best crossbars for the Subaru Forester for more information.
However it is not all rainbows and butterflies. The tallest vehicle in the Subaru fleet and the only true SUV presents challenges when loading kayaks onto its roof.
Height is an Issue
The Forester stands 5 ft. 8 in. tall or just about the same height as the average American male.
This means about half the population will be lifting heavy kayaks over their head. Not only is this dangerous for you, but it also subjects your vehicle to potential damage.
Lift Assist Racks to the Rescue!
Because of this, I recommend any kayak rack should be modified with a lift or load assistance to aid getting the kayak onto the roof.
Assistance in the loading process will protect your back and grant independence to solo kayakers.
Additionally, lift assistance helps protect both the vessel and car itself. Drops, slips, and scratches are all to come after a long day out on the water. The cost of a single incident like breaking a sideview mirror or denting the car will easily justify the cost of a lift assist mechanism.
Dimensions: 16”L x 6”W x 36”H
Rack Weight: 35 lb./15.8 kg.
Crossbar Compatibility: Universal Adapters
Pros & Cons
The Hullavator 898 Pro is quite frankly the best kayak rack on the market. The aid it provides its users makes kayaking accessible to those with injuries or disabilities. This rack grants freedom to independent kayakers.
If you're thinking about the Yakima Showdown as an alternative; check out Yakima Showdown vs Thule Hullavator.
Setting up the Hullavator for the first time will require a couple of hours, but once installed it can be taken off in a breeze. It has high initial time investment, but will save you time in the long run.
The gas struts are covered by a limited Lifetime Warranty and Thule is known for great customer service. You can feel confident this rack will last for years to come.
The price tag scares many away right off the cuff, but a closer examination reveals you get huge value. Kayak racks are an investment and should be treated as such.
Truly the best kayak rack on the market. Buy one and find out for yourself!
Double Kayaks, Double the Fun
We felt the Forester was great for groups to go kayaking so we included a rack capable of handling multiple boats!
Dimensions: 10”L x 8”W x 26”H
Weight: 12 lb./5.4 kg.
Crossbar Compatibility: Universal but adapters for round bars
Pros & Cons
The Inno Dual Kayak Stacker was selected as the best fit for the Subaru Forester for good reason. The Inno comes with it's own load assist, unique to the kayak stacker world.
Stackers relay on resting kayaks on the cross bars of the vehicle and secures them by tightly strapping the kayaks to stacker tower. The problem lies in getting the kayaks to rest on their side while you strap them down.
Inno's solution is to include cradles for the kayaks to rest during the loading process. These small pads make all the difference in the stacker world and believe it or not, Inno is the only stacker on the market to come offer cradles at all!
One word to the wise - when loading multiple kayaks put the Inno in the middle of the crossbar with a kayak on either side. Central placement distributes the weight better and makes loading easier.
Only the 2.0i 5 door Premium and Limited models comes with roof rails right out of the dealership. All other grades will need roof rails or crossbars applied to be compatible with kayak carriers.
Subaru stuck to its reputation of outdoor ready vehicles by including mounting points on the roof. These mounts give you the option to skip roof rails altogether and install screw mounted crossbars. This little features from Subaru saved you hundreds of dollars.
Alternatively, you can buy bare roof racks. These systems rest on the roof and clamp to the door opening to hold onto the roof. No drilling to the roof necessary for these setups.
A Breeze to Load
As always the primary factor to consider when looking a roof racks is the vehicle height. The Impreza tops out at 4 ft. 10in. making it much shorter than all previously discussed models.
For kayakers, this is great news because it will be a breeze hoisting the kayaks onto this roof. Most users will be working near chest height so lift assistance is not needed.
Dimensions: 27.5"L x 6"W x 4.5"H
Weight: 11.6 lb./5.3 kg.
Crossbar Compatibility: Universal fit
Pros & Cons
The Malone SeaWing kayak saddles stood out amongst the rest. I must say this was likely the most difficult choice of the whole articles because the Impreza's low height gives tons of inexpensive options.
The decision came down to the best kayak orientation while in transit. The Impreza is a smaller vehicle so wind resistance can majorly impact the driving experience at highway speeds. Kayaks transported on their sides (stackers) or at an angle (J-cradles) could easily act as a sail in strong crosswinds leading to unexpected lane changes.
Horizontal kayak carrying allows the kayak to slip into the airstream of the vehicle and reduces the impact of cross winds. Horizontal carrying was decided and the best horizontal carrier is the Malone SeaWing.
Nonetheless, the Malone SeaWing is the definition of simple and effective. Slide the kayaks in and strap them down and you are good to go.
You will find this to be one of the most adaptive kayak carriers. It is best suited for normal to narrow kayaks but just about anything will work.
The Subaru Crosstrek represents Subaru's latest stab at capturing the expanding market of crossover vehicles. It sports features appealing to both the modern office worker and weekend warrior alike.
The Crosstrek is the only model in the Subaru fleet that comes with black finish roof rails offered on all models. (Subaru finally did it!)
The Crosstrek's Crossbar System 2018-Present
Twin raised roof rails in all new black matte finish mean the sky's limit in terms of crossbar choice. In fact, this is easily the most roof rack ready vehicles offered in the Subaru fleet.
A median vehicle height of 5 ft. 3 in. allows the owner to go either way on lift or load assistance. If you feel comfortable lifting a kayak I don't think lift assistance is completely necessary, but it does certainly help.
Simple lift assistance as featured in the Whispbar rack below provides a second set of hands to the user. More complex lift assistance is often costly so this is a feature that is a great bang of the buck.
Dimensions: 19.3"L x 5.5"W x 16.5"H
Weight: 20 lb./9 kg.
Crossbar Compatibility: Only fits crossbar with T slot channels
Pros & Cons
Introducing the innovative, stylish Whispbar J-Cradles. The most feature packed, sleek J-cradles on the market will do everything you want in a kayak rack.
Whispbar developed the best J-cradle in the world and as a result they are driving the kayak rack market into the 21st century. The WB400 offers industry first, built-in simple lift assist arms slide out from the side of the carriers to aid in kayak loading and unloading. Conventional lift assist arms are sold separately and few compact into the rack itself.
The adjustable upright arms lock into place with solid construction for kayak transportation and fold down for additional clearance and improved aerodynamics when not in use.
These cradles have a unique locking system that make taking them off the crossbars a breeze. We are talking under 30 seconds, which is unheard of elsewhere in the industry. The catch is that they are only compatible with Whispbars own crossbars.
The Whispbar WB400 in Action