Universal soft roof racks for surfboards and kayaks [DIY Guide]

I’d never heard of roof racks when I started surfing.

I was about 12 years old. I lived about a 20 minute drive from the beach, so I relied a lot on the kindness of my parents, and friends’ parents to give me lifts to the beach.

The only trouble was, they were all bodyboarders, and my 6’0, hard, pointy surfboard didn’t quite fit in the car so nicely, so I found it difficult to get a ride with anyone.

A few years later, when I was old enough to drive myself (and others) to the beach, I again ran into the problem of battling to fit boards and people into the car without someone getting a fin in the eye!

By this time, I’d seen people carrying their surfboards around on the roof of their cars using roof racks and tie downs. So, I decided to go fishing around for a set of my own.

I bought some that fit my car and finally, for the first time ever, I could drive the car with my friends sat comfortably (and legally!) in the seats around me.

But then I ran into two problems.

1 – My car’s fuel consumption jumped right up.

I mean, that was fine if I had boards on the roof and was heading to the beach, but it felt a bit unnecessary to have to pay for all that drag on the roof during trips when I had nothing strapped to the roof racks. Constantly installing and uninstalling the roof racks was a complete headache, plus they really cluttered things in my tiny garage when I needed to store them.

2 – My car got stolen.

This a.) meant having to buy a new car and b.) having to buy new roof racks because the ones I had were only suited to one kind of vehicle.

So, I decided to use this as an opportunity to try out the world of soft roof racks, also known as roof rack pads.

They were perfect!

Super lightweight, easy to use, compact and easy to store, and best of all, they were universal and could fit on almost any car.

Ever since that day, I’ve used soft roof racks to carry anything on the roof of my car from surfboards, to kayaks, to canoes, even excess baggage that didn’t fit in the car.

A little while ago, we moved country and I had to leave my soft roof racks behind. So, the first thing I did when I got a new car was figure out how to make my own set of soft roof racks based on the design of the set I had at home. It took a bit of trial and error, but, in the end I managed to make myself a beautiful set of soft roof racks for super cheap!

In this post I’m going to show you exactly how you can make your own set of universal lightweight soft roof rack pads to carry surfboards, kayaks, SUPs and canoes on any car.

So, if you’re looking for an easy solution to your adventure gear transportation woes, check out the video, or else read through the instructions below to get started!

Soft roof racks video instructions

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What do you need?

You only need 2 things:

1. x2 lengths of foam tubing.

You can get this at any hardware store. Make sure that the lengths you get are at least 1x the width of whatever it is you want to strap to your roof. The diameter of the foam tubing should also be roughly the diameter of your fist.

2. x4 Polyester/Nylon cam buckle tie down straps (4m long)

Nylon or polyester straps will do. Just make sure there is one nice cam buckle on the one end of the strap and nothing on the other end. Here’s a great set on Amazon

How to build the soft roof racks.

1. Measure the foam tubing.

You’ll need to cut 2 lengths of foam tubing. One for the front of the car and one for the back.

Measuring the lengths of the foam tubing is not an exact science, but there are a few things to remember.

  1. Place the surfboard, kayak, SUP (or whatever it is you’re carrying) on the ground or up against a wall where you can use it to help you measure.
  2. Find the 2 points on your carry item that will be in contact with the soft racks once they’re on the car.
  3. At these points, line up a length of foam tubing across the width of the carry item and measure 1 cutting point at least 1/2 an inch inside the left outer edge and another at least 1/2 an inch inside the right outer edge. In other words, the length of the foam tubing should be 1 inch shorter (1/2 an inch on each side) than the width of your payload.
  4. Do the same for the second foam tube.
foam tubing measure

2. Align the buckle in the car’s cab.

For this next part, you will determine where your straps will go on the roof and position the buckle so that it doesn’t interfere with the driver or the passenger.

To do that simply:

  1. Open the two front doors of your car.
  2. Take one of the cam buckle straps, stand at one end of the car, and throw the non-buckle end over the cab to the other side.
  3. Go inside the cab and thread the non-buckle end through the buckle so that the strap is tight on the cab roof.
  4. Maneuver the strap until the buckle is in the centre of the cab, and the strap does not encroach on the driver’s space.
  5. Once you’ve done the front, do the same with another strap through the back doors.
Soft align

3. Mark out the position of the knots.

With the straps secured to the roof of the car, you can now mark out the points on the strapping that you will use to tie your loop knots.

  1. Put your adventure item on the roof of the car in roughly the same position it will be in when you will be carrying it.
  2. Make your hand into a thumbs-up shape (like you’re hitchhiking).
  3. Place the base of your hand on the edge of your payload where it meets the strapping and mark the length from the base of your hand to the tip of your thumb.
  4. Do the same for the other side of the strapping.
Soft roof racks knots

4. Cut the foam and transfer the markings.

At this point you should have a length of foam tubing ready to be cut, as well as a cam buckle strap with some markings on it.

  1. Line up and transfer the markings on the foam tubing to another foam tube so you have 2 of the same length.
  2. Cut the foam tubing with scissors or a small saw (depending on the density of the foam you’re using).
  3. Line up and transfer the markings you made on your cam buckle strap onto another strap so that you have two identical makings – these will be your 2 base straps that tie onto the car.
Measuring foam rolls

5. Push the straps through the foam tubing.

Once your foam tubing has been cut and your straps are marked out, take one of the straps and thread it through the hole in the foam tubing. You can use a broom or mop handle to help you with this. Repeat this process with the second strap and foam tube.

Strap push through

6. Tie loop knots on the straps.

Next, we will complete the base straps by tying some loop knots on the points we marked out in step 3.

To tie a loop knot:

  1. Find the first marking you made on the base strap.
  2. Make a loop in the strap by squeezing the strap together between your fingers until it makes a bulge and eventually a small loop as your fingers close together.
  3. Keeping your fingers together, tale the loop and wrap it once around the strap and then back through the gap you’ve made.
  4. You’ll know you’ve done it right when you pull on the loop and it creates a knot which tightens as you pull it.
  5. Do the same for the other side of the strap, as well as the second base strap.

You now have 2 complete base straps.

Next, we need to make the carry straps. These are the straps that will tie around your adventure gear and keep it secured to the soft racks.

Loop knots

7. Tie top straps onto the base straps.

  1. Take one of the base straps and find the loop knot that is on the buckle end of the strap.
  2. Take the buckle end of the carrying strap and feed it through the loop.
  3. Next, tie a granny knot (a simple over and under knot) to secure the carry strap to the base strap.
  4. Leave roughly a thumb’s length from the buckle of the carry strap to the loop knot (i.e. very short length).
  5. Do the same for the second straps.

At this point, we’ve created the straps. Now, we need to string the system up onto the car and tie our adventure payload to the roof.

Soft roof racks connect base strap

Here’s what the final setup should look like:

Soft roof setup

How to install the soft roof racks onto your car.

1. Fasten the base straps onto the car.

The base straps are designed to keep the whole system attached to the car. To fasten them, simply:

  1. Open the 2 front doors of the car and stand at one end.
  2. Take one of the soft racks and hold the 2 buckles in your one hand (just to keep them out of the way).
  3. Throw the non-buckle end of the base strap over the car and onto the other side.
  4. Climb into the cab and thread the non-buckle end into the buckle and pull tight.
  5. Position the buckle so that it runs through the middle of the cab, and is not going to interfere with your driving.
  6. Do the same for the second soft racks through the back doors.

2. Place your adventure gear onto the straps.

You’ll want to position everything down the centre of the car to keep it from creating weird drag while you’re driving.

  1. Align the front and back straps so that they are in the centre of the cab.
  2. Shift the foam tubing and anything that’s not quite in the right place.
  3. Place your adventure payload on the soft racks.
  4. Make sure there is no contact the the roof, and make sure that there is enough space between the front and back straps.
Soft roof strap down

3. Tie everything down with the top strap.

Next, we need to tie down the payload.

  1. Start at the front strap and go to the side of the car that has the non-buckle end.
  2. Throw the strap over the adventure item and onto the other side of the car.
  3. Head around to the other side, and feed the non-buckle end through the loop knot in the base strap.
  4. Pull tight enough for it to feel secure without damaging your payload.
  5. Throw the non-buckle end back over the adventure item and head back to the side you started at.
  6. Feed the non-buckle end of the carry strap through the cam buckle and fasten tightly.
  7. Hitch off any excess strapping so that it doesn’t flap in the wind.
  8. Bonus tip: If you’re finding that your soft racks make an irritating buzzing noise while you drive, simply twist the straps a little. This stops them from vibrating violently in the wind.
Soft roof racks final strapping

A few things to consider

While this system excellent as a lightweight, convenient and cheap solution, it’s not without it’s quirks.

1. It drips when it rains

Because the straps run through the doors, the seals don’t work as well and this can mean dripping if you’re driving in the rain. There are a few little fixes you can apply, like wrapping a piece of towel around the strap, but this is only a stop gap. It’s the one issue with this system I have yet to solve properly, but it’s only an issue in heavy rain.

2. The straps can buzz and make an annoying sound!

There’s nothing worse than driving down the freeway to the incessant din of a buzzing soft rack. It’s really the worst. Fortunately there is a really easy fix to this, and that is to twist the straps so that they are curled instead of flat. This will prevent them from vibrating and causing all that noise.

3. Durability.

While this is a pretty durable set up, there are a few mods to you can add to make your soft last last for ages.

  1. You could wrap the foam padding with a canvas cover. Cut a piece of canvas to wrap around the foam tubing and sew some velcro on at each end to secure it.
  2. You can use some of the excess foam tubing and stick it to the base of the cam buckles to protect both the buckles and your payload from being bashed around while in transit.

So there we have it. A super cheap, convenient and reliable way to carry your excess adventure gear around on your car roof. Let us know if you made your own set and don’t forget to join our mailing list to get our latest Adventure Guides, How Tos and Features right to your inbox.

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