Transporting Kayaks? Bow and Stern Lines are Important

When I first started transporting kayaks, I was really worried about securing them to the top of my car. Having never transported something like a kayak before, I didn’t feel too confident that I was attaching them securely to the top of my car. Because of that, I went a little overboard with the number of straps I used to tie down my kayaks.

As I became more confident in what I was doing, reducing the number of cam straps tie downs became natural, and I wondered are the bow and stern lines really necessary? 

Bow and stern lines are essential for transporting kayaks safely. They provide a backup attachment should the kayaks separate from the roof racks for any reason. Although this separation is rare, it can occur if you’re traveling at high speeds on the highway, drive through high winds, or get into a car accident. Bow and stern lines are important for ensuring your kayak doesn’t become a projectile device that would seriously injure others should your other attachments fail. 

So, anytime you’re transporting kayaks (or canoes or other vessels), bow and stern lines are always important. Below we’ll explore why they’re so important in more detail, and give you more information on how to properly tie them so your kayak is secure during transport. 

bright blue kayak on gray Kia Soul parked in grass. You can see the black bow and stern line ropes securing the kayak

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What are Bow and Stern lines?

Before you can effectively use bow and stern lines, it’s important to know what they are. 

  • A bow line is a rope that attaches the front of your kayak to your car. 
  • A stern line is a rope that attaches the back of your kayak to your car. 

These lines are NOT the primary way to secure a kayak. In fact, when properly tied the rope should be loose and not taut. But, they are essential for providing a back-up attachment in case the primary attachment fails. 

For some kayaks on the longer side (think over 14+ft) bow and stern lines can provide extra support to the primary attachment by keeping your kayak ends from moving side to side when driving. However, for most kayaks (which are shorter), the primary purpose of bow and stern lines is to provide the failsafe in case your kayak comes loose from the roof of the car. 

When choosing your bow and stern lines, choose a water-resistant, non stretch rope. Some options have a ratcheting feature to make attaching them easier, but I personally prefer just plain old rope. It takes a few extra seconds to tie down, but feels more secure to me. 

A white SUV is parked on the side of the road with two red canoes on the roof of the car. Bow lines can be seen attaching them to the front of the car

Why are Bow and Stern Lines Important for Transporting a Kayak?

Bow and stern lines are important for safety. For longer kayaks they can also provide some additional security in transport, but for most recreational kayaks, the bow and stern lines are just needed for extra security. 

But don’t get me wrong, although this seems like an afterthought, the bow and stern lines are some of the most important pieces of gear you need to transport a kayak safely. Anyone who has transported kayaks for a while will tell you that anything could happen – and if the unexpected occurs you want to be absolutely sure your kayak is attached to your car. 

Imagine getting into a wreck while driving with kayaks. The force of the crash can absolutely push your kayak through the cam straps and send it flying in the direction you were hit. If this occurred on the highway a flying kayak could seriously injure or even kill someone. You don’t want to ever be responsible for that, especially since tying bow and stern lines takes all of 5 minutes (if that). 

Be safe, think of others, and always use bow and stern lines. 

Do I Always Need Bow and Stern Lines? Even for a Short Trip?

Yes, yes, and yes! Bow and stern lines are required if you’re traveling 5 minutes down the road or 50 minutes. It doesn’t matter whether you’ll be on the highway or just winding country back roads. No matter when you travel with kayaks, bow and stern lines should always be attached. 

red kayak attached to a jeep with bow and stern lines at nighttime. Jeep and kayak is illuminated by a light

How Do I Tie Bow and Stern Lines: A Bowline knot

So, now that you know to always use bow and stern lines you may be wondering now how to properly tie them so that they secure your kayak to the car. My recommended knot to use to attach a kayak to your car is a bowline knot. This knot appears a little complicated to start, but once you get the hang of it you’ll find it a secure and safe way to transport your kayak. 

Surprisingly, there is some controversy in which knot to use – so you may find that others prefer to use something called a Trucker’s Hitch. This knot us often used to transport heavy loads on trucks, and people will use it for kayaks as well. I don’t use this knot myself, but it’s plenty popular with others.

I’d recommend trying out both the bowline knot and the trucker’s hitch to find which you personally prefer to tie. 

How Do I Attach the Bow and Stern Lines to My Car?

Now that your bow and stern lines are attached to the kayaks – how do you attach them to your car? 

Many cars come with hood clips or metal loops under the hood or under the grill at the front of the car. If you have them in the front of your car, then you’ll also probably have something similar in the back of your car beneath the trunk as well. 

But, if you’re like me and your car does NOT have these (or you’re just not sure if it does and don’t want to risk it) then you’ll want to pick up some hood loops. These go into the hood and trunk of your car and allow you to attach your bow and stern lines to them. I personally use and love these. They’re so helpful! 

white car with kayaks attached about to drive under an underpass with an orange transfer truck

If you’ll be transporting kayaks then it’s incredibly important to attach bow and stern lines to keep yourself and others safe! You never know what could happen when transporting kayaks and it’s much better to have a fail safe attachment than have someone get hurt. Learn to tie them and always use them when transporting kayaks.

If you’re new to kayaking, you may also find how to kayak a river with only 1 car, and the rules around life jackets while kayaking (by state) useful. We love helping others get out on the water safely and want you to feel prepared and confident when paddling. 

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