Cartop vs. Trailer for small car

I have a Toyota Prius and have two SOT kayaks (one 11’ and the other 13’) I am considering whether to buy a trailer vs. a cartop carrier.

Any experience or advice?

Find out if there’s a place to attach
…the trailer! Cars don’t always have good attachment points for trailers.

Also think of how much crossbar spread you want. That’s a pretty short, round roofline.

Roof antenna
I specifically did not get a Prius because I did not want to fight with another car with a roof antenna and getting boats up and down from the roof several times a week.


have a hitch
I have a hitch already installed. Sounds like a trailer may be a good idea since the cartop area is rather small for two SOTs.

Last month, I ran into a couple camping in Florida with a Prius and two sea kayaks on a light trailer. They seemed happy with the set up, though it knocked their gas mileage way down to 38 or 39. Not too shabby.


Trailer at harbor freight
I just bought a 4x8 trailer at Harbor Freight for $240. Make sure to get a %20 off coupon from your local flyer every other week. Originally it was “on sale” for $300. It’s been on sale at that price for a couple months. They have different models, the one with 12" tires is same price as one with smaller tires. If you spend the extra hundred dollars on the real heavy duty trailer it does not have stake holders for adding sides if you want them them.

Comes in two boxes, a heavy one and a heavier one, you put together. No deck on the trailer.

And pikabike, the day I registered it took 18 minutes from the time I got out of my car until I got back in with plate in hand. The lady apoligized for taking so long but it was the first Monday of the month and their were 5 people in line ahead of me.

Cartop. Definitely cartop.
Unless you like bouncing bundles of steel and rubber behid you, hard turns, hard to back into kayak lauch spots, registration, maintenance (greasing bearings routinely) and definitely learn how to replace a flat tire (usually happens along a dangerous hghway).

Former trailer owner (and I owned a great one: 15 inch wheels, custom made, etc.)

If you can get it on the roof, get it on the roof. Thanks

1 Like

Go Car Top
I drive a 2 door Honda Civic and use a Thule rack system with an extension. I’ve had the setup for several years and prefer it over dealing with a trailer. Much less hassle in my opinion.

Prius Kayak carrier
We been using our Prius with a set of Thule racks to carry two kayaks. We have taken on many local and long distance trips. Plenty of inside room for gear and the antenna never seems to get in the way, but you could always switch to a shark fin antenna. You will take a mileage hit of about 20/25% with two kayaks and highway driving.

I’ll definitely consider a rooftop carrier. I can see that it’s a matter or preference really. Thanks for the advice…

light trailers
I know they’re pricey, but the yakima, malone, rack-n-roll, etc trailers are really nice, super light, and tow beautifully. For a small car like the prius they might be worth the extra money, compared to a much heavier utility trailer like those from harbor freight.

With big sit-on-tops, I think I’d probably lean towards a trailer for that car. My folks put two 17’ sea kayaks on theirs, and it works, but it’s not ideal.


Bearings, maneuvering, etc.

– Last Updated: Apr-08-11 2:28 PM EST –

It's a common myth that trailer wheel bearings need lots of attention, such as frequent re-greasing. That's total nonsense, especially with the kind of trailer you had - one with 15-inch wheels (A friend of mine with a really nice trailer fell for that myth too, but eventually figured out that he can ignore his wheel bearings for years at a time, just like he does on his cars). Trailer bearings are the same style as those which were used on the non-driving wheels of all cars until just recently, and which are still used for many applications. Just because they are in a trailer doesn't make them more prone to failure than when used in a car. That said, failure of trailer wheel bearings IS fairly common, but only for "cheap" trailers having very tiny wheels (usually with a big load too, something that isn't an issue with kayaks or canoes), and for for boat trailers who's axles are routinely submerged but lacking a pressure-maintaining device (look at fishing-boat trailers, and you'll see that virtually every one of them has a device, usually the "Bearing Buddy" brand, for maintaning internal pressure when suddenly cooled in water). It's worth noting that pressure-maintaining devices are handy on any trailer if you want to make absolutely sure the bearings "stay greased" for years and years of care-free use.

As far as maneuvering goes, that's an individual decision, because often it's only a problem if you decide that it is. Most people who pull trailers don't consider the trailer to be a great inconvenience in the ways that you stated (for example, for such people, driving a little slower when cornering is hardly something to fret about). Also, for many people, backing a trailer around corners or into parking spaces is simply a new skill to learn, while others never really catch on. There's nothing wrong with a person deciding a trailer isn't for them. I don't think it's correct to project those reasons onto another person.

I'd choose a trailer any day over roof-top carrying with a car that only allows minimal spread between the crossbars, but then, I've been comfortable with lots of different kinds of trailers for a really long time. Also, as has been pointed out here on other occasions, a small car will get better fuel economy with two boats on a trailer than it will with two boats on the roof.


My mileage dropped 12 mpg
With a 14’ Dagger Alchemy on just foam blocks (no roof rack) on top of my 2010 Prius. Most of the mileage was Interstate at 8 3mph (cruise control). 12 mpg hit on usually about 43 mpg on that 210 mile run to Charleston from Charlotte.

I’m thinking a roof rack will reduce the mpg loss. A Rack & Roll trailer might be just one or two mpg.

Bill G

Charlotte, NC


– Last Updated: Apr-08-11 4:52 PM EST –

Registering a trailer in CO used to be easy and cheap. Not anymore. I wrote a few pages of notes instructing how to do it in CO now, after the new laws went into effect. I still need to find a good website to put them on, permanently. The advice from state and counties is in fragmented bits, and the state's DMV site is flat-out HORRIBLE.

At a minimum, it now takes 2 visits to the county DMV plus 1 to the State Patrol's emergency ops center (with trailer in tow for this) just to get permission to drive it, first with a 72-hr temporary plate before the state inspection, and then either a longer-term-temporary plate (if you have never registered a trailer there before) or your old trailer plate if you have one. The negation of the manufacturer's VIN blows me away. Now we have to get a CO-specific VIN after the state inspection.

I just got the title to my new trailer, 3+ wks after jumping through the above hoops.

The less budget there is, the more bureaucracy expands. More than slightly ironic.

Still, using a trailer is so much nicer than rooftopping all the time that it was worth the grief. But I can hardly wait till we move out of state.

Turns are no harder than without trailer
Turning with a trailer is no harder than without one. If it’s hard to turn something is wrong with either your tow rig or the set-up.

Backing up can be a pain and requires some practice, not that big a deal.

Registration can be easy or not, depending on where you live.

Greasing bearings is ridiculously easy if you have grease injection ports.

Fixing flats to your car is just as bad, so are you saying that nobody should drive a car if they don’t want to deal with a flat tire?

The benefits of a trailer are well worth the reduced risk of harm to boat, body, and auto compared with rooftopping. Especially in strong wind.

I like having both systems available, as there are times (very few) when rooftopping is the better option.

1 Like

Better to think in %, not mpg, AND
where you are starting from! Your 12 mpg drop out of 43 is almost 28%. But you still get 31 mpg.

My rooftopping drop is much less in both % and mpg, BUT my “normal” mpg is also much less.

The trailer usually doesn’t have a noticeable effect on my mpg. When there is high wind, mpg goes down, though less than if rooftopping in such conditions. Hell, mpg goes down in high wind even without any kayaks at all, whether rooftopped or trailered.

There are lots of variables when it comes to highway and windy days.

My trailer

– Last Updated: Apr-09-11 11:14 AM EST –

It was made by a professional welder in Kentucky that makes these trailers. It cost me $1800 delivered, which was a steal (in 2008). (Click picture on blog to enlarge)

Other than carrying four kayaks at a time, I saw no benefit from it whatsoever. Storage issues, talkes up space, store outside and it'll rust (and need bearing work). Notice that I loved it after I got it--I hadn't used it much at that time.

Even though some argue you could keep the kayaks on the trailer and save one load and unload cycle per trip (I did this in my garage), I can take my kayak off the wall rack and put it on the roof rack and ratchet strap it down MUCH quicker than hitching up the trailer and putting on the boats (unless boats already on, in which case they again take up space).

I know guideboatguy and esp pikabike have tons of trailer experience (pikabike is THE trailer guru on Pnet, certainly), but in the end, even with this fabulous custom trailer with extended tongue and all, I found it to be a hassle in many ways.

I sold it for $1300 cash and carry about 1.5 years later.

And yes, I can pull/move it by hand to attach it, and yes, I know how to back up a trailer. It's still a PITA when you're on the highway driving (I much speedier without a frigging trailer) and parking at restaurants, and going through drive throughs (and yes, my cartopped kayaks fit undder the drivethrough) and so many more hassle factors I can't tell you. No one ever takes into account that fact that driving with a trailer on the roadways and highways is SLOWER than driving without one. In fact, many states have a trailer max speed limit of 55 mph (and they do enforce it, esp in summer). So, weaving in raffic and driving in general, I can have two kayaks off my wall, onto a roof rack, drive to lake (say, one hour away) and in the water much faster than those that fiddle with trailers. I know, I did it both ways.

Sometimes simpler is best.

A Thule Slipstream is good, if it's compatible with your particular car, to essentially extend your bar spread.

Even "closed", the Slipstream has the pads further spread from your bars. But, if you want a tad more spread, just spread them a tad more before locking them in place. I owned a Slipstream, but sold it because I got out of kayaking for a while. I will have to buy another someday soon.

If someone physically can't put the kayak on the roof, or is taking 3 + boats on one car, obviously the trailer is mandatory. Otherwise, it's a boondoggle. To me.

nobody has mentioned

– Last Updated: Apr-11-11 4:03 PM EST –

the converter box attached to your vehicle for the wiring to the trailer.

Where sand and salt can get in due to treatment of snow covered roads, this box usually fails every couple of years. Its a hassle to get it fixed for the non electrically handy person. Its another expense.

Dirt roads are no help on the harness either..sand gets in nevertheless.

Sure I find my four boat trailer convenient sometimes..but not for two boats and not on lumpy logging roads.. Its a pleasure on the highways. On logging roads its danced into the ditch.

good point
Some people install the box in the trunk, and use dangling lead to hook up to the trailer. I saw that a flat ribbon cable works very well - it still allows to close the lid or hatch. The box lasts much longer, since only the lead is exposed to the environment, and only when the trailer is in use.

Lumby logging roads was never an issue with me. I still drive well over the speed limit on those and never had an issue, of course I’m pulling a four place trailer behind a Suburban.As for the bearing someone already said greasing your bearings all the time is a myth. I have to agree. I’ve had my trailer for 7 years now and just greased them for the first time last year and after taking them apart I realized they didnt need it. Even though my trailer is a four place kayak trailer I have put on 6 kayaks and one canoe. I think as for how your trailer handles has alot to do with the vehical your towing it with. I have done 90 with a trailer and 2 Kayaks on the roof and didnt have any problems. Again I’m driving a full size Chevy Suburban. The biggest advantage to the trailer is easy loading and unloading. Much easier than putting it on top of the suburan roof. I can load and unload much faster and with no back pain. I also only have to use 2 straps instead of the 4 straps I use on the roof of the truck.