By Madeline Klein on March 23, 2022 in Travel
So, you’re heading out on an adventure and looking for the perfect car rack. We understand this can be a tricky decision simply because of the sheer volume of options, but don’t fret. We’ll cover what to consider before choosing a car rack, the different types of car racks, and a few other helpful tips below.
Before Choosing a Car Rack
Let’s stop right here for a second! Before we get too in the weeds with all the types and variations, make sure to answer these questions.
- What are going to carry?
Are you planning on hauling bikes, camping gear, kayaks, or something else entirely? Maybe a variety of items for your ski trip in winter and your cross-country bike trip in spring? If you’re planning to do more than one activity, you might want to make sure you get a car rack system that’s versatile. This will save you some cash in the long run – which, c’mon, we all want.
- What is the year, make, and model of your car?
This might be the most important question you need to ask yourself. Many car rack companies offer a fit guide, so you can easily determine the options based on your exact ride. This narrows your search right off the bat AND helps you picture what each rack would look like on your specific car.
- What is your vehicle equipped with?
Does your car already have roof crossbars or a hitch? A rail on top? If not, you might need to add these into your installation cost! Again, this need really depends on what you’re hauling.
Types of Car Racks
Bike riders, here’s your section. Whether you’re going to do Iowa’s RAGBRAI or Tennessee’s BRAT this year, you’ll need a way to store your bikes and travel to the starting point. Luckily, Bicycling tested and ranked the best bike racks for every situation and kind of ride.
- Hitch Bike Racks – Hitch bike racks slide into a trailer hitch. These come in two styles: tray and hanging. As the names suggest, tray bike racks use “a series of trays into which you rest your bike’s tires” and hanging racks “secure a bike by its top tube.” Obviously, you need a trailer hitch on your car for this to be a viable option for you. Need a good example of a hitch bike rack? Thule Trailway Hitch Mount 2-Bike Rack.
- Roof Bike Racks – Let’s raise the roof…or maybe just the bikes onto the roof. This style has a couple of positives – they’re very secure, allow you access to your trunk, and sometimes you don’t even have to remove the tires (although, sometimes you do). A worthy example of a roof bike rack? Thule UpRide Roof Bike Rack.
- Trunk Bike Racks – Trunk bike racks are very common. These work well with smaller cars that don’t have trailer hitches or roof racks! So, you mount this rack to the trunk of your car and secure it with straps that slip inside the trunk or back windows. Some people say these are the most economical because no additional equipment is needed, and they can hold 1-3 bikes. A solid example of a trunk bike rack? Saris Bones 2-Bike Trunk Rack.
- Trunk Bed Bike Racks – These bike racks carry bikes on a protective mat over the tailgate, in the bed upright with bike forks secured on a bar crossing the bed, in the bed, or on truck side rail. Some of these racks can hold up to 7 bikes, so your whole crew can bike together. A respectable example of a trunk bed bike rack? Thule GateMate Pro S Truck Bed Bike Rack. Or you can DIY with a little PVC pipe, some ratchet straps, and a can-do attitude – just follow along as 6th Gear Garage does it.
- Spare Tire Bike Racks – Jeep drivers, listen up! If you have a spare tire on the back of your ride, then a spare tire bike rack is the one for you. Well…you’re only able to use this style of bike rack if you have a spare tire. A choice example of a spare tire bike rack? Yakima SpareRide 2-Bike Spare Tire Rack.
Camping Gear and Cargo Boxes
Now it’s time for the campers and hikers to tap in! From tents to sleeping bags to headlamps and more, when you go camping you usually have to haul quite a bit of stuff. Free up space in your car for your passengers and the essentials, AKA snacks!
- Rooftop Cargo Boxes – First up, rooftop cargo boxes. If you’ve gone camping or visited National Parks where people camp, you have surely seen many of these! Featuring durable and waterproof storage in a hard-sided container, these can fit gear of many shapes and sizes. You’ll probably need a base roof rack with cross bars to utilize this car rack! Beware: they can get pricey. One example of a rooftop cargo box? Summit Racing SUM-995000 – Summit Racing™ Roof Cargo Boxes
- Rooftop Cargo Bags – Picture a rooftop cargo box, but instead of a hard-sided container it’s a soft-sided container. Now you’re visualizing a rooftop cargo bag. These can hold a LOT of gear if you’re limited on in-car space. The biggest perk for cargo bags over cargo boxes? They fold up for quick and compact storage! Be sure to look for a lightweight bag that’s also waterproof – this will help protect your items in transit, no matter the weather. A commendable example of a rooftop cargo bag? Highland Expandable Roof Top Cargo Bag.
- Hitch-Mounted Cargo Carriers – Since we’re all about perks, the #1 perk to this style of cargo carrier is that they’re easy to load and unload. Plus Car and Driver tells us, “they don’t carry as large of a fuel-economy penalty as a roof box does…since they’re tucked behind the vehicle.” The last perk? They carry an impressive amount, so basically, perks all around! A solid example of a hitch-mounted cargo carrier? Haul-Master 500 Lb. Capacity Aluminum Cargo Carrier.
Attention: Colorado and snowy-state-visiting drivers. Whether you’re a frequent flyer on the slopes or just like to plan a yearly trip to the mountains, you’ll need a way to transport your skis or snowboard. Check out these handy dandy car rack options.
- Rooftop Ski/Snowboard Racks – While this style rack requires you have a base roof rack, they can hold quite a few skis and snowboards at an affordable price point. Bonus points for being easy to use because all you have to do is slide them right in and secure! A quality example of a rooftop ski/snowboard rack? Apex Large Ski and Snowboard Roof Rack.
- Cargo Boxes (again) – Cargo boxes aren’t exclusively for our campers; they also work well for skiers and snowboarders. Although they can run a little more on the expensive side and require a roof rack, cargo boxes are versatile, enclosed, and weatherproof. Icing on the cake? They can hold multiple skis and snowboards up to 215 cm! An excellent example of a rooftop cargo box for ski/snowboard equipment? SkyBox 12 Carbonite Cargo Box.
- Hitch Ski Racks – This is the one for our multi-faceted athletes. Are you a biker in the summer but a snowboarder in the winter? The “hitch” in the name indicates that it’s hitch-mounted which is good for shorter skis or people who don’t want gear hanging out on top of their ride, according to Auto Guide. With just a quick attachment, you can move between skis and bikes easily; plus, some versions can carry up to 6 pairs of skis or 4 snowboards. The whole crew is covered on the way to the slopes! A worthy example of a hitch ski rack? Yakima HitchSki.
Kayaks, Paddleboards, and Canoe Racks
Ahoy, boat users! Kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and canoes all provide unique and excellent ways to explore new areas. Even more than just exploring, each of these could make for a fun daytime date or friend hang. Don’t be held back because you can’t transport your boat, there are lots of options for car racks!
- J-Cradles/Stackers – J-cradles and stackers are awesome options for smaller boats. This style allows you to turn the boat on its side, which allows for extra space for gear or other boats. Worried about how to securely strap your kayak to a J-cradle? Homeowner Repair walks you through it in this quick video! A respectable example of a J-cradle? DORSAL J-Bar Rack on Roof Top Mount Crossbar.
- Saddle Style Carriers – Saddle style carriers are super versatile options – some come with rollers for easy loading, and some are great for bigger vehicles and heavier boats. With adjustable beds, these can accommodate different widths and lengths of boats. This style generally offers a more stable ride than J-cradles. One great example of a saddle-style carrier? Malone SeaWing Saddle Style Universal Car Rack with Bow and Stern Lines
- Lift-Assist Racks – If you’re not a bodybuilder or have a boat that’s a smidge too heavy for you to hoist up on the roof of your ride, a lift-assist rack might be your glass slipper. This style rack makes it easier to lift kayaks up – usually featuring a rolling system. Due to the extreme convenience these afford, they do tend to be a little more expensive! A noteworthy example of a lift-assist rack? Thule Hullavator Pro 898.
- Foam Blocks – Foam blocks are an inexpensive and easy installation option. They don’t always require a base roof rack, which allows more accessibility for more vehicles. Be wary of the fact that they may not be as durable as other options and tend to be trickier to load. A few examples of foam blocks? Riverside Car Top Universal Kayak Carrier and Riverside Car Top Universal Canoe Carrier.
- Truck Racks – Whew! Our final car rack option is here. Truck racks allow drivers to carry boats that may be too long to fit in the bed of the truck by hoisting them above the bed. Not only does this one look super cool, but it’s very practical and easy to use! A prime example of a truck rack? Apex Aluminum Universal Truck Rack – 800-lb Capacity.
Other Helpful Tips
Before setting out on your next adventure with your fancy new car rack, we’ve got a couple more tips for you.
- Check the manual. Make sure to follow the step-by-step instructions for installation included in the manual. Skipping steps can put your cargo at risk. Each manual will have “best practices” for use which should help extend the lifetime of your car rack and keep your items and car as safe as possible.
- Do a test drive. Test your new car rack by driving around the block before setting out on your next adventure. Keep an eye on it as you drive to ensure it is secure and ready for the open road!
- Secure tires. If you’re transporting a bike, securing the tires will mean less damage to your car and your bike. Not only should there be less damage, but also you won’t have to listen to rattling throughout your whole drive.
- Buy load bars one size longer. Rack Attack explains the pro of this as, “A longer bar will stick out on the sides of your vehicle, making the rack less visually appealing, but this extra bar length will increase the amount of stuff you can carry on your roof, and can make it possible to mount accessories out of the tower, which can be beneficial for some situations.”
- Remove the rack when not in use. Believe it or not, people steal these racks. If they’re not secured inside your vehicle somehow, someone could swipe it when you’re not using it. Aside from worrying about potential theft, removing the rack when not in use also keeps it in tip-top shape and saves on gas mileage! No need to add extra weather and wind damage!
Set out with your items safely in tow by using one of these car racks! From bikes to kayaks, you will be able to bring ALL the things on your next excursion.