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How to Choose a Rooftop Cargo Carrier

How to choose a rooftop cargo carrier header

By Anthony St. Clair on August 20, 2020 in Travel

Whether on a weekend adventure or a long-distance road trip, many drivers need more storage but don’t want a bigger vehicle.

Luckily, hauling extra gear doesn’t mean tying everything to the roof and hoping it stays put! Different styles of rooftop cargo carriers provide weatherproof storage space for just about anything you need to take with you.

What to Consider When Choosing a Cargo Carrier

The following questions will help you determine the rooftop cargo carrier that fits your needs.

How much storage space do you need?

Cargo carriers list storage capacity in cubic feet. Experts share that four to six cubic feet per person should be enough, though this will vary depending on what you need to store.

  • One to two people: 12 cubic feet or less
  • Three people: 12 to 18 cubic feet
  • Four or more people: 20 or more cubic feet

What type of gear do you want to stow in your carrier?

In order to pick the right rooftop cargo carrier, you need to understand what you’re going to haul.

Improperly stowed gear may fly away or fall off. It can also pump up the volume of road noise, make your vehicle less stable, or cost you more at the gas pump.

Some cargo carriers are recommended for specific sports equipment. A basket may be perfect for sports gear such as helmets or ski boots while a box is better for skis and snowboards. A family on a long summer trip may want a large hard-shell carrier for clothes and necessities.

What size carrier will fit on your vehicle?

The right cargo carrier also depends on the size, shape, and weight capacity of your vehicle.

Starting at 10 cubic feet of storage, rooftop carriers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Whether it’s long or short, bulky or narrow, the right carrier depends upon your vehicle. It must not block your doors, trunk, or hatch and it should not obstruct the driver’s vision.

Does the car have a roof rack?

If your vehicle has a roof rack, you’re that much closer to finding the right carrier. Factory cargo racks generally carry 75 to 250 pounds.

If your vehicle lacks these, racks, crossbars, and rails are available for most vehicles. Confirm that your vehicle and rack weight capacities will support the combined carrier and cargo load.

No rack? No worries. Cargo bags attach using hooks or straps.

How far do you plan to travel with your carrier?

Rooftop cargo carriers may decrease your vehicle’s fuel efficiency — up to 19%. The scope and distance of your trip are key factors in finding a carrier that’s right for you.

If you’re traveling long distances, for example, an aerodynamic carrier may be the best choice. It could cost more up front, but you’ll likely make up for it with savings at the pump.

How often do you plan to use the carrier?

Whether you open them from the top, one side, or either side, some cargo carriers are trickier to open than others.

When there’s little need to access your gear along the way, fast access may not be a priority. If you’re unpacking and repacking your cargo carrier daily, choose a design that’s easy to open and organize.

Additionally, since carriers reduce gas mileage, you may want to remove the carrier when you’re not using it. Consider a style that’s easy to both install and uninstall as needed.

Types of Cargo Carriers

You have three primary types of cargo carriers to choose from: boxes, bags, and baskets.

Cargo Boxes

Hard-shelled cargo boxes, sometimes called “rocket boxes” or “burger boxes,” are the most common carriers and require a roof rack and crossbars. While they’re common, check their pros and cons to see if they’re a good option for your needs.


  • Damage-resistant from debris and weather
  • Waterproof
  • Lockable
  • Easy to pack
  • Used with universal mounting hardware
  • Usually accessible from either side of the vehicle


  • Can be bulky
  • Can be more difficult to install, remove, and store
  • Create louder road noise from wind drag
  • Are generally the most expensive cargo carrier option
  • Can be harder to pack large or irregularly shaped items

Cargo Bags

Sometimes a soft approach is better. Soft cargo carriers, or cargo bags, are flexible, lightweight, and don’t require a roof rack.


  • Install and uninstall easily
  • Pack small for storage
  • Can be installed directly on the vehicle’s roof with straps
  • Fit irregularly shaped or bulky items more easily than cargo boxes
  • Lightweight


  • More prone to damage and theft
  • Less durable
  • May suffer damage to the weather stripping if the straps are used incorrectly
  • May scratch the car’s paint
  • Can increase drag and decrease gas mileage
  • Must be packed full to prevent the bag’s material from flapping in the wind
  • Weather resistance varies depending on model and materials

Cargo Baskets

For the least amount of drag on your vehicle and impact on your gas mileage, a cargo basket works well. Like the box and bag, a basket also has its trade-offs.


  • Designed to decrease drag
  • Made from metal or durable plastics
  • Lower cost
  • Secured to the roof rack or directly to the roof with straps or ropes
  • A good choice for items you can secure with bungee cords and cargo nets
  • A practical option for large or bulky items, waterproof bags, and weatherproof gear
  • Easy to load and unload


  • Don’t protect items from weather or road debris
  • Don’t have a built-in way to securely store items
  • Use clips and hooks, which may damage paint or weather stripping
  • Make it difficult to secure waterproof covers over items

Tips to Keep Your Carrier in Good Shape for the Long Haul

No matter which type of cargo carrier you choose, maintain your carrier for maximum performance.

  • After removing your carrier, clean, rinse, and dry the interior and exterior
  • Store it in a clean, dry, covered location, away from rain, snow, and direct sunlight
  • Wrap it in a tarp for extra protection
  • Lubricate the hardware

You also want to take care of your roof rack or accessories for your carrier. Replace rusted or worn out parts, including straps and buckles.

Finally, since your vehicle will be taller with the cargo box, bag, or basket on the roof, be careful driving around lower clearance areas such as in parking garages or when you drive under low branches and overpasses.

Same Vehicle, More Storage

A rooftop carrier is a great way to get more storage without buying a bigger vehicle. Whatever your travel and storage needs are, we hope this helps you find the right rooftop

Anthony St. Clair is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an author, globetrotter, craft beer expert, and professional writer based in the US Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, Anthony is with his wife and two children, usually either cooking or going on some sort of adventure.