Racks That Take to Any Body

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

Racks That Take to Any Body

How to carry all of your gear, on Subaru or Suburban, while feeling no strain
By John Lehrer

For years, sport racks have done job one--securely clamping gear to vehicle--with utter competence. So what do rack makers do for an encore? Refine. And when you use the most recently refined racks to take along your bikes, skis, sailboards, kayaks, and whatever else, you'll be surprised at how much better they work than racks from just a couple of years ago: Mechanisms are smoother, installation is easier, fit is superior. The worry factor is lower, too: Though I never lost a bike off my old rack, glancing through the rear window as my steed swayed didn't exactly inspire confidence.

Nowadays the real decision is where the rack should attach: to the hatch, a hitch, or the roof? Strap-on racks are the least expensive type, are easily compactible, and (at last) effectively cling to your hatch or trunk lid. Hitch-mount racks are the answer if you're tired of the clean-and-jerk move necessary to put gear atop a tall vehicle. And roof racks continue to offer the most precise fit and the securest attachment for the widest range of gear.

After wrenching a bevy of nuts and bolts and burning a lot of fossil fuel in a variety of cars and trucks, here's what I've learned about the three rack categories--plus the finest examples from each.

Strap-on Racks
Not long ago, anyone who used a strap-on rack couldn't care much about the paint job on either bike or car. But thanks to better frame designs, increased padding, and the prevailing use of six straps where once there were only four, strap-ons now mount more assuredly, hold their loads more tightly, and do both in a more finish-friendly way. They also continue to have the virtues of being easy to stow in a trunk and inexpensive, at around $100. Current strap-ons have their downside--they can carry only bikes, skis, and snowboards, and they make it hard to get into your trunk or see out the rear window--but I still think they're perfect for the occasional user. A word of warning: Foam blocks (sold by Graber and Yakima for about $10-$13 per package) and extra bungee cords are required to keep your bikes apart.

Even with consistent use, Hollywood's F2 ($80) will outlast several cars. The three-bike carrier is constructed of thick steel tubing that's powder-coated to resist getting scratched, and its nylon-lined nuts won't work loose. In the kindness-to-your-equipment department, wide straps hold the F2 securely to your car, and padding on the frame and in the bike cradles is your guarantee against nicks in the paint. It took me no more than five minutes to install the rack and about half that time to remove it. Plunk down an additional $50 and you can attach a ski rack that holds up to four pairs of skis.

Rhode Gear's Super Cycle Shuttle ($99) takes a different approach to modernizing the strap-on rack, trading structural brawn for unprecedented adaptability. The rack's pivot points are marked with numbers and letters; find the fit info for your vehicle in the supplied list, open the quick-release levers, and adjust the frame members and support arms accordingly. The Shuttle carries up to three bikes in its padded cradles and can be fitted with an add-on ($60) to haul four pairs of skis. An add-on to the add-on ($15) will carry a snowboard.

Hitch-Mount Racks
Thank the now-ubiquitous sport-utility vehicle, with its out-of-reach roofline and built-in provision for a trailer hitch, for the rise of the hitch-mount rack. Hitch-mounts require some assembly but are usually easier to install than strap-ons, and unlike strap-ons many models can be locked to the vehicle. In addition, a number of hitch-mounts swing out of the way--even when they're loaded--to allow access to the tailgate. Unfortunately, hitch-mounts can only carry bikes, skis, and snowboards, and with all the trappings they can run you $200 to $465--roof rack territory.

The massive L-shaped tube that makes up the spine of the Barrecrafters HMS-250 ($140) snaps solidly and easily into its own base, can be locked to the vehicle, and with different sets of available hardware will work with receiver- or ball-type hitches. The big installation hurdle is the base itself--its nylon-lined nut took me a good ten minutes to crank down, so I recommend that, once you've got it tightened, you leave it in place. Hook-and-loop straps secure up to three bikes by their top tubes, and clever sway arms do the work of extra bungees: Positioned near the bottom of the spine, the arms use integrated shock cords to hold the bikes by the bottoms of their frames and keep them from swaying. A two-pair ski rack ($65) or two-snowboard kit ($60) can be added.

The biggest advantage of Graber's Outback ($120, plus $20-$40 for the mounting base) is that you can transport two pairs of skis or two bikes without purchasing any add-ons; invest $75 more and you can double the carrying capacity. Integrated shock cords in the rack arms will hold your gear in place, though I recommend additional bungees to keep things from swaying. The Outback also tilts out of the way of the tailgate--but you'll need a friend to help you do the swinging when the rack is full.

The Rak-N-Loc comes at a big price ($250 for the pivoting two-bike model; $179 for the add-on that carries six pairs of skis, or two pairs and two snowboards), but convenience and security make it a worthy contender. There's no assembly required, it installs quickly to a receiver or ball hitch, and it's beefy--the welded, two-inch-diameter steel tubes look like they could hold up a bridge. Thanks to a gas-charged shock, getting into the back of your vehicle is easy: Even fully loaded, the rack pivots effortlessly away from the tailgate. The Rak-N-Loc also provides the ne plus ultra in theft prevention, a cover that swings over the bikes' top tubes and locks into place. A second lock secures rack to hitch.

The two-bike Softride Access 200 ($250) is about as sleek as hitch-mount racks get. The twin-beam design is solid-looking and impressively finished with oversize stainless steel hardware, and the same elements contribute to the fact that the rack suffers from no flex or wobble. It also smoothly pivots out of the way of the tailgate, as the press of a pedal allows those two spring-loaded arms to slowly lower your gear to the ground. Another $180 gets you an add-on ski rack that holds six pairs of skis (or four pairs of skis and two snowboards). The receiver-mount-only Softride can be locked to the car, and with the optional retractable cable locks ($35) bikes can be secured to the rack. Without extra bungees, however, the bikes sway.

Roof Racks
The roof rack is still king when it comes to carrying the greatest variety of gear in the most stable fashion possible. With rack attaching to roof at four points and gear to rack at two points, a properly installed carrier won't budge, and neither will your stuff. As for that expanse of relatively level sheet metal that is a vehicle's roof, it's the best platform for carrying big objects like kayaks and sailboards. Initial assembly can be trying, but most such racks you set and forget. With the current crop of roof racks, unless you're driving something that's ancient or obscure, you'll find special retainer clips that are designed specifically for your vehicle's roof, plus attachments for bikes, skis, snowboards, and canoes (among other things) that are convenient and secure. Expect to pay more than $300 for a complete setup.

The elegant Saris ($225-$235) requires almost no assembly--a first in this category. Whereas the towers that support the crossbars usually demand some attention and must be affixed to the bars, the Saris comes out of the box as a single unit. Simply bolt on the appropriate retainer clip for your vehicle and turn a tensioning knob until the towers hold tightly to your roof. Just as cool is how the attachments go on: They slide into a channel atop the oval load bar and clamp into place; locking the tensioning knob secures attachments to rack and rack to vehicle. The Saris has attachments for bikes ($60-$80 per bike); skis ($100 for a four-pair holder); snowboards, surfboards, or sailboards ($35 per board); and kayaks, rowing shells, and canoes ($50-$80 per boat).

Thule racks have a squarish look that, to my eye, no longer jibes with today's jelly-bean-inspired car designs. But Thule performance is as good as it's always been. The basic tower-and-crossbar package ($151-$201) required no tools and was on my car's roof in less than half an hour, and the fit was superb (Thule makes more than 140 different retention clips). The bike-mount attachments are particularly well designed: The Pro Series Fork Mount bike carrier ($72) has a quick-release lever with a noticeably long throw--it can clear the annoying wheel-retention tabs that are found at the ends of so many bike forks--and an optional lock (two, for two attachments, $16.50) secures both the carrier and the bike. As for the Ultimate Upright Bike Carrier ($99), the knob that adjusts the down-tube clamp is located conveniently low, near rooftop level--not two feet higher, at the point of contact. Thule makes a wide variety of other attachments ($35-$130) that will carry just about any piece of sporting equipment.

Despite excellent instructions, Yakima's "Q" rack system ($153-$205) takes some head-scratching and about 45 minutes to assemble and adjust. But once on, the sleek-looking towers stay put--I met a Yakima owner who hasn't had to make one adjustment to her "Q" rack since she started hauling gear with it 20,000 miles ago. As for fit, each thin, stainless-steel retention clip rests on a ball-and-socket mechanism in the tower that helps it conform to any roofline. Among attachments, the SteelHead fork-mount bike carrier ($99), which looks like industrial art and clamps like a vise, requires no tools to assemble, has a long-throw quick release, and incorporates an extra-thick skewer that won't bend. The ButtonDown 6 ($85) carries up to six pairs of alpine skis or two snowboards. Yakima offers many accessories; spring for the optional keyed-alike attachment locks ($18 for two) and you'll have eliminated the last undesirable way that your toys can be separated from your rack.

John Lehrer is a frequent contributor to Outside's Review pages.

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