A Guide to Roof-Racking Anything
Need to carry a bike, board, or just some firewood? Here's how.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
If it’s too big to fit in your car, you can always carry it on your roof, right? The answer to that question is more complicated than it seems. Let’s start with the problems, discuss the alternatives, and finish up with guidance on how to put stuff on your roof if you’re really intent on doing so.
Instagram would have you believe you should rush out and put a rooftop tent on your Subaru Crosstrek (please don’t), but cars aren’t actually designed to carry heavy stuff on their roofs. Most passenger vehicles have a 150-pound weight limit up top, regardless of which rack system you use. Even a loaded cooler and some camp chairs can exceed that. And putting a bunch of weight so far above your car’s ideal center of gravity can affect its ability to safely navigate high-speed corners, heavy braking, and crosswinds.
That’s just on the road. Off-road, loading up your roof could cause a rollover or just overtax your suspension on a section of simple washboard.
Carrying a bunch of stuff on your roof destroys your vehicle’s aerodynamic performance, and that means 1) massively reduced fuel economy, and 2) more noise inside the car. That may not sound awful for a single trip home from Home Depot, but if you leave your roof rack on year-round, as most drivers do, you’re going to pay those penalties every time you drive.
I’m 6’2″ and lift weights at the gym three to four days per week, and even I struggle to get stuff off and on the roof of my vehicles. Even a simple sub-30-pound mountain bike can prove awkward; anything larger often requires me to ask someone for help. Especially if you’re alone, and especially if you drive a tall vehicle, then a roof rack is probably not the best place to carry stuff.
In addition to all that extra fuel you’ll burn, racks themselves cost hundreds of dollars. When you take it off (which you should the second you’re done using it), it eats up space in your garage. Are there cheaper alternatives?
If you’re just looking for some extra space to carry a cooler and firewood on your next camping trip, then installing a hitch and sticking a rack on it may be your best solution. Heck, many trucks and SUVs already come with hitches.
This $120 option from Amazon can safely haul up to 500 pounds—remember, your roof can likely only handle 150 pounds—and does so without adding drag and reducing fuel economy. You’ll also be able to load and unload a hitch rack without reaching over your head.
Those same benefits are true if you want to haul bicycles, a dirt bike, or even skis and snowboards. Hitch racks are also much easier to take on and off your car, meaning you’ll be able to do so much more often.
Renting a Pickup
You can rent a pickup from UHaul for $20, plus mileage. For a simple trip across town for some lumber or to grab that Craigslist couch, renting a pickup is a safer, more convenient, likely lower-cost option than buying and mounting a rack to your car. For camping trips, you can often grab a weekend in a full-size truck for as little as $200. Drive something tailored to your everyday needs most of the year, and rent a suitable vehicle when you need one. That makes much more sense than trying to press a hatchback into duty as a moving van.
Renting a Trailer
Getting a small utility trailer from UHaul will cost you that same $20, but without a mileage fee. For moves, gear-intensive adventures, or just big DIY store runs, a trailer may be the best option possible. I detailed how easy it is to add a trailer to a standard passenger car in this article.
Which Rack Is Right for You?
If you really have to carry stuff on your roof, then you’re going to need a rack. Determining which one will work best is half the battle.
If you already have a car with rails and a crossbar (like a Subaru Outback), then you just need equipment that can strap to those crossbars. If you have a car with rails (like a Jeep Grand Cherokee), then you’ll need crossbars in addition to the stuff that connects to them. If you have a car without rails (most sedans), then you’ll need towers and crossbars, plus the ability to connect all that to your car.
When adding equipment to your car, prioritize how easy it is for you to mount and unmount it. Again, you want to pull those racks off your car whenever they’re not in use in order to save yourself a bunch of money on fuel. Also consider the modularity and accessorization potential of whichever rack system you chose. Yakima crossbars, for instance, are available for virtually any vehicle and can take any of that company’s bike racks, gear baskets, or roof boxes.
If you have a truck, especially if you’re building it up for regular off-roading and camping, then you may want to install a permanent roof rack. This will give you the most space, versatility, and load potential, as well as the ability to permanently mount other accessories like driving lights and awnings. Just realize that by adding a permanent rack, you’ll pay a significant penalty at the fuel pump. Rhino Racks are a great option. They’re relatively low profile, which minimizes how bad your fuel economy will get, and many custom mounts and accessories are available to help you get the most out of your rack.
Carrying Stuff on Your Roof
Your first priority is strapping stuff down securely. Purpose-designed mounts, as described above from brands like Yakima or Rhino Racks, make that easy. If you insist on doing it yourself, start by finding the stablest way to rest whatever you’re trying to carry on the bars. Without a mount, bikes, for instance, are best loaded upside down, with their handlebars on one crossbar and the seat on another. If you can rest something on your crossbars with good stability, then your odds of successfully transporting it on your roof are vastly higher.
I like to use proper ratcheting tie-downs for the greatest possible security. Knots and pull-to-tighten straps will never get nearly as tight and stand a much higher chance of loosening in transit. Use at least one strap per crossbar, and make sure your load will remain secure under braking (the most force a car can apply) and cornering.
If you value your vehicle’s paint, you’ll want to make extra sure that nothing up top can come into contact with the roof, sunroof, or other shiny parts. Shake, twist, and bounce the load once it’s secure, and adjust accordingly.
Outside your vehicle, you need to worry about theft, particularly with expensive items like bikes, skis, or surfboards. Many dedicated mounts include or have the option for small locks. These are good for preventing casual theft, such as what might occur while you run into a truck stop to use the bathroom, but they aren’t nearly enough to stop a determined thief armed with tools and the time to use them. Nothing you can attach to your roof is going to provide that kind of security, so plan to bring your gear inside your house or hotel overnight, and try to park where you can see your vehicle when you stop for a meal.
Lastly, consider the dimensions and action of the load on your roof while driving. If you’re carrying something tall, like a bicycle, it’s a good idea to drop a tape measure from its highest point down to the ground. You’ll want to know that measurement every time you drive under a low bridge, enter a parking garage, or encounter any other such obstacle. While off-roading, I’ve arrived in camp to find tree branches caught in my roof loads way too many times for comfort. You’ll also want to approach inclement weather with caution. Also, slow down through corners and over bumps, and limit your outright speed on highways if you have stuff on your roof.
Of course, you can save yourself all that cost, hassle, and worry by simply choosing any other method of carrying your crap. Or just taking less stuff.