The Beginner's Guide to Bike Racks, Cargo Boxes, and Ski Racks
Turn your car, SUV, or truck into a flexible pack animal with equipment to haul your gear.
Racks and cargo carriers are a great way to add versatility to your car, truck, or SUV. They’re a cost-effective alternative to driving a bigger vehicle than you need and can handle all sorts of gear, from skis, snowboards, and bikes to the gamut of water toys, including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and surfboards. Cargo boxes, which come in hard- and soft-shell varieties, let you bring along additional gear or luggage that can’t fit inside your vehicle. Most options will cost you at least a few hundred bucks, with some topping $1,500. Choosing one can be overwhelming, so we’ll walk you through the basics of different attachment methods, who to buy from, and what features to look for.
TYPES OF RACKS AND CARGO BOXES
Many people favor roof-mounted options because they keep your gear away from the hot and smelly exhaust, don’t affect access to your trunk, and won’t block your view. To carry your gear up high, you’ll need a set of crossbars, which span the width of the vehicle. There are a variety of ways to attach these—with clips, into slots, to existing roof rails, with suction mounts, even onto old-school rain gutters. From there, you simply strap or latch the cargo box, rack, or gear-mounting accessories to the crossbars and you’re ready to go.
On the downside, because they disrupt the aerodynamics around the vehicle, roof racks and boxes may create annoying wind noise and your fuel economy may take a big hit. Lifting things up onto the rack and taking them down can be challenging, too, particularly if you’re alone. They also make tall vehicles taller and won’t fit in most garages when loaded, which can result in an expensive crunch if you forget you have stuff up there.
Hatch or Trunk Lid Mounts
If those factors are deal breakers, you may want to look at racks that strap to and rest on your vehicle’s hatch or trunk lid. These are quick to install and uninstall, but can be a little finicky to position; if you’re not careful, you can scratch up your paint if you don’t pad the contact points properly or install them on a dirty car. They’re best for occasional use, for tasks like hauling bikes to the trails. They’ll likely block some of your rearward view and can make it tough to access what’s in the hatch or trunk.
Hitch-mounted racks are a good option as long your vehicle has a trailer hitch—and isn’t actively using it to haul anything else. This option is easier to load than a roof rack given its proximity to the ground, and it’s less likely to produce annoying wind whistling or damage your car’s paint. While most racks swing out of the way for accessing a vehicle’s cargo hold, doing so can be cumbersome when the rack is loaded. Your gear also might smell faintly of exhaust by the end of your journey.
Another option in the world of gear transportation are suction (aka vacuum) mounts. These are the most flexible choice, as they can attach to metal or glass and will fit on even the most exotic cars, like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. They’re also a good option for those flying and picking up a rental car, as they’re small enough to pack into luggage and can be installed on most vehicles in minutes.
Pickup Bed Mounts
Those with pickups have one more style to choose from. Truck-specific racks attach in or over the bed and can support plenty of weight, like off-road gear and roof tents or ladders and construction materials. Most keep the bed free for the rest of your accessories.
WHERE TO BUY A ROOF RACK OR CARGO BOX
You’ve likely seen the names Thule and Yakima gracing the roofs and hitches of Subaru Outbacks and Toyota 4Runners. Both companies are major players in the cargo-carrying game and have fitment guides on their websites that tell you what options are compatible with your vehicle. You may also want to check out Rhino-Rack, 1UP, Saris, Kuat, Rocky Mounts, and SeaSucker, which specializes in suction mounts.
You can of course buy your rack or cargo carrier on the internet, but if you’d like to see the equipment in person, outdoor sports stores typically have good displays and knowledgeable staff. Your dealership’s parts department may also have some options, and if you buy these accessories when purchasing a vehicle, their cost can be rolled into financing.
ROOF RACK AND CARGO BOX FEATURES TO LOOK FOR
Locks are an important item, both to secure your equipment to the rack and to keep the rack on the vehicle. If you plan to use your rack or box only on occasion, you’ll want to think about ease of removal and storage (more on that below). Some hitch-mounted racks swing out of the way to allow access to your cargo hold, and some roof-mounted racks also offer loading assistance (such as support hoops or gas struts) that will help lift bulky equipment like kayaks and canoes up onto the vehicle. Lastly, not all cargo boxes are watertight, so check that if you plan to haul anything sensitive.
HOW TO STORE YOUR RACK
It’s a good idea to remove these external accessories from your vehicle when you’re not using them, as they cause unnecessary aerodynamic drag, which wastes fuel and introduces wind noise. Some crossbars detach easily, many without tools, and don’t take up much space. As for cargo boxes, there are commercial pulley systems to hoist roof-top units off of your vehicle and store them up by your garage ceiling; DIYers can rig up something similar without too much trouble.