Photo: Alexander Filon

How To Choose the Right Roof Rack for Your Vehicle

A good rack maximizes your vehicle’s carrying capacity.

Roof racks—and the array of cargo solutions that work with them—are a simple and ideal system for creating additional space and hauling items that won’t fit inside your vehicle. Whether you’re car camping in a national park, traveling overland with long-haul essentials, or just totting your mountain bike to a local trailhead, that extra space and convenient storage can really come in handy.

Before you buy a rooftop tent, gear box, cargo basket, or attachments for your bikes, kayaks, and other outdoor gear, you’ll need a solid roof rack—it’s the base system for hauling stuff on the roof of your car or truck. Here’s how to get the right roof rack for your needs and your vehicle.

Ask Yourself These Questions

The roof rack is one piece of the load-carrying puzzle. Before you buy one, consider your vehicle and what you ultimately want to carry.

What’s the make, model, and year of my vehicle?

This info will be essential for determining if a particular roof rack will fit on your ride. Many roof rack manufacturers allow you to enter this info online to see a list of racks that will fit.

What are the dimensions of my vehicle’s roof and its rooftop load rating?

This will also determine what roof racks can fit, and the weight limit will determine how much gear you can haul with them.

What’s on my vehicle’s roof currently?

Some cars and SUVs come with pre-installed roof racks, roof rails, or fixed points for mounting a roof rack. Others have rain gutters (which can be used as a mounting point) or a completely bare roof. You’ll need to know what’s on the roof before you buy—not all roof racks will work with all vehicle roofs.

How much do I plan to carry? 

Racks have weight limitations. Consider what you plan to carry and make sure the rack you choose has the proper weight capacity.

What attachments will I use?

If you plan to add attachments for bikes, a luggage box, cargo basket, or a rooftop tent (to name just a few examples), make sure your roof rack is compatible with these accessories before purchasing.

Will I be driving off-road? 

The bumps and jolts of dirt roads will demand a more durable and stronger roof rack. Look for a tough all-aluminum system and avoid plastic. 

How much am I willing to spend? 

Consider your budget before making a purchasing decision. All-metal roof racks will be more durable but cost more, while a simpler instant rack system (see below) can save you some money. 

Photo: Koldunova

Types of Racks 

Once you know what’s on your vehicle’s roof and what you need to carry, it’ll be much easier to choose between the main types of roof racks. 

Roof Rack Bars

Pairs of roof rack crossbars attach via compatible “foot” or “tower” pieces to a vehicle’s existing roof rails, rain gutters, or tracks embedded in the roof (some models can even attach to a vehicle with none of those features). They’re available in various sizes, materials, and shapes (with typically round, square, or flat crossbars), and they work with multiple types or accessories to accommodate different gear items and cargo boxes. 

Roof Rack Platforms

Some overland and off-road adventurers prefer additional cross-pieces for rigging. A platform provides a full rectangular frame of slats for easier loading up and lashing down when it comes to carrying odd-shaped extras from weatherproof bags and luggage, cans of fuel or water, spare tires or other off-road essentials. A platform can also make it easy to integrate a rooftop tent.

Truck Racks

These rack crossbars attach to stanchions connected to the truck bed’s top railing. The added height of the bars over the bed allows you to use it for storage while creating additional carrying capacity above it. The crossbar height can typically be raised (to give clearance for items extending over the cab) or lowered (for smaller loads and improved aerodynamics). These racks are designed to fit a variety of standard truck bed sizes and have many options for accessories.

Instant Roof Racks

This roof rack style uses straps to attach to the top of vehicles without roof rails or built-in mounting points. Weight limits vary, but most carry up to 80 pounds of gear, including skis, snowboards, and surfboards. The strap pairs have thick padding to protect the roof of your ride and are secured inside the vehicle with a buckle. Instant roof racks are affordable and easy to use (and great for travel in ill-equipped rental cars), but they don’t have the stability or carrying capacity of more robust racks.

Roof Rack Materials

The best racks are strong, lightweight, and durable—factors influenced largely by the materials used.  

Plastic

Generally lightweight and affordable, they lack the strength and durability of their all-metal counterparts. Plastic parts can and will break. The more plastic components a rack system has, the more chances for failure.

Steel

Durable, strong, and, compared to aluminum, they’re also more affordable—though not as light as aluminum racks.

Aluminum

Usually the best overall option for roof racks, aluminum rack systems are significantly lighter than steel, and aluminum offers a higher load-carrying capacity. As a result, aluminum rack systems will be more expensive than steel or plastic models, but they’ll deliver better overall performance.

Additional Features

Aside from materials and overall design, there are a few other features to look out for when shopping for roof racks:

Low-Profile Design

Adding a roof rack (and then attachments on top of it) to your vehicle will create more wind resistance, decreasing your gas mileage and increasing road noise. To minimize that negative impact, look for aerodynamic, low-profile roof rack designs. With crossbars usually teardrop-shaped, they’ll create less wind resistance for a quieter ride and more economical driving. Add-on fairings are another option to boost wind resistance.

Lock System

Many racks can be locked in place with a key to keep them secured to your vehicle and prevent theft. This is especially important if you plan to either lock valuables to your rack, or if you plan to leave your roof rack on your vehicle—though for the reasons listed above (the extra gas needed), it’s a good idea to remove it when not in use.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.