Photo: Linda Hughes

How to Choose the Best Bike Rack

Learn about the pros and cons of each rack style to choose the best one for you.

Riding around home is great, but eventually you’ll want to explore farther afield. Whether you’re eyeing some of the top-notch mountain bike trails in the next state, just want to switch up your road riding scenery, or want to take your e-bike on vacation, you need a bike rack. But with so many different types of vehicles and rack styles, it’s hard to know where to start. Use this guide to help find the right rack for you. 

Ask Yourself These Questions

What kind of car are you driving?

Do you have a roof rack, hitch receiver, or both? Read more about the pros and cons of using either to carry bikes below. Don’t have either? You can use a trunk rack, or you can mount an aftermarket roof rack or hitch receiver.

How many bikes are you planning on carrying?

Will you be transporting your bike and a friend’s? Bikes for the whole family? Consider all the situations you might encounter and get a rack with sufficient capacity.

What type of bikes do you have?

Road bikes, mountain bikes, e-bikes, fat-tire bikes, and kids bikes come in all different shapes and sizes. Keep that in mind as you look at specific rack models. While a lot of racks will work with standard road or mountain bikes, if you plan on carrying a big fat-tire bike or a heavy e-bike, you might need something specially suited for it.

Do you want to lock your bikes?

Certain racks make locking up bikes easier than others, so if this is a priority, keep that in mind.

Hanging versus Tray-style 

The first big differentiator in bike racks is between hanging racks and platform (or tray-style) racks.

Hanging Racks

Just like it sounds, with this design your bike hangs from its frame, typically by the top tube. Hanging racks are lighter and easier to install and store than platform racks, and they’re usually cheaper. The main downside is that any bike with an irregular top tube or unconventional geometry could be difficult to hang. Bikes on a hanging rack are also more likely to touch each other.  

Platform Racks

This style allows your bike to sit on its tires. These are slightly more versatile for more styles and sizes of bikes and prevent bikes from swinging and contacting other bikes or your car, but they’re often heavier and stick out farther from your car.

Photo: Ronstik

Hitch Racks

Hitch racks attach to the hitch receiver and place your bikes directly behind your vehicle. Hitch racks can be either platform or hanging-style racks. Keep in mind: Hitch receivers come in either 2-inch or 1.25-inch versions, so make sure you get a rack that fits your setup (you can find adaptors but that should be a distant second choice). 

Pros

  • These are the easiest to install and remove from your car: Just pull a pin on your receiver and slide the whole thing out (they are heavy though, so you may want a buddy). That makes them good for people who want to be able to take their rack on and off frequently. 
  • The bikes are at chest-level or lower, which makes them easy to take on and off the rack. This is ideal for people with taller cars or someone who doesn’t want to lift a bike onto the car’s roof. 
  • Hitch racks don’t take up any roof space, leaving you more to use for cargo boxes, boats, skis, or other toys. 
  • Putting your bikes behind your car can reduce their exposure to road spray or debris.
  • You won’t clip your bikes on the garage ceiling if you forget their back there, as can happen with roof-top racks. 

Cons

  • Hitch racks are some of the most expensive racks. 
  • On certain vehicles, hitch racks reduce clearance and the departure angle of your car (the clearance you need at the back of your car to avoid banging or scraping your tail). 
  • They extend the length of your car, putting your bikes more in the way of traffic and making some parking situations more difficult.
  • Some hitch racks can make it difficult to access the tailgate, hatchback, or trunk, so find a model that either swings away to the side or drops down away from your car if that’s a priority for you. 

Trunk Racks

Rather than mounting to your hitch, trunk racks strap to your hatchback or trunk. They’re almost always hanging-style racks and work best on cars without either a hitch receiver or a roof rack. 

Pros

  • Trunk racks are almost always the cheapest option, even for multi-bike racks. 
  • Similar to hitch racks, they make it easy to take bikes on and off and limit exposure to road spray. 

Cons

  • Trunk racks aren’t the easiest to install, as they often feature a spider’s web of straps and hooks to attach to various places on your car. 
  • If you need to access the trunk of your car, you need to take the bikes off first.
  • They can be harder to lock up, since the rack itself doesn’t easily lock to the car.

Roof Racks

Roof racks—always tray-style racks—mount onto your roof’s crossbars. They can take all different forms: Some clamp onto the front tire, others clamp onto the frame, and some mount by removing the front tire and attaching the rack to the bike’s fork. 

Pros

  • Roof racks are relatively easy to install, though not as easy as hitch racks. 
  • Since they are always tray-style, roof racks won’t have any issues with non-traditional frame designs like full-suspension mountain bikes. 
  • While there are a lot of different roof rack styles, many are relatively affordable.
  • Roof racks don’t interfere with getting into the rear of the car.  

Cons

  • Roof racks place your bikes well above your roofline, which means you can’t park in most garages and need to be careful of overhead hazards. 
  • Having your bikes overhead increases wind resistance and can lower your gas mileage. This also puts them in the line of road spray. 
  • Shorter riders or anyone with a tall car will have a harder time lifting their bikes up onto the rack and strapping them down. 
  • If you choose a fork-mounted (tray-style) roof rack, keep in mind that you’ll need to remove your front tire to carry the bike, though these are some of the most secure racks. 

Trucks

Cyclists with pickup trucks have a couple additional options for carrying their bikes.

There are a handful of racks that mount inside the bed of a truck, using either a fork mount or front wheel lock to keep them secure, similar to what you might find on a roof rack or hitch rack. These may not be the best option if you have a cap on your truck.

You can simply hang the front wheel of your bike over the truck’s tailgate (works great for mountain bikes). In this case, all you need is a tailgate pad for protection, making this an affordable option. It’s also easy to carry numerous bikes this way. But you’ll need to get creative to find a way to lock them up, if you leave them anywhere.

SUVs

Finally, for vehicles like SUVs with a spare tire mounted on the vehicle’s rear, some manufacturers make racks that share mounting bolts with the spare tire, rather than using straps or a hitch receiver.

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.