This Is How To Haul Stuff On Your Car Roof

Only kooks allow surfboards to fly off the roof at speed.

How to Use Roof Racks
Benjamin Preston/TheDrive.com

It's been a stressful month for many Americans. But the US of A is still here, and there are plenty of things to do outside in the cool, crisp autumn weather: mountain biking, bird watching, surfing—doing pretty much anything other than watching or reading news.

This brings up a comment someone made on a piece I wrote last month about the Camaro 2.0T. I had strapped a surfboard to the roof of the car, and a commenter who called himself Dr_Ribs_Revere said, "As a regular surfer, folding rear seats are a godsend. Putting a board in the trunk as opposed to the risk of a board flying off the roof at highway speeds, safer from casual opportunistic theft too."

Sure, I get it—stuffing your board inside the car can be way easier than taking the time to strap it to the roof. If you're an East Coast surfer, you're familiar with the misery that comes with fumbling strap latches with gloveless hands in sub-freezing weather. Folding down the seat to stash the board inside seems the more attractive option.

But to say that having the board inside your car is safer is just not true. First off, let's consider the physics involved in stowing unsecured items inside a vehicle's passenger compartment. Something as small as a cell phone can crack someone's skull, and larger items can wreak even more havoc. Surfboards, ladders, and other oblong objects we tend to want to carry inside the car are unwieldy. Sometimes, they stay behind the seats, but longer objects must often be thrust through the opening between the two seats. This forces the driver and passengers to sit next to something that, were you to get into a crash, could splinter and/or thrust, inflicting any number of gruesome soft tissue injuries.

So that's the safety reason for strapping boards to the roof. Now to refute the good Dr_Ribs' claim that strapping boards to the roof of the car presents the risk that they could come flying off at highway speeds. Sure, that can happen if you're a dumbass and tie them down improperly, forget to tighten the straps, or let someone else do it and fail to check the straps before driving off. (If it's your car, making sure rooftop loads are tied down properly is your responsibility.)

I've been tying surfboards and other stuff to the roofs of all different kinds of cars for a couple of decades now, and I've never (*knocks on wood*) had one come off. I even drove an old station wagon across the Bonneville salt flats at 88 mph with a bicycle and a surfboard strapped to the roof—complete with extreme turning maneuvers—without a problem. Those toys were still there when I arrived at a car wash down the road to wash 30 pounds of salt off my car. I've also carried everything from furniture to Christmas trees on top of my car, and have yet to see anything fly away.

You, dear reader, can do it, too. All you need is a good pair of straps, some roof bars, and a willingness to check your work. Think about all the physical forces that will act upon that object—wind, speed, braking, acceleration, bumpy roads, etc.—and fashion your tie-downs accordingly.

Here are a few basic rules with regard to tying things to the roof of your vehicle:

■ Use a roof rack. If you have one, use it. It's best if they're padded, to protect strapped-down objects from the harsh movement of the car as it bumps along over normal road obstacles. You can buy rack pads, but you can also make them out of pipe insulation foam and duct tape.

■ Sans roof racks, use a blanket. Just keep in mind that blankets can mar your vehicle's paint, and putting objects directly on the roof can dent it. It's better to use racks.

■ Tie object(s) to something solid. In most cases, that means roof racks, but if you don't have them, you can secure objects with ratchet straps by looping the straps through the doors. If this is the method you choose, please, please, please remember to open the doors before you tie them, otherwise you'll be climbing in through the windows to gain access to the car. Also, this method compresses door weatherstripping, and the straps will act like wicks when it rains, causing annoying, if impermanent leaks.

Make sure load movement is restricted. Once you tie down an object, make sure it doesn't move side to side, up and down, or forward and aft. If there's wiggle room, it will become magnified when you're driving down the highway at 70 mph. There should be no chance that the object will move.

Use nylon straps if possible. The aforementioned ratchet straps are cheap and easy to use. These flat nylon straps are strong enough to secure anything that's not too heavy to strap to the roof. Flat nylon straps with a spring-loaded cam at one end work very well, too, and are easier to use than ratchet straps. You can use rope or cord, but you'd better be pretty good at tying knots if you go that route. You don't want to take a chance that your globular granny knot comes undone, especially when there are so many fool-proof, and inexpensive alternatives (like, uh, nylon straps).

Check, and check again. When you're ready to roll, check your work. Are your straps mounted so that they won't slide to a new and looser position? Are your roof bars mounted securely? (I check my roof bars every time.) If you're feeling like you're forgetting something as you drive away, stop and check again. Never hurts.

All this may sound like it takes forever, but I can assure you that the whole tying things down procedure is quick, especially once you get used to it. When I go surfing, regardless of the number of boards I'm bringing, the tie-down rigamarole eats up no more than three minutes of would-be wave time. Larger objects, such as the couch I carried home on top of a Subaru, take a little more time, if only because it takes longer to loop the straps over something so tall.

Remember, only kooks let surfboards fly off the roofs of cars.