Best Roof Racks: Carry Bikes, Skis and More With These Top Picks
Let our top picks for the best roof rack guide you towards new adventures
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Many vehicles sold today focus on bringing customers large cargo areas for all the gear you need to go adventuring. But sometimes you need more space. That’s where a roof rack comes in handy, especially when you’re carrying bikes, skis, and even kayaks and canoes. Check out our buying guide for the best roof racks available.
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Benefits of Roof Racks
- Extra storage. Roof racks offer drivers the ability to store accessories on top of the vehicle. This means there’s more room inside the vehicle for storage space, especially for those items not necessarily meant for all-weather conditions.
- Small investment, large return. Installing a roof rack on your vehicle only broadens the possibilities and capabilities it offers you. You can use the roof rack time and time again to transport various objects, from bikes and skis to canoes and kayaks.
- Universally applicable. Though some roof racks are meant specifically for certain makes and models and others can only fit on a particular vehicle type, there’s a roof rack out there for nearly all types of cars and SUVs.
- Adventure seekers’ best friend. Piggy-backing off the idea that you have more storage, roof racks allow adventure seekers to take all their gear with them as they find new roads and paths. Drive your car around with you but store your bike on the roof rack for spontaneous bike rides.
- Easy installation and removal. While roof racks are semi-permanently affixed to your roof, they can easily be taken off and reinstalled. If you want to have a roof rack on your car for the winter but prefer to use your sunroof in the summer, it’s possible. Just remove the rack and reinstall it in late autumn.
- Selling factor. Some accessories you buy for your vehicle don’t necessarily add or detract from the vehicle’s value. However, roof racks often add an extra incentive for like-minded drivers. If you’ve already made the investment that roof rack could help you get what you ask for when you trade it in or sell it privately.
Types of Roof Racks
When people think of a roof rack, they tend to picture two parallel beams strapped across the width of a vehicle’s roof. These types of roof racks are known as crossbars because they cross the width of the vehicle and typically attach to side rails or gutters. Most crossbars are meant for carrying bicycles. You can also get crossbars with multiple beams in a ladder configuration. With crossbars, you can haul anything you can securely tie down that doesn’t exceed the weight limit capacity of your vehicle’s roof.
J-shape or J-bars look like two canoes on end and are positioned close to one another to create a cradle-like shape. These types of roof racks are most often used for canoes and kayaks. This is because they mimic the curved shape of the canoe or kayak to create a more secure hold. J-bars are often sold in sets of two. One set mounts to each side of the car’s side rails for support.
The cargo basket roof rack is another type you might have seen on the road. These baskets are typically made from steel tubes that are around one inch in diameter. Though there can be quite a few cross members and connecting tubes in a basket roof rack, they can actually be very light in weight. Many models also include fairings to reduce wind noise and improve aerodynamics.
Established in and based out of Sweden, Thule has been in the industry since 1942. Well-known as one of the top brands when it comes to cargo carriers, Thule’s Canyon XT Cargo Basket is an alternative roof rack you might want to consider.
The Yakima LoadWarrior Cargo Basket is a great addition to any roof rack you install on your vehicle. It allows you yet another way to carry all the accessories you need. Yakima has been operating for quite some time and is headquartered in Oregon.
Roof Rack Pricing
- $30-$75: You really don’t have to spend more than $100 to get a decent roof rack. For less than $100, you can invest in a set of two to four J-bar style racks or a set of crossbar beams with included hardware. Most J-bar and crossbar roof racks will be universal at this price point.
- $100-$200: If you use your roof rack a lot, this is a good price range to budget for. J-bar racks at this amount are higher-end and include more padding, which is also true for crossbar types. You can buy crossbars specifically for your particular vehicle for around $150-$200. Basic styles of basket roof racks begin around $125.
- $250 and up: Most high-end, high-capacity basket roof racks fall into this price range. The height increases with each dollar spent, so more expensive baskets tend to have higher sides. Weight decreases proportionally as well.
Every component on your vehicle is designed to withstand outdoor conditions. That means anything mounted to the outside of your vehicle should be similarly designed. The best roof racks will be incredibly durable, able to repel the extreme weather conditions you may encounter, and endure through the years. Roof racks should wear well over time so they look like new for many years.
The best roof racks shouldn’t take a lot of time, effort, or brainpower to assemble and install on your vehicle’s roof. The instructions from the manufacturer should be clear and ideally have pictures to aid you in putting the rack together before you mount it on the car’s roof. Similarly, disassembly or simply removing the rack should follow the same protocol.
Most people don’t have industrial scales to measure hundreds of pounds on a single surface. While it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t overload your vehicle’s roof, your roof rack should be able to handle what you throw onto it. And when considering weight limits, a higher limit is better.
Strong Support Structure
The ability to carry a lot of weight can be great but having a poor structure to hold all those pounds will get you nowhere fast. The best roof racks are well-built with strong main structures and bracing cross beams or width supports to distribute the weight. Even J-bars that are sturdy will include heavy-duty steel or aluminum construction for best results.
Little to No Special Tools Required
The best roof racks shouldn’t require you to go out and purchase special tools just to install. While some racks may come with a key or special tool to prevent theft, this shouldn’t affect the overall price of the rack in any way. You should be able to assemble, mount, and remove the best roof racks with tools commonly found in any standard toolbox.
- Semi-Permanent vs. Temporary Fixture: Before you purchase a roof rack you should consider whether you want it to be mounted to your vehicle for a while or just for a season. Typically, you’ll spend more on a semi-permanent roof rack than on a temporary one as the difference in strength and structure between the two can be drastic.
- Overall Weight: While you do want to focus on the weight capacity of the roof rack, you should also consider the weight of the rack itself. This could be a big factor in your purchasing decision and will definitely come into play when you go to mount the rack on your vehicle.
- Frequency of Use: The more you’re going to use your roof rack, the more you should spend on it. However, it’s still not a bad idea to invest in a solid platform no matter how much you use it. That way, you can depend on it when you need it, and you won’t have to worry about repairs or canceling your adventures.
Best Roof Rack Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- Using your sunroof when roof racks are installed could become a problem. Depending on what type of roof rack you purchase, your sunroof may be blocked or it may not be able to function properly. Be aware of this when you use your sunroof when a roof rack is installed.
- Side rails and roof racks are not the same things. Side rails or gutters are preinstalled on some vehicles to provide attachment points for a roof rack. Most crossover SUVs include some kind of side rail in their designs. Roof racks will usually mount to side rails if they are installed, but this is not a requirement.
- If you’re concerned about your vehicle’s paint where the roof rack mounts directly to your vehicle, consider applying clear bra strips between the mounting points and the paint. This will cushion any rubbing that might occur and will preserve the paint surface in case you want to remove the racks at a later date.
- It’s important to be aware of the extra height added to your vehicle when you install a roof rack—and anything you mount on top of the rack as well. Consciously think of your vehicle as being much taller than normal so that when you encounter clearance areas you can respond accordingly.
- If you don’t feel comfortable installing a roof rack yourself, there are quite a few dealerships and small businesses that will install them for you (for a small fee). If you who want to install your roof rack alone you can always bring the vehicle to a professional to have a technician check it.
- Always be sure to properly secure objects on your roof rack. Because they are located at the top of your vehicle they will likely be subject to more force from winds at highway speeds. Check your roof rack tie-downs periodically.
- Maintain and service your roof rack regularly. Before each major trip, check to make sure all the components are tightened and working as they should. If there are any doubts about parts or the rack itself consider purchasing a new unit.
- Use a stepladder or secure foothold when installing a roof rack. The threshold between the interior and the door jamb can be useful in some cases but should not be used for support when lifting heavy roof racks onto the vehicle’s roof. These thresholds can be slippery and unsafe.
Q: Will my car still fit through a carwash with a roof rack installed?
A: This depends on the type of cargo rack you select. Some roof racks can be low profile. The height of your car roof is a factor as well. And if your roof rack is full, the roof cargo could come flying off. These are just a few things to think of as you pull up to a car wash.
Q: How do I know if a particular roof rack will fit my vehicle?
A: There are a lot of factors that go into determining whether or not a particular roof rack will fit on your vehicle. The type of roof can play a big part, especially considering some of the design features on cars today, such as antenna covers. Having secure mounting points is key to choosing the right roof rack because without a good grip no roof rack will work well.
Q: Can I attach lights to my roof rack?
A: Some roof rack types, like the basket rack, are great for mounting lights. However, it all depends on your car’s roof and what type of rack you invest in. Your vehicle’s roof may be sloped, so installing lights could require a bit of strategy to get the right placement.
Q: Will my roof rack rust, and if so, how do I prevent that?
A: High-quality roof racks should be rustproof; however, it doesn’t hurt to add a bit of rustproofing yourself for good measure. The main thing to remember when rustproofing a roof rack is that moisture is the culprit, so sealing bare metal is key.
Q: Does a roof rack (and its contents) affect fuel economy?
A: Fuel economy relies largely on how aerodynamic your vehicle is. For example, cargo boxes tend to be shaped aerodynamically, but they still add a large mass atop your vehicle. J-bar and crossbar roof racks alone (without cargo) shouldn’t make much of a difference in your overall fuel economy.
Q: Do roof racks require assembly before installing on my vehicle?
A: Some roof racks do require assembly. Most of the mounting hardware should be included from the manufacturer. When installing the rack on the roof of your car, you may need to make some adjustments, depending on the type of roof rails you purchased and how they are meant to mount to a vehicle.
Q: Will the roof rack create road noise after it’s installed?
A: Depending on the aerodynamic design of the roof rack, it may or may not increase the wind noise of your vehicle. Most of the wind noise you’ll hear comes from the small jetstream between your vehicle and the roof rack where the air is being forced as you drive.
Q: What can I carry on my roof rack?
A: There are tons of possibilities when it comes to carrying objects on your roof rack. For example, you can carry adventure gear such as snowboards, mountain bikes, surfboards, and paddleboards. Just about anything you need for a road trip can be stored on a roof rack.
The HandiRack Universal Inflatable Roof Rack Bars is our top pick for the best roof rack. Versatile, affordable, and easily removable, these roof rack bars are a solid choice.
Choose the Highland Black Heavy Duty Bar Carrier if you’re looking to spend less for more. You’ll get the roof rack you need without paying name-brand prices.