How to Choose Car Racks

 A man attaches a mountain bike to a rooftop car rack
What's the right rack for your vehicle? If you're transporting bikes only, then lots of car rack options await you.

Add a snowboard, kayak or paddleboard to the mix and you're more likely a roof-rack shopper. Roof racks are often recommended because they are the most stable and versatile method for transporting outdoor gear.

This article provides a chart with a quick overview of your gear-hauling choices, followed by a more detailed look at each option.


Dealer Fit Guides

If you already have a certain style of rack in mind and want to determine if it is compatible with your vehicle, enter make/model/year info into these handy fit guides offered by REI's top rack dealers:

If, however, you are standing at Square 1 in your car rack decision-making process, start by reviewing our quick-reference chart (below). We supplement it with more detailed explanations of what the chart shows.


Quick-reference Chart

($ range)
Accommodates Pros Cons
Roof racks

Bikes, boats, skis, snowboards, paddleboards, surfboards, cargo boxes Most versatile system; more secure and stable; unimpeded access to car doors, rear hatch or trunk Some hoisting and reaching required; wind resistance; may not fit in low-clearance spaces
Trunk racks

Bikes Less expensive; portable; easy to load and access bikes; can be used on multiple vehicles; good for occasional use Interferes with access to trunk or hatch; bikes may sway and contact one another
Hitch racks

Bikes; can be adapted to carry skis, snowboards, cargo holders Simple installation; easy to load and access bikes; some models allow clear access to rear door; good for frequent use Advanced models can be expensive; basic models interfere with access to trunk or rear cargo area; bikes may sway
Spare-tire racks

Bikes; can be adapted to carry skis, snowboards Easy to load and access bikes; provide clear access to trunk/rear door Dependent on tire size; can carry 2 bikes max; bikes may sway
Truck racks

Bikes (or boats and cargo boxes) Easy to load and access bikes; can handle heavier loads; can be attached to tool boxes Bikes dominate storage capacity within truck bed
Cargo boxes

Skis, snowboards, loose gear Enclosed, lockable gear storage; can hold wet or dirty items outside of vehicle interior; keeps gear out of sight Cost; wind resistance; may not fit under low-clearance spaces
$ = Up to $120;   $$ = $120-$200;   $$$ = $200-$400;   $$$$ = $400+

To determine what style or rack best suits your needs, let's survey your choices in more detail.


Trunk Racks

If you drive a car (sedan or hatchback) or a sports utility vehicle and 2-3 bikes are all you're transporting, trunk racks are a lightweight, economical choice. They fasten to rear decks via a system of straps and paint-friendly hooks. With a little practice they can be installed and removed with minimal fuss.

Bikes rest on support arms (usually equipped with cradles) and are secured by straps (typically made from neoprene rubber).

Why do some racks that carry the same number of bikes differ so much in price? Key reasons:

  • The versatility to fit more vehicles.
  • Overall ease of use.
  • Anti-sway cradles (better at keeping bikes separated during transport).
  • Locking mechanisms.
  • Better materials (stainless steel rather than standard steel, for example)
  • Fold-away compactness for space-efficient storage.


  • Bikes (2 or 3).


  • Lower cost.
  • Lighter; easy portability.
  • Bikes attach with only a moderate amount of lifting.
  • Fairly simple to exchange between cars (if both cars share compatibility with the rack).
  • Is not permanently attached to your vehicle.
  • Handy for shorter trips or occasional use.


  • Trunk access is blocked.
  • Rack's stability relies on skillfulness of person attaching the straps.
  • Bikes may sway a little during transport and are thus prone to bumping into each other.
  • May be difficult to lock bikes to rack; rack itself can be detached from car by cutting straps.
  • May not attach correctly if trunk or tailgate includes a spoiler. You made need to contact a rack manufacturer directly if this is an issue with your vehicle.
  • Care must be taken while attaching hooks to avoid scratching car's finish.
  • Bikes may partially obstruct taillights, rear license plate or driver's view out of rear window.
  • Driver must remain aware of vehicle's extended length while backing up or maneuvering in tight spaces.
  • Require some maintenance; during transit, occasionally check straps when stopped to ensure rack has not loosened or shifted.


Hitch Racks

Most vehicles equipped with a hitch receiver can accept a hitch mount. A hitch receiver usually can be installed on a vehicle not originally equipped with one.

Hitches are divided into classes according to towing capacity, from Class I (which fit any vehicle and tow up to 2,000 lbs.) through Class V (which fit only heavy-duty trucks and vans and tow up to 18,000 lbs.).

Hitch racks are usually compatible with Class II - Class IV hitches. Class I hitches often do not work with hitch racks. Why? Because the "tongues" of Class I hitches cannot support heavy loads.

The section of a hitch that extends away from a vehicle is known as its tongue. Hitch tongues have a maximum tongue weight, which is 10% of its towing capacity. So while a Class I hitch can tow up to 2,000 lbs., its max tongue weight is 200 lbs. Thus the collective weight of a heavily loaded hitch rack could cause a Class I hitch to bend or possibly snap off.

How can you know the classification of the hitch on your vehicle? It might be identified in the owner's manual if your vehicle has a factory-installed hitch.

For aftermarket hitches, check the hitch itself. Either you will find a notation somewhere on the hitch that identifies its classification, or sometimes a sticker or stamp. If the classification cannot be determined, contact the hitch maker directly and ask for help.

Be aware that hitch-makers may insert a "stop" in any hitch, from Class I through Class V, that prevents full insertion of recreational racks. Such stops tend to be found more often in Class I and II hitches. What purpose does a stop serve? It acts as an extra brace, or "stop," in case the towing vehicle stops abruptly or gets rear-ended. It keeps the item in tow from ramming into the vehicle.

If you encounter problems when inserting a hitch rack, inspect the hitch's interior to see if a stop is an issue. Ordinarily, you need about 2.5" between the bolt hole and the hitch opening in order for a recreational rack to fit correctly.

Most hitch receivers come in 2 sizes, 1-1/4" and 2". Class V hitch receivers measure 2-1/2". Mounts for hitch racks simply slide into these receivers. Smaller hitch racks (the type suitable for cars) usually can carry only 2 or 3 bikes; larger mounts can handle up to 4, sometimes even 5 bikes.

Hitch mounts rise in cost as they offer more sophisticated features and materials. To keep SUV rear doors accessible, for instance, some hitch mounts swing away, tilt or fold up to stay out of the way. Bikes may be held in place by straps on a vertical staff or in trays (as roof rack systems do).

Platform-style hitch racks anchor bikes in place on trays, which resist bike sway and minimize the risk of bike-to-bike contact during transport. Ordinarily platform racks can transport just 2 bikes, but with the use of extensions can be adapted to carry up to 4 bikes. Platform-style hitch racks offer a higher weight limit than standard hitch racks.


  • Bikes (2-5).
  • With the addition of adapters: Skis, snowboards.


  • Some lower-cost options exist.
  • Generally simple installation (mounts just slide into receivers).
  • Bikes attach with only a moderate amount of lifting (unlike roof racks).
  • Bikes are positioned further from vehicle than with trunk hitches, making vehicle's finish less vulnerable to contact with bikes.
  • Is not permanently attached to your vehicle.
  • Some fold flat against vehicle to provide clearance for parking or storage.
  • Locks are available for all hitch racks.


  • Trunk or rear-door access may be blocked.
  • Swing-away models, which offer the easiest access, are also the most expensive.
  • Some 4- and 5-bike models can be heavy.
  • Bikes not transported in trays may sway a little during transport and thus are more prone to bumping into each other.
  • May be difficult to lock strapped-in bikes to mount.
  • Bikes may partially obstruct taillights, rear license plate or driver's view out of rear window.
  • Driver must remain aware of vehicle's extended length while backing up or maneuvering in tight spaces.
  • Women's, kids' or full-suspension bikes may require frame adapters. (Yakima offers an accessory called a Tube Top that may be helpful.)
  • May not fit perfectly with spare tires on vehicle.


Spare-tire Racks

A few racks can be fitted on vehicles equipped with rear-mounted exterior spare tires, usually sports utility or off-road vehicles. On the plus side, such racks are comparatively light and compact and, when bikes are removed, they do not inhibit rear-door access. Chief negatives: They can carry only 2 bikes, and tire covers must be removed.

Ask an REI rack-fitting specialist any vehicle-specific questions.


  • Bikes (2 max)


  • Moderate cost.
  • Usually simple installation.
  • Bikes attach with only a moderate amount of lifting.
  • Vehicle's finish less vulnerable to contact with bikes.
  • Does not have to remain permanently attached to vehicle (though many people leave spare-tire racks in place once installed).


  • 2-bike limit.
  • Tire covers must be removed.
  • Bikes may sway a little during transport and are thus prone to bumping into each other.
  • May be difficult to lock strapped-in bikes to mount.
  • Bikes may obstruct taillights, rear license plate or driver's view out of rear window.
  • Driver must remain aware of vehicle's extended length while backing up or maneuvering in tight spaces.


Truck Racks

A few specialized products—some specifically for bikes, others for boats and cargo boxes—are designed to transform the bed of a truck into an efficient toy-toter. For bikes, these systems involve internal rails or support bars that can be temporarily installed in a truck bed to anchor bikes in place.


  • Bikes (2-4) or boats and cargo boxes. (Note: REI rarely carries truck racks that transport boats or cargo boxes.)


  • Moderate cost.
  • Generally simple installation.
  • Bikes can be positioned with only a moderate amount of lifting.
  • When stabilized in the truck bed, vehicle's finish less vulnerable to contact with bikes.
  • Is not permanently attached to your vehicle.
  • When transporting bikes, size of vehicle is not altered.
  • Increased weight limit.
  • Select models can be mounted above bed to provide clearance for storage below.
  • Bike mounts can be mounted to standard bed rails or to tool boxes in bed.


  • Bikes dominate truck bed during transport.


Roof Racks

Roof racks are prized for their versatility. With the right accessories, a roof rack can be adapted to transport just about any outdoor toy in your inventory, from kayak to bike to cargo box. People appreciate their stability and their out-of-sight unobtrusiveness while driving. The key tradeoff: Needing to lift gear overhead in order to secure it.

Vehicles' roofs may come equipped with some combination of factory-installed towers, siderails, crossbars or mounting points. Or, with a plain roof, you will need to build your own rack system. Either way, first check your vehicle's manual or contact the manufacturer directly to determine the maximum allowable weight the roof can accommodate. (Yakima's fit list can be used to determine the weight limit for vehicles.)


  • Bikes.
  • Boats.
  • Skis.
  • Snowboards.
  • Paddleboards.
  • Cargo boxes.


  • Generally moderate cost.
  • Versatility—rack adapts with the seasons.
  • Lockable mounts are available.
  • Bikes do not sway.
  • No visual obstructions to driver's view.
  • Vehicle's finish less vulnerable to contact with bikes.
  • Products that assist the loading process are available.


  • Must reach overhead to secure gear on top of vehicle.
  • Wind resistance reduces aerodynamics of vehicle, likely impacting gas mileage.
  • Noise caused by wind resistance may be noticeable.
  • Driver must be cognizant of height restrictions (parking structures, garages, carports, toll booths, low-hanging branches) that are not a factor when roof is not loaded.
  • May be hard to load some items atop a tall vehicle.
  • Gear atop a tall vehicle could make such a vehicle unstable in high cross winds.
  • Permanently attached to vehicle.


Cargo Boxes

Cargo boxes are hard-sided transport systems ideal for skis, snowboards, paddles and large amounts of gear (excluding bikes or boats). People love 'em because they provide lots of bonus storage space for loose gear and keep all of it outside of a vehicle's passenger cabin.

While the support system (such as siderails) for a box will likely remain permanently attached to your vehicle, boxes can be removed and installed with only moderate effort.

On the down side, cargo boxes may generate wind resistance and noise during travel. You must double-check that latches are correctly closed every time you shut the box. You need to ensure a box is a good fit for your vehicle and for the gear you intend to carry. Some SUV hatches, for instance, might bump into the back of a long box, and some boxes cannot contain skis that exceed 180cm.

Boxes have a wide price range. Prices vary due to the quality of materials and feature sets, such as the ability to open the box on either side of the vehicle. How do you know if a box is sized right for your needs? Likely you'll have to check box capacity specifications individually. As of this writing, Thule offered a handy comparison chart that shows box dimensions and ski capacity.

Also available: cargo baskets (open-air containers where all contents must be lashed in place or covered by a cargo net) and soft-sided cargo bags. Accessories can be added to some baskets to making them more versatile.

As with roof racks, check your vehicle's manual or contact the manufacturer directly to determine the maximum allowable weight the roof can accommodate.


  • Skis.
  • Snowboards.
  • Loose gear.


  • Enclosed, lockable safe zone for gear.
  • Keeps wet, dirty or smelly gear out of passenger cabin.
  • No visual obstructions to driver's view.
  • Does not have to remain permanently attached to vehicle.
  • Can be used year round (camping in summer, skiing/snowboarding in winter).
  • Useful for family trips.
  • Great place to let kids affix stickers.


  • Cost.
  • Wind resistance.
  • Noise.
  • Driver must be aware of height restrictions in garages, et al.
  • A box-equipped tall vehicle could become unstable in high cross-winds.


Car Rack Tips

  • Reminder: Before installing a roof system, first check your vehicle's manual or contact the manufacturer directly to determine the maximum allowable weight the roof can accommodate. If installing a hitch mount, verify your vehicle's towing capacity.
  • If you plan to load your rig with 5 or 6 adults and toss on a rack and/or hitch, check your vehicle's payload limits. All that extra weight can burden suspension, tires, transmission and engine.
  • Here's a common question: Which brand is better, Thule or Yakima? This may sound like a cop-out, but at REI we rate this a tossup. Both are well-established, high-integrity brands. How to decide? Try entering your vehicle information on both Dealer Fit Guides mentioned at the start of this article. Compare the options, features and prices that both offer. Ask friends or an REI salesperson for their views or experiences. Our belief is in nearly every instance you will be choosing between 2 high-quality equals.
  • Not every bike is a perfect fit on every trunk rack or hitch rack (or the cradles they use). It's rare, but on occasion some bikes (particularly women's or kids' models) do not fit perfectly on some cradles. Test-fit your bike on your trunk or hitch rack before you plan a trip. A Yakima Tube Top may help some challenging fitting situations.
  • Extra space/size is usually not a bad thing. A rack built to carry 4 bikes is a nice luxury to have, space-wise, even if you're just transporting 2 or 3 bikes.
  • On trunk and hitch racks, it's often wise to secure the tires of 2 bikes with a strap or bungee cord to prevent sway-induced bumping. Securing a towel around contact-prone frame sections is another good precaution.
  • Own a tandem or other bike with an unusual shape? Roof racks usually do the best job of accommodating such situations.
  • Planning to transport kayaks? Buy loadbars that are one size longer than what is recommended in the fit guide. This way you can fit the boats more easily and can always cut the bars if they are a bit too long. Trailers are another option for transporting boats, though maneuverability becomes an issue to consider.
  • Does cargo box color matter? You'll pay more for lighter tones. Theoretically they absorb a little less heat than black boxes when exposed to direct sunlight. Is it worth it? That's up to you.



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