How to Carry Just About Anything on Your Car

When you can’t ... quite ... squeeze ... one ... more ... thing into your vehicle – and you don’t want to sacrifice your passengers – it’s time to start thinking “outside the car.”

That’s what my college friends and I did when we tied all our gear to the roof of my car and headed off on a spur-of-the-moment camping trip.

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All four passengers survived the drive. The camping gear wasn’t so lucky. Our sleeping bags and tents wound up strewn across the highway, backing up traffic for miles and getting clobbered by trucks and trailers. Not only did we lose all our stuff, we put the lives of other motorists at risk. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 11,000 accidents in 1998 involved falling cargo or debris on the road.

Yocan carry just about anything on your car that you can lift over your head. But, to be safe and effective, you need to do it right. Whether your cargo is a clutch of bicycles or a pile of camping gear, there’s probably a rack out there designed to carry your load safely.

When Just a Rope Will Do

Sometimes you don’t need a rack at all, such as when you need to carry something light and relatively flat (such as an inner tube, a flat box or a Christmas tree) and you’re only driving a short distance. In these cases, what you will need is two 20-foot lengths of 1/2-inch nylon rope, a blanket or piece of carpet liner to protect the roof, and the know-how to tie bowline and two-half-hitch knots (refer to Boy Scout manual). If you’re knot-challenged, pick up two tie-down straps with cinch buckles (about $20) instead of rope.

Soft Luggage Bags
If you want to carry stuff on your car, but don’t want to invest in a fancy roof rack, a weatherproof luggage bag is a great choice. Lightweight, inexpensive ($75 to $160), and easy to store, these bags are easily mounted with hooks that grip your car’s factory racks or door frames. They can hold from 7 to 15 cubic feet of stuff.

When You Need a Real Rack
Many vehicles come with factory-installed roof racks, but in general these racks are designed more for cosmetic appeal than function. Factory racks are fine for carrying a suitcase or two, but they’re usually only capable of handling stable loads of up to 100 pounds. (Weight restrictions for factory racks are printed in the owner’s manual or on the rack itself.)

If you’re hauling heavy or irregularly shaped loads, you’ll probably need an “aftermarket” rack. These racks fall into two categories: roof racks and rear-hitch racks. For hauling long objects such as canoes, kayaks and surfboards, a heavy-duty roof rack is the only way to go. On the other hand, skis, bikes, snowboards and cargo boxes can be carried on either a roof rack or a rear-hitch rack. The leading manufacturers of roof-racks and rear-hitch racks are Yakima and Thule. Both offer racks for most car makes and models, and their products are comparable in quality and selection.

Roof Racks

A standard roof rack consists of two crossbars and four “foot” mounts, which attach to the vehicle’s factory side-rail rack, roof or rain gutters. You can find standard roof racks (for about $250) at most outdoor-sporting-goods stores, or call the manufacturer for a list of dealers in your area. Keep in mind that roof racks are easy to remove if left unlocked, so buy locks (about $20 a pair) to protect your racks from thieves.

Note: Assembling and installing a roof rack for the first time doesn’t require an engineering degree, but it can take a couple of hours. Don’t want to do it yourself? Most dealers will install it for no charge or a small fee.

Once you’ve outfitted your car with a standard roof rack, you can customize it to carry almost any combination of gear – such as a kayak, camping equipment and a bicycle – all at the same time!

Lugging camping gear, coolers and luggage –
Thule and Yakima make cargo baskets and cargo boxes that mount directly to your roof rack.

  • Cargo baskets are a versatile, relatively inexpensive ($100 to $369) option for hauling an assortment of odd-shaped items. Everything is held snug in the basket with stretch nets ($25 to $35).

  • Cargo boxes are great for carrying expensive loot that needs to be locked up. These hard-shell, bullet-shaped, waterproof boxes come in a variety of colors and sizes (the largest holds 30 cubic feet of gear), and range in price from $250 to $1,000.

Transporting bicycles – Bicycle roof racks (about $100 per bike) keep bikes safe from rear-enders and fast-fingered thieves. The most secure way to attach a bike is with a fork-mounted rack, which means removing the front tire. But for most people, an upright wheel-mounted bike rack is the way to go.The downside to bike roof racks is they’re hard to load bikes onto, they increase wind resistance, and they’re parking-garage unfriendly. (After loading your bikes on top, place a reminder to the driver in plain view on the windshield: “Take bikes off before driving into garage!”)

Rear-Hitch Racks
Thanks to the growing popularity of minivans and SUVs, rear-hitch racks have become the hauling method of choice. Rear-hitch racks, which attach to your vehicle via a receiver hitch, can be outfitted to carry everything from skis and snowboards to bicycles and cargo boxes. Rear-hitch racks are easy to load (no overhead lifting or ladder-climbing required), cost effective (ranging from $100 to $500), easy to remove, and they keep the roof free for other uses. Some of the better hitch racks swing out to provide easy access to the rear of the vehicle. All come with locks to keep your stuff secure.

Like the idea but don’t have a receiver hitch? No problem! Hitches can be installed on just about any car. For more information, contact your rack dealer or look in the phone book under “Hitches.”

Trunk-Mounted Bike Racks
If you don’t have a roof rack or a rear-hitch, and only occasionally haul your bikes, a trunk-mounted bike rack is the way to go. Trunk-mounted racks are inexpensive ($50 to $150), easy to install and remove, and a cinch to load your bikes onto. The drawbacks: You have to remove your bikes to get into the trunk, you have to lock your bikes when you leave the car, and if you get rear-ended, bye-bye bicycles!

Good to Go!
There you have it. With a special rack, a spirit of adventure, and a little bit of knowledge, you can drive your VW Beetle to the beach and bring your canoe, too! Just remember this rule of thumb: If you can’t carry it safely (for example, you have to hold your hand out the window to steady the load), borrow a friend’s pickup truck – or stay home and watch the Fishing Channel.


If you’re still not sure how you want to outfit your carrying needs, check out these helpful rack resources:

L.L. Bean offers an inexpensive and simple canoe/kayak rack.REI especially good for roof bags.

Sportsrack  800-722-5872, sells all brands of racks and publishes “Smart and Safe,” a free guide to safely packing and loading your vehicle.Thule 800-238-2388

Yakima  888-925-0703