Things to Know Before Buying a Car Rack

A car rack can be a good alternative to buying a larger car if you merely lack cargo space.

A car rack can be a good alternative to buying a larger car if you merely lack cargo space.

A car rack allows you to carry equipment or cargo that would otherwise take up valuable space inside your car. If you find yourself thinking, "I wish this car had more cargo room," then a rack may be a good alternative to buying a larger car — or leaving your stuff at home.

"Typical items carried tend to be sports equipment items, but many of our owners are families that need extra space in their vehicle, or people who generally want the flexibility of vehicle space for varying cargo needs," said Kevin Faul, a spokesman for rack manufacturer Yakima Products.

If you decide a rack is a smart purchase for you, companies like Yakima Products and Thule Racks have multiple ways to equip a rack to your car, and offer in-depth guides and instructions at their websites.

Factory Rack Versus Aftermarket Rack

Factory racks take the guesswork out of rack ownership and give you a ready-to-go package. Automakers like Subaru even offer attachments so your bike, kayak or skis can attach directly to the rack. Some cars, however, don't come with factory racks, and that's where the aftermarket steps in. Yakima's racks are not sold in complete kits, but rather as individual components that allow buyers to customize their rack. Even if you want a rack for your 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, there's a rack option out there for you.

Choose the Right Rack for Your Needs

There are four rack styles that serve different lifestyles. What you'll be carrying and how often you'll be carrying it will determine which rack is best for you.

  • Roof rack: Can carry the biggest range of equipment, and mounts on top of the vehicle. It can carry most types of sporting equipment, as well as luggage, ladders and other cargo containers.
  • Strap rack: Attaches to the trunklid and is ideal for the weekend warrior who wants an easy-to-remove rack. Strap racks can only carry bicycles, and just three at a time.
  • Hitch rack: Vehicles equipped with a trailer hitch have it easy; just slide the rack into the hitch and you're ready to go. You can get different racks to fit various hitch sizes. The size of the hitch will determine how much you can carry.
  • Truck rack: Sure, you can just throw you bike in the truck bed, but if you have any money invested in that bicycle then securing it to the bed is a smart move. Truck racks secure a bike to the bed's side rail or tailgate.
Know if Your Car Can Hold a Rack

Needless to say, soft-top convertibles are out of the question when it comes to roof racks, but aftermarket companies make racks that will fit just about any other type of vehicle. As long as the car has a secure, rust-free area on which to attach a rack, a rack can go on it. Yakima offers an online fitting guide that lists which rack components are compatible with your car, as do other rack companies.

Strap racks are an inexpensive option for cars without a factory rack.

Strap racks are an inexpensive option for cars without a factory rack.

Strap racks are the cheapest option, with Yakima's entry-level "Little Joe" strap rack coming in at $63. If you're starting from scratch, a standard roof rack will run from $250 to $300 for the towers and crossbars. It may be cheaper if your car already has factory rack components, like side rails. In order to carry different kinds of gear, you'll need to purchase an individual mount for whatever cargo you need to haul. Mounts that hold a bicycle are different than those that carry a kayak; they range from $85 to $150.

Hitch racks can range from $175 to more than $400.

If You Have a Factory Roof Rack

Many cars come with a factory rack that is complete with crossbars and towers. If that's the case, all you need are mounts to attach your cargo to the crossbars. Those mounts can be purchased from a rack supplier.


Faul says anyone who has programmed a VCR or put together furniture from IKEA can install a rack. However, some racks may require more extensive installation that includes drilling; in that case, get an installer to do the work for you. A hitch rack is the least intrusive rack and the easiest to install.

How it Attaches to Your Car

Hitch and strap racks are fairly self-explanatory. Hitch racks plug into a trailer hitch, and strap racks use straps that wrap around a car's trunklid. For roof racks, there are a couple of different styles of towers that attach directly to the roof. One style clamps directly onto the roof, while another can be bolted onto factory-installed side rails that run along the roof.

Carry More Than Just Bikes

You're most likely to see sporting equipment attached to car racks, but there are other uses for them. Cargo carriers attach to racks the same way a bike does and can create up to 21 cubic feet of cargo space. You can also attach ladders and longer hardware to a rack.

© 2/11/09