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How to Choose and Use a Roof Rack (Like a Boss)

How to Choose & Use a Roof Rack (Like a Boss)

Close your eyes and picture your vehicle as it was during your last ski vacation or day at the trails. Was it stuffed to the brink with gear and passengers? What would you do if you had more space? Maybe you'd bring that extra gear you didn't think you could fit. Or maybe Fido could even come along in the newly open backseat. If you don't have the space inside your car or would rather not clutter your cargo area, a roof rack provides a space-saving alternative for hauling gear. Whether you're heading to the lake with your fishing rods, packing for a ski trip in the mountains, or hauling lumber to the work site, a roof rack will come in handy. However, you may not know exactly what you need. Do you already have rails on your roof and aren't sure how to complete your setup? Are you starting from scratch with a bare roof? What's the difference between crossbars and a kayak carrier, anyway? Read on to learn how to choose and use your roof rack like the boss you are. In this article, we'll talk about:
Check out all the boss activities you can do with a roof rack

Choosing a Roof Rack Based on Your Vehicle Roof

You'll often hear every part of a rooftop setup referred to as a "roof rack." But when you break it down, there are several components up there to be aware of. A roof rack setup goes like this: a carrier rack (a bike rack, ski rack, etc) mounts to your crossbars. Your crossbars then mount to your vehicle roof.
Labeled diagram showing crossbars, raised side rails, and kayak rack
So...how do you actually mount your crossbars to your roof? Well, it depends what's already up there. Every roof is different. Some vehicles come with OEM crossbars and only need a bike rack or snowboard carrier to complete the setup. Other roofs have raised side rails and need a "foot pack" before you can install crossbars. Your roof may also have flush side rails, fixed mounting points, or nothing at all.Also, this may seem obvious, but vehicle roofs come in different sizes. There's much more room for a roof rack on a Chevy Suburban than a Ford Fiesta.
Vehicle roof styles, including raised side rails and naked roof
Pictured: various roof styles, including side rails, crossbars, and naked roof
Your roof rack setup must fit the size of your roof and be compatible with any existing rails or tracks (or the lack thereof). The easiest way to check for vehicle compatibility is to use our fitguide to see a list of custom roof rack systems for your vehicle. If you're interested in seeing the breakdown of roof rack components (fit kit, foot pack, and crossbars) based on vehicle roof style, you can check out our article here.
Fit Kit on Roof Rack Setup
Fit Kit
Foot Pack on a Roof Rack Setup
Foot Pack
Crossbars on a Roof Rack Setup
Crossbars

Choosing a Roof Rack Based on Weight Capacity

If you're looking into roof racks, you probably already have an idea what you want to carry. Maybe you need to transport your kayak to and from the water, or perhaps you need a way to haul the family's bikes to the trails.Whatever you're carrying, it's best to have an idea in mind before investing in a roof rack and carrier. This is because your vehicle roof, roof rack, and carrier will all have a weight capacity that must be complied with. Your weight capacity will depend on the lowest-rated part of your system.
Roof Rack with Kayaks
For instance, if you have a roof-mounted cargo box rated at 150 lbs., roof-rack crossbars rated at 200 lbs., and a roof rated at 100 lbs., then you cannot load more than 100 lbs. Typically, your vehicle roof will be the limiting factor. To determine your roof's maximum weight capacity, check your vehicle's owner's manual.If you have a factory roof-rack system, also check your owner's manual for its capacity. Some OEM racks are designed more for aesthetics than utility and are not built to support much weight. If you intend to use your roof rack for heavy loads, you may want to add aftermarket crossbars to boost the carrying capacity of your system.

Capacity: How Many Kayaks, Bikes, etc. Can Fit on a Roof Rack?

The type and amount of cargo or equipment that you can carry with your roof rack is largely dependent on your specific application and the type(s) of accessories you carry. To a certain extent, you can estimate how many or how few carriers you can fit onto your rack based on the crossbar length.
Roof Rack Capacity Chart
Roof Rack with Bikes
Car Performance: Do Roof Racks Affect Fuel Efficiency?In most cases, yes, but how big of an effect this depends on the vehicle, the roof rack, and what you are carrying. To give some ballpark numbers, an empty rack can decrease fuel efficiency by 10-15%, while a rack loaded with an accessory or cargo can have an impact of more than 20%.Of course, your vehicle and driving habits also play into these numbers. You can minimize the impact on fuel economy by using aero crossbars if possible, which, due to their aerodynamic shape, will have a minimal effect compared to other crossbar shapes. Removing equipment when not in use will also help.

Choosing a Roof-Mounted Carrier

Once you have a roof rack, there are a variety of ways to pack and haul your gear. If you're carrying large sporting equipment such as bikes, a canoe, or a kayak, it's best to purchase a carrier designed for your cargo. There are no shortage of kayak carriers, canoe carriers, or bike racks available.However, you're not limited to equipment-specific carriers. If you plan to haul skis in the winter but a tent in the summer, you may consider a roof basket or cargo tray. You might also like a roof box, which can be used to carry everything from sporting equipment, to wet/dirty clothing, to tents, to luggage. These versatile carriers are up for all of your adventures!
Kayak Carrier on Vehicle
Kayak carrier
Roof-Mounted Bike Rack
Bike rack
Snowboard Carrier on Vehicle
Snowboard carrier
Roof box on vehicle
Roof cargo box

Mounting and Tying Down Your Gear

Once you've chosen your roof-mounted bike rack, ski carrier, cargo box, etc., you can go ahead and mount/store your gear. For some racks, this is all you'll need to do, then you can simply lock your cargo box or clamp down your bike rack. However, if you're loading a kayak or ladder, you'll need to properly secure your load with tie-down straps before you drive off. For step-by-step instructions, check out our articles on strapping down or otherwise securing these loads:
Kayaks strapped to Vehicle Roof
Written by: Amber S.Updated on: 8/29/22

Joe S.

1/28/2024

I have 2022 Hyundai Tucson, how secure are the roof racks from aftermarket?

Etrailer Expert

Jenny N.

1/29/2024

@JoeS Roof racks have been thoroughly tested and are made to be taken on and off. They are as secure as any aftermarket part can be. It is important to check your vehicle's manual to know how much weight your vehicles roof is rated for. If you want I can recommend a specific system to you, I would just need to know if your Tuscon has factory side rails or a naked roof.

Joe S.

1/29/2024

@JennyN factory installed
Etrailer Expert

Jenny N.

1/30/2024

@JoeS Great! I recommend the Yakima system which would be part # Y00421 for the cross bars, part # Y64AR for the Sightline Towers [also know as the feet in roof rack terms], and part # Y27AR for the fit kit.

Dave

5/1/2023

Hi, I have a 2020 RAM 1500 crew cab with sun roof. Do I need to be concerned about the open sun roof physically interfering with the roof rack? Planning to carry 19 foot sea kayaks with a tailgate extender that I already bought from you. Any recommended products for this set up? I want to avoid the trauma of returning products:) Thanks.

Etrailer Expert

Chris R.

5/5/2023

@Dave Short answer is.....maybe. It really depends on how high above the roofline the sunroof gets when being opened (plus how far above the roof the crossbars will be) The Rhino-Rack setup that I recommend, which includes # RVA150B-2, # RRRLKVA, and # RR56QJ, will put about 3-1/2" of space between your Ram's roof and the underside of the crossbars. Open your sunroof up and see if it gets to that level - if not, then you're good to go. If it does then you'll have trouble, but to be honest opening the sunroof with crossbars and kayaks up there isn't going to be too pleasant, noise-wise.

Albert K.

5/16/2020

What about a rack for pickups?

Etrailer Expert

Chris R.

5/19/2020

We certainly have roof racks available for pickup trucks too, along with ladder rack systems for the bed. If you can tell me what you're wanting, along with your truck model (and its cab size/style) I will be happy to make some specific recommendations.


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