How to Decide on a Roof Rack

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You may want to attach a roof rack to the top of your car to transport luggage, kayaks or other equipment.

Even a simple rack base can host many different attachments to hold bikes, skis, kayaks, surfboards, and much more. On top of its practical benefits, a roof rack is a simple way to add some unique style to your car.

There are a number of different rack systems available with multiple attachments and add-ons. Navigating this kind of selection can be tricky, but if you know exactly what you’re looking for, then you will be able to find the best roof rack for your needs.

Part 1 of 2: Define your requirements

Before you go shopping for the perfect roof rack, there are a couple of preparatory steps that you can take to make the rest of the process easier.

Material Needed

  • Tape measure

Step 1: Determine the purpose of the roof rack. Figure out what you need your roof rack to do. Think of what you will be stowing overhead on a regular basis.

Step 2: Decide on your budget. Deciding on a budget isn’t always easy and depends upon many different factors.

Some useful things to consider include:

  • Type of cargo: Consider if you will be carrying one item consistently like only skis or kayaks or will you be using the rack for a variety of different things.

  • Actual installation process: Try to decide whether you want to install a rack that will drill into the roof and provide a permanent base or whether you would prefer one that is easily removable. Consider whether you want a roof rack that you can remove from one vehicle and attach to another.

  • Factory rack system: Many new cars come with rails, to which a rack can be mounted, straight from the factory. Not only can you save a lot of money by utilizing these systems, you will also find that the factory provided rails actually tend to look the best on the vehicle.

diagram showing different parts of a roof rack

Step 3: Take measurements. Measure everything that could become a factor when installing a roof rack system.

car roof being measured

Here are a few things to focus on to ensure you end up with the right one:

If you are installing a universal roof rack that attaches onto the doorframes, measure the length of roof between the two doors and specifically between the furthest forward and most rearward points to which you could secure a rack system.

This will give you an estimate of the longest length possible between your roof rack cross bars.

Measure how much space is above and around your car when it is parked. It would be unfortunate to install a roof rack only to find that you can no longer park in your garage.

Raise your trunk lid or hatch. If any part of it sticks up above the height of the roof, you cannot use a cargo box that would interfere.

Finally, measure the width of the roof. Buy a roof rack that meet your transportation requirements without being too large and cumbersome. If the crossbars stick out too far, they present a hazard when passengers get into and out of the car.

Part 2 of 2: Finding the right roof rack

There are plenty of companies that manufacture strong, high-quality roof rack systems, but the two biggest names are Yakima and Thule. These two companies have a long history making roof rack systems and both have a good reputation among customers.

Step 1: Understand the different types of roof racks. Roof rack systems are classified by the way they attach to your car.

different roof rack chart

Step 2: Decide on a roof rack. Once you know what type of system you are going to install, you can narrow down your options based on what you need out of a roof rack. Here are some good points to consider:

If you are going to carry large items like canoes or kayaks, make sure the rack you get is approved for the weight and make sure the crossbars are far enough apart to provide a stable platform.

Pick out what accessories you will use with your roof rack before you decide on which roof rack to buy. Wider crossbars will let you use more accessories at one time such as a bike holder and a cargo box together. Also, some accessories like roof baskets may only be able to fit racks of a minimum width.

Step 3: Install the roof rack. Buy a roof rack system and either install it yourself or have a professional install it.

  • Tip: If the rack system is universal, or if you bought an aftermarket rack that utilizes the factory rails on top of your car, then you should be able to install it yourself fairly quickly. Racks that are installed directly onto the roof should be handled by a professional.

Step 4: Pick roof rack accessories. Decide on the accessories that you will put on your roof rack.

There are a number of ways in which a roof rack system can carry your cargo and this chart can help you decide what accessories are right for you:

table showing different types of roof rack accessories

  • Note: Before installing any roof system, first check your vehicle's manual or contact the manufacturer directly to determine the maximum allowable weight that the roof can accommodate.

After you research your options and decide on a particular roof rack system, you can be sure that you have chosen one that meets your requirements and also fits your car and your garage.

When you start out, don’t buy every attachment for the roof rack system all at once. Consider your immediate requirements and just buy the bare essentials first. You can add on more accessories as and when you need them. In this way, you will not waste money on parts that you may not ever need or use.

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