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August 11, 2022

Car Bike Racks: How to Choose the Right One

Car bike racks are an essential tool for transporting your beloved bike (or bikes) from where you are to where you want to go—near or far—while preserving the space inside your vehicle for other must-haves (yes, that probably includes your family). The good news is that there are numerous options on the market for you to choose from.

Before you plan your next epic cycling adventure, ensure you have the right car rack. In this beginner’s guide, we describe the major types of racks as well as considerations for how you can begin narrowing down which one will suit your needs. Spoiler alert: None of the options we present below are perfect, and—as with anything—each has its respective pros and cons.

What are the Different Types of Car Racks?

First, let’s unpack the major types of racks that are out there to start to understand which of these might be the right fit for you.

In a nutshell, there are three major types of car racks that are differentiated by how they are mounted onto your vehicle: The hitch (or rear); the roof; or the trunk. To keep it simple, we’ll focus on these (plus we’ll give a special shout out to our pickup truck friends, too).

1. Hitch / Rear Bike Racks

Bikes mounted on Kuat car rack

In a nutshell: Hitch (or rear) racks (like these Kuat options) mount onto the trailer hitch at the rear of the vehicle, which means you’re not securing the rack to the vehicle itself (a benefit if you’re intent on safeguarding your car from scratches or other damage—why choose between your bike and your car if you don’t have to?). If your car is already outfitted with a tow hitch, then a hitch-mounted rack could be a natural fit for you.

Generally, these racks are considered to be relatively user-friendly because they enable you to load and unload your bike(s) easily with only moderate lifting (unlike roof racks, which we’ll get to in the next section, that mean more ‘clean and jerk’-style hoisting of your bike). Some platform models even offer a ramp (or you can create one yourself) to help you get heavier bikes mounted. These hitch-mounted racks are typically easy to install when you need to haul your bike, and easy to remove after your epic adventure is over, which means they won’t deter you from a spontaneous trip when you decide it’s a go!

There are two types of hitch racks to be aware of:

(a) Platform Hitch Racks

With these racks, a platform extends from the hitch onto which you rest your trusty steed (or steeds) with both wheels remaining on the bike. If you’re hauling multiple bikes and are particular about reducing the risk of bike-on-bike contact during the journey (and, let’s face it, most of us are), then this could be the hitch style for you. The ‘catch’ here is that they are typically more expensive than hanging hitch racks, which we’ll get to next.

Full disclosure: These are the racks we’ve typically used, and we love them. But, beware: They will extend the length of your vehicle, which is easy to forget when you’re backing up—unless you happen to have reverse sensors on your car (in which case your car may just yell at you throughout your uneasy parking job). Moreover, these racks can hamper rear access to your vehicle; however, there are models that allow you to effortlessly pull the rack down or away from your trunk, when needed.

Two mountain bikes mounted on Kuat NV Base 2.0 rack

(b) Hanging Hitch Racks

These racks have a mast with arms that secure the bike via its frame and tend to be less costly than the platform racks discussed above. They can be pretty compact and hold the bikes closer to the back of the car. The challenge with these racks is that select models are stationary, which means they obstruct access to the rear of the vehicle when they’re installed.

If you need regular access to your trunk, opt for a model that can be pulled down or away from the rear of the vehicle to enable access to the trunk. Extra features will typically drive up the cost, but—hey—you’re making a multi-year investment in bike transportation, which means you could probably justify a couple of enhancements.

2. Roof Racks

If you’re not too keen on bikes extending the length of your vehicle and aren’t too concerned about lifting your bike (or bikes) above your head to secure them onto (or retrieve them from) the rack, then you might want to consider a roof rack.

If you are regularly hauling your bike around with you (and, for that, we salute you!), then a roof rack could be a fine choice for you. Unlike the more temporary rack options (like the trunk-mounted racks, which we’ll get to next), roof racks stay mounted on your car (even in between epic adventures) and provide a secure way to transport your bikes—a kind of ‘set it and forget it’ approach.

Plus—for the more versatile adventurers out there—these racks could serve to transport other objects, too, such as kayaks, skis, surfboards, and more. Even if, today, you’re strictly after a rack to transport your bike, this could change in the future, which could make a roof rack a more versatile investment that can evolve with your changing needs.

Unlike hitch racks and trunk racks, roof racks do not obstruct the rear of the vehicle (neither the driver’s visibility nor access to the trunk). This promotes safety and convenience. But remember: Just as hitch racks will extend the length of your vehicle, roof racks will expand its height. This will be a critical consideration if you need to clear a low structure (think entrances to indoor parking lots or garages, overpasses, and so on).

Additionally, depending on the type, size, and number of bikes (and/or other objects) you plan on securing to your roof rack, you may need to ensure that your vehicle can accommodate that much weight propped on the roof.

Car bike rack - roof rack

3. Trunk Racks

These racks are mounted to your trunk and secure your bike (or bikes) via a strap mechanism. They are typically the most cost-effective option if you’re not seeking anything too fancy, but, full disclosure: We’re not huge fans of these types of racks. In our humble opinion, most of them feel less secure and they’re more likely to lead to spinning wheels, swinging handlebars, and bike-on-bike contact compared to other options (and we love our bikes far too much to risk parting ways with them on the highway en route to our group ride).

That said, if you only need to haul your bike occasionally, then this could be a fit for you. In fact, the strap design of these racks means they are easy to adjust to fit most vehicle models and can be transferred from one vehicle to another pretty effortlessly. If you opt for this type of rack, you might want to consider a model that reduces any damage to your vehicle (given the straps come into direct contact with the vehicle and could scratch or otherwise damage it). A trunk rack that is designed with enhanced padding could help.

Critically, when the trunk rack is mounted and bikes are in place, they could obstruct access to the trunk and—worse—the driver’s visibility.

4. Truck Bed Bike Racks

Naturally, if you happen to drive a pickup truck, there are a whole host of options out there for you to make optimal use of the built-for-purpose cargo space. Yes, hitch racks will work on a pickup truck, but trunk racks are largely out. As this is a bit of a specialty category, we’ll focus on two broad categories here: Trunk bed solutions and tailgate pads.

(a) Trunk Bed Racks

These are offered in several configurations that mimic the fastening mechanisms of both roof racks and hitch racks. Some will require you to remove the front wheel of the bike and lock it, via the fork, to the truck bed. Others will secure the bike via cinch mechanisms with the wheels still in place on the bike. You will need to give consideration to what is most convenient for you and how permanent you want the solution to be.

(b) Tailgate Pads

Tailgate pads (like this one from EVOC) are relatively simple, but effective solutions for carrying bikes in the back of a pickup truck. Exactly as it sounds, a tailgate pad drapes over the tailgate of the truck, which enables the bike to be secured over the top with the front wheel sitting just outside the truck bed. Special padding prevents damage to both the truck and bike. Another benefit? In our opinion, it just looks pretty badass.

Tail gate pad with bikes mounted

So, What Should You Consider When Selecting The Right Car Rack For You?

What everyone loves to hear… it depends. To begin narrowing down the options that will suit you, we have compiled a number of questions that you should ask yourself when deciding on the optimal rack that will balance your unique needs.

1. What vehicle will you be outfitting with the rack?

For example, is the vehicle a compact coupe, a minivan, an SUV, or a pickup truck? At a minimum, you will need to get a rack that fits your specific vehicle.

A related consideration is whether your vehicle is already outfitted with features, such as roof crossbars, or a receiver trailer hitch—and, if so, what kind. In some cases, your car may make the decision for you. If roof rails or a hitch aren’t an option, you will, naturally, need to consider other options.

Yet another consideration is whether you plan on switching the rack from one vehicle to another. If that’s the case, you may want a rack that can be transferred with ease. Pro tip: Determine what your car/truck can accommodate before shopping for racks—check the size of your hitch, the style of your roof rails, and so on, and determine what type of rack you want before you begin your shopping efforts in earnest.

2. What kind of bike (or bikes) do you need to transport—and how many?

For example, are you hauling road bikes? Mountain bikes? Maybe even electric bikes? And how many?

If you have a high-end road bike, know that it probably prefers to travel in unfettered tranquility away from the dangers of scratches and bumps. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are a tougher breed and are used to the rough and tumble of epic adventures (a trip along the highway jostling on the tailgate is easy, right?).

Or, perhaps, you’re among the growing number of cyclists that is shifting to electric bikes? In that case, while battery development has taken major leaps to increase range and lighten the load, electric bikes are still heavier than the typical ‘leg-powered’ bikes, and the thought of hoisting it above your head on a regular basis likely falls somewhere between undesirable and darn near impossible.

If you’re planning on travelling with more than two bikes, you will want a more secure option that can handle a decent amount of weight.

3. Where do you live?

If you live in a condo in a major urban center with indoor/underground parking, then you may need to think through the logistics of a roof rack. For example, it could mean stopping outside your building to unload your bike (or, worse, bikes) before driving down into low-ceiling land.

Or, maybe, you have tight outdoor parking spaces and extending your car’s length by 2 meters via a hitch rack could risk angering your neighbours. Think through your typical process of getting set up to ride and imagine yourself loading different types of racks—it’s possible that some just may not work for you (like the model of your vehicle, where you live could dictate—or, at least, inform—your decision).

4. How frequently will you be hauling your bike(s)?

If you and your bike are constantly on the road, you might want to consider a more permanent option, such as a roof rack. With a roof rack, you’ll never have to negotiate your way past the rack to the get to the trunk (which you will be grateful for when you’re stopped on the shoulder of the road looking for… insert that random thing you always seem to forget…!).

Or, maybe, it’s important to you that you can effortlessly install and remove your rack. With the price of gas these days (gulp!), the thought of the aerodynamic inefficiency of your vehicle (for a change) could be more than you can handle. Trunk or hitch mounted bike racks are more easily removed in between trips compared to roof racks—although roof racks are likely more aero efficient (stay tuned for our car rack wind tunnel testing… we’re joking of course!).

5. Where do you plan on traveling with your bike(s)?

Are you going to be traversing busy city streets, or bouncing along dirt roads with low hanging trees? You might prefer to have your bikes perched on the relative safety of your roof away from the hustle and bustle, or safeguarded from potential fender benders. If you typically travel to destinations with low hanging branches, keeping your ride long and lean might be preferable (pro tip: roof racks mean more bug splatter whereas rear racks mean more dust). 

Do you need theft protection? This is partly a consideration of the type of rack you opt for (some roof and hitch racks can be locked to your car) as well as a consideration of rack features that are available.

Many racks offer cable locks that help to secure the bike to the rack as well. If you are travelling to a destination with a high risk of theft (sadly, there is a risk of theft almost anywhere these days) and, in particular, if you need to leave your car and bike unattended, you will need to consider theft protection. Our suggestion? Avoid leaving your bikes unattended on a rack for any length of time, locked or otherwise.

6. How do you want to secure your bike?

Again, this consideration is a cross between the type of rack and the features of the rack itself.

If you’re not mechanically-inclined and prefer not to remove your bike wheel on a regular basis (as an aside, you should probably at least know how because you may need to change a flat), then you should consider a hitch rack or roof rack with bars that secure your bike without the need to remove the wheel. 

If you travel with expensive carbon wheels, you might want to avoid cinching straps that need to be reefed down around the rim. Many carbon aero wheels simply wrap a carbon fairing around a regular rim—and cranking down on it can induce anxiety for even the strongest among us.

And, finally, carbon frames and funky oversized tube designs won’t fit all frame mounting options, so take a good look at the fastening mechanism prior to making a purchase.

7. What is your budget?

As with anything, your options will be somewhat defined by your budget.

If you’re seeking a cost-effective option without the bells and whistles that will ‘do the job’, then trunk racks might be up your alley. Otherwise, if you’re in the market for a more durable solution, consider the roof or hitch racks. Whichever option you choose, you will find a range of price points with more or less features. Racks aren’t cheap and, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Take some time to decide which features you really need.

 

What Now?

Whatever you decide, the good news is that there are numerous options from numerous brands to choose from—and there will likely be multiple options that will equally suit your needs. Before investing in a car rack, consider the different types of car racks described and, then, reflect on the various considerations outlined above.

We hope an epic cycling adventure awaits you! If you’re after a bit of inspiration, check out our Bicycle Touring Guide.

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