A match made in cycling heaven: Finding the right rack for your vehicle


No matter your experience with bicycles, the process of selecting the best way of transporting your bike on your vehicle can be a little intimidating. Given the variety of bike racks available you need to find a balance between your type of bike, your vehicle type and your specific lifestyle needs. We have compiled several key factors to consider to help you narrow down your choice.

There are three main categories of bike racks:  roof-mounted, rear-mounted, and specialty racks for pickups and RV's.

Popular rack manufacturers: Thule, Yakima, RockyMounts, Hollywood Racks, SportRack
Popular rack retailers: REI, RackNRoad, RackAttack, Amazon.com

Roof-mounted bike racks 

 Benefits:

  • Best bike protection/least damage
  • Versatility: can carry almost any type of bike, including specialty bikes such as tandem and recumbent
  • Adaptability to carry other gear, ie. skies, luggage carrier, surf board or kayak
  • Keeps equipment out of the way – making trunk or gate more easily accessible
  • Doesn’t extend the length of the vehicle
  • Security: Additional security devices available, like cables and locks 

Details:

  • Must remember low-clearance areas
  • Creates wind resistance
  • Requires lifting bike overhead onto rack
  • Potential clean-up from insects and road debris

Rear-mounted bike racks (3 types)

1. Trunk Mount

Benefits:

  • Versatility and compatibility: can attach to most vehicle types, including sedans, hatchbacks, minivans and SUV’s.
  • Portable
  • Low cost
  • Easy to install, although securely attaching bikes can be tricky
  • Easy to store
  • Don’t need to lift bike higher than your chest
  • Fitted with pads to help protect vehicle

Details:

  • Secured by adjustable nylon straps, which may hook on to the top, under, or sides of the trunk lid and/or bumper. These need to be tightened and checked often before and after loading bikes.
  • Bikes are position tightly together so there is potential for frame scratches and dings
  • Inability to access trunk when rack is mounted
  • Not all bicycles can be mounted to this type of rack
  • Extends length of vehicle, increasing potential for rear collision when backing up.
  • May obstruct brake lights, license plate and back-up sensors
  • Not adaptable to carry other kinds of gear (skis, etc.)

2. Hitch Mount

Hitch-mounted racks are available in two styles.  The tube-top style holds bike frame suspended from the top tube of the bicycle.  The tray style cradles the bike wheels, keeping the bike in an upright position

Benefits:

  • Fairly stable and secure – mounts snugly into receiver preventing sway
  • High capacity – some can carry up to 5 bikes (limited by the maximum weight specified by vehicle manufacturer)
  • Bikes are held away from the vehicle
  • Security – lessened risk of theft as locks can secure rack to the hitch
  • Accessibility – some models incorporate either a swing-away or fold-down feature which allows access to the trunk without removing bike rack completely

Details:

  • Need a hitch socket to connect to the vehicle
  • Extends length of vehicle, increasing potential for rear collision when backing up
  • Need to consider proper fit: ground clearance, placement, size of tire
  • Due to weight and dimensions can be cumbersome to install
  • May obstruct brake lights, license plate and back-up sensors
  • Not adaptable to carry other kinds of gear (skis, etc.)

3. Spare Tire Mount (attaches to rear-mounted spare tire)

Benefits:

  • Easy to install and store: collapses and folds down when not in use
  • Centering features balance the weight of the offset tire

Details:

  • Max capacity of 2 bikes
  • Limited strength
  • Centering mechanisms not standard
  • Extends length of vehicle, increasing potential for rear collision when backing up
  • May obstruct brake lights, license plate and back-up sensors
  • Not adaptable to carry other kinds of gear (skis, etc.)

Specialty Racks (Pickups, RV's)

Pickup truck options include rods or bars that mount across the bed and hold the front fork of the bike with quick-release brackets, and quick release brackets that bolt into any flat surface (truck bed or sidewalls).

Benefits:

  • Bikes can be quickly mounted and removed
  • Safe and secure: locking mechanism available with some models
  • Can carry multiple bikes
  • Protects the truck paint

Details:

  • Some models require drilling into the truck bed
  • Bike may extend above the height of the truck cab so awareness of low overhead clearance obstacles is required  

There are also strap-style racks specifically designed for RV's and camper trailers.

Now that you are familiar with the types of bike racks available, consider the following choosing factors:

Your Lifestyle

  • Frequency:  how frequently will you use your bike rack? Don’t struggle with a poorly made bike rack! The more cumbersome the rack is to install and use the less likely you’re bring your bike(s) along on an adventure. If you foresee your outdoor interests expanding (for example including skiing, kayaking, or snowboarding) you probably want a roof-rack for future flexibility.
  • Distance:  whether you’re traveling short or long distances you should consider quality and durability. Also, shifting of your equipment may happen during longer trips so you should also consider the strength and stability of the bike rack.
  • Effort:  remember to take into consideration the weight of the bike, your ability to handle/lift it and whether others will be able to help you or not. For roof and trunk-mounted racks specifically: how high can you lift your bike? Are you able to use one hand to lock it in/release it from the rack while holding the bike in the other?
  • Parking and Space:  will you be pulling into a garage or parking on the street? Consider your parking space at home, in public areas and places you frequent. Roof racks are better for maintaining rear view visibility and easy access to the trunk of your car. These are also non-intrusive when the bike isn’t mounted, as opposed to trunk-mounted racks which add a few feet of length to your vehicle even without bikes loaded. A trunk-mounted bike rack may be better if you frequently drive through low clearance areas, parking garage – but parallel parking with a few extra feet in length can be a challenge.
  • Storage:  do you plan on leaving your bike mounted to your vehicle when you’re parked at home? If so, you must consider your parking, garage and storage space in terms of additional vehicle height from a roof rack or vehicle length from a hitch rack.
  • Other sports equipment:  if you plan to transport other sports gear, you may consider whether you will need additional add-on rack accessories or possibly mounting an additional carrier along with the one for your bike. In general, only roof-racks can be expanded for other types of gear.

Your Bikes

  • Number of bikes:  Most rear-mount racks can only accomodate 1-2 bikes.  Roof racks and some hitch-mounted racks can carry up to 5. Remember that smaller, kid-sized biked may fit inside your vehicle if you prefer a lower capacity rack.
  • Specialty bikes (tandem, recumbent, odd-shaped frames):  roof racks are recommended because various roof-rack bike trays can be purchased to accommodate all types of bikes.

Your Vehicle(s)

  • Existing utility racks:  check your car for an existing hitch or roof utility rack and understand its capacity. You can check your owner’s manual for details on the features.  And lastly, it never hurts to ask your dealer if they offer racks as an option or if they can install one for you.
  • Permanent or temporary:  are you the owner of the car or are you renting/leasing? Consider the time you will have with the car and the bike racks. Most trunk-mounted racks can be used on a variety of vehicles, which is better if you plan on switching cars in a short period of time or want to use your rack with several vehicles.
  • Preferred location on vehicle:  on most cars you can mount a rack on the roof or the rear. As mentioned before, consider the height, weight of bike and ability to carry the equipment.  Don’t be intimidated by roof racks. If you don’t feel comfortable reaching up to mount your bike, there are accessories such as step stools or wheel steps available.
  • Rear-mounted spare tires:  these are common on SUV’s and often interfere with hitch-mounted bike racks. In this case, consider spare-tire racks that are designed to integrate with the spare tire safely.
  • Extra protection:  consider specially designed cushioned padding and foam blocks to protect the paint and finish of your bike/vehicle, especially with trunk-mount racks.

Your Security

  • Preventing theft is key. Based on your parking locations and the amount of time you leave your bikes and vehicle unattended you should consider buying a lock or lock system to decrease your risk. However, the reality is no equipment can be fully protected by a lock when parked unattended for a very long time so we recommend parking in visible areas if this is your case.

Your Investment

  • How much are you willing to spend? Trunk and hitch-mounted bike racks are less expensive, but also less secure and less flexible.  Roof mounted racks are more expensive but incredibly versatile. How long will you be using it?  Even for short-term usage, consider that purchasing a higher quality rack of any type will reap more benefits and make your life easier.

- Tom Rieber, HeadsUp Systems Co-Founder

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