The best roof racks are the ones we trust. They need to stay secure to your car (without damaging it) and grip your skis or kayak so your gear doesn’t blow off your roof at highway speeds. All this must happen above your head where you can’t see it. That makes a quality rack a worthwhile investment in protecting your gear and preserving your peace of mind.
What to Consider in a Rack
Once you’ve decided a roof rack is the best option for carrying your gear, the next step is to find the type and style that meets your specific needs. Start with the basics. “The best roof rack will be the one that fits your car and properly carry your (equipment),” said Kevin Lau, a rack specialist who works at REI’s Marlton, New Jersey location. After that, you want to consider a rack’s ease of installation, how easy it is to load and unload gear, the roof rack’s security features, and whether it will impede access to your vehicle (either by potentially blocking doors, windows or trunks from opening).
Lau recommends looking for racks that include locking systems, because they make it easy to secure your equipment without having to use an additional lock and cable. If you’ll use your rack in the winter, go with one that has large and easy-to-push buttons so you can operate them while wearing gloves. Many racks have torque limiters on the clamps that prevent you from over tightening them and denting or otherwise damaging your vehicle. If you can afford it, go with a rack that comes with padded straps or mounts to protect your gear and your car. Lau also recommends looking for racks that have all or mostly metal parts. Those will last longer than ones with a lot of plastic hardware.
How to Pick a Rack That Fits
If your car has factory-installed roof rails, the simplest option is to look for a rack that is compatible with them. Most brands will have online search and recommendation tools to show which of their racks are compatible with your car.
If your vehicle lacks roof rails, find a rack system that includes its own crossbars. Thule and Yakima are the most popular and have options to fit most vehicles, so we focused on them here. Other brands offer more specialized, or more affordable options—they just might not fit every vehicle so make sure you double check their compatibility.
Depending on the types of equipment you want to carry, you might find different styles of racks to hold it. For example, rooftop bike racks can hold your ride with arms that clamp over the front wheel or frame, or by attaching through your front hub with the wheel removed.
Although the hub-mounted options are the most secure, they require adapters to fit different hub standards and require you to remove your front wheel. Racks that clamp to your frame offer more versatility but can scratch your frame and might not work with some full-suspension mountain bikes. Options that use arms to clamp over your front tire are the most popular for a reason: They’re easiest to use and accommodate a wide variety of bikes without extra adapters.
Racks that haul canoes, kayaks and other water-sports equipment also come in several varieties. Better ones have features like rollers that help with loading. If you’re only going short distances or will use your rack infrequently, you might be able to use an inexpensive (but less secure) pad-style option. Those slide on to existing roof rails or sit directly on your roof and stay in place with straps that run through your windows.
Lastly, you might consider a basket rack, which allows you to carry a lot of odd-sized gear. It’s a good option if storage is more important than carrying any specific type of equipment.
How We Selected
As a snowboarder, a cyclist, and enthusiast of all things outdoors, I’ve used and tested many of the racks on this list, as well as enough other versions to know what works and what doesn’t. To supplement my own experience and research, I consulted REI retail specialist Kevin Lau, an expert when it comes to selling the right rack for customers. We also sought advice from our colleagues at Bicycling, who have been testing all types of racks for decades. Lastly, we looked at consumer reviews to see what customers reported about each rack’s installation, ease of use, and long-term durability.
Best Wheel-On Single-Bike Rack
Yakima Front Loader
This one-bike rack is a versatile option: It can haul anything from a road bike with any standard wheel size to an aggressive full-suspension bike-park rig with tires as wide as 3 inches. The rack clamps to your tires and doesn’t make contact with your frame, so your paint job will be safe. Some people prefer the security of a rack that attaches through your bike’s front hub, but this setup is definitely quicker and fits more wheel sizes and options without adapters. Plus, you don’t have to take your wheel off, which saves time and storage space in your vehicle.
- Single bike only, but you can add multiple trays to carry more bikes
Best Roof Rack for Fat Bikes
The UpRide locks your ride into place with two arms that cradle your front wheel. It fits tires up to 3 inches wide and can accommodate 5-inch tires with an extra adapter. It also features a locking cable system to secure your bike when you’re parked, though the cable included is relatively thin.
- Can fit tires up to 5 inches wide
- Holds bike secure
- More expensive than some others
Best Hub-Mounting Bike Roof Rack
Thule’s FastRide clamps to your front hub, rather than cradling your front wheel. The rack fits most quick release and thru-axle bikes, but you’ll need to purchase an adapter for thru-axle forks and some quick-release sizes. The built-in torque limiter knob ensures you don’t over torque the fork when clamping in your bike.
- Holds bike securely
- Torque-limiter knob reduces accidental damage
- Requires extra adapters for bikes with thru axles
Best Value Ski and Snowboard Rack
The FreshTrack can carry up to four skis or two snowboards, and a larger option carries six skis or three snowboards. It also allows you to carry skis and snowboards at the same time, making it a great option if your family or friend group has a mix of skiers and boarders. The clamp system is easy to use with gloves on, and installing the rack on existing rails or crossbars is simple—you don’t even need tools to do it.
- Good value
- Easy to use while wearing gloves
- Tool-free installation
- Some customers report it’s a bit small for loading up with gear
Best Ski and Snowboard Rack
Kuat Grip 6
Need to carry a team’s worth of ski and snow gear? Start with the Grip 6 ski and snowboard rack from Kuat. It can carry up to six pairs of skis or four snowboards, or a combination of both. Kuat is known for innovative racks with smart solutions, and this one delivers, too. The front and rear racks slide away from the roof on rails, making it easier to load and unload skis and snowboards. Then simply slide them back into place and secure them before driving. That’s especially helpful for owners of taller vehicles, or anyone who has struggled to mount their boards on top of their car or SUV with traditional fixed racks.
- Slides out to make attaching equipment easy
- High reviews for durability
- More expensive than others
Best Kayak Rack
This easy-to-use kayak roof rack helps you slide your kayak into place before securing it onto the vehicle. The cushioned pads ensure that your kayak’s hull is protected, and the pivoting saddles help fit different hull shapes. The universal mounts fit onto multiple crossbar shapes and sizes, including factory racks. The center strap, which secures the middle of the kayak, features a bumper to prevent it from damaging the roof of your car.
- Fits many kayak hull shapes
- Works with many existing crossbars
- Multiple mounts slows installation
Best Rack for Stand-Up Paddleboards
Fitting a stand-up paddleboard inside any vehicle is nearly impossible. This rack makes carrying two of them a snap. It features a rolling system to make loading as easy as possible, even oversize boars. Installing is easy, too. It comes assembled, fits many crossbars, and secures boards up to 36 inches wide.
Best Cheap Stand-Up Paddleboard Rack
Thule Surf Pads
If you only have short distances to drive, Thule Surf Pads can save you a lot of money. These pads slip around your car’s cross bars and they feature a no-slip texture on the outside to help your board stay in place—though you will have to secure it with separate tie-down straps.
- Easy to install and remove
- Less secure than dedicated systems
- Straps not included
Best for Canoes
Thule Portage Canoe Brackets
Canoes are heavy, unwieldy when out of the water, and can be expensive. You need a rack capable of handling their weight and complexity to haul them securely. These simple-looking brackets are up to the job. Their shape helps guide your canoe into place and the strong, durable straps hold it tight once it’s sitting on your roof. The versatile canoe rack fits most factory cross bars as well as ones made from Thule and some other brands.
- The brackets guide canoe onto your roof
Best for Fishing Rods
If you’re looking for a fishing rod roof rack, you know the challenge: It might seem easy to just stuff them in a trunk, but even ones that collapse can get damaged easily, or their lines snag on coolers, tackle boxes, or luggage sharing the same space. If you travel with rods often, better to put them on your roof out of the way. The best way to do that we’ve found is with the Yakima ReelDeel. It holds up to eight fishing rods, and there’s sufficient padding to protect your rock. A secure locking system makes it harder to be stolen if you stop for breakfast while traveling to your favorite fishing hole. And we love how you can use this rack to carry up to four pairs of skis or two snowboards during the winter.
- Securely holds 8 fishing rods
- Can also carry skis or snowboards
Best Cargo Basket Roof Rack
MaxxHaul 46 x 36-Inch Roof Box
A roof box is a fantastic way to carry large amounts of gear, especially if you do a wide variety of activities outdoors. This large, sturdy roof box from MaxxHaul, which has great customer reviews on Amazon, is ideal for carrying camping equipment, large packs, or any other type of gear you can’t (or don’t want to) fit into your trunk space or back seat. This cargo basket fits most aftermarket and factory crossbars and can carry 150 pounds of gear.
- Carries 150 pounds
- Fits large and odd-shaped objects
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