How to Choose a Bike Rack

All of the contenders in our test group side by side. The two in the middle will be hard to access on a mid-height vehicle such as the Subaru Forester.
Article By:
Curtis Smith
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday


The purchase of a bike rack is a big decision. We tested 18 of the best ones on the market to help you make the best decision based on your needs. The type of vehicle, number of bikes, and type of bikes you will be transporting, as well as how often you plan to use it, are all factors for consideration. All of the products we tested fall into three basic categories: roof, hitch, and trunk or hatch mounted racks.

Styles of Bike Racks


Here are the main pros, cons, and details to consider about each of the three primary styles of racks.

Roof Racks:
Roof racks  such as our Top Pick Yakima Fork Lift  are best suited to vehicles with a low roof height like this Toyota Matrix.
Roof racks, such as our Top Pick Yakima Fork Lift, are best suited to vehicles with a low roof height like this Toyota Matrix.

If you drive a truck, SUV, van or other vehicle with a high roof (over five feet), think twice about purchasing a roof system. A roof model on a tall vehicle will require you to lift your bike over your head. This may not a problem for you, depending on your stature and the weight of your bike, but consider others who will be using the rack. Even if you can manage lifting the bike, you will likely only be able to carry two (which requires the purchase of a second rack), because the center of the crossbars will be out of reach. Roof models are, however, a good option for vehicles that are lower to the ground. Crossbars are multipurpose and can be used to carry other gear and equipment such as skis, surfboards or cargo boxes along with your bike. If your vehicle has factory crossbars, you need only select compatible roof styles for your vehicle type. If you have no crossbars or horizontal rails on your vehicle, you will need to purchase these from either Yakima or Thule. While many roof racks are easy to install, such as our Top Pick, the Kuat Trio, you will not want to take them on and off of your vehicle on a daily basis. For convenience we leave ours on even when not in use.

Even on vehicles with a low roof height  you will want to position roof racks as close to the outside of the vehicle as possible.
Even on vehicles with a low roof height, you will want to position roof racks as close to the outside of the vehicle as possible.

When bikes are loaded on your roof, the overall height of your vehicle will be significantly higher than normal, making most restaurant drive throughs, parking garages and even your own garage off limits until you remove the bicycles. Roof racks (with the inclusion of crossbars) are versatile, with the option to start with one or two units and add more and accessories as your needs change.

Hitch Mount Racks:
If roof styles are not an option, a hitch mounted one may be a good choice. There are two main styles of a hitch mounted racks:

Tray Style Hitch Mount
Tray style hitch mounts  such as the Kuat NV  can carry nearly any type of bicycle  and have ergonomic advantages when it comes to loading.
Tray style hitch mounts, such as the Kuat NV, can carry nearly any type of bicycle, and have ergonomic advantages when it comes to loading.

Such as our Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro XT or the less expensive Thule T2. These support the weight of bikes in a tray and secure them by clamping the front wheels. Tray style hitches are easy to load, will carry virtually any type of bicycle and can be expanded to hold up to four. If you have heavy bikes such as downhill or freeride style, tray-style hitches offer the lowest loading heights available, and can hold some weighing up to 60lbs each.

Arm Support Hitch Mount
Hitch racks  such as the support arm style Thule Parkway  extend the overall length of your vehicle  and can make parking in tight places difficult.
Hitch racks, such as the support arm style Thule Parkway, extend the overall length of your vehicle, and can make parking in tight places difficult.

Such as the Thule Apex Swing 4-Bike and the Allen Deluxe 4-Bike Hitch Carrier. This style still has a relatively low loading height, but has the drawbacks of using the frame as the primary point of attachment and the support arms will usually not fit full-suspension mountain bikes or ones with unusual frame shapes.

Higher end hitch mount racks  such as the Thule Apex Swing  provide access to the rear of your vehicle.
Higher end hitch mount racks, such as the Thule Apex Swing, provide access to the rear of your vehicle.
Hitch mounted styles also keep bicycles out of the wind and to some extent prevent them from getting plastered with bugs, which can happen on a roof model. The downsides are that they are heavy and can limit access to the rear of the vehicle. Some vehicles with insufficient rear suspension will struggle with the extra weight cantilevered off of the back, but most trucks and SUVs are up to the task. Hitch mount styles also increase the overall length of your vehicle, and can make parking in tight places difficult when loaded. Hitch racks do not offer the multipurpose advantages of a roof rack, and can be quite expensive, but they are the most ergonomically sound option in terms of loading.

Trunk Mount:
The Yakima KingJoe2 is a trunk mount rack that uses six straps for vehicle attachment.
The Yakima KingJoe2 is a trunk mount rack that uses six straps for vehicle attachment.

If you do not have a hitch receiver and are not interested in roof styles, trunk or hatch mounts may provide a viable option. They typically involve the least amount of installation and necessary accessories, and usually provide the quickest and least expensive way to accessorize your vehicle for bicycle transport. Trunk styles are generally fairly lightweight, and the same rack can be easily moved between several compatible vehicles. Nylon straps or cables with hooks are used to secure them to the vehicle, and as a result, security from theft is limited. The attachment system will also prevent you from being able to open your trunk or hatch while it is attached. Most rely on two horizontal supports designed to support a bicycle by holding the top tube with rubber or nylon straps. This design limits their ability to carry many types of bikes, primarily full suspension mountain bikes or ones that do not have straight horizontal top tubes. Weight capacity is generally limited to around 35lbs per bike, so they are not a good option for heavy ones.

Making a Decision


When choosing what to get, first consider your vehicle, then consider your bicycle. If you have a vehicle with factory crossbars, then roof options will be the most economical and practical option. Once you have decided to go with a roof rack, consider what type of fork you have. If you have 15mm or 20mm through axle forks, we recommend the Yakima High Roller, or some other style that does not require front wheel removal. If not, then a standard design that does require front wheel removal, like our Top Pick the Yakima Fork Lift, is a great choice. We only steer you away from roof racks if you have a very tall vehicle or very heavy bicycle.

Tall vehicle? Heavy downhill bikes? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then a tray style hitch mount is right for you. Tray style hitch mounts, such as our Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro XT, use the front wheel and tire as the primary point of attachment, and can carry almost any type of bike, from heavy downhill ones to lightweight road bikes. If your vehicle does not have a hitch receiver, check with the manufacturer or an aftermarket shop, because a receiver can likely be installed. We recommend 2" receivers because they give you more options when it comes to selecting a compatible rack, and generally have a higher weight capacity.

If you do not want to install a hitch receiver and having something on your roof is not an option, then trunk or hatch mounts such as our Top Pick Thule Raceway 2-Bike are the answer. Trunk mounts fit a wide range of vehicles, and you can check vehicle compatibility on the manufacturer's websites (we have posted links below). Trunk mounted racks are an excellent option for occasional users, but we prefer roof or hitch mounted ones for heavy or everyday use. Be aware of weight limits and potential compatibility issues with full suspension mountain bikes. Many retailers such as REI have racks on display that you can check out before you make a purchase. When you are ready to purchase, you may find the best deals online, but consider purchasing from a brick and mortar retailer who can offer you assistance with setup and installation.

Vehicle Fit Resources


All of the bike rack manufacturers represented in our test group have fit guides to help you match your particular vehicle with compatible models. The fit information can be accessed via their respective websites.

Yakima
Kuat
Thule
Allen
Saris
RockyMounts

Frame Compatibility


Bicycle frame compatibility is one piece of information that you will not find readily available. With the thousands of different frame designs and shapes available, and the frequency with which new frames are hitting the market, it would be difficult if not impossible to post rack-to-bicycle frame compatibility information. Any one that uses the bicycle frame itself as a primary point of attachment is prone to compatibility issues.

Some types will accommodate almost any bike, so if you anticipate frame compatibility issues stick with the following types:

-Fork Mount Roof styles with optional 15mm and 20mm through axle adapters (such as the Yakima Fork Lift), and the Kuat Trio
-Tray Style Roof Mounted (such as the Yakima High Roller, which uses the front wheel and tire as the attachment point.)
-Tray Style Hitch Mounted (such as the Kuat NV or the Thule T2 Pro XT which use the front wheel and tire as the primary point of attachment.)

Security


An included cable lock secures bikes on the Thule Raceway.
An included cable lock secures bikes on the Thule Raceway.

Security is an important consideration when purchasing a bike rack. There are some in every category that offer excellent security features, and those that have none. Purchasing a rack with locks will cost you a bit more up front, but could prevent the theft of your bike. If you do not intend to leave your rack or bikes unattended on your vehicle, then purchasing a rack without security features can save you some money. However, we often find ourselves stopping after a ride for some food or a well-deserved cold beverage, and having at least some sort of lock on our bikes is mandatory. Thieves will take any bike, even if it is not an expensive model.

When considering security features, it is important that the rack has the necessary equipment to secure your bike, but also that the rack can be locked to your vehicle when not in use. Many hitch mount racks come equipped with a locking hitch pin that secures the rack so it cannot be removed. Fork mount roof racks can often be secured to your vehicle by locking the quick release in the same manner as you would with a bike in the rack. Other styles of roof racks, such as the Yakima HighRoller, use a cable to secure the bike, and when not in use the cable can be used to lock the rack to the vehicle's crossbars. The only trunk mount rack we tested that can be locked to your vehicle is the Thule Raceway 2-Bike.

No security system is unbeatable. That said, we prefer either cable locks or locking quick release levers that clamp the fork. Even if you purchase a rack that has locks or cables for your bike, consider purchasing an additional cable lock that you can thread through wheels for additional security. Cables and locks may not spare you the unfortunate experience of having your bike stolen, but at least they provide some peace of mind.

Curtis Smith
About the Author
Curtis Smith is a mountain biker from South Lake Tahoe, CA.

 
 

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