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Choosing the Right Bike Rack for Your Car

The Kuat Sherp
Photo: Curtis Smith
Wednesday March 3, 2021
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Why You Need a Bike Rack


Purchasing a bike rack is an important decision. To further complicate the process, there are now more options available than ever before. We researched the most compelling options and purchased nearly 23 of the best for this comparative analysis. There are a number of factors to consider, including your vehicle type, the number of bikes you need to carry, the type of bikes you have, the style of rack you want, and how frequently you intend to use it. All of the products we tested fall into three basic categories based on the style of attachment to your vehicle: roof, hitch, and trunk or hatch mounted racks.

Styles of Bike Racks


The three main styles of racks are listed below with the main pros, cons, and details to consider about each style.

Roof Racks


If you drive a truck, SUV, van, or another type of vehicle with a high roof (over five feet), you may want to think twice about purchasing a roof-mounted system. The combination of a tall roof and roof-mounted system requires the user to lift the bike over their head to get it onto the rack. Depending on your height and physical strength, this may not be a worry for you, but it can be inconvenient, especially when you consider everyone who will be using the rack. Bike weight should also be a consideration as the heavier the bike is, the more difficult it will be to lift up onto the rack. Even if lifting the bike onto your rack isn't a problem for you, you will likely only end up limited to carrying two bikes (which requires the purchase of a second rack) because reaching the center of the bars will be far more difficult.

Roof racks require lifting the bike all the way up to roof height...
Roof racks require lifting the bike all the way up to roof height and work best on vehicles with lower roofs as a result.
Photo: Jeremy Benson

Roof models are, however, a much more reasonable option for vehicles with lower roof heights. Vehicle's factory and aftermarket crossbars are multi-purpose and can typically be used to carry other gear and equipment such as skis, surfboards, cargo boxes, or luggage along with your bike. In the case of factory-installed crossbars, it is crucial only to use roof rack styles that are compatible with those bars. If your vehicle doesn't have factory crossbars or horizontal rails, they are available from either Yakima or Thule as a separate purchase. While some roof racks are quite easy to install, you'll probably be more inclined to leave them on your vehicle for an extended period as opposed to installing and removing them regularly. For convenience, we leave ours on even when not in use, as they typically aren't in the way or preventing access to any part of the vehicle.

Roof racks can also be a great option for city dwellers who find themselves in traffic frequently. Having the bike safe up on the roof is a more attractive option than on the rear of the vehicle. Nobody wants to get rear-ended in bumper-to-bumper traffic and have their bicycle crunched.

Most roof racks are left on your vehicle for an extended period.
Most roof racks are left on your vehicle for an extended period.
Photo: Jeremy Benson

It is important to note that when bikes are loaded on your roof, the additional height of the bikes makes the overall height of your vehicle significantly higher than usual. This added height makes your garage, parking garages, and most restaurant drive-throughs a no-go until the bikes are removed. People often damage their bikes, racks, and vehicles by forgetting about their bikes on the roof and driving attempting to drive into their garage. Roof mount rack systems (with the inclusion of cross bars) are a versatile investment, giving you the option to start with one or two units and add more and accessories as your needs change over time or seasonally. Some roof mount racks require the removal of the front wheel and secure the bike with the front axle of the fork, and the rear wheel, while wheel-on roof racks secure the bike by the front wheel. Wheel-on roof racks do require you to lift the bike slightly higher to load it but save you the step of removing the wheel.

Hitch Mount Racks


If a roof mount style rack isn't right for you, then a hitch-mount rack may be a better alternative. There are several styles of hitch-mounted racks that are explained in greater detail below.

Platform or Tray racks come in several different styles like the...
Platform or Tray racks come in several different styles like the Inno Tire Hold that secures the bikes by the front and rear wheels.
Photo: Pat Donahue

Platform Hitch Mount


Examples of platform or tray-style hitch mount racks include our Editors' Choice Thule T2 Pro XT or the less expensive RockyMounts MonoRail. These support the weight of bikes on a tray and secure them by clamping the front wheels or down on the frame. Models that clamp down on the front wheel are typically the most popular because the rack makes no contact with your frame, a consideration for people with carbon frames, oddly shaped tubing, and for keeping your bikes in pristine condition. Hitch mount racks have a low loading height and offer versatility because they will carry virtually any type of bicycle. Some models have the option of expanding their carrying capacity up to four bikes with add-on accessories. People with heavier bikes such as downhill, enduro, or e-bikes would be smart to consider tray-style hitch racks, offering the lowest loading heights available, with some models offering up to 60 lbs of weight capacity.

Vertical hitch mount racks hold bikes vertically, hanging from the...
Vertical hitch mount racks hold bikes vertically, hanging from the fork crown.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Vertical Hitch Mount


Popular with the mountain bike crowd, vertical hitch mount racks hang bikes vertically from the crown of the fork or the front wheel. Vertical racks that hold the bike by the fork crown do suffer from limited versatility and typically only work with mountain bikes with suspension forks. These racks typically hold the bikes so that they avoid any unwanted bike-on-bike contact with good ground clearance for shuttling on rough dirt roads. One of the biggest advantages of vertical racks is that they can carry up to six bikes, as is the case with the North Shore NSR-6 and the Yakima HangOver. They are also offered in 4-bike versions.

Support Arm Hitch Mount


These hitch mount racks have a tall mast with two support arms that extend out to hold the bikes by the frame. Support arm style racks still provide a relatively low loading height, but the bikes are supported and secured to the arm of the rack via the bicycle frame.

Hitch racks, such as the support arm style Thule Parkway, extend the...
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.
Photo: Curtis Smith

This style has the notable drawbacks of using the frame as the primary point of attachment, and some models have compatibility issues with full-suspension mountain bikes or frames with unusual shapes.

The ramp on the Yakima OnRamp allows the user to roll their heavy...
The ramp on the Yakima OnRamp allows the user to roll their heavy bikes into position on the rack.
Photo: Laura Casner

Ramp-Loading Hitch Mount


Electric Bikes are exploding in popularity and some manufacturers are making racks aimed at addressing the challenges associated with loading and transporting these heavy bikes. Both the Thule EasyFold XT 2 and the Yakima OnRamp are new platform hitch mount racks that have ramps that can be used to roll your heavy bike into position on the rack. Both racks have 60 lb per bike weight limits and should be able to handle just about any electric bike on the market. Using the ramp adds a bit of time and complexity to the loading process, but prevents the user from having to struggle to lift their bike onto the rack. Kuat also makes an aftermarket ramp that is compatible with their NV series racks.

All hitch mount racks attach to a vehicle's tow hitch, so you need to have one to use this type of mount. If your vehicle doesn't have a hitch, you can often purchase them and have them installed. Hitches are usually 2" or 1.25", and many models of hitch mount racks are offered in both sizes or there are adapters to switch between the two sizes. In general, hitch-mounted styles help keep bicycles less exposed to the wind and to some extent prevent them from getting plastered with bugs, which is more common on a roof-mounted style rack. Downsides to hitch-mounted racks are that they can be heavy and large, making them awkward to deal with and store and they can limit access to the rear of your vehicle. Vehicles with insufficient rear suspension may be affected by the extra weight of a bike rack and bikes cantilevered off the back, but most trucks and SUVs are up to the task. Overall vehicle length is increased when using a hitch-mounted rack, making backing up and parking in tight places somewhat more difficult. Most hitch mount racks can be folded down or up when not in use decreasing the overall length of your vehicle when it is mounted. Hitch mount racks tend to be slightly more expensive, but we feel they offer the most user-friendly loading experience.

Trunk Mount:


If neither hitch mount nor roof mount racks are right for you, then a trunk or hatch mount rack may be a good alternative. Typically, trunk mount racks are easy to install and remove, fold down the smallest for storage, and can be switched between compatible vehicles with ease.

Low loading height, intuitive adjustments, and user-friendly ladder...
Low loading height, intuitive adjustments, and user-friendly ladder straps help make the Highline a good option for everyday use.
Photo: Jeremy Benson

The drawbacks of this style of rack are limited security, as trunk-mount racks are secured to the vehicle with nylon straps or cables with hooks. This method of attachment and the location of the rack may also prevent you from being able to access the trunk. Trunk mount racks typically support the bikes with two support arms and straps that attach to the bicycle's frame; the support arms may involve some compatibility issues with some full-suspension mountain bike designs of frames with irregular shapes or tubing. Weight capacity is generally limited to around 35lbs per bike, so they are not a good option for heavier-weight bikes.

Making a Decision


The style and model of rack you choose depends on a variety of factors. First, consider your vehicle, then consider your bicycle. If you have a shorter vehicle with factory crossbars, then roof options will often be the most convenient and economical way to go. If you decide on a roof-mounted rack, consider what type of fork you have and the size of your front axle. For people with 15mm or 20mm through-axle forks or a variety of axle standards, we highly recommend the RockyMounts BrassKnuckles or Yakima FrontLoader, which don't require front wheel removal and provide great versatility. If not, then a more standard design that does require front wheel removal, like the Kuat Trio, is a great choice. We are inclined to steer you away from roof mount racks if you have a taller vehicle or an unwieldy, heavy bicycle.

Do you have a tall vehicle or cumbersome downhill bikes, maybe an e-bike? If the answer is yes, then a tray-style hitch mount could be right for you. Tray-style hitch mount racks, like the Thule T2 Pro XT, are closer to the ground and provide much easier loading as a result. They also use the front wheel and tire as the primary point of attachment, making them especially great for people who want to protect their fancy carbon frames or oddly shaped tubing, and they can carry almost any type of bike and a variety of wheel and tire sizes, from heavyweight downhill bikes to featherweight road bikes. If your vehicle doesn't already have a hitch receiver, check with the manufacturer or an aftermarket shop, because they can typically be purchased and 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.

Hitch mount racks with wheel trays are among the most user-friendly...
Hitch mount racks with wheel trays are among the most user-friendly racks due to their low loading height, bike attachment style, and versatility.
Photo: Jeremy Benson

Do you own an adventure rig like a Sprinter van or cab-over camper? If you answered yes, then the RockyMounts BackStage is an excellent option because it features an arm that swings the entire rack off to the side allowing for unrestricted access to the back of the vehicle. This is an excellent tray-style hitch mount rack but be advised that the BackStage weighs more than 60lbs, so we do not recommend it if you plan on removing it frequently. Kuat and other manufacturers also make pivoting attachments that can be added to existing racks to create a swing-away system like that of the BackStage.

If you're looking for a more simple system that doesn't require a hitch receiver or mounting a rack on your roof isn't an option, then trunk or hatch mount style racks are the answer. Trunk mount racks can fit a wide range of vehicles and often be switched between them; you can check your vehicle's compatibility on the manufacturer's respective websites. Trunk-mounted racks are most definitely an excellent option for occasional bike rack users, but we prefer roof or hitch-mounted ones for heavy or more frequent everyday use. Trunk mount racks also may have limitations due to weight and compatibility, so be aware of that as you consider your purchase. Retail outlets, such as REI, often have racks on display that you can check out before you buy. Often the best deals on bike racks can be found online, but when you are ready to make your purchase, you might want to consider buying from a brick-and-mortar retailer who can assist with compatibility, setup, and installation.

Vehicle Fit Resources


Every bike rack manufacturer represented in our test selection offer fit guides to help you find a rack that will be compatible with your vehicle. This information can be accessed on their respective websites.

Frame Compatibility


A rack's compatibility with various frames is generally not information that is readily available. With so many different frame and suspension designs on the market, it would be a challenge for rack manufacturers to keep up to speed with frame compatibility for their various models. Any rack with a primary attachment point being the bicycle frame can be prone to compatibility issues with various bike designs.

Some rack types and models 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 Kuat Trio and RockyMounts SwitchHitter)
  • Tray Style Roof Mounted (such as the Yakima FrontLoader and Thule UpRide which use the front wheel and tire as the attachment point.)
  • Tray-Style Hitch Mounted (such as the Kuat NV, RockyMounts MonoRail, or the Thule T2 Pro XT which use the front wheel and tire as the primary point of attachment.)

Security


Depending on where you live and ride, security can be an important consideration when purchasing a bike rack. Rack models in every category offer excellent security features, others offer none. Purchasing a rack with security features like locks may cost a little more up front, but you don't have to buy locks after the fact, and it may deter would-be bike thieves. If you never intend to leave your rack or bikes unattended on your vehicle, then purchasing a rack without security features can save you some money. We feel that is a little unrealistic as we often find ourselves stopping for some post-ride food or cold refreshments, situations where we prefer the added security of some sort of lock. Trust us; it never feels good to have your bike stolen.

An included cable lock secures bikes on the Thule Raceway.
An included cable lock secures bikes on the Thule Raceway.
Photo: Curtis Smith

We feel that excellent security features have both the ability to lock your bike to the rack, and also to lock the rack to the vehicle. Hitch mount racks often have a locking pin that secures the rack to the receiver making it extremely difficult to remove without the key. 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 FrontLoader, 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.

Security features are great, but no bike rack security system is unbeatable. That said, we prefer either cable locks or locking quick-release levers that clamp onto the fork axle. Bike rack integrated cables and locks are great, but we suggest people consider buying a beefy cable or chain lock for added security. Cables and locks may not be foolproof security, but will undoubtedly work as a deterrent for would-be bike thieves and provide you with a valuable piece of mind.

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