Bike racks - a buyer's guide

How to choose the best car rack for transporting your bike

Sometimes, it's necessary to drive in order to ride your bike, which typically makes a bike rack essential.There are multiple bike rack styles available, but how do you decide which is best for you? Here are some things to consider…

How to choose a bike rack

The first question is how far and how frequently do you need to carry bikes? Then what type of bikes, and how many bikes you need to carry. Which vehicle — or vehicles — do you have, and will you be taking a mixture of bikes? Are they heavy, do they have thru-axles, and will they be getting dirty?

The main types of bike rack are hitch-mounted, roof-mounted and strap-mounted

The next question is how do you want to carry the bikes? On top of the vehicle? Off the back? Does your vehicle have a receiver hitch? Bike's front wheel on or off? Another thing to consider is if you want or need to carry other sporting equipment.

Bikes vary widely in cost, style, size and weight too, all of which should be factors when looking for a means of transporting them. You probably won’t want to risk carrying your expensive super bike on a rack that costs less than one of its ultra-light tires.

Also consider practicality: whether the rack will suit your needs now and in the future; ease of use — how easy it is to fit to the vehicle and load; security — whether it holds the bikes safely and locks the bikes and to the vehicle; and how much storage space it will take up when not in use.

Types of bike rack

The main types of bike rack are hitch-mounted, roof-mounted and strap-mounted (to your trunk/hatchback/tailgate). Plus there are options for truck beds and speciality racks for unique situations.

Hitch-mounted

Hitch-mounted bike racks connect to a 1 1/4in or 2in receiver hitch that is mounted to your vehicle. They're usually more expensive than other bike rack styles, but the ease of loading and unloading bikes, and not having to lift bikes onto the vehicle's roof, make them a popular option.

Most feature locks that lock the bike to the rack and the rack to the vehicle. Clever designs enable almost one-handed fitting, while hinged load sections provide access to the boot/tailgate of the vehicle without having to remove the bikes. 

As a basic rule, the more features a rack has such as built-in locks, repair stands, lightweight materials, etc., the more it costs. You also need a hitch on your vehicle, which can be an extra expense if you don't already have one, and some vehicles are only compatible with 1 1/4in hitches, which typically limit the rack to two bikes instead of four or five bikes as with a 2in hitch.

Hitch-mounted racks most commonly hold bikes by their wheels with an arm securing the front wheel (as shown above) or by hanging from their top tubes (image below). 

Hitch-mounted racks can carry from one to five bikes
Hitch-mounted racks can carry from one to five bikes

  • Pros: Good ones are strong, and, as they're behind the vehicle and out of the way of the main airflow, fuel consumption doesn't suffer too much. Loading and unloading bikes is super simple. Security can be very good.
  • Cons: You need a receiver hitch. With the bikes off, reversing can yield some rather horrifying results if you forget about the rack.

Roof-mounted

Most roof racks consist of feet that attach to your vehicle's roof, and cross bars that the accessories attach to. Bike racks for roof racks vary between ones that require front wheel removal and racks that allow both wheels to remain on the bike.

Front wheel removal keeps the bike lower (great for tall SUVs), can be easier and lighter to load, and is the classic way of hauling bikes up top. Bike racks that keep both wheels on the bike are taller, generally cost more, and can be less stable. Either option likely uses integrated locks to lock your bike to the rack. And of course the rack is locked to the bars, and the bars are locked to your vehicle.

Roof-mounted bike racks require a factory roof rack or aftermarket base bar system
Roof-mounted bike racks require a factory roof rack or aftermarket base bar system

There are more simple roof-mounted bike racks available that don't require a dedicated base bar set up, such as the Sea Sucker rack (shown below) that uses suction cups to attach to your car, and roof-mounted bike racks that attach to your vehicle's factory installed roof rack. 

Roof-mounted bike racks can also be simple and much less involved
Roof-mounted bike racks can also be simple and much less involved

While not permanent, roof racks generally stay on your vehicle all the time as they are hugely versatile. Being able to add and remove sport-specific accessories lets you carry bikes, kayaks, skis, SUP boards, cargo boxes, etc. Basically any big, bulky item is fair game for a roof rack, even ladders, lumber, and other non-sports items. 

Roof racks can be used for a huge variety of gear-hauling duties
Roof racks can be used for a huge variety of gear-hauling duties

  • Pros: Super versatile for all kinds of gear hauling. One of the most secure racks available. Doesn't hinder access to any doors/boot/hatch/tailgate.
  • Cons: Drive under something low if you've forgotten about your bikes and you could wreck all your bikes and damage your vehicle. You're also adding aero-drag to your vehicle, so fuel consumption will likely increase.

Trunk-mounted

Trunk-mounted racks tend to be the least expensive option, and the least secure. The main thing holding them to your vehicle is a bunch of straps that hook around the lip of your vehicle's trunk/hatchback/bumper.

Such racks are usually highly adjustable, so you can fit them to the rear of almost any vehicle. Rubber or foam 'feet' grip the vehicle, with the whole unit pulled taught and secured by the straps. This is the most affordable style of rack, but relies heavily on it being fitted properly and the hooks that hold the straps to the vehicle can sometimes damage paintwork.

Low-end trunk racks typically don't have a way to lock your bike, or a way to be locked to your vehicle, so they're also relatively easy to steal.

Trunk racks vary greatly in quality, spending a bit more is worth it
Trunk racks vary greatly in quality, spending a bit more is worth it

  • Pros: Easy to fit and usually the least expensive option. Easy to remove, small and fold for easy storage.
  • Cons: Least secure way to haul bikes. If you don't fit it right you can lose the lot when driving, and the bikes are easy to steal.

Speciality racks

Companies make bike racks for virtually every type of vehicle. From pickup truck beds to SUVs with a spare tire on the back door, there's a way to safely and conveniently carry your bike. 

Almost every vehicle can be fitted with a bike rack
Almost every vehicle can be fitted with a bike rack

One solution you've probably seen on trucks at the local trailhead is the tailgate pad. Fancy versions have hook and loop tie downs to keep bikes separated and secure, while homemade versions, such as old blankets or a couple of bike boxes folded over, are quite a bit less sophisticated. 

Tailgate pads are simple and very popular with mountain biking truck owners
Tailgate pads are simple and very popular with mountain biking truck owners

Just like the bike you ride, lots of thought and engineering have gone into the racks designed to carry your bikes on your vehicle. So figure out what your needs are and what style best suits your lifestyle, and transport your bikes easier and faster than ever.  

Russell Eich

Tech Writer
Russell fell head over heels in love with bikes in the '90s, and has been involved in the bike industry ever since. Between wrenching in bike shops, guiding professionally, and writing about bikes, Russell has honed an appreciation for what works, gained knowledge of what doesn't, and can barely contain his enthusiasm for what comes next. His two-wheeled passion continues in the Rocky Mountains high above Boulder, Colorado.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road, cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: High altitudes, forgotten singletracks, bike parks, roads without cars
  • Current Bikes: Custom Meriwether steel hardtail, Specialized S-Works Enduro 29, Kona Jake the Snake, Trek 69er, and a bunch more
  • Dream Bike: Yeti SB5c, Intense Tracer 275C, Black Cat custom road
  • Beer of Choice: Gin + Tonic
  • Location: Rollinsville, CO, USA

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