Workshop: How to use a car boot rack and bike box

Guide to packing your bike for travel

Travelling with a bike can be fraught with pitfalls and hazards, but if you take the proper precautions, you and your beloved machine should make it to your destination in one piece. Here we explain how to use a car boot rack and how to pack your bike for air travel.

Racking up the miles

For short trips, boot-mounted car racks are cheap, reasonably fuel efficient, fit most types of car and don't require the fitting of an expensive towbar or roof bars – plus you can take them off when you reach your destination.

1 Open up

Different brands of rack have different fixing methods and shapes, so follow the instructions closely. Get the ‘tusks’ to sit in an upright position. Try not to have the rack lying too flat on the glass of a hatchback; on heavily cambered hatchbacks, position the rack closer to the bumper, further down – this will anchor the payload and prevent damage. Spoilers might limit your choices, though, so check first for compatibility. On racks with ratcheting adjustments, make a mark to log the correct angles of each of the rack elements permanently. Then, next time around, you can just open it and set it to those marks. Inspect any nuts and bolts holding the rack together, along with the bolts or rivets holding the straps onto the frame.

2 Strap it

Although your rack can look like it has a confusing spaghetti tangle of straps, each serves an important purpose. If approached systematically, everything should fall into place. The top adjustment buckles are usually double looping and locking affairs to avoid the risk of loosening when loaded. These are the ones you’ll want to preset. Once the correct length is determined and fine tuned, installation time will be reduced next time round. Make sure you attach the lateral straps and tighten them up securely, as pictured. If your rack doesn’t come with lateral straps, consider driving a little slower at roundabouts and around tight bends. Any extra lengths of strap can be used to secure the bike, which will also keep them tidy at speed.

3 Pad your estimates

Even carbon bikes can be safely carried if you use sufficient padding, which will prevent any sensitive bits from coming into contact with metal parts, such as a pedal or unprotected rack tusk. It’s all about diffusing the pressure over a sufficiently large area. You can choose to remove the front wheel in order to make the package more compact, and keep it from protruding past the driver’s side into traffic. Install a stretch of foam cladding or similar between the top-tube and rack tusk. To reduce the risk of frame damage, put one tusk through the rear triangle or wheel, and one just behind the head-tube below the top-tube. Don’t obstruct the exhaust pipe. If your lights and number plate are obstructed, you’ll need a spare light board.

4 A good lashing

Tales of bikes flying off on the motorway and the ensuing near misses are enough to strike fear into the most experienced of road users. Thankfully, you can avoid this. First, attach the top tube to the rack with the strap provided. Old toe straps work well, but ensure the buckles don’t scratch your paint. Anchor the lower portions of the bikes to the rack, such as the bottom bracket or lower wheel, to minimise any pendulum-type swinging or bouncing. Turn the bar sideways, and strap it to the top-tube to prevent movement (with the front wheel removed). Protect leather saddles with a taped up bag or saddle cover. Immobilise the rear and/or front wheels to stop them spinning, which can be an annoying distraction in your rear view mirror.

5 Hit the road

Once the bike is loaded up, the foam cladding protectors will be compressed. This results in a loss of tension in the lower straps, so there’s a risk of them unclipping on the road. Reach down and cinch up the lower buckles, which will usually be quick release numbers; simply pull on the free bit of strap. Test the bikes by giving them a shake to ensure nothing is banging against anything else in a way that could cause damage. Remember, over longer trips, anything rough or hard in contact with your bike can lead to surface damage or worse. Re-check this and then tie strips of protective rag or add pipe cladding where necessary. Then get going, and remember that driving safely and obeying the speed limits will make your bike happy.

Plane sailing

If you're travelling further afield, plane travel can be done cheaply without having to buy an expensive bike box. You just need to strike up a relationship with your local bike shop and ask them to keep hold of an empty box for you with all the packing materials. They’re stout enough for a round trip, and make more sense if you only use planes occasionally.

1 Use protection

First, prep the box by laying down a protective layer of bubble wrap, cardboard, or a piece of Styrofoam, particularly at the point where the fork will rest. Standard-issue bike boxes usually come with precut hand holds, but if yours is missing them, now’s a good time to put some in with a sharp blade. Position them ergonomically on either side, near the top. Remove the front wheel and deflate both tyres until soft. Tape the front skewer to spokes, or stuff it into the seatpost with padding. Now install a fork protector as pictured, and secure it with some tape; masking tape or electrical insulation tape work best, since they peel away easily and leave no residue. Anything stronger also runs the risk of removing paint from your frame.

2 Big ring / big cog

Protect your drivetrain components by setting your gears in the big ring and big cog. This will pull the derailleur inboard towards the spokes and out of harm’s way, rather than protruding against the inside of the box where it can get damaged by an outside knock. Use the derailleur protector as pictured, sliding it between the small cog and frame, and capping the quick release skewer. Extra foam pipe cladding can be put on the seat tube, seatstays and chainstays. Wrap the pedals and other loose parts separately. The seatpost assembly can be boxed or wrapped in bubble wrap. The important thing is to keep anything from rattling around inside the box and causing damage, especially the pedals or a metal seatpost.

3 Boxing clever

Copying the manufacturer’s packing methods is quick and effective, and re-using the bespoke protectors makes even more sense. Cover the left crank arm with a plastic sleeve, attached with tape, before inserting it between the spokes of your front wheel, as you place the wheel against the middle area of the frame. Be sure to place protective plastic caps over the axle ends to stop them gouging. Inserting a layer of cardboard between the wheel and frame works well; if no plastic axle caps are available, any strong tear-resistant material should do, taped into place. Remove the bar from the stem and re-attach the clamp with bolts all the way in. Loosen the stem at the fork. Put the bike in the box, positioning the bar and stem appropriately.

4 Shroud of touring

Cover up the bike with some added protection by grabbing a large sheet of cardboard and folding it in two, then sliding it over the bike as a protective shroud. Or use a couple of sheets of extra cardboard or bubble wrap on either side, followed by a layer on top. Make sure to put a protective plug into the seat-tube, held in place by tape, as an added measure. This will eliminate any chance of terminal damage to the clamp area in case the bike gets dropped upside down – which it will. A cardboard shroud or bubble wrap over the bar and controls will offer added protection. If you’re tucking them lengthwise along the head-tube and fork, put something between those as well. Ensure your lever tips don’t come into contact with the frame.

5 Tape gun academy

Tape up the entire length of the box flaps lengthwise, then cross over with added strips, doubling up where the wheel and fork come into contact with the ground, as well as using extra layers around the corners, which often take a beating. Fashioning straps or ropes as handles can cause more problems than they’re worth, and adds to the risk of the box getting tangled on conveyor belts. More important is to reinforce the hand hold cutouts with tape. Now scrawl a few big ‘up’ arrows on the sides to help baggage handlers keep it upright as much as possible, along with destination details. Finally, carry an extra roll of packing tape within easy reach, in case the box has to be opened up for security reasons. Bon voyage!

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