Hitch Bike Racks: The Pros and Cons
There is a reason hitch bike carriers are the most common of all the car rack types. They are a great option for both frequent and infrequent users because of their ease of use and load capacity. But all the benefits do come with some caveats as well. Let’s take a look at both the good and bad in detail.
- Most plug-and-play option of all the rack types.
- Loading capacity of up to 5 bikes.
- Capable to carry e-bikes.
- Easy to mount on a vehicle.
- Easy to load bikes onto.
- Incredibly Sturdy.
- Locked to your hitch for (theft) security.
- Access to trunk still available.
- Price ($150 to $500+).
- Trailer hitch is mandatory (install costs).
- Carrier will block your number plate and bikes your tail lights.
- Dismount necessary when not in use.
- Storage for a bulky item.
- Wobble may be irritating, but ultimately no problem.
For more information on each of those bullet points, I dive deeper into all of them below. The gravity of each of the arguments may vary depending on your use case. So feel free to judge and weigh them at your own discretion.
For a comparison between hitch and roof racks, the most popular types of vehicle bike racks, check out this article.
Hitch racks come in mainly three sizes, with respect to the mounts:
- 2″ (most common)
- 2,5″ (on newer vehicles)
- 1 ¼”
These are the ball diameter measurements, where the rack attaches to the hitch. In most cases, the required ball mount is stated on the rack itself. If you are unsure what you have in front of you, simply take a tape measure to the item in question. Since there are only a few normed dimensions, it is easy to confirm measurements.
In any case, the hitch balls are relatively easy to swap out. This makes it easy to match them up with your preferred rack, rather than having to find a matching rack for a specific hitch.
Generally, two-inch hitches are the most common, because they allow towing of trailers of up to 12,000 lbs. That is why they are perfect for also carrying loads of up to 5 bikes on a rack.
The smaller, less common one and a quarter-inch hitch-balls can carry less weight. This usually results in a maximum carrying capacity of 3 bikes.
Having just three normed mounting options to choose from also has a nice secondary bonus. If you ever need to sell your used rack, there is a big market of potential buyers available for you!
Easy to mount in minutes
With only a single point of contact (the hitch), there is not much hassle with mounting to your vehicle. The trickiest part of it all is actually balancing the whole thing on the hitch until you have it secured. It is possible to do by yourself, and especially as a two-person team, this is not rocket science at all.
Loading capacity of up to 5 bikes
Trailer hitches are designed to tow heavy trailers. So mounting anything on one, you can expect to be able to put great loads on it. Even more so with better classes of hitches.
This is the only type of rack that supports carrying up to 5 full-size bicycles. Only in select use cases is this possible to do on roof racks (you may have seen it be done with light road bikes at the Tour de France).
Since e-bikes are heavier by default, a hitch rack is your best option to safely transport them. Especially if you need to carry multiple e-bikes.
Since a hitch is directly attached to the chassis of a car, it makes mounting on one an absolutely sturdy affair. Following the mounting instructions, you can expect there to be no issues regarding the safety of your transport.
How can security be a positive aspect when all of it is mounted on the outside of a vehicle? Part of the overall security is the actual sturdiness.
On top of that most manufacturers include solutions to lock your rack to the hitch so only you can dismount it. Some premium options even include a built-in bike lock. Even if they don’t there are numerous offerings of long bike locks to secure any number to the rack.
As a whole, hitch-mounted bike racks offer good access to the trunk, despite being mounted directly in front of the trunk. Most hitch racks will pivot or retract in some fashion to allow better access to your cargo space. In this regard, they offer the best of both worlds between roof and trunk racks.
On average, hitch racks are more expensive than other types of racks. In relative terms, the absolute price may be justified, depending on your needs. In general, you can expect to get what you pay for – sturdiness, features, and easy handling.
So if your budget allows and you can make use of the features of a hitch rack, it may be worth it to invest in the best solution for you.
Remember: The market for reselling one used is the largest of any bike rack.
Longer total vehicle dimensions
When you mount bicycles on the outside of a vehicle, it is a given that the total measurements change.
A hitch rack adds an additional couple of feet to the rear. Depending on the type of rack and whether it is in use or not this can vary. Some racks can be folded when empty to save some space. However, your vehicle will definitely be longer with a hitch rack mounted.
So be mindful with reversing and generally navigating tight spaces like parking lots or garages.
Blocking tail-lights & number plate
With the hitch always being below the number plate and tail-lights, there is no way to avert this. Depending on your region this may not be allowed. As this problem is “built-in” with hitch racks, there are enough solutions to choose from.
So most come with their own license plate mounts and tail lights. In this context, the trailer hitch requires wiring to power additional tail lights. For after-market installs, this means a price increase.
For this reason, some brands, like Thule have come out with their own battery-powered license plate holder accessory.
Trunk-mounted racks may be a viable option. In regard to not obstructing license plates, I would take a closer look at the racks specifically built for your vehicle, than one-size-fits-all types like a hollywood rack. The latter may not necessarily solve the obstruction problem.
If lifting your bikes up over your head is okay for you, roof racks are another great alternative.
Generally, a hitch bike rack should be taken off when not in use. This is for reasons like longer vehicle dimensions, regulatory issues, and even insurance issues. As a side effect better trunk access is a personal benefit for you.
It simply is not a set-and-forget kind of rack. In the best case, leaving it on is an inconvenience. As I stated above, your vehicle will become a few feet longer in any case so parking spaces may become too small. Also, there are difficulties accessing the trunk that are enough reason for most to dismount.
In the worst case, leaving an empty hitch rack-mounted may even be illegal in your region. Although some authorities may not heavily enforce these laws, it’s something to keep in mind before deciding on what type of rack is best for you.
With limited reasons to actually leave it on the car, this opens up the question of where to put this bulky item when not in use. These types of racks are usually relatively heavy and not designed to disassemble easily. Leaning on the garage wall is my go-to solution. I have seen wall hooks for easy and more aesthetic storage too. In any case, think about a dedicated place to store a hitch rack before buying one.
There are some hitch racks like the Thule EasyFold XT attacking this problem head-on. These can be folded up to be carried and stored easily. This however is not a common feature yet.
The wobble is real
You may have even seen this phenomenon happening in the wild: The entire hitch rack is moving while driving. Especially looking into your mirror and seeing this happen in the back can be unnerving.
However, it just looks weird but is not dangerous in any way (unless mounted faulty). As I said above, hitch racks are incredibly sturdy – even when they can look like they are not. This is just physics since there is only one point of contact and the load is off-center. So some wobble is to be expected. Some manufacturers include solutions to minimize the rack wobbling.
The actual problem is reduced to how much this irritates you. So this could very well be a non-issue. If it bothers you enough in the rearview mirror, there are simple and cheap clamps on amazon designed to reduce the wobble.
So, are hitch bike racks worth getting a trailer hitch for?
As a whole, hitch bike racks are the easiest to set up and use, offer the highest load capacity, and are some of the safest options. They are also some of the more expensive options and only work on vehicles with trailer hitches. Depending on your desired use, the benefits may far outweigh.
Even if your vehicle does not have a trailer hitch installed, getting one may be worth the benefits – if you can justify the cost and effort that come with it.