Arguably the most popular car bike racks are the hitch rack and the roof rack. No wonder most of the best bike rack manufacturers are producing both.

But each has its strengths and weaknesses and is very different to use. I’ve used both for many years traveling with my bikes and these are my personal experiences.

Hitch bike racks are best for (family) bike riders who need the highest carrying capacity and want an easy time loading bikes.
They also fit any car with a tow hitch, are e-bike compatible and have only little impact on fuel economy. However, they can limit trunk access and should be removed when not in use.

Roof bike racks are generally better for bikers who regularly use their rack and want to leave it on the car for quick use.
They’re modular and also usable with other outdoor gear, cargo modules and other roof rack accessories. However, when loaded they affect gas mileage negatively and make park decks inaccessible.

wheel mount hitch bike rack
Hitch-mounted bike racks compared to …
roof rack down tube mount
… car roof bike racks – which is for you?

Hitch bike racks

Pro

  • Capacities of up to 5 full-size bikes.
  • Easier to load and unload, as they are closer to the ground.
  • Highest weight capacity of any vehicle bike rack.
  • Low impact on fuel economy, even when fully loaded.
  • Standardized compatibility based on 2 main tow hitch sizes 2″ and 2.5″
  • Garages and park decks are still accessible.
  • Lockable to the hitch for security.

Contra

  • Tow hitch required. Potentially additional installation costs.
  • Heavier and bulkier than roof-mounted bike racks, which can make them harder to store when not in use.
  • Will obstruct license plates and rear lights, which is usually illegal but has workarounds.
  • Obstruct view of the rearview mirror.
  • The rear parking sensors will not work.
  • Should be dismounted when not in use.
  • Trunk access is limited.

Hitch bike racks are for you if…

Hitch bike racks are best for (family) bike riders who need the highest carrying capacity and want an easy time loading bikes.
They also fit any car with a tow hitch, are e-bike compatible and have only little impact on fuel economy. However, they can limit trunk access and should be removed when not in use.

They are generally easier to install and remove than roof-mounted racks, but heavier to carry. Aerodynamics, wind noise and gas mileage are not nearly as big of issues.

However, they can be heavy and bulky, which can make them difficult to carry and store. They can also block access to the back of your vehicle if they don’t tilt or swing to the side – most models by the top bike rack brands are.

Hitch-mounted racks are not suitable for vehicles without a receiver hitch, or for vehicles with a spare tire mounted on the back.


roof rack height effects
Notice how hitch-mounted bikes are tucked away behind the car and create low aerodynamic drag compared to roof-mounted ones.

Roof bike racks

Pro

  • Usual capacity of 3 bikes.
  • Lighter and compact. Easy to store and install.
  • Full trunk access.
  • Can be left on the car indefinitely.
  • Multipurpose: Wide variety of use cases and mounts for existing roof rails.
  • Locks for theft security.

Contra

  • Less aerodynamic for bad fuel efficiency when loaded.
  • Difficult to load and unload, as you have to lift the bikes up high to get them onto the roof of your car.
  • Thus, not e-bike friendly.
  • No universal fit, research for the individual car is required.
  • Garages and park decks inaccessible.
  • Unusable on b.

Roof bike racks are for you if…

Roof bike racks are generally better for bikers who regularly use their rack and want to leave it on the car for quick use.
They’re modular and also usable with other outdoor gear, cargo modules and other roof rack accessories. However, when loaded they affect gas mileage negatively and make park decks inaccessible.

They are lighter and more compact than hitch-mounted racks, which makes them easier to carry and store. Roof-mounted racks also provide better access to the back of your vehicle, and they do not block the view out of the rear window.

However, they require you to lift your bike up to the roof of your vehicle, which can be challenging depending on strentgh, bike weight (ebikes) and car height.

When loaded they also have a higher profile than hitch-mounted racks, which can increase wind resistance, wind noise while driving and ultimately fuel consumption.


Main Differences

Price

There is no definitive answer on which is more expensive between roof and hitch racks. Either one has to be looked at as a package.

The actual rack and accessories needed depend on the make and model of the car, if it has certain features (like a tow hitch or roof rails pre-installed) and what other uses the rack has to fulfill.

Roof racks are made up of a couple of parts: rails, crossbars and trays. Because you may not need everything, depending on the car. But each has its price tag. This is why the price range of roof racks can vary quite drastically.

mounted hitch bike rack
Single mounting point, but incredibly sturdy.

Alternatively, hitch racks have only one use. But not all cars come with a tow hitch installed. And precautions may be necessary to make sure license plate and rear lights are not covered — all additional costs on top of an expensive rack.

Stability

As far as stability goes, one’s not better than the other. I have used both and couldn’t argue for either one. Hitch racks tend to move and wiggle at the attachment point with the tow hitch. And roof racks tend to have leeway for the actual bikes.

But none of your cargo is going to come off. It just may look weird seeing it move.

Fuel economy

There is a big difference between hitch-mounted and roo-mounted rack types when it comes to the effects on fuel consumption. While an empty roof rack is negligible, a loaded one can have dramatic negative consequences.

This is a decision point often not considered, which it should be. To help you out, I summarized the exact impact at different speeds and put all the info on bike rack fuel consumption in this article.

Why I mainly use roof and trunk racks

While I have used hitch, roof and trunk racks to transport bikes over the years, hitch racks have never hit me as long-term options. And this is for one reason very important to me.

As a bike rider who rides regularly, only a bike rack that can stay on the car indefinitely will reduce hesitation to load up the bike to the car and go out for a ride.

For me, this is once a week at least. So, I’m getting my money’s worth out of my bike rack. I’m okay with having slightly higher (if any with my trunk rack) fuel consumption when driving around unloaded. All for the benefit of the least hurdles between me and bike riding.

VW Van trunk bike rack
My trunk bike rack that stays on all summer long. Neatly folded up when empty.

Hitch Racks Might Damage Carbon Wheels

Now, full disclaimer, this isn’t something that I or MTB friends with hitch racks ever experienced firsthand. But I came across this topic one day when browsing. And it’s interesting enough to share with you.

Matt Philips (from bicycling.com) discovered some unusual deformations on his carbon wheels when hauling his bike on a hitch rack. This actually doesn’t have very much to do with the rack itself. Rather, where it’s located on the car. More specifically, where the exhaust pipe(s) are located in relation to the rack and its cargo.

brian erickson 9eUoqGkMyqA unsplash edited 1
Depending on the setup, the exhaust pipe may point at the bikes wheels. // Photo by Brian Erickson

In Philips’ case, the hot exhaust fumes passed by the bike’s wheel and damaged the rim over time. Just an unlucky coincidence, as this only happens with the wrong rack and car combo.

As each car, hitch and rack is designed differently, definitely make sure the exhaust isn’t pointing directly on any bikes loaded.

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