How Bike Racks Attach to Cars – The Basics

Bike racks are a tool to transport pretty much any bike on any car out there. That’s a lot of possible combinations. No wonder the options on how to do it seem kind of endless, looking at it from that angle. So, it is fair to wonder how those contraptions even mount to the various cars they are on. The variability of actual rack types is pretty comprehensible though.

There are 6 ways to attach a bike rack to a car:

In general, it depends far more on the type of car than on the type of bike when looking at the available options. This should make the initial decision more manageable to start with with the mounting options of your car.

Do all bike racks need a trailer hitch?

There are bike racks, that don’t need a hitch for mounting. Alternatives are roof racks, trunk racks and suction cup bike racks. They may not be able to carry as much weight as a hitch rack but can fit any car without a tow hitch.

You may be wondering this because there are lots of bikes mounted on the rear of cars. In fact, rear mounts make up roughly 2/3 of the market share. Hitch and hatch racks not only are spelled very similarly, but they also look similar. Just some bicycles floating above the ground. Hitch racks are mounted below the bumper on an immovable part of the car. Hatch (or trunk) racks, on the other hand, are attached to the actual trunk door.

VW Van trunk bike rack
The trunk rack on my van. Different car dimensions need different racks. This one does not fit a hatchback trunk.

So, while the actual height and loading techniques are often the same between those two types, there are significant functional differences. The biggest is the access you have to your trunk. Most modern hitch racks can tilt or swing out of the way – even while loaded! So you have full access to the storage in the back, even though it may look blocked at first glance.

There are many reasons why hitch-mounted ones are so popular and why they are chosen over any other mounting method. Just as there are caveats to them. But as I said before, not having a trailer hitch is not the end of the world.

What do I need to attach a bike rack?

Referencing the list at the top: You have 6 different mounting options available to choose from. So if your car does not support one or the other, there are still plenty of alternatives.

The most universal mounting option of them all is a trailer hitch. They generally come in pre-defined sizes, unlike the cars they attach to. That is why they can offer the most out-of-the-box experience for new owners. The weight limit for a trailer hitch should in pretty much all cases be suitable for the average hitch rack. After all, they are specifically designed to hold a certain number of bicycles on a specific type of universal mount.

No trailer hitch to hang it from? There might be a roof on your car that’s available. What can help but is not a necessity at all are pre-mounted railings. Some cars come out of the box with them, some don’t even have the option to fit them aftermarket. In any case, the adapters out there are designed to be fitted to all variations of roofs in length, width, and curvature. Only for some very small two-seaters (Smart) could be too short.

Still, a trunk door is also something you’d expect most cars to possess. The options to mount a rack on one are almost exhaustive. For cars with a horizontal rear (like my campervan), sedans with a more vertical trunk door, or even exotic two-way doors with hinges on the sides you can find the perfect match from a long list of brands. The market is well saturated and growing!

Another option, truck beds, open up the possibilities to your imagination. Mounts on the actual bed, bachelor pads on the tailgate, vertical racks for shuttling – the options are there for you to choose.

If by this stage none of the properties above describe your car, you might be either driving a buggy or are missing some vital parts and should seek the nearest mechanic.

… or take a look at those suction mounts mentioned right at the beginning. This new mounting technique is possibly the most exotic (and risky-looking) of them all. They do exactly what you would expect them to do: Stick to flat surfaces of your car’s body. That’s it. Easy as that.
If they stay where you put them when aero drag and centrifugal forces pull on them is another topic.

So, can you attach a bike rack to any car?

As a general rule, there are bike mounts for virtually any car out there. While bike racks are not universal, there are multiple standardized mounting options available.

If it has a roof, chances are there are mounting options available. Same with a trunk – that’s premium real estate for mounting right there. Having a trailer hitch provides arguably the most universal mounting option of them all. If all else fails, you can still literally stick your ride to your ride with suction cups.

The biggest variable may in fact be the shape of the trunk door. Between SUVs, sedans, trucks, hatchbacks, and so on there are seemingly infinite shapes and sizes. For a lot of them there are in fact suitable, well-designed, trunk racks available.

Same with roof racks. No matter if there are pre-mounted railings on there or not – there are most likely solutions to get a full assembly on that car roof. For my first one, I had no worries after I found the right adapters. Even though at that time the car was practically an old-timer at 20 years.

Speaking of which, I fitted my current car out with no less than two versions of racks. One is inside the car, one on the trunk door. Both are mounted all year round because they don’t bother me in any way.
And you never know when the urge to hit the trails comes over you!

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