Roof Bike Racks: The Pros and Cons
Roof-mounted bike carriers are a great solution to transport bikes. They are a great option for both frequent and infrequent users because of their multi-purpose use and low profile when not in use. But all the benefits do come with some caveats as well. Let’s take a look at both the good and bad in detail.
- Capacity of 2 – 3 full size bikes.
- No dismount necessary when unused.
- Multiple purposes (roof box & accessories).
- Access to trunk available.
- Disassembles into relatively small parts.
- Locking to vehicle for (theft) security.
- Price ($350 to $1.000+).
- Difficult initial setup.
- Lifting overhead onto the vehicle roof.
- Parking garages inaccessible (when loaded).
- Not suitable for tall vehicles.
- Wobble can result in scratches.
- Small used market.
For more information on each of those pros and cons, 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.
Loading capacity of up to 3 bikes
With every bike rack being its own unit mounted to the roof rack, there is great variability in the type of cargo you can carry. There is a certain amount of freedom in the individual placement for optimal access and distribution. Plus, at any time there is access to 2 of the bikes – from either side of the vehicle.
With my Thule roof rack, I had the option to mount 3 bikes at once however, I hardly did it. Mostly because it gets tight up there and there is always some wobble The amount of fumbling you have to do in order to increase the number of bikes rapidly increases. Tilting handlebars, removing pedals, and so on.
3 is the number I would confidently say is still enjoyable when traveling with bikes on your roof. Still, it starts to get tight and a little fiddling is necessary – which is not the easiest to do on top of a car. Only in select use cases is it possible to transport 4 or more bikes on roof racks. You may have seen it be done with kids’ bikes or light road bikes and special carriers at the Tour de France.
Since e-bikes are heavier by default, a roof rack is an option to safely transport them. Especially if you need to carry multiple e-bikes. Getting those heavier bikes onto the roof may be another story though …
Since a roof rack is directly attached to 4 points of contact to the body of a vehicle, it makes mounting on one an absolutely sturdy affair. This is the case even tho roof-mounted bike racks are made up of a number of individual parts. Provided matching parts and correct mounting instructions, you can expect there to be no issues regarding the safety of your transport.
Based on this roof racks are also a great option to transport e-bikes safely. However, even tho it is possible, it is not practical since the heavier e-bikes still need to be lifted as high as a vehicle’s roof. Removing the battery unit may help a little, but with the overall heavier frame and motor, two people are recommended to do the heavy lifting.
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 your actual vehicle so only you can dismount it. Some premium options even include built-in bike locks to also secure your cargo. Even if they don’t, there are numerous offerings of long bike locks to secure any number of bikes to the rack.
With a roof rack, there are no limitations for access to the trunk. This is a clear advantage above hitch– and trunk-mounted racks. Just be mindful to mount it far enough towards the front, that your trunk door does not make contact with the back of the rack.
Having a roof rack as the base for bike racks is only the tip of the iceberg. The base rack allows for so many mounting options to suit all kinds of outdoor activities. That is why this reason is by far my personal favorite!
The actual bike racks mounted on a roof rack are just some of the accessories that can mount on a vehicle’s roof. Other examples are:
- Roof boxes
- Ski & snowboard racks
- Roof tents
- Rooftop cargo carriers
- Canoe & kayak racks
- Surfboard & stand-up-paddle (SUP) racks
- Fishing rod racks
- … and many many more.
All year round mount
Generally, a roof rack does not have to be taken off when not in use. It is simply a set-and-forget kind of rack. In addition, it offers many alternative uses for transport that may arise in the short term.
“But aren’t roof racks a drag on fuel economy?“, you might ask justifiably.
A roof rack’s effect on overall fuel economy is insignificant. With maximal speeds of what is allowed on highways, there is just not much air drag generated. There are other factors far more influential on your fuel economy than an empty roof rack.
Some of them you can change like your driving style, and average coasting speed. Most are set from the start by your choice of vehicle. A bike rack will not tip the scale much from that base level to justify dismounting it after every use.
Without a pressing reason to dismount a roof rack, this makes it a great option to leave on your vehicle for all seasons of the year.
If you still decide to remove your rig from your car, it will disassemble in many smaller parts. Thus you are not on the lookout for new storage spaces to store one bulky item.
Alternatively, only dismounting the actual bike racks and leaving the roof rails mounted is a valid option. One I did constantly with my roof rack. As the bike racks were hibernating on top of a cupboard, it was the roof box’s turn to shine through winter.
Generally, roof-mounted racks are among the most expensive types of bike racks. This is because there are many separate parts needed, that are specific to your vehicle and roof rack:
- Roof rails (150$ – 300$+ aftermarket parts & 50$ – 150$ installation)
- Cross bars (100$ – 250$ per set)
- Bike racks, per bike (100$ – 250$ per bike)
- Lock add-ons (from 30$ per lock)
Depending on your needs and the amount of uses you can get out of a roof rack, the total price may be justified to you.
In general, you can expect to get what you pay for – safety, features, and a whole world of accessories.
So if your budget allows and you can make use of the features of a roof rack, it may be worth it to invest in the best solution for you.
Difficult initial setup
If you bought the correct equipment, you did the heavy lifting already. Now you just need to install all of it in the right order and in a way that makes the most sense to you.
That is a big IF though. With so many shapes, sizes, and purposes that is by far the most difficult (and frustrating) part of the journey to a nice roof bike rack.
While I am sure the actual installation can be done by anyone, it is not what I would call “easy”. All the components listed a couple of paragraphs above need to be adjusted to fit the vehicle and to one another. So a clear step-by-step process is crucial. Some helping hands at the other side of the car are a great addition too.
That being said, the products have become better and better in this regard over the years. There is no more endless fidgeting to eliminate movement in the rack system. If it fits, it fits well.
Small used market
With all those steps to your specific setups comes another caveat. Now your rack system fits your vehicle, however, there are a lot of differently shaped car roofs and cross rails out there.
While the used market for roof racks is not necessarily smaller than other bikes racks, the market share for your specific rack is just a small piece of the pie. With so many mounting options to choose from, there is not that big of a market of potential buyers available for you.
Higher total vehicle dimensions
When you mount bicycles on the outside of a vehicle, it is a given that the total measurements change.
On average, a loaded bike roof rack adds an additional 46″ or 115cm to the total vehicle height. An unloaded and folded one adds only about 8″ or 20cm on top. Depending on your vehicle this will prevent you from using some parking garages.
With a large vehicle like a Minivan, SUV, or Truck the relatively small increase of an empty roof rack may be enough to make parking garages completely inaccessible. My own campervan is just below the regular maximum height to enter parking garages.
However, roof racks are not suitable for tall cars, because it becomes unreasonably difficult to actually use for bike transport. There are far better options to transport your bikes with those larger vehicles.
Wobbling bikes while driving
You may have even seen this phenomenon happening: The bikes on a roof rack are moving while driving. Looking at your vehicle’s shadow and seeing this happen above you can be unnerving. Roof-mounted racks are incredibly sturdy. But some wobble from the rack cannot be eliminated.
It becomes a problem when there is so much play that the mounted bikes can actually make contact with each other. If they can touch, they will do so constantly while driving and lead to scratches and other damages. You need to test this out before every trip and maybe take additional preventative measures like putting foam between bikes, strapping them together to reduce sway, tilting handlebars, or even removing parts like pedals.
Obviously, the more bikes mounted, the smaller the space between them and the more likely they will touch and scratch.
So, is it worth getting a roof rack?
As a whole, roof bike racks are a popular solution as they offer space for up to 3 bicycles and can be used for various other purposes. They are also some of the most expensive options as they require a complete roof rack for mounting. For a variety of uses, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
Even if your vehicle does not have roof rails installed, getting them may be worth the benefits – if you can justify the cost and effort that come with it.