A great bike rack will open the doors for you to find new trails, explore new areas and take some great trips with your bike. The bike rack options out there can be a bit overwhelming, however, if you're not sure what you want or need. There's a lot to consider: what your budget is, what type of car you have, whether your bike will fit on certain types of racks, and what your personal prefernces are.
The guide below will walk you through the four main types of bike racks, including pros and cons for each, as well as which type of vehicle is best for that type of rack. Use this guide to do your homework before purchasing a rack, then hit the road and start exploring.
Bike Rack Options at a Glance:
- Roof Mounted Bike Racks - the most secure and versatile racks for cars and small SUVs, but also expensive. Not a great option for trucks and tall vehicles.
- Trunk Mounted Bike Racks - an affordable option for traditional car trunks, but you may deal with fit issues or scratch your car over time
- Hitch Mounted Bike Racks - easy install, fairly universal fit on any hitch and it won't ding up your car, but you lose access to your tow hitch and trunk or cargo space while using the rack.
- Suction Cup Bike Racks - the most versatile option for cars, but suction readjustment can be a pain.
Roof Mounted Bike Racks
Roof Mounted bike rack solutions offer a safe, secure and out-of-sight way to carry your bikes. Many cars come from the factory with threaded holes you probably never noticed, in or near the rain rails, which will allow your roof rack to be bolted to the body of the car.
You can also attach a roof rack between the door jamb and the door itself. The door jambs are designed with a slight gap at the top of the door opening, allowing the rack's arms to be affixed in a vise-like position. This system of affixing the rack will naturally pull the rack tight from both the driver's side and passenger side door opening.
Roof-mounted solutions normally require two purchases. You’ll first need to buy your base rack or bars and feet packages. These will act as your mounting system for attaching the rack to your car. Secondly, you’ll need to buy your bike attachments that secure to the base rack and bars.
- Safe and secure transportation.
- Space efficiency - it won't block access to your trunk or trailer hitch.
- Base roof rack bars can be used for other attachments like ski boxes, kayak mounts and surfboard attachments.
- Keeps bikes free and clear of your car's paint.
- Oftentimes the most expensive rack option.
- May require additional parts or mounts to properly secure.
- Can be difficult for some to attach and remove because of roof height and bike weight.
- Usually accompanied by wind noise and lower miles per gallon from the extra drag.
- After a long trip, expect to have some bug remnants splattered on your bike.
Sedans and Coupes - These vehicle types tend to be shorter in height, making it much easier to attach and remove your bike. Keep in mind, some sedans and coupes will require the roof rack to be mounted using arms that drop into your door jambs. Take a quick glance at your roof and look for threaded holes to know for sure. The door jamb option can affect your weather stripping long-term, which can lead to road noise as well as leaks.
Station Wagons and Hatchbacks - Perhaps the best type of car for any bike carrying needs, station wagons and hatchbacks nearly always come with strong roof rails and relatively high load capacity. Roof rails on these cars were designed for this purpose, and enable you to adjust fittings and setup based on your specific needs. Some wagons and hatchbacks come from the factory with crossbars spanning the rails. Keep in mind, if they are curved it may be difficult to safely mount bike attachments since the bike will be leaning on an angle and not perpendicular to the ground. Some factory crossbars are focused more on complimenting the design of the car vs maximizing utility.
Small SUVs, Crossovers and Minivans - Similar to wagons and hatchbacks, small SUVs and crossovers often come with roof rails. However, it is very important to consider the height. Make sure you are tall enough to safely remove your bike from the roof height without damaging your car or straining your back or shoulders.
Not ideal for:
Trucks - while some trucks can come with roof rails above the cab (the Toyota Tacoma, for example) most do not. For those that do, the height of your truck still reduces the utility value, unless you’re an extremely tall individual. Otherwise, you’ll either need to bring a step ladder along with you or utilize the help of a friend who stands in the bed of the truck. Also, height clearance is a consideration with a roof-mounted rack on a truck. It may cause challenges with rural bridges, bank ATMs, drive-thru restaurants and parking garages.
Large SUVs, Crossovers and Full-Size Vans - Similar to reasons for trucks, large SUVs, crossovers and full-size vans have become so large and tall it really is quite prohibitive to use a roof rack for biking. There are many other cheaper solutions that offer great utility and practicality.
Convertibles - This goes without saying, but having a soft or hard top convertible roof eliminates a roof mounted system from the equation. Put simply, there are better options.
Trunk Mounted Bike Racks
Easily one of the most popular options due to its simplicity and affordability are trunk mounted racks. These racks are adjustable and form to the contour of almost any trunk lid or lift gate. There are many different designs but each uses adjustable straps with metal hooks at the end that drop into the gaps between your trunk lid and the body of the car. When tightened, these straps pull the bike rack tight to the vehicle, enabling you to load your bikes. Depending on your car and how the rack was installed, you still may be able to open your trunk with the rack installed.
- Affordable - many great options can be found around the $100 to $150 mark.
- Can be adjusted and installed on a variety of body styles.
- Your bikes won't get plastered with bugs like they will on the roof.
- Less wind noise than a roof mounted rack. Less drag also means improved fuel efficiency.
- Installation isn’t cut and dry. Each rack and vehicle is slightly different and an imperfect install can lead to a dinged up vehicle.
- Bikes are often in very close proximity to each other and your car’s paint. If you're not extremely careful, it can be very easy for your car to get scratched up.
- Bikes with non-traditional frame designs aren’t easy to load up and may require some creativity to mount. Full suspension, traditional women's bikes or kid's bikes may be more challenging with a trunk rack.
- Depending on your trunk, the straps may apply significant force to your trunk lid and hinges - keep a close eye on the lid lifting up from the rear due to the tension.
Sedans, Coupes and Convertibles - Trunk mounted bike racks were originally designed for the traditional trunk of a car. If you have a sedan or coupe this really is one of your best options for carrying a bike. If not, it probably won't be as sturdy as it should be.
Wagons, Hatchbacks and Crossovers - Trunk mounted bike racks offer a lot of flexibility by conforming to the shape of the car but they work best on body styles that feature a sloped rear liftgate. Having this shape enables the bike rack to be more rigid, offering you more piece of mind when transporting your bikes.
Not Ideal for:
Trucks - Trunk mounted bike racks were never really designed to work on the rear of a truck. The top straps wouldn’t have a place to grab, leaving the installation weak.
Large SUVs and Vans - Large SUVs and vans often feature a box-like shape and a rear decklid perpendicular to the ground. While a trunk rack can be installed on a flat surface they will never be as rigid as the same rack installed on a trunk of a sedan for example.
Hitch Mounted Bike Racks
Using your car’s hitch and installing a hitch bike rack is a great solution that won't ding up your car. Depending on your hitch size some racks enable you to carry up to four adult bikes or more. There are two main styles of hitch-based bike racks. The traditional style forms an "S" shape with the bottom installed in the hitch and the top of the acting as the platform to mount your bike by its head tube. The other option, which has gained more popularity recently, is the platform style bike rack. The rack extends straight out from the hitch opening and forms a "T." Bikes are usually mounted by the wheels with a vertical bar to stabilize the of the top bikes. Many options allow the rack to tilt away from your car so you can access the trunk. which cuts down on one of the largest downsides of this type of rack.
- Bikes are loaded at a reasonable level, making the process easier and more ergonomic.
- Installation is very simple, requiring only simple tools. This also means the rack can be easily and quickly removed when not in use.
- Bikes mounted behind your car while in motion don’t create a lot of drag and reduced fuel efficiency, compared to roof mounted bike racks.
- No bug remnants to worry about, unlike roof racks.
- Platform design ensures your bike and car are protected from scrapes and damage.
- Hitch racks fit most bike styles and sizes.
- Purchasing a hitch to add to your vehicle is affordable, and a fairly easy DIY install.
- Car owners may need to purchase and install a hitch.
- The traditional "S" design is notorious for scraping paint on your bike’s head tubes. The same problems aren't present in the platform design.
- Some hitch based racks do not tilt, preventing you from accessing your trunk.
- Small diameter hitches don’t offer much stability and your bikes may move around more while your car is in motion.
Any vehicle that can be easily and affordability fitted with a hitch - a vast majority of body styles out there can be fitted with either factory or aftermarket hitches. Even when weighing the cost of buying the hitch and bike it is common to spend less than $200. If your car comes with a hitch, these racks are a great and affordable option - as long as you don't plan to tow a trailer at the same time you need the rack.
Not Ideal for:
Vehicles that need to be modified or require professional hitch installation - Some vehicles were never designed to have a hitch. Even if aftermarket solutions are available you should be wary of what is required to install it. Often drilling into your car's frame or trimming of bumpers and plastic is needed for the install. If your car can't be easily fitted with a hitch, consider the other options in this guide.
Suction Cup Bike Racks
In response to the complexity of many bike rack systems, a few companies have emerged to simplify the problem with suction cups. Originating from the marine industry, heavy duty suction cups are commonly used on fiberglass fishing boats to attach equipment to smooth interior surfaces and glass. These aren’t weak suction cups by any means, the cups come with a small hand operated air pump to ensure a strong seal. Suction cup bike racks remove any fit concerns you may have about your vehicle - as long as you can find a smooth, mountable surface you're in business. The simplicity of these bike racks is a refreshing alternative for those who can't find a good match with the other options listed above.
- You can almost always find a fit on any vehicle (as long as your car has body panels and glass that is) This is a great feature and enables you to use it on any and all of the cars your family or friends own.
- Easy to mount and remove the rack from your car. Pulling up the edge of the cups releases the suction allowing removal. No tools required.
- The rack can be installed in an accessible position for mounting and removal.
- Expensive compared to hitch and trunk bike racks but still comparable to roof racks.
- Many options require the removal of the front tire on your bike.
- For the suction cups to perform, they need to be properly stored in a clean area free of dirt and dust. It is also important that they do not dry out.
- For long trips, you may need to stop periodically to check your seal and pump out additional air to ensure maximum suction.
- The rack you buy is specific to biking and doesn’t offer much utility for other sports.
- The mounting surface needs to be clean for installation.
Sedans, Coupes, and Hatchbacks - the rear window and trunk lid as well as the roof are great places to mount a suction cup bike rack.
Wagons, Vans and SUVs - the rear liftgate window makes a for a good place to mount a suction cup bike rack since the roof of wagons, SUVs, and vans are rarely smooth, creating some challenges with mounting the suction cups.
Trucks - The rear window of the cab is an ideal place to mount your bike using a suction cup rack. With the fork mounted on the rack, the rear tire lays in the bed of your truck and doesn't need to be secured. It is a simple setup.
Convertibles - While there are some limitations with places to attach your bike, even a convertible can be fitted with a suction cup bike rack for at least one bike.