Long road trips and overlanding adventures are only done right when you pack until your vehicle is almost overflowing. But if you’re playing Tetris with bags and your truck is bursting at the welds, chances are you won’t be able to see anything out the rear window — and that’s not safe. Roof racks are great for spreading gear to the often unused and underutilized space on the roof, but also for storing gear that won’t fit in your car to begin with. Paddleboards, mountain bikes and kayaks should all ride topside, especially after a long weekend of hard use.
So to find out the best ways to attach gear to the outside of your ride, we spoke to Tom Henwood of Main Line Overland to see what the pros are using and what’s popular on today’s market.
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“The best roof rack is the best design for a given application, rather than a particular brand,” Henwood said. “We help customers select racks and storage systems based on what they intend to carry on their travels, where they intend to go, etc. We look for componentry that maintains a low profile and low center of gravity for off-road driving, so we often choose aluminum roof racks to keep weight down up top.”
Why Use a Roof Rack?
Whether you have a sedan, a truck or SUV, the interior cargo space can always fill up quicker than you think. And while the average person doesn’t need a roof rack 24/7, much like winter tires, they can be a useful asset to have on hand — whether you’re overlanding, going on a long road trip, moving to a new house or just going up to the lake for a day.
So if you’re going to be strapping things to the roof of your car, do the job right; as per Hendwood’s philosophy above, it’s best to use solid, lightweight hardware that’s designed to carry loads, not roped-together guesswork.
Roof Rack Buying Guide
Rhino Rack Pioneer Platform
Best All-Around Roof Rack:
Based on its versatility, strength and durability, it’s hard to beat the Pioneer Platform range. “The Rhino Rack is tried and true,” Henwood says. “We’re running Pioneer Platforms on our Defender 110 and third-gen Tacoma builds, and we have found their system to be durable, affordable, easy to assemble and highly adaptable to a range of uses.”
“We’ve loaded them with fat bikes, road bikes, camping cargo and with the Rhino Rack Batwing Awning set-up. They do what we ask of them with minimal added weight.”
Best Budget Roof Rack:
For the price, the Yakima Jetstream is hard to top. Made from lightweight aluminum, an aerodynamically-minded design to lower wind noise and drag and the ability to work with a range of mounts, the Jetstream has the highest bang-for-buck factor on this list. It’s also available in three sizes and colors.
Front Runner Outfitters Grab-On Slimline
Best Roof Rack For SUVs:
With such a high number of SUVs on the market, finding a one-size-fits-all roof rack is nearly impossible. But if there is one rack that towers above others in design and usability, it’s Front Runner Outfitters’ Grab-On Slimline.
“We’re really pushing towards Front Runner,” Henwood says. “We’ve installed several of these Slimline racks on late-model Land Rovers, and their clean, classy look seems well-suited to most SUVs.”
“Front Runner has a ton of bolt-on accessories as well, so you can carry your axe and shovel — or even a slide-out stainless prep table — in secure style,” he adds. Also, he says, “they’re a lot easier to put roof tents on due to their horizontal slat design.”
Yakima Round Bars
Best Roof Rack for Sedans:
Seeing a full-on roof rack bolted to the top of an overlander or SUV shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. On more modest sedans, however, they look a tad out of place — which is why the Yakima Round Bars make a great alternative. You won’t be carrying fully stocked coolers, kayaks and mountain bikes all at once with your four-door anyway, so there’s no need to go overboard.
“We’ve been using Yakima Load Bars and Storage Boxes for years, both for ski and bike trips, and now even for rooftop storage on our Four Wheel Campers,” Henwood says. “The Yakima system is proven, classic and adaptable for smaller cars.”
Rhino Rack Hybrid Bike Carrier
Best Mountain Bike Hauler:
Getting a mountain bike secured safe and sound should be an easy and effortless task. Some systems require you to take off the front wheel, but that’s time spent not hitting the trails. “Rhino Rack’s Carrier is quick and easy to use … with a positive, lockable arm. [And you can keep] both wheels on the bike. The kit can be used with slim-shod roadies and gravel grinders, or the wider MTBs and fat bikes.”
Thule Hullavator Pro Kayak Carrier
Best Roof Rack for Water Sports:
Kayaks are a little tougher to secure to the roof of a truck than mountain bikes. The Thule Hullavator Pro Kayak Carrier uses a cassette-like side loading system to turn what might be a two-person job into a quick and easy activity.
“Our Four Wheel Pop-up Campers customers love the Thule Hullavator Pro Kayak Carrier for mounting kayaks, and they make life so much easier with vehicles with a tall roof,” Henwood says. “The system allows you to load from the side with less lifting and straining, which is key after a long day on the water.”
Aluminess Roof Rack
Most Outrageous Roof Rack:
If you’re looking for a serious overland adventure or #vanlife upgrade, the Aluminess Roof Rack is the way to go. It handles any gear and cargo you can think to throw up there. Moreover, outfits like Main Line Overland can customize it to fit A/C units, solar panels and satellite TV.
“A full-length Aluminess Mercedes Sprinter Roof Rack is highly customizable and provides a massive amount of storage capacity,” Henwood says. “The optional side ladder makes it easy to mount the walk-on roof for strapping on loads and enhancing your perspective at roadside stops. You could probably even host a Bushwick rooftop party on one of them.”