How to choose the right roof rack for your car

person securing bicycle on car roof rack

Nyasha Jokomo

Posted February 05, 2024

Whether you're mapping out a road trip or simply require additional storage space for your outdoor activities, a car roof rack can be a game-changer.

In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about car roof racks, from understanding their different types and materials, selecting the right accessories to safety precautions and how to maintain your roof rack so you can make the most of your road trips and adventures. For 24/7 Australia-wide help on the road, get RACV Emergency Roadside Assistance before you embark on your journey.

Here's what you need to know when choosing a roof rack for your car: 

Understanding the essentials

What is a roof rack?

Car roof racks are indispensable accessories for any vehicle owner who requires additional storage space. A roof rack is essentially a set of bars or racks that are fitted on the roof of a car, allowing you to carry large items such as luggage, bicycles, skis, kayaks, and more. The primary purpose of roof racks is to increase the carrying capacity of your car, enabling you to transport items that are awkwardly shaped that would otherwise be challenging to fit inside your car.


kayak on car roof rack

Car roof racks allow you to be able to transport awkwardly shaped items like kayaks. Image: Getty


What are the different types of roof racks?

Not all cars come with built-in roof racks, which is why many car owners invest in aftermarket roof racks. These racks are designed to fit specific car models, ensuring a secure and stable attachment. It's vital to select a roof rack that is compatible with your car's make and model to guarantee a proper fit and optimal performance.

There are various designs available with each design having its own set of features and benefits, making it necessary to understand the differences between them.

The roof rail system

One of the most common types of roof racks for SUVs and crossovers is the roof rail system. This design involves installing rails on the roof of your car, which then allow you to attach various accessories like bike racks, cargo boxes, or kayak carriers. Roof rail systems are typically versatile and can accommodate a wide range of items, but they may increase wind resistance and affect fuel efficiency.

The flush or fixed point roof rack

If you're searching for a more streamlined option, a flush or fixed point roof rack might be suitable for you. These racks are designed to seamlessly blend with the shape of your car's roof, providing a sleek and aerodynamic appearance. While flush roof racks have a lower profile, they may have limited compatibility with certain accessories.

The raised rail system

Another type of roof rack is the raised rail system. Similar to the roof rail system, this design involves installing rails on the roof of your car. However, raised rail systems usually have higher profiles, providing additional clearance for larger items. This makes them ideal for carrying bulky items such as kayaks or skis.

Ultimately, the ideal roof rack type will depend on your specific needs and preferences. Consider the items you plan to carry, the frequency of use, and any potential trade-offs in terms of aesthetics or fuel efficiency. 

car roof rack

There are a variety of roof rack types fit for different uses. Image: Getty


What are the common materials used to make roof racks?

The materials used in the construction of a roof rack can greatly influence its durability, strength, and overall performance. The most common materials used in the manufacturing of roof racks include steel, aluminium, and composite materials. Each material has its own set of advantages and considerations.

Steel is known for its exceptional strength and durability. It can handle heavier loads and withstand harsh weather conditions. However, steel roof racks tend to be heavier and may affect your car's fuel efficiency. Aluminium, on the other hand, is lightweight yet robust. It offers a good balance between strength and weight, making it a popular choice for many car owners. Composite materials, such as fibreglass or carbon fibre, provide excellent strength-to-weight ratios, but they can be more costly.

Ultimately, the material you choose for your roof rack will depend on your specific needs and preferences. If you prioritise strength and durability, steel might be the best option for you. If weight and fuel efficiency are more important, aluminium could be the way to go. 

person securing skiis on roof rack

There are many accessories that allow you to adapt your roof rack to carry different kinds of items. Image: Getty


What are some roof rack accessories and how to install?

There are various accessories available that can enhance the functionality of your car's roof rack, making your road trip even more convenient. From cargo boxes to bike racks, kayak carriers to ski mounts, there are accessories to suit every adventurer's needs.

A popular accessory is the cargo box, which provides extra storage space for your luggage, camping gear, or sporting equipment. These durable and weather-resistant boxes come in different sizes to accommodate your specific needs. For those who enjoy cycling, bike racks are a useful accessory. They securely hold your bikes on the roof, leaving plenty of room inside your vehicle.

After selecting the perfect accessories for your roof rack, it's crucial to install them correctly. Here are some steps to help guide you to a safe and secure installation:

  1. Begin by thoroughly reading the manufacturer's instructions.
  2. Identify the mounting points on your vehicle's roof, ensuring they are strong and sturdy.
  3. Attach the rack feet to the mounting points and tighten them securely.
  4. Place the crossbars on top of the feet and adjust them to the desired width.
  5. Securely tighten the crossbars to the feet using the provided tools.

Remember to always refer to your vehicle's manual and the manufacturer's instructions for specific guidance on installing and using your roof rack system.


person packing cargo box on car roof rack

It's important to properly secure your items and organise them for convenient access. Image: Getty


Tips for using your roof rack

Safety precautions when loading your roof rack

Ensure that your roof rack is properly installed and secure before loading any items. Distribute the weight evenly across the rack and secure each item using ratchet straps or tie-downs. Be mindful of the height clearance when loading taller items and avoid exceeding the maximum weight capacity of your roof rack.

How to organise items for ease of access

Plan your packing strategy to make accessing items on your roof rack hassle-free. Place frequently used items within easy reach and secure them in a way that allows for quick retrieval. Consider using storage solutions such as cargo nets or dividers to keep items organized and prevent shifting during transit.

How to look after your roof rack

It's vital to regularly clean your roof rack to remove dirt, debris, and road salt. Use a mild detergent or car wash soap and a soft brush or sponge to clean the rack thoroughly. Avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive materials that could damage the surface.

Regularly inspect your roof rack and accessories for any signs of wear and tear. Check for loose or damaged components, such as screws, bolts, or rubber padding. If you notice any issues, tighten or replace the necessary parts to prevent further damage.

One common issue with roof racks is rust. To prevent rust from forming, apply a protective coating or wax to the metal parts of your roof rack. This will create a barrier against moisture and corrosion.

Over time, your roof rack may become worn out or damaged beyond repair. It's important to know when and how to replace your roof rack. Consider replacing your roof rack if it shows signs of extensive rust, corrosion, or structural damage. Consult the manufacturer's guidelines to ensure you choose the right replacement rack for your vehicle.

More: How to clean your car effectively

car roof rack

Some roof racks have additional security allowing you to lock your items. Image: Getty


Final considerations when choosing your roof rack

Aerodynamics and noise

Sleek and streamlined roof racks are engineered to cut through the air more efficiently, reducing the resistance that your car encounters as it moves forward. The reduced drag means your car doesn't have to work as hard against the air resistance, potentially saving you money on fuel costs over the long run.

Additionally, the aerodynamic design of a roof rack can have a substantial impact on the noise level experienced during travel. Wind noise generated by traditional, bulkier roof racks can be a nuisance and compromise the overall driving comfort. In contrast, a well-designed, streamlined roof rack minimizes turbulence and wind noise, providing you with a quieter ride.

Locking and security features

Integrated locks are a key feature to look for in a roof rack. These locks are designed to seamlessly integrate into the structure of the rack, providing a secure and tamper-resistant mechanism. This means that not only is the rack itself protected against theft, but the gear attached to it is also secured. Whether you're stopping for a quick bite on a road trip or leaving your vehicle parked overnight, the presence of integrated or added locks gives you increased security.

Consider your budget

The variety in pricing for roof racks is often reflective of the diverse features, materials, and functionalities they offer. Higher-end models may boast advanced aerodynamics, integrated locks, and lightweight materials, contributing to their elevated cost. On the other hand, more budget-friendly options may still provide reliable performance without the bells and whistles of their premium counterparts.

Determining your budget sets a practical framework for your decision-making process. While considering the upfront cost is crucial, it's equally important to factor in the long-term value and durability of the roof rack. Investing in a high-quality rack may involve a larger initial spend, but the durability and performance it offers over time can translate into a more cost-effective choice in the long run.