Late last night I made the fateful decision to leap into the twisted web of vehicle bike racks. It proved counter-productive, as I spent nearly an hour drawing up charts, jotting notes and generally accomplishing very little. With a blank screen to show for my efforts I retired to bed, got a decent night's sleep and woke up this morning groggy, but with a renewed sense of commitment to the topic at hand.
Somewhere in the middle of the night my subconscious made the decision to really distill this category down to the basic "need-to-knows". What that means is I can't tell you the "single best bike rack for your riding and/or traveling style, plus your vehicle type". But I can unwind the basics, show you where you want to look and then unleash you on a solid set of 3-5 racks that will all work for you.
The very first thing to know about vehicle bike racks are the various categories:
Trailer Hitch Racks: These racks fit into the receiver of a vehicle's trailer hitch, so work with many vehicle types; trucks, SUV's, all types of cars. Your Porsche is unlikely to have a trailer hitch, but your Corolla may. By "hitch receiver" I mean this (as found beneath your vehicle's rear bumper):
Okay, so these "hitch receivers" typically come sized at 2" or 1.25". It's important to know which your vehicle has, as some racks fit only one size. Thankfully many fit both, but be sure to double check.
Pros: Easily accessible, no overhead lifting, storage for up to 4 bikes, works with existing trailer hitch.
- Tray style - very secure, often come with locks and features like "tilt-away" to allow trunk access, many fit fat tires
- Mast style - budget friendly option, fits all wheel sizes/widths since attachment is via the bike's frame
Cons: Requires use of hitch (can't pull boat or trailer).
- Tray style - relatively expensive
- Mast style - cheaper versions need to be removed for trunk access, less attachment points so bikes may contact one another
For overall best in security and features go with the 4 Bike Tray Style Car Rack.
For most affordable while still getting the job done choose the Heavy Duty Car Hitch Rack.
Roof Racks: Here's where a number of people give up. It can be really confusing trying to figure out which roof rack you want, and even more confusing figuring out which roof rack you're required to have. The reason why; bike racks designed for use on a roof require that some sort of rail system already be in place since the bike rack attaches to these rails. Many SUV's come from the dealer with a rail system; many cars do not.
So the first step is figuring out your rail system. If you don't have a clue what company manufactures the rail system (most typical) I strongly recommend focusing on roof racks that are dubbed "universal". These racks are purpose designed to fit what's out there.
On the other hand, if you have a Thule rail system, a Thule bike rack will be your best bet.
If you don't have a rail system you're probably better off looking at one of the other styles of bike rack rather than plunking down the cash for a rail system and a bike rack.
Finally, if you have a Porsche we recommend simply riding your bike instead.
Pros: Works with vehicle's existing roof rail system, holds bikes very secure, mid-range affordability if rail system is already in place
Cons: Requires overhead lifting, requires additional expense for each bike added, requires purchase of a rail system if not already in place, requires remembering the bikes are up there - don't pull into the garage!
Our Recommendation: For the best all-around roof rack, go with a universal rack like our Universal Rooftop, Single Bike Carrier.
Trunk or Hatchback Racks: This could really be 2 categories, but I'll treat it as one because the concept is the same. This is a rack that fits against your trunk or hatchback and secures to that trunk or hatchback with some sort of strapping system (usually a 4-pt system). This is the style you're most likely to see gathering cobwebs in the back corner of your neighbor's garage.
These are the most universal of racks (there's that word again), because the strapping systems are adjustable. They fit many cars and SUV's, but do not work with pickup trucks. That said, some are designed for hatchbacks, some are designed for car trunks and some will fit either. So definitely double check the specs on any given rack before purchasing.
Pros: Most universal, most affordable, easy access (no overhead lifting), carries up to 4 bikes, allows for trunk/hatchback opening without removal
Cons: Cheaper version may allow for bike swaying/movement, difficult to lift/open trunk with bikes mounted
For best affordability choose the Universal Bike Trunk Rack.
For a rack that will carry more valuable bikes more frequently choose the 2 Bike Tray Style Carrier.
Specialty Racks: A few subcategories here.
Spare Tire Racks: If you have a spare tire on the back of your vehicle (Jeep Wrangler, Honda CRV, etc) this is the rack for you. The various designs hang off the spare tire and typically attach with a strapping system. Pretty straight forward.
Try the: Thule Spare Me
RV Racks: For RVs we always recommend a rack that specifically says it's for RV use. Why? An RV's chassis is very rigid, which can mean a lot of bumping and jostling. An RV rack is designed with this in mind whereas other racks may fail.
Try the: RV and Camper Bumper Bike Rack
Pickup Truck Bed Racks: If you simply want to put your bikes in the bed of a pickup, but prefer they stand up in an organized manner, this is the rack for you.
Try the: Truck Bed Locking Bike Fork Mount
Pros: Probably work best if you'll only use the rack with your one specialty vehicle
Cons: Specific use application
Okay, so where does that leave you?
Now you understand the different styles, but you're no closer to knowing which rack to choose because your Corolla (for example) has both a trailer hitch receiver and a roof and a trunk! Zounds!
You have some decisions to make, but this can be done logically.
The best place to start is by asking (1) how far and how often will you be transporting your bike(s)?, and (2) how valuable are your bikes to you? and (3) does your bike have any unique features that may limit options? For example, fat tire bikes may not fit into the wheel troughs of all racks.
(1) If you'll be using your rack frequently or for any long distance travel we recommend a rack that secures your bike very firmly. This means attachment straps for both wheels, which can be found with either a roof rack or trailer hitch rack that is platform based.
(2) If your bikes aren't of great value (maybe kids' Walmart rides) you're probably fine getting away with a cheaper, universal trunk/hatchback system that keeps the bikes on the car but doesn't do much else.
(3) Keep those unique features in mind when reading specs or contact us to request your best option.
You get what you pay for....
This is true with a lot of products, and definitely true here. You might ask, "well why is this trailer hitch rack priced at $100 and that one that looks the same is priced at $250?"
Again, definitely read the specs (or the bullet points on our site!) because higher prices mean more features that are typically well thought out and of great convenience. Case in point with the trailer hitch rack.
- The cheaper rack will do it's job and is probably fine for hauling kids' bikes to grandma's house twice a year. But it may allow the bikes to sway a little (possibly chipping paint), and it probably needs to be removed from the vehicle to access the trunk.
- The more expensive rack will have more attachment points to prevent movement of the bikes and will come with features like a pivot system that allows you to lower the rack's mast to open the trunk (so no need to remove the rack). It will also come with locks to prevent both bike theft and rack theft. So it's probably worth the money if you're using it every weekend.
To sum things up...
- (1) Decide which types of racks will work with your vehicle.
- (2) Consider the pros and cons of the rack types that will work.
- (3) Select the rack type that you've determined is best
- (4) Choose rack of that type based on the factors unique to you
- Distance traveled
- Frequency of use
- Number of bikes to transport
- Value of bikes
- Unique bike features