Car roof rack uses
May 20, 2013 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I have never owned a car roof rack. I would like to own one to haul extra stuff. What are the best uses for a car roof rack? What configurations and additional roof rack accessories will I need to best utilize it?

I have a 2008 Mazda5 that I love. It can haul lots of stuff in the back with the seats down. It also has pre-made notches in the top to accommodate a dealer-specified roof rack. I want to get one! But do I need a basket thing? Or one of those plastic space-pod type containers to go on top? (What goes in those?) Can I fit a bicycle (or two or three?) with one of those space-pod things on top at the same time? Can I put a full cooler up there?

We go camping. Last year, just myself, my husband, and our 60 pound dog went overnight camping and the entire car was packed to the gills. (Minimalism is not our strong suit.) We will be having a baby this summer and there are no plans in the next five years to replace this car. But we will obviously have extra stuff. Possible things we might want to put up on the roof rack: suitcases (or carry-on sized suitcases), tent, inflatable mattress, firewood, cooler, a big plastic bin filled with our dry goods/cooking supplies. Maybe one day: bikes (two adults and one kid)

We also have in the past gone on baseball tailgating road trips with 5 adults and had to give someone else our coolers because there was no room for bags, people, and coolers. Is it completely ridiculous to think of putting a fully loaded cooler on top of my car?

What kind of things can fit into those odd-shaped space-pod type containers? Full suitcases? Or do they only fit squishy soft-sided things like duffel bags?

Like I said, I've never used one of these before so I need a better understanding of what they can and cannot handle.
posted by jillithd to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't provide an experienced answer for your roof rack questions, but I will suggest that you look into a hitch-mounted bicycle rack. A quick bit of research shows that if your vehicle didn't come with the factory installed hitch that it is supposed to be a fairly straightforward job (bolts on to frame) to install an aftermarket hitch. (my research was quick, so don't rely on it as your only source).

The two things I keep hearing about roof racks is that 1) you want to only put lighter weight items on the rack, and 2) it will noticeably effect your gas mileage.

We had a Subaru Outback that was great for us, and we planned to continue using it with child, but quickly discovered that we needed more space (because we, too, are not minimalists). We have since switched to a Honda Odyssey and find it to be very good for the types of traveling you describe.
posted by 1367 at 7:07 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a Yakima roof rack system on my car and it's very versatile. I can carry 5 bikes up there, or 2 bikes and a cargo box. On longer trip with the cargo box we would put 80% of our luggage in the box to give the kid and the dog more room in the back seat.

With the optional basket you can hold even more stuff than will fit in the cargo box. I see a lot of people with the basket and it's full of soft-sided duffels, luggage, whatever. There are easy on/easy off cargo nets to keep things in place.

What 1367 said about gas mileage is definitely true. At highway speeds I definitely noticed a hit on gas with more than one bike on top. Two bikes on top are less aerodynamic than the cargo box.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:10 AM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: You're asking some very broad questions here. Perhaps you should should study the manual for your car along with the racks you're thinking about getting. They should contain guidelines for what's appropriate and what isn't. It also helps to look at what other people are putting on their racks.

That said, you can basically put anything on roof racks that isn't a) too heavy, b) doesn't create lots of wind resistance, and c) can be securely fastened so that it moves as a unit with the vehicle.

Can I fit a bicycle (or two or three?) with one of those space-pod things on top at the same time?

It's possible, though I strongly recommend getting a bicycle rack that fastens to your trunk or fits into a trailer hitch receiver instead. Not only is it difficult/annoying to lift bicycles onto the roof of your car, but each bicycle would require special mounting brackets to fit onto the racks.

What kind of things can fit into those odd-shaped space-pod type containers? Full suitcases? Or do they only fit squishy soft-sided things like duffel bags?

Anything that's light enough to go on the roof can go in a roof-top box, though it helps if the box is packed tightly so things don't move around during sudden stops, which is why putting a fully-loaded cooler or firewood up there probably isn't a good idea.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:10 AM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: It seems most roof racks come down to Thule or Yakima. I think they're about equal in cost and quality so it comes down to whatever your local dealer sells. A lot of places sell both. You buy the mounts specific to your car and a couple rails and then you have a roof rack. You can use this for carrying lumber from Home Depot or whatever.

Once you have the rails then you buy accessories for it. As far as I know most accessories are interchangeable between brands. The cargo boxes are very handy for camping and general travel. You could fit a suitcase in it but they're a bit more efficient with soft sided things so you can fill all the space. Duffel bags are good for this. Keep in mind there's a weight limit for the racks and cargo boxes so just because you CAN fill it doesn't mean you should. That said, we've filled ours with camping gear and it's been fine. I think mine is a Yakima Rocketbox and I've been happy with it.

For bikes I use a rack that mounts to my square trailer hitch. I think it would be a pain to put bikes on the roof but that's just me.

For a kayak you'd want a pair of J-bars, which are J-shaped racks that you mount to the rails. We had a Yakima Kayak Stacker which was just a vertical bar and it was a pain in the ass because you'd need someone to hold the boat while you tied it up. With the J-Bar you just toss the boat in the holder and it stays in place while you tie it.

I think putting a fully loaded cooler on a rack or in a box would be tough. Maybe a couple smaller coolers or soft-sided insulated bags?

Generally I put hard-sided things (camp stove, plastic bins, coolers) in the back of the car/trunk and soft-sided things (tents, sleeping bags, pads) in the cargo box up top.

These things all add up in price so if you're only using them once or twice a year you might want to look into renting a rack or trailer.
posted by bondcliff at 7:19 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had a car with a roof rack. With some ratty old fleece blankets for anything that needed padding, rope, and a wide selection of bungee cords, I could carry a canoe or kayak, lumber, plywood, recycled ductwork, furniture, and other stuff. It's not great for smaller stuff like suitcases; it works best for anything large enough to sit on both bars. For camping gear, you might want a long container to hold stuff. I'd buy custom racks as and if you need them. When securing anything to the roof, it needs to be held down, secured against side-to-side motion, and secured against sliding forward or backward. To secure the canoe, I add a rope to the tow hooks under the front & rear bumpers, as well bungees across. The wind created by driving, or just plain wind, wants to rip stuff up off the racks. Don't feel stupid if you want to add an extra strap.
posted by theora55 at 7:23 AM on May 20, 2013

This may seem like an odd option (and perhaps not completely suited to your needs) but we often carry a kayak on the car, and we've found it doubles as a cargo box for lighter items. You can get a lot of stuff in a two-person kayak. A heavy duty cockpit cover keeps the interior totally dry, and I've been surprised to find that my Subaru Forester gets slightly better gas mileage with a large torpedo mounted to the roof.

Cargo boxes can be very expensive. For the same price, you might be able to buy a kayak on craigslist, a rack attachment to mount the kayak, and the cockpit cover. It might not be as fancy, but it's like getting a cargo box with a free kayak thrown in.
posted by itstheclamsname at 7:24 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

A big issue is braking. My little Scion has a cargo capacity of 825 pounds, including passengers; one thing that's kept me from getting a roof rack is how easy it would be to exceed that weight. The engine is fine with extra cargo and the car generally handles well, but braking is a bit unpredictable when the car is fully loaded.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:19 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to have a large canvas bag that attached to the roof rack rails. It was very helpful for beach trips as we could put all our clothes in duffel bags inside garbage bags for waterproofing and put all the clothes in the roof, leaving more room in the vehicle for kids and dogs. The roof bag was about $50 bucks.
posted by COD at 8:25 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an old round-bar Yakima setup that I bought secondhand on Craigslist and which I've now used on three different cars (same "feet" just new Q-clips) for everything from 3 bikes to a snowshoes to a mattress to 4x8 plywood sheets and hardibacker. The only actual racks I have are for bikes (copperhead), everything else just goes right on the bars and is held down with bungees or rope. Super versatile and worth every penny.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:06 AM on May 20, 2013

I have an OEM roof rack on my CR-V. OEM racks from any of the car makers usually have a much lower weight capacity than aftermarket racks such as Thule and Yakima, but my rack easily accommodates a 1 person kayak. However, if I were starting fresh, I would go with an aftermarket rack as they have sturdier anchor points than OEM racks (which tend to favor looks over strength) plus there's so many more fitting options available (and I could carry a 2nd kayak).

Thule and Yakima each have online guides that will walk you through picking the right base rack and accessories for all the stuff you want to carry.

IMO, hand's down the best use of a roof rack is using it to bring home the annual Christmas tree: no picking pine needles out of the car's carpeting, ever.
posted by jamaro at 9:08 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Roof racks are rarely designed for lots of weight. And they are very easily overloaded. They also noticeably impact fuel economy and handling. This company says a roof rack for a 2008 Mazda5 will cost at least $325 and can support 165 lbs of weight. I can't vouch for that particular site, but the prices and weights are in line with what I would expect them to be from researching roof racks for my cars over the years. Make sure you pay attention to the rated maximum payload rating for your. your Mazda5 seems to be rated for 1191 lbs of stuff. That's total weight of people and cargo.

While I have Thule roof racks for my Rav4, it's mostly used for mattress and plywood moving. I have a hitch cargo carrier (example, no experience with this one) for when I need to add storage space for coolers, bags, or what not.
posted by fief at 9:16 AM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: Oh, one more thing favoring aftermarket racks over OEM* racks. OEM racks are almost always made to be put on permanently, aftermarket racks are designed to be put on and taken off relatively easily. As all roof racks increase the amount of wind noise you will hear in your cabin, sometimes to a significantly annoying degree, it's nice to have the option to take the rack off when you aren't using it.

*OEM = original equipment manufacturer, meaning the Mazda-branded rack the dealership carries for your car.
posted by jamaro at 9:16 AM on May 20, 2013

Ratchet straps will help you with anything big you need to put up there (desk, couch, mattress, canoe, lumber, etc).
posted by czytm at 10:03 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I bought a new Toyota Sienna van last year, and the dealer said the stock roof rack is rated for a whole 100 pounds! I passed.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:11 PM on May 20, 2013

I was thinking about getting a roof rack and cargo container for a cross-country move last year. Went to a local place that sold them and the guy walked me through all the options, explained the processes, etc.
posted by radioamy at 12:20 PM on May 20, 2013

We have a Thule box that we use mainly for carrying soft stuff when camping - like Bondcliff we put the tents, sleeping bags, etc up top and the hard sided stuff in the back. We also carry a canoe on the rack often. Bikes are far easier with a hitch mounted rack on the back. Just moved a daughter out of her dorm and tied a big duffle to the rack since we didn't think to bring the Thule box along. After reading people's comments I'm wondering what my Foresters' (yes two) racks are rated for and if we've been overloading them. hmmm
posted by leslies at 12:35 PM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: I bought a Thule roof rack and cargo box for our Odyssey last year. We've used it on several long drives (6+ hours on highways) so far.

We start with our LLBean duffel bags in there, and usually add lighter stuff (bedding, clothes, kid supplies) - anything that we need to have, but definitely won't use on the drive. I would suggest only soft-sided stuff there, and using the (thoughtfully provided) straps to tie things down. You do *not* want stuff shifting around as you take a curve in the wind while going 75 mph.

Downside - the minivan handles worse. It feels heavier. OTOH, it's a minivan, so it's not like it had terribly sporty handling in the first place. I don't notice any significant mileage difference, but that's because we've used the rack on all long highway trips, while the rest of our driving is short trips in town.

Upside - there's space inside to stretch out! We aren't "packed to the gills"! It feels more comfortable on long drives. I highly recommend it, as long as your car engine and structure can handle it. (I don't know anything about a Mazda 5.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:27 PM on May 20, 2013

I forgot to add - Amazon sent a HUGE truck down my dead end street to deliver the box, and then I mounted it myself. It wasn't a difficult challenge or anything. And I spend a lot of time before each trip trying to line up the box precisely, but then I see crazy stuff on the road - it probably doesn't matter very much, as long as you have engine power to spare.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:30 PM on May 20, 2013

I had a Yakima rack on my CRX that I used as a work truck. I'd have pipe, strut, ladders, and tools strapped to that rack. So, there's some ideas.
posted by notsnot at 5:25 PM on May 20, 2013

This doesn't exactly answer what you're asking, but I think it's an important point to keep in mind: Make sure your roof rack is easily removable, and when you're not using it - remove it. Even unloaded a roof rack will impact your fuel consumption.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:36 PM on May 20, 2013

I wouldn't sweat the low cargo capacities of stock roof racks if only because cargo capacities of the vehicle are so low anyways. The Mazda 5 only has a 1200 lb overall cargo capacity and over a 100lb of that is taken up by a full tank of gas.

Hitch mounted racks for either bikes or equipment are great but most of them limit your rear door access. We use our hitch mounted bike rack all the time; much easier than lifting the bike down. One thing to watch is if you are planning to haul something long like a kayak that the rack system you use allows you to open the rear hatch with the load on. I just toss my kayak on the factory racks of my Caravan and when open the rear door hits the kayak.

Make sure you secure things to the rack. Bungee cords aren't really a tie down; you should use rope or straps and leave the bungees for taking up slack in tarps.

If you have a choice a rack that is over 4 feet wide will allow you to transport plywood securely; something that can't really be done with narrower racks.
posted by Mitheral at 7:01 PM on May 20, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for your answers and advice. You gave me a lot to think about! I've thought about getting a hitch-mounted bike rack, but Mazda5s aren't recommended to tow anything, so getting a hitch might be iffy. Not that I'd want to tow anything other than a bike rack or that cargo hitch carrier fief mentioned. But now I have a much better idea of what all I can put up on top of my car!
posted by jillithd at 9:09 AM on May 22, 2013

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