Today’s cargo carriers are sleek enough to work with the aesthetics of your vehicle without sabotaging your gas mileage. All you need is a roof rack—though sometimes you don’t even need that—and you can add cargo capacity to the top of your car without looking like the Beverly Hillbillies.
See quick reviews below of five of the best options, then scroll deeper for longer reviews of these and other rooftop carriers, plus helpful buying advice.
Types of Rooftop Cargo Carriers
Box: This is what most people picture when they think of a cargo carrier. Also called rocket boxes (technically a model name used by Yakima that has become the Kleenex of the rooftop cargo space), these are hard sided, often heavy, and secure. They provide the most safety for your gear, keeping it in an enclosed shell and out of the elements. Many of them also have lockable lids and rack/bar attachments. A box can take some fiddling to get on your car’s roof, but once it’s up there, it’s easy to use, requiring no tying of ropes or cinching of straps to keep your stuff from flying away. For the drawbacks: Despite fairly aerodynamic designs, boxes will stick out into the wind, impacting your gas mileage and noise levels with the increased drag. They also tend to be the most expensive kind of cargo carriers.
Bag: If your car doesn’t have a roof rack and you can’t justify altering your vehicle to accommodate one, or it does but you want to keep things simple, consider a soft-sided carrier. These lash down to the very top of your roof using straps that either attach to mounting points on your rack or loop through your windows. Soft-sided bags are typically lighter, easier to store, and flexible enough to accommodate bulky or oddly shaped items. Downsides include faster wear, damage to the window weather stripping over time, and the higher likelihood of scratching your car’s paint. They also get pretty blocky when stuffed, presenting a wide, drag-increasing surface to the wind.
Basket: Simply put, these are big metal baskets. They leave your gear open to the rain, sun, and wind, making them better for transport but worse for all-weather storage. Baskets also demand cam straps or at least a rope to tie down whatever you carry in them. But their lack of solid bodies make them relatively aerodynamic and less likely to drag down your miles per gallon. Plus, the low profiles mean that, once you unload the gear from them, they’re more likely to fit into a garage without needing to be removed. Baskets are also hardy, and cheaper than boxes.
Sport-specific: If you’re going to be transporting mostly one thing or anything that won’t fit in a box, bag, or basket—say a kayak or bike—you’ll want to get a carrier built for that object. We’ve included some options toward the bottom here. Some, like the TMS J-Bar and RockyMounts Tomahawk, require careful mounting. And not all can be left on the top of your car if you park it in a garage given the height. Still, they work better than anything else for their specific gear and often aren’t as expensive as a box.
Things to Consider Before You Buy
First, if your car doesn’t have a factory-installed rack that works with the carrier you want (or it doesn’t have one at all), you’ll need to purchase one. Either way, it’s important to check your owner’s manual or the vehicle’s manufacturing website to determine the weight capacity of your car’s roof.
Next, consider the physical dimensions of the box, bag, or basket relative to the roof. Will it fit without hanging over the front or back? Is it long enough to accommodate what you want to use it for—like, say, a couple of pairs of skis? If you have a hatch, will it open unencumbered or will the carrier get in the way? How much height will it add to your vehicle? This is especially important for anyone who wants to pull into a garage without having to remove the box each time. Before purchasing, check the manufacturer’s website for information like load restrictions, dimensions, and even images for how the model looks on different styles of cars.
Also, look at the carrier’s shape. If you plan on making it a semi-permanent addition to your vehicle or you spend most of your time on highways, consider something that’s more aerodynamic and less boxy. You’ll likely pay a little more up front, but what you spend on the streamlined carrier, you’ll save in gas.
Other Features to Look For
If you choose a box, consider how and from which end it opens. When reaching overhead or across the roof, you want a handle that’s easy to grip and operate, especially if you’re vertically challenged. And depending on your vehicle and how you access the carrier, determine whether you prefer a box that opens from the back or side. Lastly, most people shopping for a rooftop carrier prefer one that locks, allowing you to stash valuables at, say, a campsite when your only other option is inside your tent. As well, you’ll want your hard-shell carrier to be water-tight or your soft-sided bag to be waterproof.
What Type of Mounting System Do You Want?
In general, your cargo carrier will either be very easy to pop on and off or it will take a little more time and some tools if you want to take it or leave it. Cheaper models often use a simple u-lock system that requires a few wrenches to install (or uninstall) on your vehicle’s rack. Higher-quality options, like those from Thule and Yakima, use tool-free mounting systems that are a breeze to operate.
How We Rated and Selected
We researched expert sources and more than 5,000 consumer reviews to select the top systems for lashing your gear to the top of your car. To determine our Total Expert Score, we calculated the ratings from review sites, such as GearWeAre, Outdoor Gear Lab, Travelbusy, and CarBibles and converted them to a 100-point scale to make it easier for you to weigh the best options. Our Consumer Score represents the percentage of consumers who rated the product at least four out of five stars on retail sites like Amazon, REI, Walmart, and Home Depot.
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