How to Choose The Best Bike Rack for Your Car? The Pros and Cons of Each

Life on two wheels is a simple and joyous outdoor activity that can be enjoyed by many people. Whether it’s cruising around the neighborhood park on a sunny afternoon or bikepacking through the wilderness on a multi-day, off-road adventure, there’s a good chance you will need to load your bike onto your vehicle for some distant adventuring – And that’s where a car bike rack comes in. But choosing the right bike rack can be a bit tedious and confusing because there are more options available than ever before and each one differs from another. I did some research to learn about each type and what you will need to consider in choosing the right one.

Let’s begin by talking about some factors you should consider when choosing a bike rack…

Factors to Consider When Choosing Your Bike Rack

When choosing the right bike rack, you should consider the following factors in conjunction with your personal preferences and budget.

  • Compatibility – how the rack attaches to the vehicle
  • Capacity – The number of bikes you need to carry
  • Support – The type of bikes you need to carry
  • Frequency – How often you need to transport your bikes
  • Security – how will your bikes be protected
  • Safety – ensure your bikes are safely secured and does not hinder your driving visibility
  • Ease – Easy to load and unload your bikes

There are generally four ways to attach a bike rack to the vehicle: trunk mount, hitch mount, roof mount, truck bed mount, and spare tire mount. Like all things, all three have their pros and cons. Choosing the right one will depend on your vehicle type and the setup of your vehicle.

Hitch Bike Racks

A hitch bike rack is attached to the rear of your vehicle using the trailer hitch receiver, which your car will need have to be compatible. This type of rack are usually the most expensive but they are simple to install and allows you to easily load and unload your bikes with moderate lifting. It also gives you the flexibility to carry more bikes (up to 5) and the ability to tilt down or swing away from the vehicle so you can access your rear door or tailgate. Similar with any rear attachments, these racks extend the length of your vehicle so it might cause maneuvering and visibility issues for some. When buying, make sure you check your hitch size to ensure the bike rack tow bar is compatible – it’s usually 2 inch or 1 ¼ inch. However, many bike racks come with an adapter or have two different versions. If not, there are adapters you can get to make it work but obviously that’s an extra expense.

There are two styles of hitch bike racks – Hanging style bike racks and Platform/tray style bike racks.

Hanging-Style Hitch Racks

Best Bike Rack for Minivans_Allen Sports 4-Bike Hanging Hitch Rack

Hanging-style bike racks use a mast with arms to support and straps to secure the bike’s frame. This type of bike rack is compact and lightweight. Some models have the ability to tilt forward and away from the vehicle to allow easy access to your vehicle’s rear cargo area and the arms fold down for storage when not in use. Some models can haul multiple bikes at a time but may require a cross bar for Y-Frame, dual suspension, and cruiser bikes.

Platform/Tray Style Hitch Racks

Platform/tray style bike racks have a tray or platform that the bike wheels are anchored to and pivoting upright arms with padded ratchet hooks to secure the bikes by the wheel or frame. This style of hitch bike rack is heavier but they offer the most protection for keeping your bikes in pristine condition as it makes little to no unpadded contact with the bike frame. Similar to the hanging hitch racks, some platform hitch racks will tilt forward or sway away from the vehicle allowing you access to the rear cargo area. This option is also by far the most versatile because it allows you to carry multiple bikes at a time (some models have add-on accessories to increase capacity) and have a higher per bike maximum weight capacity – this is a plus if you have e-bikes. One thing to consider when buying a platform/tray style hitch rack is the width of the wheelbase, especially if you have fat bike tires.

Roof Bike Racks

A roof mount bike rack is attached to the crossbars or uses vacuum suction cups to attach to the metal, glass, or fiberglass surfaces on top of your vehicle. These type of bike racks are usually less expensive than hitch racks and are simple to install. But they may be a bit difficult to use for some as it requires lifting your bikes overhead when loading and unloading.

Roof racks can be a great option for those who haul their bikes along on a daily basis, but the downside is the capacity of bikes it can carry, usually 2 bikes (but some larger vehicles may be able to carry up to 6 bikes). This is dependent upon the width of your crossbars and the maximum weight capacity of your vehicle’s roof.

It is also important to note that your vehicle ride height is significantly higher when bikes are loaded on your roof. People tend to forget about the bikes on their rooftop when driving through low clearance structures such as parking garages and drive-throughs, which can cause severe damages to their car, bikes, racks, and property.

There are two ways to secure your bikes on roof bike racks – fork mount and wheel mount.

Fork Mount Roof Racks

Fork mount roof rack requires the removal of the front bike wheel and secure the front fork with a skewer (or a pin) and the rear wheel to the bike rack system. Depending on the type of bike fork you have, an adapter may be needed to mount onto any fork mount rack. This system is the least expensive out of the two roof rack options.

Wheel Mount Roof Racks

Wheel mount roof rack uses adjustable straps to secure the front and/or rear wheel to the tray and padded, ratchet hooks and metal wheel brace to secure your bike by the front and/or rear bike wheels. This system is slightly more expensive than the fork mount rack but no need to remove the front wheel.

Trunk Bike Racks

A trunk bike rack uses adjustable cam buckle straps with hooks to anchor the rack to the trunk and padded cradle arms with rubber straps to secure the bike frame to the rack. This type of rack is the most economical and are designed to fit most cars, vans, and SUVs. It works with the standard bike frames but will require the use of an adapter bar or a horizontal crossbar for step through frames, women’s bikes, children’s bikes, and bikes with smaller frames.

Trunk bike racks are simple to install and easy to use but have a higher risk of making bike-to-bike and bike-to-car contact. However, there are premium models that come with anti-sway cradles to securely hold bikes at 3-points to minimize the free movement while transporting. There are also other add-on accessories that you can separately purchase to prevent damages to your vehicle.

Since a trunk mounted bike rack rests on the trunk and secured in place by straps that are connected to the trunk, hatch, and bumper, there are two things you must keep in mind when it is installed:

  • The trunk and rear hatches must remain closed when the rack is installed.
  • Trunk mounted bike racks can interfere with the operation of rear windshield wipers.

Truck Bed Bike Racks

A truck bed bike rack is by far the least expensive and the simplest to install, usually bolt-on to a flat surface, clamp-on to the bed side rails, or a pad that goes onto your tailgate.

Bolt-On Truck Racks

Bolt-on racks have a fork mount block that bolts onto any flat surface and provide a mounting point for 1 bike with quick release skewer for rapid loading and unloading of your bike. Obviously, you can bolt on more fork mount blocks to carry more bikes. There are other options that mounts to the truck bed using adjustable rubber stabilizers without drilling any holes and can accommodate up to 4 bikes.

Rod-Mount Truck Racks

Rod-mount have telescoping arms that clamps on to the bed side rails. These arms are extendable to fit the size of any truck bed size and have adjustable fork mount blocks with quick release skewer that allows you to carry 2 bikes at a time. Some models will allow you to hold up to 3 mountain bikes or 4 road bikes at a time with added fork mount blocks.

Tailgate Pad

Tailgate pad is a padded rack that lets you carry up to 7 bikes by hanging the front wheels on your truck bed tailgate. This option is a great alternative to fork mount blocks as it doesn’t require any drilling into your truck bed and you don’t have to remove the bikes’ front wheels. It is made of heavy-duty, ballistic tarpaulin and includes spacing blocks for stabilization and prevent bike-to-bike contact, hook-and-loop straps to secure the bikes to the rack, a center flap that provides access to your tailgate handle, and fleece lining that won’t scratch or scuff the tailgate. The pad is very easy to install – just slide the rack over the tailgate and use the integrated tie-down straps to secure it in place. For those who normally use a hitch bike rack but want to use the hitch for towing a trailer instead, then you can use a tailgate pad as a quick and easy alternative to haul your bikes.

Below are the 3 ways to mount your bikes to your truck rack

Fork mount require the removal of the front bike wheel and secure the front fork with a skewer (or a pin). This option can accommodate up to 4 bikes. Depending on the type of bike fork you have, an adapter may be needed to mount onto any fork mount rack.

Frame mount do not require wheel removal. It has an arm that attaches to the side of the truck bed and the opposite end of the arm clamps to the crossbar of the bike’s frame. This option can accommodate most bike frames and up to 4 bikes with extra arms added.

Wheel mount racks do not require wheel removal. To secure the bike to the rack, simply place the front wheel into the mount and secure the wheel in place. This option is compatible with all bike frames and sizes but can only accommodate 1 bike on each rack.

Spare Tire Bike Racks

A spare tire bike rack is attached to the spare tire holder that is mounted on the tailgate. Since there are fewer vehicles in the market today with spare tire in the rear, there is not a lot of selections. The way to mount the bikes is similar to that of the hanging-style hitch racks, which uses a mast with an arm to support and straps or clamps to secure the bike’s frame.

There are two versions of spare tire bike racks – dual-arm and single arm.

  • Dual-Arm has two cradles that hold and support the bike frame. This style is best for carrying standard frame bikes, such as mountain and road bikes.
  • Single-Arm holds the bike frame using a single cradle. This style can simultaneously accommodates standard and alternative bike frame and sizes.

 Depending on the type of bikes you need to carry, it may only hold a maximum of 3 bikes and may require the use of an adapter bar.

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