Cars are great if you need to transport yourself, but what if you need to carry another transport? Namely, your bike? Bike racks come in to save the day. Given the plethora of different options, getting one become easier than ever.
However, with options arrive confusions. One such mystery is whether one should opt for a roof bike rack or hitch bike rack, and that can be a tough nut to crack.
The best way to figure that out is to find out the pros and cons of both the alternatives first. Only then can you find out which one suits you the best. That’s exactly what this article is going to do for you.
As we go through this discussion, this discussion, you’ll find their specifications, benefits, drawbacks, and helpful tips to finally settle on one. Let’s dive in.
Understanding How Roof and Hitch Bike Racks Work
As usual, the first step is to figure out the mechanisms of these racks. Otherwise, it becomes tougher to understand the intricacies and complexities. Let’s get that out of the way, shall we?
Mechanism of Roof Bike Racks
These bike racks are mounted to the roof of a vehicle, that much we all know. However, the mounting mechanism can vary drastically.
You’ll have to mount most of these products to the crossbars on the top of your vehicle. That means you may need to install them if they aren’t already.
Another requirementis that it’s essential to get the measurements right to achieve a perfect fit.
Since it’s dependent on the measurements, there is little chance of being able to use these racks with vehicles of different sizes.
Many of these racks also use suction cups for mounting, which allow for compatibility among multiple cars. However, this isn’t as popular a method.
Having these racks means that the user will have to pick the bike up and mount it over the car, which is unavoidable.
People that need access to the rear of their vehicles often opt for these racks. Of course, they’re a great option if you don’t want to install hitch mounts and already have crossbars.
Bike Mounting Mechanism with Roof Racks
These racks generally have two options to mount the bikes — upright roof racks and fork-mount roof racks.
Upright Roof Racks
These roof racks allow you to mount the bikes as they are. That means there’s no need to take off the front wheel or make any other modifications. The hoops on them are also sizeable enough to hold other gear, making them even more helpful.
Overall, this mounting method is beneficial in terms of convenience, but there is a caveat. The first one is that there is a chance of damaging your car’s finish while trying to get the bike up there.
Secondly, roof racks put the car at an aerodynamic disadvantage, which gets a bit worse with upright roof racks. That’s why there is a drawback to these racks, even if they save you some time and effort.
Fork-Mount Roof Racks
Fork-mount roof racks require you to take the bike’s front wheel off before mounting it to the car. As you can imagine, that’s a chore most people don’t enjoy (especially after a long, tiring riding session).
But there are advantages to this method as well. Firstly, these are aerodynamically better than the upright roof racks, resulting in less drag. Secondly, mounting the bikes to the forks allows them to sit more tightly and securely.
Other than taking the front wheel off and lifting the bikes, these racks provide a decent experience.
Mechanism of Hitch Bike Racks
Hitch-mount bike racks are what you connect to your car’s trailer hitch. This means that it’s mandatory to have a hitch installed on the back of your vehicle. These racks don’t require you to put the bike above the car, making things easier.
The convenience of the setup process is something users love. All you need to do is slide the rack to the trailer hitch and call it a day. That convenience carries on to the bike-mounting mechanism as well (more on that in the comparison).
These racks can handle a decent amount of weight too. You can typically find three classes of these products (class I, II, or III) depending on the receiver size they work with. There are higher classes, but those are much costlier and, most people don’t need them.
My favorite part about these racks is how quickly one can mount the bikes and get going. Their price can sometimes trump that convenience, though. But let’s look at the mounting mechanism first.
Hitch Rack Bike Mounting Mechanism
Once again, there are two options here — platform hitch racks and hanging hitch racks.
Platform Hitch Racks
As the name suggests, these racks come with trays/platforms that carry the bikes upright. This method is quite convenient, as there is no contact between your beautiful bike’s frame and the hitch rack. Yet, they manage to keep the bikes very secure.
These racks allow for little sway too, ensuring remarkable stability. And thanks to the design, it’s possible to carry 4-5 bikes or more with ease.
There are options with fold-down or swing-out designs too. Additionally, given their ability to carry non-standard bike frames, these racks can be rather enticing.
Hanging Hitch Racks
Unlike platform racks, these follow a mast style design with a hanging arm doing the heavy lifting. As these hang the bikes by their frame, it’s evident that there is contact between the racks and the frames. That’s a disadvantage compared to platform racks.
Furthermore, they allow for a bit more sway and make things a tad more unstable. The benefit, however, is that they’re much more compact than their counterparts. They’re also usually cheaper, so that’s an aspect one should keep in mind.
But enough with the introduction, it’s time to look deep into these products.
Roof Bike Rack vs Hitch Bike Rack
Without further ado, let’s get into the comparison. I’ll lay down the crucial categories and show how the racks perform in each of them.
Unless you’re rather fortunate, pricing does make a difference in decision making. These two types of racks can have a noticeable difference in pricing.
Roof Racks’ Pricing
Roof racks will typically cost you less than hitch racks. They won’t be as cheap as trunk racks though, as the materials and design make them cost more. If you want to use a crossbar-mounted rack, the cost may increase.
That’s because many cars don’t have crossbars on them, and the installation cost adds up. Of course, the rack’s quality and features also play a significant role in pricing. Many racks use multiple safeguards to keep the bikes protected, which can increase the cost too.
Another aspect to remember is that upright and fork-mount roof racks follow different mechanisms and designs. Some options can allow you to carry 6-7 bikes, which understandably cost more than a barebone product.
Hitch Racks’ Pricing
Hitch racks do have a reputation of costing a bit more than the other alternatives. That applies especially if you want to get a platform hitch rack. But I’d argue that a heftier price tag is justified, given their remarkable weight capacity and overall quality.
Platform racks are worth their weight in gold,especially if you intend to use them daily or carry multiple bikes.
Hanging racks, on the other hand, typically cost less than their counterparts. However, they aren’t always as capable and allow for a bit more sway than the platform options. That’s about it in terms of the differences in pricing.
Carrying capacity may not matter much if you only want to carry a bike or two. But it’s a huge deal if you regularly transport multiple bikes with your car.
Carrying Capacity of Roof Racks
Roof racks are generally known for their excellent weight-bearing capacity. Many of these products can easily carry up to six or seven bikes. And since they don’t have to hang off anything, there are no worries on that front.
Of course, you need to think about the weight capacity of your car’s roof, as many cars can be somewhat limited with that. For example, a smaller car won’t be able to fit as manybikes as a larger one.
And since these racks rely on crossbars in most cases, the car’s size also plays an active role in this part. But given that you have a medium to a large-sized car, it’s possible to carry multiple bikes without any issues. Roof rack perfect for mountain bike without any question.
While fork racks provide improved stability as a bonus, taking the front wheel off is undoubtedly a chore and two. In the end, it’s up to you if you’d rather have an upright roof rack for the increased convenience.
Carrying Capacity of Hitch Racks
As I mentioned above, there are various classes of trailer hitches, which plays a significant role in their weight-bearing capacity. For example, a class II trailer hitch can handle around 200 – 250 pounds, while class III can handle up to 500 pounds.
This is the first catalyst that determines a hitch rack’s capacity. Secondly, the type of rack you get is also crucial. You probably remember that these racks can follow either a platform or a hanging style.
Platform racks have a design that allows the bikes to rest on a tray. As a result, these products can handle multiple bikes without a hiccup (for example, many of the high-quality ones can carry 6-7). The added stability with these racks makes things even better.
Hanging racks hold the bikes by their frames instead of having them on a platform. Understandably, this mechanism takes a toll on the rack and doesn’t provide the same capacity. There is also a possibility that you might need an anti-sway bar to keep everything stable.
Stability, Security and Performance
The security, convenience, and overall stability make a massive difference in how you carry your bikes. Let’s take a look at arguably the most crucial part of these racks.
Overall Performance of Roof Bike Racks
Roof bike racks are pretty stable for the most part, although it slightly depends on which type of rack you get. Fork-mount racks are as stable as it gets, as they hold the bikes by their frames and don’t allow for much sway.
Upright racks allow for more sway and don’t run a tight ship like their counterparts. Both these racks are pretty good with security too, with many of them coming with built-in locking mechanisms.
Installation is also easy, as you can just set the rack up and forget that it’s there. This is something hitch racks cannot achieve. There is one big issue, however — the positioning.
Since these racks are mounted above, it introduces a significant amount of drag. In most cases, you can expect a 20-30% increase in overall fuel consumption, which is too significant an issue to overlook.
Another problem is that you have to lift the bikes up to the car’s roof. If you’re like me, getting the bike up there can be an annoyance.
Overall Performance of Hitch Bike Racks
As there are two styles of hitch racks (hanging and platform racks), the experience can vary. Hanging racks are lightweight, and in many cases, compact and foldable.
While that’s a benefit in many cases, it also loses a bit regarding stability. Many users have to buy additional anti-sway bars to keep the bikes from swaying and potentially damaging themselves.
Platform racks are far superior in this case. They don’t hold the bike by their frames and provide an impressively stable journey. It’s also easier to carry multiple bikes with these.
Both of these styles make installation an easy process, although you can’t just leave them there like roof racks. These racks do pretty well in terms of security too. Many of them come with locking features out of the box.
One of the most significant distinctions between these racks is in whether they obstruct the vehicle’s rear. If you frequently need to access the trunk, the equation can change quickly.
Accessibility with Roof Racks
The best and the worst thing about roof racks is that they’re mounted up top. In this case, it works for their benefit. Since you have everything on the car’s roof, these allow for complete access to the back of the vehicle.
It’s easy to open the trunk or a hatchback door without any obstruction, regardless of whether you get an upright or a fork-mount product.
Accessibility with Hitch Racks
Accessibility or rear allowance is something hitch racks suffer with. Since they are mounted to the hitch at the rear of your vehicle, they tend to obstruct the trunk or rear door. There are ways to fix that, however — namely folding or swing-away bike racks.
While the former options can foldor tilt away, they cannot do so with the bikes mounted. Swing-away hitch racks are more convenient in these terms, as they can get out of your way without having to take the bikes off. Platform style is the best type hitch rack for mountain bike.
The issue is that these products can cost more than your typical hitch racks, so that’s something to keep in mind. Furthermore, they’re not nearly as convenient as roof racks when it comes to rear clearance.
Related article: Hitch vs Trunk Bike Rack – The Actual Comparison!
Should You Choose a Roof Bike Rack or Hitch Bike Rack?
Now that we know about the racks, the decision-making process should be straightforward. Here are a few scenarios:
- If you need to access the trunk or rear door often, a roof rack can be a great option without costing too much. A swing-away hitch rack can also work if budget isn’t an issue.
- If wind drag is a problem, then roof racks are going to set you back. They’re also problematic if you need to drive through low-clearance areas, so avoid them in such cases.
- For compact and occasional solutions, hanging hitch racks can be pragmatic. They’re easy to install, and many of them provide fold ability.
- For users that carry multiple bikes and need the most stability, a platform hitch rack is the best bet. These products are also quite secure. But if the lack of clearance is an issue, a fork-mount roof rack can work as a replacement.
As shown above, the decision-making process regarding roof bike rack or hitch bike rack mostly depends on the users’ preferences and requirements. I’ve attempted to show specific scenarios where each can be beneficial and whether one performs better than the other.
Make sure you consider your use case and then make the purchase. And then, enjoy the ride!