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How to Choose a Car Bike Rack & Types of Bike Racks


While some folks are lucky enough to ride right from their doorstep, most cyclists, and especially mountain bikers, will have to drive to where they ride their bikes. This means that you’ll need a bike rack for your car. Car bike racks come in many different styles, with compatibility with nearly every shape and size of vehicle. Choosing the right bike rack means choosing a platform that your trust to safely hold your beloved bike. It also means weighing factors like capacity, convenience, and fuel economy. In this guide, we’ll cover how to choose a bike rack, covering these different considerations, and more.

How to choose a car bike rack

Types of Bike Car Racks

There are several different types of bike racks for your car - each has a unique set of pros and cons. The biggest differentiators in car racks are how they connect to your car, and how they hold your bike. Common ways bike racks are mounted to your car are via the trailer hitch, roof rack, or straps. We’ve broken down the different types of racks below.

Tray or Platform Style Hitch Bike Racks

Tray style bike racks are some of the most common racks for a reason, they are convenient and they work well. These racks require a trailer hitch and are commonly available for either conventional 2” hitch receivers, or the smaller 1-¼” receivers that are more likely to be found on smaller cars. These hitch bike racks are great because they are easy to load, they don’t require you to lift your bike over your head, and they don’t have a huge impact on your fuel economy like roof-mounted bike racks. There are some limitations to the size of wheels that fit in tray bike racks, so look carefully at the specific model that you’re considering, especially if you’re planning to haul kids bikes with small wheels, or fat bikes with wide tires. Most tray-style racks carry two bikes, though there are models that can carry up to four or just one bike.

 
Pros:
  • Easy to load
  • Small impact on gas mileage
  • No frame rubbing or contact
Cons:
  • Requires trailer hitch
  • Can’t fit all wheel sizes and widths

Rooftop Mounted Bike Racks

May outdoor enthusiasts already have crossbars on the roofs of their cars for hauling toys like skis, kayaks, and gear, so why not add your bike to the list? If you’re set up with crossbars, a bike roof rack is an easy addition, and usually relatively cheap when compared to other styles of racks. Plus, roof racks are one of the types of bike racks you can use without a trailer hitch. Rooftop bike racks come in both fork mount and upright designs. Fork mount rooftop racks and mountain bike roof racks require you to take the front wheel off your bike, which adds a step to either end of your ride, and means you need room inside the car for your wheel. This helps reduce the profile of the bike on the roof compared to an upright roof rack. In general, racks have the greatest impact on your fuel economy because of the drag created by your bike or bikes.

Pros:
  • Cheaper than other styles of racks
  • Don’t need a trailer hitch
  • Works on sedans and other low ground clearance cars
Cons:
  • Need to remove front wheel and store inside car
  • Need to lift your bike overhead
  • Only transports one bike
  • Largest impact on gas mileage

Pickup Truck Tailgate Pad Bike Racks

Pickup trucks are great for hauling all sorts of cargo, bikes included. While you can just throw a couple of bikes in the bed of your truck, we recommend a tailgate pad instead. Keeping your bikes loose in the back of the truck means they’ll be bouncing around and can get damaged. Tailgate pads, meanwhile, let you hang the front wheel of your bikes over the (protected) tailgate for a secure ride and maximum capacity. Purpose-built truck bike racks have several advantages over DIY solutions like moving blankets - they have padding to protect your truck and your bike, they often have straps to keep your bike secure, and they have flaps to let you access the tailgate handle or backup camera. Tailgate pads work best for adult sized mountain bikes, road bikes with steep head tube angles will work, but don’t sit as nicely in the truck bed.

Pros:
  • Relatively cheap
  • Lots of capacity
  • Secure
Cons:
  • Need a pickup truck
  • Pad can rub on frame

Vertical Hanging Bike Racks

Vertical hanging bike racks have emerged from the mountain bike world, but are now available in styles that can take work with any type of bike. These mountain bike car racks have a “mast” that extends up from your trailer hitch, and a crossbar from which you hang bikes. Some of these racks fork by holding onto suspension forks (and are only compatible with suspension forks) while others have a tray that holds the front wheel. The vertical hanging racks with a tray are among the most versatile racks out there, holding nearly any wheel size. These racks are great for hauling lots of bikes.

Pros:
  • Relatively low impact on fuel economy
  • High capacity
  • Hold bikes closer to car than high-capacity tray racks
Cons:
  • Some are only compatible with suspension forks
  • Expensive

Hatchback, Sedan & Trunk Bike Racks

Trunk bike racks are adjustable racks that strap onto the trunk of your car - they are bike racks that don’t require a trailer hitch. These are among the least expensive types of racks and can be easily removed when not in use. Most of these types of racks hang bikes from their top tube. This makes it difficult to transport mountain bikes with these types of racks because mountain bike frames are uniquely shaped. It is very important to make sure that these trunk bike racks are set up correctly because they are just held on with straps, opposed to trailer hitches or locking rooftop mechanisms - there is no way to lock your bike down with these racks. If you will be transporting your bike often, we recommend looking at other types of racks.

Pros:
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Easy to remove from car
  • Can fit a wide variety of vehicles
Cons:
  • Not as secure as other types of racks
  • Can’t fit mountain bikes and unusual frame shapes

Horizontal Arm Hitch Racks

Another type of trailer hitch mounted rack, these bike racks have horizontal arms that hang bikes by their top tube. They often have the capacity to hold a full family’s bikes and can swing out to access the trunk. These racks are great for carrying traditional bike frames with a flat top tube. Where they are limited, however, is in carrying mountain bikes and other bikes like cruisers with unusual frame shapes. Plus, these racks rely on contacting the frame, which means there is the possibility of rubbing and scuffing.

Pros:
  • High capacity
  • Can fit kids bikes
Cons:
  • Can’t fit mountain bikes, or unusual frame shapes
  • Contacts frame

How to Choose a Mountain Bike Car Rack

There are a couple of different factors to consider when choosing a car rack for a mountain bike that differ from road and traditional bikes. First mountain bikes have unique shapes and dimensions to consider, this means some mountain bikes might not fit on some racks. For example, mountain bikes are built to have a low standover height, with sloping top tubes, this means that they don’t fit well on bike racks that hang the bikes from their top tube. Bikes with wider tires are another unique use case - make sure the mountain bike rack you’re looking at can accommodate the width of your tires.

The way we ride mountain bikes can affect your rack choice, too. For example, one roof rack might get your bike to the trailhead, but it will not be able to shuttle you and five of your buddies, with their bikes, to the top of a trail. So, consider the number of bikes you’d like to be able to carry and the types of rides you’ll be doing. We recommend truck tailgate pads and vertical hanging mountain bike racks for big shuttle days, by the way.


Other Bike Car Rack Considerations

Frame Contact

Racks that come in contact with the frame of your bike can sometimes rub and damage the paint, or worse, the frame of your bike. When choosing a bike rack, make sure to pay attention to the contact points that the rack has with the bike. Truck tailgate pads have some of the most contact with your frame, which is why they often come with softer materials in strategic locations. When using these racks, make sure to always clean dirt and grime off of your bike where it touches the pad, this will keep it from getting scuffed and damaged. Tray style bike racks, meanwhile have some of the least contact with your bike frame, making them a good choice to keep your bike in pristine condition - the only place they touch your bike is the tires, which are much harder to damage than the frame.

Ease of Loading & Unloading

One of the most important parts of any bike rack is how easy it is to get your bike son and off the rack. This makes all the difference between bringing your bikes on that camping trip or leaving them behind in the garage. Think about how high you will need to lift your bike to get it onto your car. Roof racks mean you need to get your bike all the way above your head - this can be seriously difficult for some riders. Tray-style hitch racks are probably the easiest bike racks to load and unload.

Security & Locks

Bikes are expensive, and it’s every riders nightmare to see their ride splattered on the highway like roadkill, or worse, stolen off your bike rack. Many styles of bike racks offer built-in locks that can help ensure that 1) your bike stays on the rack while driving, and 2) your bike can’t easily be stolen off the rack in a parking lot. We recommend looking for a style of rack that securely attaches to your car, and is not strapped on. While convenient, it is harder to ensure that these types of bike racks are properly set up 100% of the time.

Trunk Access

Many rack styles allow you to access your trunk, even with bikes on the rack, however, not all racks have these features, and sometimes trunk access is not possible with some rack and vehicle combinations. This is made possible by features that tilt the rack away from the car, or swing the entire system away. Make sure you properly vet these features if accessing your trunk is an important deciding factor for you when buying a bike rack.


The Best Bike Racks By Vehicle Type

The Best Bike Racks for Sedans

Most types of bike racks will work on sedans, though there are a couple of important things to consider, especially ground clearance. While it’s possible to mount a trailer hitch on a sedan, the extra length of a bike rack combined with the typically lower ground clearance of sedans can bottom out and hit the ground. We recommend roof mount bike racks as the best bike racks for sedans, though this does require having crossbars mounted to the roof. Trunk mount racks will work on sedans, but are not as secure, and limit access to the trunk.

The Best Bike Racks for Hatchbacks Similar limitations apply to hatchbacks and sedans, however, some hatchbacks have higher ground clearance, making hitch mount racks more practical. We recommend roof racks and tray style hitch racks as the best bike racks for hatchbacks.

 

The Best Bike Racks for SUVs & Minivans

SUVs and minivans can use almost any style of bike car rack, which gives you plenty of options to choose from. We recommend vertical hanging racks, or any other style of hitch-mounted rack as the best bike racks for SUVs and minivans. Amongst these options, base your decision on ease of trunk access, capacity, and compatibility with the types of bikes that you’ll be carrying.

The Best Bike Racks for Pickup Trucks

Like SUVs, trucks can use nearly any style of bike rack. The most simple, and our recommendation for the best bike rack for trucks is a tailgate pad. Tailgate pads can stay on your truck all bike season long and are super easy to use. If you want to free up space in your truck bed, or if you have a topper or camper, hitch style racks will be the best option. There are some truck and rack combos that will not allow you to fully open your tailgate, however, so pay attention to this while shopping.

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