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5 Different Types of Car Roof Racks

A look at a white car with a roof rack.

Few things evoke American summers than the image of a van or SUV with a roof rack loaded with vacation stuff. Bikes, luggage, a canoe – roof racks give you the ability to overload your car with stuff for your road trip destination and have all the summer fun you want without cramming your vehicle with stuff like a clown car.

Roof racks are also critically important if you’re moving or going to college, as they give you so much more space to pack. You’d opt for a moving van if you had a tremendous amount of stuff, but for a quick jaunt across town to a new apartment or a dorm, a roof rack is a simple-to-use, elegant addition to your family vehicle that does the job well.

Let’s look at the different types of roof racks available, why you’d use one over the others, and how useful they can be in your everyday life.

Naked roof

This is the default for the vast majority of cars, but if you’re talking a vehicle made in the last 10 years, this doesn’t mean that a “naked roof” has no rack or rack-capabilities. Naked roofs still have small, plastic runners to which a rack can be affixed and this is what differentiates a “naked” roof on a modern car from the bare roof of a car made in the 90s.

Though you might think those slim plastic rails alongside your car’s roof are there for decoration or to decrease drag, they’re intended to be the anchor for a temporary or permanent roof rack. This default state might not be a roof rack per se, but it’s the staging ground for any future installations.

Key features

The naked roof is the default roof type for the vast majority of vehicles made in the last 10-15 years, and it’s the basis for attaching any kind of rack system. It looks like it might be a gutter or decoration, but it’s critically important to be able to seamlessly install a rack, though by itself it doesn’t do anything. These “clip fit” racks include brands like Thule and Yakima.

These work best with temporary systems that clip in around them,  but they can be the point of installation for a permanent rack system if need be. Depending on your type of vehicle, if you’re buying a factory, new model, you can opt to have a different rack installed in place of the naked roof as an upgrade in most cases. It’s worth discussing with your car salesperson.

Materials

The overwhelming majority of these roofs are plastic or fiberglass.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • The default setting that allows you to fully customize whatever rack system you want to use
  • Attractive and doesn’t interfere with anything related to handling the car

Cons:

  • You will need to upgrade these of course if you want to have a useful rack on your car

Where to buy

Since these come standard with most cars, there’s no buying them after-the-fact. Even older cars cannot be retrofitted with this type of roof rack, since it’s not a roof rack – rather since it’s a staging area, your best bet if your car doesn’t have one is to find a rack system that works with your vehicle’s frame as it is.

Side rails

Mazda Genuine Roof Rack Side Rails
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Rails look like they’d be a roof rack system themselves but they’re not. Though you can strap something down using these rails, it’s not recommended – rather these should be the basis for a more complex rack system.

Side rails are typically found on SUVs, conversions, and vans, and work fine to move something like a mattress across town but shouldn’t be used to strap down anything more substantial for longer drives. They work by running straps underneath and then over your load, clipping the straps on the opposite side. Great in a pinch, but better use to anchor a bigger system. What’s more is that these rails can be flush with the roof and in those cases, they can’t be used to strap anything down and are instead wholly anchor points.

With that said, if your car didn’t come with these standard, they’re a great addition and will make future rack installation far easier than a naked roof, and as we said earlier, they’re great for more complex, taller racks.

Key features

There are two primary side rail roof racks – fixed and raised. The raised roof racks will install around the rails and some examples of those are the Yakima Timberline or the Thule 450 Crossover. These are perfect for bikes and other outdoor gear, as the tower expands slightly to have more give without sacrificing its ability to hold onto your transported gear.

The fixed point connections are more common, and there are more options for roof racks with these, as the anchor points are built into the interior sides and make for a stronger connection. These include the INNO IN-TR and the Yakima Rail Grab rack support systems.

Materials

The roof rails are typically plastic or fiberglass – they’re sturdy enough for transporting something around quickly, but they’re better served as a base for a much more sturdy roof rack. The fact that they’re fixed in the roof, however, makes the tension on them spread across the top of your vehicle, which is a far more sound option than if they were only connected by a few small anchors.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • These are sturdy, built-in racks that can be used in a pinch to transport a small amount of stuff over short distances but work best as anchors for bigger racks
  • Installing these on a vehicle is cheap and efficient, but most larger vehicles come with them standard

Cons:

  • Not designed to bear loads themselves, which is confusing for many motorists
  • Fixed and raised rails do not work interchangeably with racks designed for them – if you already have a temporary rack system for your car and you buy a new vehicle with a different rail system, you’ll need a new rack.

Where to buy

You can find these rails at most supercenters like Target or Walmart that have garages attached. They are also available on Amazon, but you’d need to get someone to install them in most cases.

Fixed point

YAKIMA - Landing Pad 11, Fixed Point Tower Installation for Naked Rooftops (Set of 2)
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Fixed point rails are designed to sit in the roof of your car and are almost always an intentional upgrade unless you’re buying a Jeep or Range Rover or some other outdoorsy type of car. These metal bars have divots that act as anchor points for complex and highly effective roof racks and are extremely durable and reliable.

While they can work with clip ties and be used to tie down loads of varying sizes, the real beauty of these is the racks they serve as the base for. The Yakima Skyline, for example, is quick and simple to install and holds up to 165 pounds, making it great for transporting your entire vacation gear, bikes, or anything that weighs effectively the same as an adult male (just don’t use this as an excuse to kidnap men).

Key features

Fixed point rails and the rack systems they secure are some of the easiest racks to install and use. They’re great for cyclists and equally wonderful for taking a short road trip and storing some luggage. In a pinch, they can be used to tie down items and transport them short distances, like large boxes from a store that you need to take across town.

Materials

These rails are almost always metal, and that’s because they’re designed to hold large, high racks. Some of the smallest, simplest systems they anchor can hold 165+ pounds, with the top end being well over 300 pounds and reaching quite high. Metallic anchors are necessary in these cases.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • Extremely durable and reliable
  • Secure
  • Easy to use and install racks

Cons:

  • These are best used with temporary systems
  • The rails themselves are almost always factory-installed, which means if you’re buying a used car, these are likely not an option for you

Where to buy

The rails themselves come from the dealer, whereas you can get the rack systems from rack companies directly, and in some cases on Amazon or at Walmart. Auto upgrade businesses may also have these in stock and they’ll install them as well.

Canopy mounts

These types of mounts are complex and usually designed for large vans, trucks, and RVs, but they can hold a tremendous amount of weight and store a lot of equipment. They’re intended for long vacations over great distances. While they can be used for smaller transportation of items, they’re a bit of overkill to install if you don’t use your vehicle to travel and vacation a lot.

Canopy mounts are incredibly sturdy and complex to install, so you’ll want to get a professional to do it for you. They can be expensive but they’re worth it if you intend to travel and take a lot of stuff with you, especially bikes or canoes. They install either directly to the vehicle or the old rain gutter rails that cars in the 70s – 90s had typically standard. The Thule 542 is a perfect example of a highly tuned, extremely reliable canopy system.

Key features

These are heavy-duty mounts, and as such, are great for long road trips and moving, and especially for large vans and RVs. They allow you to stack equipment high and carry large loads, so using them to move is a snap.

Materials

These are always metal because they carry a lot of weight, but this makes them sturdy and reliable, which is exactly what you’d want with a rack with this purpose in mind. They will also want to be fixed to an anchor that is metal as well.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • Extremely durable
  • Able to carry a lot of weight and height reliably
  • Permanent installation means no fumbling with them over and over

Cons:

  • Require professional installers (you could do it yourself but it’s not at all advisable unless you’re an expert)
  • More expensive than other rack systems
  • Require metal mounting rails in 99% of cases

Where to buy

These will almost always be bought from a rack dealer exclusively or a car upgrade store. If you buy them from Amazon or second-hand, you’ll need to hire a professional installer to get them installed correctly.

Rain gutters

HTTMT- MT371-033- All-In-One SR1001 56" ROOF RACK SYSTEM Compatible With Most VEHICLES RAIN GUTTERS 130 LB CAPACITY [See Fitment]
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These were installed by design on a huge majority of cars in the 80s and 90s, and are not directly intended to be rails for racks, but sort of evolved the industry. Because these fixtures were so common, rack companies designed a lot of their products to work with these types of rails, and future rail systems were designed emulating these.

These are typically metal in the cars where they’re present, so they’re durable and serve as a very good anchor point for the rack systems that use them, including:

  • INNO IN-MD
  • Yakima 1A
  • Thule 953 and 300

Unlike many of these other rack systems, because gutter rails were so ubiquitous in older model cars, it’s very easy to find one in a used vehicle, which makes them unique.

Key features

Sturdy, solid metal, and common in older cars, these care perfect for when you’re buying a used van or SUV for use strictly as a vacation vehicle.

Materials

Sold metal makes them durable and reliable as an anchor point for a variety of rack systems.

Pros and cons

Pros:

  • These racks are sturdy and well-built
  • Attach securely and since gutter rails are tried and true, the designs haven’t changed in years, leading to less confusion when purchasing

Cons: 

  • There aren’t any – these are great racks if you have the rain gutters on your car. They hold a tremendous amount of weight and work well with tall and short gear stacks.
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