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Redusernab Asks: Trailer hitch or roof rack?

Alan Cesar September 26, 2017 Redusernab Asks 37 Comments

 

Roof racks and trailer hitches often perform the same tasks, but each have their own benefits and drawbacks.

A roof rack makes a hit on the car’s aerodynamics and can make wind noise even when it’s not in use, but it’s always there if you need to unexpectedly haul big items. When I still lived at home, I picked up a new screen door from the local hardware store with my Escort wagon because my parents’ much-bigger sedans couldn’t accommodate it.

 

On the other hand, a trailer can haul more things, bigger things, more easily. It’s really hard to put a stove on a roof rack by yourself. If you commit to trailer-only, you don’t take a fuel economy hit except when you’re actually pulling a trailer. But unless you have a purpose-built trailer for the job, some large things require their own solution. There’s no way my 16-foot canoe will fit on this little utility trailer. Backing up or maneuvering tight spaces with a trailer can also be a hassle.

For the cars I’ve shopped, the two devices cost about the same: $200 to $300 all in. When it came to my van, I opted for a trailer. Tall vehicles make roof racks less practical. My WRX, on the other hand, had both—fuel economy sucked no matter what.

We’re asking today about your choice. Obviously you’ll need a pickup truck if you’re hauling large amounts of bricks and lumber, and a trailer (yeah, or ramp truck, you wise guys) is a must for towing a race car. We’re talking passenger cars here—your sedans, wagons and maybe small vans—for everyday or recreational use.

So: Which cargo-enhancing accessory is best suited to your lifestyle?

  • P161911

    While not a car for your purposes, our Trailblazer had a roof rack and a trailer hitch. for one of our first big vacation trips, I had a giant duffel bag meant to be used with a roof rack. Within about 15 miles the wind noise drove me crazy and I just jammed the thing on the inside. A much better solution turned out to be one of those receiver hitch shelf things. That could hold either the big duffel, a large ice chest, or a big weather proof foot locker thing that I had. When we got to the destination, the shelf could either be put inside the vehicle or stashed somewhere in our room.

    The right utility trailer and a vehicle with a decent towing capacity can make a good substitute for a pickup truck.

  • “…and a trailer (yeah, or ramp truck, you wise guys) is a must for towing a race car.”

    Trailer hitch on the tow vehicle, flat-towed race car with roof rack, additional roof rack on the tow vehicle just in case. It’s something of a belt-and-suspenders approach to everyday or recreational use.

    • Alff

      If anyone were to transport one Saab on the roof of another, it would be you.

      • “Karlson on the Karlson”, famous story.

        • Alff

          Roof?

          • I imagined two Saab 96 in tight lock with their roof racks (i.e wheels of the upper car in the air), rendering the roofs a space too marginal to accommodate any size of any Karlsson.

    • Alan Cesar

      I’m sorry that I didn’t include a separate caveat for weirdos like you. I love this photo more every time I see it.

      • I’d planned to retire those shots now that the towing 96 is no more, but then you went and asked precisely this question with precisely that provocation.

  • Alff

    I had to tow home four of the last five cars I’ve acquired. The roof rack has its place but isn’t nearly as versatile as a proper tow vehicle and hitch.

    • On the one hand, a roof rack has its limitations. On the other hand, I really want a Sinclair C5.

      • Sjalabais

        The PV has never looked so big before.

  • My previous car had a hitch but an impossible roof shape without rails. All neighbors have trailers we could borrow, as do all the home improvement stores inkl. Swedish IDEA.
    Now we have a four bar 250kg roof rack but no hitch, and I like it better for 5+m wooden beams and paneling. A washing machine, otoh, does not belong in 7 ft height.
    Consequently, I prefer a roof rack in combination with a fork lift.

    • outback_ute

      The rack is rated at 250kg but is the roof?

      • Oh, that was written a bit hastily. The roof is rated for 250kg indeed – a commercial vehicle in its core.

        • outback_ute

          Fair enough. As cronn notes below, ‘normal’ roof load ratings are typically 75kg, maybe 100kg, which is why I wondered. Even for SUV’s, yet people will happily sell you a roof top tent… I suppose in a stationary situation it is less of an issue, but I bet people have damaged roofs using them.

          • Troggy

            Not roofs, but windscreens funnily enough. As a rigid stressed member of the car they don’t like to be flexed, and too much weight on the roof can cause them to flex and fail.
            Troopies have a fairly weak roof, and with extra weight on them the flex over rough roads is sometimes enough to smash the windscreen. If you ever got a chip it was a good idea to start sourcing a new windscreen fast, because it wouldn’t last very long before the cracks spread far enough for it to fail completely. It only ever happened to me in Troopies with ladder racks on the roof.

            • outback_ute

              My uncle used to have a 1983 Jeep Cherokee (aka Wagoneer), on an offroading trip through the Kimberleys he noticed that there was a gap between the top of the windscreen pillar and glass of about a centimetre or nearly half an inch. When he got to the Jeep dealer in Broome they ed head office in Brisbane, the reply came back “a centimetre is acceptable, but we recommend taking some of the load off the roof”. Apparently the pillars were not fully boxed near the top so that they would flex a little rather than crack, and the windscreen was not bonded. I can’t remember how much load he had on the roof rack, but at least 100 kg.

          • Thank you for caring, really!
            I’ve been considering roof tents, too. The size we’d need weighs in about 70kg dry. Adding the weight of the actual rack it’s at the very limit of many ratings, and you’re not exploiting the stowage space for sleeping bags and a towel yet.
            The argument is that additional 150kg of people are static load on the resting vehicle, whereas the manufacturer ratings are for getaway driving on twisty cobbled stone roads.
            Which takes us back to the topic, if my family was to grow into a 2+2 I would prefer a roof tent over a camping trailer for our weekend tours: cheaper, easier to handle on the last mile (bays and mountains don’t always come with tarmac stripes), at arrival you can park the kids upstairs (they’ll love it up there) while you’re prepping the camp fire, and eventually, a camping trailer’s interior is putting the compromises between space, usability, price, and features on the wrong side.

  • Fred Talmadge

    I use a roof rack on the wagon, but right now I wish I had a trailer because I could get free fire wood. Then again, that free firewood would cost me a sore back, so I’m sticking with the roof rack and I’ll pay someone to deliver the firewood.

    • Smaglik

      My X3 came with a hitch, and I’ve used it quite a bit since I got a wood burning stove, mostly for firewood, in trailers borrowed from a variety of friends. All the firewood is effectively free around here ($5/cord for a permit from the USFS), but it does require a lot of work. On the other hand, it did give me a reason to buy a chainsaw.

      The X3 does have a roof rack too, for which I purchased the bike rack attachment, which I rarely use, but it has come in handy.

  • cronn

    I don’t see a roof rack as a permanent accessory since it takes a couple of minutes to install when you need it, so I wouldn’t be too worried about mileage. Most people I see with the rack on all the time are cyclists.

    75kg or thereabouts is the typical limit for a roof rack (as specified by the car manufacturer), so I don’t really think it’s fair to even compare it to a trailer. They serve totally different purposes.

    Towing regulations depend on where you live, but Finnish rules state that a trailer without brakes can carry 750 kg legally. A braked trailer can do more, depending on the towing vehicle and/or your license. What counts as “huge amounts?” I would say that three quarters of a ton of lumber is quite a lot, and no, you don’t need a pickup truck for that.

    Bonus picture: my car with a typical trailer AND a roof rack at the same time.

    • Alan Cesar

      You make some fair points. Regarding pickup trucks, I said “large amounts of brick and lumber,” not “some.” You can exceed your 750kg limit fairly quickly buying pavers for a backyard patio.

    • It is worth noting that European towing regulations are based around having very little tongue weight, and 80 km/h (50 mph) max speeds in most countries to avoid sway caused by the lack of tongue weight.

  • Harry Callahan

    Trailer guy here. Never seen a roof rack that can accommodate motorcycles.

    • outback_ute

      I’m disappointed I couldn’t find a picture of someone carrying a trailer on a roof rack

  • Scubie

    I have both on my diesel Toyota Prado – for versatility like towing stuff (trailers, caravan), and putting stuff out of the way on the roof (roof box – more storage, mountain bike). 2.5 ton towing, 200kg on the roof. No compromise…

  • PotbellyJoe★★★★★

    Both, you never know when you’ll need one, or the other, or both. This was the van when I used the systems in tandem, I’ve done this also on my Pontiac Vibe as well. Makes it so I can own a smaller car to have the attachment points.

  • Back in our camping days, a roof rack was a must for the bikes since the hitch was where the camper was.

    For additional cargo capacity, I prefer a hitch mounted cargo rack. Less additional air drag. I had a 2″ receiver on the Prius because my rack has a 2″ tube. Unfortunately, it looks like I can’t get a 2″ hitch for the Accord. I’ll need an adapter or a new cargo tray.

  • Troggy

    Definite trailer guy here. With roof racks you need to be a bit careful about how you load it and what you put on. A trailer, just chuck it in and tie it down. Backing isn’t a big deal, it just takes practise. A longer trailer is easier to reverse than a short one. I can understand how storage can be an issue for some people though.
    I have a 50mm towball for the 7×4 trailer (unbraked) and a treg hitch for the camper which is about a (metric) ton depending on how it’s loaded.

    • Krautwursten

      And I think trailers are far more dangerous because they’ll gravely affect vehicle handling with wrong weight distribution, and are hard to back for amateurs. Rightfully so drivers in the EU can only tow relatively light trailers on a regular license compared to the US. Of course in the end roof racks and trailers operate in completely different cargo categories anyway.

  • onrails

    Suction cups! I trailered a lot when i had he race bike behind my HHR, and used a hitch mounted bike carrier, but after getting a used Volt to replace the HHR for commuting duties and no longer having a need for a trailer (sold the race bike) I didn’t want to have to put a hitch on or use a roof rack, or one of those scratch the paint bike racks. There’s a company out there that makes suction cup bike racks. I love the minimalism of it and no problems with highway speed or high lateral yet. And I can still use the hatch with the bike up there.

  • Krautwursten

    Why not both? The only cargo I can even think of for trailer hitches and roof racks to compete for are bicycles, in which case you would block the trailer hitch with the bike carrier. For any other cargo one solution will inherently make vastly more sense than the other. No one will put motorcycles or firewood on a roof, or extra travel bags or christmas trees on a trailer.

    • Vairship

      “…or Christmas trees on a trailer.”

  • “Trailer hitch or roof rack?” is, ultimately, a false dichotomy.

  • Sjalabais

    The road bike world championship was in Bergen for a couple of days. To me, that was mostly a show of how many bikes can fit on the roof of a modern Volvo:

    Usually, I get along fairly well with overloading the car, no need for roof rails or trailers. But for carrying a bike, a trailer hitch is unbeatable for simplicity. At least for a commoner.

  • Zentropy

    Trailers are great, but where I live, we can’t store them in our yard– must be kept in the garage. That gives the nod to the rack.

  • SlowJoeCrow

    I’m moving in favor of trailer hitches, although I actually use both. Our Saturn and its predecessor had a roof rack intended for bikes that was also useful for hauling all sorts of stuff, although bikes on the roof definitely affected gas mileage.
    Our current ride is a Mazda CX-5 with factory roof rails and a factory trailer hitch, so the bike rack is now a hitch mount unit which is more convenient and more aerodynamic than the roof rack. We have occasionally tossed stuff on the roof rails and ultimately plan to buy some crossbars and bike mounts since the hitch rack only holds 3 bike and can’t handle a tandem. I will look into getting some sort of trailer since I do occasionally need to haul a motorcycle and we currently don’t have a truck or nearby friend with a truck
    Tandem bikes are one of those things best hauled on the roof or in the vehicle, although there are hitch mounted racks for tandems.

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