I still remember the feeling of assembling my roof rack on my brand new Toyota Prius 10 years ago. I was preparing for a month-long road trip across the country with stop-offs in Colorado and Arizona. I planned to ride and trail run my way across America, dog, and bike in tow. I was also pretty proud that I had arrived at a point in life where I was able to afford not only a new car but also the obscene cost of a full Yakima roof rack with bike trays and locks and all of it.
My Roof Rack Experience
The roof rack was surprisingly easy to install, which is a testament more to Yakima’s engineers than my constructive prowess. I could get it quickly done in an afternoon, attaching my bike on the fork-mounted tray and going for a joy ride around town. My car was certainly louder and handled differently, but I felt like a sure-fire badass and indulged in my daydream of rolling up on race day with my sleek setup.
Ten years later, with several parking deck bash-ups removed, I’ve rethought mountain bike transport’s utility and design elements. The truth is that if you have a roof rack, there is an almost certain chance that at some point, you will smash your bike against something. I’ve been able to crush several parking deck facades and even a Starbucks marquee over the last few years, earning my rack and Prius roof several scars in the process. Yet, shockingly, my bikes have never been significantly damaged.
The last straw came when my father-in-law crashed into a hospital parking deck with both my road bike and my mountain bike on the roof. Both bikes and the entire rack were pulled off the roof instantly, and he left with the guilt and then the labor of picking up the pieces. I was still attending to newborn twins on floor 7, but I remember coming down the elevator, stepping outside, and seeing the fragments of my bike rack lying scattered on the sidewalk. My car roof looked like a series of meteors had pelted it, creating a dimpled golfball look. Gone was the smug confidence I had when I first installed my roof rack. It looked like rack and car had gone to war, both having earned some intense battle scars.
Hitch rack for the win
My father-in-law took my Prius the next week to install a hitch to assuage his guilt. I thought of going to a hitch rack over the past year, but I couldn’t get past the inertia of getting it installed. It turns out that it was straightforward to do and not that expensive. Most of the larger U-Haul locations can do it for less than $150 in a couple of hours. So I bought a middle-of-the-line hitch rack at REI later that afternoon and was in business.
I’ll never go back. Hitch racks may not be as useful in carrying much more than bikes, although I pull my trash cans back up to my house by strapping them to my bike trays! I love that I don’t have to constantly look up to see if I’m about to run into something. I also love not having to lift my mountain bike up over the roof of my car. As a bonus, the rack and trays can serve as a bicycle stand for some repair or maintenance purposes, including a handy way to wash your bike after a muddy ride.
So the comparison is not even close: Hitch rack wins over roof rack 99/100 times.
Although this article is not a product review, once you commit to going hitch, you’ll see a wide variety of prices and brands. I recommend staying somewhere in the middle. You don’t need the $600 racks unless you want the very best engineering and aesthetics. Also, it would help if you avoided the super cheap off-brand Amazon racks. They will almost certainly bend or rust within months. Buying used can also work well as it seems like a specific group of mountain bikers are constantly upgrading with no regard to cost.
Transporting your ride is necessary, but it doesn’t need to be a necessary evil. If you are the person that is putting your bike in your car, please stop. Hitch racks are not that much in terms of cost and will save you time and headaches in transport. Plus, you may just get that ego boost that only comes when you roll up in the parking lot with a clean setup.
Matt Chisholm is a data analyst and freelance writer who studies the environmental history of the Southern Smoky Mountain region of North Carolina. He was a contributor to Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia and the 2016 edition of the Journal of East Tennessee History, for which he won the 2017 McClung Award. When not writing, Matt enjoys road and mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and drinking beer around Concord, NC where he lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys.
Get the email for busy mountain bikers.
Discover the best products + gear, and learn about deals from brands you love.