Today’s cargo carriers are sleek enough to work with the aesthetics of your vehicle without sabotaging your gas mileage. All you need is a roof rack—though sometimes you don’t even need that—and you can add cargo capacity to the top of your car without looking like the Beverly Hillbillies.
See quick reviews below of five of the best options, then scroll deeper for longer reviews of these and other rooftop carriers, plus helpful buying advice.
Types of Rooftop Cargo Carriers
Box: This is what most people picture when they think of a cargo carrier. Also called rocket boxes (technically a model name used by Yakima that has become the Kleenex of the rooftop cargo space), these are hard sided, often heavy, and secure. They provide the most safety for your gear, keeping it in an enclosed shell and out of the elements. Many of them also have lockable lids and rack/bar attachments. A box can take some fiddling to get on your car’s roof, but once it’s up there, it’s easy to use, requiring no tying of ropes or cinching of straps to keep your stuff from flying away. For the drawbacks: Despite fairly aerodynamic designs, boxes will stick out into the wind, impacting your gas mileage and noise levels with the increased drag. They also tend to be the most expensive kind of cargo carriers.
Bag: If your car doesn’t have a roof rack and you can’t justify altering your vehicle to accommodate one, or it does but you want to keep things simple, consider a soft-sided carrier. These lash down to the very top of your roof using straps that either attach to mounting points on your rack or loop through your windows. Soft-sided bags are typically lighter, easier to store, and flexible enough to accommodate bulky or oddly shaped items. Downsides include faster wear, damage to the window weather stripping over time, and the higher likelihood of scratching your car’s paint. They also get pretty blocky when stuffed, presenting a wide, drag-increasing surface to the wind.
Basket: Simply put, these are big metal baskets. They leave your gear open to the rain, sun, and wind, making them better for transport but worse for all-weather storage. Baskets also demand cam straps or at least a rope to tie down whatever you carry in them. But their lack of solid bodies make them relatively aerodynamic and less likely to drag down your miles per gallon. Plus, the low profiles mean that, once you unload the gear from them, they’re more likely to fit into a garage without needing to be removed. Baskets are also hardy, and cheaper than boxes.
Sport-specific: If you’re going to be transporting mostly one thing or anything that won’t fit in a box, bag, or basket—say a kayak or bike—you’ll want to get a carrier built for that object. We’ve included some options toward the bottom here. Some, like the TMS J-Bar and RockyMounts Tomahawk, require careful mounting. And not all can be left on the top of your car if you park it in a garage given the height. Still, they work better than anything else for their specific gear and often aren’t as expensive as a box.
Things to Consider Before You Buy
First, if your car doesn’t have a factory-installed rack that works with the carrier you want (or it doesn’t have one at all), you’ll need to purchase one. Either way, it’s important to check your owner’s manual or the vehicle’s manufacturing website to determine the weight capacity of your car’s roof.
Next, consider the physical dimensions of the box, bag, or basket relative to the roof. Will it fit without hanging over the front or back? Is it long enough to accommodate what you want to use it for—like, say, a couple of pairs of skis? If you have a hatch, will it open unencumbered or will the carrier get in the way? How much height will it add to your vehicle? This is especially important for anyone who wants to pull into a garage without having to remove the box each time. Before purchasing, check the manufacturer’s website for information like load restrictions, dimensions, and even images for how the model looks on different styles of cars.
Also, look at the carrier’s shape. If you plan on making it a semi-permanent addition to your vehicle or you spend most of your time on highways, consider something that’s more aerodynamic and less boxy. You’ll likely pay a little more up front, but what you spend on the streamlined carrier, you’ll save in gas.
Other Features to Look For
If you choose a box, consider how and from which end it opens. When reaching overhead or across the roof, you want a handle that’s easy to grip and operate, especially if you’re vertically challenged. And depending on your vehicle and how you access the carrier, determine whether you prefer a box that opens from the back or side. Lastly, most people shopping for a rooftop carrier prefer one that locks, allowing you to stash valuables at, say, a campsite when your only other option is inside your tent. As well, you’ll want your hard-shell carrier to be water-tight or your soft-sided bag to be waterproof.
What Type of Mounting System Do You Want?
In general, your cargo carrier will either be very easy to pop on and off or it will take a little more time and some tools if you want to take it or leave it. Cheaper models often use a simple u-lock system that requires a few wrenches to install (or uninstall) on your vehicle’s rack. Higher-quality options, like those from Thule and Yakima, use tool-free mounting systems that are a breeze to operate.
How We Rated and Selected
We researched expert sources and more than 5,000 consumer reviews to select the top systems for lashing your gear to the top of your car. To determine our Total Expert Score, we calculated the ratings from review sites, such as GearWeAre, Outdoor Gear Lab, Travelbusy, and CarBibles and converted them to a 100-point scale to make it easier for you to weigh the best options. Our Consumer Score represents the percentage of consumers who rated the product at least four out of five stars on retail sites like Amazon, REI, Walmart, and Home Depot.
―FORM AND FUNCTION―
Thule Motion XT XL
Total Expert Score: 84.5/100 | Consumer Score: 92% give it 4 stars or more
A stylish carrier with a glossy finish; you’ll want to leave it on your car whether it’s full or not
Volume: 18 cu ft. | Weight: 46 lb. | Dimensions: 84.5 x 36 x 17 in.
This carrier is an overall winner. It’s easy to install, has enough space for a lot of gear, and is stylish enough that you’ll want to keep it on top of your car all year. The Motion XT opens from either side, and popping the lid open is easy with supporting lifters. Of course, the versatility and sleek design come with a decent price tag.
What’s more, the clamps that secure it to the roof rack will click to give you an audible confirmation that the box is on with correct tension. Experts loved this mounting system. Outdoor Gear Lab even called it the most intuitive it’s ever tried. Customers wrote favorably about the Thule Motion, but noted that you have to be careful as you load it. “Keep in mind the gloss black finish scratches very easily,” said one REI reviewer.
Yakima Skybox 16 Carbonite
Total Expert Score: 79.5/100 | Consumer Score: 89.5% give it 4 stars or more
Aerodynamics, styling, space, and ease—at a great price
Volume: 16 cu ft. | Weight: 75 lb. | Dimensions: 90 x 36 x 20 in.
The Skybox affords aerodynamic storage and enough room for a lot of gear. While the price isn’t the absolute lowest, the quality and size make this the best value we know of in a hard-sided cargo box. The lid is reinforced with stiffeners to keep it from warping or buzzing at highway speeds, and the box opens from both sides. Plus, it’s made with 80 percent recycled materials.
Experts at Outdoor Gear Lab loved the balance of features. “SkyBox does a great job of keeping our gear safe, secure, and easily accessible, all at a price that leaves you some money left over to buy gear to fill it.” And consumers loved how easy it is to install, with one Amazon reviewer saying, “I put it on and off by myself to adjust clamps.”
Total Expert Score: 44/100 | Consumer Score: 80% give it 4 stars or more
Affordability trumps style for getting your gear where you’re going
Volume: 8 cu ft. | Weight: 16 lb. | Dimensions: 54 x 25 x 15.5 in.
If price is your concern over aesthetics, use, and even size, well then the Sidekick might just be for you. It’s not pretty, but with eight cubic feet of space, it will haul some of the gear you need. You may not like the one-side entry or the color scheme, but for the money it will certainly keep your gear dry and get it from one place to another on top of your vehicle. U-bolt mounting and some assembly required.
Experts weren’t impressed with the ease of use, appearance, or security when compared to other carriers but recognized the usefulness at the price. And that is something that consumers loved, accounting for much of its high score. And while this Amazon review is not sterling, it gets to the point of why the Sidekick has done so well with consumers, if not with experts: “Not the highest quality but does the job at good price.”
―BEST SPACE FOR THE MONEY―
SportRack Vista XL
Total Expert Score: 72.5/100 | Consumer Score: 85% give it 4 stars or more
A supersize box without the supersize price
Volume: 18 cu ft. | Weight: 42 lb. | Dimensions: 19 x 63 x 38 in.
The SportRack gives you a ton of space for not a ton of cash. It has a more subdued and less spaceship-like look to it than the options from Thule and Yakima, which can be great if those don’t match the design of your car. This box has front hinges, which means you won’t be able to open it from the side, only the back. While this could be a benefit in a tight ski-lodge parking lot or on the side of the road, it could test your reach over your vehicle’s tailgate, and in all likelihood you won’t be able to access your gear on top of your vehicle while the trunk is open.
Experts loved the value for the dollar, though. Travelbusy claims it’s “the biggest bargain you will find on the market in terms of value versus price.” And customers loved the amount of space. One Amazon purchaser said it was “like a black hole of space.”
—BUILT FOR BOARDS—
Thule Pulse Alpine
Total Expert Score: 90.3/100 | Consumer Score: 91% give it 4 stars or more
Slim and aerodynamic, capable of fitting just what you need and nothing you don’t
Volume: 11 cu ft. | Weight: 30 lb. | Dimensions: 88.5 x 25.5 x 12.5 in.
Consider this a powder day cargo box. The Pulse Alpine can accommodate up to six pairs of skis or three snowboards, and its low profile lets it slip through the wind better, boosting your vehicle’s storage capacity without hampering the fuel efficiency too much. That also means that, depending on the height of your car’s roof, you can drive it into the garage—Pulse on—without having to remember to take the box off every time.
The capacity doesn’t match some of the other options here, so the Pulse is better for days when you’ve got plenty of room in the trunk for most of your stuff but don’t want to fold down the rear seats to fit skis or boards. And because snow sports gear isn’t cheap, the Pulse has a lock to keep its contents secure. One Amazon reviewer did report some water leaking in, but others didn’t seem to have issues there. And the folks at GearWeAre like the Pulse for its mix of capability and affordability.
Total Expert Score: 84/100 | Consumer Score: 79.5% give it 4 stars or more
Easy to use and install, even if you don’t have a roof rack
Volume: 15 cu ft. | Weight: 5 lb. | Dimensions: 44 x 34 x 17 in.
If rocking a permanent hard case on your vehicle isn’t ideal, or your car doesn’t have a roof rack you can mount something to, consider the soft-sided Keeper bag. It will fit any roof rack, with mounting attachments on all four sides. And you can even finagle a tie-down through the car’s windows, propping it directly on the roof.
Experts at Camping & Camping loved how the soft-sided bag could accommodate bulky items that wouldn’t fit in a hard shell, but noted that “the bag’s waterproof feature isn’t strong enough to withstand heavy rains.” So while you’ll be good in a light drizzle, it’s best to avoid torrential downpours. But customers were impressed with the durability, with one Amazon reviewer saying, “After 7+ days, 3,000+ miles, hot days around 100, some pouring rains, and driving average at 65 to 70mph, Keeper arrived in Los Angeles with no scratches, [only] dead bugs in the front.”
—SIMPLE ON AND OFF—
Rightline Gear Sport Jr.
Total Expert Score: 92/100 | Consumer Score: 79% give it 4 stars or more
A bag that requires little effort—and no rack—to install
Volume: 10 cu ft. | Weight: 5.7 lb. | Dimensions: 36 x 30 x 16 in.
If you can’t be bothered with a rack, turn to this Rightline. It of course can work with a rack if you loop the straps under the bars, but the hooks afford easy attachment to the weather stripping inside the car’s doors. That combination of small size and rack-less mounting make the Sport Jr. ideal for smaller cars that need some capacity to supplement the trunk space. And because the bag weighs so little on its own, you’re essentially adding just the weight of the gear you put in it to your vehicle’s roof.
It’s not terribly aerodynamic, basically just a block sitting on the roof fighting against the wind. And the reviewers at Auto Quarterly noted that the Sport Jr. could flap loudly once you hit speeds over 50 mph. But it won’t let the elements in to get your equipment damp, thanks to the welded seams and waterproof zipper. Reviewers on Amazon appreciated this. “I went through several rainstorms and the bag remained waterproof,” one wrote. “I’m talking max wiper speed is not fast enough and people are pulling over to the shoulder kind of rainstorm. Everything inside the bag remained dry.”
Arksen Universal 43”
Total Expert Score: 100/100 | Consumer Score: 78% give it 4 stars or more
Appealing in its simplicity and size
Capacity: 250 lb. | Weight: 37 lb. | Dimensions: 43 x 39 x 6 in.
The Universal stands out for its ease of use and mounting. The relatively small tubing around the sides provides plenty of points for tying down gear. And despite the appearance, the burly steel construction lends it some heft, and this weighs more than a couple of the boxes on this list. As with many basket-style cargo carriers, it’s aerodynamic, and the panel on the front further helps cut down on drag and wind noise by directing air over the top.
Reviewers on Amazon appreciated how Arksen includes extra screws and nuts to aid in set up and commented on how simple it was to secure the Universal to the top of their car, calling out its quality comparable to more expensive models. The writers at AutoQuarterly, who reviewed the larger 64-inch version, pointed out that the Universal’s powder-coated body isn’t rust-resistant. So if you live in a wet climate, you’ll want to take the basket off when you’re not regularly using it to keep it from corroding. Or apply your own rust-proofing before heading out.
Rola 59504 V-Tex
Total Expert Score: NA | Consumer Score: 89% give it 4 stars or more
A hardy beast of a basket
Capacity: 130 lb. | Weight: 54.6 lb. | Dimensions: 48 x 37.5 x 5 in.
The Arksen may be heavy, but the V-Tex is heavy. Its 54.6 pounds place it second only to the Yakima Skybox. With that weight and its thick bars, though, you get ample durability. This is the basket you want if you’re frequently questing along forest and backcountry roads (or even off road) and running the risk of it banging against low-hanging branches.
Other than that, the V-Tex is your typical simple, reliable basket. Some people who bought it commented on Amazon that they experienced some issues, namely slight misalignments of the screw holes and the suspect quality of the included screws, gaskets, and washers. But neither was a deal breaker that some elbow grease and a trip to the hardware store for better bits couldn’t fix. And other reviewers advise applying some caulking around the seams to prevent moisture from sneaking in and rusting the tubes. Despite those hang ups, most found the V-Tex worth the price.
—FOR SKIS AND SNOWBOARDS—
Thule SnowPack Medium
Total Expert Score: NA | Consumer Score: 79% give it 4 stars or more
A lightweight clamp to secure your planks
Capacity: 4 pairs of skis/2 snowboards | Weight: 7.6 lb. | Dimensions: 19.7 x 3.9 x 3.4 in.
Thule kept user-friendliness in mind when it made the SnowPack. Mounting it on crossbars is straightforward with the included tools. And the height of this ski/snowboard rack is adjustable via the included mounting blocks, mitigating any clearance issues with bindings and the vehicle’s roof. Plus, there’s a spring in the hinge that widens the clamp’s grip based on the thickness of the skis or boards, while the rubber arms won’t scratch the topsheets. Even the button to open the SnowPack is optimized—big enough that you don’t have to take your gloves off to press it after you’re done shredding.
One Amazon reviewer did note that a small pair of skis, when clamped farthest from the hinge, slid forward and backward slightly. And the SnowPack is among the pricier ski and snowboard racks. Still, it won praise for its low profile, which leaves enough room for it to stay on the vehicle’s roof in the garage and saving you the hassle of having to swap it on and off every time.
—FOR KAYAKS, SURFBOARDS, AND PADDLEBOARDS—
TMS J-Bar Rack HD
Total Expert Score: NA | Consumer Score: 70% give it 4 stars or more
The most affordable setup for getting your craft to the water
Capacity: 75 lb. | Weight: 8 lb. | Dimensions: 17.5 x 12.5 x 6.5 in.
For those of us who have pickup trucks, hauling a kayak or board to the lake or river put in is easy. And it can still be easy for the rest of us that don’t with the help of the steel J-Bar—it just requires some lifting and a small investment. This rack has a shape wide enough to accommodate boats up to 36-inches wide, and the smaller outer bar presents little obstacle to loading while still keeping whatever you’ve got on the J-Bar secure. If you haven’t practiced your knot tying in a while, that’s fine; TMS ships the setup with ratcheting straps.
While the J-Bar is compatible with most roof bars, if you keep your car in the garage, you won’t want to leave it up there. Its height leaves little to no headroom for squeezing under the door. And though the straps are included, the reviewers at Rack Maven and Amazon recommend buying more or swapping in stronger ones for security’s sake.
Total Expert Score: NA | Consumer Score: 84% give it 4 stars or more
The convenience of wheel-on transport on the roof
Capacity: 1 bike weighing as much as 35 lb. | Weight: 18 lb. | Dimensions: 38 x 3.5 x 13 in.
If your car’s roof isn’t very tall and the vehicle doesn’t have a hitch or otherwise easy mounting of a rear rack, opt for the Tomahawk. It has good range, particularly useful for riders of bigger bikes, since the rack can fit bikes with tires up to 5-inches wide and wheels up to 29 inches (but it still holds smaller road bike tires, too). Loading up is as simple as hooking the swing arm over the front wheel and cinching the straps through the front and rear wheels. No part of the Tomahawk comes into contact with the frame to rub against or otherwise mar you ride’s paint job.
The editors at Bicycling warned that, because you’ll be hoisting your bike up on the roof to get it on the Tomahawk, this rack is best suited for shorter cars. (And of course you’ll want to stop in the driveway to bring your bike down and collapse the swing arm before rolling into the garage.) They also appreciated how RockyMounts removed some of the frustrations with these types of racks, making the Tomahawk easy to use with things like tabs that hold the straps out of the way as you’re loading and unloading.