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Roof Rack Base Systems - The Foundation for Sports Equipment Carriers

You can’t mount any kind of carrier on a vehicle roof without a “base” rack system in place. We discuss base rack system components so you can determine your exact needs.

More than ever, we have observed that young and old alike are engaging in outdoor activities. Everything from biking to skiing to canoeing is being pursued with avid interest and excitement. There are folks outside in all kinds of weather, at all times of the year, engaged in healthy pursuits. The explosive popularity of the "Sport Utility Vehicle", or SUV means that these vehicles are living up to their name, and are being pressed into use as the means to move the equipment. Even the "non-SUV", the family sedan or hatchback, has been configured in some way to be able to carry what's needed to support the sporting activity of choice.

The vehicle rooftop is a great place to carry what you're taking with you. It is space that otherwise is neglected, allowing you to carry passengers and smaller cargo inside your ride. Sports equipment manufacturers have responded in kind, by producing a slew of products to help in your quest. Today you can choose from roof-mounted carriers for bikes, skis, snowboards, canoes, kayaks, plus cargo boxes for all the miscellaneous stuff we can't live without.

However, before you rush out to buy that combo-kayak-canoe-carrier, you need to take a good long look at what's on your roof now. The reality is that you must have some sort of roof rails and/or cross bars to support your carrier of choice. This is important! You cannot mount your typical bike or boat carrier directly to a bare roof. So let's take a step back and go through the components of Base Rack Systems. We're here to define and explain all these terms for you.

Base Rack System Components

Looking at your vehicle's roof right now, you need to determine what combinations of components, if any, you have. If you have a "plain" roof with no rails on it at all, then you have what the industry calls a "normal" roof. Take a look at this photo:

Plain Roof

If your car is from the 1980's or earlier, you may have "drip rails" or "rain gutters", channels directly above the doors designed to keep rain from dripping on you as you enter/exit the car. For aerodynamic and styling reasons, rain gutters have disappeared from modern cars. Designers will let you get wet, as long as your roofline remains smooth! Note the rain gutters in this picture:

Rain Gutters

We spoke of SUVs at the start of this article, and how popular they've become. Many of these types of vehicles (as well as some station wagons) came from the factory with "roof rails", defined as fixed bars or rails which run the LENGTH of the vehicle. In some cases, roof rails may have been a factory option, or could have been a dealer-installed accessory. Typically, they are on legs which place the rails a few inches above the roof (you should be able to get a few fingers between the rail and the roof. Here is an illustration of roof rails:

Roof Rails

In a few cases, vehicles were factory-equipped with crossbars. Please reference the photograph below and note that "cross bars" (can be spelled as one or two words) sit across the WIDTH of the roof, from driver's side to passenger side. There needs to be a minimum of two for proper support:

Cross Bars

A number of high-end sedans, especially European cars, have what are referred to as "fixed mounting points" in the roof. The advantage of such a design is that the sleek and aerodynamic look remains for those who do not plan to mount anything to their roofs; and for those who do, the threaded inserts (see picture), hidden below a hinged or removable panel, provide a secure and safe mounting point for roof rails.

Threaded Mounting Inserts

Once you've determined your current configuration, you are ready to make the first purchase decision. Presuming that you need cross bars (and most of you will), you start by selecting a set of crossbars or load bars.

In general, the cross bars from the various roof system manufacturers are Universal Fit. This means that they are not vehicle-specific. They WILL vary in length, and although you might be tempted to purchase the longest ones you can, be aware that it's recommended that the cross bars not extend past the edges of the roof by more than an inch or so. Bars which extend more than that become a head-bumping hazard. Thule's load bars are available in numerous lengths, in both a SquareBar design and a smoother AeroBlade. Yakima makes a number of different bar designs, including Round Crossbars, Whispbar Flush Bars, and ProRack Rail Bars. Crossbars can also be bought from Rola and Rhino Rack.

Thule - Load Bars

These manufacturers have done a fantastic job of taking the guesswork out of the equation for you. Once you've plugged in your specific vehicle's year, make and model, you will be shown all the appropriate choices. Because of factory and dealer options, you may be asked about the present configuration on your roof. That's why we defined all those choices for you at the start of this article.

When we stated that the cross bars tend to be Universal, it stands to follow that the attachment pieces which fasten the bars to the roof are vehicle-specific. While these are all very similar in concept, each supplier has its own name for the fittings. Thule sells Foot Packs they have named Podium, Aero, and Traverse. Rather than be concerned about the subtleties, you will find that only one choice will come up for your car or truck. For vehicles with factory rails, the Thule Crossroads Kit is the way to go.

Yakima offers several options. One choice is that Smarfoot fitting kit, designed with the flexibility to be mounted on various roof designs, including normal roofs, raised rails, and fixed point roofs.

Yakima - Smarfoot Fitting Kit

Rhino-Rack's choices include their Aero Roof Rack System, Multi Fit Euro Roof Rack System, and Multi Fit Heavy Duty Roof Rack System. Again, each of these will appear only if appropriate for your particular ride.

Rhino Rack - Aero Roof Rack System

All of these systems ensure a secure and strong base for whatever you plan to carry. With proper installation, you can be assured that the bars will stay in place at speed. The last thing you need to be concerned about is your precious sports toy flying off the roof at 60 mph! Some additional features to look for include locks to prevent theft; aerodynamic features to minimize noise; and aluminum or rubber-coated protection to prevent rust. Keep in mind that most of the cross bars we sell have a weight limit, typically around 165 pounds. More importantly, you are limited to the weight-carrying capacity of your vehicle's roof. Don't overload it! Your, and your family's, safety are too important.

Once you've installed your cross bars, you are free to select from the wide range of roof-top carrying accessories we offer. In addition to ski and snowboard carriers, canoe and kayak carriers, and bike carriers, choose from cargo boxes, cargo bags, and cargo baskets. Once you start traveling with your roof-mounted toys, you'll wonder how you got along without the roof rack!

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