The Best Rooftop Cargo Carriers for Hauling All Your Gear

Expand your storage capacity while keeping equipment safe and secure.

By James Lynch, Popular Mechanics

Today’s cargo carriers are sleek enough to work with the aesthetics of your vehicle without crushing your gas mileage. All you need is a roof rack—and sometimes you don’t even need that—and you can expand your cargo capacity on top of your vehicle without looking like the Clampetts. See quick reviews below of our top five options, or scroll deeper for longer reviews of these and other rooftop carriers, plus helpful buying advice. 

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 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 pairs of skis? If you have a hatch, will it open unencumbered or will the box get in the way? How much height will the carrier 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 a carrier, check the manufacturer’s website for information like load restrictions, box dimensions, even images for how the box looks on different styles of cars.

Also, look at the carrier’s shape. If you plan on making the box 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, but what you spend on the streamlined carrier, you’ll save in gas.

Other Features to Look For

Consider how and from which end the box 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 boxes 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.

If your car does not 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 window weather stripping over time, more likely to scratch your car’s paint. 

How We Rated These Cargo Carriers

We researched expert sources and more than 5,000 consumer reviews to select the top cargo boxes. To determine our Total Expert Score, we calculated the ratings from expert review sites, such as GearWeAre, OutdoorGearLab, 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 4 out of 5 stars on retail sites like Amazon, REI, Walmart, and Home Depot.


Thule Motion XT XL

Total Expert Score: 84.5/100 | Consumer Score: 92% give it 4 stars or higher

A stylish carrier, with a glossy finish, you’ll want to leave 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. Its easy to install, has enough space for a lot of adventure, and is stylish enough that you’ll want to keep it on top of your car all year round. Of course, the versatility and sleek design come with a decent price tag.

The carrier opens from either side and is easy to lift with supporting lid-lifters. What’s more, its easy to install and will even click to give you an audible confirmation that it is on with correct tension.

Experts loved the mounting system. Outdoor Gear Lab even called it the most intuitive it’s ever tried. Customers loved 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 customer reviewer.


Keeper Waterproof

Total Expert Score: 84/100 | Consumer Score: 79.5% give it 4 stars or higher

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 vehicle 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 if you don’t have a rack, you can even finagle a tie-down through a car window.

Experts at Camping and 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.”


Yakima Skybox

Total Expert Score: 79.5/100 | Consumer Score: 89.5% give it 4 stars or higher

Aerodynamics, styling, space, and ease—all at a great price

Volume: 16 cu ft. | Weight: 75 lb. | Dimensions: 90 x 36 x 20 in.

An aerodynamic box with enough room to store all of your gear . While the price is not the absolute lowest, the product quality, size, and price make it the best value. The lid of this carrier is reinforced with stiffeners to keep it from warping or buzzing at highway speeds. The box opens from both sides, and it’s made with 80 percent recycled materials.

Experts at Outdoor Gear Lab loved the balance of all the aspects of the Skybox. “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 consumer saying, “I put it on and off by myself to adjust clamps.”


Thule Force XL

Total Expert Score: 79/100 | Consumer Score: 94% give it 4 stars or higher

All the space you need when you want the box on, easy to take off when you don’t

Volume: 18 cu ft. | Weight: 47 lb. | Dimensions: 82.75 x 33.75 x 17.25 in.

This is a big boy ready for all of your gear needs. Think 5 to 7 pairs of skis or 3 to 5 snowboards. The integrated mounting system makes it easy to install, and a torque indicator audibly clicks when you have it on properly. At less than 50 pounds, it will also be easy to lift up to your roof and take off if you’re not interested in driving with it at all times. Even at that low weight, it can handle up to 165 pounds of gear. It also opens from both sides and has easy-to-use locks.

While the Force didn’t blow away its competition in any category, experts at Gear We Are called it a “high-performing option with an average price.” Customers from REI loved its dependability, “Since we bought this in November, we’ve traveled some 4,000 miles with it and have had no issues,” said one reviewer. And multiple Amazon reviewers raved about the mounting system, including one who said, “[Thule has] absolutely nailed the attachment design for the clamps that secure the unit to the cross bar on the car.”


SportRack Vista XL

Total Expert Score: 72.5/100 | Consumer Score: 85% give it 4 stars or higher

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 a little bit of cash. It has a more subdued and less angular design than the options from Thule and Yakima, which can be great if some of the more space-age designs don’t match the design of your car. This box has front hinges, which means you won’t be able to open the box from the side. 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 tailgate, and in all likelihood you won’t be able to access your gear on top of your vehicle while the tailgate is open

Experts loved the value for the dollar, though. Travel Busy claims it is “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.”

Other Great Options

Yakima RocketBox

Total Expert Score: 73.5/100 | Consumer Score: 86% give it 4 stars or higher

Aerodynamic and easy to install, plus enough room for three adventurers’ gear

Volume: 14 cu ft. | Weight: 30 lb. | Dimensions: 58 x 36 x 16 in.

This box is another aerodynamic design from Yakima. And this box, with 14 cubic feet of space, should be able to fit the adventure gear of about three people. The matte black finish will look great on your adventure mobile, and the aero design means you can leave it on all the time as it won’t dramatically change your MPG. This has a number of great features, including a lid that can open from either the driver’s side or the passenger side, to allow the most convenient gear access. And the no-tool install is easy, especially since, unlike some of the other boxes, this one comes fully assembled. It also comes with SKS locks to keep your gear safe.

Experts took a keen liking to the easy installation that worked on a wide variety of racks. Outdoor Gear Lab said, “The best thing about the Rocketbox is its easy installation.” Consumers loved its smart design features. One Amazon reviewer noted the ease of securing gear with the Rocketbox’s robust internal mounting features, “I also love that inside the RB [are] four molded slots for two webbing straps to be fed through and cinched down on cargo inside. That is a nice touch.”

Thule Sidekick

Total Expert Score: 44/100 | Consumer Score: 80% give it 4 stars or higher

Affordability over style, but will still get 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. Its not pretty, but with 8 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 overall 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. For those those who need a carrier, and are concerned less with features than getting the job done for a reasonable price, this is a great option. 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 great with experts: “Not the highest quality but does the job at good price.”

See more at: Popular Mechanics


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Automotive Magazine: The Best Rooftop Cargo Carriers for Hauling All Your Gear
The Best Rooftop Cargo Carriers for Hauling All Your Gear
Expand your storage capacity while keeping equipment safe and secure.
Automotive Magazine
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