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Your guide to car roof rails and racks

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    If outdoor activities or road trips are a big part of your lifestyle, you may consider adding a mounting system to your car’s roof to bring along all the gear you’ll need. Car roof rails and racks can help you expand your options for packing and transporting your stuff. They can also be a great solution for carrying equipment that’s too big for your car’s interior — like bikes or kayaks — without resorting to a trailer. While car roof rails and racks often work in conjunction, they do have some distinctions.

    What is a roof rail on a car?

    Roof rails are long bars that run along the length of your car’s roof, in a front-to-back orientation. Many vehicles are readily equipped with some form of roof rails — which you may notice when buying a car. Some manufacturers may offer these rails standard, while others provide them as an option instead. If your car doesn’t have any, they can be installed separately. Broadly speaking, roof rails typically come in two configurations: 

    • Flush: These rails sit flush with the surface of the car’s roof. They often provide attachment points for roof racks — which you’ll learn about shortly — but generally involve additional components and containers for carrying gear.
    • Raised: Rising about an inch or two off the surface of the roof, these rails are attached to the car’s roof, usually temporarily, and may increase drag and lower fuel economy. However, they may offer more utility because the gap between the roof and rail can be used to stow smaller and lighter items.

    What is a roof rack on a car?

    A car roof rack may consist of one or more crossbars attached to the car’s roof rails. Alternatively, it could be its own raised system comprised of both rails and crossbars — for cars that don’t come with rails. Roof racks can help your vehicle accommodate bigger, heavier gear. Special accessories can help secure outdoor sports equipment or even mount large storage bins and baskets for added capacity.

    Important considerations

    Now that you know the differences between car roof rails and racks, you can determine which is right for you. Here are some questions that may help:

    What are you transporting?

    Probably the most important consideration of all, you need to actually be able to store and transport your stuff safely. Today you might need storage for your bike, but tomorrow’s activities could look a bit different! If so, you’ll likely want to look at compatible accessories, and be sure you have all the tie-downs and other items needed to ensure your gear doesn’t fly off while driving.

    What will fit your car? 

    Not every car roof rack or rail system is compatible with every vehicle, and different brands of systems may not be compatible with each other. There could be incompatibilities based on size, weight or method of attachment, for example. Some vehicles don’t accommodate third-party accessories either, which is worth looking into before committing to a specific rack system. Double-checking the specifications for your car and the rails you want could help avoid a costly error. 

    Is it user-friendly? 

    Your new storage system won’t be too helpful if it’s a pain to use. Ideally, loading and unloading your gear should be fairly simple. If you’re not planning to leave the rack attached year-round, you’ll want it to both attach and detach with relative ease. If you plan to use your car roof rack in winter, a version with large buttons that you can operate while wearing gloves is a nice extra feature.

    Is installation available? 

    Many rail systems advertise ease of installation. You may have considered the do-it-yourself approach to save a few dollars, but even expert installers agree that it’s easy to make an expensive mistake that could damage your car or the rack and rail system itself. Some garages and sporting goods stores that sell these racks also offer installation. Many manufacturers and dealerships will also offer this service, especially if you’re getting the rack as an optional feature while purchasing your vehicle.

    Can you put car roof rails on a leased car? 

    Autonomy over modifications is a bit easier as a car owner than it is as a lessee. The terms of a lease will likely restrict what you’re allowed to do. It’s a best practice to consult with your dealership before making any changes that might violate the terms of your lease.

    In summary

    If you’re a bit of an adventurer or you and your family love to take road trips, a car roof rail or rack can add more space and options to your journey. As an added advantage, many of these systems can also be installed, then removed when not needed, when you sell your car, or if you want to switch to a different rail and rack system.

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