How to use a vehicle luggage rack

Updated February 21, 2017

The value of saving space inside the vehicle on a long road trip is hard to measure. Knowing how to properly load and use one's vehicle-top luggage rack means the difference between being packed like sardines for several hours versus having an enjoyable family trip.

Determine the best option for your trip and vehicle. There are options whether you don't have a roof rack, or have a partial or full rack system. For those without roof racks, a hitch mount is a viable option and crossbars are available to add to partial racks that only have the two parallel side rooftop rails. A luggage rack or hauling store often installs vehicle hitches, if necessary.

Decide between using a rooftop carrier such as a cargo bag versus a roof rack depending on the cargo. Rooftop carrier options include cargo bag in both soft or hard shell options. Although both provide protection from the weather, soft shells are usually less expensive. Whereas a roof rack or basket doesn't protect from the elements, but it does put fewer limits on your cargo capacity and allows you to transport odd-shaped such as fishing poles.

Check the luggage rack system manufacturer's user manual for proper loading instructions and to know the rack's weight limit; exceeding the weight limit causes damage to the vehicle. Also, check that the luggage rack system is securely fastened to the vehicle prior to loading up for the trip.

Load the luggage onto the roof starting with the heaviest items. If you have rooftop carriers then load the luggage or other cargo into the bags. For extra protection, place items that can be damaged from rain in plastic before loading. If you have more than one cargo bag or luggage on a rack or in a basket, place zippers facing toward the center of the roof, and use a lock on the zippers.

Secure the luggage using luggage straps, cargo bag straps or a bungee net. For roof racks or baskets use straps or a bungee net to keep items in place.

Cover the luggage with the net and attach to the roof racks using the attached straps or rack rings. You can also simply run luggage straps through the luggage handle and attach to the roof racks. Most cargo bags include straps or rings to attach it to the vehicle luggage racks.

Criss-cross the straps on top of the luggage, if you have a full rack system and are not using a cargo bag or net. For example, attach a strap at the rear on the right and the front on the left and then attach the adjacent strap in the opposite direction. Each strap should be at least 50 cm (20 inches) apart.

Tug on the straps or netting to be sure the luggage is snug, but not too tight. Take a test drive around the block to make sure your luggage will sustain the trip. Also, check the luggage periodically during the trip. Stop the vehicle anytime it sounds like luggage is loose or shifting.


Prevent vehicle scratches by first cleaning the roof and any attachments, such as luggage or roof bag. Take a tarp on the trip in case of inclement weather for a roof rack or basket.

Things You'll Need

  • Hitch mount
  • Cargo/roof bag/rack basket
  • Plastic bag
  • Lock
  • Luggage straps
  • Bungee net
  • Tarp
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