Bike Racks 101: A Complete Guide to Finding the Right Bike Rack

A man is unloading a bicycle from a bike rack carrier.

Whether you want to hit up some exotic, far-off trails, or simply haul your bike around town, a bike rack makes carrying bikes on a car simple and safe. But before you go out and make a hasty purchase, it’s important you do some research to make sure you’re getting a rack that’s right for your car, budget, bike and riding style. If you’re new to the bike rack world, this guide will help you make an informed decision when it comes to choosing the right bike rack for your needs.

What is a bike rack?

Not to be confused with the parking bike racks outside schools and office buildings, a bike rack – or bike rack carrier – is a device that attaches to the outside of your vehicle and securely carries your bicycle(s). Since cars were not designed to carry bicycles, countless cyclists rely on bike racks to safely and conveniently transport their bikes long distances, like when trail-riding or moving, for example.

Types of bike racks

There are three main bike rack categories: hitch racks, roof racks and trunk racks. Each category refers to the location on your vehicle the bike rack is mounted (i.e. a trunk rack is mounted on the trunk). Because U-Haul specializes in hitch mount bike racks, this guide will focus on hitch rack tips and options.

Do you need a trailer hitch for a bike rack?

To use a hitch mount bike rack, you do need a trailer hitch on your vehicle, while roof and trunk racks don’t require a trailer hitch. A trailer hitch can be installed on just about any vehicle – from small hatchbacks to minivans to oversized SUVs. Learn more about selecting a hitch here or find a hitch for your vehicle here.

Hitch bike rack installation

One of the reasons some riders prefer hitch racks over roof or trunk racks is because hitch racks are easy to install. In many cases, sliding the bike rack into the hitch receiver is all that it takes to install the rack and get on the road. Check your bike rack’s instruction manual for exact installation steps.

Types of hitch mount bike racks

Platform bike racks

  • Locking trays hold your bike upright while it’s on the rack
  • Less bike sway or movement
  • No contact with the bike frame
  • Holds up to four bikes

Hanging bike racks (also called mast-style)

  • A hanging arm holds/supports your bike by its frame
  • Often more compact than platform racks
  • Bikes experience more swaying
  • Holds up to five bikes

Tailgate bike racks

  • Available as a tailgate pad or locking bar in the pickup bed
  • Conveniently stores bikes in your truck bed
  • Lightweight and easy to use
  • Holds up to six bikes

Spare tire bike racks

  • Attaches to rear-mounted spare tire
  • Arm holds/supports your bike by its frame
  • Easy to use and install
  • Holds up to two bikes

Bumper bike racks

  • Attaches to a steel, square bumper
  • Some models also compatible with a hitch receiver
  • Locking trays hold the bike upright while it’s on the rack
  • Holds up to two bikes

A woman has just unloaded her bicycle from a her bike rack carrier and is getting ready to ride.

How to choose a bike rack for your car

Now that you know the types of hitch racks that are available, you can find a rack that’s right for you. Answer the three questions below to help determine what you need.

How many bikes are you carrying?

You can carry up to five bikes with a hitch bike rack (six if you’re using a tailgate pad). However, not all racks can carry that amount. In general, you can carry more bikes with a hanging bike rack versus a platform or spare tire rack, so keep that in mind if you are planning a lot of group excursions.

Are you okay with the rack touching your bike frame?

If you’re looking to keep your bike in pristine condition, consider a platform rack. These racks carry bikes by the wheels while they stand upright, keeping the frame from coming in contact with the rack. Hanging and spare tire racks, however, will contact your bike frame and have more “sway.”

What are your hitch and bike specs?

Each bike rack has its own specifications regarding how much weight it can carry, how many bikes, tire and wheel size and the hitch receiver size. Make note of your bike’s wheel and weight specs and your hitch receiver size before you begin shopping for a bike rack so you don’t end up with a poor fit.

Bike rack safety: general tips and info

While all bike racks are safe for driving and your vehicle, hitch racks are especially safe. This is because they’re mounted via the hitch receiver instead of with straps (like roof and trunk racks). This also makes hitch racks less likely to shift or move while you’re on the road. As for driving with the hitch rack in place, keep in mind that platform hitch racks may affect your vehicle’s clearance, and mounting any hitch rack will extend your vehicle’s length. You can remove your hitch rack as needed to return your vehicle to its normal size.

How much do bike racks cost?

Bike rack prices can vary considerably based on the model and functionality. One rule of thumb: the higher carrying capacity, the higher the price. For example, you might pay less than $200 for a two-bike hanging bike rack, while a five-bike platform bike rack might be closer to $900. No matter the price, you’re investing in a quality piece of equipment that will last for years to come. If you buy a new vehicle, your hitch rack can easily be transferred.

Shop for bike racks today

Ready to find for the perfect bike rack and begin your trail-riding adventures? U-Haul carries all styles of hitch mount bike racks from top brands such as Saris, Yakima, Thule and Allen. Find the right bike rack for your vehicle today.


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