5 Steps to choosing your next roof rack

By Unsealed 4X4 8 Min Read
Image from the 'Madigan Line Simpson Desert Crossing' trip for Pat Callinans 4x4 Adventures in June, 2015

We need to talk about the roof rack. If you’ve been anywhere in 4X4 land over the last five years you’d spot more cheap roof racks than you could shake a product recall notice at. And hey, we’re not hating, they make a lot of sense. They offer up a heap more storage space no doubt, but they’re not without their downsides. These roof racks raise your centre of gravity making you more likely to roll. Plus they can potentially rust your roof in a matter of months causing thousands of dollars of damage. In addition, they increase your fuel consumption due to a reduction in aerodynamic efficiency.


We’ve taken a closer look at roof racks, what you can put on them, choosing the right material, how they mount, and to be honest, whether you need one at all.

Rhino Rack Pioneer Platform

1. Do you even need a roof rack?

It’s no big secret a lot of 4X4 magazines survive by bending over backwards for their advertisers. They convince their readers they need the latest and greatest whatever-the-hell the advertiser is selling. If you listened to half the things they said you’d be convinced you need to pack for a three-month expedition just for an overnight camping trip. Things are done a little differently around here. Before deciding what you need in a roof rack it’s important to see if you even need one.

This weekend pack your 4X4 with all the gear you need to take camping. As you’re loading every item in give it a good look over to see what’s vital, and what you’ve never even used before. The large majority of gear can be slotted inside somewhere with a little creative thinking and making use of the available space. Interior roof-mounted cargo nets offer a great place to stash bulky but lightweight items that’d normally end up on the roof.


Things like push bikes can often be mounted in a substantially cheaper hitch receiver carrier. Larger items such as tents, swags or kayaks can work with cross bars rather than a full rack, offering a considerable cost and weight saving.

2. How they mount

If you’ve decided a roof rack fits the bill for your build then it’s time to look into how you can actually mount one to your vehicle. There’s no use getting all excited about a particular design only to find out it won’t work with your particular four wheel drive.

There’s a few differing mounting methods. While some have advantages over the others, in most cases you’re pretty well stuck with what the manufacturer of your 4X4 designed from the factory.

The first, and most common method on older fourbies is the gutter mount system. There will be a metal lip running down the sides of your vehicle that the rack can clamp to. In newer vehicles the rain gutter has been replaced by channels in the top of your roof. These channels often have a removable cap that hides a factory-fitted, load-rated mounting point. Another popular thing coming out of the factory these days are roof rails. While they don’t really do anything other than look good, they do provide a solid mounting point for either cross bars or a full rack system.

Vehicle with roof rack

3. What’s it made of?

Things are going to get a little left field here but hear us out. Manufacturers make things to be just strong enough to do the job while being as light as possible. If they could make steel wheels lighter but retain the same strength they would. Therefore logic dictates that steel wheels need to be as thick as they are in order to carry the weight of a fully loaded 4X4. These same manufacturers make alloy wheels that deal with the same weight but are significantly lighter. Now some bloke on an internet forum might argue, “But Toyota, Nissan, and every other manufacturer in the world all agree that for a given weight, aluminium is stronger”. Which leads us to…


Some manufacturers claim to have tested their steel racks to hold over twice the weight of their aluminium counterparts. If that’s really the case these companies have no business manufacturing anything out of steel or alloy. The whole point is moot anyway. Your vehicle’s roof can only hold a set amount of weight, and it’s far below the maximum rating of most racks. Alloy vs. steel really comes down to cost. The jury has already decided alloy is both stronger and lighter – but it’s also more expensive.

4. What style rack?

By now you should know if you need a rack, how it’s getting mounted, and what it’s going to be made of. The next step is picking what style you want. There are a multitude of different rack designs. Some act as a basket allowing you to load them up with small gear. Others are a more open design providing room for larger or bulkier items like roof top tents.

If you know exactly what you’re planning on running upstairs and will never waver from it then the choice is pretty straightforward. If, like a lot of us, you need a more versatile system, then it’s a bit of a no brainer that modular systems are a better fit. They’re not exactly cheap. However, they allow the bolt-on fitment of accessories such as bike holders, jerry can mounts, shovel mounts, even straps for kayaks.

Vehicle with a roof rack

5. What can you put on them?

Depending on the vehicle, most 4X4s will have a maximum roof carrying capacity of around the 100-200kg mark. This includes the roof rack. Considering a completely empty steel rack can eat up 50kg of that weight, it’s important to minimise what’s on the roof.

The general rule is if there is anywhere else something should go, that’s where it should go. Spare tyres should be on a carrier, or inside if need be. Water can be stored inside, and high-lift jacks and shovels can be mounted to bar work as well. Leave the roof racks free for bulky items that physically can’t fit anywhere else such as tents and swags. A weather-proof roof bag is the perfect solution to get bulky but lightweight items such as clothing up there, leaving room inside the vehicle for heavier items. It’ll minimise the chance of damage to your roof and keep your centre of gravity lower as well.

As you can see, there might be a little bit more to the whole roof rack situation than looking for one that comes with a free stubby cooler.


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