Hack Your Car Top Carrier: Loading Tips and Safety Smarts

Updated: May 30, 2023

Getting building materials home from the lumberyard or home center is easy if you own a pickup truck or a minivan. But you can also haul items on the roof of your car or SUV if you've got a roof rack, obey the rack's weight limits and properly tie down the load.

car top carrierThe Family Handyman
Improperly secured loads can fly off your vehicle and injure people when you're driving down the highway, or even just turning or stopping. In fact, improperly secured loads cause more than 25,000 crashes annually, resulting in more than 90 deaths and many more injuries. If your load injures someone, you can count on hearing from one of the many hundreds of attorneys who specialize in just this type of case. So forget about using twine or bungee cords. You need real tie-down gear and the correct tie-down procedures to get your load home safely.

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Upgrade a Factory Roof Rack

If you have a roof rack, upgrade the crossbars

Lift the front and back crossbars onto the factory side rails. Space them according to the crossbar manufacturer’s instructions. Then secure the feet to the rails using the wrench provided.

The rack that came with your car may look rugged, but most have a load rating of only 100 lbs., the equivalent of just nine 8-ft. 2×4 studs. If that’s all you plan to haul, you don’t need to modify your factory rack.

But if you plan to haul more than 100 lbs., buy a set of heavy-duty crossbars to retrofit your factory rails. Retrofit crossbars are wider than the factory units, are flat instead of curved, and carry more weight, as much as 200 lbs., depending on the vehicle. The factory roof rack on our 2010 Subaru has convertible crossbar/side rails. If that’s the style you have, just switch them into side rails as shown. Otherwise, remove your factory crossbars and install the new ones on the factory rails.

Add a removable roof rack

Install a rack on a bare roof

Open all four doors and locate the crossbars and rubber-cushioned feet in the recommended locations. Then swing the locking lever down to secure the clamp to the roof.

If your car doesn’t have a roof rack, you can add one without drilling any holes in your roof. Buy a set of universal crossbars and towers and a set of vehicle-specific clamps to attach it. This Yakima unit for this Camry costs about $380.

The best part about buying universal crossbars is that you can use them on more than one vehicle. Just buy the vehicle-specific clamps and install them in the towers. If you want to leave the crossbars on your car, buy a set of lock cylinders and install the towers to prevent theft. Otherwise, remove the crossbars to increase your gas mileage.

To install the crossbars, just locate them according to the directions that came with the clamps. Adjust the tension screw on the tower, then snap the lever down to lock in place.

Plan your trips

Overloading a roof rack (even heavier-duty crossbars) is the single biggest hauling mistake DIYers make. So get your shopping list and search the home center’s website and online to find the weight of lumber and other construction materials you intend to haul on your rack. Then plan what you’ll carry on each trip, because big projects will require several trips. For example, a treated 8-ft. 2×4 weighs about 17 lbs., so we could only carry nine of them and a few lengths of pipe on our crossbars.

3 Steps to safely load your rack

Photo 1: Secure the load to itself

Wrap the straps around the lumber bundle at the front and rear. Then tighten until you can’t move the middle pieces.

Photo 2: Secure the load to the rack

Hook a ratchet strap to the front bundle strap. Then wrap this strap around both crossbars and tighten. Repeat for the rear end of the bundle.

Photo 3: Secure the rack to the vehicle

Open the rear doors and run a ratchet strap over the top of the rack and through the rear seat area of the passenger compartment. Make sure the strap is behind the driver’s headrest and tighten.

Many DIYers don’t think about how they’ll secure the load once they get the items onto the roof. So they rely on the free twine provided at checkout. Or they buy inexpensive bungee cords at the store. That’s a big mistake.

Bring your own tie-downs

A roof rack’s load rating is based on a ‘static load’—the weight of the load when the vehicle isn’t moving. But once you hit the road, turn, encounter bumps and dips, or slow down, inertia multiplies the weight of your load by four to five times. So your tie-downs must be strong enough to keep the items from shifting or flying off. You’ll need a minimum of four 14-ft., 1,000-lb.-rated ratchet straps to get your load home safely.

Secure the load

This three-point tie-down and bundling method may seem like overkill, but it’s really the only safe way to get material home without damage or injury. Start by loading dimensional lumber onto the rack with the narrow edges resting on the crossbars. Then secure the front and back ends of each lumber bundle with ratchet straps to prevent movement (Photo 1).

Next, secure the load to the rack using ratchet straps (Photo 2). That prevents the bundle from sliding forward, backward or side to side. Then run a ratchet strap around the entire load and through the rear doors (Photo 3). This important step counteracts the ‘lift’ created by air coming off the windshield and is especially important if you have a factory roof rack that’s held in place only with small rivets.

If your load extends over the hood of the car, secure it with hood loops and cinch straps.

Tape the lighter items

Tape the lighter items

Start the duct or nylon filament tape about 6 in. back from the end of the bundle and wrap it around to the opposite side. Repeat to cover the end of each item. Then wrap tape tightly around the entire bundle at the front and rear, making sure you cover the pieces of tape applied earlier. Then secure the bundle to the rack with ratchet straps.

Use Your Head When You’re Hauling

  • Special items require special rack attachments. Contact the rack manufacturer to buy attachments for bikes, boats and camping gear. Never jury-rig those items to a standard roof rack.
  • Roof loads change the dynamics of your vehicle, and the extra weight increases stopping distances. So stay off the highway whenever possible, drive slower, brake sooner and make wider, slower turns.
  • Pay attention to overhead clearances, especially when entering your garage.
  • Sometimes it’s just notworth it to haul it yourself. Heavy-duty crossbars, add-on racks and ratchet straps often cost more than the store charges for a delivery right to your door, especially when you add in the risk factor!
  • Never connect hooks, rope or straps to a bumper or fenderwell. A shift in weight can crack the plastic, scrape the paint or bend the body panels, costing hundreds to repair.
  • A bare roof can’t carry a load because it can’t distribute the weight out to the pillars and door frames. If you place a load on a bare roof, you’ll damage it.
  • Never haul sheet goods or mattresses. The huge surface area can create enough lift to rip the entire rack off your vehicle.

Secure the overhang

Photo 1: Secure the overhang

Photo 2: Temporary and bolt-on hood straps

Pop the hood and drop in temporary hood straps. Or mount the straps permanently under a fender bolt. Run a rope or cinch strap through them and over and around the leading edge of the overhanging load. Snug the cinch strap just enough to prevent upward movement, but not enough to bend the hood. Hood straps start at about $15 per pair.