Guide To Different Types Of Bike Racks

Going on trails, expeditions and exploring the unknown requires quality gear. You’ve taken the time to look through different mountain bikes and kits for your perfect getaway location, but getting there might mean taking your car or SUV. 

Bike racks let you travel with your expensive bikes without worrying about the safety and security of your equipment. You might simply want to take your bike to a park or hills instead of an outdoor excursion.

There are bike racks designed for different bike frames and unique purposes that can match your car model. So, you can always have a bike rack for your next outdoor trip.

Bike racks let you travel with your bikes hassle free, freeing up space on the inside of your car. With a bike rack you can carry four or five bikes at the same time, for racing events or simply taking the kids’ bikes somewhere.

They protect the bikes during travel and with mountain bikes costing thousands of dollars, you need something reliable that can transport these bikes safely.

Before you make your bike rack purchase, there are a few things you need to know.

The best bike racks offer a transport solution for your bikes, but they are also multipurpose and well built. Prior to getting your hands on one, you should know how many bikes you will be carrying and whether you need to use the rack for carrying skis or snowboards. 

Bike racks come in all shapes and sizes. They can go on the roof, behind the trunk or on the hitch rack of an SUV.

Your vehicle will narrow down the types of bike racks that fit your car and help you choose the best bike racks from the various styles available.

Types Of Bike Racks

There are many types of bike racks depending on the bikes you want to carry and the type of fit and stability you need. To simplify, here’s an overview of the different types of bike racks.

Hitch mounted bike rack on car

Hitch racks are the most secure racks you can travel with. They fit into the hitch receiver of your car, truck or SUV and allow unrestricted access to the bikes and trunk areas of your vehicle.

Roof rack on car with bike

Roof mounted bike racks are the best if you want all door access. They are safe and keep the bike away from the road and dirt. You will need a base rack for these to attach and if you do, they can carry more than just bikes.

Trunk mounted bike rack on car

Trunk mounted bike racks make transporting bikes for any car possible with or without the hitch. There are securing straps that go into the trunk and the rack is fixed in place. They are a more affordable and portable option compared to hitch racks.

Spare tire mounted bike rack on Jeep

Spare tire mounts go over the spare tire of your car or jeep. They have a rugged frame that sits on the spare tire and straps that secure the bike rack, no hitch required. They are perfect for jeeps and off-road SUVs.

Truck mounted bike racks sit inside the truck box and are the safest option to transport your bikes without damaging or contacting the bike frame. There are racks that contact the wheels, protecting the frame and some that attach to the through axles and others that sit on the tailgate.

E-bike and fat tire bike rack

Fat tire bike racks are similar to ordinary hitch mounted racks. With added features like heavy duty frames and wheel holders. These frames can also tilt downwards to allow easy access, as fat tire bikes are heavy to lift and place on the platform.

E-bike bike rack on an SUV

E-bikes have various frames and drivetrains. They need special e-bike racks that can fit their slim frames and huge batteries and require straps specially designed to keep the bike secure on the frame. E-bike bike racks have tire cradles and stronger frames to support the bike frames from down tubes or wheels. The bike rack itself can go into the hitch, roof or trunk of the vehicle

Bike Rack Buying Guide

If you’re looking to get a reliable bike rack for your daily travels, you need to take a deeper look into the different types of bike racks which can help you choose a bike rack that suits your needs, provides the right functions and makes no compromises.

Hitch Mounts

Hitch racks are the best way to carry your bikes. Hitch bike racks mount to the hitch receiver at the end of your vehicle.

The bike rack easily connects to the trailer hitch and requires a little lifting to load the bikes on the rack but this is effortless compared to the amount of lifting that roof racks require.

Hitch mounts can securely haul up to four bikes. Hitch racks generally fall under three categories with their own pros and cons. Most hitch racks are made for SUVs and trucks that have a hitch receiver.

Our Choice: Yakima DoubleDown 4 Hitch Mounted Bike Rack

Yakima DoubleDown 4 hitch mount bike rack

Check price on Amazon

Platform Hitch Rack

Platform style bike rack
Need better access to the trunk or gate? Try a platform rack.

With platform bike racks, the wheels of your bike sit on the platform or trays.

Most have an arm that ratchets on top of the front wheel and a short strap that goes into the rear wheels to secure the bikes in place.

The bikes are fixed to the platform and have enough spacing so they don’t scrape against each other. These tray-style hitch racks can be tilted, providing access to trunk space. They can carry most bikes and your only concern should be the wheelbase.
These racks are some of the most expensive bike racks. They are bulky and take up significant space near the rear end of your vehicle which can impede maneuverability.

Hanging Hitch Rack

Hanging hitch mounted bike rack
Hanging hitch bike racks are common due to their versatility.

Hanging hitch racks use straight carrying arms to hold the bikes. The top tube sits on the carrying arms and there are straps that hold the bikes in place. 

These are the most common type of bike rack on the market.

These racks are more affordable and the easiest to install. The hanging racks provide great clearance and most racks have foldable carrying arms.
The bike is held in place by straps on the bike frame. If you have any cables running down the top tube they can get damaged. Trunk access is blocked and for bikes with different top tubes, you might have to get a top tube adapter.

Vertical Hitch Rack

Vertical hitch rack from Yakima
Yakima’s HangTight 6 is a vertical hanging bike rack.

Vertical racks are also hitch mount racks, going into a 2” receiver. Vertical hitch racks hold the bikes with the wheelbase suspended vertically.

They are a great alternative to platform racks and should be considered if compactness and weight are an issue with the platform racks.

In many cases, these racks can carry a larger weight capacity such as up to 6 mountain bikes.

They extend shorter than platform racks and can carry more than 6 bikes. Different angled positions make loading the bikes easy. This style weighs less than a platform rack and can carry more bikes. 
Initial assembly is difficult and takes time. Attaching the straps to the front wheels is tedious as you can’t effectively see where the straps are. Most vertical hitch bike racks only work with bikes that have crowns holding the front fork.

Roof Mounts

Roof mounted bike rack on car
Sturdy option for vehicles without a hitch but watch your overhead clearance.

Roof mounted bike racks are a sturdy option for cars without a trailer hitch. Roof racks are more versatile than a hitch mounted rack because most are designed to carry bikes, paddle boards and even cargo boxes.

Roof racks secure the bikes from either the through axle of the front fork, which requires front wheel removal, or keep both wheels on to secure the bike.

All roof racks allow unrestricted access to the vehicle’s trunk and doors, and they have an edge on hitch mounts as they do not block the rear view mirror. There’s also extra stability and storage space for the vehicle. 

A roof rack needs roof bars for the car rack to fit on top. However, there are roof racks that attach to the roof using suction cups, eliminating the need for roof bars but we wouldn’t trust our bikes to this version of rack.

Although they can be used on any car, a roof rack works well with hatchbacks and sport sedans or any car that sits low and needs to be stored in a garage where height and clearance are not an issue.

They can accommodate a variety of bikes, from road bikes to mountain bikes, but they are not great for heavier bikes like some fat tire bikes or e-bikes. There are roof racks with single carrying capacity that support heavier loads, but they aren’t worth the risk of damaging the car.

Roof racks are not permanent and they are versatile in carrying sport accessories like surfboards, cargo boxes and kayaks. They do not block door access and are a sturdy option for traveling to races and trails.
The bikes need to be carried overhead to load them onto the racks. There’s added air drag while driving and the issue of underground parking or even clearance on the streets if you have a tall SUV.

Trunk Mounted Racks

Trunk racks are an affordable car rack system that can attach to any car.

They have a series of securing straps that run from the car rack to the lip of the trunk, where vinyl coated hooks secure the rack on to the trunk.

They are popular with cars without a trailer hitch and with models that are not compatible with roof or hitch mounted racks.

Our Choice: Thule Gateway Pro Trunk Bike Rack

Check price on Amazon

Trunk racks are a hanging style rack which means the bike frames are loaded on the carrying arms. Few trunk racks advertise a carrying capacity of up to four bikes, but a trunk rack can truly accommodate three bikes with its straps and integrated cable locks.

Loading and unloading your bikes is fairly easy, with most racks having cradles to support the frames and nylon or rubber straps to secure the bike. Rubber and foam padding on the rack protects the paint of the vehicle.

Trunk mounted racks are the most accommodating car racks. The strap system means they are adjustable and can be attached to almost any hatchback, sedan or jeep with a few exceptions.

They can carry bikes with a straight top tube, but you would be pushing your luck with anything curvy or with kids bikes. If you have to carry your family bikes, you might have to spend a little extra getting top tube adapters for kids and women bikes.

A roof rack might be the safer option here as an alternative. 

A low cost trunk rack might not provide a great fit and can come loose during off road travel. You might not find integrated locks and heavy duty straps on lower end models and there’s no trunk access with almost all trunk racks. 

They are affordable. Trunk mounted racks work with any model and with more securing straps, the racks feel sturdy. They have a simple mounting method and quickly install on the car. 
You will need extra straps to completely secure the bikes. The spacing between each bike is not much and can cause abrasions on potholes or bumps. The metal frame sitting on the trunk can in rare cases cause dents with heavier bikes like a few chunky e-bikes.

Spare Tire Mount

Spare tire mounted bike rack
Found mostly on Jeeps, spare tire mounts are also available for SUVs.

Spare tire bike racks mount to the spare tire on the rear hatch of a vehicle instead of a roof or hitch mount. This car bike rack is mostly seen on jeeps, not because it installs on the spare tire but because it accommodates the features found on the rear of a Jeep.

Jeeps and other SUVs with a soft top prefer a spare tire mounted bike rack that hangs high so it can transport bikes with enough ground clearance. 

Spare tire racks are specifically made for a particular model, but they have extensions and adjustment knobs that can accommodate some of the widest aftermarket tires.

Spare tire car racks install easily on the tire, with arms that go behind and in front of the spare tire. The bike rack is secured in place with nylon straps that run around the tire and down the bottom. 

These racks can carry mountain bikes, road bikes, and bmx bikes, but as with any hanging rack, they are limited by the availability of the top tube, as the rack’s arms hold the bikes from the frame.

There are additional anti-sway straps and soft rubber cradles that protect the bike on the more expensive car racks.

Spare tire racks provide free access to the cargo space even when the bikes are loaded. The rack attaches to the rear wheel without blocking the rear view camera. They are a cheaper alternative for carrying one to three bikes away from exhaust heat and smoke.
The rear tail lights are blocked. The racks are not as sturdy as hitch mounted bike racks and cannot support bikes with a short seat post. Sturdier racks require tools and latches to install, which can take time.

Truck Bed Bike Racks

If you have a truck and are looking for something sturdy, rugged and reliable that can make use of the space in your truck bed, then these racks are the best way to load bikes and get them somewhere. Truck mount racks have a variety of options and can carry up to seven bikes with no issues.

Fork Mounted Racks

Truck bed fork mounted bike rack
Want a more secure option? Try a truck bed fork mount.

Fork mounted racks install on the front of your trunk bed and secure the bikes using the fork by removing the front wheel. The bike is locked in place and is safe from any damage through contact.

Fork mount racks are built for carrying up to 2 expensive frames making it obvious that carrying capacity is not the most important feature.

There are also racks that install individually in the pickup truck beds and secure the bikes from the wheels, avoiding any contact with the frame.

Tailgate Pads

Tailgate pads for trucks
Tailgate pads are great if you don’t want to disassemble your bike.

Tailgate pads are made for a pickup truck bed and cover the entire tailgate. This allows pickup trucks to carry up to 7 bikes. The bike’s front wheel hangs outside the gate and the frame finds its place in a pre-built cavity or cradle where straps hold it in place.

There’s padding between contact points that protects the vehicle and the bike. The tailgate pad itself goes over the tailgate and is secured by straps that go under the gap and around the back of the tailgate. 

Tailgate pads are perfect for carrying e-bikes and fat tire bikes which would otherwise find it difficult to fit their 4” tires on the platform hitch mounted racks or be under weight limit issues with most trunk mounted racks.

Truck bed mounts are viable for carrying multiple bikes for your family or crew without the need to install any roof rack that keeps the rear wheel in the bed and the front fork on the roof to accommodate a larger number of bikes.

Truck bed racks are the only safe and sturdy option for more than 6 bikes. Most of these frames are heavy duty and excellent e-bike carriers. These racks make no contact with the bike frame so they can transport expensive carbon frames without damaging them.
Bikes still have to be lifted into the truck. Installing these racks requires tools and in some cases drilling compatible holes. They are expensive compared to trunk mount racks and hitch racks.

Fat Tire Bike Racks

Fat tire bike racks
Fat tire bike racks can accommodate the wider tires of fat tire bikes.

Fat tire bike racks are not much different than hitch mount racks but fat tire bikes are heavy and require a platform hitch to support the weight. The trays for the wheels are wider than ordinary platforms to support the wide tires.

Many fat tire bikes do not have straight top tubes so securing bikes on a trunk mounted rack is not an option. 

If you own a truck, you should have no trouble hauling bikes with fat tires using a tailgate pad or a truck bed rack specifically made for the wider tires.

You can also skip the search and opt for a fork mounted bike rack that can make loading bikes easier at the cost of a few extra minutes for disassembly.

These two types are better than a roof rack that can carry more bikes because of the added height and aerodynamics.

E-Bike Bike Racks

E-bike racks
E-bike racks are generally more durable and can handle the weight of heavy bikes

E-bikes require racks that are not specially designed to accommodate electric features, but racks that can meet the essentials of carrying them safely. 

E-bikes come with a special drivetrain and frame that make them heavier than regular bikes so to secure them, you’ll need to strap them in at specific points instead of tying them to some part of the bike like a derailleur or rear wheel. 

Usually a hitch rack works for e-bikes, but due to the weight and size of e-bikes you’ll need a specific rack. There’s also an arm that clamps on the frame, as most of these bikes have batteries and rectangular frames, which are not ideal for straps. 

Integrated cable locks on your e-bike rack are also a must-have for these expensive bikes as well.

Other Rack Buying Tips

Before you launch into searching for the top bike racks available and spending your cash, here are a few tips.

  • Look for bike racks that fall within your budget and don’t be afraid to spend a little extra for added quality and reassurance of a safer journey.
  • Check the bike rack manufacturer’s website for vehicle model compatibility.
  • Make sure you test the car bike rack. Go for a drive, test the ease of installation and weight capacity of the hitch.
  • If you plan on getting a roof rack, don’t forget about the clearance of your garage, or if parking underground as well as the opening of your trunk or rear hatch.

Final Thoughts

There is a bike rack available for almost every car, but this doesn’t mean it is tailored for your exact situation. Your vehicle will define the type of bike rack and the number of bikes you need to transport will tell you the carrying capacity you’ll need. 

Before selecting a bike rack, you need to look at all the racks as most new racks are engineered to perfection for the masses. Try to match your requirements with these car bike racks and opt for one that feels confident for trips and transporting bikes.

What bike rack style bike is best?

While there’s no definite answer your vehicle type will narrow down your bike rack options. Hitch mounts are the sturdiest and can accommodate any bike, given you have a hitch receiver.

What type of bike rack is best for an SUV?

Most SUVs have hitch receivers and platform mounted racks are a great option for carrying heavy bikes or a greater variety of bikes without buying any extra accessories. There’s free access to the trunk and they can carry more than 4 bikes.

Is there a universal bike rack?

A trunk rack is the closest car rack to a universal bike rack. They can carry most bikes on the carrying arms and there are top tube adapters for bikes with shorter stems. Heavier loads are still a no go but they can be installed on the trunk of pretty much any car.

How do I choose a hitch for my bike rack?

Hitch mount racks require a hitch to attach to the vehicle. Most bike racks are designed to fit a 2” or a 1 ¼” hitch. If your vehicle does not support a hitch, you can easily install an aftermarket hitch receiver. In this case it is better to see the bike rack’s specs to find the matching hitch size.