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Published Feb 10, 2022 4:31 PM

Packing everything needed for a road trip or excursion can be simpler with a rooftop cargo carrier. We’ve all seen those cars cruising around with funky-shaped boxes on the roof, and if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, they probably have more virtue signaling stickers than the bumper. They may seem goofy, but they are a great option for stowing cargo without taking up cabin and trunk space. This makes them ideal for sedans, wagons, and small SUVs when you need cabin space for passengers. The last thing you want to do is cram into your Subie for two hours to go adventuring because that means you have to cram in on the way back and that will cause major cramping. 

Not everyone needs a giant SUV capable of carrying 12 people or a truck that can tow a mountain, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the ability to pack gear. Rooftop cargo carriers are an excellent alternative. Most are waterproof and lockable to keep your belongings protected. They’re able to be removed when not in use, but even some are stylish. Let’s take an in-depth look at how selecting one of these could be a game-changer.

Best Overall

One of the most trusted names in vehicle cargo accessories is Yakima. From hitch-mounted bike racks to rooftop cargo boxes, Yakima has been making the products you need to carry gear. The Skybox 16 Carbonite cargo box is a prime example of excellent manufacturing.

The most notable feature is the aerodynamic carbonite lid that is made from 80 percent recycled materials. The structural reinforcements to the lid, which are unseen, make it stronger and easier to open. This comes in handy since this box can be conveniently opened from either side.

With 16 cubic feet of storage space, there is plenty of room for up to three campers’ gear. Alpine adventurers will be happy to know that skis and snowboards up to 180 centimeters will fit easily. For increased versatility, the Skybox can mount to most crossbars and can easily be attached and detached. This gives you the option to keep it on during a busy season or to stow it when not in use.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Yakima
  • Volume: 16 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 81 inches x 36 inches x 15 inches
  • Mounts to: Round/square/factory crossbars and aerodynamic bars
PROS

Mounts to most bar types

Built-in lock for security

Opens from both sides

Lightweight and easily removable

CONS

High price point

Not ideal for bulky gear

Not ideal for more than three people

Roof boxes can get pricey very easily, which can make finding a quality box on a budget difficult. This is where the Jegs roof box comes in handy, as it offers 18 cubic feet of storage for under $300.

The unique mounting design allows it to fit most crossbars four inches or smaller, as long as they’re rated for 150 pounds or more. This is because the Jegs weighs 28 pounds when empty and has a total load capacity of 110 pounds. It’s light enough that one person could easily mount or dismount it by themselves, but strong enough to carry what you need.

Installation is simple since it doesn’t use any specialized tools, just U-bolts and wing nuts. While you could pack skis or snowboards into this box, its design is more for packs and duffles.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Jegs
  • Volume: 18 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 57 inches x 39 inches x 19 inches
  • Mounts to: Round/square/aerodynamic crossbars up to four inches wide
PROS

Large storage space

No-tool assembly and installation

Can be opened from either side

Can be locked

CONS

Locks via two separate locking devices

Has to be set up for one side, then reset for the other if desired

Editor’s Choice

When it comes to adventure accessories for your vehicle, Thule has been a top name for years. The Pulse rooftop cargo carrier is perfect for those who need just a little extra space. The medium size offers 14 cubic feet of storage, the large offers 16 cubic feet, and the alpine offers 11 cubic feet specifically designed for skis and snowboards.

Although the large and alpine models were made with the alpinists in mind, all of these boxes would work great for hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, or anyone else who seeks outdoor adventure. One of the key simplicities of this box is how it opens from the passenger side only. This could be seen as an inconvenience, or it could be seen as a way to easily remember which side opens up.

It will mount to almost any crossbar style using a unique and tool-free mounting grip. Weighing around 35 pounds makes this easily installed by one person. Once it is installed, the box locks using a central locking system that ensures the entirety of the lid is secure. And who says you can’t pair this with a hitch-mounted bike rack?

Product Specs
  • Brand: Thule
  • Volume: 14 cubic feet (medium)
  • Dimensions: 67 inches x 35 inches x 16 inches (medium)
  • Mounts to: Round/square/aerodynamic/factory style crossbars
PROS

Offered in three sizes: medium, large, alpine

Mounts to most crossbars

One central locking mechanism

Rugged ABS plastic construction

CONS

Only opens from one side

High price point

Best for Easy Access

Many rooftop boxes only open from one side, typically the passenger side, which can make quick access difficult. Goplus makes a cargo box that opens from both sides. While you cannot open both sides at the same time, having the ability to open from either side makes accessing your gear much simpler. It uses a quick anchor locking system to attach to most standard-sized and styled crossbars. The box itself features a reinforced frame that offers a 165-pound load capacity, so you’ll need to ensure that your crossbars are capable of at least 200 pounds for safety. Make sure to double-check the spacing of your crossbars as well, as this box is meant to fit roof racks with 16.1-24.8 inch wide bars.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Goplus
  • Volume: 14 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 63 inches x 31 inches x 15 inches
  • Mounts to: Round/square/aerodynamic/factory crossbars
PROS

Opens from both sides

Fits most crossbars

Reinforced frame offers higher weight capacity

Reasonable pricing

CONS

Cannot open both sides at the same time

Higher end of reasonable pricing

Interior anchor locks are larger than competitors

Best Rooftop Ski/Snowboard Carrier

Thule’s Pulse has already made this list, but the Alpine edition is worth noting on its own. This roof box was designed specifically for skis and snowboards. Its sleek and narrow profile gives that away quickly, but the 11 cubic feet of space speaks volumes. The overall dimensions allow four to six skis or three to four snowboards to fit snugly inside. Access is on the passenger side only, but the box locks up easily so you know the boards aren’t going anywhere.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Thule
  • Volume: 11 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 88.5 inches x 25.5 inches x 12.5 inches
  • Mounts to: Round/square/aerodynamic/factory crossbars
PROS

Specifically designed to fit skis/boards up to 210 centimeters

Protects skis/boards from the elements

Easily locks to protect from theft

Can mount to most crossbar styles

CONS

Not multifunctional

Heavier than one would expect

Only opens on the passenger side

Largest Cargo Carrier

If you’re a true gear junkie or just have a lot of adventure buddies, then chances are that you need a lot of space. This is where the Thule Motion XT XXL plays to its strengths by offering a whopping 22 cubic feet of internal storage capacity. It sports many of the Thule brand features like quick grip connectors that attach to most crossbars and the One Key System. What sets this box apart is the overall size and functionality. It can be opened from both sides for the easiest access to all that gear you stow.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Thule
  • Volume: 22 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 91.5 inches x 37.5 inches x 18 inches
  • Mounts to: Round/square/aerodynamic/factory crossbars
PROS

Massive volume for storage

Opens from both sides

CONS

Expensive pricing

Heavy box, not ideal for constant removal

Best Roof Bag

If mounting a hard box on top of your vehicle isn’t for you, then maybe you’d prefer a roof bag instead. This RoofPax Roof Bag is a great option for those who don’t want the hassle of mounting a hard box.

Offering a spacious 19 cubic feet of capacity, it also has an integrated pad on the bottom to protect your roof and gear. This bag is a little more versatile than boxes since it has the ability to mount without sidebars or a roof rack. Using hooks that attach under the weather stripping inside your door frame, this bag will mount easily.

Since the bag uses a zipper closure system, RoofPax used a weatherproof zipper system to ensure your gear stays dry. The zippers also sport a lock loop to make securing your gear with the included lock a lot simpler.

Product Specs
  • Brand: RoofPax
  • Volume: 19 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 47.2 inches x 35.4 inches x 19.8 inches
  • Mounts to: Roof racks, sidebars, or bare roof
PROS

Mounts to roof racks or bare roof

Stores up to 19 cubic feet of gear

Integrated padding on the bottom

Waterproof zippers

CONS

Susceptible to getting ripped or torn over time

Not as secure as a hard box

Honorable Mention

Curt is a brand well-known for producing great towing and metal accessories for vehicles. This roof bag is designed specifically to fit the Curt roof basket, but could easily be made to fit other baskets, sidebars, or even a bare roof. With a price tag of a nice steak dinner, it’s an easy choice for anyone on a budget. The weatherproof material is built to last, even featuring a weather flap for the zippers, and fits up to 19 cubic feet of gear. It is a simple tool for a simple job.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Curt
  • Volume: 21 cubic feet
  • Dimensions: 59 inches x 34 inches x 18 inches
  • Mounts to: Roof basket
PROS

Large stowing capacity

Weather flap to protect zippers

CONS

Designed specifically for Curt roof baskets

Needs accessories to attach to bare roofs

Best Storage Rack

For the avid adventurer, it pays to have a roof rack that meets all your needs like this roof basket by Arksen. Unlike boxes and bags, this open basket is an open-top frame that lets you truly customize the loadout. The side rails are six inches tall to help keep things from sliding off the side and make a great anchor point for ratchet straps and webbing. Unique to this basket is the 21-inch extensions that can be inserted to extend the basket to an overall length of 64 inches. It mounts by using four universal U-bolts that grip square and round bars best. The front windbreak is reversible, giving you the option to boast the brand or slap some sick vinyl stickers on the plain side for an ultra-custom appearance.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Arksen
  • Volume: Open top
  • Dimensions: 64 inches x 39 inches x 6 inches
  • Mounts to: Square or round crossbars
PROS

Optional extensions for increased capacity

It fits square and round crossbars

CONS

Need to purchase straps or webbing to secure loads

Stowed gear is exposed to weather

Why you should trust us

Outdoor adventuring has been an integral part of my identity since I was a boy. I’ve packed sedans, vans, trucks, humvees, MRAPs, and countless SUVs for tons of adventures. This isn’t including the several multi-state moves that I’ve made in my pursuit of happiness. So, I feel confident in saying that I know how important having the right amount of dedicated storage space can be. As a writer for Task & Purpose, I read reviews by experts and customers so their experiences can supplement my first-hand knowledge. This is what allows me to give you the best information possible so you can make the decision that’s right for you. 

Types of rooftop cargo carriers

There are many designs for carrying cargo on the roof, and the truth is this option is not for everyone. Even more crucial to your decision-making is what you will be carrying and how frequently you’ll need to use the box. Let’s take a look at these factors so you can make an educated decision. 

Hardshell

When most people think of roof boxes, a hardshell rooftop cargo carrier is what they picture. They are made from materials or fibers that have been molded or formed into a hard container. The biggest benefit of this type of carrier is that they tend to be the most weatherproof. Because they are formed, it makes storing gear in them easier, and many feature straps to secure small gear when it isn’t fully loaded. While most only open from one side, many can open from either side. These styled boxes are slightly more secure than softshell carriers since they can be locked and aren’t sliceable. 

Softshell

A softshell carrier is made from a fabric that doesn’t maintain its form when empty. This material tends to be treated to weatherproof it, but this isn’t a guarantee that your gear will stay dry. Most of these will use zippers and open in a specific way. One advantage is that these can mount easier than hard-shell carriers, but they’re not as secure since the fabric could be cut. 

Open frame/specific frame

There are many baskets and specific use cargo carriers out there that are an option. Baskets are frames that mount to your roof and will allow you to carry custom load-outs, but they require webbing or straps to secure the gear into the basket. Examples of specific carriers are rooftop bike racks and ski racks that only carry bikes or skis. These are great options for carrying the specific tool you need, but they don’t offer versatility. 

Key features of rooftop cargo carriers 

Mounting hardware

How a cargo carrier mounts to your roof is important to look at. Each manufacturer has created its own contraption or borrowed a universal design. Thule uses prongs that tighten down onto crossbars, kind of like vice grips, that allow the boxes to be mounted to many styles and shapes of bar. Other companies use U-shaped bolts and wing nuts to secure the box to the roof. With most roof bags, you’ll be looking at straps or webbing that buckle or ratchet into place. It’s important to consider how the carrier mounts to your roof when buying. 

Open/close/locking mechanism 

As previously mentioned, not all boxes or bags open the same. Some may not even be capable of being locked, which is bad juju. Many hardshell boxes only open on the passenger side, while some open from the rear or both sides. You’ll need to keep this in mind if you’re trying to pair your cargo box with any other roof-mounted equipment, like recovery gear. Softshell bags tend to use zippers that will give you a little more freedom to access gear when it’s loaded.

Shape

The shape of a rooftop cargo carrier isn’t vitally important, but it’s not something to ignore either. From the ground, you might think the shape is just aesthetically important; after all, isn’t it supposed to look cool while storing your gear? But aside from how your gear fits in the box, it can affect fuel efficiency depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving. Additionally, the less aerodynamic the box or bag is tends to correlate with how noisy the drive will be. 

Benefits of rooftop cargo carriers 

Extra room

No matter how it boils down, buying a rooftop cargo carrier is all about having extra space in your vehicle. Small cars benefit the most from this extra storage space since there’s so little room available inside. Larger vehicles can benefit also, though, and it’s important to visualize how having that extra storage space will add to your expeditions. 

Security

Not all rooftop storage options lock, but the ones that do offer extra security. That being said, if you have a super lifted rig, it might be safe to say that your gear would be secure from a height standpoint alone. In reality, having your gear in a box or bag up top could offer extra security for vehicles that don’t have tinted windows. If they can’t see what you have, then a thief’s desire for it can’t be that great. 

Sticker space

People love to show off their favorite things by putting stickers on stuff. It’s a fact, Jack. Star Wars, Harry Potter, guns, beer, and even PETA make stickers for people to show off their passions. We all go through that phase of putting them on our car’s paint before we realize it’s not such a great idea. By having a roof box, you have added precious sticker space to your ride. So let that freak flag fly and stick ‘em up. 

Pricing considerations for rooftop cargo carriers

Budget

If you’re looking to budget out an expense, then I’d encourage you to stick below $300. This gives you an array of options in the different categories without getting whacky. 

Mid-range

Moderately priced cargo carriers can be found between $300 and $1,000. You will be able to find excellent options that may take a month or two to save for, but they’ll last as long as you need them. 

Premium

Anything over $1,000 is expensive and mostly for status. These are for the professional adventurer who must count on performance in order to survive. 

How we chose our top picks

Selecting cargo carriers was done with specific criteria in mind. All of the carriers were only selected from reputable companies. Each had to have performance specs that could be verified and were reliable. Products with unrealistic claims or pricing were not considered. Specialized cargo carriers were only selected for certain categories, making the other category selections ideal for multi-uses so you get the most bang for your buck.

FAQs on rooftop cargo carriers

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q. Can I fit a roof box to a rental car?

A. Yes, but make sure it has side rails and crossbars. Some rental companies even offer racks as an option. 

Q. Are roof boxes waterproof?

A. Some are. Make sure to read up on the box you plan to purchase to see if that model is or isn’t. 

Q. Do I need roof bars for a roof box?

A. Yes. 

Q. Are roof boxes secure? 

A. Yes. Most hardshell models have locking features and can be as secure as your vehicle.

Q. Are roof boxes noisy?

A. They can be, but it depends on the shape of the box. 

Q. How can I store my roof box when I’m not using it?

A. Preferably, you should store it where it can’t be damaged and won’t develop mold or mildew. This will be different for everyone. 

Q. How do you clean a roof box?

A. Unless the owner’s manual says otherwise, you should clean them just like you would your car. 

Q. What can you put in a roof box?

A. If it fits, it ships!

Q. How much weight can a roof box take?

A. While most can carry at least 100 pounds, read the owner’s manual to find your model’s rating. 

Q. Do roof boxes have a light?

A. High-end models may have lights. You could also install a light into a less expensive model if you wanted to. 

Q. Do roof boxes increase fuel consumption?

A. It seems that smaller cars are impacted more, but adding anything to the top of your vehicle is bound to impact your fuel economy. 

Q. Can you drive with an empty roof box?

A. Yes. 

Q. Can a roof box overhang?

A. It is not advisable. If the box hangs over in the back, then you’re at risk of hitting the back gate/door.

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Scott Whisler is a Marine Corps veteran and family man. He’s an avid student of philosophy who strives for self-growth and challenge, both found in his outdoor adventures.  As a new Okie, his focus is on exploring the South Central region. His lifetime goal is to have excursions in all of the National Parks.


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