How To Choose a Bike Rack

Are you looking for a bike rack for your car, truck, crossover, or SUV, but have no idea where to begin? We don’t blame you! There’s no shortage of options to get your bike from point A to point B. With this guide, we’ll help you learn the differences between the various mounting locations of bike racks, as well as the different kinds of bike racks themselves.

First things first, we can start to narrow down your choices by the kind of vehicle you need a bike rack for. If you’re looking for a bike rack for your motorhome, travel trailer, RV, or fifth-wheel, we have a dedicated guide that you can read by clicking here.

Bottom Line: If you have a travel trailer, RV, or fifth-wheel, you need an RV-approved hitch rack for this type of use. Regular bike racks are often not rated to handle the increased forces at play on the rear of a trailer. 


How to choose the best bike rack for your travel trailer, RV, motorhome or Fifth wheel

Keep reading if you’re looking for a bike rack for a regular car, truck, or SUV.
Image of a Hitch Mount Bike Rack, Roof Mount Bike Rack, Pickup Truck Bike Rack, and RV approved Bike Rack

The two most common types of bike racks for vehicles are Roof Mount racks and Hitch Mount racks. There are also a few unique options for pickup trucks. Roof mount racks require a roof rack with crossbars to mount the bike rack, and hitch racks require a hitch receiver.

If you’re trying to decide between a hitch rack and a roof rack for your car, truck, or SUV, here are a few things to keep in mind when making your decision: vehicle compatibility, carrying capacity, bike accessibility, clearance, vehicle accessibility, gas mileage and road noise, and cost.

Compatibility with your Vehicle

Picture of a Roof Mount Bike Rack from Swagman

Roof Mount Bike Rack

A bicycle roof rack requires crossbars on your vehicle’s roof. Many vehicles come with factory crossbars already installed, but you can also get aftermarket crossbars for most vehicles. Check with your vehicle’s manufacturer or a local roof rack specialty store to learn what options you have.

Make sure to find the weight rating of your roof system to confirm compatibility with the weight of a bicycle roof rack and bike before use.

There are 3 main styles of crossbars found on vehicle roofs – square, round, and oval. Swagman designed their Roof Mount Bike Racks to work with all common styles.


Picture of a Hitch Mount Bike Rack from Swagman

Hitch Mount Bike Rack

Hitch mount bike racks require a hitch receiver on your vehicle. Many larger vehicles like trucks, SUVs, and some crossovers come stock with a hitch receiver. If your vehicle does not already have one, automotive or hitch shops can install aftermarket hitch receivers on almost any vehicle. 

Hitch receivers most commonly come in two sizes: 2-inch, or 1 ¼-inch. A 1 ¼” hitch receiver is most common on smaller vehicles like cars, station wagons, and smaller crossovers. A 2” hitch receiver is most common on full-size SUVs, crossovers, and trucks.

If you have a 1 ¼” hitch receiver, you must pay careful attention to the rack you purchase to ensure compatibility. Because of weight restrictions, you will usually be limited to a bike rack that can carry a maximum of two bikes.

If you have a 2” hitch receiver, you can use almost any hitch mount bike rack that Swagman sells. Even the 1 ¼” bike racks come with an adapter that allows their use with 2” hitch receivers.

Larger trucks, such as ¾ ton or full-ton trucks, may have an even larger hitch receiver. To use a bike rack with a larger hitch, you need to purchase the appropriate reducer for your hitch, reducing it to 2 inches. Check with your local automotive dealer or hitch shop for options.

*Confirm your hitch receiver’s load rating before installing and using a hitch mount bike rack.

Bottom Line: Most vehicles can use roof mount bike racks with factory crossbars or aftermarket crossbars. Most vehicles can also use hitch mount bike racks with factory hitch receivers or aftermarket receivers.

Carrying Capacity

Roof Mount Bike Racks

Roof racks are sold as individual bicycle carriers — one bicycle roof rack carries one bike. You can mount multiple bicycle roof racks to the roof of a vehicle (within your roof system’s load capacity), but carrying any more than 2 bikes will be very inconvenient.

Hitch Mount Bike Racks

Hitch mount racks come in a variety of carrying capacity configurations. The most common bike racks are 2-bike or 4-bike versions.

Bottom Line: Carrying any more than 2 bikes on the roof of your vehicle is inconvenient. If you need to transport 3 or more bikes, you’ll likely want to look into hitch mount options.

4 bikes on a Swagman hitch mount bike rack and 2 bikes on Swagman roof mount bike racks

Accessibility to your Bikes

Roof Mount Bike Racks

Bikes mounted on the roof of a vehicle are not as easy to access, especially if you are installing them on a taller vehicle like a crossover, van, or SUV.

Lifting heavier bikes onto the roof of even short cars can be challenging. For the I-ride-my-bike-in-any-weather crowd, you should also know it's not very pleasant to lift a wet and muddy bike over your head. Not only will you get muddy, but so will the top of your car. 

Hitch Mount Bike Racks

Bikes mounted on the hitch remain easily accessible, making it easy to load and unload the rack. This is especially useful when loading or unloading heavy bikes, such as ebikes. Loading dirty bikes onto a hitch rack is also much more pleasant than lifting them up over your head to put them onto a roof rack.
Bottom Line: Lifting bikes onto the roof of your vehicle is not as easy or convenient as a hitch rack.


Roof Mount Bike Racks

If you have enough riding buddies, you’ve likely heard the horror story: the friend who forgot they had a bike on the roof and drove into their garage. When you mount bikes on the roof, you have to pay careful attention not to drive into parking garages, drive-thrus, or other areas with height restrictions.

Hitch Mount Bike Racks

Hitch racks do not increase the overall height of your vehicle, so you don’t have to worry about parking garages or other low-clearance areas. A hitch rack does increase the overall length of your vehicle, so you must be mindful when parking or maneuvering in tight spaces.

Some Swagman hitch racks fold up when no bikes are mounted, reducing this increased length for your convenience.

Bottom Line: You must pay careful attention to any low-clearance areas when a bike is on a roof mount bike rack.

Accessibility to your Vehicle

Roof Mount Bike Racks

With roof racks, you retain access to the trunk or back door of your vehicle. If your vehicle has a backup camera, roof racks will not impede your view. The only obstruction from a roof rack is the view out of your sunroof!

Hitch Mount Bike Racks

A hitch rack can impede your access to the rear of your vehicle. Some of Swagman’s hitch racks feature tilt function, allowing the rack to tilt down and away from your vehicle, even with bikes loaded.
Bottom Line: Roof mount bike racks generally do not impede your access to any part of your vehicle. Some hitch mount racks must be unloaded to access the rear of your vehicle, whereas others feature tilt functions to get the rack and bikes out of the way.
Swagman Bike Rack being tilted away from vehicle and bike being removed from Swagman roof rack

Gas Mileage and Road Noise

Roof Mount Bike Racks

Roof racks increase wind resistance, negatively impacting gas mileage and creating wind noise. Bikes installed in a roof rack are exposed to wind, rocks, bugs, and other debris. 

Hitch Mount Bike Racks

With a hitch mount rack, bikes are mounted behind your vehicle in the slipstream, making for a quieter ride compared to a roof rack, and less impact on gas mileage.
Bottom Line: Roof mount bike racks will lead to more road noise and decreased gas mileage. Hitch racks keep bikes tucked behind the vehicle, generally resulting in less impact on gas mileage or road noise compared to roof mount racks.


Roof Mount Bike Racks

Roof racks are often less expensive than a comparable hitch rack. If you only ever need to transport a single bike, a roof rack is the most economical way to do so.

Hitch Mount Bike Racks

Hitch racks come in a wide variety of price ranges depending on your desired features. You can get basic models at budget-friendly prices, while higher-end racks include many features to make them easier, more convenient, and more secure.
Bottom Line: Roof mount bike racks can be very cost-effective for transporting a single bike. If you need to transport multiple bikes, hitch mount racks are also very cost-effective. Swagman offers a wide range of models to suit your budget in both roof and hitch mount racks.


Once you've decided whether a Roof Mount or Hitch Mount bike rack is best for you and your vehicle, you can learn more about picking the best Roof Mount or Hitch Mount bike rack with our dedicated guides below. 

Click on the button below to navigate to a dedicated guide to choosing the best bike rack. 

If you have a pickup truck or adventure van, scroll down to view a few more unique bike rack options to safely transport your bikes.



Other Bike Rack Options

If you have a pickup truck, there are a few other options for carrying your bikes in addition to roof racks or hitch racks.
Bike being removed from a Swagman pickup truck bike rack


Shop Swagman Pickup Bed Racks

In-Bed Mounting Systems

In-bed mounting systems create a fork-mount bike rack inside the box of your truck. No bolting or drilling is required to install these in-bed systems from Swagman. Some models have locking systems for increased security of your bikes. Depending on the size of your truck bed, you may be able to carry up to 4 bikes.

For these systems, you need to remove the front wheel of each bike and store them in the box or cab of the truck. The bike mounts directly to the rack via the fork — make sure that you have the correct fork spacing adaptors for your specific bike.


Bike being taken off of a pickup pad bike rack


Tailgate Pads

Shop Swagman Pickup Truck Tailgate Pads for Bikes

Tailgate pads are one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to transport up to 7 bikes. Bikes are placed over the tailgate of the box, with the front wheel outside the box, and the rest of the bike in. The pad protects your truck from paint scratches while also protecting the bikes themselves. The pad’s integrated velcro straps hold the bikes in place.

Tailgate pads are great for short trips or shuttling but are not as secure as in-bed mounting systems or hitch racks. Tailgate pads rely on the weight of the bike to keep the bike in place; however, some shifting may happen, especially on bumpier roads.

Swagman’s tailgate pads come in two different sizes suitable for full-size or mid-size trucks.



Shop Swagman Bolt On Fork Mount Bike Racks

Bolt-On Fork-Mount Racks

For a more versatile and creative solution, consider fork-mount bike racks. These are generally installed by drilling into your chosen mounting surface and bolting the fork-mount to the surface. This type of rack can be useful for adventure van builds, inside truck boxes, on top of tonneau covers (if the tonneau cover can support the weight), and more.

Ready to shop for a bike rack? Click here to view all Swagman models