What to Look for When Buying a Cargo Carrier

Posted on May 16, 2020.

There are some important things you need to consider when buying a cargo carrier. You need to consider about the storage capacity, ease of use, material, quality, cost, and much more. Let’s discuss each one in greater detail, shall we? 

Storage Capacity

If you often take long trips with your family and friends, having a cargo carrier with high storage capacity will save you a lot of headache in the long run. Why? Because when you just have to take all of your gears and leave nothing behind, an extra-large carrier means you can do just that.

What Will You Carry?

Transporting things like bicycles, kayaks, and boats will be a lot easier if you use a rack/cradle/mounting system made specifically to transport them. If you only need to take bags camping gears, or perhaps coolers, then any kind of cargo carrier will do.


Cargo racks and basket are usually made of steel or aluminum. A small number is made of polycarbonate, but if you value your gears, just stick with metal carriers.

Cargo racks and basket made of steel are tough but heavy. They also need protection from the elements. Manufacturers usually use powder coating instead of simple paint job since powder coating is more resilient and last a lot longer protecting the steel from the elements.

Aluminum is perfect when you aim for the lightest setup possible. Aluminum is kind of soft, but with the right manufacturing process, aluminum cargo racks can be as tough and durable as steel racks. Aluminum also resists rust pretty well. No fancy coating or finish is required. What people don’t like about aluminum is the threading doesn’t last as long as steel.

For cargo bags, the common material is Polyester. It’s basically the same kind of material used to make ordinary bags. To protect it from the elements, manufacturers use their own secret recipes, but most of them just use vinyl layering on both the exterior and interior.

Cargo boxes are made of ABS plastic. It’s tough, durable, and resists the elements pretty well. To make the box more pleasing to the eyes, manufacturers use glossy finish. Such finish also makes the box easier to clean from dirt, grime, and bug splatter.

Quality & Cost

It is widely accepted that quality is directly proportional to cost; something that cost more is usually of higher quality that the cheaper counterpart. There are, of course, anomalies to this simple statement. When you shop around, you will find that some cargo carriers have exceptional quality but without the hefty price tag. So, if you have a very limited budget, you can relax because you can still get a high-quality carrier.

Style & Size

The dimension of cargo carriers should not be too big that it looks out of place on your car. Rooftop cargo bags that are too wide will have the sides flop down and cause quite a racket when you drive. You also need to choose between a basket or tray. A basket style means the carrier will have tall sidewalls or railings. Those sidewalls help to keep your cargo from sliding off, and when you want to use tie-downs or a cargo net, the sidewalls give more tie down and hooking points compared to a tray.

Features & Accessories

For a hitch mount cargo carrier, the most useful features are folding and tilting mechanism. With a folding mechanism, you can use normal parking spaces as if you don’t have anything mounted on the back of your car. You don’t always have the luxury of an open and wide parking space on your destination, right?

A tilting mechanism is useful to give you access to the trunk or hatch when the carrier is loaded with stuff. You’ll have enough clearance to let the trunk open and close unobstructed. For accessories, there is quite a number of them.  There’s the anti rattle, hitch lock, lighting kit, and hitch adapter.

  • Anti-rattles tighten the connection between the carrier and hitch receiver. Without any play, there won’t be any more rattling.  A hitch lock is essential to prevent your carrier from getting stolen. Anti-rattles sometimes have locking mechanism too.
  • A lighting kit is crucial to improve visibility. During heavy downpour or nighttime, other road users can notice the carrier easier with the lights on. Since the lighting kits are also connected to your turn signals, you can turn left and right safely without other people blaring their horns and cursing at you.
  • With a hitch adapter, you don’t need to worry about hitch receiver size difference anymore. If you happen to buy a carrier that connects to a 2-inches receiver, but the one on your car is only 1.25-inches, you can still install the carrier safely. Some adapters are curved or raised. These adapters are meant for cars with low ground clearance so that the carrier won’t scratch the road when you go through speed bumps or climbing steep inclines.

What Car You Drive

Yes, what kind of car you drive dictates what kind of carriers you can install. If you have a convertible, then any sort of roof racks, bags, and boxes are out of the question - even for a hardtop. A hitch-mounted carrier is your only option if you drive a convertible.

For other types of cars (SUV, minivan, MPV, Jeep, crossovers, sedan) all kinds of cargo carriers will work just fine. A hitch-mounted bike and cargo carrier, for example, will work well for sedans too. Carriers with raised trays are easy to find these days, so even though a sedan has low ground clearance, you can still install a hitch-mounted cargo carrier. You can also use a hitch raiser for the same purpose.

If you have a car with sliding doors, then the only type of cargo carrier you may want to avoid is a rooftop cargo bag with long pass-through straps that loop under the roof. The straps might block the door sensors, and you’re going to need to close the doors manually every time.


A company that gives excellent warranty is usually confident about the quality of their products. You should also check online reviews about how a company treats warranty claims. If a customer must go through a dozen of hoops to claim warranty, then forget about buying anything from that company.

Comfort While Driving

When you add something on top of your car or the back, you will need to adjust your driving style accordingly – there’s no way around it. You may not notice it much when you drive in a straight line, but you will notice it when you need to make a sharp turn. For example, with a hitch-mounted cargo bag on the back, you may feel that your driving is less stable. Turning the steering wheel doesn’t give the same feedback as it used to. This is why you need to do a test drive with the cargo carrier fully loaded before the actual trip. It lets you know how much that extra luggage affect your driving. A couple rounds around the block should suffice. Take your time and go with a longer route if you feel it’s necessary.

Ease Of Assembly And Installation

Other than rooftop cargo boxes and bags, the other types of carriers usually require some kind of assembly. Sadly, some manufacturers skimp on the assembly instructions, so you need to do some guess works to put everything together. It’s really not that hard, though. If you already know how it should look like, you just need to lay every single part on the floor and sort out which part goes where.

You can always rely on YouTube when you’re stuck. Just search for the exact make and model of your carrier, and there’s a 99% chance someone already have a video describing how to assemble and install that particular carrier.

Ease Of Use

Let’s talk about cargo bags and boxes first. For these two, you need to check how easy it is to open/close, load/unload your cargo, and lock/unlock them.

Cargo bags typically uses zippers or Velcro closure which are equally easy to open and close. Most cargo bags open on three sides; left, right, and back. This setup makes loading and unloading easy. The absence of opening on the front-facing side also improves aerodynamic and reduce the chance of rainwater getting blasted in by the wind while you’re driving in the rain.


What we mean about safety here is your safety along with all your passengers and other people sharing the road with you. Let’s take a bike rack as an example. All bike racks have some kind of mechanism that’s supposed to keep the bikes in place when you transport them. Some bike rack manufacturers do it worse than others. As a result, you sometimes hear people complaining about their bikes falling off the rack in a freeway. That kind of stuff can give people driving right behind them a minor heart attack.

Let’s go for a rooftop cargo box as the second example. If the top lid is not tightly secured and locked to the bottom part, then when you drive at high speed, the wind can blow the top lid off and smash it to the car right behind you.

To prevent these kinds of scary stories from ever happening to you, it’s imperative to get a cargo carrier made by a reputable manufacturer. And that brings us to the next important point of what you should consider before buying a cargo carrier


An aerodynamic carrier won’t cause annoying wind noise that you can’t help but hear throughout your trip. It also means your gas mileage won’t drop significantly. When it comes to aerodynamics, a hitch mounted carrier wins over any rooftop boxes. Yes, even the most streamlined ones. Being located at the back of your car, a hitch mount carrier doesn’t even need to be aerodynamic. That hitch carrier just tags along.


Yes, brand still matters. Reputable brands have a lot at stake. Those who have been building their credentials for decades can’t afford to make and selling crap anymore. It’s a different story from run-of-the-mill brands that buy OEM products from China and then rebrand them as their own. Things are way easier for them. When things go south, they can just start over under a new company name and slap a new brand on the same OEM products the used to sell.

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