Roof Boxes: Roof Racks, Bars, Bags, and Boxes – Start Here!

A Thule Roof Rack

If you enjoy hiking, backpacking, camping, or the good old cross country car trip, then you have inevitability thought about a roof cargo system for your vehicle. For years the Hiking Lady family avoided the plunge, but once Hiking Baby #2 arrived, it was obvious that the trunk of our Jeep Grand Cherokee wasn’t going to cut it. Strollers, backpacks, coolers, tents, duffel bags, tricycles…whenever we tried to go anywhere the Jeep’s trunk was full. We had to make a decision: 1) buy a vehicle with more trunk space ($$$$$), or 2) get a roof cargo system ($$). Obviously that was simple.

Once the decision was made to keep the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the next step was deciding on the roof cargo system.  It should be a simple process, right?  Alas, it isn’t, hence I’m writing this as a Hiking 101 guide.

Don’t Buy A Roof Cargo System Without Starting Here!

There are numerous things to think about before making the investment into a roof storage system.

  1. Are you committed to your current vehicle? If you have a lease expiring in a year or your 15 year old beater is due for a replacement soon, then you’ll want to make sure you get a system that is “mostly” compatible with your likely next vehicle.  Everything has a specific size…from the boxes to the rails.  You’ll still have to likely buy a vehicle specific fit kit, but the most expensive parts should work on multiple vehicles.
  2. What will you be carrying? Perhaps sometimes you want to carry a roof box for a family camping trip because you have duffels and tents that can neatly be stashed inside a waterproof roof box.  And on other days you want to put a kayak on top.  Or you want to carry extra large items that just won’t fit inside a roof box but can be secured in a roof rack.  Save money by figuring this out before you buy.
  3. Do you need protection from rain and snow? If you plan on putting your duffel bags on the roof, then a roof rack likely won’t cut it for you.
  4. How often will you use it?
  5. How much do you care about the gas mileage impact?

Bag, Rack, or Box?

Once you have thought about the above questions for your roof storage system, you have to decide if you need a roof rack, roof bag, or roof box.  Don’t worry, Hiking Lady is here to help you!

Roof Bag:

Roof Bag
Roof Bag
  • Least Expensive: A roof bag will be your least expensive option. You can get a Thule roof bag for $200, or a lesser quality one for a mere $115.
  • Weatherproof: Most roof bags are treated for water resistance to help prevent moisture and dirt from getting inside.
  • Not permanent: These can be easily removed and packed away.

Roof Rack:

roof rack
Roof Rack
  • Moderately Expensive.
  • Perfect for Odd Cargo: If you tend to carry items that wouldn’t fit into a roof bag or roof box, then you’ll need a roof rack. I often see spare tires up on roof racks!  You can get a kayak specific roof rack, or a ski rack, etc.

Roof Box (also known as a Cargo Box):

roof box
Roof Box
  • Most expensive option. Even though a roof box will be the most expensive of these three options, it will be the most fuel efficient because of their aerodynamic shape.
  • Most durable, weatherproof and secure. Everything is secure in a locked box! Can’t beat that.
  • Variety of sizes. You’ll want to get the box that is the smallest that fits your needs. The bigger it is, the less fuel efficient it will be.

Rail System: Bare, Half, or Full?

In order to install a roof cargo system, you’ll need a base set of rails in order secure the rack, bag, or box of your choice.  What category do you fall into?

  1. Bare Roof. Look at your vehicle’s roof.  If it’s bare, then you’ll need to buy Roof Rails and Roof Cross Bars.
  2. Half Rails. Many SUVs, vans, and wagons come with factory installed half rails.  These run along either side of your roof.  On my Jeep Grand Cherokee I had factory installed half rails, so I needed to buy roof cross bars.  (Thule AeroBlade Edge)
  3. Full Rails. It is not common for a full rail system to be factory installed, but if you have them already, you’re in luck!  You’ll likely just need some mounting hardware plus your rack/bag/box.

How to Choose Your Roof Cross Bars?

If you have a Bare Roof or Half Rails and need to buy Cross Bars, then you’ll have more things to think about.  (Isn’t this complicated!!)  Cross Bars will impact the amount of wind noise you hear when driving on the highway, so you need to keep this in mind:

Oval (Aerodynamic) bars: $$$

Aerodynamic cross bars
Aerodynamic cross bars
  • Least noisy.
  • Most pricey.
  • Looks cool.
  • Thule compatible, but fewer accessories are compatible.

Round cross bars: $$

Round cross bars
Round cross bars
  • More aerodynamic than square bars, so only moderately noisy.
  • Some cargo boxes won’t mount to them! Yakima compatible, but not Thule.

Square bars: $

Square cross bars
Square cross bars
  • Tend to “whistle” while you drive.
  • Least expensive
  • Thule and Yakima compatible

Here’s the Hiking Lady rule of thumb. If you’re going to be using a Roof Box (Cargo Box), then invest in a good pair of Oval (Aerodynamic) cross bars.  If you want a Roof Rack, then go for Square Bars.

The Hiking Lady Decision Process:

Thule AeroBlade Edge Crossbars
Hiking Lady’s Jeep Grand Cherokee with the Thule AeroBlade Edge Crossbars freshly installed
The Thule Force XT L Roof Box
The Thule Force XT L Roof Box after most dents were fixed up

Knowing that I plan to keep my Jeep Grand Cherokee for many years, I travel with gear I want well protected from the elements, and I plan to park at a trailhead for a few days with extra clothes and gear, I opted for a roof box.  Although they are pricey, it best served the needs of our family.  I narrowed it down to the Thule brand due to their strong reputation for quality and durability, and opted for a roof box that was in the mid price range, the Thule Force XT L Roof Box.  Additionally, I wanted crossbars that were as quiet and fuel efficient as possible, since I wanted them permanently affixed to the roof.  They aren’t that quick to install and uninstall, so for me it just made sense to get something that would be a time saver and fuel saver!  Hence I selected the Thule AeroBlade Edge cross bars.  So far I love the set up for my vehicle and it has been a lifesaver on family trips!

Do you have a roof storage system?  What works for you?  Please share below!

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