Buying Guide

Cargo Carrier Buying Guide

 Posted: Feburary 11th, 2021
Cargo Carrier Buying Guide

Every now and then, the amount of stuff you have to haul from place to place will exceed the cargo capacity you have in your vehicle. Maybe you’re heading out on a family vacation and will have the entire car packed. Perhaps you’re going camping and have a lot of extra gear you’re carrying with you. Whatever the circumstances, you need to find a way to carry all this extra cargo. This is where cargo carriers come in. Here’s an overview of what you should know about cargo carriers and how to choose the ideal carrier for your needs.

Whatever the circumstances, you need to find a way to carry all this extra cargo. This is where cargo carriers come in. Here’s an overview of what you should know about cargo carriers and how to choose the ideal carrier for your needs.

Before you buy

  • What do you plan on transporting? Do you need storage for a long trip (luggage, coolers, leisure equipment, camping gear), equipment such a mobility scooter, lawnmower or other heavy item or something else entirely?
  • How much will your cargo weigh when it’s loaded? Think about the heaviest amount of goods, gear or equipment you’ll transport in a trip, as that will factor into the weight capacity your ideal carrier should have.
  • What weather conditions do you think you’ll encounter? If you regularly drive through the Rockies to your cabin for a weekend getaway, a hard-sided rooftop carrier will provide excellent weather protection. On the other hand, if you mostly drive out to your nearby lake in the summer for some camping, swimming and fishing, an open hitch-mounted carrier for your coolers will do just fine.
  • Does your vehicle have a hitch, and if so, what is its hitch class? Your vehicle is an important determining factor in the type of cargo carrier, as some sedan and crossovers simply aren’t manufactured with a hitch. For those, perhaps a rooftop carrier is a good choice. For crossovers and SUVs that do have a hitch, sometimes the hitch class will be located in the owner’s manual, or you can identify the hitch class based on the width of the hitch mount.
  • For more detailed information about hitch classes and towing, read Towing: What You Need to Know.
  • How often will you be using a cargo carrier? If you plan on using a carrier frequently, don’t skimp on quality. Heavy-duty options will be your friend.

Type of Cargo Carriers and Mount Location

Apex Steel Roof Basket with Wind Fairing
The Apex Steel Roof Basket with Wind Fairing

Rooftop Open Basket

The ideal road trip accessory, a rooftop cargo basket is an excellent way to transport extra gear and equipment without sacrificing the entire interior of your vehicle. With proper tie-down equipment, roof cargo baskets are an effective, secure way to transport cargo when you don't want to use a trailer. The biggest con of rooftop-mounted cargo carriers is that they reduce the aerodynamics of the vehicle, and can be noisy at high speeds. A wind fairing can help reduce the noise and direct wind up and over the basket.

Apex Expandable Rooftop Cargo Bag – 18 cubic ft
The Apex Expandable Rooftop Cargo Bag – 18 cubic ft

Rooftop Soft-sided Bag

Rooftop cargo bags eliminate the cost and hassle of dealing with towing a trailer while maximizing your vehicle's luggage-hauling capacity, and they free up interior space without blocking vision or obstructing access to the rear of your vehicle. Most are composed of 100% waterproof PVC-coated nylon with flap-covered, weather-sealed zippers to protect your luggage and other gear from moisture, harsh UV rays, and flying road debris. The soft-sided, lightweight bags fold easily for compact storage when not in use and provide maximum cargo space with minimal impact on fuel costs. Most will attach to factory-market crossbars with the attached tie-down straps.

Malone Rooftop Storage Box
The Malone Rooftop Storage Box

Rooftop Hard-sided Box

Better for aerodynamics, most hard-sided boxes are also lockable, which is ideal on long trips where you’re making a lot of long or overnight stops at unfamiliar hotels, motels or rest stations.

Apex Steel Heavy-Duty Basket Carrier Cargo with Ramp
The Apex Steel Heavy-Duty Basket Carrier Cargo with Ramp

Hitch-Mounted Cargo Carrier

Hitch-mounted carriers have many benefits over rooftop storage options. They usually allow for greater load weight, they don’t affect the aerodynamics of the vehicle as much, and they are lower to the ground which makes loading and unloading an easier process. The downside is that they elongate the footprint of the vehicle on which they are mounted, and put more pressure of the rear suspension than if the load was located on the roof, on even inside the vehicle. This requires a lot more up front calculation to prevent overloading your vehicle’s tongue weight.

Hitch-Mounted Cargo Box
Photo Courtesy of LetsGoAero, Inc.

Hitch-Mounted Cargo Box

Much like hitch-mounted cargo carriers, cargo boxes are low to the ground and aerodynamic. The one big advantage they have over open cargo carriers is that contents are completely out of sight, and they have usually lockable to prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to important gear, food, etc. They are usually an all-in-one package, and are also great for lots of smaller items that would be otherwise difficult to tie-down or keep contained when in transit.

Features that add ease-of-use

Scooter Carrier Swing-Away Arm
Scooter Carrier Swing-Away Arm

Swing-away design

Some individuals might find that adding a swing-away arm gives them easier access to the trunk of their vehicle.

Apex Steel Folding Cargo Carrier
Apex Steel Folding Cargo Carrier

Folding hitch mount

Selecting a carrier that comes with a folding hitch mount allows you to reduce the footprint of your vehicle when you aren’t actively using the carrier. It will be easier to park in your garage or hotel parking lot.

Apex Aluminum Premium Carrier with Ramp
Apex Aluminum Premium Carrier with Ramp


Although carriers are already close to the ground, ones that incorporate a loading ramp open up the door for hauling heavier items like landscaping equipment or mobility devices like wheelchairs, scooters or power chairs.

Elevate Outdoor Steel Basket Cargo Carrier with Bike Rack
Elevate Outdoor Steel Basket Cargo Carrier with Bike Rack


For those who like to maximize their cargo space, considering a cargo carrier that accommodates a combination of storage space is really handy. Cargo carrier/bike racks are particularly popular for weekend getaways.


  • Steel: Powder-coated steel is a strong, durable option for most hitch-mounted carriers. Most rooftop carriers made of steel are usually manufactured of steel mesh or wire to keep the weight down.
  • Aluminum: Slightly costlier than steel, aluminum carriers have the advantage of being more lightweight than steel and are more resistant to the corrosion you might see from road salt or coastal salt water or spray.
  • Plastic or polyurethane: Hard-sided boxes are most always made of a hard plastic polymer than is lightweight, tough and completely enclosed. It’s a great choice of material for rooftop carriers because the designs can be molded into a more aerodynamic shape.
  • Waterproof material: Thick, weather-resistant nylon or polyester is used in soft-sided bags. Rain and other precipitation won’t seep through, keeping your interior items dry.

It might seem like there is an overwhelming amount of information, however as you work through your needs, any vehicle limitations, and your personal preferences regarding loading height, aerodynamics, and lockability, suddenly your options will narrow and you’ll be able to make an easy, informed decision about the cargo carrier that best suits your needs and budget.