16 tips for securing gear to the roof racks

When you camp trailer-free as we Set to Camp'ers do, space inside the car for transporting camping gear is at a premium, especially if the rear passenger seat is occupied with your loved ones. Without a trailer, the only way is up - that is, to transport some of your gear on the roof racks of your car. 

In keeping with how we pack the car for camping, this article focuses on tips for safely transporting camping gear on the roof racks of the car such as tents, bedding, clothing and other bulky but lightweight items. Many of the tips, however, would apply much more broadly.  

If you don't have a car with roof racks, then make sure your next car does by including them in your car buying checklist. Securing gear to the roof racks of your vehicle is fairly pretty straightforward if you take some simple but important precautions.

Weights and load limits

1. Stay within roof and roof rack load limits

Familiarise yourself with not only your roof load limit, but also the load limits of your accessories, such as cross bars, roof boxes and roof trays. In your load calculations, also take into account the weight of the roof rails, tie down straps, the bags you will be using to contain your gear and any supporting poles or panels used.

2. Minimise roof load

Keep the weight on the car roof to a minimum by using it to transport lightweight and / or bulky gear that won't fit in the rear cargo area. Reserve the rear cargo area for heavier items, especially the more compact items that can be more easily and efficiently packed in that space. The lower the centre of gravity is in your vehicle, the more stable it will be on the road and the safer it will be to drive.

3. Know your weightlifting limits.

Physically lifting heavy weights up to the height of your roof racks can really strain your back. Know your comfortable weightlifting limits and ensure that any individual item can be comfortably lifted to the height of your particular vehicle. In our case, we limit the weight of each individual item or bag transported on our roof racks to preferably 20 kg but no more than 25 kg.

4. Reducing your load limit for off-road conditions

As some roof racks are not recommended or rated for 4WD conditions, you should check with the roof rack manufacturer before driving off-road. If you are unsure, carsales.com.au in their article recommend you should discount your load limit by 1.5 to allow for the associated additional downward pressure of the gear on the roof when driving off-road. For example, if your roof load limit is 75 kg, your load should not exceed 50 kg (ie: 75 / 1.5).


5. Use approved accessories

Use approved roof racks and rails for your particular vehicle and ensure they are properly fitted to the vehicle.

6. Use suitable restraint equipment

Use suitable restraint equipment made specifically for that purpose, such as tie down straps. They should also be rated appropriately to support the weight of your particular load. Elastic (bungee) cords are not recommended because the elasticity could stretch and loosen your load. Likewise, rope is not recommended because some types are prone to slippage, and knowledge of load securing knots is required to ensure you can achieve the right amount of tension to properly secure the load. You may also not know with certainty if ropes and bungee cords are capable of securing the load.

7. Consider accessories

Consider accessories to help you load your vehicle such as a folding stool, or accessories such as steps fitted to the side of your vehicle or roof access ladders (usually reserved for particularly tall vehicles).  

8. Use long, rectangular bags

Use bags that have a long, rectangular shape (pictured) rather than those with a more rounded shape. They should not exceed 1.8 metres (6 ft) in length. If your existing tent bag isn’t suitable, transfer the contents to a more suitably shaped bag.

9. Support bendable bags

Support bendable bags containing things like bedding and clothing with a tent pole or a timber panel (pictured) purchased from a hardware store to prevent any sagging from destabilising the load as well as damaging the roof of your vehicle. You can either place them inside the bag underneath the contents, or alternatively, a timber panel can be placed between the bag and the roof racks.

10. Weather protection

Provide extra weather protection for vulnerable items like bedding and clothing if there is a chance of rain during your travels by enclosing the items in a separate weatherproof bag, such as a garbage bag. We suggest doing this even if they are already in an apparently weatherproof bag - it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Tying your gear to the roof racks

11. Space between cross bars

Adjust the width between the roof cross bars to suit the pack length of your item so that it is properly supported. Your item should extend past each cross bar by at least 20 cm.

12. Balance your load

Balance your load so that it is spread and weighted evenly, and is not sitting too far forward or too far back on the racks. To reduce the amount of drag the item will have on your vehicle, you should place it no further forward than the beginning of the car roof.

13. Don’t over tighten ratchet straps

Don't over tighten ratchet straps (if using) to the point that you might crush and damage your gear. This might not apply to soft bedding and clothing, but it could damage tent and marquee frames and poles.

When driving

14. Do regular checks

Regularly check your load to see if it has become loose or dislodged during your road trip, including after the first 10 or so kilometres and at each stop. If possible, a second person should double check the fastenings before you leave.

15. Adjust driving to account for the extra load 

Transporting heavy items on your car roof alters its centre of gravity, performance, handling, acceleration and deceleration. You will need to pay particular attention to the differences in the way your car handles and drive with more caution.

16. Pay attention to height restricted areas

Although anything we suggest shouldn’t increase the height of your vehicle by more than 40 cm above the roof racks, there may be low set structures such as garages, internal car parks and tree limbs. To avoid accidents and damage to your vehicle and the external structures, place a sticker on your steering wheel denoting the height of your load to act as a reminder as you are driving.

do you want to keep reading?

Our members only area, The Campus, is absolutely packed with all you need to know about packing and loading your car for camping. including our step by step guides to:

  • Packing your car for camping
  • Loading the rear cargo area
  • Securing gear to the roof racks


Keep reading:

25 tips for packing your car for camping

How to choose a camping chair

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