When you camp trailer-free as we Set to Camp'ers do, storage capacity 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 use the roof racks of your car to transport some of your gear.
You have numerous options for carrying gear on the roof of your car - a roof box, tray or basket or a cargo bag. Or when packing the car for camping, you could simply secure it to the roof racks of your car using ratchet straps or cam straps, either directly or enclosed in a durable and weatherproof bag.
While the focus of this article is to transport camping gear on the car roof, many of the tips would apply much more broadly, such as for kayaks, canoes and snowboards.
The question of how to tie gear to the roof racks of your vehicle is fairly straightforward if you have a set of ratchet straps or cam (cambuckle) straps and if you take some simple but important precautions.
Benefits of Securing Gear to the Roof Racks
While not as easy as throwing everything into a weatherproof roof box and locking it, strapping gear directly to roof cross bars of your car has many benefits. You can save hundreds of dollars by avoiding the outlay on a roof box or tray, you won't add unnecessarily to the weight of your load and you will have more flexibility in terms of transporting unusually shaped items.
The main issues will be ensuring your gear is protected from the weather and is not an easy target for thieves.
Roof boxes or trays, on the other hand, are costly, they significantly add to the weight of your load, they can be difficult to store at home (and costly in terms of fuel economy if they remain on the vehicle) and roof boxes in particular may not efficiently transport certain odd shaped objects, leaving unused space.
Beginner campers are also usually unsure about their long-term camping plans and whether they would eventually prefer a roof box or tray. They might not ultimately even want either, preferring to stay as they are or to upgrade to something like a camper trailer or caravan instead.
The longer these types of purchases can be delayed, the better informed you will be if and when the time comes to invest your hard-earned money in an upgrade, and the fewer obsolete camping items you will have cluttering up the garage.
How to Tie Gear to the Roof Racks.
What you will need
If you follow our tips and precautions listed below, using the roof racks to transport luggage is relatively simple. All you need is:
- Cam straps or ratchet straps – one for each cross bar
- Long rectangular bags (pictured) to hold your gear from 1.2 metres (4 ft) up to 1.8 metres (6 ft) long. Some tents will already come with an appropriately sized and shaped bag. If you need to source a bag, heavy duty marquee bags are ideal for this purpose, preferably those that are PVC lined for waterproofing.
- Durable garbage bags to protect items vulnerable to rain and dust.
- A vehicle fitted with roof rails and cross bars!
- If using, place the timber support on top of the roof racks.
- Place the bag(s) on top of the cross bars and any timber supports, side by side and close together.
- For added weather protection, openings should be facing down and zipper sliders should be at the rear of the vehicle.
- Tuck any bag straps underneath the bag to stop them from flapping in the wind.
- Evenly balance the load on the bars so that it is spread and weighted evenly, and is not sitting too far forward or too far back on the racks. Ensure that each end extends beyond the cross bars by at least 20 cm. If not, adjust the cross bars to move them closer together.
- Place the straps over the top of the bags with the buckle facing you, leaving sufficient room to tighten. Throw the other end over the bags to the other side of the vehicle.
- Loop the other end around the underside of the cross bar and toss it back over the bags towards the buckle side.
- Loop the end around the underside of the cross bar, thread it through the buckle and tighten.
- Wrap the excess strap around the cross bar and tie off.
- Repeat this process for each bar.
- Make sure the load is secure by giving it a good shake, and once on the road check the load after the first 10 km and at every stop. Tighten the straps as necessary to ensure the load is properly restrained.
How to Use Ratchet Straps On Roof Racks
Ratchet straps are probably the most popular for securing heavy loads, and together with cam (cambuckle) straps, would work perfectly fine in our situation.
As we mention below, the only caution we have in using ratchet straps is to ensure that you don't over-tighten them, particularly for items that could be damaged, such as the frames of tents and marquees.
Safety Tips for Tying Gear to the Roof Racks.
Weights and load limits
1. Stay within roof and roof rack load limits
Familiarise yourself with the load limits of the vehicle as well as that of your accessories, such as crossbars, roof boxes and 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 items that won't fit in the rear cargo area. Smaller and loose items can also be bundled up as well to minimise the number of missiles inside the vehicle if there is a sudden stop.
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 that of any people in your group, 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 racks are not recommended or rated for 4WD conditions, you should check with the 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 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 that installation is performed professionally.
6. Use suitable restraint equipment
When tying gear to the roof racks of your car, use suitable and good quality restraint equipment made specifically for that purpose, such as ratchet tie down or cam buckle straps. You will also find some with locks for security purposes.
They should 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 other accessories
Consider other 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 racks.
10. Weather protection
Provide extra protection for vulnerable items from the weather and other external elements 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
One of the features of ratchet straps is that they can be easily tightened without much effort. However, they can be over-tightened 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.
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 has risks associated with altering its centre of gravity, performance, handling, acceleration and deceleration. You will need to pay particular attention on the road 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.
Knowing how to use the roof racks of your car to transport gear is a really handy tip and can save you a lot of money in the long run when you look at the cost of the alternatives of trailers and RVs. You may eventually need to upgrade, but the longer you wait the more likely you will be to know exactly you want for the long term.
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