A member of our reviews team installs a cargo box on top of their vehicle.

When it comes to roof rack installation, the included instructions can often range from poor to downright confusing. While the exact installation process will vary depending on your particular vehicle and style of roof rack, the process is quite similar between products.

This guide offers a basic overview of roof rack installation, provided by a reviews team member who has installed them multiple times for different product testing sessions. Their experience and expertise will help you understand the basic steps required, so you can decide if you can or want to perform this yourself or leave it to a professional. Having a general overview of the process may also help you better understand the installation instructions included with your rack.

What Is A Roof Rack?

A set of ski racks are installed on a vehicle's cross bars.

The term “roof rack” can refer to a number of different vehicle accessories. Broadly, a roof rack is a cargo carrier you install on top of your vehicle to help transport cargo bags, luggage, or sports equipment. The most common types of roof racks include:

“Roof rack” can also refer to the cross bars on top of your vehicle that connect storage racks.

Roof Rack Installation: Step-By-Step

While specific installation directions differ from rack to rack, in most cases you will follow these basic steps:

  1. Asses and prepare vehicle
  2. Install crossbars (if necessary)
  3. Assemble roof rack
  4. Hoist roof rack above vehicle
  5. Attach roof rack
  6. Check stability

Most roof racks come with an Allen wrench, which is often the only tool you’ll need to assemble and install the roof rack. However, you might also consider having the following on hand:

  • Extra Allen wrenches: If you’re working with another person, the assembly can proceed faster if you’re both able to connect parts simultaneously.
  • Stool or ladder: If you’re tall enough, you can access the roof of your car without any height assistance. Otherwise, you may want a stool or ladder to reach over your car.
  • Microfiber cloth and cleaning solution: It’s a good idea to wipe down your roof and side rails before installing a roof rack.

1. Assess And Prepare Vehicle

To install almost any roof rack, you will need to have roof rack crossbars on your vehicle. Most roof racks connect to these raised rails.

A set of aftermarket cross bars are installed on the roof of a vehicle.

If your vehicle has a bare roof, you’ll need to install crossbars. If your vehicle already has crossbars, you can move on to Step 3. In either case, it’s a good idea to wipe down your roof to clear away dirt and debris before proceeding to the following steps.

2. Install Crossbars

There are two means to install crossbars on your vehicle: permanent installation or clamp-style.

If you want to permanently install crossbars, we recommend you take your vehicle to a dealership to have them professionally installed. Even if you plan to perform a DIY installation, it’s a good idea to purchase the installation kit from a dealership so that you get the best crossbars for your specific vehicle.

Clamp-on crossbars are compatible with a range of vehicles and can be installed at home by the non-professional.

3. Assemble Roof Rack

Some roof racks are fully assembled, while others must be put together before you attach them to your roof. If your rack needs assembly, follow the included installation guide to fully assemble your roof rack on the ground.

4. Hoist Roof Rack Above Vehicle

Lift the roof rack on top of your cross bars. Depending on the size of this rack and your strength and height, you may need another person to help you do this.

5. Attach Roof Rack

Once the roof rack is aligned with your cross bars, you’ll connect it to these bars. Each roof rack will have a different system for doing so, described in the owner’s manual. Some have clamps that you tighten by hand, while others may require some screwing.

6. Check Stability

Once you think you’ve gotten your roof rack fully secured, try to wiggle and shake it to ensure that it is tight enough that it won’t fly free on the highway.

Roof Racks We Recommend

The best roof rack for you depends on what you need to use it for and what type of vehicle you’re installing it on. For example, do you need to transport a snowboard, a kayak, or several cargo boxes? Are you installing on a Toyota Tacoma, a Nissan Pathfinder, or a Subaru Forester?

In general, the brands Yakima, Thule, and Rhino Rack make some heavy-duty, reliable roof racks for a variety of needs, though there are plenty of other reliable roof rack options out there as well. Specifically, we recommend the Yakima Highroad Bike Rack, Yakima FreshTrack Ski Rack, and Leader Accessories Folding Kayak Rack.

For a more detailed roof rack comparison, check out our roundup of the best roof racks.

Our Review Standards

To ensure the accuracy of all the tips and information in this guide, our team combed through dozens of resources such as federal safety studies, research from reputable institutions, verified firsthand accounts, interviews and videos from credible automotive professionals, and our own prior testing conducted by our expert testing team.

We then have our network of experts share their thoughts on roof rack installation. These experts have over 100 years of combined experience in the auto industry, in fields ranging from detailing to accessories to tires, and everything in-between. Interviewing experts ensures that all the information and advice we publish is as accurate as possible and delivered in a way that’s helpful and easy to understand.

Why You Can Trust Us

Since 2020, we have published over 200 auto product reviews in an effort to make owning a car and shopping for auto products easier. Our team of writers, editors, researchers, and product experts collaborates to thoroughly vet everything we publish. We try to perform in-house testing on real vehicles whenever possible before making our buying and informational guides.

When testing is not feasible, however, our aim is to make your life easier by doing all the online research for you. For more information on our testing methodology, check out our methodology page here.

FAQ: Roof Rack Installation

*Data accurate at time of publication.