Roof Rails vs Roof Racks: What’s the Difference?

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A roof rack system is ideal for adding extra carrying space to your vehicle but there are a few key differences between roof rails and roof racks you may want to be clear about before selecting a solution for your vehicle. Put simply, roof rails offer mounting points while roof racks are a carrier that lets you transport everything from bikes to bulky kit without damaging your car.

Use this roof rails vs roof rack guide to help you figure out which is best suited to your requirements and why.

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What’s The Difference?

A key difference between roof rails and roof racks is their location. Rails run from the front of the roof to the back of the roof while roof racks run across the roof of the vehicle from door to door.

One of the other differences you’ll notice at first glance is that roof rails tend to be two bars while roof racks usually feature more than two crossbars.

Roof Rails

Roof rails are commonly factory mounted on larger vehicles such as SUVs and 4×4 vehicles. There are two main types of roof rails; elevated and flush.

  • Elevated roof rails have space underneath that make it easy to tie ropes or clamp racks into position. There is usually a gap of about 1-2 inches between the vehicles rooftop and the rail.
  • Flush roof rails are mounted against the roof of the vehicle. This means there is no gap so you cannot attach ties and ropes like you can with raised roof rails. Although you can’t use rope to secure your cargo, these rails are sleeker, more aerodynamic and will help with fuel efficiency.

Roof Racks

Roof racks are sometimes called crossbars and are an add-on option that gives you lots more room for transporting cargo. Crossbars are designed for carrying equipment and cargo on the vehicle roof so they effectively spread the weight out evenly to avoid damaging the car. A roof rack is able to offer a higher load carrying capacity than roof rails.

There is a large aftermarket when it comes to roof racks meaning there is a wide range of options to choose from. Popular brands such as Thule and Rhino offer lots of different types of roof racks. The type of roof rack you choose will depend on your specific requirements and the variety of options will make it easier to find one that offers the right weight carrying capacity, size, style, shape etc.

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Roof rails are pre-installed with the vehicle so there is no need to worry about installing them yourself. How you install an accessory will depend on the type of rails and the type of storage solution you have chosen but is usually very straightforward.

Roof racks need to be installed and the way this is carried out will depend on the roof of your vehicle and the system selected. The installation often involves clamping the rack in place to the cars doorjamb but there are other options too. One permanent mounted option involves drilling into the roof of the car, this is less common and needs to be done professionally to avoid complications e.g. water damage.

Why Use A Roof Rail?

Roof rails offer an excellent fix point where you can attach other bars and accessories. On their own, they are not carriers but when used with an attachment they are a convenient option.

Once you have installed crossbars or the relevant attachment it’s easy to load up a variety of items. However, the roof rail bar will often have weight limitations of around 50kg which will impact what cargo the car is able to carry. Due to these weight limitations, you usually can’t mount roof racks onto rails. This makes roof rails a great foundation if you don’t have too much cargo.

Remember, roof rails are a design feature of the vehicle that offer a place to mount other accessories while a roof rack is something (such as a box or bike rack) you install onto your vehicle to carry bulky kit and luggage.

Why Use A Roof Rack?

Roof rack systems are great for a wide range of people from campers to tradespeople and anyone who loves sports and adventures. The rack lets you take extra luggage or larger/ awkward shaped items such as kayaks at your convenience. It is a worthwhile investment if you regularly need to transport these types of items.

The size/ shape/ amount of items you want to take with you will impact the roof rack you choose. There are some general options such as a box that will cover the transport of a wide variety of items and there are some more specific racks that are designed to carry something in particular such as a bike or kayak. Racks can generally carry heavier weights and larger items.

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DriveQuest is a team of car lovers and enthusiasts. Our backgrounds and interests include 4x4s, car audio, track cars, modified street cars, muscle cars, and electric vehicles. We’re here to help with answers to all your automotive-related questions.