What is the difference between roof rails and roof racks?

The main difference between these two is that they are mounted differently. Roof rails run along the car’s roof, while roof racks are mounted across the roof. These two serve the same purpose which is increasing the cargo capacity of your vehicle, and as such, they are equally as useful in most scenarios.

Roof rails arguably look a little bit better and are integrated a bit more nicely. Besides the looks and mounting locations, a roof rack is usually capable of carrying more weight more evenly. This is extremely important because the risks associated with improper roof/rail installation are high.

Whatever you end up choosing, be sure to leave the installation process to a trained professional, especially so if you are planning to use them frequently to transport heavy items. Both of these can be used for many different purposes, and as such, are fairly similar.

Be sure to inform yourself about what type of roof-mounted cargo carrier fits your car best. As far as roof racks are concerned, you are probably looking at an SUV because they are able to carry more weight.

Roof rails

There are many types of cars out there that come equipped with a set of roof rails from the factory. Roof rails are often considered a styling upgrade because they offer a more rugged, utilitarian, but yet sleeker design which is mostly associated with fast estate cars.

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Roof racks are a better option if you want increased cargo for some items that are not able to fit inside the car’s trunk. As such, you should just tie them to the rails as intended. When not in use, roof rails integrate into the design of the car and there is no need to take them off.

Roof rails are perfect for oversized cargo, but not for overweight cargo. So be sure to inform yourself about the carrying capacity of your roof rail system, and if it’s way too low, you can opt for a roof rack instead.

If your car does not come with a set of roof rails from the factory, you can always retrofit one or opt for an aftermarket one depending on the mounting locations. That being said, if your car does not offer dedicated roof rail mounting points, you can mount them by using a door jam clipping mechanism.

Roof racks

As mentioned previously, roof racks are mounted across the roof of the car and not along the car’s roof. Such installation enables you to carry almost equally sized cargo, but significantly heavier cargo when compared to a set of roof rails.

So, if you want the maximum carrying capacity, go ahead and opt for a roof rack. When not in use, people tend to take roof racks off because they do not integrate well into the car’s design. And more often than not, roof racks are less aerodynamic and they are noisier when compared to roof rails.

The reason why roof racks cost more is the fact that they can carry more weight while experiencing more aerodynamic drag. This means that a roof rack countereffects the wind more, but is only attached to the car’s roof on a few mounting locations.

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For this to be safe, designers have to spend more time designing roof racks when compared to roof rails. Furthermore, roof racks are often made out of higher-grade materials because they are capable of carrying significantly more weight.

Safety, practicality, and price

When choosing between roof rails and roof racks, there are many aspects worth considering. The main is safety because any amount of additional weight on the very top of your vehicle is always a safety hazard.

As such, a properly mounted roof rack should be a safer option in most cases, but only for specific items. Roof racks can carry more, which means that the strain onto the roof of the car is higher. For all of this to function normally, roof racks usually distribute the weight better – thus, are safer.

Practicality-wise, the victory goes to roof rails as they integrate neatly into the design of the car and there is no need to ever take them off. Usually, people don’t use roof racks and roof rails all that often, and when they do, the carrying capacity of roof rails is usually enough.

Price-wise, a roof rack costs more, and it only makes financial sense to buy a roof rack if you are planning to use the additional carrying capacity a roof rack offers over a set of roof rails.

FAQ Section

Are roof racks worth it?

If your car comes with a set of roof rails from the factory, one might question the necessity of spending extra money on a roof rack, and for a good reason. Most people don’t even utilize their roof rails anyway, and if you are such as a person, there is no need to spend any extra money on a roof rack.

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If you constantly lack cargo space and you are maybe often transporting bicycles, skis, or kayaks, a roof rack is always going to be a safer and better option.

Can I retrofit roof rails onto my car?

In most cases, yes you can. The majority of cars these days are either equipped with roof rails as standard or a set of roof rails is available as an additional option. Nevertheless, there should be dedicated roof rail mounting spots for almost every car.

If not, you can only mount them using specific in-door jam mounting clips, but this is only rated for lightweight items and lower speeds.

Do you need roof rails to mount a roof rack?

Sometimes, but mostly not. Roof rails are often equipped during the manufacturing process, but sometimes they are not. If they are not, they usually leave space for a set of roof rails, but then again, sometimes they don’t.

As such, roof rack manufacturers have realized that they need a design that can fit onto the majority of cars without completely relying on dedicated roof rail mounting spots. As such, you don’t need roof rails to take advantage of a roof rack.

Marko Mikulic

Why do you love writing about cars? I love writing about cars as cars are a huge personal interest of mine. I was raised in a car enthusiast community and ever since I was young, I always wanted to do car-related work.

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