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An SUV usually has space for a bike or two in the trunk, but that space is only there if you don’t have a car full of passengers and luggage.
As well, bikes can be filthy machines, especially the MTBs that you’re quite likely to be carrying in an SUV.
There are various scenarios, then, where you’d need to carry bikes on the outside of the car rather than the inside.
In this article, we’ll tell you how to install a bike rack on an SUV and help you decide which method will suit you best.
How To Install A Hitch-Mounted Bike Rack
A hitch-mounted rack, commonly called a “hitch rack” for short, is a bike rack that fits into the hitch receiver of a vehicle.
The good news for SUV owners is that many SUVs will have a hitch receiver installed from new. Thus, you won’t need to pay $100s to have one installed.
Hitch receivers are square-shaped tubes that come in two sizes: 1.25” and 2”. Most SUVs have a 2” hitch.
There are two types of hitch racks: platform style and hanging style.
With a platform hitch rack, the bikes rest on wheel trays and are secured usually by a hooked arm that goes around the front wheel or frame.
Hanging-style racks have a tall vertical column with two arms protruding at right angles. Bikes are suspended from these arms in secure cradles.
Pros Of A Hitch Rack
- Capacity – platform-style hitch racks hold more weight than any other type.
- Security– hitch racks tend to include two or three forms of security.
- Mounting – platform racks are close to the ground, so they’re easier to load.
- Distance– hitch racks are good for keeping bikes apart.
Cons Of A Hitch Rack
- Cost – hitch racks are more expensive on average than other types.
- Weight– they’re heavier than other types of bike racks.
- Camera – likely to obscure the view from backup cameras if left on the car.
Read more: How to lock a bike to a hitch rack
Hitch racks are straightforward to install, as follows.
Step 1. Assemble Rack
Some assembly of the bike rack may be necessary before installation, as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
Step 2. Insert Hitch Into Hitch Receiver
Determine which size of hitch receiver your vehicle has. Most SUVs will have a 2” receiver (measured along one side of the square opening).
Insert the hitch of the bike rack into your SUV’s hitch receiver until the holes that accommodate the hitch pin align.
Step 3. Insert Hitch Pin & Secure
To secure the hitch to the receiver, you typically have to insert a hitch pin through the hitch and receiver and tighten it with a wrench. A cotter pin or hitch lock is inserted at the other end of the hitch pin.
Some racks have spring pins that automatically engage when you push the hitch into the receiver. You’ll tighten these with a tightening knob.
You may also need to install an anti-rattle sleeve or collar during this process.
Video: Adding A Hitch Tightener To A Bike Rack
Step 4. Adjust Supporting Trays Or Arms
All you need to do now is move the wheels trays or arm supports into place, locking them with whatever mechanisms the rack provides.
How To Install A Trunk-Mounted Bike Rack
Trunk-mounted bike racks are more likely to cause compatibility problems with SUVs than hitch racks, depending on the shape of the vehicle and the equipment installed.
The main hurdle to installing trunk racks on an SUV is the presence of a rear spoiler. Many SUVs have spoilers, which are designed to improve fuel efficiency.
Pros Of A Trunk Rack
- Affordable – they’re much cheaper than hitch racks on average.
- Lightweight – you don’t need bulging biceps to lift them onto the car.
- Compact – they’re easy to store when not in use.
- Portable – because they’re light and compact, you can carry them anywhere.
Cons Of A Trunk Rack
- Insecure – most of them offer no security features (one or two do).
- Compatibility – many won’t install over spoilers or spare tires.
Read more: Rated racks for cars with spoilers
It’s not a bad idea to buy a good trunk rack that’s 100% assembled. Here’s the typical installation method:
Step 1. Separate Upper Frame From Lower Frame
You first need to separate the upper frame of the rack from the lower frame. These two parts are likely to have large rubber or foam pads that rest on the vehicle.
Either move them apart according to the specified distance for your vehicle model or find the correct distance manually by positioning the rack against the car.
The upper part of the rack is likely to rest on the high rear window, while the lower part rests on an area below the license plate as long as it’s firm and doesn’t easily depress.
If any part of the frame contacts a spoiler, the rack is incompatible.
Step 2. Secure The Frame Position
Once you’ve adjusted the spacing of the rack as described above, you need to lock it into position using the available mechanism. Often it will snap or click into place.
Step 3. Attach Hooks & Tighten
Trunk racks usually have upper, lower, and side straps that attach to the trunk using hooks. These hooks are often metal and are liable to scratch the finish. You can avoid this by covering them with tape or attaching purpose-made rubber pads.
You will normally attach the upper straps and adjust their length so that the rack is positioned where you want it. Then you attach the lower straps and side straps before tightening the side and top straps. The rack is then ready to use.
How To Install A Roof-Mounted Bike Rack
The main benefit of a roof rack is that it leaves the rear of the vehicle unobstructed. Your taillights and license plate are visible, and it doesn’t block any backup camera.
Before installing a roof rack, you’ll normally need to have crossbars installed on your SUV. Some bike racks fix to a roof using suction pads.
Unlike most trunk racks, many roof racks are lockable. You just need to remember you have bikes on the roof when driving under barriers or into a garage.
Pros Of A Roof Rack
- Affordable – they’re cheaper than hitch racks in general.
- Visibility – they leave your taillights and license plate unimpeded.
- Access – unhindered access to the trunk.
- Camera – a roof rack never blocks a backup camera.
Cons Of A Roof Rack
- Height – some SUVs are too tall to make a roof rack practical.
- Risk – the risk of losing focus and mashing bikes on a roof is real.
- Drag – not aerodynamically beneficial.
Assuming your SUV already has crossbars installed, this is a typical installation routine for roof-mounted bike racks:
1. Adjust Length & Secure
A typical bike roof rack has a telescopic sliding design so you can adjust the length of the rack to suit the spacing of your crossbars (aka cargo bars, load bars).
Fix the front of the rack to the crossbar using whatever mechanism provided, which might be a strap. There will usually be a way of fine-tuning tension.
Then, adjust the length of the rack so that the rear rack connection aligns with the crossbar. Attach the rear of the rack.
2. Lock The Rack
At this point, you might be able to lock the rack to the car using a lock core, which may be an optional extra. This is likely to be a keyed lock that lets you leave the rack permanently on the car if you want that.
3. Prep The Rack
You can now prepare the rack to receive a bike. This will typically involve loosening wheel straps and raising the wheel arm, which you can use to brace the bike while you secure it. Stepping on the door threshold is a way to overcome an SUV’s height.
Can I Carry A Bike In An SUV Without A Rack?
For most vehicle types, it’s possible to carry a bike without a rack. There are various ways to do this, though one or two of them are not for the faint-hearted.
In The Trunk
As alluded to at the start of this article, it’s more than possible to transport a bike or two in the trunk of an SUV. Is this as easy as it sounds? Mostly, yes, though some SUVs are inevitably roomier than others in this regard.
Some SUVs have over 100 cubic feet of cargo space, which dwarfs typical estates, hatchbacks, and sedans (in that order).
You can put bikes in the rear cargo area of an SUV with the back seats down. It’s the same method that applies to most cars, despite the numbers.
Remove the front wheel before laying a bike in an SUV drive side up. If you’re loading one bike, you back it in with the fork nearest the trunk. With two bikes, you alternate their direction and put a cover between them.
Much of an SUV’s cargo space is in height, so theoretically you can stand a bike up in some instances (e.g., in a Honda Element). You’d need a way to keep the bike(s) upright during transit, however.
If you’re going off-road a bit in your SUV, chances are you might be carrying a mountain bike. In that case, you’ll probably want to lay some plastic sheeting down in the car to avoid it getting muddy.
Road bikes can usually be carried in the rear of a car without protection as long as you keep the chainset away from upholstery.
With an SUV, you shouldn’t ever need to place a bike on the rear passenger seats. This is an emergency measure for cars that have little cargo space and a trunk that doesn’t extend into the car.
Still, if your car is loaded to the hilt and you need to carry a bike at the same time, you can flip a bike upside down minus its front wheel and rest it on a seat.
Alternatively, you can put the rear wheel on the floor and rest the fork on the back seat.
Putting bikes on seats is a high-risk strategy in terms of dirtying the interior of the car. Plastic covers or bike bags are your friends.
On The Roof
If you have crossbars on your roof, you can secure an upside-down bike to them. You attach the handlebar to the front crossbar using two ratcheting straps. Then, you tether the saddle to the rear crossbar.
Unlike with a proper bike rack, you obviously can’t adjust the bike to suit the spacing of the crossbars, so it has to be the other way around. You’ll probably need to adjust the position of the crossbars.
One big disadvantage compared to a proper bike rack is there’s nothing to stabilize the bike for you while you tie it down.
If you don’t have crossbars on the roof, it’s also possible to tie a bike directly to the roof. This usually involves putting a cover on the roof first, which might be a heavy-duty removal blanket or a thin mattress.
Once the cover is on the roof, you lay a bike on top of it with the drive side up and the left pedal removed to prevent it from causing damage. The bike and cover are tied to the roof by threading long lengths of nylon rope through the car multiple times.
Conclusion: Is It Worth Installing A Bike Rack On Your SUV?
It’s surely worth installing a bike rack on your SUV if you transport bikes regularly.
You arguably don’t need one if you only ever travel alone with a single bike, as you can carry this easily inside the vehicle. But a bike rack does help keep your car pristine.
Bike racks are the only option if you want to take family or friends on vacation with a load of luggage and multiple bikes. You’re unlikely to regret the investment. We hope you found this article informative. Please feel free to comment