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Roof racks buyers' guide

By Tristan Tancredi, 13 Jul 2019 Gear

Roof racks buyers guide feature

There is more to roof racks than just a place to plonk extra gear. The experts explain…

EXPERIENCED tourers who have explored this wide continent of ours in their 4x4s will be awfully quick to advise that optimising what limited cargo space you have in your vehicle – be it wagon or dual-cab ute – is often one of touring’s greatest challenges.

To do it right, every expedition requires a particular, meticulous setup. Going away for a few months? Well, you need to ensure every inch of space in your rig is utilised, and that the weight is evenly distributed.

Roof racks are a great alternative to store excess gear – or gear that won’t fit in the cabin or tray – but adding weight on top of a 4x4 also comes with its challenges.

Why use a roof rack?

UTILISING the space above your four-wheel drive is the ideal way to clear space inside your vehicle, be it for more people, your furry friends or valuable cargo that needs to be protected from the elements. There are plenty of benefits a roof rack brings, as Paul Epthorp, Rhino-Rack’s national sales manager (Australia and NZ), explained.

“The primary benefit of installing a roof-rack system is to allow for additional cargo and long loads to be carried with you,” he said. “It also provides the ability to transport flammable items such as fuel and gas which cannot be stored inside a vehicle.”

Yakima Australia’s brand director Chris Lyons reiterated that sentiment, adding that a roof rack provides a solid platform for transporting equipment not easily kept in your vehicle. “(It) allows you to transport gear that is not especially safe or pleasant while stored inside a vehicle (fuel, spare tyres, etc.),” he said.

Roof racks also provide a great deal of convenience in terms of access to the items you have stored. “Packing items in the rear of a vehicle means you generally only have one or two points of access to reach that item without unpacking the car,” Ironman 4x4’s Suspension Product director Kristian Ristell said. “A roof rack gives far greater accessibility from three sides meaning you rarely need to shift other items to gain access.”

What to look out for with 4x4 gear buyers' guide

What to look for?

CONSTRUCTION quality, fit and finish, and that it meets applicable standards and regulations are the most important attributes to look for when sussing out a new roof rack, according to ARB’s Shannon Diedrich. And with a number of different roof-rack systems on the market, it’s important to find a setup that caters for your intended purpose.

In this regard, the mounting legs play an important role; for example, a serious four-wheel driver would benefit from a fixed-mount style rack, whereas a removable-clamp style would suffice for someone whose tyres never leave bitumen.

For the avid tourer, it’s essential to opt for a fixed mounting system of sturdy, durable and robust construction, with a versatile setup that allows for plenty of customisation options to attach all manner of accessories.

With a variety of styles available – bars only, platforms (no sides), baskets and trays (sides) – roof racks can be specified to cater for a range of gear including awning brackets, ladder rollers, jerry can holders, bike and kayak carriers, fishing rod carriers and luggage carrier bags and boxes. In fact, your setup can be customised with more than 1000 accessories on the market.

“You want racks designed with versatility in mind, featuring a channel to easily and quickly add accessories with a variety of different locking solutions available,” Paul Epthorp said.

Common materials used in the construction of roof racks include steel, aluminium and reinforced plastics. Kristian Ristell from Ironman 4x4 advises to utilise steel where high vibrations and load exist, but reinforced mesh aluminium is much lighter and provides equally as much storage space.

“Strength is still considerably higher than what the roof is rated to carry, so aluminium becomes a very viable and attractive option as opposed to steel,” Ristell said. “It does cost more than steel, so the price of an aluminium roof rack is generally always more expensive.

“Crossbars are generally the cheapest form of roof rack available and are also easy to install and remove.”

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Driving with a load up top

IT’S a no-brainer that adding weight on top of a vehicle and raising the height of the centre of gravity will affect how a vehicle performs on- and off-road, as Chris Lyons explains.

“Increasing the height of the centre of gravity will increase body roll and extend stopping distances under heavy braking, due to pitching and the related load transfer to the front,” he said.

Vehicles also require lower speeds when cornering, will use more fuel as a result of the extra kilograms, and may find it harder to reach the most remote campsites due to the extra heft and vehicle profile.

However, there are a few steps you can take to minimise the impact: distribute weight evenly, stay within a vehicle’s load ratings, and try to maintain a low centre of gravity. Remember to keep heavier items as low and close to the centre as possible.

“The main consideration is keeping within the manufacturer’s specified roof load rating,” Paul Epthorp from Rhino-Rack explained. “By placing light but bulky gear on the roof like swags, tents, camp chairs you save space in the cabin for heavier items such as fridges, while still allowing recovery gear and awnings to be easily accessible on the roof.

“To a large extent it’s about packing smarter, though it’s important to drive with greater caution and understand your vehicle may take longer to slow down,” Epthorp said. “Lastly, always use good quality, load-rated tie-down straps to secure your items.”

Don’t forget about the added height when you decide to stop off to grab some bread in the undercover supermarket carpark – “be aware of added height of rack and contents, as well as overhanging trees, bridges and garages,” ARB’s Diedrich added.

GVM & GCM

“The fast advancement of technology within vehicles, and the amount of aftermarket accessories available make it very easy to reach the vehicles GVM and GCM limit,” Paul Epthorp explained. “While the roof load rating is factored into the GVM, if you’ve made other mods which increase the kerb mass weight (KMW), like an extra fuel tank, weight may need to be reduced elsewhere to stay within the GVM. Every gram of weight added to the vehicle must be taken into consideration.”

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Suspension

“Suspension systems are getting smarter, so when a system like KDSS is loaded up with extra cargo inside and outside of the vehicle, there is potential that the system may operate differently, changing the dynamics of the vehicle,” Paul Epthorp from Rhino-Rack explained.

Secure the load

ONCE a load is properly distributed on the roof racks, it’s a legal requirement to ensure all items are adequately secured to the vehicle … the last thing you want is to slam on the brakes and have your kayak slide into the rear window of the car in front of you.

To do this properly, always use rated securing straps. “Compromising or modifying the restraints may result in a catastrophic failure,” explained Rhino-Rack’s Epthorp.

It’s also a legal requirement – and common sense – to store combustible equipment (gas and fuel bottles) on the outside of a vehicle. For longer objects, like kayaks and canoes, remember to tie down both the front and rear to the roof racks and the front bar if possible.

Roof rack installation 

ANYONE with basic tools and a bit of skill turning spanners will be able to backyard-fit most set of roof racks. However, both Rhino-Rack and Yakima advise professional fitment is required when it comes to some of the more complicated 4x4 setups.

“Regardless of who installs your roof racks, you should check all bolts and fixtures are tight every 1000km and before every trip,” Paul Epthorp said. “Consider checking more frequently when driving on unsealed surfaces and ensure your cargo is secured.”

Roof load ratings

BEFORE you even begin to throw things on top of the roof racks, it’s critical to be aware of your vehicle’s roof load rating – every vehicle has one, with 4x4s varying from 50kg to 100kg, with some models going higher again (but check your vehicle’s manual to be sure). A roof load rating is dictated by a vehicle manufacturer, and exceeding the capacity can lead to serious safety issues. Plus, you also run the risk of voiding a warranty.

“Know your vehicle’s roof load rating!” Chris Lyons enforced. “Roof racks can bear a certain load, but if the vehicle’s roof is not of the same load rating equivalent or better, damage to the vehicle can happen.”

A roof rack will also have a carrying capacity (for example, ARB racks are rated to 150kg), with different styles and designs suited for various weights – so, again, opt for a roof rack that suits your vehicle and intended purpose.

“Often roof racks can withstand greater loads than the vehicle roof,” said Rhino-Rack’s Epthorp. “But, regardless of your racks or tray, the roof of your vehicle is designed to only support a specified weight, and that is a very important thing to be aware of.”

Overloading a roof rack is a common problem and you’ll often see poorly loaded vehicles on off-road pursuits. As mentioned previously, excess weight on top changes the driving dynamics of a vehicle, but if too much weight is packed on top then the chances of a serious problem striking increases tenfold, as Chris Lyons explained.

“Your vehicle may be damaged (roof crushed), your braking ability can be diminished. Being severely too top heavy and making tight turns at too much speed can really have severe outcomes,” he said.
Paul Epthorp talked us through the best method to avoid overloading a vehicle: “Take the vehicle load rating and subtract the weight of the roof rack, any accessories and your load,” he said. “This will tell you the cargo rating: the safe load to carry on your vehicle.”

Ratings terminology

There are three types of load rating, as well as the cargo rating...
Static Load Rating: When the vehicle is stationary.
On-Road Load Rating: Driving on sealed roads.
Off-Road Load Rating: Driving on dirt, uneven or unsealed roads.
Cargo Rating: Amount of luggage or gear you can put on your racks and roof rack accessories.

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