Installing a Bike Rack: A Guide to Roof, Rear & Tow Racks

A bike rack can be a great way to take your bike on trips you normally wouldn’t be able to, however, setting one up is easier said than done. I for one always have trouble attaching my bike rack to my car, especially after the winter season when I haven’t used my it for a few months. To make things easier, I’ve gone through each of the steps required to attach all the common of bike racks to your car, so that you don’t have to. So, how do you put a bike rack on a car?

The way you put a bike rack on a car will depend on which type of bike rack you have. Rear-mounted bike racks attach to the boot of your car with straps and hooks, tow ball bike racks attach to the rear of your car via a tow bar, and roof bike racks attach to your car via the cross bars on the top of your car.

So, now we know the process involved in attaching different bike racks to your car, but how do you actually do it? In the article below I go through the step-by-step instructions for each type of bike rack, as well as show you what you should do if you can’t fit your rack onto your car.

Disclaimer – While the basic steps of attaching each type of car rack are generalized below, every vehicle and bike rack will be slightly different. It is essential that you check any instructions supplied with the bike rack before attempting to install one, as these supersede any of the advice below.

Step 1: Confirm the type of bike rack you have

An example of a rear-mounted bike rack
Rear-mounted bike rack
An example of a tow-ball mounted bike rack
Tow bar bike rack
An example of a roof mounted bike rack
Roof Car Rack

The way you attach your bike rack to your car will vary significantly depending on what type of bike rack you have. Below I have listed the 3 main types of bike racks to help you identify which one you have.

Rear-mounted bike rack

Rear-mounted bike racks are the most common type of bike rack. These are often the cheapest and most easily available. Rear-mounted bike racks are formed from a large frame (normally made from metal) that sits on the back of the car over the boot opening. They attach to your car using multiple straps that hook around the edge of the car and the boot.

Rear-mounted bike racks come in two main forms. The first type are those that have the straps going inside the boot of the car (commonly used for hatchbacks) and the second are those that have the clips attached to the outside of the boot (commonly used for coupes or saloon cars).

Tow-ball and tow-bar bike rack

At first glance, tow ball bike racks look similar to a rear-mounted bike rack, however, these attach to the tow ball rack underneath the car (part of the tow bar). These are often more stable than rear-mounted bike racks, however only work with cars that have a tow bar.

Roof rack

The last type of bike rack is a bike roof rack. These sit on the top of your car and attach directly to the roof bars of your car. As is the case with tow ball bike racks, roof racks only work with cars that have car roof bars.

Step 2: Check that your bike rack fits onto your car

An example of a bike being stored on a roof car rack

Once you have confirmed the type of bike rack you have, you will also need to confirm that the exact model of bike rack you have works with your exact model of car. For example, smaller hatchbacks are able to work with some rear-mounted bike racks, but not all of them do.

The best way to do this is to check your particular bike rack model online using many “what fits my car” websites. Or you can look directly on the manufacturer’s website of your bike rack where there should be a list of the cars that work with your rack.

Which cars are not compatible with certain bike racks?

Certain types of bike racks do not work with certain types of cars, or on cars being used for certain types of trips. Below I have shown some of the types of cars that do not work with the main types of bike racks.

Rear-mountedTow ball car rackRoof Bike Rack
Cars with a spoilerCars with no tow barCar with no crossbars (you can install these separately)
Soft top carsCars with a low nose weight limitCars driving in poor weather conditions
Cars with a composite body panelCars with a low towing limitCars driving on routes with height restrictions
Cars needing to carry multiple bikes (each roof rack can only hold one bike)

Step 3: Confirm that your insurance covers the use of a bike rack

A picture showing a person signing an insurance policy

Before you take any more steps to install your bike rack onto your car, you need to make sure that your insurance covers the use of a bike rack on your vehicle.

Attaching a bike rack could potentially be classified by an insurer as a modification to your vehicle, and therefore it could cause issues with your existing car insurance policy.

Check your policy documents or contact your insurance provider to confirm if this could be the case.

Step 4: Attach the bike rack to your vehicle

A picture of a bike being stored on top of a car via a roof car rack

The next steps will depend on exactly what type of bike rack you have. Jump to the section relevant to your type of bike rack.

How to fit a rear-mounted bike rack onto your car?

Rear-mounted bike racks attach to the back of the car, over the boot opening through the use of straps. There are two main types of rear-mounted bike racks, those that have straps going through the inside of the boot, and ones that simply clip onto the outside of your boot. The steps for installing these two types of bike racks are different.

For bike racks that have straps inside your boot

  1. Open the boot and clear it of any items excess items.
  2. Assemble the roof rack as per the rack’s instructions.
  3. Unclip the top and middle straps from the bike rack.
  4. Feed the removed straps through the top edge of the boot so that they will remain hanging inside the vehicle once the boot is closed. Ensure these are evenly spaced and have a suitable distance between them (there should be guidance in your bike rack manual).
  5. Feed the side straps around the boot lid in a similar way to the top straps.
  6. Close the boot while keeping the side straps taught, and ensure that these are pressed up against the boot itself rather than the gas struts.
  7. Place the rack against the boot, adjusting the handles of the rack so that it sits in the correct position (there should be guidance in your bike rack manual).
  8. Make sure to disable your rear windscreen wiper before installing the bike rack as this may damage the wiper or the bike rack if it is left on.
  9. Pass the top and middle straps back through the buckles on the bike rack itself.
  10. Attach the straps on the bottom of the bike rack to the underside of the car. These should be attached to metal areas of your car, often the tailgate or chassis (again check with your specific model). These should not be attached to your bumper or near the exhaust pipe.
  11. Tighten all straps on the bike rack, ensuring that the rack is even and secure. It should be tight enough that the rack does not move when you push on the rack with your hands.
  12. Confirm whether or not your number plate is visible behind the bike rack, and ensure you move this onto the bike rack if it is not.

For bike racks that clip to the outside of your boot

  • Assemble the roof rack as per the rack’s instructions.
  • Unfold the bike rack, ensuring that the bike handles are facing out in the correct direction.
  • Place the rack against the end of your boot, tucking the two top straps of your bike rack into the gap between your boot and the rear window of the car. This should hold the rack in place while you fit the rest of the straps.
  • Tuck the bottom straps into the underside of your boot lid.
  • Tuck the side straps into the side of your boot lid.
  • Tighten the bottom and side straps of the bike rack, and then tighten the top straps. Confirm that the rack is held securely in place. It should not move when you push on it with your hands.
  • Confirm whether or not your number plate is visible behind the bike rack, and ensure you move this onto the bike rack if it is not.
  • Remember to re-tighten any bike rack straps once you have installed the bike as this can loosen them.

How to fit a tow bike rack (hitch bike rack) onto your car?

Tow bike racks attach to the underside of the car rather than onto the boot itself. They do this by attaching to the trailer hitch of your car.

  1. Confirm your vehicle’s nose weight (this is the limit of weight that can be put onto the back of your car) and its towing capacity. You need to ensure that the total weight of the bike rack, tow bar and bikes do not exceed this. You will be able to find this online or in your car’s manual
  2. Assemble the roof rack as per the rack’s instructions
  3. Clean the tow bar to remove any dirt and grease
  4. Confirm there is enough clearance between the tow ball and the car bumper for the rack itself.
  5. Undo the clasps or screws on the bike rack
  6. Lower the bike rack onto the tow ball, ensuring it is parallel to the floor and in line with the vehicle.
  7. Tighten the tow bar lock and any blots that are attaching your bike rack to the tow ball. Ensure it is tight enough that the bike rack does not move when you pull on it with your hands.
  8. Attach your number plate to the outside of the bike rack, as otherwise, this will not be visible as you drive.

You may find that some models of bike racks are designed to attach directly to the underside tow bar of your car rather than a tow ball. In these cases, you may need to remove the tow ball adapter of your car in order to attach the bike rack.

Once you have removed the tow ball, you can lift the bike rack up, and slide it onto the 2-inch receiver on your bike tow bar, tightening and locking any screws or bolts as you would with a tow ball bike rack.

How to fit a roof rack onto your car?

Bike roof racks attach to the cross bars on top of your vehicle.

  1. Confirm that your roof rack fits in between your cross bars. Even universal roof racks have a limit to how much they can adjust and so check these before purchasing your bike rack.
  2. Check that your roof cross bars are in working order, securely attached to the roof of your car and appear in good condition.
  3. Confirm the maximum roof carrying weight for your specific car model, this can be found in your car manual or online.
  4. Assemble the roof rack as per the rack’s instructions
  5. With the bike rack on the floor, place your bike into the rack, confirming that your bike fits before installing it. This means that the bike should have both wheels within the bike rack when the bike is locked in place (rather than on the roof of the car) and be centred within the rack itself.
  6. If your bike does not fit, check to see if your bike rack is adjustable, allowing you to lengthen the rack itself.
  7. Ensure that all bolts on the bike rack are tightened
  8. With the bike removed, lift the bike rack onto the roof of the car, placing it between the two cross bars. If you can’t easily reach onto the top of your car, try using a step ladder or parking your car next to the pavement where you may be able to get more height.
  9. Ensure that the front of the roof rack is facing toward the front windshield. If this is the wrong way around, you can risk the bike coming loose or having more of an effect on your car handling. If you don’t know which side of your rack is the front, look for adjustable poles that stick out of one end. These poles attach to the front tire and almost always go on the front end of a vehicle.
  10. Attach the bike rack to the cross bars on your roof using the bolts included with the roof rack. These are often U-shaped and you may have to install multiple bolts on each side of the bike frame. Ensure you tighten these bolts evenly and at the same time, as this will help you to keep the bike rack level.
  11. Place the bike onto the rack to ensure it is straight. Adjust the bolts until the bike sits straight on the rack.
  12. Ensure that the rack doe not move when you apply pressure with your hands.

What to do if you are having trouble fitting a bike rack?

A picture showing a man lifting a bike onto the top of a car roof rack

In some cases, you still won’t be able to attach your bike rack. This could be because the bike rack itself is not incompatible with your car, or it could be that the rack is not able to attach securely. In these cases, you should not use the bike rack with your car.

While it may seem tempting to try out an unstable bike rack, using a bike rack incorrectly is dangerous for you, for other road users, and can result in a £5000 fine and up to 9 points on your license.

Contact customer support for the bike rack model you have.

The first step is to try contacting customer support for your specific model of bike rack. You may find that the model you have is faulty, or they will be able to advise you on steps you can take next.

They can also look more carefully into your exact model of the bike rack and car and confirm that these are compatible.

Speak to your local bike store

If this doesn’t work, or you have purchased a second-hand bike rack, the next step is to try talking to your local bike store. Local bike shops are often very friendly and accommodating if they can help, and many will offer to help you fit your bike rack, either for free or for a small fee.


A picture of a man walking on a tightrope. You can see his car with a roof car rack holding multiple bikes.

While it might have seemed confusing at first, putting a bike rack onto a car is actually quite easy once you know the basic steps. You’ll be off having adventures in no time!

If you are looking to load a bike onto your bike rack, take a look at my article here.

Joe Dalloz

Hi! I'm Joe a 30-year-old doctor, cyclist, and bikepacker who's spent thousands of hours in the saddle and written hundreds of articles about riding bikes!

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