Using a Car Bike Rack (11 Things Every Beginner Should Know)

Bike racks (the type that go on vehicles) are pretty simple, but learning how it all works can be really HARD when you’re just getting started.

My family has used bike racks for many years, especially for family road trips, and I thought it would be helpful to put together the below bike rack FAQ for common beginner questions. I hope that you’ll find it helpful.

Let’s get into it!

1. Can You Open the Trunk With a Bike Rack Installed?


You should avoid opening the trunk of your car with a trunk rack installed because this can cause damage to the vehicle and the rack. If the trunk is opened forcefully, the rack supports could bend or break. Also, the pressure of the rack on the rear window might damage or break the window. 

Trunk racks are not very sturdy, but the extra weight of the rack puts extra pressure on the trunk hinges. You might find that you cannot open the trunk at all with the rack on the car, but even if you can, the extra weight of the rack may cause the trunk lid to close unexpectedly. Opening the trunk with a rack installed might injure the user and the bike if attached.

However, if you have a hitch mount bike rack installed on your car, you may be able to open the trunk with the rack installed. Some hitch-mounted bike racks have a swing-away feature. If you need to access the trunk, simply swing the rack out of the way, and you can easily open your trunk. 

A roof rack will typically allow easy access to the trunk, as well. However, if you are using a roof rack on a hatchback, you’ll need to make sure there is adequate clearance before opening the hatch. 

2. Can You Leave a Bike Rack on Your Car? (Long-Term)

Technically speaking, you can leave your bike rack on your car long-term. The only real reason to do this is to save time installing and uninstalling your rack. However, just because you can leave the rack on your car doesn’t mean that you should.

First of all, it might not be legal in your area to leave an empty bike rack on your vehicle

Secondly, the bike rack can cause damage to the vehicle. If you are using a rack that attaches to your trunk, there are parts of the rack that will come in contact with your vehicle’s paint. Over time, the dirt and road grime will work its way between the rack and the car. The dirt will become abrasive, and it may ruin the paint and allow for rust to form. Not only can this damage the paint, but it might also damage the body of the car over time.  

Third, you might cause damage to the bike rack. Dirt and grime, and especially winter road treatments, can build up on the rack and cause damage to it. You may shorten the life of your bike rack and even make it unsafe by leaving it in place when you are not using it. 

Finally, your bike rack is more likely to get stolen if you leave it on the vehicle when you don’t need it. Your best practice is to take the bike rack off when you aren’t using it to carry a bike. 

If you’d like to learn more, check out our in-depth article on wether you should leave your bike rack on your car.

3. Do Bike Racks Damage Cars?


Any kind of bike rack can cause damage to a car if it is improperly installed, improperly used, or not maintained well. 

Trunk racks are the racks most likely to cause damage to your car, especially to the paint. Dirt and grime that gets between the rack and the car can become very abrasive, which will wear away the paint. Straps that flap or rub can also scratch the paint. Damaged paint might allow rust to form on your car’s body, which can lead to greater damage over time. 

Other types of racks can cause damage, as well. For example, a hitch rack that is improperly installed can damage the hitch of your car. If you put more weight on the hitch rack than the hitch or the rack handle, the rack could fall, causing damage to the rack, the hitch, the car, and the bikes.

Roof racks present a different type of hazard. If your bikes are installed on the roof of your car, you need to be careful of overhead clearance. If you run into a sign, pole, or bridge, you risk damaging your bikes, rack, and car. 

Carefully following the manufacturer’s directions for the rack and the vehicle should prevent significant issues. Be sure your car is clean before installing racks to reduce the amount of dirt between the rack and the car to reduce wear and tear on the paint. 

4. Can Bike Racks Get Wet? 

Bike racks can get wet. It won’t hurt the rack to get caught in the rain. But there are some things to consider if you want to wash your rack. For example, you should never take your bike rack through an automatic car wash.

The car wash was not designed for that. It might seriously damage the rack and your car, especially if the equipment gets caught on the rack. 

A roof rack is probably the safest rack to use in the rain because it keeps the bike the furthest from the road. 

If you are using a hitch rack or a trunk rack in the rain, expect the dirty water from the road to kick up around the car’s back. Your bike and your rack might both need a good washing after using your bike rack in the rain. 

If your rack does get wet, you may want to take the time to wipe it down so that its hinges do not rust. 

5. Can You Take a Bike Rack Through a Car Wash?

Never take a bike rack through an automated car wash. Bike rack manufacturers and car wash businesses recommend removing bike racks before going through a car wash. Bike racks are not designed to handle the force of a car wash, and bike racks can also damage the equipment, which may lead to fines or criminal penalties. 

If you are going to take your care through the car wash, just remove the rack first. Place it inside your vehicle or leave it outside of the car wash until you are finished. If your rack is dirty, you can carefully rinse it off in a self-service car wash where you can control the pressure and direction of the water by hand. 

6. Do Bike Racks Get Stolen? 

Bike racks do get stolen off of vehicles. Thieves stealing bike racks are unlikely to steal them for their own use, since not all racks fit all cars. A thief is more likely to steal a rack to resell it (or sell the scrap metal) for cash.

Generally, a thief will look for an easy target, so do your best to make sure your bike rack isn’t easy to steal.

How to Protect Your Bike Rack from Theft

Although it’s essentially impossible to stop a highly-motivated and well equipped thief, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of your bike rack being stolen:

  • Take it off. The most straightforward method of protecting your bike rack from theft is to put it away when you aren’t using it. Once you reach your destination and have removed your bike from the rack, simply remove the rack and lock it in the trunk of your vehicle. Or, store the rack in your home or garage.
  • Purchase a rack with a built-in lock. Some racks are designed to be locked to your car. Consider purchasing a rack with built-in locks, although this is just a deterrent. 
  • Use a cable lock. Thread the cable through the frame and rear wheel of your bike, through the bike rack, and lock it onto the metal loop under the car’s frame. This type of lock will protect both your rack and your bike.
  • Trunk Lock Strap. Trunk lock straps are another option. These straps attach to the rack. The straps are attached to a large disk, which you place inside the trunk. Once the trunk is closed and locked, the straps cannot be removed until the trunk is opened again. You can see a trunk lock strap here (FYI – we receive commissions on qualifying sales).

7. Can Bike Racks Go on Any Car? (Are they Universal?)

Bike racks are not truly universal, although most racks are designed to fit many different cars. There are four main types of bike racks available: hitch racks, roof racks, trunk racks, and truck racks. And each type of rack may work better if you drive a sedan, SUV, truck, etc.

If you’d like to learn more, check out our in-depth article on bike rack compatibility.

8. Should Bike Racks Wobble?

Any hitch-mounted bike rack can wobble, especially when it is fully loaded with bikes. And although this is a normal occurrence, it can be distracting or uncomfortable for the driver. Luckily, this is usually easy to fix with a specially designed pin.

How to Fix Bike Rack Wobble 

Many manufactures make a bike rack pin specifically designed to stop rattling and swaying. Some pins also come with a built-in lock. 

You can purchase a pin like this one for both 1 1/4inch and 2 inch hitch receivers. Christopher Lum demonstrates how to install two different types of anti-rattle mechanisms here: 

9. How Fast Can You Drive with a Bike Rack Installed?

If you have a quality bike rack appropriately installed, you will probably be able to drive the speed limit. However, there are a lot of variables, including your comfort and driving skills, and the limits set by the bike rack manufacturer. 

For example, a roof rack carrying large mountain bikes on the top of your vehicle will create a lot of drag or wind resistance. This type of rack is going to affect your speed, gas mileage, and steering. A windy day could cause even more trouble steering, and you might find you need to drive a little slower than normal to keep you and your bikes safe. 

On the other hand, a hitch-mounted bike rack will create much less wind resistance since it is located behind the vehicle. This type of rack will affect speed, steering, and gas mileage much less than a roof rack. 

Consult your bike rack owner’s manual for specific guidelines related to your bike rack. For example, the Thule Passage Trunk Mount Carrier (FYI – we get commissions on qualifying purchases) states the warranty coverage is only good up to 65mph, while the Thule Passage 2 Bike Carrier can handle speeds up to 75mph.   

10. Do Car Bike Racks Need Lights?

Although some states have laws regarding license plates and car lights when carrying a bike rack, most do not have laws concerning rack lights. The difference is that racks are attached to the vehicle rather than being pulled behind it.

However, adding lights to your bike rack is a good safety feature to take into consideration. 

If you are using a trailer hitch or trunk mount, drivers behind you may have difficulty seeing them due to sun glare and darkness. They may incidentally rear-end your rack because they cannot see your bicycles. 

Adding a few lights to your bike rack can give you more protection for your bikes when done properly. You can add a few battery-powered lights, such as the ones you would use on your bike, or invest in an auto rack tail light extension system such as this one. The extra investment might be worth it if it saves your cycles from being crushed in an accident.  

With all of that said, it’s worth mentioning that I am not a lawyer, and this should not be considered professional advice. Regulations do vary from one area to another.

11. Is a Bike Rack Worth It?

A bike rack is worth it assuming you don’t want to transport your bike inside your vehicle, and if you plan to travel with your bike regularly or for long distances (like for a family road trip). There is a bike rack for just about every budget and every type of vehicle, so if you think it’ll come in handy, then it’s definitely worth considering.

My family has used bike racks for family camping trips and road trips for many years, and we’ve gotten more than our money’s worth out of the (multiple) bike racks that we’ve used.


JJ here - I've spent a lot of time on a bike, including completing the 3,000+ mile Southern Tier Route (CA to FL). I started Cycling Beast to "demystify" cycling topics, and to help people overcome roadblocks and level-up their skills.

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