Whether you drive a small hatchback or a large SUV, adding a cargo box to your vehicle’s rooftop can go a long way toward improving organization, carrying capacity, and comfort. These boxes come in a range of sizes to accommodate your gear (including skis) and vary in terms of durability, ease of use, aesthetics, security, and more. In 2021, most of the top models are built by roof-rack giants Thule and Yakima, but brands like Inno and SportRack also have some solid contributions. Below you’ll find our breakdown of the market, from premium luxury models and compact carriers to popular all-rounders that get the job done for most. For more details, check out our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Dimensions: 84.5 x 36 x 17 in.
Capacities: 16, 18, 18 (Alpine), 22 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: 5-7 pairs up to 200cm
What we like: The best all-around combination of quality, features, and ease of use.
What we don’t: Relatively pricey and not available in smaller sizes.
If you’re in the market for a rooftop cargo box, there’s no shortage of high-quality options to choose from in 2021. That said, Thule’s Motion XT is a standout, featuring a refined fit and finish, user-friendly installation and operation, and four sizes ranging from 16 to 22 cubic feet (including an “Alpine” version great for low clearances and toting skis). And the price is right too: some cargo boxes can cost as much as $1,500, but the Motion XT maintains a high-end feel and slides in at $800 for the XL (18 cu. ft.) model. Whether you’re a road-tripper needing extra space for your climbing gear or a weekend warrior who still wants to blend in on the city streets, it’s hard to go wrong with Thule’s premium all-rounder.
You can save some money and opt for one of the more affordable options below, but it’s good to be aware of what you’re giving up. First off, Thule’s installation is best in class, and with PowerClick mounts that sound an audible “click” when in place, you can get a secure fitting on most roof racks in just minutes—this is a particularly nice feature if you routinely remove your box or swap it between cars. Second, the Motion XT is easy to open, close, and secure, with large handles on each side, smooth-operating locks, and a stiff lid that fits perfectly when closed (sometimes you have to jimmy floppier lids into place). Finally, the nose design is top-notch, including an extra-solid base and generous overlap that resists gaping and provides better wind resistance than most. All told, the everyday user won’t find much room for improvement with the Motion XT, making it our favorite do-all cargo box of the year.
See the Thule Motion XT XL
A Close Second (For $200 Less)
Dimensions: 81 x 36 x 15 in.
Capacities: 12, 15 (Lo), 16, 18, 21 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: Up to 185cm
What we like: Extremely versatile design, quality build, and competitive price.
What we don’t: Handle and mounting system could be more user-friendly.
When it came to choosing our favorite rooftop cargo box, we must admit that we waffled a bit. The Motion XT above is clearly the “best” all-rounder, with a high-end fit and finish, exceptionally easy-to-use mounting hardware, and a SlideLock handle and lock system that’s hard to beat. But not every user needs the best, especially when “very good” can get the job done for significantly less. And this is the reason we see the Yakima SkyBox on more rooftops than any other carrier: for $599 for the 16-cubic-foot model ($649 for the 18 cu.-ft.-version), you get durable storage for your gear and tool-free installation that will accommodate most factory and after-market racks. And with your choice of sizes from 12 to 21 cubic feet—including a low-clearance (“Lo”) model and the narrow “12” that leaves enough room on your rack for a bike or boat—there’s a SkyBox for everyone.
The Motion XT and SkyBox are both built to withstand the rigors of the road, including rugged ABS plastic and aerodynamic shapes that taper at the rear to accommodate your car’s antenna and hatch. But details matter, and here the Yakima lags a bit behind. In particular, we’ve found that the turn handle requires a little more force than the Thule’s and isn’t as easy to operate with just one hand (it also has a tendency to get stuck when frozen). Further, while the Motion XT has one of our favorite mounting systems, the Yakima’s requires more finagling to get into place, which is a downside if you anticipate removing and reinstalling your box with some regularity. But it’s hard to beat the value and range of sizes, and the SkyBox nevertheless is a reliable hauler that will get your gear from point A to point B... Read in-depth review
See the Yakima SkyBox 16 Carbonite
Best Budget Rooftop Cargo Box
Dimensions: 63 x 38 x 19 in.
Capacity: 18 cu. ft.
What we like: Lots of capacity and easy installation for a low cost.
What we don’t: Opens at the rear and cannot accommodate skis.
You can spend up to $1,500 on a roof box, but the budget SportRack Vista XL is a popular option that will get the job done for a quarter of the price. Compared to other value-oriented designs, the SportRack has a lot going for it. Unlike the Thule Sidekick, it comes fully assembled and installs quickly and easily without the need for any extra tools. Further, the 18-cubic-foot capacity means you get significantly more storage than models like the Thule Pulse and Goplus below. And with a height of 19 inches at its tallest point, price isn’t the only reason to spring for the SportRack—it’s also a great option if you’re packing particularly bulky items (many sleeker boxes are 15 in. or less in height).
Of course, there are inherent downsides to opting for such a budget design. In the case of the SportRack, the most glaring weakness is its rear opening—we strongly prefer a box that opens at the side for more complete access to all of our gear. Storage is limited too, and with a short 63-inch length, the Vista XL does not accommodate skis (for an affordable ski carrier, check out the Yakima RocketBox Pro 11 below). What’s more, as we’ve come to expect with cheaper boxes, the Vista XL has a flimsy lid, and its U-bolt mounting system isn’t quite as sleek as more modern clamp styles. And if aesthetics matter to you, we’d recommend looking elsewhere. But for just $370 (plus shipping, depending on the retailer), the SportRack is less compromised than other boxes at its price point, making it our favorite budget pick.
See the SportRack Vista XL
Best Low-Profile Roof Box
Dimensions: 80 x 33 x 11 in.
Capacities: 10.6, 12.4, 13.4, 14.1 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: 6-8 pairs up to 185cm
What we like: Contoured base helps keep a low profile without giving up too much depth.
What we don’t: Expensive and limited in terms of capacity.
If you park in a garage or frequent enclosed parking lots, you’ll want to think twice before purchasing a rooftop box. Many models here add almost two feet to the roof of your car (factoring in the height of the box and the rack), which is a no-go particularly for SUVs and vans. But the good news is that there are a variety of options for those who need to keep a low profile. The INNO Wedge 660 is one of the top designs in this category, featuring a contoured shape that offers 11 inches of depth while rising only 9.6 inches above your rack’s crossbars. And it’s got more going for it than just clearance: the Wedge has a premium fit and finish, including easy tool-free installation, a stylish and aerodynamic shape that minimizes wind noise and accommodates a rear antenna and hatch, and a dual-sided opening that increases access and organization.
The INNO might be the lowest-profile rooftop box on the market, but a few models are close on its heels. The Thule Pulse Alpine (also 11 cu. ft.) rises 11.3 inches off the crossbars (over 1.5 in. more than the Wedge 660) and only opens on the passenger side, but it’s much cheaper at just $500. On the other hand, the Yakima GrandTour Lo ($799) is more of an investment but tacks on an additional 4 cubic feet of storage while adding less than a half-inch in height (10 in. above the crossbars). If you’re cutting it close on clearance, you really can’t go wrong with any of these options, but it’s worth doing the math before buying. And while INNO’s Wedge lineup offers a number of other sizes to choose from, it’s important to note that the 660 is the only low-profile model.
See the INNO Wedge 660
Best Narrow Box for Additional Rooftop Accessories
Dimensions: 89 x 24 x 16 in.
Capacities: 11, 12, 14 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: Up to 210cm
What we like: Narrow profile leaves room for other rooftop gear.
What we don’t: An entry-level model with questionable durability.
If biking, surfing, or boating is your thing, chances are there’s a lot of competition for your rooftop real estate. Add a cargo box to the mix—most of which are about 3 feet in width—and you’re looking at a fairly tricky situation for most vehicles. But if you want to have your cake and eat it too, Yakima’s RocketBox Pro 11 is your best bet. At just 24 inches wide, the RocketBox 11 is one of the narrowest cargo boxes on the market, leaving half (or more) of your roof rack available for a bike, surfboards, skis, kayak, or any other equipment your multi-sporting self might desire. And for less than $450, it’s also one the most affordable ski-capable designs here.
With a name that’s almost synonymous with roof boxes, the RocketBox is Yakima’s entry-level model, available also in 12- and 14-cubic-foot capacities (both of which are significantly wider at 36 and 33 in. respectively). Budget shoppers will appreciate the RocketBox’s tool-free installation, dual-sided opening, and separate latch and locking mechanism (not always available at this price point), but it’s still far from premium. Many users cite durability concerns with the flimsy build, and the nose design doesn’t resist weather as well as higher-end models. For a small step up, it’s also worth checking out the SkyBox 12 ($549; 24 in. wide) or Thule’s Force XT Sport ($580; 24.75 in. wide). Finally, before you load your rooftop with too much gear, remember to consider your vehicle’s dynamic load limit—most max out around 165 pounds.
See the Yakima RocketBox Pro 11
Best of the Rest
Dimensions: 74.8 x 33 x 18 in.
Capacities: 11 (Sport), 16, 18, 22 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: 5-7 pairs up to 175cm
What we like: Durable and functional for significantly less than the Motion XT.
What we don’t: Cheaper look and the LockKnob latch system isn’t our favorite.
Sliding in just below the Motion XT in Thule’s lineup, the Force is a quality all-rounder with a versatile shape that's great for toting skis, camping gear, suitcases, and more. For over $100 less than the Motion above, the Force retains a lot of premium features, including easy-to-install PowerClick mounts, dual-sided opening, six tie-down points, and built-in stiffeners for added load bearing (up to 165 lbs.). But it does fall a bit short in the details: The Force’s aesthetic is no match for the Motion’s glossy finish, the LockKnob mechanism isn’t as durable or easy to use as the more premium SlideLock, and you don’t get a nice grip handle to help with opening and closing. Finally, it’s hard to beat the Motion’s nose design, which is specially engineered to resist gaping in strong winds.
If you’re not immediately taken by the high-end Motion, you might end up facing a decision between the Force XT and the Yakima SkyBox above. Both models represent the ideal middle ground for many users, but we give the Yakima the slight edge for a few small reasons. First off, we heavily prefer its latching design, which features a large handle that opens and closes the box entirely separate from the locking mechanism. On the other hand, the Force’s combined set-up puts more strain on the lock—it should come as no surprise that there have been issues over the years with broken keys. Further, the SkyBox comes in five sizes rather than four, and its 16-cubic-foot model is about $50 less than the large Force here. But it’s hard to beat Thule’s fantastic tool-free installation and reliable build quality, and the Force XT is undeniably a well-made box.
See the Thule Force XT L
Dimensions: 79 x 35 x 18 in.
Capacities: 15 (Lo), 16, 18 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: Up to 185cm
What we like: A luxury cargo box both inside and out.
What we don’t: The Thule Motion XT is better in high winds.
Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but were we to hand out an award for the best-looking cargo box, it’d probably go to the GrandTour. If you’ve got a luxury vehicle with an empty roof rack, the Yakima is a worthy fit, with a high-gloss finish, sophisticated short and wide profile, and contoured base that keeps it sitting low on the crossbars. And the inside gets style points as well: the mounting system uses a removable knob to tighten each clamp and then stores it to the side, creating a sleek, flat base and more room for your gear. Whether you’re looking to expand your carrying capacity for skis or suitcases, dirty bike equipment, or your child’s portable crib, the GrandTour is a capable and good-looking tool for the job.
The GrandTour shares a similar feature set with many of the other premium boxes here: it can be opened from either side, has tie-down points to secure your gear (including straps), and uses stiffeners to keep lid flop to a minimum. Compared to the top-ranked Motion XT, performance drops slightly with a less robust nose design, but the Yakima costs around $50 less ($699 vs. $750 for the 16-cu.-ft. versions) and has a more polished aesthetic. Finally, like the SkyBox above, you get large, easy-to-use handles that toggle the box open and secure it closed, along with SKS locks on both sides (cool feature: this “same key system” can be swapped for a common core, allowing you to use the same key for all of your Yakima products). And for the ultimate in premium, sophisticated designs, check out Thule's Vector below.
See the Yakima GrandTour 16
Dimensions: 62.5 x 30 x 15 in.
Capacity: 14 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
What we like: A noticeably lightweight box with reasonable price and quality.
What we don’t: Only comes in one size and does not fit skis.
Thule and Yakima are certainly industry giants, but as it turns out, building a functional rooftop cargo box isn’t rocket science. The Goplus here gets most of the formula right, with a dual-sided opening, tool-free mounts that install on most bar styles, and a nice sleek profile that—unlike many entry-level models—is available in both matte and gloss finishes. With no added stiffeners, the lid isn’t as robust or confidence-inspiring as more premium offerings here, but flop is less of an issue due to its compact shape. And looking on the bright side, the tradeoff is an impressively lightweight design (25 lbs.) that is easy to load and unload with just one set of hands.
Sliding in under the $500 mark and often available on Amazon for less (including free shipping), the Goplus is in the same category as budget designs like the Vista XL and RocketBox Pro above. We rank the Vista higher for its much roomier footprint and lower price, but the Goplus offers better access, and those who don’t need the space will appreciate the sleeker profile. But with just 62.5 inches of length (the Goplus only comes in one size), skiers beware: this is not the cargo hauler for you (check out the budget RocketBox instead). Finally, it’s important to note that the Goplus is only compatible with crossbar spreads of about 16 to 25 inches, which can be fairly limiting (for comparison, the RocketBox’s spread is 24 to 40 in.).
See the Goplus Rooftop Carrier
Dimensions: 67 x 35 x 16 in.
Capacities: 11 (Alpine), 14, 16 cu. ft.
Access: One side
Skis: 3-5 up to 155cm
What we like: Thule’s most affordable full-sized cargo box.
What we don’t: Only opens on one side and does not contour around an antenna.
If you value function over form but want to stick with the Thule brand name, the Pulse is a great place to start. You won’t see many frills built into this base model, but there are still a lot of benefits to sticking with a well-known manufacturer, including helpful customer service and compatibility with other Thule products. In terms of the Pulse’s design, Thule kept things simple with a single opening (on the passenger side) and combined lock/latch mechanism, although you still get the ease of tool-free installation with FastGrip quick mounts. And in addition to the Medium here, the Pulse is also available in a Large variation (16 cu. ft.) and a long and lean Alpine model, both of which make great haulers for budget-oriented skiers.
Generally speaking, we’ve come to expect Thule products to be slightly better-quality than Yakima’s, but the Pulse is a clear exception. Comparing it to the RocketBox Pro 14 (Yakima’s budget design), the Pulse comes up short in a few significant areas. First, you only get one-sided opening (the RocketBox opens from both sides), and the Thule’s base lacks a contour at the rear, meaning it won’t accommodate many modern, fin-like antennae. Finally, the Pulse’s rudimentary lock/latch mechanism is middling at best, and (similar to the Force above) it has a tendency to put undue strain on the key. If you don’t need the added length for fitting items like snowboards, the SportRack Vista XL might be a better option for over $100 less.
See the Thule Pulse M
Dimensions: 83 x 38 x 15 in.
Capacities: 16 (Solar), 16, 18 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: Up to 185cm
What we like: Rugged aesthetic and great interior space.
What we don’t: Expensive and heavy.
The GrandTour above is one of our favorite designs for luxury cars, but some might want a more rugged look to match their adventure rig. Enter the CBX, another premium offering from Yakima, but this time with an angular and full-bodied aesthetic that pairs nicely with high-end utility vehicles. Like the GrandTour, the CBX’s mounting system uses a removable knob to tighten and loosen the mounts, resulting in a flat floor and more usable space than similarly sized models. Tack on a very generous 83-inch length (91 in. with the CBX 18), and you get a highly functional hauler that can handle tricker items like skis (up to 185cm) and more.
The CBX 16 is one of the roomiest and longest cargo boxes here, with dimensions similar to many 18-cubic-foot designs (despite its 16-cu.-ft. spec). That said, it’s worth noting that it’s decently heavy at 57 pounds—unless you’re packing fairly light objects, you probably won’t be able to take full advantage of the space before maxing out your rooftop load limit. Further, compared to the largest capacity (22 cu. ft.) of our top-rated Motion XT, the CBX 16 will still cost you over $50 more (and that jumps to $150 with the CBX 18), which may or may not be worth it for the chiseled facade. Finally, we should mention that the CBX also comes in a “Solar” model with mounted solar panel. But priced $500 more than the standard 16-cubic-foot design, most off-grid dwellers will be better off purchasing a solar panel (or two) separately.
See the Yakima CBX 16
Dimensions: 54 x 25 x 15.5 in.
Capacity: 8 cu. ft.
Access: One side
What we like: Compact carrier for small cars.
What we don’t: Requires after-purchase assembly; very basic latch/lock mechanism.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the Sidekick is barely on the same playing field as most cargo boxes here. If the Pulse is Thule’s base model, the Sidekick comes straight from their bargain basement, where it’s not even fully assembled before shipping (you’ll have to add the weather stripping and locks yourself). And once you put it together, the box is about as simple as it gets, featuring 8 cubic feet of volume (at least 3 cu. ft. less than most other designs), a one-sided opening with no integrated handle, and basic U-bolt mounts that use pre-drilled holes—fingers crossed they fit your crossbar spread—and require a number of moving parts (pro tip: don’t lose anything).
There are a few other options available at this price point—including the SportRack above and Jegs below—but where the Sidekick stands out is in its compact design. You won’t find a better option for small cars and, like the RocketBox Pro 11 above, the Thule also fits the bill if you’re sharing your roof rack with bikes, surfboards, a kayak, or skis. At just 16 pounds, it won’t heavily detract from your rooftop’s dynamic load limit either (although the box will likely be the limiting factor with a weight capacity of just 75 lbs.). And buyer beware: the latch mechanism is particularly flimsy, and, to make matters worse, you’ll have to undo two locks each time you open or close the box. But there’s no denying the budget price, which makes the Sidekick an intriguing option for occasional outings and point-to-point trips (the less you need to access your gear, the better).
See the Thule Sidekick
Dimensions: 91 x 35 x 12.5 in.
Capacity: 13 (M/Alpine) cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
Skis: 4-6 up to 200cm
What we like: Premium features and build.
What we don’t: Expensive and only comes in 13-cubic-foot capacities.
If you thought the Yakima CBX or GrandTour were premium roof boxes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Allow us to introduce you to the Vector, Thule’s top-end offering that breaks all the rules defined by utilitarian rooftop boxes. Combining luxury with function, the Vector features a removable felt pad on the base to protect your gear, a white-lined lid for better visibility, and motion-activated LED lights to illuminate the interior. Top it off with an incredibly aerodynamic shape (the nose dips below your rack’s front crossbar, mitigating wind noise) and the stiffest build here (featuring steel reinforcements in the base), and it simply doesn’t get any better than the Vector.
So why, you might be wondering, do we have this top-of-the-line model at the bottom of our list? Simply put, it’s hard to justify a $1,500 price tag when you can get a fully functional, durable, and high-quality cargo box for half as much (or less). In fact, the Vector has a lot in common with our top-ranked Motion XT, including PowerClick mounts and dual-side access with a premium SlideLock lock and latch system. But the difference in rigidity is palpable (that’s saying something, as the Motion is one of the stiffer designs here). And in terms of interior features, the Vector has no equal. It might look out of place on most adventure mobiles—and the 13-cubic-foot capacity will be limiting for some—but if you’re hitting the slopes in a high-end vehicle (we’re looking at you, Audi, Tesla, and Volvo), the Thule Vector is well worth a look.
See the Thule Vector Alpine
Dimensions: 57 x 38.5 x 17.8 in.
Capacity: 18 cu. ft.
Access: Dual side
What we like: Inexpensive and spacious.
What we don’t: Flimsy and barebones.
It might slide into last place on our list, but the Jegs Rooftop Cargo Carrier has one thing going for it: price. At just $230, this bargain box costs more than $100 less than the next-cheapest model here (Thule’s Sidekick), and it offers dual-side access and twice the storage capacity, too. Further, with extra-wide and tall dimensions, it can fit a lot of bulky cargo that more bullet-shaped haulers can’t. All told, for a simple box that you don’t plan to leave on your car year-round, the Jegs is an affordable and decently road-worthy option.
But the praise stops there, because everything else about this box is middling at best. The flimsy build doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in terms of durability, and the tall and wide shape lacks the aerodynamics of more modern designs. In terms of installation, simple U-bolt mounts attach via pre-drilled holes (rather than adjustable tracks), meaning you’ll probably have to adjust your crossbars or drill new holes to get a good fit. And finally, the locks are barely robust enough to deter a break-in, and you’ll have to undo two each time you want to access your gear. But it's hard to be overly critical at this price point, and the Jegs might be all you need for a one-and-done cross-country trip or very occasional use.
See the Jegs Rooftop Cargo Carrier
|Rooftop Cargo Box||Price||Dimensions||Capacities||Access||Skis||Weight|
|Thule Motion XT XL||$800||84.5 x 36 x 17 in.||16, 18, 22 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 200cm||46 lbs.|
|Yakima SkyBox 16||$599||81 x 36 x 15 in.||12, 15, 16, 18, 21 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 185cm||47 lbs.|
|SportRack Vista XL||$370||63 x 38 x 19 in.||18 cu. ft.||Rear||N/A||28 lbs.|
|INNO Wedge 660||$650||80 x 33 x 11 in.||10.6, 12.4, 13.4, 14.1 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 185cm||42 lbs.|
|Yakima RocketBox Pro||$449||89 x 24 x 16 in.||11, 12, 14 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 210cm||38 lbs.|
|Thule Force XT L||$650||74.8 x 33 x 18 in.||11, 16, 18, 22 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 175cm||41 lbs.|
|Yakima GrandTour 16||$699||79 x 35 x 18 in.||15, 16, 18 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 185cm||52 lbs.|
|Goplus Rooftop Carrier||$490||62.5 x 30 x 15 in.||14 cu. ft.||Dual||N/A||25 lbs.|
|Thule Pulse M||$500||67 x 35 x 16 in.||11, 14, 16 cu. ft.||One||Up to 155cm||34 lbs.|
|Yakima CBX 16||$899||83 x 38 x 15 in.||16, 18 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 185cm||57 lbs.|
|Thule Sidekick||$350||54 x 25 x 16 in.||8 cu. ft.||One||N/A||16 lbs.|
|Thule Vector Alpine||$1,500||91 x 35 x 12.5 in.||13 cu. ft.||Dual||Up to 200cm||66 lbs.|
|Jegs Rooftop Carrier||$230||57 x 38.5 x 17.8 in.||18 cu. ft.||Dual||N/A||28 lbs.|
- Vehicle Length and Hatch Clearance
- Cargo Box Carrying Capacity and Dimensions
- Cargo Box Access: One Side, Dual Side, and Rear
- Open/Close and Lock Mechanisms
- Water Resistance
- Wind Noise and Aerodynamics
- Rooftop Cargo Box Weight
- Rooftop Cargo Box Weight Capacity
- Roof Rack Compatibility
- How to Pack a Rooftop Cargo Box
- Can I Drive with an Empty Cargo Box?
- Ordering Your Rooftop Box Online
The first step in selecting a rooftop box is to identify the maximum length of carrier your vehicle (or vehicles) can accommodate. Importantly, you don’t want the box to be much longer than the roof of your car—a box that extends over your windshield (front or rear) will compromise your ability to see the road and have a negative impact on aerodynamics (see below). And second—and particularly applicable if you drive an SUV, wagon, hatchback, or van—you’ll want to make sure that the backend of your box doesn’t get in the way of your rear hatch opening or antenna.
Thankfully, it’s easy to find a good fit without having to “try on” multiple models: simply measure the distance between the front crossbar of your roof rack and your open hatch and compare it with the cargo box’s specs (both Thule and Yakima have published helpful fit guides). Hint: to maximize your length, you can move the front crossbar as far forward as possible.
Next, you’ll want to identify the type and general size of gear you plan to haul around. For most, these versatile carriers offer a great storage solution for bulky outdoor equipment, including skis and poles, fishing rods, and camping and backpacking supplies. And the list goes on: perhaps you’re toting golf clubs, a stroller or baby carrier, or even construction and gardening tools. With your cargo in mind, you’re ready to decide on the right size box for you. There are a number of factors to consider here, including volume and length. This is also where it’s worth considering if you need a low-profile design (for low-clearance areas) or half-width box (to make room for a bike or kayak, for example).
Rooftop Cargo Box Volume
Rooftop cargo boxes come in a range of volumes, generally measured in terms of cubic feet (length x width x height). The options on our list start around 8 cubic feet (the Thule Sidekick) and max out around 22 cubic feet for some of Thule’s XXL designs (the Motion XT and Force XT). For most users, we recommend a box in the 16- to 18-cubic-foot range, which should accommodate overnight camping gear for three to four people. If you’re sizing up, you’d better have a fairly good reason for doing so. Remember that bigger isn’t always better: larger rooftop boxes are more expensive, heavier (more difficult to install/remove), and create more drag, which has a negative impact on gas mileage and road noise.
Not everyone will be picky about the length of their cargo box, but this is an important consideration primarily for skiers and snowboarders. Because rooftop cargo boxes are so popular for toting snow gear, most manufacturers specify the length of ski (and sometimes number of pairs) that each model is able to fit. For example, the Yakima RocketBox Pro 11 accommodates skis up to 210 centimeters in length, while the Thule Motion XT XL fits 3 to 5 snowboards and 5 to 7 pairs of skis up to 200 centimeters. The length is also an important number if you’re looking to tote bulky items like strollers (height comes into play here too), gardening tools, or climbing stick clips. And a final note: if you’re considering the length spec, keep in mind that it measures the box at its longest point, and it’s a good idea to take a look at the shape of the box too, as tapered ends and contoured bases can result in a lot of lost space.
Low-Profile and Narrow (Half-Width) Designs
Most rooftop cargo boxes add about 15 to 18 inches to the height of your vehicle, but if you routinely navigate city parking garages or park your car in a garage or carport, you might want to consider a low-profile design. Low-profile cargo boxes are generally 13 inches or less in height (Thule’s “Alpine” sizes fit into this category), with particularly streamlined models like the INNO Wedge 660 adding just 9.6 inches of bulk above your vehicle’s crossbars. Not only do they offer lower clearance, but these designs are also more aerodynamic overall, resulting in slight reductions in drag and wind noise. And whether you opt for a standard-height or low-profile box, it’s a good idea to confirm the final dimensions of your vehicle to mitigate any potential disasters in confined areas.
If you plan to haul additional gear on your roof rack—popular items include a kayak or bike—you may want to consider a narrow or half-width design. Compared with a standard box, models like Yakima’s RocketBox Pro 11 (24 in. wide) shave off a foot or more in width, leaving a good portion of your rack available (an average crossbar measures about 50 in. wide). The main downside in selecting a narrow model is less overall storage—the aforementioned RocketBox has a small 11-cubic-foot capacity—and they’re often fairly long, which can lead to compatibility issues with a rear hatch. But for the right user, they’re a very functional option.
Rooftop cargo boxes consist of a stable base that connects to the vehicle’s rooftop and a clamshell lid that open via hinges on both ends, giving you complete access to the contents inside. There are three main styles featured in the picks above, including one-sided (usually the passenger side), dual-sided, and rear access.
The most user-friendly carriers include dual-sided access with a handle and lock on both sides, meaning that you can open the box from either the driver or passenger side of the vehicle (but not both at once). This versatility is helpful whether you’re parked on a busy street or need to find something tucked away in the far corner of a cavernous box. One-sided and rear access is more common on budget designs—Thule’s Pulse opens on the passenger side, while the SportRack Vista XL is accessed at the rear. Before opting for a design with one-sided or rear access, make sure you consider the limitations, as these styles are less convenient for organizing and reaching your gear (and in the case of a rear opening, you’ll probably have to close your hatch to toggle the handle).
The devil is often in the details, and a box’s open and closing mechanism and lock designs are some of the main features that distinguish bargain models from more user-friendly, premium haulers. Some designs combine these two features, with basic lock mechanisms that also function to secure the lid to the base (i.e., when the box is unlocked, the lid is ajar). While this simplified design saves money, it also places a lot of force on the fairly delicate lock and key (this is why Thule’s entry-level designs have an issue with broken keys). On the other hand, more high-end boxes have a mechanism that opens and closes their latch—a push button, twist handle, or slider—and a separate lock that secures the closed lid. What’s more, they usually have indicators that show when they’re ajar (the SlideLock on Thule’s Motion XT displays red), which provides an extra level of confidence that your lid is secure.
All of the picks above come with at least one lock and key (boxes with dual-sided access feature a lock on both sides). The majority of designs only permit you to remove the key when locked: although some users find this feature inconvenient, it does keep you from leaving the box unlocked or accidentally losing your keys inside. And if you have other Yakima or Thule products mounted on your vehicle(s), you might especially like Yakima’s SKS (same key system) and Thule’s One-Key system, which allow you to swap out the cores with an identical set so that you can open all of your accessories (including ski and bike racks) with the same key. And a final note: manufacturers specify that these locks are not theft-proof, but rather meant to serve as theft deterrents.
The majority of rooftop cargo boxes are fairly barebones on the inside, with many featuring just a simple cavernous compartment for your gear and usually a pull strap to close an out-of-reach lid. Some models incorporate tie-down points (straps included in most cases), which can be a nice feature to secure a loose load. Moving into the ultra-high-end models is where we start to see more features. For instance, the Thule Vector ($1,500) adds a removable felt-lined base to protect your gear, motion-sensing interior LED light, and white-colored lid to make it easier to see your gear. But while these are nice features, they’re not worth the large price bump for most, especially when you can make similar after-market customizations to a more affordable box.
All of the roof boxes above are made with durable ABS plastic that holds up well to repeated opening and closing and the rigors of the road. However, their level of quality (or lack thereof) becomes more apparent when looking at the details. Rigidity increases with the premium models (by way of added stiffeners), while budget designs like the Thule Sidekick and SportRack Vista have noticeably floppy lids and bases that you’ll want to be sure to carefully close and secure (they might not easily line up). Another distinction comes in the amount of overlap between the lid and base, which is important for wind resistance (especially at the nose). And all the little details add up too, including mounting hardware, hinges, handles, and locks—if these break, your box will likely be out of commission. Finally, whether or not you opt for a matte or gloss finish is mostly a matter of personal preference, although it’s common to see the sleek aesthetic on more luxury designs (like the Yakima GrandTour).
One of the key advantages to opting for a cargo box over a rooftop bag or basket is the ability to keep your gear protected from the elements. The majority of rooftop boxes are highly water-resistant, with waterproof plastic shells, weather sealing around the edges, and large lips that close the gap between the base and lid. However, there are a few points of vulnerability inherent in the design. In some cases, wind can cause gaping at the front of a box (allowing moisture and air to enter), and water can also make its way in through mounting holes on the base. Some designs include vinyl stickers to cover unused holes, while more premium models have their mounting hardware loaded on a track that mitigates water entry. But regardless of the cargo box, it’s a good idea to assume that it’s not fully waterproof. Dry bags are helpful for protecting vulnerable items (make sure to place them away from the base and edges), but if there’s any question, we recommend storing your gear inside the vehicle.
Generally speaking, the bulkier your cargo box—especially in terms of width and height—the more drag it will create. And while the exact science on this is hard to figure (keep in mind that a number of factors come into play, including vehicle type, interior load, speed, and external wind conditions), more drag most often results in lower gas mileage and more wind noise. If you want to maximize aerodynamics, we recommend opting for a model that looks more like a bullet than a box, including a tapered nose (this includes most offerings from Thule and Yakima) and a relatively low profile. Looking at your cargo box head-on, the smaller the profile, the better.
It’s also worth noting that wind noise is not simply a result of the bulk of the box. In fact, much of this noise is generated by air moving in between the rack and the roof of your vehicle. Some modern box designs (like the Thule Vector) tackle this issue with noses that dip below the front rail, thus eliminating the gap between the roof and the rack. There are also a few ways to hush this whistling without spending up for a techy box design, including both DIY solutions and after-market purchases. You can wrap your front bar with a towel (and duct tape) or a bungee cord, swap in aerodynamic crossbars (Yakima’s JetStream is a popular option), or add a fairing (like the Thule AirScreen). While these solutions might not cut the noise out completely, they’ll go a long way in disrupting airflow, which is well worth it for a more peaceful drive (and the gas savings might pay off in the long run). Finally, keep in mind that wind noise can be worse with an empty box (it’s less stable when not weighed down), so we encourage you to take your box off when it’s not in use(for more, see “Can I Drive with an Empty Rooftop Cargo Box?” below).
Rooftop cargo boxes range from 16 pounds for the Thule Sidekick to around 65 pounds for the Thule Vector Alpine and Yakima CBX 18. Weight is an important factor for a few different reasons. For one, the heavier the box, the more challenging it will be to install and remove from your vehicle. While the Sidekick can be installed by one person, the CBX 18 will require at least two sets of hands, unless you’re very strategic (accessories like the Thule MultiLift can help). Second, as we cover below, a rooftop can only handle so much weight—the more pounds you eat up with your box, the less you have left over for gear. And finally, you’ll want to be wary of ultra-lightweight boxes too, as this might indicate a flimsier design. In the end, some of the best boxes clock in around 40 to 50 pounds (for roughly 14-18 cu. ft. of capacity), which is simply the price you pay for a durable, functional set-up.
When it comes to weight capacity, there are two key factors at play: the load limit of your roof box and the dynamic load limit of your vehicle (both of which are easy to find in the user manual or via a quick internet search). The models above range from a 75-pound weight capacity (for the Thule Sidekick) to 165 pounds for premium designs. But in most cases—and this is important to remember—the true limiting factor will be your vehicle’s dynamic load limit. This number specifies how much weight you can safely carry on your rooftop while driving (a parked vehicle can handle much more) and generally maxes out around 165 pounds for a wagon, sedan, or crossover SUV, and up to 330 for a large van. Thus, when determining how much gear you can put into your cargo box, you’ll want to start with your vehicle’s dynamic load limit and subtract the weight of your box and rack (and any other items on your rooftop). Most of the time, that equation will leave you with about 100 pounds left over for gear.
Knowing that a rooftop box can only carry about 100 pounds’ worth of gear tells us a few things. For one, you’ll want to be cautious about opting for one of the larger models, as 22 cubic feet of capacity might not be very useful if your weight limit maxes out when it’s only half full. Second, it’s a good idea to be strategic about what you put in your cargo box. We like to start with lightweight and bulky gear like sleeping bags, tents, and backpacks, which frees up room in the trunk for heavier items like food, a climbing rack, or a camping stove. Finally, while manufacturers tend to bring attention to the higher weight capacities of some boxes, vehicle load limits are the true equalizers, meaning that there’s not much advantage to opting for a 165-pound limit over a 110-pound limit (like the budget SportRack Vista XL). Of course, if you’re planning to mount your cargo box on a larger vehicle with a higher load capacity, this becomes more of a distinguishing factor.
Before you install your cargo box, you’ll need to make sure you have the right rack to secure it to your rooftop. A lot of vehicles come with factory-installed racks, and after-market designs can also be easily matched to your make and model. There are two factors to be aware of when selecting a roof rack to pair with your cargo box (or vice versa): crossbar spread (the space between the front and rear bars) and shape.
The good news is that most modern cargo boxes have a fairly wide range (the Yakima SkyBox 18’s spread is 24 to 42 in.) and are compatible with an assortment of bar types, including round, square, and aerodynamic varieties. Manufacturers like Thule even help with the decision by listing the racks that complement each of their cargo boxes. That said, expect less versatility with some of the budget designs—the Jegs, for example, has pre-drilled holes to accommodate a 24-inch crossbar spread, but no wiggle room outside of that (you’ll have to adjust your crossbars or drill new holes). All told, matching your cargo box to a roof rack shouldn’t cause much headache, but it’s never a bad idea to double check compatibility before hitting purchase.
Unless you purchase your rooftop box at your local vehicle rack store, chances are you’ll be doing the assembly and installation yourself. Most boxes come already built and ready to mount, but some budget designs require more in-depth assembly (which can be arduous if DIY isn’t your thing). The Thule Sidekick, for example, takes most users over an hour to put together, including attaching foam weather stripping and installing the lock assembly (wrench required).
Next up is mounting the box, which again is a relatively user-friendly process for most modern designs and can be done in just a few minutes. Our favorite models feature clamps that slide on tracks to accommodate various crossbar spreads, tighten via a thumbwheel, and secure with an audible “click” or by way of an integrated lever. On the other hand, budget boxes will often use simple U-bolt mounts, which require many moving parts (don’t lose anything) and can take some effort to tweak into position and secure (sometimes this involves drilling new holes or moving your crossbars). The extra time required to install these more rudimentary mounts is less of an issue if you anticipate keeping your box installed on your rooftop. However, if you plan to routinely remove your box, you might want to opt for a more premium design. And finally, make sure to complete this process with your rear hatch open to ensure you’re getting proper clearance (if applicable), and check your mounts often, as they might need to be tightened from time to time.
When loading items into your cargo box, you’ll want to give some thought to what you place where. In general, manufacturers recommend situating about half of the load (weight-wise) overtop and in between the two crossbars, with a quarter in the front and the remaining quarter in the rear. It’s also important to consider the weight capacity of both your box and your vehicle—surpassing this number is never a good idea, so prioritize lighter items up top and heavier items in the trunk. Once your gear is loaded, we recommend securing it with tie-down straps (if available), which is especially helpful if you have a half-full load. And finally, as we touched on above, you’ll want to think about protecting items from the elements by wrapping them in dry bags (even garbage bags will do the trick) and keeping especially vulnerable items away from the base and edges.
Most manufacturers recommend that you don’t drive with an empty cargo box on your roof, for reasons much more practical than safety-oriented. First off, an empty box is much more likely to be pushed around by the wind, which will result in a noisier ride. Second, we already know that rooftop boxes have a negative effect on gas mileage, so it behooves your wallet to remove yours when not in use. And finally, keeping your cargo box out of the elements will go a long way toward extending its lifespan, especially if you live in a particularly unforgiving climate. When not on your vehicle, we recommend storing your box in a cool and dry space (preferably inside), either base-down on the floor or hanging flat against a wall.
Rooftop boxes are no small item, which can create some hurdles if you like to shop online. We’re generally big fans of purchasing outdoor gear from REI and Backcountry (thanks to great customer service and generous return policies), but in this case, both retailers charge oversized shipping fees (you can see them displayed at checkout after adding a box to your cart). One way to circumvent this charge is by having REI ship the cargo box to your local store, where you can pick it up for free (many stores also offer installation, although at the time of publishing, this service has been suspended due to COVID). It’s also worth noting that many other online retailers ship for free (including Amazon and Etrailer), but keep in mind that the retail price can often be higher as a result. And a final note for online shoppers: you’ll want to be 100 percent certain you’re purchasing the right product, as returning such a large item via mail isn’t cheap (another benefit to picking it up at your local REI store).
We love rooftop boxes for their ease of use (just throw in your gear and close the lid), weather resistance, and security, but there are a number of other solutions, including rooftop baskets and bags and hitch-mounted options. A basket mounts on a roof rack and provides a stable area for you to secure gear with bungee cords, rope, or a net. Compared to a box, baskets are more affordable (the popular Yakima LoadWarrior is $369), significantly lighter (read: easier to install and leaves more weight allotment for gear), and can accommodate bulkier items (like a cooler or Rubbermaid storage containers). On the other hand, many cargo bags—like the Rightline Gear Sport 3—retail for less than $200 and install directly to the roof of your vehicle, which eliminates the cost of a roof rack. Plus, they pack down small when not in use (fitting easily into your trunk), which is a nice solution if you don’t want to have a box or basket occupying your rooftop at all times.
It’s also worth considering if a hitch-mounted box or basket might be a better way to expand your vehicle’s carrying capacity. Compared to rooftop options, hitch storage is easier to access and doesn’t require that you perch on your tire or door well to load and unload gear. What’s more, whistling is less of an issue, and gas mileage won’t be nearly as impacted with the rear placement. And because most modern hitch boxes are designed to be easily removed, they double as a handy storage container once you establish camp (the Yakima EXO GearLocker excels in this department). But not every vehicle comes with a hitch or hitch capabilities, and rear storage can be inconvenient if you need a lot of access to your trunk. Finally, skiers will want to stick with a roof box or basket. In the end, each type of rooftop storage has its strengths and weaknesses, and taking a close look at your cargo and travel plans will help you decide on the best solution.
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