Everything You Need to Know About Traveling With Bikes

In my area, I’ve started to notice a significant increase in the amount of people spending time outdoors living active lifestyles. More specifically, I’ve noticed more cyclists on the road; because most of the “bike-able” places in my area require driving considerable distances, people bring their bikes in jury-rigged or poorly optimized bike racks, haphazardly hanging onto the trunks of their cars, fastened together by a mess of utility rope. 

While not necessarily hazardous, these makeshift devices can indirectly damage and destroy the  longevity of your bikes!

This is a guide that covers basic information on what you need to know about bikes when you bring them along during your long trips.

Read on to understand the basic necessities you need to make transporting bikes a more organized and hassle-free experience.

What Do I Use to Carry My Bike on Long Trips?

Generally speaking, you would use a bike rack (also known as a bike carrier or mount) to attach a bike onto a car or SUV. I say “car or SUV” because pickup trucks are usually an exception.

However, it should be noted that bike racks can be divided into several categories, depending on what niches you need fulfilled. The three main types of bike racks are:

  • Hitch-mounted
  • Roof-mounted, and
  • Trunk or Strap-mounted

So which one is right for me?

Hitch-Mounted Bike Racks

A hitch-mounted bike rack is a carrier that is mounted onto the hitch of a vehicle (for those of you who don’t know what this is, a “hitch” is the device placed underneath a car to use for towing).

Compared to roof-mounted racks, hitch-mounted racks eliminate any concerns regarding overhead clearance and are more aerodynamic. Although more expensive, hitch-mounted racks typically put on less wear-and-tear on your bikes and vehicles than strap-mounted bike racks; mainly because the rack is mounted on a device exclusive to your vehicle.

In addition, hitch-mounted racks come in a large variety in and of themselves, so equal attention must be placed on the type of bike you plan on mounting onto your car, as well as the type of hitch-mounted rack. 

The two basic types of hitch-mounted racks are

  • Hanging, and
  • Platform-style racks

Of the two, hanging-style racks are usually cheaper and weigh less. On this type of rack, the bike is held into position on its frame, and is well-suited for standard-frame bikes (compared to say, a folding-bike or a step-through style bike). However, you may need to purchase additional accessories to mitigate the sway on the bikes while they are in transit; the last thing you would want is to worry about your mountain bike hitting the rear end of your car, or rattling as you drive.

On the other hand, platform-style racks are usually more expensive, but more versatile. Whereas hanging-style racks place a lot of stress on the bike frame, platform-style racks place the bike onto a platform (wow!) which ultimately removes any undue tension in areas on a bike where you don’t need it. Because the bikes are held in place on a platform, this type of hitch-mounted rack can accommodate a larger variety of bike frames, and are easier to place bikes on, than hanging-style racks.

Whichever type of hitch-mounted rack you choose, please take note of your hitch rating. This can typically be found as a sticker on your hitch and can affect the amount of bikes you plan on placing on your rack; Class I hitches supporting up to 2,000 lbs and Class V hitches carrying up to 20,000 lbs.

Roof-Mounted Bike Racks

This type of bike rack system places the bike on the roof of your car and is held in place by crossbars. Roof-mounted bike racks are recommended for individuals who have no interest in installing hitches or tow bars, have roof crossbars installed already, or don’t worry much about low-vertical clearance areas.

If we compare this rack mounting system to strap-mounted and hitch-mounted racks, roof-mounted racks are generally more secure as they are fastened to crossbars and do not hinder access to car doors or block visibility.

With roof-mounted bike racks, you need to pay attention to the types of crossbars your car has. Depending on what they are, it may pose compatibility issues with the bike rack of your choice. The common types of crossbars include:

  • Square
  • Round
  • Aero, and
  • T-channels

Alternatively, if you have no crossbars installed and still prefer the roof-mounted option, Seasucker© roof mounts can be used in place of these. Unlike crossbars, Seasucker© vacuum cups are smaller, more discreet units and rely on suction cups to stay in place. 

Once you have figured out the type of mount to place the system on, it’s time to decide what type of rack you would like to use. 

There are three types of roof-mounted racks,

  • Fork mounts
  • Wheel mounts, and
  • Frame mounts

Fork mounts hold the bike still by removing the front tire of the bike and placing the now-wheelless front part of the bike (called the “fork”) onto the crossbar. A skewer will then be fitted onto the fork and crossbar to secure the bike in place. Take note, that bike forks come in two kinds of axle design, slotted and thru-axle. Research and remember what type of axle your bike has before buying a fork mount.

Wheel mounts (sort of like platform-style, hitch-mounted bike racks) hold your bike in place by its wheels and are the most versatile. Two arms lock the wheels of your bike securely, removing any risk of damage from bike frame contact.

Frame mounts, on the other hand, have only one arm (see what I did there?) and lock the bike in place by the frame. Both these mounts and wheel mounts are recommended if you have a bike with a composite frame.

Specialty roof-mount racks include recumbent or tandem-style racks which are essentially fork mounts customized to accommodate longer bicycles, and fatbike racks. Fatbike racks lock bikes in place just like regular wheel mounts would, only they are designed specifically to hold bigger tires in place (hence the name fatbike).

In addition, make sure that you take note of the maximum weight limit of your car’s roof. Nothing can ruin your day worse than having your roof cave in because you placed fourteen fatbikes onto the top of your Toyota Corolla.

Trunk or Strap-Mounted Racks

Finally, this is the most simple and cost-effective of all the mounting systems. Strap-mounted (or trunk-mounted) bike racks get their namesake because of the way they secure the bike and where they are placed on the vehicle; strap-mounts lock the bike in place while the rack is secured onto the trunk. 

The major advantage people would have purchasing these racks is their price range and relative ease with installation. Usually, standard frame bikes are best used for these kinds of racks, and are fastened to the rack with the use of nylon straps.

These racks are typically a no-frills buy, and may require you to purchase other add-ons to compensate for their lack of features such as anti-sway cradles, adapter bars (for small bikes), and steel cable bike locks. In addition, if you plan on mounting a strap-mounted rack to a car with a spoiler or a hatchback, you may have to purchase a special version designed to accommodate them.

Strap-mounted bike racks are made of different kinds of material, such as steel, moulded plastic, or nylon; each with their corresponding price point.

TL; DR version:

  • Hitch-mounted racks require a hitch, come in two different styles, hanging or platform, are more aerodynamic than roof-mounted racks and more secure than strap-mounted racks.
  • Roof-mounted racks usually need a roof crossbar, can mount bikes through their forks, wheels or frames, and don’t sacrifice visibility, like the other racks.
  • Strap-mounted racks are the most cost-effective and the easiest to install, however you may need to purchase add-ons to compensate for their lack of safety and convenience features.

Now you’ve gotten yourself the rack you need. This begs the next question:

What Do I Use to Protect My Bike While It’s in Transit?

Use a bike cover to protect your bike from the elements. It’s tempting to simply mount your bike on your new rack and head out, but remember that bikes need grease, just like any other well-maintained piece of machinery, and will require protection from dust, dirt, water and extreme heat.

When selecting your bike cover, you should take note of the following qualities to avoid having to frequently replace it:

  • Material: The most important part when considering what kind of bike cover to buy, most bike covers will be made of synthetic material; e.g. polyester or nylon. Take note of the tensile strength of the fibers (also known as denier); you should aim for denier ratings higher than 600D (600D is the typical rating for backpack material).
  • Dimensions: Assuming you own a  regular mountain bike with 26” wheels, the ideal dimensions are 74”L x 25”W 38”H. You could get a bigger bike cover, if you feel the need to cover everything, but remember that the excess material could result in higher drag on your car (as well as additional wear-and-tear on your bike cover) while in transit.
  • Eyelets (or lock holes): This feature is more important for people who have bikes that require straps or use cable locks for their bike racks. Usually, these eyelets are metal or have stitching for reinforcement. It is recommended to use the stitched eyelets, as they are resistant to rusting.
  • Reflective Material: Hitch and strap-mounted bike rack owners, be warned! If you decide to put a bike cover on, it may obscure sight of your tail lights. Get bike covers with reflective detail, at the very least, if you need to cover your rear-mounted bikes. Otherwise, some reflective detail is nice for added visibility and safety.
  • Color: While more of a subjective matter, do remember that dark colors and bright colors have their uses. Typically, dark colors absorb light (which could make your bikes hotter on sunny days) whereas bright colors reflect light. Dark colors tend to give a sense of discreetness, while bright colors, as reflective as they are, could give the wrong ideas to thieves and jealous cyclists.

You’ve now selected the bike cover that can withstand nuclear blasts and acid rains. Perfect! Now what else do we need to prepare?

What Other Essentials Would I Need to Bring for a Bike Trip?

Helmets and proper clothing would be good investments. Comforts are a plus. Assuming that your long-distance trip requires you to do more than leisurely pedal on the velocipede when you finally get the chance to pull your bike off the rack, it would help to consider investing in the following bike paraphernalia:

  • Bike Seats: It’s good to have a bike hardy enough to handle tough conditions, but it would also help to purchase items for comfort. Stock bike seats (also called saddles) don’t do much else other than give you the most basic level of support when you’re on your bike, so buy one that fits your sit bones comfortably. Additional saddle tip: make sure your bike seat is positioned perfectly flat, as angling it with the slope too far forward may put tension in unneeded areas, while angling it too far back, may cause back problems. 
  • Helmets: For all intents and purposes, this article will focus on the features typically found on mountain bike helmets. Pick a helmet with vents, (so you don’t overheat in five minutes) and with protection focused on the sides and back. While not exclusive to most helmets, it is recommended to choose a helmet with a visor for added eye protection. There are many different types of helmet designs whose features are only apparent to more experienced cyclists; don’t look like a noob randomly picking one out! 
  • Reflective Clothing: You may have noticed that “safety reflectors” are excluded from this list; the word “reflector” means they’re only useful when there is adequate light and only at certain angles. Compensate for low-light or nighttime cycling by wearing bright, reflective pieces of clothing so you don’t end up on someone’s windshield. In addition, should the worst-case situation happen, your reflective rash guard or windbreaker can increase visibility to rescuers (it’s very hard to miss anyone wearing these things).
  • Cycling Shoes: It may seem unnecessary, but cycling shoes allow for more efficient cycling. Where sneakers and trainers are adequate, the main qualities that set dedicated bike shoes apart from normal running shoes are their durability and very light weight. Some bike shoes have cleats, specifically designed to better transfer power from your legs onto the pedals and to keep your feet from slipping.
  • Bike Shorts: The main point of bike shorts is to minimize drag and to maximize the range of movement on your legs. Pay attention to the type of bike shorts you purchase; they will have padding unique to women and men! Standard materials include Lycra and spandex. Because of the nature of shorts, non-bike shorts will tend to ride up or induce painful chafing during extended periods of cycling, so do yourself a solid and purchase a pair of bike shorts before you set your legs on fire.

So Before You Head Out…

Make sure you’re prepared! In my personal experience, I find it a bit of an eyesore  whenever I see groups of cyclists propagating on the roadside rubbing down their backsides and pulling out their mounting gear, spending more time organizing their logistics than actually enjoying the day cycling. Be smart and invest in your cycling hobbies today!

James Mitchell

Hi, I’m Jimmy Mitchell and I love exploring this great country with my wife and two boys. I have a 2015 Sterling LX that is the Mitchell Family camping machine. Lets Getaway is the website where I share things about my trailer as I learn them, and help other camper owners to enjoy their RV even more.

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