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Velosurance is a national insurance agency founded by two cyclists in response to the insurance needs of bicycle riders nationwide. We partnered with an A.M.Best “A” rated, US insurance company to provide a multi-risk policy offering protection to all types of cyclists.

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How to choose a hitch bike rack

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You can add more bikes later
gear 27 Mar 2024 By Travis Reill

Very few riders are fortunate enough to be able to ride out of their front door. For most of us, and especially urban dwellers, a bike ride begins with a drive to a location where we can pedal and not worry about cars. If your vehicle is a truck, you’re practically set, because pickup trucks make awesome bike haulers. Newly minted cyclists, especially those on a budget, usually go through the motions of avoiding spending money on a rack, by transporting the bike inside the car, which usually involves at least partial disassembly and padding with blankets. If you ride quite a bit, this process will get old quickly: you’ll end up with a dirty and scratched-up car interior and will start considering a proper bike rack.

So, what type of rack should you get to transport your bikes? With many different bike racks out there, choosing the one that will fit your vehicle and work best for your specific needs is crucial. With that criteria in mind, you may consider a hitch bike rack, undoubtedly the easiest bike rack to live with.

car hauling bicycles

Why a hitch rack?

Yes, there is a number of ways to carry a bike on your vehicle. There are trunk-mounted racks that attach to the trunks of sedans or hatchback rear doors with straps; tailgate pads are great for pickups, and rooftop racks can fit on just about any vehicle.

Rooftop racks are quite popular because they can be installed on almost any vehicle. However, a rooftop rack can require purchasing more equipment, depending on what your vehicle comes with. For most cars, you will at least need to buy a base rack consisting of towers and crossbars to which a roof top bike rack attaches. Other than limiting you to 2 bikes and introducing quite a bit of wind noise, the biggest drawback of a rooftop rack is that it requires you to lift your bike over your head to put it on your vehicle. This may be challenging, if not impossible for tall vehicles or heavy bikes, such as e-bikes.

rooftop bike rack

Most pickups and SUVs come equipped with a hitch receiver. Other vehicles without a hitch receiver, like cars, some crossovers, and small SUVs, can be retrofitted with one. Hitch receivers are bolted onto the frame of the vehicle, making them exceptionally strong, with even the smallest ones capable of towing up to 2,000 lbs. They are also located low to the ground, near the vehicle’s center of mass, and thus a tow hitch bike rack follows the vehicle’s trajectory closest and the bikes move around a lot less than any other rack during transport.

Because hitch receivers are so strong, 4-bike racks are quite common and designs capable of carrying 7 bikes are available. To load a bike onto a hitch rack, you only need to lift your bike a few feet off the ground, usually no higher than your waist. Some hitch racks also offer a detachable ramp that attaches to the bike tray – you can simply roll the bike into the rack, no lifting necessary!

Hitch receiver compatibility

Suppose your vehicle came with a hitch receiver standard. In that case, you don’t need to worry about ensuring that the receiver is the correct match for the vehicle, as it is assumed that the car manufacturer has already done so. However, knowing what class the receiver is will be helpful when purchasing a hitch rack. This information can usually be found in your vehicle’s owner's manual, typically in a “towing” section or on an informational sticker located on the hitch receiver itself. If you strike out with both of these options, give a local dealer a call.

If you plan on installing a hitch receiver, you have a few options. The most straightforward approach is to contact your vehicle’s dealership and have them do the work. This will ensure that the receiver you’ll get will be an OEM part and will be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. You may also be able to get a brake light wiring harness installed, which could come in handy if you ever decide to rent a trailer. Unfortunately, this path is not the cheapest as dealers tend to upcharge for both the OEM parts and labor.

Your second best option is to get one installed by a third party. This could be a store specializing in adventure gear, including bike racks, or a store that rents trailers, such as Uhaul. These vendors have vast experience with hitches and can often provide valuable advice and options beyond what a dealer would. For example, if your vehicle has a spare tire on the back door, it may protrude enough to make folding up the bike rack impossible but a custom hitch could extend a few inches beyond the bumper to clear the spare tire.

mechanic installing a rack

Finally, if you’re mechanically inclined, you can order an aftermarket hitch online, install it yourself and save some money in the process. Since it’s not uncommon for car manufacturers to make minor changes to their products from year to year, make sure to get the hitch that fits the exact year, make and model of your car. With most modern vehicles, installation is pretty easy, with the most challenging part being lifting the receiver up into place to bolt down to the frame. Hitches are quite heavy, so you will likely want help during installation. But, with an extra set of hands, you may be able to install a hitch receiver in as little as 30 minutes.

It is also important to understand what class of receiver you have or are considering buying, as there may also be fitment issues, not only from receiver to vehicle but receiver to hitch rack. Hitch receivers are categorized into five classes, and it is good to know what class corresponds to the vehicle on which you intend to install the receiver. Again, you can usually find this information in the owner's manual but for general purposes, hitch receiver classes are as follows:

  • Class 1—Cars and crossovers. A class 1 receiver can hold up to 200 pounds and tow up to 2,000 pounds.
  • Class 2—Cars, crossovers, and minivans. A class 2 receiver can hold up to 350 pounds and tow up to 3,500 pounds.
  • Class 3—Crossovers, vans, SUVs, and trucks. A class 3 receiver can hold up to 800 pounds and tow up to 8,000 pounds.
  • Class 4—Trucks and SUVs. A class 4 receiver can hold up to 1,000 pounds and tow up to 10,000 pounds.
  • Class 5—Trucks and SUVs. A class 5 receiver can hold up to 2,400 pounds and tow up to 16,000 pounds. Here, we usually get into commercial vehicle uses.

There are a couple of essential things to note about hitch receiver classes. First, while a receiver may be rated to hold or tow a specific weight, that doesn’t mean your vehicle is; check your vehicle’s tow limits. Also, hitch racks rarely get into class 4 receiver territory and never class 5. With that in mind, we won’t need to worry about class 5 hitch receivers, as they likely won’t work with a bicycle hitch rack.

Other than carrying weight, one distinguishing factor between receiver classes is the hitch size. While hitch sizes range from 1.25”, 2”, 2.5”, and 3”, we are only concerned with two sizes for bike hitch racks. Class 1 and 2 receivers use 1.25-inch hitch sizes, while class 3 and 4 receivers are 2-inch. Some vehicles falling between classes 2 and 3, such as crossovers, may have both 1.25-inch and 2-inch receivers available from the manufacturer or on the aftermarket. If this is the case, we suggest going with the receiver with a 2-inch opening, as there are more hitch racks made to fit a 2-inch receiver.

class 3 receiver

The big consideration is making sure the hitch rack you are considering buying will fit the hitch receiver that is on your vehicle. If the hitch receiver is a class 3 with a 2-inch opening, ensure the hitch rack is for a 2-inch receiver. With that said, most bike rack companies make adapters for hitch racks. If the receiver on your vehicle is a 1.25-inch, you can purchase a 2-inch adapter if you have a 2-inch hitch bike rack, and vice-versa.

How many bikes do you transport?

Now that hitch receivers and classification are sorted, you’ll want to consider how many bikes you intend to carry on your hitch rack. It is fairly standard to see hitch racks that carry two bikes, however, there are hitch racks that carry three or four bikes as well, and can go up as many as 7, and this can be accomplished in a couple of different ways.

The somewhat obvious way is that some hitch racks are built to carry three bikes and others to hold four. In recent years, we’ve seen more hitch racks offered in the more basic two-bike carrier, with additional trays, or “extensions,” available for purchase. These extensions can be added to the two-bike carrier, allowing for additional bikes to be transported.

1Up USA EquipD Add-on

1Up USA Equipd Add-on

It is important to point out that due to the generally heavier weight of e-bikes, your ability to transport more than two may be limited. Hitch racks have a per-bike tray weight limit, which can often be exceeded by e-bikes, depending on the rack. Make sure you know the weight limit of the hitch rack and your e-bike, or purchase a hitch rack that is e-bike-rated. With the growing popularity of e-bikes, we have seen an increase in e-bike-rated racks.

Bike mounting style

When it comes to hitch bike racks, there are two distinct designs: hanging (mast-style) and platform based racks. Hanging bike racks have arms that support bikes by the top tube of the frame. This design severely limits the kind of bikes that can be carried: any frame design that deviates from the double-triangle, such as full suspension mountain bikes, womens’ and step-through bikes, as well as many kids’ bikes might not be carried on such a rack. The way the bikes are secured on mast-style racks creates an opportunity for them to shift around ever so slightly, but enough to where if more than one bike is carried, there’s a good probability that they will come in contact and potentially get damaged. Overall, this bike rack design isn’t recommended and we will not review it here.

Platform-style bike racks are designed so that the wheels of the bike sit on narrow trays and the bike is secured by the wheels, frame, or both, which results in a secure attachment that resists bike sway and minimizes the risk of bike-to-bike contact during transport. While all platform-style racks look alike, there’s a number of differences in design that could make a particular model a better fit for you.

The biggest differentiator between all platform-style bike racks is the way how bikes are mounted and secured to them. Frame clamp mounts, where the bike is secured by a clamp that grabs onto the bike’s frame, used to be quite popular. Securing the bike by its frame can tend to provide a lot of stability, however, frame mounts can be tricky, as not every bike frame is the same. In some instances, especially with full-suspension mountain bikes, there isn’t a spot for the rack to securely clamp onto the frame.

frame clamp hitch rack

EZgrip E-rack 2

The other option, and one that is perhaps a bit more common, is where the bike is secured by an arm that clamps down over the top of the front wheel, and the rear wheel is secured in place with a strap. While the bikes wiggle a little more on these racks, they are still very secure and much easier to load and unload. These hitch racks will also have bikes facing opposite directions, allowing them to be relatively close together; this spacing keeps the rack from sticking out too far from your vehicle despite carrying several bikes.

2 bikes on a rack

The most recent generation of hitch racks come with dual arms that grab the bike by both front and rear wheels. This design offers the ultimate flexibility – it allows placement of bikes in both directions, giving the user more options to avoid the dreaded rub. Finally, there are racks designed so that each tray is slightly higher than another, allowing for vertical offset between two bikes. When bikes are loaded in a staggered position on such a rack, the likelihood of them touching is effectively eliminated. This design also has a better departure angle than “flat” racks, which is appreciated by those who venture off road with their bikes on the back.

1up USA 2in Heavy Duty Double

1up USA 2'' Heavy Duty Double

For those wanting to carry more than 4 bikes, a special type of a rack exists. This type of rack orients the bikes vertically, secured by the front wheel, with the rear wheel secured by a strap. Such racks are popular with bike touring companies but are also sought after by large families living the cycling lifestyle. As you imagine, these racks are very bulky but can also be converted to a garage floor-standing bike rack with the addition of an optional stand.

velocirax bike rack

VelociRAX 7

Secutiry

One of the advantages of having a bike rack is that it makes bringing a bike along so much easier: the bike can wait on the rack until you’re done with work so you can go for a ride without heading home first. Or, you can stop for post-ride libations with your friends. The key to taking advantage of this is making sure the bike is secure while on the bike rack, especially when unattended.

Most bike racks come with a certain level of security built in – it could be a cable lock that retracts into the tray, or the ratcheting arm that could be locked in place with a key. Some brands offer additional locks specifically designed to work with their racks that could be purchased separately. Before you blindly trust the security measures provided by the rack, spend a minute to evaluate them objectively. Because there’s no such thing as an undefeatable lock, it helps to measure locks in the amount of time it would take to break them with the thieves’ favorite tool – a battery-powered angle grinder. When faced with a diamond blade of an angle grinder, a cable lock is unlikely to last 30 seconds, a hardened U-lock may provide minutes of security, and a sleeved 10-mm hardened steel chain might be unruly enough to make the thief give up entirely.

When it comes to bike theft, there’s no such thing as too much security so if you plan on leaving your bike on the rack for hours, we recommend that you invest in the aforementioned sleeved chain lock. Other than being made out of very robust steel, chains are more resistant to angle grinders than U-locks because they are hard to hold steady in field conditions. The sleeve, which covers the chain, not only prevents the chain from scratching the bike, but also makes the whole assembly very slippery and almost impossible to get a grip on with bolt cutters or the angle grinder. The final advantage of the chain is that it allows you to secure the bike not just to the rack, but to the safety chain loops in the hitch itself, taking the security to a whole new level.

While making sure your bikes are locked up, ensuring the hitch rack is locked and secured is equally essential. Many hitch racks will come with a locking hitch pin, so the rack cannot be removed without the key. If yours doesn’t, locking hitch pins can be purchased and don’t need to match the brand of hitch rack you’re using.

Accessibility

A rather large hitch rack will make accessing the back of your vehicle more difficult – hatches, back doors, and tailgates would seem impossible to open. Depending on the hitch rack you get and its features, you may have more access to the back of your vehicle than you think. Many hitch racks include a tilt feature, where the rack tilts down, away from the vehicle, providing clearance. Even with bikes loaded, you can tilt them out of the way enough to open a tailgate or a hatch door.

Consider a swing arm for your hitch rack for doors that swing open, such as vans or offroad vehicles. A swing arm mounts directly to the hitch receiver, with the hitch rack mounting to the swing arm. When you want to swing the hitch rack out of the way, simply release the swing arm to move the rack and the bikes. To prevent mishaps, many swing arms lock into place, so they can’t swing the bikes back to the closed position. While it is always best to try to match manufacturers to ensure something like a swing arm will work with a hitch rack, swing arms are fairly universal, with the emphasis being on ensuring the receiver size is correct.

swing arm bike rack

RockyMounts BackStage Swing Away Platform

Sturdiness and stability

Obviously, you want to ensure that your bike is secured and stable while being transported on a hitch rack. While potholes on rough roads can have the rack and your bike bouncing around, rough forest roads can be especially tricky for mountain bikers and gravel riders trying to get to a trailhead. The last thing you want is to look back and wonder where your bike went.

For hitch racks with a mounting arm over the front wheel, ensure the arm feels solid and is securely ratcheted down. It doesn’t hurt to lock the arm in place in case it wants to wiggle loose on a rough road. For hitch racks that secure the bike by the frame, purchasing one with anti-sway cradles, or at least one that is compatible, will not only keep bikes from swinging on the rack and hitting each other, but it will also prevent them from swinging into your vehicle on rough roads.

Making sure the rack itself does not move around inside the receiver is just as important in ensuring the safety of your bikes. Racks are heavy and forces are amplified many fold at highway speeds. If your rack wobbles side-to-side, it can start wearing through the hitch pin and in time lead to a catastrophic failure. Some racks come with a tightening mechanism that expands inside the receiver, but if yours doesn’t, consider purchasing an anti-rattle hitch tightener, which is a shackle-type device that joins and secures the rack and the receiver.

sturdy bike rack

Make installation and use easy

You probably won’t always want your hitch rack on your vehicle and may choose to take it off when you’re not using it. With that in mind, you may also consider the physical size of the hitch rack and if you have the storage in your garage. Many hitch racks fold and can be stored easily up against a wall, turning them from a piece of equipment sticking out several feet to maybe one foot. And, of course, the more bikes the hitch rack holds, the heavier it will be. Here, you may consider a hitch rack with integrated wheels where the rack can be folded up, dropped from the hitch receiver, and wheeled into the garage. If the rack of your choice isn’t equipped with casters, consider picking up a dolly for the duty.

Even though hitch racks are heavy, putting it on your vehicle and taking it off should be relatively easy — factor this into your decision-making when purchasing. With practice you should be able to install or remove a rack in about a minute. Toolless installation can be advantageous, especially when you travel and want to remove the hitch rack at your destination, but have left the tool back home.

Durability and longevity

While hitch racks are designed to “live” on the back of your car, removing them from your vehicle during the offseason is the best way to prolong their life. The elements tend to beat up car racks the most, especially on wet or dusty roads. It is never a bad idea to give the hitch rack a good wash when you notice it getting dirty and spray any metal-on-metal hinges with lubricant.

Because the weather is so rough on hitch racks, it is important to choose a tough one. Metal and rain almost always equal rust, so getting a hitch rack with quality powder coating typically fights rust and corrosion better. Aluminum resists rust but will oxidize and lose its shine over time, while remaining structurally sound.

Warranty

A quality hitch rack isn’t cheap. They are crafted from high-end material, engineered to take a beating, have many moving parts, and are built to last. Knowing this, it is common to expect a multiple-year, perhaps even a lifetime warranty to come with your purchase. Read the warranty and understand what it entails: some companies will be easy to deal with and happy to send replacement parts, while others won’t. Bike shop employees are typically a good resource in this department, as they likely deal with all bike rack issues and can provide a “behind the scenes” look into a particular rack company.

Read reviews, get recommendations

While it is important to remember that people are more likely to leave a review when dissatisfied with something, it doesn’t hurt to check out what people have said about a hitch rack you are considering. Cycling media outlets are a great place to find a professional gear reviewer perspective on hitch racks, but make sure the rack company doesn’t sponsor the content. Companies will often market products through review articles, which can obviously be biased. These articles are usually easy to spot, as they will say something like “Sponsored Content” at the top.

Asking friends, bike shop employees, or strangers at a trailhead is a great way to get the inside scoop on a hitch rack you’re considering. Be sure to ask them what they like about the rack, what they don’t like, or what they would change, which may lead to more provoking considerations.

Whatever hitch rack you end up with, the important thing is that you carry your bike to a destination where you will get out, enjoy some views, and participate in the best possible activity—cycling.

Consider insurance

Whether you just bought your first bike or your 5th, or have the whole family onboard, it’s prudent to protect your investment into the cycling lifestyle. Theft is the most common fear most cyclists share. According to data from Project 529 Garage, a bicycle is stolen every 30 seconds, with 80% of cyclists in the US having had at least one bike stolen.

A specialty bicycle insurance policy from Velosurance will cover your bike or e-bike for theft and accidental damage, even if the bike is stolen off the rack (provided it was properly secured) or if it falls off or gets damaged during transport.

Since the policy is designed to address the specific needs of cyclists, it provides coverages not offered by conventional insurance. Your personal bicycle policy can be extended with coverages like medical gap, liability, uninsured motorist, racing and worldwide coverage to meet your specific needs and risk tolerance. A quote can be gotten in as little as 5 minutes, and a policy is issued within an hour. If you’re note quite sure what converge you need, our staff is here to help via chat or the phone. With over a decade in the bicycle insurance business, our experts can help you customize your policy to cover all risks associated with the cycling lifestyle.

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