Before you think about renting a U-Haul truck (which by the way is going to cost you a lot more than $19.99), figure out if you can secure the load to the roof of your car. Whether you’re taking a trip to the country or dropping your kid off at college, that extra cargo needs to go somewhere.
As a driver, you have the responsibility to properly secure your cargo to prevent injuries on the road.
In fact, according to a AAA study, more than 200,000 crashes happened between 2011 and 2014 as a result of debris on U.S. roadways. These crashes led to over 500 deaths and 39,000 injuries. Around two-thirds of these accidents were the result of improper maintenance and unsecured loads. You can help decrease road-debris crashes by learning how to properly secure cargo on your cars and truck beds.
And whatever you do, don’t strap your dog or any other pet to the roof of your vehicle, especially if you’re thinking about running for public office.
Whatever you need to tie to the top of your car roof, follow these steps so everything stays firmly in place without flying off and causing an accident.
Ratchet Straps or Cam Straps
You can use rope, but it’s too hard to explain how to tie knots for people who aren’t familiar with basic knotting techniques. Plus, good ratchet or cam straps are rock solid, with no risk of slipping or loosening with vibrations. You can buy multiple ratchet or cam straps for around $10. Make sure the straps are rated with a holding strength at least twice the weight of the load.
Warning: Don’t crank the straps so much that they end up damaging your cargo (or your roof)! Consider cam straps instead, which are much less likely to damage anything from overtightening.
We recommend ratchet straps, but rope can add some nice versatility to the mix. If you’ve been tying knots since childhood, this will be instinctual. If not, you’ll want to learn some trucker’s knots; or instead, use ratchet straps, cam straps, and maybe some bungee cords.
Speaking of bungee cords, they should not be relied on as primary tie-downs. They tend to be unsafe and hard to maneuver. They can be useful, however, when preventing bicycle wheels from spinning, strapping down a tarp, or securing items together. But never solely rely on them to hold down a load!
Cargo (Spider) Netting and/or Tarp
When you are finished strapping your load down, we recommend covering everything with a sturdy net or water-proof tarp to prevent airborne debris.
If you are constantly hauling things like bikes or kayaks on top of your vehicle, consider purchasing a specific rack for these items (for example, Thule or Yakima) to save a lot of time and add some additional safety to the mix.
Large items are heavy and awkward to move on your own. If you are dealing with cumbersome cargo, ask a friend or family member for help. Don’t let your pride cause expensive damage or unsafe road conditions. Remember, pride comes before a fall—in this case, literally.
Step-By-Step Instructions for Tying Items to a Car Roof
Follow the directions that come with your products
When you are tying things down to the roof of your vehicle, each product (ratchet straps, cam straps, rope, netting, etc.) will have different instructions for use. Make sure you read all instructions before use. As a general rule, buy straps that have a holding strength twice that of your cargo weight.
Consider a roof rack
If you have a roof rack, the straps/ropes can be looped around the side and cross rails.
- Stack items evenly across the roof and in the center of the doors.
- Lighter goes lower—place heavier items on top of lighter items.
- Cover the entire load with a tarp or netting to prevent things from falling out.
Here’s a tip to consider when using racks to tie down large items, such as canoes and kayaks. Since these items can catch a lot of wind, we recommend strapping the item down to the car as well as the roof rack. Roof racks have been known to fail at high speeds with lots of updraft, so take the extra precaution of tying the roof rack down to the roof of the vehicle as well. Use ratchet or cam straps to tie the roof rack through the doors, not the windows.
Tip: Remove your rack when not in use to avoid the added weight, drag, and noise. Leaving your rack on all year will increase the price you at the pump.
Roof Rack Types:
Do your research and consider your requirements before purchasing a car rack. There are many different types available to you, including:
- Roof baskets – ideal for luggage and everyday items.
- Cargo boxes – protects items from the elements, ideal for outdoor enthusiasts who want to keep their equipment protected.
- Ski/snowboard racks – used for ski/snowboards only, convenient if your frequently hit the slopes.
- Bike carrier – quick and easy way to secure and remove bikes.
- Kayak carrier – the best way to transport your kayaks and canoes.
Whenever installing a roof system, be sure to follow all instructions and make sure that your vehicle can support the system.
If you don’t have a roof rack (rise rails and cross rails are ideal), you’ll want to take extra precautions:
- Read your owner’s manual and all manufacturer instructions for proper use and maximum allowable weights (this is normally around 165 lbs.).
- If you don’t have a roof rack, run the tie-down straps through the doors, not the windows.
- To protect your roof from damage, it’s best to lay down a blanket or towel first.
- When securing straps through the doors, give it a twist first to help keep the noise down and prevent the amount of force on the straps.
- If there are hooks to your straps, attach them together inside the car.
Where you place items on your roof matters, especially when tying items to a naked roof.
- Center your items in the middle between the doors.
- Remember, lighter goes lower—place lower items at the bottom.
- Line up your items at the beginning of the roof, or as far back as you can. This prevents items from hanging over the windshield, creating an updraft that can catch air and cause it to pull upwards away from the vehicle.
Sometimes overhang is inevitable, as in the case of Christmas trees, canoes, and other large items. If you have items extending past the windshield and/or rear window, it’s extremely important that you tie the item down to the bow (front) and stern (back) of the vehicle.
Follow these steps if you have an item that hangs over the windshield:
- Tie down items to the sides, but also to the front and back of the vehicle. Make sure you secure your canoe/tree to the sides before attaching your bow and stern tie-downs. Since significant updraft can occur, we recommend securing the rack to the car as well (remember, through the doors, not the windows). Bow and stern tie-downs should not be used as a stand-alone system.
- Never hook or tie your item to the plastic bumper or any plastic parts of your vehicle!
- Look for a metal structure in the front and rear of the vehicle.
- In the front of the vehicle, look for metal tow hooks underneath the bumper. If they are not there, you can use hood loop straps/anchors that attach to existing bolts underneath your hood.
- It’s easier to find a metal structure in the rear of your vehicle. Look for the metal chain loops on the hitch. If you don’t have a metal hitch in the back, you can use quick loop straps to create a strong anchor point.
- When you secure your cam or ratchet straps, remove any loose slack, but don’t tighten it too much.
Proper Use of Tie-Downs
The U.S. Department of Transportation requires that each tie-down must be attached and secured properly to prevent it from becoming loose, unfastening, opening or releasing while the vehicle is in transit.
- Cargo should be secured beside each other, either in direct contact, or in such a way as to prevent them from shifting towards each other during transit.
- Use cam straps or ratchet straps but be careful about overtightening to avoid damage to your cargo or vehicle.
- Consider investing in a roof rack. If you don’t have one, lay down a blanket/towel first and make sure you fasten ropes and straps through the vehicle’s doors, not the windows.
- Cover the load with a sturdy tarp or cargo netting.
- Be careful not to overload the vehicle. Read your owner’s manual for maximum load weights.
- Always follow manufacturer instructions.
- Push and pull items individually to make sure they are snug.
- Double-check the load after about 5-10 minutes of real-world driving.
- Don’t drive faster than the speed limits and stay to the right on highways and freeways.
Test Load and Drive Safely
When you are finished securing your load to the top of the vehicle, be sure to check the load by pushing and pulling on the items. Make sure to check each item individually. If the items are not securely in place, make the necessary adjustments.
If you are making a long trip, stop the car and double-check the load after around 5-10 minutes of driving. This will give you the chance to test the load in real-world driving conditions. If everything is still snug, you can continue on your way.
Regardless of how well you have secured the load, we recommend driving on the right lane of the highway at the speed limit. High speeds increase the risk of items loosening or becoming detached. If you have items that are overhanging, consider the effects of updrafts and slow down to prevent items from coming loose or becoming detached.
If you hear whipping or rattling noises while driving, pull over and double-check the cargo. This normally means that the straps have loosened and your load is not properly secured.
Cargo Securement Safety Recap
Use ratchet straps or cam straps. Only use bungee cords and rope as supplementary tie-down systems. Learn how to safely load a pickup truck.
Cover the load with a sturdy tarp or cargo netting.
Push and pull on the objects to make sure they are secure and snug. Check each piece individually.
Drivers can easily prevent crashes and accidents due to road debris by learning how to properly secure cargo on their roofs and pickups.
Auto Simple wants you to stay safe on the roads. For additional driving safety tips, read our other posts on the topic:
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