Roof Rails vs Roof Rack

In Tips by Tanner V.

If you want to maximize the carrying capability of your vehicle a first stop is adding roof rails or a roof rack. However, the terminology can be a little confusing.

The article below covers what roof rails vs roofs are and the various types of attachments you can use with them. Lets dig in!

About the Author
Hi Everyone! My name is Tanner, and I am the founder of I started this website as an outlet to pursue my hobby of kayaking, camping, and exploring the world at large. Every post here is written and curated by me so stop-in, have a read, leave a comment, and most importantly, get going on your next adventure!

The Difference Between Roof Rails and Roof Racks

The primary difference is the orientation of the bars in regards to the vehicle.

Roof Rails: Run from the front to the rear of your roof(Hood to Tailgate). Typically, roof rails come installed by the manufacturer or dealership. These are quite common on larger vehicles like SUVs. Smaller vehicles like sedans or coupes won't have roof rails.

(Image of Roof Rails)

Roof Racks: Roof racks orient from door to door along your roof (Left to Right). Often called crossbars, roof racks are typically vehicle add-ons from the dealership.

(Image of Roof Racks)

Roof Rails Types

Apart from differences in color or shape; there are two styles of roof rail.

Elevated roof rails: These are an inch or two elevated off the roof. Elevated rails are nice because you can tie ropes to them or clamp on racks by hand.

Flush roof rails are sleeker and provide better fuel efficiency for your vehicle. The impact to miles per gallon is small but every bit helps.

Roof Racks or Crossbars

There is a huge aftermarket segment for crossbars meaning there a tons of options for consumers. The many manufacturers offer a number of styles, shapes, and weight carrying capabilities.

We have written a number of posts comparing many different crossbars. If you want to read about the leading types of crossbars try Yakima vs Thule.

Why Would I Need Roof Rails or Roof Racks?

If you want to transport large items or need extra carrying space, a roof rack system is a convenient solution.

Often a roof rack system will use a combination of roof rails, crossbars, and a third attachment like a kayak rack or cargo box to accomplish this.

Roof rails serve as the foundation of the setup because crossbars must be screwed into the rail or clamped around it. There are options to skip the roof rails but these are either more expensive or less secure.

Once the crossbars are installed, you can easily attach a wide variety of products to transport things. Next we will cover the different types of roof rack systems.

What can you carry with a roof rack system?

There are a whole range products you can carry once you install crossbars on your vehicle. There are general purpose carriers like roof baskets or cargo boxes.

More oddly shaped products require a specially designed mount like a kayak rack or bike rack.

The world is your oyster just be careful to properly strap down anything on the exterior of your car.

Related: For the most aerodynamic bar see Aeroblade vs Whispbar