“If I’d been on a motorbike, I’d be dead now.” My brother was at the roadside, remonstrating with the truck driver, part of whose load had just fallen off and hit his car. Thankfully, the only casualty was a dented bonnet, but the outcome could have been very different. Even with a car for protection, flying objects on the road can be deadly. It highlights very clearly how important it is to transport our kit safely.

With the weather warming up and a trip to the beach becoming ever more likely, what is the best way to unite water and watersports equipment? Fitting a roof rack is possibly the cheapest, simplest and most accessible method for transporting bulky items, such as windsurf boards, SUPs and kayaks. As such, it is definitely the most likely approach for anyone starting out in these sports, but where do you begin? “All the gear and no idea” was certainly true the first time our shiny new boards went to the seaside, but roof rack safety is not the sole province of raw beginners. The unhappy examples that I cite of what can go wrong all happened to sensible, experienced people – including me!

So, if the thought of playing chicken to recover your mangled board or the prospect of meeting somebody else’s kit in the fast lane doesn’t appeal, my two articles are for you. It is what I would have loved to read, with hints and tips gleaned from a long apprenticeship to join the Rack Pack!

Loads and the Law

While there are regulations to cover HGV-type, abnormal loads, there are few specifics aimed at the ordinary Joe with a roof rack and a heap of watersports equipment. Having a “Dangerous Load” is an endorsable, fixed penalty traffic offence – a friend got points and a fine when his whole family of bikes plus their rack made a bid for freedom on the A13. The Highway Code states simply that the vehicle must not be overloaded and that the load should be secure and not stick out dangerously. There is, however, little guidance available as to what makes a load “safe” or ”dangerous” and nothing specific relating to roof racks.


There are international standards for the design and construction of roof racks, but compliance is not a legal requirement. DD ISO/PAS 11154:2006 is the current British standard: Congratulations! You now know more than most of the roof rack suppliers whom I contacted during my research. So, with such a lack of standards and guidance, where do Responsible Rack Packers start?


Choosing the Right Roof Rack

Roof racks are available for most makes and model of car; that said, if you own a soft top or Smart car, I wouldn’t go looking! If you are determined to make sure that you have a safe load, the first things to take into consideration are;

  1. Your car will have a Maximum Authorised Mass (MAM) or Maximum Permitted Weight (MPW). This is the total vehicle weight, including passengers and load, which the chassis and brakes can cope with safely.
  2. The car will also have a Maximum Permitted Roof Load, so check the manual – and remember to include the weight of the roof rack!
  3. The roof rack itself will also have a maximum load rating.
  4. The vehicle and roof rack load limits should NEVER be exceeded. Roof racks are designed to carry light but bulky items, so the load limits may be much lower than you think. Modern equipment will probably not cause you a problem weight-wise, although we own a beginner board which weighs approximately one metric tonne. If you are contemplating a side line in shifting sofas and IKEA flat packs, it will pay to check the limits carefully!
  5. Compliance with the aforementioned international or British standards will give you some peace of mind that the roof rack is qualified to serve as a roof rack!


The Halfords own-branded roof rack that I bought from a mate for a fiver served me well for many years and was easy to put on and take off. By contrast, the car manufacturer’s roof rack that I bought for £150 needed 40 minutes and a bewildering variety of accessories to fit, including its own, special torque wrench. Because it was such a pain to fit, we left it on. This wreaked havoc with our fuel economy, accompanied all journeys with other-worldly whistles and rendered automatic car washes a no-go zone.

It is no secret that roof racks are an aerodynamic catastrophe. Even unladen, they can increase fuel consumption by 5-10%, depending on speed. All that salt water dripping off our boards meant that the bolts were corroded solid when, a few years later, we tried to transfer our costly rack to another car. The moral – make sure that the roof rack is easy to fit and remove, as it is always best to take it off when not in use. The systems with a simple key to lock on and remove the roof rack are very user-friendly.

The main points to look out for when buying a roof rack are;

  1. That the construction and fittings are sturdy and up to the job – it must be able to carry the weight of your equipment and withstand the forces caused by wind resistance, which can be considerable at speed.
  2. That it fits the make and EXACT model of car that you have. Even models registered in the same year can have different roof rack fixings. Harsh experience says check carefully!
  3. That it is easy to attach and remove – for reasons of fuel economy / noise reduction / car washing / corrosion!
  4. If you need to attach accessories, such as ski, kayak or bike carriers etc., be sure to buy a compatible rack.
  5. If you buy second hand, make sure that you have all the bits and that it is safe.

Where to Buy?

The car manufacturer will generally supply a good quality roof rack that you know will fit. Car accessory shops offer advice and a wide choice; an internet search for ‘roof racks’ will yield a plethora of specialist roof rack suppliers; e Bay and even Amazon offer a wide choice of quality brands. You will get what you pay for; galvanised, commercial racks can be several hundred pounds, but a budget of £100-£200 should see you right. Some suppliers will help with installation (handy if you ignore my point about ease of fitting!)

Inflatable Roof Racks

These have their place, but probably only for very light loads or as a temporary measure. Our friend John borrowed his girlfriend’s Nissan Micra and used an inflatable roof rack to transport 3 boards and associated paraphernalia on a road trip to Ireland. Well, the Micra was much cheaper on the ferry than the van… John made it from East Anglia to the west of Ireland and back unscathed – until his girlfriend discovered that he had removed the passenger seat to fit in his sails! John remarked that the inflatable rack yielded unexpected benefits as a weather forecasting tool; sensitive to temperature, it was more solid under a hot sun and less turgid in the cold. Its attachment via straps passing through the car windows also made it much easier to detect rainfall… John’s main feedback was, however, that the large dent and scratches caused by the load being supported directly by the car roof did nothing to strengthen his defence in the case of girlfriend vs misused Micra. The plea that the roof-dents were caused by extra large, Guinness-fuelled Irish seagulls (of the genus Gull-ible) landing heavily was dismissed smartly!

So, you are now equipped to select and fit the correct roof rack and avoid over-loading it. In my next Rack Pack article, I will look at how to attach your kit safely to a roof rack. If you are reading this and think that, as it was in the Middle Ages, the rack is an instrument of torture, may I suggest that you take up kitesurfing, since the requisite equipment will fit into a single, small holdall!

Jackie Lambert


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