From Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ to Chevy Chase’s ‘Vacation’, our culture has an enduring fascination with the travel journey. When I was six, my parents and I embarked on a six-week road trip from Kentucky to the Pacific and back, touching twenty states in the process. In the thirty years since that summer, I have boarded planes, trains, and automobiles with groups ranging upward to a dozen. Among the many lessons I learned the hard way, I discovered that no matter how nomadic you aspire to be, a large group of people brings a large amount of stuff. With a single vehicle carrying four or more, I strongly recommend stowing your gear top-side in a cargo box.
In that spirit, I’ve run down the best cargo box for a cross country road trip.
Best Cargo Box (Overall Winner):
With the simple, appealing company slogan, ‘Take More Friends’, Yakima has built an empire of high-end gear transport. In 1979, two friends purchased a small machine shop in Yakima, Washington with the dream of filling a hole in the outdoor equipment industry – transport. By 1984, they were the official supplier of all bike racks for the 7-Eleven cycling team who brought home 9 gold medals from the summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Spring-boarding from this international exposure, Yakima continued to expand, always keeping its focus on people and quality. Their world class line of products includes our selection for best cargo box for a cross country road trip: the .
While the primary purpose of a car-top cargo box is simple, the execution is more complicated. A bit of simple math (80 mph x hundreds of miles x thousands of dollars-worth of gear) is enough to drive home the importance of making the right selection. First, let’s explore how the qualifies as our pick for best cargo box in terms of functionality.
Like most cartop carriers, the comes in a range of sizes. For our review, I have detailed the specs of the .
At 18 cubic feet, this is comparable to the ‘Extra Large’ carrier from other producers. Yakima advertises that the Skybox 18 holds the gear for up to 4 campers. With a max ski length of 215 cm (7 feet), the specifically appeals to skiers.
Access/Ease of Use
The is capable of dual-side access, which is a big advantage for loading/unloading, especially in tight spaces or highway-side. Interior lid stiffeners enhance durability and increase the ease of opening and closing the box.
The entire outdoor dimensions of the are 94” x 37” x 17”. More importantly, the Skybox is adjustable to a minimum 24” and maximum 42” crossbar length. With a sleek carbonite lid, the is designed to cut down on wind resistance, and the tapered design decreases interference with a hatch-back vehicle.
The requires a roof rack to attach to the vehicle and is compatible with a wide range of factory roof racks. I strongly suggest doing some research to ensure that the Skybox will fit with your vehicle. If you don’t have a roof rack, Yakima sells various compatible models.
Yakima advertises ‘tool free installation’ for the . Simply open the box, release the levers, and loosen thumb-wheels. Then, place the box on top of your rack, slide the levers over the crossbars of the rack, tighten the thumb-wheels, and engage the levers.
All that said, the box is 52 pounds. Most people are going to need a buddy to get the in place for the first time.
When considering the best cargo box for a cross country road trip, the second major category we consider is protection. It’s no good properly storing all your valuable gear above your vehicle if weather or unwanted guests aren’t kept out. In this arena, the again outperforms its competitors.
The employs a SuperLatch™ security system. This patented mechanism securely attaches the lid to the base at several points. Also, note that the mechanisms to mount/release your Skybox from your vehicle are inside the box, so there is no way for an unauthorized individual to remove the Skybox.
The Skybox incorporates SKS (Same Key System) lockable cores. If you have multiple Yakima products, you can install identical cores, allowing you to utilize one key to access them all. The SKS cores do not release the key until the lock is properly engaged, preventing you from leaving the box unsecure or locking your keys inside.
As you would expect from our choice for best cargo box, the is completely waterproof. The box itself is constructed from 80% recycled carbonite, and the opening is lined with a tough gasket to seal the contents tightly. Yakima sells replacement seal strips if your gasket becomes damaged.
Appearance & Durability
Finally, let’s not forget that our choice for best cargo box will adorn your vehicle. It will be the first thing anyone notices when you pull into town. The is elegant and sleek. The textured, black carbonite compliments any vehicle color, and the aerodynamic shape is appealing to the eye. The same lid stiffeners that increase accessibility also add to the durability, prolonging the life of the Skybox.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
No product is perfect. Let’s take a look at a couple of cases where the best cargo box misses the mark.
Dual-Side Access Makes It Difficult to Close
One of the major selling points of the can double as a detriment. The intricate hinges of the SuperLatch™ system allow access from both sides of the cargo box. However, some users complain that as they attempt to close one side, the Skybox pops open at the other side. A single operator may need to engage in some tedious side-switching to get the box closed.
Long Design Makes For a Tough Fit to Smaller Vehicles
Designed to appeal to the winter sports crowd, the is long enough for almost all ski lengths. This can make it a cumbersome fit for some smaller vehicles. The is only 6’9”, compared to the Yakima Skybox 18’s 7’8”. Remember to always research the fit to your specific vehicle before buying a cargo box.
Best Cargo Box (Runner-Up):
Founded by the Thulin family in 1942, the Swedish Thule Group is one of the largest and most well-respected producers of cargo carriers in the world. Thule’s motto ‘Bring Your Life’ encapsulates the company’s philosophy that everyone should be able to simply and safely transport their prized possessions to their destination. Like Yakima, Thule focuses almost exclusively on gear transport.
This attention to purpose makes their products top contenders for the best cargo box available today. Our pick for runner-up, the , presents strongly in every category of consideration.
To see why the qualifies for the runner-up best cargo box, let’s first look at how well it does what it is supposed to do.
The comes in a variety of sizes. For the sake of comparison, we will examine the , which is 17 cubic feet. Although one cubic foot smaller than the , the is still plenty large to carry the gear for four adventurers.
The max ski length is 198 cm, 17 cm shorter than the . If you want something bigger, the Thule Force XXL is a whopping 21 cubic feet and holds skis of up to 220 cm.
Access/Ease of Use
Like the , the is dual-side opening. The built-in lift elements hold the lid open, allowing both hands to be free to access the gear.
The requires a roof rack and is compatible with most factory models. Thule provides a ‘fit-chart’ for an easy reference. The shape is extremely aerodynamic.
The construction pushes air away from the box, increasing fuel efficiency and decreasing noise, whether or not the box is full. A diamond-textured aero-skin enhances durability and decreases wind-resistance.
Thule advertises a tool-free QuickGrip™ mounting system. Although it will certainly take both hands to lift the onto your vehicle, from there it is a one-handed motion to finish the secure attachment to the roof rack.
Like our winner for best cargo box, the has strong qualifications when it comes to security and weatherproofing.
The has a patented SecureLock™ system on both sides of the carrier. An oversized, user-friendly locking mechanism is easy to operate, even while wearing gloves. The lock won’t release the key until it is securely fastened. Like the , user access to the mounting system is within the compartment. This removes the risk that a thief can remove the entire cargo box with your gear inside.
Composed of five layers of ABS plastic, the ’s aero-skin shell keeps contents safe from weather. A thick rubber seal completes the weatherproof construction.
Appearance & Durability
The has a conservative, sophisticated style. Its deluxe features are largely concealed within the smooth exterior, which has operational and aesthetic value. Diamond-textured aero-skin completes the look and provides a high degree of durability.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
‘Weatherproof’ But Not ‘Waterproof’
Several reviewers note that the tends to ‘gap’ at the front seal. This can allow air and potentially water into the interior of the box. Thule explains this as the difference between ‘Weatherproof’ and ‘Waterproof’. It’s up to you whether or not this is a satisfactory explanation.
Single Key Fits Multiple Units
Owners of the have noted that their key works in the locks of other Thule products. While this may provide increased convenience, it is also a potential security risk.
Best Cargo Box (Best Soft-Sided):
Hard-top cargo boxes are arguably the best option for car top cargo carriers. However, they have two significant potential drawbacks. They can be very expensive and can take up a lot of storage space when not in use. If you have a limited amount of either, a soft-sided cargo box can be a very attractive option.
Based out of wilderness-activity-Mecca Asheville, NC, Rightline is an automotive aftermarket equipment manufacturer. The company was founded a mere ten years ago by Loran Evans, the creator of Melon Bikes. Like Melon, Rightline emphasizes employee integrity, work ethic, and a holistic approach to manufacturing. The company considers input from both the employees and customers at multiple stages of the production. This value-driven methodology shows through in our pick for best soft-sided cargo box: the .
While the and have very similar functionality, the is a different type of product entirely. The soft-side construction provides definite advantages in some areas but falls short of the more defined structure in others. Let’s break these pros and cons down by category.
The has 18 cubic feet of interior capacity, the same as the . Unlike the Skybox, the dimensions are much closer to that of a cube: 48” L x 40” W x 19” H. This provides space for an increased amount of baggage but does not allow for skis, snowboards, or other long pieces of equipment.
The soft sides also allow a small degree of flex, where the hard sides of the and the do not.
Access/Ease of Use
Just as with the two hard-top contenders for best cargo box, the can be accessed from both sides of the vehicle. The zipper extends around both long sides (left and right) and one short side (back) of the carrier. A disadvantage of the soft-sided cargo box is that, unless you flip it all the way forward the top/lid will not stay up while you are accessing your gear. This doesn’t provide any protection if it’s raining when you need to add or remove gear.
Due to its short length and flexible construction, the has almost universal vehicle compatibility. It is crucial to note that unlike the and , this soft-sided cartop carrier can function with or without a roof rack. This is a major advantage. If you elect to install the cargo container directly on the car top, I suggest using some sort of protection against wear to the paint job. Rightline sells products to fit this need.
The is not as aerodynamic as its hard-top counterparts. Also, the aerodynamics continues to decrease if the compartment is not filled completely. Not only can this increase fuel consumption, it can be very noisy.
While it is a little more time-consuming, the installation of the is pretty straightforward and can be accomplished by a single person. Place the compartment on top of the vehicle and then attach the four mounting straps either to the roof rack or directly to the four door frames.
As you would expect, the protection afforded by the is different from that offered by the top two contenders for best cargo box.
Inevitably the security provided by a soft-sided cartop carrier is less comprehensive than that of a hard-top cargo box. That said, Rightline has taken several steps to secure your valuables. The fabric is UV protected PVC Semi-Coated Mesh. This is a very tough, durable fabric that resists cutting. The reinforced zippers include a loop for utilizing a padlock to prevent intruders from unzipping the carrier.
Contrary to what you might expect, the is not only ‘weatherproof’, it’s actually ‘waterproof’. The fabric, a UV protected PVC semi-coated mesh is waterproof. The stitching is welded to waterproof the seams.
Finally, the urethane coated ZipRight system prevents any water from entering at the zipper. Rightline has taken extensive steps to give this product top-of-the-line waterproof reliability.
Appearance & Durability
While appearance is largely subject, most people would say that the is functional, not stylish. However, the grey and black fabric with eye-catching Rightline wolf logo, do make for an attractive, if not slick, presentation.
The cargo carrier is made with premium materials and is highly durable. The UV protection keeps the fabric from fading in the sun, preserving the quality appearance through the seasons.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
Mounting Clips Difficult to Use Without a Roof Rack
Although a major potential advantage of the is the ability to use it without a roof-top carrier, several reviewers mention difficulty mounting it securely. There is also the possibility that the mounting straps and clips will cause the seal on the car door to gap, exposing the interior of the vehicle to wind and precipitation.
Temperature Concerns With the Zippers and Seals
Sub-Freezing temperatures can begin to negatively impact the zippers and the seals that waterproof the . Temperature changes in combination with rubbing can cause a decrease in durability. This is an important word of caution for anyone traveling extensively at high elevations or upper latitudes.
All the Nitty Gritty
|Capacity||18 cubic feet||17 cubic feet||18 cubic feet|
|Weight||52 lbs||44 lbs||8.6 lbs|
|Dimensions||94″ x 37″ x 17″||84″ x 34.5″ x 17″||48″ x 40″ x 19″|
|Max Ski Length||215 cm||198 cm||——|
|Materials||Carbonite||Diamond-Textured Aero Skin||PVC Semi-Coated Mesh|
|Box Opening||Dual Side||Dual Side||——|
|Needs Roof Rack||Yes||Yes||No|
|Security||Integrated SKS Lock System||SecureLock||None|
The Bottom Line
Car-top carriers are excellent options for improving the quality of group travel by freeing up valuable interior real-estate for the comfort of your companions.
If you have the wallet and the storage for it, hard-sided carriers contend for the very best cargo box on the market. Both the and the are excellent options in this arena. You really won’t go wrong with a purchase from these top producers.
If your situation doesn’t allow for something so lavish, the is the best soft-sided cargo box we considered. It will provide many of the same functions and will, most importantly, keep your gear safe and dry.
Before making an investment in a product that needs to work with other items you own (in this case your vehicle), take the time to carefully confirm compatibility. There are many online resources to give you the information you need to make an informed purchase.
Then, pack up, pick a point on the map, and go. Travel brings us all together in a way that remote communication cannot. Get out there and experience the world first-hand. See you at the next pit-stop!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can I leave unattended items in my roof-top cargo carrier?
Depending on the type of cargo carrier you have, there are several security concerns. Cargo carrier keys may be interchangeable, allowing for the possibility that a stranger could use his or her key in your carrier. Obviously, cloth carriers can be cut. In short, items in the carrier will not be as secure as they are in your car.
The answer really comes down to your judgment. If you are in a low-crime area or will be gone a short period of time, you may be perfectly secure leaving your carrier full. If not, it may be better to take any valuables with you or store them in the car.
Q: Does adding a roof-top cargo carrier increase safety risks on the road?
This is an excellent question and one that doesn’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. First of all, always observe a few universal rules:
- Don’t impede sight lines.
- Only use the equipment as intended.
- Don’t exceed the equipment’s advised weight/capacity limits.
- Always secure the equipment using included/approved materials.
After that, consider certain physical differences in your vehicle such as a higher center of gravity and an increased overall weight (increasing stopping distances). A quick Google search for Safety Tips will reveal even more ways to increase your peace of mind when using a car top cargo box.
Want to increase your personal packing arsenal? Check out Rhonda Alamour’s article Best Luggage Sets for Travel of All Distances.