How to carry luggage and other holiday loads on top of your car

When carrying luggage on top of your car, it’s best to secure your load widthwise and lengthwise with tie-down straps. Using carriers like roof boxes, bags and baskets are also safe options.

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Experiencing car trouble away from home or running into holiday traffic can add to anyone’s driving anxiety, but one of the most stressful parts of traveling by car arguably happens before you even leave your house.

Whether you’re about to embark on a long road trip or are traveling home for the holidays, packing your car with people, pets and luggage can feel like one complicated and frustrating game of Tetris. To keep your sanity and prevent any people or pets from feeling claustrophobic during a long car journey, you might want to use the valuable real estate right above your head to transport cargo.

Carrying luggage and other loads on top of your car helps you save space and provides a more comfortable experience, but it can also present some safety risks if you don’t do it right. To help you avoid any dangerous situations or damage to your car, we’ve outlined how to carry luggage on top of your car so that you and your cargo can get to your destination safely. For some quick tips, jump down to the infographic below and don’t forget to make sure you’re protected with car insurance so you’re covered no matter what happens on your journey.

How to secure luggage and other items to a roof rack

When it comes to transporting luggage and various loads on your roof rack, you’ll want to spend some time making sure your cargo is properly secured. It’s simple physics that anything with mass and a certain acceleration can have a great amount of force upon impact (i.e., Newton’s second law of motion), and you don’t want to be responsible for serious accidents on the road. Use these steps to ensure that your luggage and other cargo stay secure on top of your car.

1. Think about carrying capacity

Although your car roof offers you extra space to transport luggage and other oversized items, it’s important that you don’t go overboard. Consider the carrying capacity of your roof by consulting your owner’s manual to check how much weight it can support.

It’s recommended that you don’t exceed whatever limit is listed in your owner’s manual, so that you don’t damage your car. If your car has a sunroof, be mindful of placing anything too heavy on top in case the glass breaks, and if you have a convertible, don’t try to carry anything on there at all.

If you own a sedan or smaller car that doesn’t have roof racks already on top, you can try installing your own based on your roof type. Additionally, consider a different kind of exterior carrier, like a trunk rack, if your roof doesn’t support a rack.

2. Measure your luggage

The second step to successfully carrying luggage on top of your car is to make sure it will fit on your roof securely. Measure your luggage and the roof of your car and plan out how everything will fit before you pack it on your roof.

You’ll want to make sure that nothing is hanging over the windshield and obstructing the driver’s view. Additionally, if you have cross-bar luggage racks, your suitcases will need to fit inside of the rack and not over them.

3. Load your cargo

Once you know how much your roof can carry and plan out how everything will fit, it’s time to load your cargo. Give yourself ample time and space to lift heavy objects. This can help prevent any injuries to your neck and back. Also, pack items one by one to reduce any accidents caused by falling objects.

4. Secure your load

After everything is loaded onto your car roof, you’ll want to make sure that it’s all tightly secured and won’t move or leave the car. A load is considered technically secure when nothing is able to drop, leak or escape into the air or onto the road. When tying down any cargo, it’s good to remember to fasten it both widthwise and lengthwise.

To secure your load, use tie-down or ratchet straps to fasten your luggage to your car roof. Ratchet straps are strong and secure cargo very well, but be mindful that you aren’t exceeding the load limit of the strap.

If you don’t have ratchet straps, you can also use nylon rope or cinching straps to tie down your cargo. It’s best to have enough rope or strap to pass over your load at least twice. You’ll also want to pass them through the windows and tie them inside your car for added security.

5. Go for a short test drive

Once you’ve secured your cargo to your roof and double-checked that nothing can escape, it can be helpful to go for a short test drive around your block or neighborhood. Drive around and listen for anything flapping or moving. If you hear any sort of rattling noises, it’s a good indication that you need to check your load and better secure it.

After going for a test drive and making any necessary adjustments, you should be ready to hit the road. Remember that if any noises or movements occur during your trip, you should always pull over and assess the situation before continuing.

Common holiday loads to carry on your car roof

The holiday season is a popular time of year to transport loads on top of your car. Whether you’re bringing home a Christmas tree fresh from the lot or boxes of presents for your loved ones, we’ve outlined some common holiday loads and tips for securing them.


Christmas tree

There’s nothing like the smell of a live Christmas tree filling your house and nose with festive freshness. A survey by AAA found that an estimated 33% of Americans intend to purchase a real Christmas tree, meaning that every single one of them will need to transport it home safely. If you can’t fit your tree in the car, your roof may be your best bet for getting it home in one piece. Make sure you don’t join the 16% who have had their Christmas tree fall off their vehicle by following these tips for getting it home safely.

Tips for securing a Christmas tree on top of your car:

  • Wrap your tree up in netting or twine at the lot to secure loose branches. This prevents debris from flying off or your tree from getting damaged.
  • Bring an old blanket to cover your tree before placing it on your car roof. The blanket will help protect your car from getting damaged or scratched by pine needles.
  • Tie your tree down in three places: the top, bottom and center. Use ratchet straps to fasten it in place, and when you’re done, give it a few good tugs in different directions to test that it is secure.


Whether you’re lugging home firewood for a winter bonfire or 2x4s to build someone a homemade present, wood is another common holiday load that can be hard to transport. The roof of your car may be perfect for bringing home oversized lumber, but don’t forget these tips to secure your load.

Tips for securing wood on top of your car:

  • Secure lumber by wrapping it in a tarp. This prevents individual pieces from escaping and falling into the roadway.
  • Fasten boards or logs to your roof lengthwise and widthwise. This helps secure them in every direction.

Sports equipment

When winter snows come and dump fresh powder on the mountains, you know it’s time to hit the slopes. If you’re headed to ski or snowboard, you’ll want to make sure your expensive equipment makes it there safely. Use these tips for securely transporting any sports equipment.

Tips for securing sports equipment on top of your car:

  • Invest in a roof carrier that is built for your equipment. Snowboard and ski racks fit on your car roof and ensure your equipment stays secure the entire drive.
  • Try a cargo box. If you can’t afford to buy custom equipment to transport your skis or snowboards, a cargo box can also keep them secure while being versatile enough to use for other loads.

Boxes and oversized presents

Preparing for the holidays often involves lots of cargo. Whether you’re bringing boxes of donations to a holiday charity drive or spoiling your loved ones with everything on their wishlists, your car’s interior may not be able to fit it all. Try transporting some presents or boxes on the roof of your car with these tips.

Tips for securing boxes on top of your car:

  • Use a cargo net to secure boxes. The net will prevent any boxes from becoming airborne or falling into the road.
  • Tape each box shut to prevent any loose items from flying out into traffic.

Is it illegal to strap things to the roof of your car?

Although it’s not illegal to strap things to the roof of your car, it is illegal in all 50 states to travel with an unsecured load. The consequences for securing loads improperly can mean fines, penalties, misdemeanor criminal charges and even jail time if any bodily harm is caused by your falling debris.

Falling objects and debris from unsecured loads cause preventable accidents, injuries and property damage every year. AAA found that in a four-year period, falling road debris was the cause of over 200,000 crashes that resulted in 500 deaths and 39,000 injuries. Taking steps to properly secure any cargo that travels outside of your car helps save lives and save you from legal consequences. If you’re ever hit by any road debris from other unsecured loads, remember that you may be covered under comprehensive or collision coverage with your car insurance.

Tips for carrying loads on your car roof

Now that you know how to carry luggage on top of your car safely and securely, it doesn’t hurt to think about these extra tips for smooth and seamless transport.

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Invest in a durable carrier

If you plan on transporting things on top of your car often, it may be worthwhile to invest in a rooftop carrier. You have many carrier options to choose from and you can see which is best for your needs below.

  • Roof bag: Large flexible bag made of strong, weatherproof material that can hold luggage and other items securely by strapping to your car roof. Best for flexible storage space and improved air resistance.
  • Roof basket: Durable steel basket that connects to the roof of your car and stores luggage and other objects. Best for use with weatherproof items or oversized objects that do not fit into a box or bag.
  • Roof box: Strong-bodied box that attaches to the roof of your car and stores items like outdoor equipment or luggage. Best for those who wish to secure items with a lock and protect belongings from the elements.
  • Specialized rack: Custom-built racks that are generally made for sports equipment. Some are made of rubber so that equipment can be transported without being scratched. Best for those with specialized equipment needs and those who need a locking mechanism.

Protect your car

When you carry things on top of your car, there’s a chance that anything moving around can do damage to your car during the drive. Protect your car by laying down a blanket between your roof and any cargo. It’s also important to secure your load properly so that it’s not likely to move and scratch your paint or dent your roof. If any small scratches or dings happen to your car while transporting stuff on your roof, remember it’s not worth filing a claim and potentially increasing your car insurance over something you caused.

Think about noise reduction

If you’ve tied your load down with ratchet straps, you may hear some noise when you drive on the highway. A simple fix is to give your ratchet straps one twist before looping them through your car windows and securing them inside. This dampens any noise and also lessens the force on the straps when you travel at higher speeds.

Take extra precautions

Whenever you transport anything outside of your car, it never hurts to take extra safety precautions. In addition to securing everything with straps, it’s smart to cover your load with a tarp or cargo net. This quite literally adds a layer of protection in case any items come loose; it will prevent them from flying into the air or falling into the road.

Transporting luggage and other loads on top of your car can help save space and make a long car journey more comfortable. Save yourself the stress of trying to pack everything into your car’s interior and use our steps for how to carry luggage on top of your car securely.

When you properly tie down your load, you help make sure that you, your cargo and everyone else on the road gets to their destination safely. Don’t forget to take steps to protect your car so you can focus on enjoying the important things, like celebrating the holidays and enjoying vacation time.


Source: AAA