When the terrain gets rough, only the toughest roof racks can keep going. True off-road rated roof racks are battle-tested and over-engineered to handle heavy loads, impacts, diabolical washboard vibrations, and the dynamic energy of violent lateral swaying.
This article is essentially a simple introduction to the best 4×4 roof racks available worldwide. Basically, it is just the top of a very deep “rabbit hole” that I’m sure you’ll relish exploring as you look for the perfect rack for your off-road rig.
While there are plenty of excellent country-specific manufacturers, this article will focus on roof racks with worldwide dealership support.
I face a lot of these conditions as part of my non-profit work here in West Africa and having a solid 4×4 rated roof rack is non-negotiable. Fortunately, the chap I bought my truck from was equally as quality-conscious as me. He equipped my rig with a world-class roof rack – a FrontRunner Slimline II. It was an excellent choice.
(DISCLOSURE: At the time of publishing this article, I have no affiliation or sponsorship with any roof rack brands I mention here beyond owning one of them myself. While my affiliate status may change down the road, these are my own free opinions and recommendations.)
If you are in a hurry here are my top picks for each category of 4×4 roof racks. Otherwise, read on for the full range of options and tips for choosing the right setup for you.
Basket Roof Racks
Three Types of 4×4 Roof Racks
The three main categories of 4×4 roof racks are Platform, Basket, and Load Bars.
Platform roof racks are the most versatile style of 4×4 roof racks available.
Sometimes referred to as trays, platform roof racks are generally modular in nature and usually feature aluminum rails and slats with grooves into which you can fix a huge range of accessories and tie-down points. They are more aerodynamic and are most often constructed of powder-coated aluminum for maximum weight savings without sacrificing strength. Platform roof racks are extremely modifiable and are compatible with a huge range of 4×4 models.
Basket roof racks are a classic design. These roof racks are extremely rugged due to the fact that they are usually constructed as a single welded piece. The high side rails help stabilize loads from shifting while offering easy tie-down points all around the perimeter of the rack.
Basket racks come with a weight penalty and are less fuel-efficient at highway speeds due to poor aerodynamics.
If you are a tradesperson or just planning to use your roof rack for things like a bike, kayak or ladder then a good set of 4×4 rated load bars may be all you need. It is a simple, cost-effective solution for very specific applications. Some folks also use roof rails to mount modular rooftop tents.
While you can find plenty of specific accessories for roof rail systems, they are not nearly as versatile as platform roof racks.
Don’t Cheap Out
Let me begin by saying: DON’T CHEAP OUT! Quality really matters when it comes to true off-road-rated roof racks. While cheap knock-offs are common online, they will most likely fail you at the most inopportune time. They really are not likely to stand up to the rigorous demands of 4×4 travel.
If you select the right rack the first time you’ll congratulate yourself time and again for a wise decision and your friends will be jealous. Do it wrong, and you’ll curse yourself over and over like the man who said, “I do,” to the wrong lady.
What is the Max Load Your Vehicle Can Support on the Roof?
When it comes to 4×4 roof racks a key metric to know is the “Dynamic load rating” of the rack itself. This is the max load your roof rack should carry while moving over rough terrain.
Also, keep in mind that just because your new roof rack is rated up to 300 kgs does not mean the mounting points on your vehicle can handle it. In most cases, it would not be advisable to put that much weight up top anyway.
According to veteran overlander Andrew St. Pierre White, “Many modern SUVs are not suitable for carrying more than 100 Kgs(220 lbs) on the roof.”
So, do your homework and know your vehicle’s limitations.
Will It Fit My 4×4?
In my opinion, Front Runner and ARB offer the widest range of vehicle fitments.
Most European, South African and Australian manufacturers offer fitments for US vehicle models, but the reverse is not true. US-based roof rack manufacturers (like Gobi) offer very few fitments for international models like the Land Cruiser 70s, Nissan Patrols, Mitsubishi Pajeros etc.
The Feet Are The Most Important Part
The most critical part of a good quality 4×4 roof rack is not the rack itself. It is the feet.
The feet of a roof rack are by far the most likely point of breakage and the most likely breakage scenario is when the vehicle is lurching from side to side or driving over violent corrugations. A heavily loaded rack produces enormous sheering forces on the feet and if they are not engineered for this they will break off and likely damage your vehicle.
It is imperative that the rack you buy comes with robust 4×4 rated feet engineered to fit your specific vehicle. A good 4×4 roof rack requires 6-8 mounting points to distribute the load properly. Walk away from any full-length 4×4 roof racks that only have four feet. It is simply not enough.
Also, don’t assume the feet for your vehicle come with the rack you order. Ensure the mounting kit for your specific is part of your order. It’s pretty disappointing when you take delivery of a truck mod that you can’t mount right away.
Best Platform Roof Racks For 4x4s
Most 4×4 enthusiasts prefer a low-profile platform rack for a number of reasons:
- Less wind resistance(better fuel economy)
- Reduced wind noise
- Lighter(most are Aluminum)
- More customizeable
- Ton’s of bolt-on accessories
- Compitable with most 4×4 models
- Cleaner looks
- Basket rails can be added if necessary
The best platform roof racks for 4x4s are actually well-developed ecosystems with a large range of bolt-on mods available. Platform racks are generally modular in nature. So, before you buy, ask yourself which platform system offers the types of accessories that will best fit your needs down the road.
1. Front Runner SlimLine II
Hailing from South Africa Front Runner Outfitters has distinguished themselves as a global leader in overland roof rack setups. The Slimline II’s rugged aluminum frame is the basis for, in my opinion, the most customizable 4×4 roof rack system on the market. You can easily change the size and layout of this rack according to your needs, and it will fit virtually any 4×4 thanks to Front Runner’s huge array of vehicle-specific mounts.
The Front Runner Slimline II has been proven over countless overland journeys and faced some of the toughest terrains on earth.
- High Capacity
- Aluminum Construction saves weight
- Huge ecosystem of accessories and mods
- Add/remove slats to create a platform or make a space for your sunroof
- Compatible with most 4x4s
Each slat and side-rail has a channel into which you can securely mount a large selection of accessories. . (See video below)
2. ARB BASE Rack
Australia’s ARB 4×4 Accessories is best known for their super-rugged bull bars and recovery equipment, but they also make world-class roof racks. ARB’s low-profile aluminum BASE rack system is one of their newer offerings. It is very similar in concept to Frontrunner’s SlimLine II except the mounting points are dovetail extrusions instead of channels. ARB and Frontrunner offer very similar ranges of mountable accessories.
The BASE rack comes as a single welded unit which makes it very durable. However, the downside to this is that you can not add or remove slats, and neither can you adjust the length of the rack like you can with the Front Runner.
- Powder-coated Aluminum
- Single piece fully-welded
- Large range of accessories
- Fully flat platform(side rails are optional)
- Accessory wiring can be run inside the rails
- Dovetail mount extrusions don’t collect dirt like channel systems can.
3. Rhino Rack Pioneer
The Rhino Pioneer rack is a 2021 Red Dot Award winner for Design in Engineering and another excellent Australian-made modular style flat rail system. Instead of the rails running laterally, they run the length of the rack. Since the rails are longer they also incorporate cross beams as part of the design.
In my opinion, while the longitudinal rails are probably more aerodynamic, they are slightly less user-friendly when installing accessories onto an already loaded rack. You can only add accessories into the slots from the front or rear of the rack, whereas with lateral rails, you can install die-downs from the sides which are generally easier.
- Powder-coated aluminum
- Aero-dynamic design
- Sleek, Clean design
- Large Accessory selection
- Integrated wiring capabilities
- Compatible with most 4x4s
4. Easy Awn K9
South Africa’s Eezi-Awn”s K9 roof rack is the fruit of decades of experience with expedition travel. They are a trusted brand of some of the foremost overland experts such as 4XOverland, Expedition Overland, and Expedition 7. The K9 is an example of an extremely robust 4×4 roof rack that has been battle-tested on all 7 continents.
Unlike many similar designs, the slots on the K9’s main slats accept an M8 nut and M6 nuts in the side rails. The side rails themselves are perfectly flush with the slats making the K9 an excellent platform for rooftop tents.
I have two gripes with the K9:
- The slats run lengthways(front to back). So, when installing a tie down, one is obliged to slip the nut in and slide the tie down all the way down the length of the roof rack to the desired position. This is a problem if the rack is already packed. If you do get this rack I’d suggest adding more tied downs than you think you need so you don’t come up short.
- Althought Eezi Awn serves North America, you will have a harder time fitting the K9 unless you are a Toyota or Jeep owner. They are focused much more on the international market.
- You don’t have to use Eezy-Awn accessories(compatible with M8 and M6 nuts)
- Many accessory options
- Very well proven design
- Flat profile is ideal for rooftop tents.
5. ARB Flat Mesh Rack
The beauty of ARB’s Flat Rack is its simplicity and practicality. With the heavy wire mesh, you can lash down gear to virtually any point on the rack. The ARB Flat Mesh Rack is also one of the most cost-efficient 4×4 roof racks on market.
The Flat Rack is available in multiple sizes in either steel or aluminum. The steel version costs about half as much as the aluminum version but comes with a weight penalty of 5-6kg(8-13lbs) more. In my opinion, that’s still not a bad trade-off for around $500 in savings.
The drawback to a rack like this is that there are fewer bolt-on accessories and brackets for things like kayaks, bikes etc. This is a ratchet straps and bunjee cord kind of roof rack.
- Very robust
- Clean low profile
- Excellent value for money(steel version)
- Wire mesh offers unlimited lashing points
- Single piece welded tube frame structure
- Wire mesh is optional
Best Basket Roof Racks for 4x4s
Basket roof racks offer classic expedition looks while offering more protection of your gear from things like rogue branches and thorn bushes. These racks are generally heavier and less aerodynamic. They are generally designed for carrying extra-heavy loads. Just make sure you don’t exceed your vehicle’s rated roof loads.
ARB Deluxe Classic Roof Rack
ARB’s Deluxe roof rack is perhaps one of the most time-tested classic roof racks of all. Constructed as a single welded piece, this roof rack offers maximum durability over the long haul. ARB offers this rack in either steel or aluminum with or without mesh.
Either way, this is a roof rack you will be very proud to own for a long, long time.
Just Add an Expedition Rail Accessory to a Platform Rack
In many ways, simply adding expedition rails to your platform rack is the most practical and cost-efficient solution. For example, adding rails to the Front Runner SlimLine II above only costs around $300-400 depending on the model. Plus, removing the side rails is simple enough if need be.
Rhino Rack Pioneer Tray
Like Front Runner, Rhino Racks also offers accessory rails for their standard Pioneer platform rack in the USA, but they also offer an additional fully welded and closed rail rack version of the Pioneer Tray for Australian customers. I think these types of racks look especially good over the cab of pickup trucks.
Load bars make an ideal lightweight solution for tradespeople and outdoor sports enthusiasts. These are basically the heavy-duty versions of Sports and Euro bars.
Load bars can also allow you to carry extra-long cargo, for example, from the pickup truck bed all the way over the cab. While load bars have their limitations, they are definitely the most cost-efficient heavy-duty roof rack setup. Just make sure to price in the accessories you may need.
Not surprisingly, most of the aforementioned manufacturers also offer very robust load bar setups.
ARB Cross Bars
Compatible with ARB’s truck bed cover, their Cross Bars make a handy addition to the roof or truck bed. Unfortunately, it appears that they are not available to the North American market.
Rhino Heavy Duty Bar
Rhino’s Heavy Duty Bar is light yet solid alternative to a full-sized roof rack for your 4×4 adventures.
Front Runner Load Bar
Front Runner’s Load Bar is compatible with the same accessories as their SlimLine II line. I pickup up trucks it can also be used in combination with their other racks.
Yakima HD Bar
Sports and load bars are Yakimas forté. Their HD Bar can be combined with lockable feet so your precious gear doesn’t go walkabout.
There are a number of excellent off-road roof rack brands worth looking into if you live in specific countries which I’ve included here as honorable mentions.
TrackLander makes exceptional offroad roof racks for the Australian market. Definitely look into them if you live down under.
If you live in North America then check out Gobi or Baja Roof Racks. They both make excellent 4×4 roof racks. Baja even offers some racks to the international market as well.
I trust this article has at least served to introduce this complex little “rabbit hole” to you. There is plenty more to discover but I’ll leave that up to you.
There are many custom shops out there making genuinely great roof racks. However, each one of the roof racks mentioned above are extremely safe bets. Buyers regret is very rare.
The bigger questions you need to answer are:
- How much rack do I really need?
- Which one best fits the look I’m going for?
- Which system offers the line of accessories I might use in the future?
Remember, don’t cheap out. It’s better to save up, if need be, to get the ideal setup for you rig.