Choosing a Roof Cargo Box for a Camping Trip or Family Vacation

by TerriRexson

This article looks at how to choose a roof box to hold all your gear on a camping trip or a vacation. We compare top roof boxes to help you choose the right one for your needs.

What is a Roof Cargo Box?

Great for Camping and Family Vacations

A roof cargo box is a hard-shell storage box designed mounting on the roof of a car. It enables you to take a lot more luggage than you can fit in the trunk of a car. In this article, we'll compare some of the best selling roof boxes, highlighting the key features so you can work out which one is best for your needs. 

We've just returned from a family vacation in a self-catering chalet, we have two children and a small SUV. Our car trunk was very full when we set off - we weren't sure of the weather so had to pack summer gear and be prepared for rain. Mysteriously we seemed to acquire more stuff while we were away and had difficulty fitting it in on the way back! We spent some extra time repacking and managed to fit it all in, this time ...

We're planning a camping trip this summer and know we'll definitely need to take more gear with us, so I've been looking at roof cargo boxes as a much cheaper solution that buying a bigger car. The other time this will be useful is for visits to grandparents during the holidays, we come back with lots of lovely gifts which need to be packed safely in the car, leaving little room for practical things like clothing. 

While we were on vacation we saw a lot of cars that were packed so full that the driver could not see out of the rear window. My partner tutted every time he saw one of these cars. It's not safe to drive when you have no rear view and most of these cars would have been taking long road trips. 

We also saw parked cars with lots of luggage stored inside the car. Having loose heavy objects in the car isn't sensible. Not to mention uncomfortable for the passengers. 

What to look for when buying a Cargo Box for your Car

These are the key questions to consider before you buy a cargo box. 

  1. Will it fit your car and roof rack? This shouldn't be an issue in most cases but if you have an unusual car you'll want to do some more research. Cargo boxes have fittings that work with most roof racks. So if you haven't got a roof rack you'll need one of those too. 
  2. Capacity and dimensions. Do you have a particularly long item that you're going to need to fit in the roof box? Measure it and make sure it's going to fit. 
    Tip: Long thin items can be stored across the diagonal.  
  3. Is it waterproof? At some time or another you'll probably find yourself needing to drive with your roof box when it's raining. You really don't want to arrive on holiday with soggy belongings!
  4. Ease of fitting. How easy will it be to put on the roof of your car?
    Tip: If you're not very tall and plan to remove the roof box during your trip you might want to take a folding step stool so you'll be able to safely reach to put the box back on. 
  5. Does it have an aerodynamic design? This is important for two reasons. Some poorly designed roof boxes suffer from loud wind noise when traveling at speed. Also a badly designed box will increase drag and therefore gas usage. 

Best Roof Boxes for Family Vacations and Camping Trips

I've selected three roof boxes that I think best meet the needs of a family on vacation or a camping trip. I have not included specialist carriers for surfers or skiiers. 

First up is the Thule Aero which is a mid-priced hard carrier from a very respected manufacturer. 

Second up is the Thule Explorer which is a low-end hard carrier also from Thule (yes they are the experts on these products.)

And finally we've included a very low cost option the Keeper Cargo Bag. It's a waterproof canvas bag rather than a Cargo Box, but it's worth considering too. 

Thule Roof Box

SportRack A90275 Aero XL Roof Box
Only $1175.00

Thule Explorer Roof Box

SportRack A90095 Explorer Roof Box

Soft Roof Top Bag

Keeper 07203 Waterproof Roof Top Cargo Bag - 15 Cubic Feet
$73.99  $70.73

Cargo Box Comparison Table

Capacity Dimensions Max Load Material Lock? Waterproof? Fitting
Thule Aero 18 cu ft 63" x 38" x 19" 100 lbs ABS - Durable. UV resistant Yes, at rear Reviewers say yes, mostly. Minimal assembly and easy to mount. 
Thule Explorer 18 cu ft 54"x 39" x 19.5" 100 lbs High-density polyethylene. Extreme heat is an issue. Flimsy. Yes, at side.  Reviews are mixed.  Some buyers report than assembly is tricky
Keeper Cargo  15 cu ft 44" x 34" x 17" (but with flexible sides)

Not specified. 

But will be less that hard boxes.


Soft. Risk of ripping if you damage it. 

No Yes. Most, but not all, reviews agree. Attaches with 4 cambuckle straps. Can be a bit fiddly. 


Feature Summary

There's nothing much to choose between the carriers in terms of capacity. The Thule Aero is longer and narrower so the dimensions are worth checking. The soft Keeper Cargo Bag is good for awkward shapes as its sides can flex. The hard boxes are better for very heavy items. 

There's not much in it in terms of being waterproof. In each case some reviewers are delighted and a few have had leakages. For fitting the Thule Explorer comes out worse. 

The main deciding factor seems to be the construction material. The Thule Aero is made from ABS plastic which is UV resistant and very durable. The Thule Explorer is still hard shell but the material is inferior and will struggle in hot sun. The soft cargo bag is obviously less durable and also less aerodynamic. But it's cheap and easy to store - and will flex around awkward shaped objects. 

Hard Cargo Box or Soft Cargo Bag

So which should you choose? A cheap soft cargo bag or a more expensive hard shell cargo box? 

The cost issue is interesting. A soft cargo bag isn't going to be as aerodynamic as a well-designed cargo box. This means that using a cargo bag is likely to increase your fuel usage. So while it might seem to be the cheaper option it might work out more expensive overall. It really depends how much driving you plan to do - if it's just a shortish vacation trip once a year then the increased fuel cost won't be an issue. But if you are planning lots of long road trips then your mileage may vary as they say ;-)

We're going for the hard cargo box, partly because it's more secure. Much as I hate to acknowledge it, someone could slash through a cargo bag fairly easily. The lock on a hard roof top carrier hopefully presents a bit more of a challenge. And okay, I admit it, because it looks cooler than the bag!

One negative for us about the hard box is the space it takes to store it when it's not in use. The soft bag easily folds to fit in a closet. We'll keep our hard box in the garage and store our camping gear inside it. This must be a common concern as Thule make a Roof Mount Cargo Box Storage Lift so you can store your box near the roof. 

For occasional use where upfront cost is a concern I think the soft cargo bag will meet your needs very well. For more frequent users (and those who care about looking cool!) the hard cargo box is the way to go. 

Updated: 07/19/2011, TerriRexson
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