The roof rack has been a staple of automotive adventure travel long before the word overland was in the zeitgeist. Finding new places to store and organize tools, gear and consumables are all certainly older than that. It's not a shock then that the roof rack is an essential part of the overland scene. It used to be there was one kind of rack - whatever metal basket you could cobble together. Basically, anything you could bolt onto your roof and strap down was in play.
In the late 70’s two companies, Thule and Yakima, concurrently develop standardized racks on different continents. The idea is simple but revolutionary - make the attachment point common and sell accessories that adapt the base rack to serve a number of specialized roles. The Yakima rack was the gold standard in my formative years and a few round bars and an aero faring (covered with stickers, naturally) was the universally accepted banner for the adventurous.
It’s still an effective system and one that has served me well for years, though it has its limits. For one, a round bar makes bearing a load across the roof easy, but it makes for an awkward conversion to general purpose cargo or technical adaptations.
While Yakima and Thule were hitting their strides with popular mass-produced and highly adaptable racks for the active 80’s and 90’s companies like Eezi-Awn in South Africa were starting their rise to dominance in the overland space with racks and tents that are still, more or less, the formula we have today. The “safari” racks were less focused on carrying bikes and kayaks and more about water, fuel and the newly introduced roof top tent. While they had the load capacity and strength for this heavy labor, they weren’t as easily adaptable.
Today, during overlanding’s golden resurgence, roof manufacturers, old and new are combining these styles to make the most rugged and versatile racks yet. Racks from Prinsu Design, Eezi-Awn, Rhino, Front Runner, ARB, and even Yakima and Thule are both strong and large load-carrying designs with highly versatile accessories to make mounting your gear easy.
The downside is that, much like Thule square bar and Yakima’s round, these accessories aren’t common or cross-compatible. This can be confusing and make choosing a rack difficult. So, with the history lesson behind us, we can focus on the goods.
I will try my best and break down each modular rack’s system, its pros and cons and what you should know to choose a rack that will work for you.
Starting with what I think is the most open and easy system, the Prinsu Design rack. With Prinsu their rack is based around common crossbars tied together with vehicle specific side rails. This gives a modular and easy-to-adapt base system that is relatively easy to customize.
Their racks use a standard extruded aluminum T-slot crossbar in a 1x2 configuration. This T-slot is standardized and can make bolting things to the rack very simple. If you live in the USMcMaster-Carr is a great resource for sourcing just about any kind of bolt or nut you need. In the case of Prinsu, its a .256 inch slot. Specialized mounts may still be required for things like awnings, but anything you can bolt on can most likely be adapted using T-slot nuts and bolts. By using a 1x2 extrusion, they give you 2 parallel tracks to use, making placement easier.
In a similar vein to Prinsu,Front Runner racks use a channel that is roughly the same type as the standard T-slot track. Both Prinsu and Front Runner should accept an M8 hex bolt as a base accessory adding stud for both top and side mounting locations. If you need a nutsert, anything less than .25 inches thick and around .75 inches wide will allow it. One forum user suggested astrut channel nut. Front Runner uses a large, strong box section crossbar with a central T-slot on either side.
Uses a similar flat crossbar as Front Runner and are dimensionally similar. What works in Front Runner ought to work for Rhino Rack’s pioneer rack. Note: their pioneer racks, not their crossbars.
The Eezi-awn K9 rack system is similar to the others here, but instead of a central T-slot in the center, it has 2 T-slots on the flat crossbars similar to Prinsu, but with their own unique design. This, like the Prinsu, gives you effectively double the slots to increase the placement options. The T-slots should accept similar bolts to the others, but I have been unable to verify this. Eezi-Awn is also unique in that they offer accessories to go under the rack, such as its famous table system.
ARBis an old name in the industry and they have a reputation for quality gear for affordable prices and a high level of quality control and consistency. While a little late to the modular rack game their ARB base system promises better holding and easier mounting. The downside is that they do not use a T-slot system like so many others. In fact, the ARB system is unique to them which limits your options. ARB use what could be described as an inverted T-slot on the edges of their crossbars they call the dovetail. This gives you more clamping area for greater hold and less aluminum deformation, but it also allows for the crossbars to be fully sealed against water, mud, and muck.
The caveat I want to offer here is that all these racks work best with their own accessories as they have properly spaced bolt patterns, come with the proper size and grade of bolt, and are tested to work with their system. While many of these racks are in fact based around standardized T-slot dimensions it can’t be taken for granted.
It's also worth stating the obvious that there are certainly more racks out there than I’ve listed and I haven’t even touched on truck bed racks which offer a completely different style of mounting using cheese plates. All this being said, it's a good time to be rack shopping for whatever your needs are
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