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Roof rack vs. Back Fender rack vs. small utility trailer?

We have an '05 Toyota Matrix that we use for camping every summer. It gets packed to the rafters (if cars had rafters) with our camping gear. This year we’re planning on taking our two dogs, Lily and Charlie, so we need extra storage so that the dogs can fit inside. I’m absolutely confused about whether to get a roof container (we’d have to add roof racks, too), a rack that attaches to the back of the car or a small utility trailer to pull. I urgently need advise on the pros and cons of each.

According to Toyota (, the roof rack can only support 136 lbs. Most likely, you won't get all the gear you're talking about up there, anyway, so look into a trailer.

With a roof rack, the car will also handle differently. It won't be as dramatically different as with a trailer, but for some reason, people tend to forget they're suddenyl top heavy, and drive accordingly.

A trailer would probably be your best bet. Installing it may be difficult, so please go to a proper trailer place. Depending on where you are, you may have a boating place near you. They can be pretty good at asisting you with hitch installs. U-Haul sells some good gear, but getting it installed is very hit or miss. A few have good techs, most don't.

Try and get a hitch with a Class II receiver, as it has lots of other uses, and a Class I hitch will limit it's usefulness. You'll have to monitor how much weight you can tow, and what tongue weight the car and hitch can support.

If you haven't towed before, it's not complicated, but it IS a completely different way of driving. Just be careful for a while until you get accustomed to it. Backing up is best learned in empty parking lots at first. :)

Good Luck!


In addition to what chaissos said, I’m not a fan of back-racks. People tend to load them down and then there’s a whole bunch of weight transfer off of the front wheels, which gets kind of important when you have to steer.

I would do both. I would add a rooftop carrier, and I would rent one of these:

By the way, you can get some roof top carriers that don’t require the installation of a roof rack, like one of these:

If your planned trip includes a lot of interstate or highway driving, a roof rack will really cut into your gas mileage. It adds a lot of drag. It also raises your center of gravity.

The “backpack” does not carry very much weight, but if it fits, then that will have the least impact on fuel economy and handling. I’m not disagreeing with shadowfox, he is right if you overload it, but if you stay within its limits, it won’t affect your handling very much. Of course, in most cases, you have to remove it every time you want to open the hatch.

A small trailer gives you the most cargo capacity, but I think you are limited to a total of 1000 lbs including the weight of the trailer. That trailer that Whitey linked to looks nice, but it already weighs over 500 lbs. Most little box or flatbed trailers are not very aerodynamic and have a high drag penalty (fuel economy). But most small flatbed trailers don’t weigh as much as the U-Haul weighs so you have a little more cargo capacity.

Small trailers are pretty easy to tow as long as you have 10% of the total weight on the hitch. That is, if you tow a trailer that weighs 800 lbs loaded, then the tongue of the trailer should exert 80# minimum on the hitch. It is better to go a little higher than lower. Low tongue weight will cause the trailer to start “whipping” on you, and even a small trailer can be difficult to get under control when this starts.

The trick to backing up with a trailer is to put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and move your hand in the direction that you want the trailer to go in. Practice first. It takes a little getting used to, and the trailer doesn’t start to react right away so its a bit unnerving at first.

The roof racks I was talking about are designed by Toyota, for that vehicle. They’re a bit more expensive than your generic version, but fit perfectly.

There are two lines in the top of the vehicle that look like decoration going from front to rear, and there should be slots that slide open to reveal the mounts for those roof racks. Once installed, though, you’ll have to put something up there. I’m not sure what you’d use.

Keith is right about trainers and backing. It’s a good way to get started. Not what I do anymore, but it’s probably the best way to get started and get the hang of what the trailer is going to do. Use caution when backing…if you “jackknife” it, you can damage the trailer, your car, and even the hitch if it’s bad enough. I still recommend a quiet parking lot if you can find one to practice in, and someone to help…watch you, as it were. Let you know when the jackknife is about to happen before you hurt anything.

Of course, this is assuming you don’t know how to tow…but more info is better than not enough.


I Vote For The Hitch And Utility Trailer. A Nice Aluminum Trailer With Decent Sides, Is Light, Rust Proof, And Would Not Depreciate Much Over The Years.

I had a pick-up truck once, but find my utility trailer and hitches on a couple of our vehicles to be more practical and really handy. I like being able to use it, then unhook it, and resume normal vehicle use.

We’ve taken our trailer camping. Put a crank-up swivel wheel on the tongue and you can unhook it at a campsite and maneuver around right where you’d like it and be able to use the vehicle as you please. You can decide to take chairs and things that you’d have to leave home, otherwise.

You’ll find uses for that trailer at home when you’re not camping and you’ll wonder why you didn’t get one sooner.

Also, with the hitches we can tow our boats and PWCs on their trailers.


I recommend a small utility trailer.

Putting a bunch of weight on the roof, or hanging off the rear bumper, of a small car like yours is not a good idea.

Check the owner’s manual for the towing capacity of your Matrix, and DO NOT exceed it.

Maybe you need a slightly larger vehicle.

Since you do this every year, and you might want to include your canine friends more often, I vote for a larger vehicle as well. Perhaps you could keep the Matrix for normal driving, then get a mini-van for the vacation trip(s).
If you’re uncertain if you’d want a van, rent one for a weekend or for the time you’re on your trip. If you like it, buy a van, if you don’t, you’re just out the cost of the rental and gas for it.

I second CSA utility trailer suggestions. The big reasons are two fold. First, with a hitch, you avail yourself to all sorts of attachments like a camping gear platform and bike racks etc. Secondly, Thule makes some great little utility trailers out of aluminum that stress your car minimally. Carrying 800 lbs in a trailer is less stressful on a car then the same weight inside.
The downside is, you’ll have to practice backing up with one and be much more careful in traffic.
I have a 9 by 5 aluminum that weighs just 230 lbs but rated for over 2000 lbs; a favorite with the neighbors. They are expensive but worth it.

Here is a very lightweight yet durable trailer that I have used for some time. You will need to add a green treat plywood bed. That is a beginning, a platform to hold your things with stretch cords, tarps and rope. You can improve on that with sides made of 1 x 4 lumber.

Thank you all for your great suggestions. We MAY need to use them in the future. But for now, here’s what we’ve decided. We’re gonna take our 1996 Subaru Legacy wagon instead! Just spent $1200 getting it in tip-top shape. Putting a few of the long items on the roof racks (e.g. aluminum folding table, tent and poles and a few lighter thicker items (bedrolls), gives us room for everything else and a nice space on the 1/3 back seat for the dogs. With 178,000 miles, I was a little concerned, but our (Car Talk recommended) mechanic thinks we’re in good shape. One other problem that I will have to overcome – the shifter is quite loose. My husband, who is the regular driver of the Subaru, has gotten used to it and knows where all the gears are. I have to drive it around the neighborhood for several days to make sure I can always locate 3rd gear! Our first trip will be to San Bernadino, which is only five hours away, so it will be a good test before we take a longer trip to Colorado or Wyoming.
Any thoughts?

dagosa: “Carrying 800 lbs in a trailer is less stressful on a car then the same weight inside.”

Would you care to explain that a little? I always thought it was the other way around, mainly because on the average pick-up truck, the payload capacity is more than the towing capacity, which, I believe, is also the case for cars that can tow.

Unless I was driving a semi, or using a fifth wheel hitch on a pick-up truck, I would rather have the load balanced on all four wheels inside the vehicle than on the single point of a trailer hitch, putting 60% of the cargo weight on the back bumper.

I don’t know your shifting setup exactly, but on most 5-speeds I’ve driven (one exception was a bizarre Eastern setup…as in Eastern Block)…

1 & 2 are on the same throw, which you would pull to the left,
3 & 4 are on the middle throw,
5 & reverse are on the right throw, with reverse normally also having a indent to avoid accidental shifting into it.

Optionally, reverse is over even farther left (or right) and still with an indent.

If you can find 1st, 2nd and 5th, just let it pull itself back to center, and push the lever gently forward to 3rd, and back to 4th. You’ll get the hang of it really quickly…just don’t force it, and it’ll go on its own.


Whitey…I’m surprised. We said nothing about handling and your comfort level in carrying a weight vs towing a weight. Towing weights require a tongue weight much less than the payload capacity. Please look at any car or truck rating for tow weight vs payload. Except for the wind resistance, assuming you had an enclosed cap, 3500 lbs in your minivan would stress your suspension, tires so much more than towing 3500 lbs. I think you would exceed it’s capacity of about 1300 ? lbs by a lot !! And, the trans mission and motor still has to work nearly as hard. I can tow my utility trailer with 2 k pounds or load 2 k lbs in my suv. My suv thanks me cause it’s rated to tow 5k pounds but payload of 2 k lbs would be over it’s capacity. Don’t you think the car makers know something. I wonder why anyone would even question such a basic assumption.

Check the average Ford f150 with the 5.4 Lv8.payload 3030 lbs, tow capacity of 11000 plus pounds. This is typical of many such vehicles. Trucks, your van and sedans that are rated for towing. My Rav will tow 1500 lbs, it would kill it to load 1500 lbs in it and drive the same distance. Payload rating 850 lbs. The v6 has the same payload rating but will tow 3500 lbs. I live a sheltered life as I have never owned a vehicle that could carry more weight than it could tow. I’m sure there are some, but it’s not the norm in vehicles I 'm familiar with.

BACK FENDER. Less windrag so better fuel mileage than others.
Trailer is going to cause much worse gas mileage and make parking and maneuvering more difficult. Plus you must afix a hitch and wiring.

Parking and maneuvering with a trailer is more difficult. But that is the price you pay for greater load capacity and more flexibility during traveling. I would argue that with a modern enclosed trailer, mileage difference is not as great as you think compared to carrying the same cargo inside, and that’s if you can. OP has made the choice, our opinions mean little now.

dagosa: “I wonder why anyone would even question such a basic assumption.”

dagosa, if I had known you were going to dress me down for asking, I wouldn’t have bothered.

“so it will be a good test before we take a longer trip to Colorado or Wyoming.
Any thoughts?”

If you go to Wyoming, try Double Cabin campsite just outside Dubois. Ask at the Ranger station in Dubois for directions.

I’m still surprised at both assumptions. First, that it was a dress down, which it wasn’t intended to be. Secondly; the surprise comes from you having experience in towing with your Odessey, or maybe I was mistaken on that. If you do own one, the manual tells you the same thing I did. The other illustrations were other vehicles that weren’t semis or fifth wheels. I find it much easier to wheel my golf bag then carry it. :=() look of surprise. I may be missing something and am willing to accept a “dress down” myself if I was off base in my assumption.

BTW, my increase in age just makes it appear that my contangorous and crotchety nature was intentional. It is not.