When you own a car, at some point or another, you're going to want to put things on your roof. It's the best way to carry oddly shaped, unwieldy, and extra items that might not fit in the car but that you want or need to carry.
There are a lot of fancy, expensive rack systems available for sale from Thule, Yakima, and other companies I've never heard of, but the simple fact is that you can still take care of these things yourself with a factory rack, a little bit of patience, and a lot of knot checking.
Ideally, you'll have some kind of roof racks to tie things onto. These are great for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they give you something solid to anchor to so that your roof-mounted load doesn't slide around. You can also tie things to the roof using a blanket (for padding) and couple of pieces of rope with loops tied onto the ends (so that you can tighten the heck out of them so they don't come off when you're going faster than 30 mph).
I've been using nylon webbing straps (the $35 variety with self-tightening clips) for years to tie down everything from bicycles and surfboards to large pieces of furniture. They've worked great on a variety of vehicles — a '73 Volkswagen Beetle, an '87 Toyota 4Runner with no roof racks, and my current factory roof rack-equipped '86 Subaru wagon, among others.
Click through the gallery to see how I put this method to the test, then learn how to do it for yourself.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston/Scott Chatenever
Since I've used this method for so long without problems, I decided to give it the ultimate test: I drove to the Bonneville Salt Flats for some high speed tie down thrashing. Normally, my speed on the freeway, especially when I have things on the roof, is about 70-75 mph. Faster than that, and you risk getting a ticket or worse, having things fall off. So I saved the envelope-pushing for the barren salt flats, running at a speed that would make Doc Brown proud — 88 mph.
I could have gone faster, but I didn't want to test the failure limit of fully loaded surfboard straps and factory racks, but rather a reasonable freeway passing speed. Y'know, the kind of clip you'd need to be going at if you need to get around a big truck, or get your flux capacitor working. Anyway, it passed with flying colors, just like those piles of blankets and twine my grandfather used to secure ladders to the top of the car when I was growing up.
Anyway, here's a basic primer telling you how to go about securing things to roof racks without worrying about them flying off. Remember, it always pays to double check your work. I'd rather be two hours late to a beach party than screw up my tie downs and shed ballistic sporting goods from my car at 70 mph.
First thing first. You should have some rope, or better yet, tie down straps. If the ends are frayed, cut them off with a sharp knife or a pair of scissors.
To keep the end of the strap or polyester/nylon rope from fraying, melt it with a lighter, then pull it flat with a thin piece of cardboard, folded in half between your thumb and forefinger (it sucks getting melted plastic on your skin).
This will not work on organic fibers. They'll just catch on fire.
With anything you plan on tying down, you'll need three, preferably four solid points of contact/stability. Here, I have the bicycle's handlebars firmly planted on the roof rack's cross bar in the front, and its seat in the back.
I'll start by tying the bicycle tightly to the crossbars, front and rear. This takes care of up and down motion.
Next, I want to address side to side motion, so I've used the long end of the strap (there's a ton of excess, because this strap was made to tie three or four surfboards to the roof) to secure the ends of the handlebars to the roof rack's crossbar.
Holding the strap tight as I work, I make several turns around the crossbar and the handle bar, bringing them tightly together. Keeping the strap taught and flat and making multiple turns allow friction to do its work, and ensures that "this thing ain't going no-where," as my grandfather used to say in his Desi Arnaz-esque Italian accent.
Again, hold the strap/rope tight as you work, and you won't need to tie a bunch of knots.
Now, I've pulled the strap over to the other side, to secure my third stability point.
Once I have the other end of the handlebars secured to the roof rack, I loop around one of the incoming straps to tighten it, and just secure it with a series of half hitches. These work great for flat straps, but you probably want to tie a more permanent knot for small, round ropes.
For the back, I wedged the seat next to the roof rack's crossbar (it moves back and forth with a few little screws) and cinched it down with a surfboard strap. With the excess strap, I've made a few more loops in the up-down direction, then I cut across it and pulled a tight loop around the center of those straps to tighten them in. Again, I tie it off with a series of half hitches.
If there's a lot of excess rope or strap that you don't want to cut off, you can make what's called a daisy chain or plait, which allows you to shorten the rope without tangling it.
First, make a loop near where the strap is tied off, then pull another loop from slightly higher toward the end of the strap through that loop. You continue making loops and pulling them into the last one until you run out of strap, and you end up with what's pictured here. It looks clean and it keeps loose straps from whipping around and snapping on the roof at high speed, which is always scary if you aren't expecting it.
You can then tuck the daisy chain in somewhere, preferably someplace where it won't blow around. I usually stuff it under another strap, but here I've put it under the bicycle's seat, where it'll also stay put.
Moving along, we'll look at how you secure something with four tie down points using two straps. I've used a surfboard here, but this works equally well for ladders, bookshelves, futon frames, or whatever will physically fit on your roof and in your straps.
Pictured here is what not to do. Don't use your friggin' hand to hold stuff on the roof. It will fall off. I've seen it happen.
This will also work with a piece of rope with a loop in the end of it, but I have — you guessed it — surfboard straps.
First, loop the strap under the roof rack's crossbar and drape the loose ends over your oblong load (i.e. surfboard, ladder, etc.).
Next, pull the long end of the strap under the crossbar on the other side of the board/ladder/whatever. The two loops are what hold the board down. Lead it back up toward the top of the board, where you will tie it to the short end of the strap/rope.
If you're using looped rope, pull the long end of the rope through the loop and pull it tight, tying it to the crossbar. In this case, I've pulled the long end of the strap through its short end's self tightening clip and pulled it tight.
Next, do something with the excess. I like to make one more turn around the crossbar, then loop the strap under both crosswise tight straps. That way, when I make my daisy chain, it pulls them together a little more tightly.
Now I have the board tied down at four points. The only way it will come off of the roof is if I put too much overhang on the front — allowing it to catch too much wind at speed — or if the roof rack rips off the car. Neither is likely to happen with an aerodynamic object, but it's best not to push your luck: slow down.
Caveat: Always check your work!
Wiggle it around, push and pull on it, move it from side to side. Does it move? If so, the straps aren't tight enough and you'd be a moron if you went out on the freeway like that. As you can see in this picture, this is what happens when the straps are loose and wind gets in under your object. I've seen this a lot in Southern California (and, consequently, Baja Califorania), and it's not a good way to roll.
If everything's tight, you're ready to roll. But again, DON'T DRIVE TOO FAST! You'll not only risk losing whatever it is that's strapped to your roof, you'll put peoples' lives in danger with huge, flying debris. Don't be a dumbass.
Also, if you don't have roof racks, you can pad the roof with blankets and tie ropes, very, very tightly, over the roof and through the doors. Best case scenario, you'll do your tying with the doors open (unless you have rad frameless doors), otherwise you'll be climbing in and out of your car like Bo and Luke Duke.
With the no roof rack method, beware of side-to-side movement. You might have to tie knots in the rope/strap where the load will sit in order to tie a couple of stabilizing straps in place. In that case, it's jet better to get on Craigslist and get an old roof rack.
Be safe, tie tight, and happy junk schlepping!