Which rooftop beast of burden is better for off-roaders and why?

With the arrival of cargo boxes and baskets, the ability to store camping gear, tools, bicycles, spare tires and more atop a car hit the ground running in the off-road world. In off-road communities, it’s exceedingly rare to see an off-road rig without a box or a basket. These additions now mean packing light is no longer a necessity, passengers are awarded more comfort and it makes any car look a lot more rugged. Though, it begs the question: since there’s no such thing as two first-place winners and ties aren’t all that exciting, which rooftop servant should take the gold medal? To formulate a fair comparison, I’ve asked the experts of my off-road group, MtnRoo, which they like better and why.

My Subaru sporting a cargo basket. Photo by Kristen Finley.

Cargo Basket

Cargo baskets are popular due to the overland-ish, tough aesthetic it lends to any vehicle that’s equipped with one. Baskets are a wise choice for those who have large, awkward shaped gear that can’t be confined inside a cargo box. With a basket, your gear is easier to access and almost anything can be tied down or strapped within it – a jerry can full of gasoline, a spare tire, a few boxes, skis and even a bike can be secured to a basket.

Given the popularity of the basket and the flexibility this rooftop addition provides drivers, brands and manufacturers paid close attention and offer accessories aplenty. There are mounts and clips to store shovels, fire extinguishers, jerry cans (to the side of the basket instead of inside), tools – if there’s anything you want to fasten to your basket, there’s guaranteed to be an attachment available for purchase.

A major bonus for the baskets compared to a box is the freedom to add more lights. It’s common for off-road enthusiasts to fit their baskets with brighter lights to make night time travel safer. Extra lighting in addition to the rooftop basket is one of the few additions to an off-road build that are both functional and attractive.

Though, there are some major downsides. A basket doesn’t offer any protection to cargo against the elements, sunlight or most importantly, theft. Since there’s a lack of options to lock gear away and removing straps or tie downs doesn’t require skill or a lot of time, leaving your guard down for a moment can end up costly.

Maya, a devoted member, showing off her cargo box. Photo by Maya Uh.

Cargo Box

Cargo boxes are a beloved addition to those who regularly indulge in long distance trips in places with unpredictable weather for two serious reasons: security and peace of mind. Cargo boxes, unlike baskets, come in more sizes than just standard or extended; so, depending on what’s being packed can mean more space to store more things.

Boxes can be sealed and locked closed, so a close eye doesn’t have to be kept on your gear while in a store like you would a basket. It also means that snow, rain, or the hot sun isn’t freezing, soaking or baking your gear. In the MtnRoo thread, cargo boxes were especially common among skiers, snowboarders and avid beach goers due to the ease of storing skis, boards and wet gear in the box instead of the cabin of their car.

Even though cargo boxes aren’t as simple to beef up with lights or side attachments, plastering stickers that acknowledge your interests and display past travel destinations bring a lot of color and life to a normally black, boring box. The more stickers on your cargo box, the more bragging rights you can take pride in. You can put stickers on a basket, though only on the wind fairing.

The most common complaint was the height and length of most boxes. Height becomes a problem when trying to park inside a parking garage or sometimes, in personal garages. Most baskets can barely clear parking garages as it is, so with a much taller box comes with a greater risk of being scuffed or destroyed all together if the height is underestimated. Also, if it’s not a permanent addition to the roof and there is a need to store it, boxes take up a lot more space compared to a basket.

Length becomes a problem when there’s a need to open the trunk. Most cars have a trunk or back hatch that opens vertically, so sometimes the length of the box can conflict with that. Though, cars that have a trunk that opens horizontally didn’t report any issues with that.

In Conclusion

The basket wins the award for most attractive, but it can also boast the trophy for most versatile, being able to carry bigger, heavier things along with an endless list of accessories. However, if you’re the type of person who is more willing to invest in better security and are enticed by only having to worry about storage and parking garages, a box would be the wisest choice.

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