Photo: Jonas Listl/Shutterstock

How to: Safely Strap a Ton of Shit on Your Car

by Lewis Meyer Aug 23, 2011
Whether you’re about to head to Burning Man or you just need to get your old futon over to Goodwill, here’s how to secure your load.

SO, YOU’RE GOING CAMPING IN THE DESERT with fifty thousand of your closest friends. It turns out that a week’s worth of food and water, plus camping equipment and clothing for conditions from near freezing to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, makes a really big pile of stuff. Looks like the poles for your oxygen bar/DJ booth/stripper pole are going to have to go on the outside of your Ford Fiesta. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out how to get your bicycles and shade structure tied to your car.

A poorly secured load can mean lost supplies, present a danger to other drivers and is also a ticketable offense in many places. A few simple precautions can make certain that you and all your supplies arrive intact.

A word of caution

If you’re tying stuff to the outside, your vehicle is possibly overloaded – the center of gravity may have been shifted and its handling may have been changed. You may be using improvised racks and tie-downs as well, so take it easy in the turns and pay a little more attention to the speed limit than usual.

I’d like to say right up front that you should be able to grab anything tied to the car and rock the car with it. If your load moves around on the car it needs further attention. Stop after the first fifteen minutes of driving and check your load again; most tie-downs will stretch and loads will settle. I usually give the tie-downs a couple of tugs every stop to make sure everything is still tight.

Why bungees suck

Let’s start with my pet peeve: bungee cords. I hate them. The very elasticity that makes them so convenient also allows loads to shift and cargo to escape. They have the uncanny ability to break at the worst possible moment and it can be impossible to repack if your bungees got all stretched out on the trip there and have no pull for the trip back. They are handy to keep bike wheels from spinning or to secure a flapping edge of a tarp, but they shouldn’t be used to hold a load.

Ratchet straps are sold fairly cheaply in packs of four as “motorcycle hold-downs” (also known as “ratchet straps” (when they have hooks) or “cam straps” without hooks). Even the cheapest ones are far stronger and more reliable than bungee cords. These are a miniature version of the straps used on big trucks and just the thing for our purposes. If you’re looking for tips on tying things down with rope, I suggest you get some ratchet straps for this year and start practicing your knots for next year as soon as you get back from Burning Man. There are enough ways for things to go wrong without adding knot-tying to the list.

The process

If you’re lucky, your vehicle has a roof-rack. The biggest issue when attaching your gear to a roof rack is not to tighten the ratchets so much that you damage the racks. A lot of racks are barely designed to hold the weight of a couple of bicycles, so try to keep that in mind as you pack.

If your vehicle doesn’t have a rack then you’ll probably have to run the straps in through one open door and out the other, literally tying your gear to the roof. (Run it through the doors – if you run it in through the windows you’ll have an educational experience when you go to get in the car yourself.)

I’d recommend keeping the ratchet parts of the straps out of the passenger compartment; you don’t want to bump your head on them or to have the loose end of the straps flapping around the driver. Standard straps will need to be hooked together inside the passenger compartment because they are not long enough to reach all the way around the car.

The purpose of this tying is to keep your gear on your car. The load has to be secured from moving both side to side and front to back. As a general guide, to secure your load in all four directions, you need to use four straps. Three straps equally spaced can secure a load, but there are not usually three conveniently located attachment points on the car. In most cases you need two straps running across the car to secure the load.

Roof-worthy gear

Bicycles are well suited to traveling outside the car; a pair of bikes can be carried on the roof of even a small car. Bikes offer lots of convenient attachment points, so the main issues are not scratching your car too badly and securing the wheels to keep them from spinning. (A couple hundred miles spinning around at highway speed can be hard on the wheel bearings.) The hooks on most straps will fit over the bike frame or handle bars and the straps can be tied off either to the rack or each other inside the car.

Other good candidates for the roof are big tents or duffel bags. One big package is preferable to several smaller bags; if you have to put several small bags on the roof, consider wrapping them in a tarp to make one large package. (Securing the wrapping is one of the places where bungees or duct tape may be appropriate.)

If you attach the straps to the handles of a duffel, attach them to the handles on the far side of the bag so it is being pulled closed and down rather than being pulled apart.

The same principle can be applied to long skinny things, such as bundles of tent poles: run the strap over the bundle, then loop it down and around and on to its attachment on the other side of the car. When the straps are tightened they will tighten around the object as well as pulling it down to the roof, holding it in place more securely than a strap over the top alone.

Warning: bundled items like tent poles should be checked carefully. It is often possible for parts in the center of a bundle to slide length-ways even after the outside has been strapped tightly.

The drive

In my experience things tend to slide forward; even careful drivers may end up hitting the brakes suddenly through no fault of their own. It can be very disconcerting to have a pink furry bike slide down over your windshield just as traffic gets hairy.

Side to side movement is the next most likely problem; you don’t want your load shifting during an unexpected swerve or tight turn. Jackrabbit starts are the least of your issues in a heavily loaded car, so if your shade structure is like mine and has a bag that only sort of closes at one end, you probably want that end to the back. (That is also the best direction to keep it from acting as an air scoop, slowing you down and collecting road dirt and rain.)

Recap of the important stuff
  • Bungee cords suck, ratchet straps rule.
  • Think about side-to-side and fore-and-aft movement and secure against both.
  • When tying on multiple pieces, check each one individually.
  • Grab and shake. Repeat after the first 15 minutes, and check frequently.

Take it easy on the road.

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