By Kristen Finley
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 that exciting, which roof-top servant should take the gold medal? To formulate a fair comparison, I’ve asked the knowledgeable members of our beloved group as to which they like better and why.
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. Some clever members help detour those with dishonest intentions by placing their valuables and gear in sealed and/or lockable boxes. But alas, that’s more money, and can make retrieving gear from the roof cumbersome.
Another notable downside of the basket is the fact that they’re not very aerodynamic - like, at all. Even with the feeble wind fairing that comes stock with all baskets, the wind noise in the cabin at 65 miles an hour or more dances on the verge of unbearable. In addition, a noticeable drag is apparent in the form of a sharp drop in mileage. For instance, my Forester used to get upwards of 25-27 miles to the gallon before the basket. With the basket, I’m lucky to get 24 if I trudge along at exactly 65 miles an hour, and if there’s no head wind.
A basket full of heavy gear also means a higher center of gravity. Body lean becomes an issue when tight corners are tackled, making a once nimble and capable car feel a lot clumsier and slow.
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. Also, it 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.
Then there’s the matter of peace of mind. Because there’s the option to close and lock a box, there is no longer a need to worry about straps, bungees or a net coming undone and having to pick your gear from the highway. Once it’s locked, you’re ready to go. Your gear is secure and safe. An additional factor that regularly converts once devoted basket users to the box community was better aerodynamics, and therefore, a drop in mileage that wasn’t as costly. Moreover, it’s a lot quieter inside the cabin.
With such a seemingly endless list of pros comes some cons. 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, too. 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.
Price was a definitely a heated debate. Brand new, cargo boxes cost anywhere from $200 to $600, depending on how big, which brand you choose, and how badly you care for design. Baskets, on the other hand, aren’t usually more than $350 for the standard size (which is nothing to scoff at). And while extensions and accessories for a basket are indeed pricey, those can be accumulated over time.
With a lid comes the assumption that there is limited space. And to a degree, that’s true. Those with a cargo box are no longer able to store a jerry can with extra gas (since it cannot be in the car with you - it’s both illegal and dangerous) or a spare tire. While you can fit most skis and snowboards in a box, a bike is no longer possible. Though, most box enthusiasts solve this by having longer cross bars and placing the box to the side to make the space necessary for a separate bike rack - but that means a lot more money, too, since cross bars and bike racks are never on the cheaper side of things.
The basket wins the award for Most Attractive, as there wasn’t a single member who declared that a cargo box looked better than a basket. It can also boast the trophy for Most Versatile, being able to carry bigger, heavier things along with an endless list of accessories. Though, the box wins the award for Best Security and Safest Keeping, since there’s a long list of cargo-related worries that are no longer relevant. There are some lucky members who are able to delight in both sides of either coin, but for those who aren’t, it comes down to what you’re planning to carry.
If you go into the off-road realm knowing you need to carry a spare on top to make room for extra gear, or jerry cans, a basket will be your best bet. 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 (and mileage is very important to you), a box would be the wisest choice.
*Cargo box picture by Maya Uh
*Basket picture by Kristen Finley