The definitive guide to bike and ski racks (if you happen to drive a 2011 Subaru Outback or similar)

One of the great features of a Subaru Outback is that it fits a ton of stuff. To get even more room, I like put some stuff on the roof. REI sells two major brands, Yakima and Thule. I started with a Yakima Forklift fork-mount bike rack, and recently expanded to add a wheel holder and a ski rack. I also upgraded the skewer (the part that connects the fork to the rack). Here’s the current offerings from Yakima and Thule (there are other brands to consider, but I usually go to REI for these kinds of things, at least to learn, and check Amazon for prices and availability as well).

This is the definitive guide for a 2011 Subaru Outback because this vehicle has factory crossbars, which is a great feature, but limits the rack options. If you’re starting from nothing, you have to buy the base rack to start, but then have more options to put on it.

Important disclosure and advice: The links below are affiliate links to Amazon. Amazon has a great return policy, and amazing prices (usually). REI is often a bit more expensive, but if you’re a member (and you should be) the prices can be close, and their return policy (whenever for any reason) is definitely better. Please buy from the vendor that you are most comfortable with. If you do choose to buy from Amazon, please consider using the link in this post. Thank you!

Bike Racks
There are two types of bike rack mounts on a roof rack: upright and fork mount. Uprights can be easier because you don’t have to remove the front wheel, but sometimes its harder to lift the bike and control it with the front wheel still attached. Fork mounts have lower clearance, and a more secure feeling mount, especially if you want to lock your bike to the rack.

2011 Subaru Outback Rack Options
These products will inevitably change over time. Some updates will fix problems, but otherwise the info here will still be applicable.

Buy this rack (and the extra skewer):
Yakima Forklift (Fork): This is the best rack available for the 2011 Outback. It’s easy to assemble, easy to mount, and easy to load a bike. All of this comes with a big caveat: the skewer (part that connects the fork to the rack) is poorly designed, since it basically takes two hands to use plus one hand to hold the bike up. There’s a solution: Yakima designed a better skewer, but for some reason only includes it with it’s high end SprocketRocket rack, which doesn’t mount to factory bars. Call Yakima at 888–925–4621 and order part 8880080 (“RPL, SKEWER ASSY”). The skewer is $40, well worth it if you use your rack at all. If you’re having trouble with the original skewer, mention that to the customer service folks, and they might give you a discount.

Also, make sure to buy a pack of SKS Lock Cores for Yakima Rooftop Racks with this rack. They’re a bit pricey (you only need one, but the smallest set is usually a 2-pack — get more if you think you’re going to add more compatible racks now or later), but really lock the bike into the rack. The core locks are easy to install and remove (in case you want to transfer it to a new rack or a new skewer).

Consider these racks:
Yakima Frontloader (Upright): This is a great upright mounts. The Frontloader comes completely assembled out of the box, and ready to be mounted on the rack. Also, it’s easy to load: you basically “roll” the bike into the front mount, ratchet it down, and then secure the rear wheel. Bike locks to the rack with a cable lock. It’s a viable option, but not my favorite because it’s big and bulky when not in use and seems less stable and secure compared to a fork mount. If you’re set on keeping the front wheel on your bike, this is your rack.

Thule 594XT Sidearm (Upright): This is a good upright mount. It’s easy to manage, even though it looks so complex, and the security is relatively good. For this rack, the arm ratchets down on top of the front wheel, and then can be locked in place. It’s pretty easy to use, but then also seems easy to doubt. I don’t want to drive wondering whether or not I put the arm on the right part of the wheel or if it’s tight enough. With thin road or deflated tires, it’s probably hard for a thief to to remove the wheel. With thick mountain or full tires, it’s possible that a thief could deflate the tubes and pull the bike out. If you’re set on keeping the front wheel on your bike, this is also an option.

Don’t buy these racks:
Thule 513 Domestique (Fork): This rack is great looking, but the security is completely flawed. The skewer mechanism is decent when used with a bike: the adjustment is on the opposite side of the skewer from the lever, and seems to be doable with one hand (while the other hand holds the bike). However, without a bike, the skewer can be removed easily by hand. That means that the rack can be removed easily with just a few tools. The Yakima skewer locks the bike to the rack and the rack to the car, even without a bike in it. I rule this design out completely.

Yakima Raptor Aero and Yakima Raptor (Upright): These upright mount connect to the downtube. I don’t think bikes are designed to absorb force down or side-to-side on the downtube, so I rule this design out completely

Bike Wheel Holders
Yakima Wheel Fork: Don’t buy this accessory. The wheel holder requires an extra $45 mounting kit, which is added cost and complexity. The axle mount seems unnecessarily small, online reviews complain about the “secondary retention tabs,” and it doesn’t rotate easily when not in use. Note that you can’t lock the wheel to the fork. It bolts in, so someone can’t just grab it, but it’s easy to remove.

Thule Wheel-On Wheel Fork: Buy this one. The mount is a bit tedious, with four bolts and two plates, but the rack is small so it’s not a real deterrent. Seems like Thule could put their more innovative one-piece mounts on this unit. The Thule wheel fork mounts right to the factory bars, has a deep and bent channel for the axle, and easily folds flat when not in use. It doesn’t match the look of the Yakima rack, but it works much better (paint it black if you want). Note that you cannot lock the wheel to the fork, so this isn’t an optimal security situation. The Thule Wheel-on is great for keeping a dirty bike completely out of the car with a fork mount, or fitting as much as possible on and in a car, but if you’re leaving the bike on top for a while, throw the wheel in the trunk.

Ski Racks
With the bike rack and wheel holder on the car, only the four-wide ski racks fit. Both companies offer their racks in four and six ski models. The Thule rack also comes in a pull top version, where the entire rack slides off the car. The pull top seems like a good feature for a really tall car, but otherwise could be extra complexity and possibly even impossible to use if the ski bindings block the slide.

Yakima FatCat4: Buy this rack. The Yakima ski rack has a good mounting system for factory racks, but does have multiple parts (one piece goes on the cross bars, and then the rack mounts on top). To make it more complex, there is a separate mount for Yakima round bars. The design is sleek, the release button is easy to use (even with gloves), the rack expands with a two-part hinge to fit larger skis, and the rack can be angled to give more clearance or easier access. There is also a 6-ski or 4-snowboard version (Yakima FatCat6) if you have more snow gear. Works the exact same way, but won’t fit with a bike rack. 4 pairs of skis (2 boards) is already a lot for one car full of people, but if you have special skis for powder days and don’t want to bring a bike on the same trip (and don’t mind taking racks on and off more often), it’s there for you.

Thule Universal Rack: Don’t buy this rack. The aluminum style looks great, but it doesn’t go with the Outback (or your recently purchased Yakima Forklift bike rack), and the rack looks bulky on top of the car. The Yakima ski rack looks aerodynamic, while the Thule rack looks like a wall running into the wind. Usually functionality wins over style, but this rack looks incredibly out of place on top of the Outback The buttons are easy to use, but not as easy as those on the Yakima racks. The Thule does have the advantage of better mounting hardware: It’s all one piece, and works on all types of bars, including factory. The Thule Universal Rack also comes in 4-ski (2 snowboards) and 6-ski sizes (4 boards), and also offers a “pull-top” version (rack slides off the roof of the car for easier access, 6-ski size only). Definitely check this one out if you don’t have an Outback, especially if you’re driving something extra tall (like a Suburban) where the pull-top option version could be really helpful.