How to Choose the Best Hitch Cargo Carrier for You
Posted: October 27, 2023
Categories: Buying Guides & Reviews
How to Choose the Best Hitch Cargo Carrier for You
Stop. If you’re even toying with the idea of buying a hitch cargo carrier, there are some important nuggets of information you should consider before hopping online and buying the cheapest one you can find.
In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about hitch-mount cargo carriers to empower you to make a confident buying decision. For example, did you know that some cargo carriers come with a folding shank so you can neatly store it out of the way when not in use?
Benefits of a Hitch Cargo Carrier
There are so many good reasons to get a cargo carrier, particularly a hitch-mounted model. If you’re not sure it’s worth the investment, consider the following benefits:
- Frees up space inside the vehicle
- More affordable than a trailer
- Versatile cargo space
- Keeps messes outside the vehicle
- Easy to clean
- Easy to handle and store
- Simple to install
- Convenient to access
- Virtually maintenance-free
- Lots of optional accessories
Two Basic Types of Hitch Cargo Carriers
First things first, you should know that cargo carriers, specifically receiver hitch cargo carriers, fall into one of two categories. There are two basic types to choose from: a basket-style carrier or a tray-style carrier.
A basket cargo carrier has high walls and provides more containment and security of your items. A hitch basket is meant to be "filled up" so to speak, with items being placed inside the walls or rails, hence the name "basket."
- More containment of items
- Ideal for multiple, smaller items
- Raised wall / rail allows easy attachment of net or cargo bag
- More restricted space – not always ideal for larger items
A tray cargo carrier is built like a platform and is designed for larger, more awkward items. With very low walls, a hitch tray allows items to easily be placed on top of it, hence the name "tray."
- Open-style storage space
- Ideal for larger, awkward-fitting items
- Low wall with holes for attaching rope or bungees
- Less security / containment – not ideal for small items
6 Key Considerations for Buying a Cargo Carrier
1. Material Options: Heavy-Duty or Lightweight?
Once you know which of the two types of cargo carriers will better serve your needs, the next important decision is choosing the material type. Again, there are two basic options: steel or aluminum.
Steel Cargo Carriers
Steel is an obvious choice for cargo carrier construction. It’s strong and dependable, resulting in a solid storage space for your items. Perhaps the biggest advantage that steel has over aluminum is that it’s cheaper to make. This means the overall price of a steel cargo carrier is typically lower than that of an aluminum carrier.
One downside to keep in mind with a steel cargo carrier is that it’s more susceptible to rust. Scuffs and scratches – combined with frequent exposure to the outdoor elements, dirt, road salt and UV rays – result in a higher chance for corrosion. However, as long as the steel is thoroughly coated in a high-quality powder coat finish, the carrier will be up for the challenge. Keep a close eye on the type of finish listed by the manufacturer you’re considering.
Aluminum Cargo Carriers
Cargo carriers made from aluminum are characteristically lighter and more naturally corrosion-resistant than their steel counterparts. Aluminum is a strong metal – albeit, not as strong as steel – and it weighs around 60% less. This makes things easier when lifting, carrying and installing the cargo hitch on your vehicle.
Aluminum is also naturally corrosion-resistant, making it well-suited for life on the road. The best aluminum cargo carriers are also shielded in a durable powder coat finish for maximum resilience against the elements.
The one downside of an aluminum cargo carrier is that it will typically cost more than the steel equivalent.
2. Shank Size: Will It Match Your Receiver?
Receiver hitches come in a handful of standard sizes, and the size depends largely on the type of vehicle you’re driving. In general, the larger the vehicle, the larger the receiver tube.
When shopping for a receiver hitch cargo carrier, you need to make sure the shank size matches your vehicle’s receiver size. Take a quick measurement. The receiver should be one of the following:
- 1-1/4" x 1-1/4"
- 2" x 2"
- 2-1/2" x 2-1/2"
If your vehicle doesn’t have a receiver hitch or it has a non-standard receiver tube size, it may be time for an additional investment. Custom receiver hitches are best, offering a tailor-made fit that’s engineered specifically for your vehicle’s year, make and model.
If the cargo carrier you choose doesn’t match your receiver size, there are options for that too, namely a hitch adapter, but we’ll discuss that later on.
3. Weight Capacity: Is It Enough for Your Cargo?
The benchmark weight capacity for most cargo carriers is 500 pounds. This is a fairly standard rating across multiple models, including steel and aluminum options. Because of this, keep an eye out for lower-capacity models. It might look cool, but if it falls short in capacity, it might not be worth the investment.
Before purchasing any cargo carrier, check the weight capacity, and make sure it's going to be enough to hold your cargo. Additionally, make sure your receiver hitch is rated (look for "tongue weight") to haul that much cargo.
4. Spatial Capacity: Will Your Cargo Fit?
Cargo carriers are all about adding useful packing space to your vehicle, so think carefully through the spatial capacity your carrier of choice will offer. We recommend considering two important points: overall square footage and wall height.
Overall Square Footage
Most trailer hitch cargo carriers are generally the same in terms of the area, that is, the square footage they offer. They usually land somewhere around 5' wide by 2' deep.
That said, a few inches’ difference can make all the difference in the world. Some models are slightly over that 5' mark, and some fall a little shorter, even as much as a whole foot shorter. Likewise with depth. Some cargo carriers are a full 2' or 24" deep, while others are only about 20" or 21".
Why does this matter? It depends on the cargo you're packing. A couple inches might not seem like much, but if your intention with your new cargo carrier is to transport a specific cooler or a push lawn mower or an archery target, it's wise to take a few measurements first. Will the items fit within the provided space or hang over the edge? Would a few extra inches allow you to better optimize how items are arranged within your carrier?
Another key spatial consideration is the height of your cargo carrier’s walls or rails. All carriers come with some form of wall, even tray-style carriers, so how will those walls function with your cargo? Will they help or be a nuisance?
If you're planning to haul something large that will inevitably hang over the edges, such as a wild game carcass or perhaps a snow thrower, a carrier with low walls will likely work better. Tray-style models come with walls about 2" to 4" high. This provides some containment and tie-down points for your items without being obtrusive.
Hitch baskets, on the other hand, have walls or rails anywhere from 6" to 14" high. If you have smaller items that will fit well within these confines, a basket may be preferred.
5. Clearance: Will It Fit with Your Vehicle's Other Features?
Clearance is important when installing any hitch accessory, but there are a few key aspects to consider for cargo carriers in particular.
First, will the carrier obstruct anything on your vehicle? When installed in your rear receiver hitch, the walls of the carrier shouldn’t bump into a rear door-mounted spare tire or your vehicle's bumper. The shank should be long enough to clear any obstructions, and if not, an extender should be added.
Secondly, will the cargo carrier have enough ground clearance? If you have a low-riding vehicle, this is especially critical. Consider what will happen when you drive up a slight incline or over a speed bump. Will you hear the awful scraping sound of metal on concrete? If you need to add ground clearance, look for a cargo carrier with an angled shank.
Finally, consider your rear door or trunk hatch clearance. If you need quick, frequent access to the trunk area of your vehicle, and your cargo carrier is in the way, the result won’t be pretty. Avoid door dings and excessive unpacking / repacking by investing in a hitch-mount cargo carrier (or the necessary accessories) that will allow easy rear vehicle access.
6. Unique Features: Add Some Bells & Whistles
Finally, in the way of design considerations, the following are some unique features that you may wish to look for in your search for the perfect cargo carrier. Some of these may not be necessary for your setup, but others may be dealbreakers, depending on your plans.
There are two basic options for a hitch cargo carrier shank: fixed or folding. A fixed shank is a solid metal tube or bar. It inserts into your vehicle’s receiver and remains rigid.
A folding shank, on the other hand, hinges in the middle, allowing the entire cargo carrier to be folded up vertically. This keeps the unit out of the way when not in use for easier vehicle maneuvering, without having to remove the carrier entirely.
We’ve touched on this feature briefly, but the idea of an angled shank is that it elevates the cargo basket or tray, raising it above the hitch height and adding more ground clearance. For vehicles that ride lower to the ground or that have a particularly low hitch height, this is extremely beneficial to avoid bottoming out.
Also, for off-road vehicles, raising the cargo carrier height helps avoiding scrapes with boulders, brush and uneven ground.
The floor of a trailer hitch cargo carrier is typically constructed with either slats or mesh. Slats are functional for many types of cargo, but the wider they’re spaced apart and thinner the slats, the more prone your cargo is to slipping through the cracks. The best slatted carriers have wide slats (with ribs for extra traction) and narrow gaps between each one.
Perhaps a better option is a mesh base. Mesh provides more stability without adding a lot of extra weight. Plus, it’s still easy to clean compared to a solid floor because dirt and debris are still able to pass through.
A premium option is the cargo carrier with an integrated ramp. This is especially useful if you plan to haul rolling equipment, such as a power scooter, lawn mower or snowblower. The ramp folds out from the side and allows the machine to easily be rolled up the ramp, rather than lifting it into place.
The best cargo carriers have ramps that fold in half in the middle. You can imagine the amount of wind drag a large metal panel creates at highway speeds. When the ramp is able to be folded in the middle, it can be collapsed down into a more compact size for travel.
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Optimize with Cargo Carrier Accessories
The right accessory can make all the difference when transporting your cargo with a hitch carrier. After you've zeroed in on your cargo carrier of choice, consider the following accessories to optimize functionality, fitment and security for your items.
1. Cargo Bag
When it’s packed outside the vehicle, cargo gets subjected to a large amount of wind, debris and possibly rain or even snow. For some types of cargo – firewood, a grill, a cooler – these elements are mostly harmless and won’t cause any real damage. For other types of cargo, extra protection is needed. If you don’t want your items damaged by wind or beaten relentlessly by the elements, a weather-resistant cargo bag is a great option. Its flexible design accommodates different amounts of cargo, and integrated straps allow for easy and secure attachment to the hitch carrier.
2. Cargo Net
If you’ve ever used bungee cords or rope to tie down cargo in a trailer, you know that they’re not the most reliable. For a more secure option, try a cargo net. A cargo net is an elastic net with hooks, designed to clip onto the cargo carrier and provide full coverage and more security to keep items from dislodging during travel. Be sure to choose a cargo net that will match the dimensions of your hitch carrier.
3. Hitch Lock
A cargo carrier is secured in the receiver tube of your hitch using an L-shaped pin called a hitch pin. While this keeps the shank from sliding out of the receiver, it doesn’t stop someone from tampering with the hitch pin itself. To add security to your cargo carrier, your hitch pin can be replaced with a hitch lock. This locking hitch pin puts your carrier under lock and key, preventing it from being removed until you decide.
4. Anti-Rattle Clamp
Even if a cargo carrier is secured with a hitch pin or lock, there is still usually a small amount of play between the shank and the receiver tube walls. This tiny gap can create vibrations, rattling and noise when driving over bumps or traveling at highway speeds. An anti-rattle clamp tightens down onto shank and receiver, fixing the two components and suppressing any vibrations the cargo carrier might create.
5. Adapters & Extenders
If your vehicle has features that hinder the installation of your cargo carrier, an adapter and / or extender may be able to help. A hitch adapter enables a cargo carrier to fit into a different-sized receiver tube. For example, if your car has a 1-1/4” x 1-1/4” receiver and your cargo carrier has a 2” x 2” shank, an adapter like the CURT #45785 can make up the difference. Likewise, if you’re not able to install a cargo carrier because of an obstruction, such as your rear bumper or spare tire, a hitch extender adds length to your hitch connection, giving the obstruction the necessary clearance.
6. Auxiliary Lights
A cargo carrier isn’t always the most visible object on the road for other drivers. If you’d like to add more safety to your setup, auxiliary lights are a great addition. They mount on the frame of your cargo carrier and easily plug into your vehicle’s standard 4-way flat trailer wiring. The best auxiliary lights are constructed with LEDs for long-lasting operation.
One accessory that may not readily come to mind relates to the storage of your cargo carrier. What do you do with it when it’s not mounted on your vehicle? You could simply set it in the corner of your garage, but perhaps you know all too well that setting things in the corner of the garage quickly leads to out-of-control clutter. Instead, mount your cargo carrier on the garage wall! The hitch accessory wall mount is a simple bracket that gets bolted into a wall stud and provides an attachment point for your cargo carrier shank, just like a receiver tube. Plus, because it has standard receiver tube dimensions, you can use the wall mount to attach other accessories, like a ball mount or hitch bike rack.
How to Install a Cargo Carrier
Before adding that hitch carrier to your shopping cart, one more thing to consider is assembly. Most cargo carriers require some level of assembly out of the box, so you should know what you’re getting into and which tools you’ll need for the job. Check out this example video of a cargo carrier installation.
How to Load a Cargo Carrier
You should also know some basic rules for using your cargo carrier properly. It starts with packing. The video below offers some helpful tips on how to load your cargo carrier for safety and success.
Disclaimer: These photographs, recommendations, and approximations are intended for demonstration purposes only and do not reflect the specifications of any particular tow vehicle, recreational vehicle, or trailer. Always consult the manufacturer’s Owner's Manual.