Every year I swear, "We're never doing this again!" And, every year, exactly 12 months later, I find myself in the same bad situation: struggling to fit all the presents, all the suitcases and all the toys into the family van to make the trip to Grandma's for Christmas. This past Christmas was especially bad because now three out of my four kids are old enough to ski, so we took all their skiing gear too. We ended up with an extremely large duffle bag, two sleds, one suitcase and a cardboard box strapped to the roof. It was a wonder we ever hit 75 mph.
Once we got on the highway, I noticed we weren't the only ones with too many people and too much stuff to fit it all in the car; lots of families seem to be in the same situation near the end of December, but some of them manage it a little better. A lot of people have roof top carriers. Those are a nice option; they look good and can carry a lot of gear. They do have a couple of drawbacks though: their weight limits tend to be rather low, and there is always the possibility that they will blow open mid ride (this has happened to my friend a couple of times!) Plus, they are awkward to load. A few people are starting to solve their cargo problems with hitch mounted cargo carriers. I like those! And they're very simple: a platform on a hitch mount!
Looking at hitch mounted carriers on the web, I found prices ranging from $185 for a good size, 500lb capacity cargo carrier to almost $1300 for a top of the line, fully enclosed, hitch mounted cargo box. Basically, you can get a nice cargo carrier for under $250, and a hitch mounted cargo box for around $500-$600.
Some features to look for include side rails to help hold onto your stuff or to use as anchor points for tie downs or cargo nets. You may want a folding shank that will allow you to fold the carrier up toward your vehicle's rear end when not in use. Other carriers fold in the middle one or two times for easy storage. A few of the carriers had a swing away option that allowed access to the rear of the vehicle. Many provided clearance for spare tires and optional racks for bikes. Most carriers came with one of two platform types: a metal mesh platform that is easy to clean, or a full floor that keeps road spray off your cargo. You might want to look for a light kit as the carrier could block your tail lights. Most cargo carrier manufacturers also put out a line of high quality, weather resistant cargo bags that fit perfectly and secure snugly to their platforms.
If you opt for the hitch mounted cargo box, be sure the material is UV resistant and that the box comes with a good lock and comfortable handles. The box should allow adequate clearance from your vehicle so that it can open completely for loading and unloading. Finally, check if you need a light kit or a license plate mounting kit, as both may be blocked by the cargo box. Note that the weight capacity in the cargo boxes is generally lower than the platform style carriers as the weight of the actual box has to be taken into account.
If you can think of any other feature you need in a cargo carrier, it's probably available on one of the models out there. Anything you need to carry from garden supplies to golf clubs to camping gear will ride smoothly on your hitch mounted carrier. And the next time we're headed "over the river and through the woods," the family will be comfortably riding in the car while our excess stuff is securely stowed behind us on our new hitch mounted carrier! I can't wait!
Remember, anytime you are buying a trailer hitch accessory you need to make sure your hitch is the right size for the accessory. Most of the hitch mounted cargo carriers fit a class III (2 inch) receiver hitch, a few, with a lower weight capacity, are made for class II (1.25 inch) hitches. You can get a conversion kit, but a class II hitch is not manufactured to support the weight that a class III hitch is, so check your owner's manual and don't overload your hitch!