Adding Storage To An RV

What we are trying to avoid

Don’t be that guy

We’re getting ready to ride off into the sunset in our new motorhome. Part of the preparations have been to add extra storage space. We don’t want to leave any toys essentials behind, and also want to keep everything nice and organized. Adding storage to an RV is as useful as adding extra cargo capacity to a car, but you have to figure out a few more things for yourself.

We installed a cargo pod on the roof and a combination cargo-carrier/ bike-rack on the back. Camping gear and kayak stuff will go on top, while the back will be home to a small fleet of bicycles along with tools and a few bulky items. The analogy is simple enough, we bought a new home and will keep our day to day stuff inside, but extra stuff either goes up in the “attic” or out back in the “garage”.

She packed my bags last night, preflight Zero hour, nine a.m. And I'm gonna be high As a kite by then Oh, no no no I'm a rocketbox Rocketbox Burnin' out this fuse Up here alone

She packed my bags last night, and I’m gonna be high as a kite
Oh, no no no
I’m a rocketbox
Up here alone

We have a Yakima Rocketbox that we use for camping and extended road trips with our luxury car (Cargo pod cost: ~$150 in 2013 for a Yakima RocketBox 16 from Craigslist). Wouldn’t it be just as handy to have extra storage while full-timing in an RV? If this was a car, it would be easy to figure out how to get a roof rack and cargo box setup: Go to either the Yakima or Thule websites, use their online tools to select the make and model of your car, decide what kind of stuff you want to carry, and they tell you what system will work for you. Then you buy the parts you need from their website, one of their dealers, or watch Craigslist like a hawk until the system you need shows up in great condition at a fraction of the price.

It’s not as straightforward for a motorhome: you can’t simply enter your RV manufacturer into the online tools. You are on your own, but that makes it more fun. So how do you install a cargo pod or roof rack on your RV?

The “brute force” method would be to drill some holes in the roof and screw the cargo pod in directly. While you wouldn’t do it with a car, drilling and cutting holes into the roof of a motorhome is pretty common, to install a new vent or solar panels for example, and just requires that you seal the holes to prevent leaks. I didn’t like this approach, it seemed inelegant, lacked flexibility, and I didn’t want to deal with drilling holes in the roof then worrying about whether everything was still waterproof.

A more flexible and elegant solution is to install a roof rack with cross bars that can support multiple accessories, whether it be a cargo box, bike rack, kayak carrier, etc. or some combination of them all. If the previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you: a quick guide to roof rack components. This is where unlike with a car, we found our selves on our own: figuring out how to get a roof rack system onto a motorhome, in the cheapest, laziest, most efficient fashion.

Our Vie has details of their nice custom solution using metal pipes from the hardware store as crossbars, and plumbing fixtures screwed into the roof as the “towers” that hold it down. This is a nice approach, and I’m glad they shared the details. It requires a bit of work, drilling into the roof, sealing, and figuring out where inside the RV you don’t mind the holes ending up (hopefully hidden inside cupboards). We were considering something like this if the final option didn’t work out. Though to be honest, I probably would have ended up doing nothing instead; this approach still seems like it involves some time, work, and basic competence with tools.

The approach we went with was to make use of the existing “luggage rack” that was factory installed on our motor home by attaching a crossbar and turning it into a general purpose roof rack system.

Left: Base Middle: Cross bar Right: Done

Left: The roof at the back of the RV, with the factory installed luggage rack
Middle: Verifying that the crossbar I bought was the right length, success!
Right: Crossbar and cargo pod installed, look at all that sweet storage space

The canvas that we had to start with is the standard rack / ladder combination that seem relatively common on motorhomes. One caveat: these type of RV luggage racks, while common, might not be the sturdiest things in the world. If I had to pick a weak point of the system we installed, the existing luggage rack would be it. Our motorhome owner’s manual indicates the factory installed rack is rated for for a fair amount of weight, but I am still skeptical, especially given it’s age. I did a quick examination, tightened loose screws that worried me, and everything seemed solid enough after that for me to consider proceeding with the installation. If you are considering a similar setup , it might be worth checking out yourself to make sure you are satisfied about safety. Then again, smart people concerned about safety probably don’t quit their jobs in their prime earning years without a definite plan for the future…

Assuming the existing luggage rack looks sturdy enough, that reduces the problem to one with a known solution: adding crossbars to a factory installed rack that only has sidebars, with a few RV specific problems:
i) The roof of an RV can be pretty cluttered with objects jutting out all over the place
ii) Motorhomes are really wide and you might have to find really long crossbars
Assuming you solve the above, it’s then a matter of also figuring out how to attach the crossbars to the luggage rack.

The first step to verifying this plan would work was to climb up on the roof and examine the area around the luggage rack to make sure the cargo box and crossbars would fit. It was a tight squeeze in this area, with all kinds of things that could get in the way: air conditioner, vents from the bathroom, kitchen, etc. At this point the wide open space in the front of the RV was looking pretty inviting as a space to install a custom rack, but we figured we’d give this a shot first. To make absolutely sure we could find space, we made a cardboard cutout the same size as the cargo box, took it up on the roof, and started moving it around. We found a a layout that let the cargo box fit, and would place the cross bars in a position that doesn’t obstruct anything else on the roof. While we had the cardboard cargo box dummy up on the roof, we were able to confirm that we could place it in such a way that the back of the luggage rack would serve as one of the two crossbars we needed, reducing the stuff we had to buy in half.

Presumably by this point, you found the spot you want your crossbar(s) to go, and you know how long you need the crossbars to be in order to fit across the luggage rack. It might turns out that you need a very long crossbar, over 90″ in our case. The longest Yakima crossbars you can buy are”only” 86″ long. Thule Loadbars top out at 78″ in length. Where to go from here?

One option is to make your own round crossbars by finding a piece of pipe close in diameter to Yakima bars, and having it cut to the length you want. Another option: It looks like Thule used to make 96″ square load bars at one point in time, but they are discontinued. At the time I wrote this, you can still get the 96″ Thule load bars from third party dealers such as Rack Attack and etrailer. Being lazy, and not that curious about how well pipe holds us as crossbars over time, we decided to buy the 96 inch Thule Square bars. We were lucky enough to find that etrailer sells used loadbars at a reduced price, and we were perfectly happy with that choice. Because we were leveraging the back of the luggage rack as one of our crossbars, we only needed to buy one 96 inch cross bar. (Crossbar cost: ~$36 for single used 96″ Thule Square Load Bar from etrailer)

As for attaching the crossbars to the luggage rack, that’s fairly straightforward. If you’ve made your own round crossbars, or found Yakima crossbars long enough for your needs, you need to get Yakima Railgrab Towers. If you have Thule square load bars, like we did, you need a Thule Rapid CrossRoad Foot Pack. eBay turns out to be a great place to find either Yakima Towers or Thule Foot Packs , if you can’t find what you need on your local craigslist; buying used is good for everyone. Since we only needed to install one crossbar, we got away with only having to buy a half pack.  (Foot pack cost: ~$60  for two Thule CrossRoad feet/towers from eBay).

Close up of Thule CrossRoad foot installed on luggage rack

Close up of Thule CrossRoad foot installed on luggage rack

Caveat: the Thule Crossroad towers only work on “raised” siderails, while the Yakima railgrab towers work on either raised or flush siderails. If that doesn’t make sense: Roof Rack Guide.

Once you have the components, it’s a simple matter to put everything together: the towers clamp onto the siderails, you insert the crossbar into the towers, place the cargo pod on top of the crossbars and tighten it down with the locking mechanism. Take a look at the finished product and I think you’ll agree with me that it’s pretty sexy, or decide that I have a weird definition of the word sexy.

Finished product.

Finished product.

A problem that might have been obvious to you already, but that I didn’t realize until I put everything together: The back of the cargo pod is mounted directly to the luggage rack but the front is mounted to a crossbar that sits atop the luggage rack, so the cargo pod ends up tilting down towards the back. This could probably be fixed with appropriate use of spacers of some kind, or getting a second set of towers and another load bar, but it wasn’t a big enough deal for me to worry about. We’ll let you know if it causes any problems in the future.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, and we managed to add 16 cubic feet of space to our RV for for less than $250 (Foot pack: $60, Crossbar: $36, Cargobox: $150).

It turns out adding a cargo box to an RV isn’t hard, or too expensive, but takes a bit of planning to get right. The whole problem might be avoided if we could be content with less stuff. There’s probably a metaphor for life in there or something, but for now, it’s kind of fun having a storage pod on the top of our motorhome, and it’s big enough to lie down in, if you wanted.

Finished product: The extra storage is so discreet, it blends into nature

Finished product: The extra storage is so discreet, it blends into nature

Stay tuned for next time, when we discuss a sexy bike rack + cargo carrying solution in the back of the RV, and I continue to abuse the word sexy.

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2 Responses

  1. zeejaythorne says:

    That was some great, lazy-man engineering. I wonder how long you’ll like it – it seems that many folks who go full-time in the RV become minimalist very quickly.

    • The MC says:

      You have a good point. Part way through doing all of it, I couldn’t help think, we need less stuff. We are also doing the first part of the trip as a “move” to storage. After that, hopefully we will have extra unused space.

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