How To Build An Easy DIY SUV Trunk Storage Rack For About $25

Doing big road trips and camping trips are fun and can involve a lot of gear.  Stuffalanches or worrying about gear falling out of the trunk each time you open the trunk, that’s not much fun.  With a vision, some homework, about $25 in materials, and some tools, you can probably build a trunk solution that makes it easier to find and access items, and load and unload.  Let’s go!

Here are some easy steps to help guide you towards a solid build.  I will provide some of the thinking that went into building my rack that has survived two years of roadtrips and safaris throughout southern Africa.  My big regret is not building this kind of rack two decades ago.

A bit of homework and planning, and this project will pay off.

1.      What Are Your Storage Rack Needs?

You first need to define what you want your rack to do for you.  Once you understand that, you will better understand what will need to go into that rack.

  • Are you thinking about a removeable rack or are you planning to leave it in your vehicle?
  • Is it for heavy or lightweight items, or a combination?
  • Is it a sleeping platform like a YouTube van camper?

For me: My needs were for a removeable trunk rack to carry our camping and road tripping gear.  I was initially unsure if one or two shelves was the best solution for our needs but then settled on two shelves.  Glad I did.

2.      What Is The Space Your Rack Will Fit?

There are hatchbacks, stationwagons, small/medium/large SUVs, and maybe even sedans that could benefit from a rack.  Depending on the size of the trunk space and the types of items to be transported, you’ll get an idea of your range of rack options.  You will be building to suit your vehicle and need to define the height, width, and weight of your rack.

For me: My rack is for Toyota Fortuner (similar in size to a Toyota 4Runner) mid-size SUV which has a removeable 3rd row of seating and the rack is only used with that 3rd row removed. 

Take note of every bump, curve, wheelwell, footwell, anchor loop, etc… in the trunk space as you will need to work with it and maybe around it.

3.      Get To Know Your Trunk!  Time To Do Measurements.

Your vehicle’s trunk is not likely a perfect square space but rather a quirky design of angles and a collection of things sticking out like wheel wells, sloping walls, footwells, angled seatback, windows, a trunk opening that curves inwards at the trunk door, … 

Grab that paper, pencil, tape measure and rules, and start measuring and writing down all the elements so you know the trunk space you are working with.  Make a drawing of the space to help you, especially when you are away from your vehicle or inside the hardware store.

  • Is the floor flat or sloping?  (A level will help)
  • Where are the wheel wells?
  • How are the slopes of the four sides of your trunk and keep in mind your measurements depending on the height from the floor?
  • How high are the seatbacks and bottoms of the windows, and is there a height beyond which you would want to keep the top shelf?

For me: Since our Fortuner is fairly tall, I hoped a 2-level rack would fit but for safety/strength, I wanted to keep the top shelf a bit below the tops of the seatbacks and lower than the trunk door window.  I also wanted to maintain a rearview mirror view unless we were packed for a major trip.  Knowing this height gave me maximum height for the whole rack and all the contents.

4.      Time To Measure The Items Your Rack Will Carry

Collect a sample of the items (bags, bins, boxes, etc…) that will go on your rack and understand their size and weight, and in particular their heights.  Write that down.  Heavier things are best on the trunk floor or the lowest shelf of your rack.  Different brands and models of plastic bins can differ by a few centimetres/inches in height.

For me: We use some plastic bins pre-packed with our camping supplies and others we pack for each trip.  Clothing usually goes in soft-sided mini duffle bags.  While the tent packs big, the rest of our camping gear is not too bulky, just lots of it.  You can see an example of our camping gear in this episode.  I measured the heights of each type of item and visualized which bins/items would need to go on the trunk floor, and which could go on the middle or top level.  The cooler, heavier equipment bins and water jugs definitely needed to be on the floor.

5.      What Is The Style Of Rack That Would Suit Your Needs?

Again there are options such as:

  • Simple shelves that span the space
  • Having a cut-out like I used for use of a cooler
  • Drawers or sliding elements
  • Different heights of levels

You need to sketch the concept of your rack and add in the height and width dimensions you measured of your trunk space and the items to be transported.  How tall do the levels have to be?

For me: My original idea was that two full-width shelves would work but later as I played around with different items in the trunk, I realised that a cut-out lower shelf would permit an accessible cooler.  This aspect has been awesome!  We can always access the cooler or remove it without having to deal with all the other gear around it.

Our rack makes possible easy access to the cooler and access to the other items on the floor and first level of the rack. The shelf heights are based on the height measurements of our items to go on the floor, first, and top level.

6.      What Materials And Tools Do You Need To Make A Rack?

Now that you have an idea of what you are trying to build and what it is to carry, you can understand what you already have and what you need to buy from the hardware store.  The more complex the design, the more materials, types of materials, and tools you will need for the project.  Make a list of materials and tools you need to buy. 

For me: My rack is a basic construction of wood and screws, and here is what I needed for the project:

Materials:

  • 1 sheet of plywood (the thinnest possible due to the weight)
  • Lengths of board for the support legs with some extra in case you need to re-do the legs with different lengths.  While the dimensions of what is available can vary from country to country, I bought 3-4 pieces of
  • A box of wood screws about 4-5cm (1.5-2inches)

Tools: This will vary depending on your build location, budget, and expertise.  I’ll put some good examples below from Amazon*. (they are affiliate links which means that if you make a purchase, I get a small commission, which is great and used towards the costs of Better Preparedness.)  Perhaps you have a friend with these tools?

  • Safety glasses (and any other safety items)
  • Measuring tape and/or ruler
  • Paper and pencil
  • Electric drill
  • Drill bit to suit the screw width and length
  • Screwdriver to suit the screws
  • Cutting tool(s): I used a jigsaw for the plywood and a saws-all for the support legs (it was crude cutting but worked.)
  • Sandpaper
  • Clamps to hold things when cutting
  • A surface on which to do your cutting.  I used a brick BBQ stand, not ideal at all!
A standard sheet of plywood is rather massive. Make sure the hardware/lumber store can cut it down to size for you or you will struggle to transport the wood home.
My calculations for cutting the sheet of plywood were for two rectangles and one long piece of scrap wood. You need to do your careful calculations so you can provide the exact dimensions to the person cutting the plywood.
The nice fella at Builder’s Warehouse here in South Africa did the exact cuts I was looking for.

7.      Visit Your Local Hardware Store For Your Materials and Any Needed Tools

The store’s website might list the sizes/thickness of the plywood and boards available but still bring a measuring tape.

With your project drawing, list of measurements, measuring tape, and list of required materials and tools in hand, it’s time to head to the hardware store.

Many hardware/lumber stores will do some basic cutting of the wood you will buy but you really need to know what dimensions they will use for the cuts.  All those measurements are important now.  

If you need multiple cuts of the plywood, it’s usually best to go at off-peak hours so the store is less busy.  If you are 98% sure about the support leg lengths, they may even be able to help you with those multi-cuts, too.  I have a feeling you will probably need to do the support leg cutting at home, though.

The dimensions and weight of the materials are important considerations.  Plywood is generally 4 feet by 8 feet (about 1,219 by 2,438 millimeters) but it comes in different thicknesses.  While a thicker thickness of plywood might seem like a better idea and is likely stronger than thinner plywood, it adds to the weight of the rack which can make it harder to remove/install and it adds to the combined weight of all your gear and passengers.

Remember that you have to transport these materials home, so keep in mind the sizes of wood you are buying so you can transport it. 

For me: Although I did not have a great woodworking set-up, I had enough of the tools, plus a box of screws and an appropriate-size drill bit.  That said, I needed a sheet of plywood and wood for the supports. 

I used my measuring tape to write down my final calculations of how to cut the plywood.  I decided on two main pieces (for the shelves) and a strip to be discarded.  That discard strip was handy as a guide for some additional cutting back at home (along with some clamps).

For additional cutting of the plywood once at home, I clamped the discarded strip of plywood as a guide, and used my jigsaw for the cut. It was crude but worked.
My saws-all saw was okay for cutting the support legs but it was hard to really secure the wood to our brick Braai stand (South African brick BBQ).

8.      Test The Shelf Pieces To See What Works

Once home, do the store-cut rectangular/square shelf pieces work as is or do you need to do some trimming?  A jigsaw was handy for these cuts.  A tablesaw would be even easier but few have access to one.  

I also used the gear different items to help space out the shelf heights so I could picture and measure how high each shelf needed to be.  This will help you decide how long the support legs need to be.

I had to trim the corners off of my two shelf pieces of plywood due to the trunk walls curving inwards at the trunk door.

Creating the huge cut-off was done with the jigsaw but was a pretty crude cut do to not having a work bench to attach it to.  No big deal though, as it does not create any issues.

9.      Pre-Drill The Holes And Sand The Wood

Use the drill and correct size of drill bit to pre-drill holes through the plywood and into the support legs.  This makes it pretty easy to screw through the plywood and into each support leg.  If you have an electric screwdriver, that can make screwing in the screws a lot faster.

You do not want to get sliver or damage the items you are transporting, so it’s a good idea to use some sandpaper to sand the rough edges of all the wood pieces.

For me: Drilling straight into the support leg was pretty easy and I managed a fairly vertical hole.

I did some tests and decided to use the shorter screws since my plywood was quite thin. Remember, the longer the screws you use, the deeper the pre-drilled hole into the support legs and then screwing the leg to the plywood.

10. Fit Together And Attach Or Try Again

Time to attach things and see if they fit together as planned and check if everything works together.

Hopefully you bought some extra lengths of wood in case you need to cut some different lengths of support legs.  Also, test the locations of the support legs to see what works best in terms of the rack’s stability and also being able to put in and remove the desired gear items and containers.

This is my rack as it looks when outside the vehicle. The lower rack has the cut-out for the cooler. All the leg placements are where they are because of the trunk footwell, the wheelwells, and 3rd-row seat mounts.

11. Installation and Removal

Give some thought as to how to remove your removeable rack. 

For my top shelf, I need to fold down the middle row of seats, bring the top shelf forward, turn it 90 degrees, and then I can easily remove it from the trunk.  Given that the bottom shelf is an “L” shape, it’s easy to remove it.

12. Should You Anchor Your Trunk Rack?

The easy answer is likely “yes”.  You probably have some tie-down loops in your trunk.  Straps or rope could be used to tie down the rack if needed.

What I found with my rack is that because I built it wedged between the angled middle-row seatbacks and the trunk, it is really held in place.  The rack has not suffered any movement issue or come apart in two years of off-road driving and adventure travels, and there are no rattling problems.

13. Test, Adapt, And Improve

Hopefully a trip around the world is not the first time you use your rack as you may find things that need altered.  Play around.

Namid Desert in Namibia: While I generally try to maintain a view through the back of our vehicle, the Toyota Fortuner 4×4 has nice big side mirrors if a mega road trip requires a ton of gear. Each had its location and we always knew where to find this or that item or bin.

14. Where Will You Store The Rack?

If you built a removeable rack, where do you plan to store it when it is outside the vehicle?  Maybe this would have been a good question to answer early in this process…  Oh well. 

These racks are often bulky and especially with fixed support legs.  Think about where and how you will store the rack.

For me: I used a hole saw drill bit to cut a circular hole in each piece of plywood and then used a hook in the rafters of our garage to hang the two shelves when the rack is not in the vehicle.  This has worked like a charm.  Another reason to keep the weight of the rack in check.

I used a hole-cutting drillbit to create the two circle holes visible on the rack photo above. The holes makes it possible to store the two rack pieces in the rafters of our garage. I just screwed a hook into the rafters and then I hook the rack pieces up there.

15. Conclusion

You can do this! Play around with some different ideas, borrow some tools if you are missing some, and get cracking. You’ll enjoy the ease of finding the items in your trunk and no longer risking a stuffalanche.

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