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Rooftop Tent Buyers' Guide

By Tristan Tancredi, 12 May 2018 Gear

Rooftop Tent Buyers' Guide

The days of sleeping on the floor are over.

So it's the weekend and you want to get dirt beneath your boots and grime under your fingernails, but setting up a tent after a long commute is the last thing most of us want to do, especially when the last rays of sunshine are slowly receding.

Enter the rooftop tent, where a good night’s rest is only a couple of minutes away. Instead of smacking pegs into terra firma or squeezing into a swag (there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you), a rooftop tent is ready almost immediately upon arrival at camp, and it provides ample space, comfort and convenience.

“Rooftop tents are easy to use, convenient and comfortable,” TJM’s marketing specialist Laura Hayes said. “The views are better, less sand and dirt gets into your tent, and there’s extra security, which I am a big fan of with Australia’s abundant wildlife.”

Not only can you prevent unwanted attention by ground-dwelling prickly critters looking for shelter at night, you are also up higher to, as Ironman 4x4’s Greg Smith put it, “catch the breeze on a warm night.”

Convenience is integral to the success and popularity of the rooftop tent and is perhaps its biggest attribute. For example, Australian company Backtrax’s RTT Pro comes with a remote control, worm-drive-operated lift-and-lower mechanism, so all the punter has to do is undo the side latches and press a button.

“Forty-two seconds later you are ready for bed,” James Cockburn, founder and director of Backtrax, said. James confirmed packing-up takes a bit longer – no more than two minutes, mind you – as punters have to walk the perimeter of the vehicle to tuck in the remaining material before pushing the button.

“With the ability to pull up anywhere for a night and be cosy in bed in under two minutes; what’s not to love?” he added.

As well as the luxury of convenience, a rooftop tent also maximises space by freeing up cargo areas for other essential camping and off-roading accessories.

As a unit is installed on the roof racks of the vehicle or camper trailer, it means the rear cargo area can be used for other essential bits of kit. It also means sleeping material can be kept in the rooftop tent and be ready upon arrival at your destination, as Mark Allen of Mr Swagman fame told us: “With a Mr Swagman rooftop tent, all your bedding can stay in the tent when packed down, saving space within the vehicle.”

James Cockburn reiterated that point: “We have designed the unit with enough space for four pillows and a reasonable allowance for bedding to be left in the Backtrax whilst travelling.”

A well-designed rooftop tent – like Hannibal Safari’s range – feature windows and doors with the ability to open and provide cross-flow ventilation, which eases the sweats on those hot, wet nights in the tropics. They’re also equipped with a quality mattress and proper electrics.

“Finding the perfect campsite is not an issue,” Peter Spowart, director of Hannibal Safari said. “As long as you have somewhere level, you will open the tent and be comfortable.”

WEIGHTY ISSUE

Adding 60-odd kilos to the top of any 4x4 means there will be significant changes to ride, handling, off-roading ability and fuel efficiency – heck, your 4x4’s not cutting through the breeze like it did when it left the showroom. However, a quality-made product shouldn’t hinder a vehicle’s go-anywhere ability too much.

“Increased fuel consumption is definitely one [negative], which is why we’ve endeavoured to make ours as lightweight as possible,” TJM’s Laura Hayes said. “The evolution in design and construction of the rooftop tent in recent years means they are a lot lighter than they once were. The biggest advancement has been in the materials and construction area.”

So even though extra weight affects your bank balance when it’s time to refuel, it’s not as bad as it used to be thanks to the advancement in design, construction and the lighter materials used.

However, it’s important to remember that traditional tents and swags are also typically positioned on the roof racks, so they’ll just as easily increase the amount of fuel pumping through the drivetrain.

And, as Peter Spowart from Hannibal Safari added, “A rooftop tent has less effect on fuel consumption than a camper trailer or caravan.”

Another issue is the increased height, which may be a problem when in town (tunnels, carparks, etc.), as James Cockburn added: “Forgetting you have a rooftop tent on in underground carparks or garages … it happens frequently.”

OFF-ROADING WITH A ROOFTOP TENT

The extra height and weight a rooftop tent adds to a vehicle puts limitations on where you can head for your next adventure – if it involves serious rock-crawling through narrow passes, maybe it’s best to leave the rooftop tent at home and pack the swag.

A higher centre of gravity is something owners need to be extremely wary of when off-roading, as Laura Hayes explained, “(A roof-top tent) raises the centre of gravity, so the driver needs to be a bit more aware, especially in situations where the vehicle approaches extreme roll angles.”

Mark Allen added: “The careful packing of any vehicle with regards to centre of gravity is paramount to not create instability on off-road angles.”

The obvious remedy to any issues with off-road performance is to ensure the vehicle is set-up correctly by adding necessary aftermarket componentry.

“It needs to be understood that if the vehicle’s suspension is in good shape there shouldn’t be a problem,” Peter Spowart from Hannibal said. “The definition of good shape would be a vehicle with an uprated aftermarket springs and shocks suspension package.

“A [rooftop] tent will increase the height of the centre of gravity to the vehicle, but the uprated suspension will compensate for this.”

As mentioned – and it may seem like a no-brainer – the extra height you’re now driving around with can also cause problems when trundling through low-hanging scrub. Remote tourers will know all too well how tight some bush tracks can get, and carrying an extra 50 or so centimetres on top of your roof rack could stop you in your tracks.

“Obviously the end-user needs to be aware they have additional height added to the top of their vehicle. In the Backtrax this is 38cm at its highest point on top of the roof rack. This may limit access to spots that have fixed height access,” James Cockburn said.

As an example, Hannibal Safari tents are designed with the use of a two-piece ladder, creating a total closed height of 30cm – opposed to cheaper alternatives which have a taller height before the ladder is even taken into consideration.

In saying that, a well-designed rooftop tent shouldn’t put too many restrictions on your off-road adventures, and it should even make reaching your remote destination less stressful.

“A quality rooftop tent should be able to handle outback dust, corrugations, and anything else an avid adventurer can throw at it,” Mark Allen added.

EBAY SPECIALS

The experts were in unison when discussing what separates quality products from ‘online specials’, and they all agreed the quality of the materials and the attention to detail is what separates the pretenders from the contenders.

“The quality of the material and assembly required really differentiates a quality rooftop tent from an eBay special,” Laura Hayes said. “Cheap isn’t so cheap when you have to replace it every two years.”

Mr Swagman’s Mark Allen agreed: “Cheap materials and overseas manufacturing will return short lifespans with limited use and higher-than-expected water leaks, material tearing, fading and degradation, plus lack of comfort with a substandard foam mattress.”

As always, it’ll pay off in the long run if you do adequate research before laying down your credit card digits. Ensure you read the specs list with a fine-tooth comb – and scrutinise every aspect – so that you’re not in for a rude awakening halfway through the Simpson.

“There is no authority in this country that will assess the specification of the tent. For example, the Hannibal tent is 380GSM canvas; there are other tent brands that also say that they are 380GSM or best quality and when you see them the fabric is so much lighter,” Peter Spowart told us.

“Cheap” tents will often use a poorer, lighter fabric, which not only increases the risk of water ingress, but they’ll fail to dim the interior when the sun rises. So it’s best to ensure real canvas is used to avoid such problems.

Peter also advises to double-check the country of manufacture for specific “online” sellers, as the claims on packaging can sometimes be misleading.

Mark Allen added that it even pays to check things like tent flys, because “if they touch the tent roof, they are useless at providing shade and weather protection, and simply do not work”.

INSTALLATION

A rooftop tent is typically secured to the purpose-built roof racks of a 4x4 that has sufficient capacity to carry weighty objects up top. However, if a roof has a pair of bars, a roof rack or a frame, you should be able to mount a tent.

4x4 Gear: Roof racks

Speaking to James at Backtrax about the ease of installation, he told us: “The Backtrax RTT can be fitted to any SUV, 4x4, truck, camper or boat that has the legal capability to carry a ‘dynamic’ load of up to 75kg and a static load of up to four times that weight.

“Backtrax run two Alloy Sign Channel extrusion bars at the base of the tent in a north-south direction. We then have four U-brackets that are looped under a roof rack and tightened to the tent with M10 cup-head bolts. Ideally, we require at least two east-west bars on the vehicle, allowing simple fitting of the rooftop tent, but customers have the ability to mount them directly to canopies or flat surfaces. Once you have set the whole system up, installation should be a 10-minute exercise.”

TJM’s range of rooftop tents simply U-bolt to the roof rack of any vehicle that has a sufficient roof load rating and enough space, but Laura Hayes did offer a word of advice: “It can be awkward to lift onto the vehicle for one person, but easy to secure once it’s up there. If you’ve got a mate to help out, then you’re laughing.”

Once installed, Ironman 4x4 tents can easily be set-up and folded down by one person in a matter of minutes. Internal elastic straps aid when folding the tent during pack-up, while the retractable ladder makes the task a lot easier.

Peter from Hannibal Safari highlighted the importance of the tent’s orientation for specific vehicles. For example, a 200 Series Land Cruiser has a dust deflector over the tailgate, which makes it difficult to open over the rear so you would opt for a side opening.

“In the majority of applications I would recommend setting a tent up over the rear. In most cases this will give protection to the access of the vehicle – if wet weather is experienced, you’ll have access to the vehicle with some protection provided by the tent.”

Once installed a Hannibal tent takes between three and five minutes to set up, while folding down takes a few extra minutes – add a further five minutes for the wall system.

BREATHE IN

AS the rooftop tent has evolved and increased in popularity, the price of a unit has been driven down. However, this also means cheaper materials are being used to keep up demand.

Peter Spowart from Hannibal Safari explained that lighter fabrics may be waterproof but they offer no breathability.

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“These coated fabrics retain moisture. This means that if the tent is closed the inside of the tent can become damp and bedding as well as other belongings get wet. The moisture is generated by the people inside the tent. People forget that every breath of air has moisture and even perspiration from the skin has moisture. The lighter fabrics have no density to them and will not retain heat in the tent on colder nights.”

WHAT TO LOOK FOR? 
We pitched this question to the industry’s experts and this is what they had to say:

ARB
- Double-stitched seams
- Weather-proofing with internal tape
- UV Stable and UPF 50+ rated fabric
- Corrosion-resistant hardware
- Tubular frame, with a thick wall section to reduce flex

BACKTRAX
- The attention to detail in all the finishes distinguishes a quality-made product
- Take note of the stitching, fitting of components and general presentation

HANNIBAL SAFARI
- Quality of materials and stitching
- Density and thickness of mattress
- Options available after installation
- Quality of workmanship
- Integrity of manufacturer/distributor
- Product support and backup
- Warranty policy

IRONMAN 4X4
- Look at the materials used. Not all tent materials are the same
- Fabric quality
- Internal storage
- Internal windows
- Mattress foam density
- Stitching quality

MR SWAGMAN
- Australian canvas and manufacture
- Double-stitching and waterproofing of seams
- Flys mustn’t touch the tent roof, as it renders them useless
- Cheap does not equate to value for money

TJM
- Polycotton material
- Cover is thick and durable, like PVC
- Aluminium bases
- Light colours don’t absorb as much solar heat
- Easy-to-clean aluminium ladders w/ large steps
- A good warranty
- Spare parts availability

WHAT'S OUT THERE?

ARB

ARB manufactures two models of rooftop tents: the Simpson III with Annex (and verandah) and the Kakadu (no verandah, but larger windows for more ventilation).

The bases of the tents are made from aluminium with ABS plastic sheets on the top and bottom, with foam used as insulation. The frame is manufactured with large diameter-thick wall section aluminium tube to reduce flex and damage during harsh conditions. The canvas utilises a PU-coated polycotton. The tents can fit two adults.

RRP: Simpson III $1599; Kakadu $1561
Warranty:
Two years
Web:
arb.com.au

BACKTRAX

Backtrax Australia has designed and manufactured a hard-shell composite rooftop tent that raises the lid evenly, creating a secure and comfortable bed area. There’s currently one model (Ascent) available in two versions: Lite (59kg) and Pro (67kg).

The tent features a marine-grade hood lining and Speedline 1000D PU-coated nylon tent lining. A midge-mesh screen is over the windows, and a mosquito mesh on the side doors. Also standard is a 112mm mattress. A 12V geared motor is standard on the Pro to raise and lower the tent.

RRP: Ascent Lite $4795; Ascent Pro $5695
Warranty: Three years for all workmanship and components and 12 months on the Lithium battery.
Web: backtrax.com.au

HANNIBAL SAFARI

Hannibal Safari manufactures five rooftop tents: Hannibal Classic, Hannibal Jumbo Fly, Hannibal Jumbo kit, Hannibal Tourer and Hannibal Impi. The sizes are 1.2m (wide), 1.4m, 1.6m, 1.8m and 2m, and the line-up comprises four canvas foldout tents (all made in Aus) and one hard-shell. The units vary in weight from 50 to 95kg.

“We use heaps of good-quality Australian components to make the best rootop tent in Australia,” Peter Spowart said.

Dynaproofed canvas 380GSM Polyamide breathable cotton canvas is used for the tent body, while 280GSM canvas is used for the window hoods and wall systems. The flysheet has a vinyl waterproof roof with 210 denier Oxford Nylon sides, and the fly is suspended above the tent by an additional bow to ensure insulation gap.

 

The tents feature a unique anti-pooling pole system. The transit cover uses Australian-made 600GSM Vinyl from Wax Converter Textiles. All seams are double-stitched with (S25) UV thread and edged with binding and waterproofed.

The base board is a 12mm marine ply/external construction ply, and the transit cover is fixed to it. Other features include a 3mm 304 stainless steel hinge to retain the two baseboards, the internal tent frame is gusseted for extra strength, and a two-piece ladder comes with wide treads.

RRP: From $2500 to $4600
Warranty: Five years for material and workmanship.
Web: hannibalsafari.com.au

IRONMAN 4X4

Ironman 4x4 has one rooftop tent on the market. The Ironman 4x4 Roof Top Tent features a raised ‘Climate Cover’ Flysheet to control temperature and reduce condensation; a pop-up window awning; flyscreen windows; waterproof, breathable 280GSM ripstop polycotton canvas; lightweight aluminium and insulated floor; luxury 65mm high-density foam mattress; a retractable aluminium ladder; YKK zips; rugged 1000D waterproof PVC ‘On Car’ cover; while a high-lift extension kit is available, too. The tent is supplied with two crossmembers to distribute the weight evenly across mounting racks.

RRP: $1295
Warranty: One year
Web: ironman4x4.com

MR SWAGMAN

Mr Swagman’s 2018 range of deluxe rooftop tents come in two sizes: a two-person tent at 2.4m x 1.4m (plus optional room and optional awning), and a four-person tent at 2.4m x 2m (plus optional room and optional awning).

The tents are Australian made from Australian (WCT, Wax Converters Canvas) 380GSM Billabong-dynaproofed outback canvas. A 400GSM PVC full-cover fly extends over and past all tent side walls. The PVC fly is 100 per cent waterproof.

“Both tents have an optional privacy room that allows either extra people to sleep in or can be used as a dining, change or storage room,” Mark Allen explained. “Rooms easily attach to the tent and are made from the same quality Australian canvas as the main tent and can be custom-made to suit the height of the customer’s vehicle or trailer.

“Both tents incorporate tracking on both sides to allow for optional side canvas awnings, deleting the need for separate awnings mounted to roof racks.”

The seams are all double-stitched, waterproofed and bound on edges; tensioners within the tent allow for efficient set-up and pack-down; zips are Bondex number 10 spiral zippers; and a 12mm marine ply timber base board provides a solid attachment with heavy-duty aluminium tracking and mounting hardware (timber is preferred for its superior insulation qualities and less condensation build-up under the mattress. It’s also a much heavier-duty attachment method to roof racks).

The tents also feature: 75mm-thick high-density foam mattress with removable mattress cover; stainless steel hinge system for the tent base; braced anodised aluminium tent bows; heavy-duty 600GSM PVC travel cover with internal PVC welded twin straps, which are held in place with metal cam buckles; mozzie and midge protection via Finetex gauze; interior LEDs, a slide-out gear shelf; and wide ladder treads on a two-piece ladder.

Mr Swagman can custom-make the side rooms to suit the height of any vehicle or trailer, and the tents are designed by people who use rooftop tents regularly and in all weather conditions.

RRP: 2018 models are expected to start at $2995 (stay tuned for release date!)
Warranty: 12 months on the whole tent, with five years on the canvas.
Web:  mrswagman.com.au

TJM

AUSTRALIAN company TJM has two rooftop tents: the Yulara and Boulia. The Yulara is the bigger and features a large canopy over the tent entrance. “TJM rooftop tents have been designed and constructed for ultimate comfort and maximum longevity, while keeping it as lightweight as possible to not add unnecessary weight to the vehicle,” Hayes said.

The tents feature double stitching, are made using polycotton, and have been designed with large windows for increased ventilation. The fly and tent are 100 per cent waterproof and the zips manufactured by YKK. A 63mm high-density foam mattress is supplied with both tents and is separated from the tent wall via a PVC layer.

Aluminium is used for the poles, base and ladder, and the insect screen is made of fire-resistant nylon. A PVC cover offers protection from the elements.

“TJM roof-top tents are modular in design, which means that if a part was to get accidentally damaged, you can replace just that part rather than needing to buy a whole new unit,” Hayes added.

RRP: Yulara $1495; TJM Boulia $1400
Warranty: Two years
Web: tjm.com.au