Rooftop Tents A room with a view Go Southern Africa

Rooftop Tents A room with a view Go Southern Africa

Rooftop Tents | A room with a view

6 Oct 2011 by Go! Southern Africa

About to buy a rooftop tent? Here’s what you need to know before you face any salespeople.

Like arguments about Toyota vs. Land Rover, or mud- versus all terrain tyres, the question about whether a rooftop tent is better than a normal canvas dome, will never be resolved.

The fact is that a great whack of the 44-community swear by it. And it might be easier to sell the idea of acquiring a roofie to your wife when you remind her that we live on a continent full of roving lion prides, than to convincing her that you really need to buy that KTM-bike “to stay sane…”

It may be a bit of a stretch to claim that rooftop tents originated in South Africa (there are evidence of these tents in Europe around the thirties), but most of the latest development in the world certainly happened right here.

We’re spoilt for choice, as the competition is stiff and the quality generally superb. Many manufacturers now export rooftop tents to the US, Europe and Down Under.

The way most of them work, is a bit like a hardcover book. Two baseboard panels are the cover, the tent dome (canvas or nylon, attached to a metal framework) and mattress are the pages, and sturdy metal hinges form the spine.

The baseboards are mostly made of wood and are attached to each other with hinges. The square, closed tent is mounted on a roof rack. The tent folds open so that the dome pops up and the baseboard panels flatten out to become the base for the mattress.

Weigh the pros and cons


Speedy Gonzales: Rooftop tents are quick and easy to set up, which makes it ideal on overland trips where you have to set up camp in a new place every day. Zip off the cover and open it up – and that’s that. You’ll be the first one in your convoy to crack open a beer.

Instant bed, bru: Some models allow you to leave the bedding in the tent when you fold it up. That way, your bed is made when you open the tent.

It’s not inside, it’s on-n-n… Like baboons that scale cliffs when it gets dark, we are also better off high off the ground at night. When lions come ambling into your unfenced campsite at Rooiputs, retreating to the safety of your rooftop tent for the night is safer than sleeping in an exposed A-frame shelter.


Monkey on your back: If you are camping in a reserve for several days, the biggest drawback is that you have to take the tent down each time you want to go for a game drive. And that you might lose your camping spot while you’re gone.

Bit of a squeeze…: Rooftop tents are cramped two adults can lie down, but not stand up to change in it. And there’s no storage space. Not even for a vanity case.

‘Baby wants mommy!’ … Doef! Sleeping in a roof tent with small kids in a tent downstairs is a sure recipe to break a leg on a ladder at 03:00 somewhere remote like Hwange. And you can’t leave very young members on their own in a second rooftop tent.

Ishhh that the sscchtairs? Older folk – and those reinforced by a few glasses of hanepoot – could find it difficult to climb up the ladder all the time.

Space invader: A fitted rooftop tent leaves less space on top of the vehicle for ammo boxes and jerry cans.

Hidden costs: You need to have a roof rack fitted to mount the tent on, which means at least R2000 of extra expenses.

We’re running on empty… A car with a rooftop tent uses more fuel and is harder to handle, as the big box increases wind resistance and elevates the centre of gravity.

Check the quality!

All the tents might look the same at first glance, but before you haul out your wallet, look closely at the quality of the little things.

Hinges: Look for ones that are thick, robust, and made of stainless steel so they won’t rust. You may have to sleep in the car if a hinge fails.

Mattress: It might not be as comfortable as your Sealy Posturpedic at home, but at least choose a tent with a high-density foam mattress the thicker the better. The thickness of mattresses we looked at ranged from 5 to 7.5 cm. A removable mattress cover is convenient, as you can pop it in the wash after the holiday.

Zips: Look for a tent with YKK zips, which are durable. If the zip on the door fails, your tent is useless.

Tent fabric: Most rooftop tents are made of pure cotton canvas or a blend of cotton and nylon. It’s hard to gauge the quality, but the price could be an indication: the more expensive the tent, the better the canvas.

Flysheet: The tent’s waterproof cover provides extra protection from the elements and traps an insulating layer of air between itself and the inner cover, keeping you cooler on hot nights and warmer when it’s chilly. A good-quality flysheet is tight and doesn’t touch the inner sheet.

Base: Wood, the most common base material, offers a good compromise between strength and price. Plastic and metal models are more expensive.

Windows: Good-quality mosquito netting and zippered shutters to keep out the light (or prying eyes) are essential.

Ladder: Most models have a two-piece ladder, with one section attached to the baseboard and a loose piece slotting into it. Depending on the height of your vehicle, the ladder might have to be modified, or you might have to buy an extra bit of ladder. Make sure the retailer can help you to set the length.

Important considerations before you buy

What size should I get? As most rooftop tents sleep two adults and are around 2.4 m long, the only choice you have is in the width. The most common widths are 1.3 m and 1.4 m. You do get smaller ones for those who live on light beer and celery, or larger ones (1.6 m or larger) if you are built like a prop forward.

What about the kids? If you need room for children too, you have three options: buy a large model that sleeps up to two small children with Mom and Dad; fit two rooftop tents if your vehicle is big enough; get an “add-a-room”, an extension underneath the rooftop tent. The extra room could serve as a living area, secure storeroom or kitchen. It also makes a great changing room because you can stand up in it.

How to mount it? Rooftop tents are attached to load bars or roof racks. If you don’t want to fork out R7 000 for a full-sized basket roof rack, buy proper 44 load bars (such as African Outback or Front Runner). Installation included, load bars cost R2 000 R4 000.

What direction must the tent fold out? It depends on your vehicle and on the kind of tent. Cars with rear doors that open upwards, such as the Toyota Fortuner, can’t have a tent opening over the back too). Wider model tents have to be mounted with the fold between the wood panels running lengthways along the roof, hence they will have to fold out sideways.

What about back up and spares? Purchase a tent that is fixable (ask the salesperson what spares they carry and what the deal is if the tent needs to be repaired) from a well-established brand with a reputation for good back-up service. Rooftop tents are prone to damage from low-hanging branches and Sandton parking garages. You may need to replace the hinges or ladder at some stage.

Try one of these


The Hilux of roofies

Howling Moon makes tents and awnings from high-quality fabrics and with good workmanship – it shows when you inspect their products.

The Deluxe comes in five sizes: from 1.2 m to 2.4 m, big enough for four adults. Their mattresses are also a plush 7.5 cm thick, which means even Beast Mtawarira won’t suffer from backache.

If you want to look for satellites while in bed, ask for their Stargazer option, which has large, mesh-covered panels in the roof.

Price? From R7 600 – R14 300

Drive Out says: It’s not only us saying so. Check out all the recommendations by happy Howling Moon customers on internet forums and around campfires.


Lightweight champion

Made of nylon instead of canvas, the tent weighs just 38 kg, which is significantly less weight on the roof than other rooftop tents. It also means putting the tent on the roof and taking it off is much easier.

Nice and thin at 28 cm high with the ladder packed, it offers less wind resistance and therefore lower fuel consumption. Unlike a wet canvass tent, nylon doesn’t rot or get mouldy.

It’s only available in 1.3 m size.

Price? R8 450

Drive Out says: Nylon tents are fine for regular family holidays or long weekends, but more durable canvas tents are better suited to rough expeditions.


Ready, steady…

Aided by two gas shocks, the Impi opens up like a clamshell, so you can pitch it in 30 seconds. It will take you another two minutes to set up the awning over the window.

As the “shell” is made of fibreglass, it’s waterproof and aerodynamic for reduced wind resistance. It’s also lockable.

Rooftop Tents A room with a view Go Southern Africa

The 7 cm thick high-density foam mattress has a removable cover for laundering, and there’s an 8 watt fluorescent light for reading your Wilbur Smith in bed.

Price? R10 995

Drive Out says: This is the cushy option. It’s a good choice for pensioners or anyone who likes to really take it easy.


Compact fuel-saver

This compact, strong, low-profile tent with its aluminium base is the most popular in the Technitop range. The closed case is just 20 cm high, which means you burn less fuel on the drive to Gonarezhou.

As it has an external frame, you have more space inside and it is easier to fold the tent away.

It is available in 1.3 m size only.

Price? R11 735

Drive Out says: If you’re concerned about sleeping on cold metal, insulate it with those foam sleeping pads that hikers use. It doesn’t take up much space in the boot and it is thin enough to slip under the mattress.


Tough, versatile bugger

The fact that Eezi-Awn products are used by most 44 rental companies should tell you that they are as tough as nails.

We like the T-Top because it’s a dedicated rooftop tent/ add-a-room combo with the ladder on the inside, i.e. it’s not just a skirt that attaches to the base of the tent. The rooftop tent can be used on its own when you don’t need the extra space.

The one-piece sliding ladder means there are no loose pieces that can get lost. You can zip the wall panels of the add-a-room on or off as you wish.

It’s available in four sizes – 1.4 m, 1.6 m, 1.8 m and 2.2 m.

Price? From R14 130 – R 21 315

Drive Out says: Eezi-Awn offer different lengths of wall panels to suit different vehicles, so be sure to tell the supplier what 44 you drive.


The little Italian tent with the big punch

With a fibreglass top that lifts and pulls the tent open as you crank it up, this tent is in a class off its own. No matter the weather, opening and closing this tent is a breeze, and you can even leave all your bedding inside.

Bobo Campers, who sells the tents locally, install it on their Discoverer DJ, a Jimny with all the bells and whistles – including a rooftop tent that sleeps two.

The tent is made of a durable material that is claimed to withstand a wide range of temperatures. The downside off the fibreglass shell and all the mechanics is that at 54 kg it is quite heavy.

Cranking up the tent couldn’t be easier, provided you do not lose the handle. Bobo Campers say they chose this tent for their Jimnys to “allow a woman to raise and lower it on her own”.

The tent is available in five sizes, ranging from 1.3 to 1.6 m wide.

Price? R18 633 for the smallest in the range. Expect to pay anywhere in excess of R30 000 for the larger models with a carbon-fibre shell.

Drive Out says: It is a lot of money to spend on a rooftop tent, but considering the simplicity and look of it, it can be described as money elegantly spent.


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