Technical Articles

To pitch or not to pitch

It sounds like a betting game. Heads or tails? Roof or dome? It undoubtedly is quite a gamble. Investing in the wrong camping equipment can be costly, and also spoil an otherwise good experience. So study the pros and cons of the equipment available before you buy.
"Doming" might not look as cool and Tiardcore as "roofing"; but surely has a lot of benefits.

“Doming” might not look as cool and hardcore as “roofing”; but surely has a lot of benefits.

Newcomers to the overlanding game have sleepless nights about choosing their portable accommodation. But sometimes, even converted “domers” succumb to the allure of waking up on a “high” every morning. Many do away with their domes completely, believing they have moved up a step and somehow outgrown the experience of sleeping on the ground.

But what is really the best?

“It depends,” says Helen Stewart of Fourways, Johannesburg – a seasoned camper who regularly goes on overlanding excursions with partner Carlo Godridge.

“We travel often and I won’t even try a rooftop tent. From a space perspective it would never suit us. You cannot get dressed up there, or put any of your bags in the tent. And when you’re in a group, you have no choice but to stumble down the ladder in your pyjamas in the morning – not to mention clambering up and down every time you need to go to the loo.

“When you shower, you can’t rush in and out of your tent to get dressed, unless you have a second tent on the ground to serve as a dressing room.

“For men it might be easier, but from a woman’s point of view, I wouldn’t consider a rooftop. Our three-metre dome tent is perfect.”

Andre Sprunken, a single 44-year-old who regularly joins Leisure Wheels safaris on solo missions, swears by his rooftop.

“We are never in one place for long, so for me a roof tent is ideal. I started with a Hanniball, but am using an Onca now.

“When I do invite a lady friend, it gets a bit cramped and they don’t like it much. A dome tent offers more privacy.”

Michelle and Mike Britz have been camping fans for 25 years. They started off with a caravan doing “normal” camping vacations. Then they were hit by 4×4 fever and invested in an Easy Awn rooftop, which they’ve used for 10 years.

“We travel with an Echo 3 trailer, a rooftop and two extra ground tents that we use as a dressingroom and for storage,” says Michelle. “Getting up and down has never been a problem for me.”

Rooftop tents are ideal for exploring holidays where you don't stay in one place for longer than a day.

Rooftop tents are ideal for exploring holidays where you don’t stay in one place for longer than a day.

Hannes du Buisson says dome tents are for stationary holidays and rooftops for exploring holidays.

“Horses for courses,” says Hannes. “A rooftop is easy to erect and doesn’t take up space in the cabin. If you drive around during the day, it is perfect because the mattress, bedding and pillows are more or less ready when you want to go to bed.”

But he says there is an argument for transporting it on a trailer, since it can be a bit cumbersome on the roof if you drive around a lot.

According to Hannes, a rooftop is not necessarily safer than a dome. “I have seen photos of vehicles that have been damaged by elephants, rooftop and all. I haven’t seen a dome tent flattened yet!

“At Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, I slept in a small dome tent with elephants less than 15m away, without any problems.”

Henry van der Hoven believes that rooftops definitely have their place. “Before the age of rooftops, when I was a lot younger, we slept on the roof of our vehicle without any canvas or cover. Yes, at times it was wet and windy and at other times damn cold, but it was a nice experience having the milky way as our ceiling.

“I also think that rooftops are much safer, unless you have to go to the toilet in a hurry.

“We camp in a dome tent, though – the same one my wife and I bought when we went on honeymoon in the Richtersveld.

They seem to last forever. Admittedly, a dome tent is not so easy to erect and boy, are they heavy!”

Andre de Villiers from Safari Centre likes a rooftop. “Something to look out for though is a “tropical roof” – two layers, with a gap between them. This allows air to flow through, making the tent much cooler in the sun.” With practice, Andre says, most rooftents should be able to be put up or down within 10 minutes.

As easy as one-two-three. This Onca rooftop "capsule" pops up by itself.

As easy as one-two-three. This Onca rooftop ‘capsule’ pops up by itself when unhinged and can be closed without having to pack up any bedding.

“Some people are also under the misconception that you need a full-length roof rack for a rooftop tent, but this is not the case.

A rooftop tent can be fitted to two crossbars, although a bigger roof rack is obviously very useful for transporting things like petrol, water, spare wheels, rubbish and anything else you don’t want to put inside your vehicle.” For those who do decide on a ground tent, Andre advises to never choose nylon. “Animals can rip through it in seconds and the tin material offers less privacy especially if there is light inside.

Canvas tents are tougher and more durable and the higher price is often cancelled out by the additional years of service they give.

Explore Africa Safari’s Andre van Vuuren and his wife, Mariana, swear by their rooftop.

“But there is more to consider than the main benefits of both types,” says Andre.

“Even if you decide on a rooftop, there are many brands to choose from. The same goes for dome tents and pop-up tents.

“You should visit the various shops and examine the rooftops on display to get a feel for them.

“Taking your own height and that of the vehicle into consideration is paramount. I am very tall, so for me, opening and closing the rooftop while standing beside my Land Cruiser involves no effort at all. So we are ready to hit the road within minutes. A shorter person would have to climb on top of the vehicle or stand on a ladder to do this, which could be very frustrating.

“Another thing I like about rooftops is that when you’ve climbed up the ladder, it is easy to wipe your feet on the rungs and shake off most of the dust. In a dome, all the dirt goes inside with you. And it’s really a pleasure not having a stretcher or inflatable mattress to worry about.”

During one of Masazane Adventure’s field guide training courses, the guides were asked their views on rooftop and dome tents.

“The outcome was not what I expected,” says Lani Senekal, tour guide for Masazane. “It was a real eye opener to find that not everyone felt a rooftop was as nice and clever as it was made out to be.

“What we found, though, was that some people just cope better with a rooftop than others. It is much like the politician said during an interview: ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts – I’ve already made up my mind’!”

Roof vs Dome

For those who like being “confused by the facts”, this is what Lani’s research found.

Rooftop tent

Pros:

  • High off the ground and therefore away from creepy crawlies.
  • More space in the car.
  • Once the tent’s open, the bed’s ready to sleep in.
  • No ropes and pegs needed.
  • Ego booster – looks cool.
  • Height gives one an overview of the camp, especially at night.
  • Apparently warmer in cold weather (no real proof!).

Cons:

  • Expensive. Must pay for tent, roof rack and fitment.
  • Vehicle uses more fuel due to wind resistance.
  • Once it’s pitched you cannot drive around.
  • Makes a vehicle top-heavy.
  • Takes space that could be used for other essential equipment, such as fuel, water.
  • Height restriction – can’t fit into normal garage; prone to damage by branches.
  • Once outer cover is damaged the tent can get wet while driving in the rain.
  • Danger of falling while climbing into or out of tent.
  • Danger of falling when taking down or pitching tent. Remember that everything is wet from dew in the morning, which makes everything slippery.
  • Packing tent is cumbersome; more often than not one must climb on vehicle.
  • If one arm or leg is injured it is very difficult or impossible to climb into the tent. Going to the loo can be inconvenient and dangerous. Ladder rungs get wet and slippery.
  • You can’t stand up to dress; small living space.
  • Difficult to cook in tent in bad weather. You really need another tent on the ground to use as a dressingroom. This adds to the load and takes even more time to pitch.
  • Car can squeak, rattle and sway when you move around in the rooftop (not good for amorous campers!) In strong wind, the rain cover can be dislodged and flap around.
Canvas Dome tent

Pros:

  • You don’t have to take it down when you go on a game drive.
  • Space for other luggage on car roof.
  • Far less chance of injuries from falling.
  • Can use tent as bathroom; easy to dress; can use tent as kitchen in bad weather.
  • Easy to get in and out at night or when injured or sick.
  • Easy to store at home, and vehicle height not an issue.
  • Far cheaper than rooftop tent. No heavy-duty roof rack or fitment needed.
  • Not vehicle specific; even a normal car can be used to go camping.
  • Easy to pitch tent safely on the ground.

Cons:

  • Floor prone to leaking due to small holes in the floor sheet.
  • Difficult to pitch in strong wind.
  • Can blow away if not properly pegged down.
  • Together with mattress and sleeping bags and stretcher, takes up more packing space in the vehicle.
  • Needs ground sheet, pegs and rope.
  • Needs level ground, and cannot be pitched on rocky terrain.

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