Pop-tops: are they worth it?

sixstringsteve

Explorer
I want a pop top on my van, but I'm trying to make a rational decision (as opposed to the emotional me who wants to pull the trigger right now). Everyone will have different opinions, obviously, but I'd love to hear from those of you with a pop top.

What's your favorite thing about having a pop top?

What's your least favorite part of having a pop top?
 
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sixstringsteve

Explorer
Yesterday I was 100% convinced I was ready to plop down the $7-10k for a pop top. But today a friend was asking my opinion on RTTs, and I told him I sold mine for the following reasons:

- they're very expensive for what they are. Let me rephrase that: they're extremely expensive for what they are. Most of them are pretty crappy tents. Think $100 big 5 tent quality. A springbar is 10x better quality than any RTT under $2k.
- interior design/pockets/layout/features were stupid. In my mind, they're designed for looks first, then functionality. Every single tent at REI has better pockets, zippers, layout, and features for 1/5 the price.
- you can only camp where your vehicle is parked. If there's a gorgeous vista or meadow 100' away, you're stuck camping on the dirt road on top of your vehicle.
- to get a level camping experience, you have to level your vehicle before setting up your tent
- it's always with you. You're carrying a 150-200lb brick on the top of your car
- lots of weight up high
- it's up off the ground. Have to pee in the middle of the night? you're now going to have to climb down a freezing cold ladder. Not a huge issue, but it turned out to be more of a pain than we imagined.
- the mattress was EXTREMELY uncomfortable. Seriously, I'd rather sleep on the dirt with no mattress. It was that bad.
- Extremely cold in snow/winter. We took it out a few times, but it had major condensation and with all the air swirling around underneath you, it never really got warm
- you're not going to want to base-camp out of it, unless it's mounted on a trailer (since you have to pack it up every day).
- In my experience, it wasn't faster to set up than a ground tent
- if it rains on you with the tent deployed, you have to fold it all up away wet before you can drive. With a traditional tent, you can leave the rain fly out of its stuff sack to dry while you're driving
- when you get home, you can't easily dry your tent out without rendering your vehicle useless. Mind wouldn't fit in my garage deployed, so I'd have to wait for a non-rainy day, set it up outside, then not use my truck during the drying time. This was a HUGE reason I got rid of it.
- it's really best used for multi-day trips where you're traveling by vehicle and staying at a different spot every night.


So now I'm sitting here thinking to myself... "all of these downsides are true of a pop top too. Am I going to regret spending that kind of coin on my rig, or will it be the best mod I ever did?"

A bit more about my rig and how I plan on using it:

1997 Ford E350 7.3L Diesel
Ujor 6" lift
4x4 conversion
35s
4.10s

We sold our house last year, and we bought an airstream to live in full-time. The van will haul the Airstream around from city to city, but it'll also be our weekend getaway vehicle. I have zero issues camping in a regular tent on the ground; in fact I enjoy it. But I imagine myself sleeping in the pop top for quick nights while traveling (rest stops, RV parks, mountain bike trips in the middle of nowhere, etc. I'd love to hear how much people use (or don't use) their pop tops. Is it a must-have?
 

danfromsyr

Adventurer
I love the interior 'hang out' room with a poptop
admittedly I only have VW westfalia campers, but I would think you could DIY a VW Westy roof onto a van for alot less than $7K+

We often travel with a pet and popping the top and opening the side screens allows full thru ventilation. and looks less like an abandoned pet in a vehicle.
but this also factors into our favor when making lunches on the road or at touristy areas. we take the van so we don't have to scramble for a picnic table like the pedestrian auto owners do.

it's even more comfortable for an afternoon nap while your significant other is still out shopping or taking a watercolor class.

is a poptop a $+7k upgrade that quite depends
is it a $2k~ upgrade hell yeah.
 

Herbie

Rendezvous Conspirator
I'll try to answer this honestly, especially since I too was one of those "emotional" pop-top purchasers.

My favorite thing about my pop-top is that it creates an (albeit small) living space for our family of 3. With the upper bunk stowed, we can stand up, move around a little, play cards out of the rain, and even prepare a light meal (although I refrain from doing any cooking other than warming liquids).

My least favorite thing is that my particular top was 20 years old when I transplanted it from another van, so it's showing its age. I'll need a new tent eventually, and the gelcoat probably could stand some attention.

To address some of your RTT points:

* Yes, expensive compared to a "tent". Pop-tops are expensive compared to even an RTT, which is saying something.
* Interior design is a whole different thing. My pop-top is part of the whole van as a system, not just the sleeping area.
* Yes, you can only camp where you park. As a tradeoff, with a pop-top, your total footprint == the vehicle footprint. Anywhere you can park, you can camp. (Important in some areas, like the desert near me where you are limited to parking/camping where you won't trample native vegetation, etc.)
* Leveling the vehicle helps for sleeping, but you can level after you pop the top. You can pop the top for quick stops, for example, without leveling.
* My pop-top didn't add a whole lot of weight vs. the roof that I cut out, but some. The roof rack and what I put into it makes a bigger impact on how the vehicle drives.
* Peeing in the middle of the night is one reason we went with a pop-top instead of an RTT. We have a porta potti in the van, it slides out of a low cabinet. No opening/closing the van, and the only climbing is for whomever is in the upper bunk - but you can do it in your PJ's without shoes. OTOH, using the loo inside the van with your family requires a strong family bond. Same basic problem with any small camper, though, unless it includes a WC with a door.
* Pop-Top is faster to deploy and stow than an RTT. 20 seconds up, maybe 2 minutes down if I'm taking the time to tuck the tent away from the latches and make sure they're tight.
* Tent dampness is probably the same issue - but I live in SoCal.

My major negative is that its no good for basecaming with trail-runs during the day - you have to close up the top and stow your gear to leave camp. But then again, that's true of every solution except either a trailer or a ground tent...
 

Mwilliamshs

Explorer
What's your favorite thing about having a pop top? What's your least favorite part of having a pop top?
I love the space and being able to sleep more people, stand up, and the extra windows and ventilation plus being able to fit under the covered parking at my apartment as opposed to hunting for one of the very few uncovered spots. It's the best of both worlds for me, having height and space when wanted but being shorter and more compact when needed. The reduced height in travel also means I can still go to Sonic drive-ins, use drive-thrus at the bank, fast food, etc and it saves me gas vs a tall top.

I dislike the fact that I need to disassemble my 27 year old penthouse to have the vinyl windows and screens replaced. My 27 year old fiberglass top and glass windows are in fine shape, so a tall top is more durable than a pop top but what are the odds you'll own your van 20+ years?
 

Bbasso

Expedition Leader
Keep in mind if you need space and stealth at the same time it's not going to be easy. One of the reasons why I wanted a hightop fixed roof, plus its always ready and less moving parts while easier to keep warm in cooler weather.
 

GNTY

Adventurer
Your def right, these will be personal opinions :) I've owned both a pop top and a fixed. I found that with the pop top i would try to get away without popping it for short term move about with in the van which still lead me feeling cramped. My pop top was a manual back breaker instead of the power top so if you were to do one id recommend the power. When sleeping in the pop top overnight, many of the nights we spent in it were quite cold, there were a few nights that were really windy so we couldn't keep the top up, to much movement and sway. (i hear the new CCV pop top has way less sway and movement when up). Plus i never had a good nights rest with my penthouse bed, super uncomfortable even with added foamies.

The fixed top sure was a little less fuel efficient due to drag but the plus's out weighed the couple mpg. Way warmer, in the spring and fall camping, and always had the enjoyment of the added space and roof height. I have a SMB now that needs a new top and i will most likely not be putting a pop back on but rather got with a fixed on it.

Just my 2 cents.
 

sixstringsteve

Explorer
Really good info. Would a fantastic fan be a good addition to a pop top, or would it be redundant with the screen doors open? I have a little dog that will be left in the van for a few hours at a time and I want a way to vent the heat. (I'll obviously not leave home in hot locations).
 

Bbasso

Expedition Leader
Nothing ever wrong with a strong fan like the fantastic fan... even with a airy poptop. Sometimes there might not be a breeze /wind.
 

naterry

13 Cheeseburgers
The sore back factor gets old too. It's so nice not to hunch over in the van, pop-top or high-top.
 

IdaSHO

IDACAMPER
For those concerned about MPG with a fixed high top...

If you have a healthy 7.3 PSD, and keep the speed reasonable (60-65) I doubt you will see much of a decrease in MPG.


Case in point...

I see a reduction of just 3MPG with my 7.3 pickup, from empty to loaded with my custom camper.


There are some good points in this thread with regards to the drawbacks of the pop tops.


Ill always lean to weather and temperature related issues as drawbacks.

A pop top will always be more prone to moisture intrusion, and will always be more difficult to heat/cool.
 

Gravity

Observer
Love the pop-top on the van. This is my second SMB and both have had the manual version. No issues whatsoever raising it as long as it is properly adjusted - routinely have a couple SUP boards up top and even my 5'5" wife can set it up.

Only downfall is in extreme cold like others have mentioned. Can get chillier up top - we spent a night in Silverton this Nov en route to Baja and it was @ 5-10* F, the furnace ran the entire night and my wife/daughter who slept up top needed an extra blanket or 2 on top of their bags (granted we had packed our 30* bags for baja and not our winter down bags on this trip.

Out west having a lower profile roof is nice when the winds are blowing on the wide open drives too. If I had to choose between a fixed high top and a poptop it would be dependent on how much winter use I'd see myself doing and how many occupants...
 
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