Pop top vs full height caravans
If you are in the market for a caravan, and aren’t sure whether you should be looking at a pop top version, or something that is full height this post will help you make an accurate decision. Like most choices in life, there’s pro’s and con’s for going with a pop top van, and the best van for you is the one that is most suitable to your circumstances.
So, what’s the benefits of a pop top caravan?
Low height means less fuel consumption
Towing something around Australia has always been expensive in terms of fuel, and its just gotten a whole lot worse. Any savings that you can make in terms of reducing fuel consumption are always very welcome, and a pop top van makes use of simple physics by reducing the drag. Towing a full height van will always use more fuel than a pop top, because you have a substantially greater amount of wind drag.
One of the reasons we love our Reconn R2 is that it’s the same height as our Dmax, and that means we save a huge chunk of fuel over towing a big, off road van.
They fit much better down tight tracks, or where branches overhang
When you tow a full size van, you have to be awfully careful where you take it in terms of overhanging branches, and anything else that might damage the van. The height of your van plays a huge role in where you can take it, especially when its coupled to something that is full width as well.
On a big full height van, you only have to get one wheel dropping into a 30cm hole and the van will lean over nearly a metre at the top and if there’s anything nearby you are going to do damage.
Pop top vans are much shorter, and are much less susceptible to getting damaged off road. Just recently we arrived at camp with my folks, who have a full height off road van and they found their TV antenna was bent like a banana. Despite Dad always paying careful attention to what could damage the top of the van, he’d caught a branch somewhere along the way and done some damage.
The air flow is exceptional
Most pop tops have a huge number of windows in the actual sock, which means on a hot day you get as much air flow through the van as you are ever going to get. On a warm summers night there’s nothing better than having the air flow right through your van.
They are much easier to store
If you’ve never stood next to a full height off road Caravan and looked at how tall they are, you should. Some are literally 3.5 metres tall, which rules out any normal storage option for most people. Even with raised garages and sheds, they usually will not fit without extensive modifications, and that can be a huge problem for a lot of people.
Pop top vans on the other hand, are often substantially smaller, and will fit in much shorter spaces. We can comfortably get our Reconn R2 into a normal garage, and you’d never fit a full size van in there.
In general, you’ll find that pop top caravans are lighter than full height ones, and that’s even after you consider the gear needed to raise and lower the pop top. Towing weights are always a bone of contention, and it can be really hard to stay legal today, with all the gear everyone takes.
Where does a full size van win?
There’s less setup and pack down time and effort
A full size van is ready to sleep in the moment you pull up to camp. Yes, you could detach, and put legs down, but you have to do that with a pop top van too. The only real difference with a pop top van is that you have to pop the roof up when you arrive, and then back down again when you are leaving.
In the scheme of things this is usually pretty easy and fast, but its something you don’t have to do with a full size van.
Now, I want to make a point of mentioning that the actual roof popping can be very easy and quick, or very difficult and time consuming. Some pop tops have airbag assist, which lifts the roof up, or you can get electric actuators. Alternatively, you have to use your back, and muscles to get the roof up, which isn’t always easy, depending on the setup and weights.
The insulation is substantially better
When it comes to maintaining a pleasant temperature inside your van, a full size setup will generally win. On a cool night, a full size caravan can be warmed up fairly easily with just the normal cooking and dishes, and it will stay warm for a long time as the heat doesn’t escape very easily.
Pop top vans lose their heat super fast because they have virtually zero insulation around their sock. If you’ve slept next to canvas on a cold night, you’d know you can feel the coldness coming through, and a pop top is no different.
Less maintenance required
Full size vans are complete, and have no moving parts in terms of the roof. There’s no gas struts, actuators, scissors, over the centre latches and anything else to go wrong. There’s also no sock, which will eventually need replacing.
Our Reconn R2 had a failed gas strut after about 5 years, and although I was replacing them anyway with heavier ones and they are quite cheap, its something you will have to do in due course.
Wind is less of a problem
The wind is a major annoyance when you are travelling Australia. If you have a full size van, you’d know that the inside is a sanctuary from the wind. Yep, it might rock the van around a bit, but there’s no flapping, and you can’t feel the wind much at all.
Our pop top is pretty good in the wind, but if it comes and goes it flaps, and becomes quite annoying. The larger your sock, and the less support it has the more it will flap and that can hugely affect your sleep and make it quite uncomfortable.
Mounting accessories to the roof is easier
If you want to install solar panels on your roof, its much easier on a full size van as the roof is generally designed to take it without any modifications. If you want to do the same for a pop top though, you need to know if the roof is suitable for the panels, and what modifications have to be done in order to make it possible to lift up, and pack down.
On our Reconn R2, I installed 600W of panels, which was an extra 36kg, and I couldn’t lift the roof at all afterwards. I knew this would happen, and had ordered 4 new gas struts which we replaced, but don’t expect to be able to fit accessories to the roof as easily.
You can see out of the windows even when its raining
Most pop top caravans don’t have clear sections on their window, which means if its raining, you have to zip the windows up. It’s not the end of the world, but being able to look out of a window when its pouring with rain and a storm comes over is quite special.
We miss out on this unless we are very careful in our pop top because if we opened the windows we’d end up with a camper full of rain!
Water and dust proofing
There’s no denying that pop tops introduce a whole new realm of leak potentials. Whether its the PVC sock, the zips on the windows or the seals around the roof, it is more likely to get dust or water into a pop top caravan. That said, if they are well made, you should have zero issues in either regards.
Full size vans are always going to have more storage, in particular when it comes to overhead cupboards. You physically cannot have these in pop tops, which means you are limited to other storage options. Of course, being able to fill these with items really depends on your vans tare and ATM, and many have a payload that is far too low to be useful anyway.
What’s better then?
Ultimately, the best setup is going to be the one that suits your situation. I don’t think there’s one that is any better than another, just they will appear to different niches. I’d hate a full height caravan as it would be too restrictive off road, but there are certainly other appealing factors.
Have a good think about the pro’s and con’s, and then get what you are happy with (and maybe hire one first!).
What do you run? Do you think pop top caravans are better than full height ones?