Rooftop Bags for Touring & 4WD
Rooftop storage should be a simple solution to providing a sealed environment for excess equipment, but with an abundance of choice of rooftop bags, selecting the right product isn’t so simple.
It is possible, with many products, to quickly assess the inherent quality of an item with a visual inspection. Unless you have real industry experience with upholstery fabric, threads and zippers, there is no way sure way to tell, by plain observation, if a rooftop bag is going to keep the dust and rain at bay. The most rugged looking bags can also be the ones that let you down at the worst possible time.
The Sum of it's Parts
An assessment of basic rooftop bag design needs to take the individual components into account. Most bags on the market are constructed of either Canvas or PVC coated Denier Material. Canvas today is not really what our grandfathers used. These days it is likely to be a polyester/cotton blend and may have additional waterproofing treatments applied. Some canvas products require ‘seasoning’ before use – soaking and drying the bag or tent to allow the stitching to swell and seal. PVC and UPVC Denier products (UPVC - similar to PVC with some additional benefits such as better UV resistance) are usually ‘set and forget’ items that require no maintenance regime. The manufacturers using canvas are often small onshore operations with great experience who can custom make a bag to your requirements.
As a general rule, look for solid heavy fabric, with a particular emphasis on the base. A rooftop bag baking in the sun, being rubbed and abraded while travelling and getting pushed and dragged through trees and scrub, needs to be robust enough to resist all of these infractions. The bag needs a solid sealing system, YKK have been making heavy duty zippers for decades, check the zip system to make sure it is a really heavy unit that seals tightly and operates smoothly. A secondary seal is normally provided in the form of a flap that folds down over the zipper. If this flap seals shut with heavy duty Velcro then there is a much better chance of keeping out the insidious red dust of northern Australia or torrential rain driven in at highway speeds. Avoid a bag that zips and closes on all 4 sides. The front or leading edge should be of singular construction as the rooftop bag bears the brunt of the forces applied to the 4WD.
Straps and fasteners need to be of solid construction and preferably make a completely encircle and ‘wrap’ the bag when fastened. A strap with just a few stiches just holding onto the side of the bag won’t last long. Check for plenty of reinforced stitching. These are the one part that holds the bag down onto the roof of the touring vehicle. Most quality rooftop bag manufacturers will use a quality grade of UV resistant plastic in their fittings.
Rooftop Bags have everything going against them in their job to keep out dust and moisture. Their design is such that they are constructed to allow operator access and then spend the rest of the time having to barricade against the elements. They are placed up on top of roof rack and driven at ridiculous speeds, in ridiculous environmental conditions - where they get belted by debris and bugs. If they are not being baked in the sun then they are being used as a rooftop bullbar to push through scrub and bush.
You can do a few things to give your rooftop bag every chance of accomplishing its mission. It’s a good idea to install a rooftop bag with some sort of headboard or windshield to deflect airborne bugs and debris from striking the leading edge. A baseboard will help alleviate rubbing associated with vehicle movement and strapping the bag around the upper rails of the roof rack helps keep it secure and maintain the natural shape of the bag. Keep the bag in an ‘inflated’ state, meaning fill it so it is comfortably expanded. This eliminates hollows and dips which pool water. It also creates a firm outer surface and helps deflect tree branches which otherwise may get hooked into a loose fold. The sealing area around the zippers and flaps is crucial and should lay in a manner that is not kinked, flattened or distorted. A seal that remains vertical will naturally allow water to run off, while a sealing area laid flat, allows water to pool and, through capillary action, eventually seep in.
We use an extra large Rhino Rack Luggage Bag that sits directly on the mesh base of the roof rack. Weight is a huge consideration and we deliberately omitted a base between rack and bag, fully prepared to have the bag rub against the framework which hasn't occured. It comes with a lifetime warranty - always comforting to see a manufacturer with that sort of confidence in their products. So far it has travelled around 100,000km under some pretty harsh conditions and has stood up remarkably well. Fabric fading is better than expected considering the temperatures the bag has been exposed to and all the straps, stitching and fasteners seem to be holding up well. The bag has endured torrential rain for extended periods and only leaked once when it was incorrectly fastened. We have red Pindan in most crevices and lights in the 4WD yet dust in the rooftop bag has never been an issue.
This article is in no way a recommendation of any particular brand or style of rooftop bag, merely a statement of our experience. The best place to discover whether or not a particular bag you are considering purchasing is up to the task, is to do a little online research. A quick web search will reveal any basic design and construction flaws and any recurring problems in a specific product.
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