THERE'S NO SINGLE perfect solution to bush accommodation – there are so many variables affecting your choice; destination, numbers camping (family or single/double), available cargo space and personal wants and needs all play a part in the final bush shelter choice.
For some, the emotional choice is the swag, for others, it’s the self-contained (and cargo space) appeal of a camper-trailer. Add in the other popular choice of a tent – ground-based or a rooftop jobbie – and you can see it ain’t an easy decision to make – each option has its advantages and disadvantages.
With some swagger
A long-term 4WD contributor friend of mine once said, “swags are a triumph of marketing over commonsense”. A tad harsh perhaps, but when looking at bush accommodation options, it’s definitely worth looking past the romanticism that surrounds sleeping in a swag. The traditional swag was a simple device: a large piece of canvas material with your mattress/air mat and all sleeping gear inside. Operation is easy: roll out the swag and there’s your bedding; this simplicity of setup and the swag’s overall robustness (no poles to break, no ropes to snap, etc.) saw this bedding option become very popular with early 4WD adventurers – most notably for desert travel and/or with single- or two-up travellers in a wagon or ute.
The modern swag is available in myriad designs, from the traditional through to swags that are, really, more aptly described as a tent. Hooped poles, cross-poles, plenty of tie-down ropes, lots of meshed areas for (welcome) extra ventilation to control condensation, etc. are now commonplace on swags. (This is great, of course; the extra space inside makes it less of a contortionist’s act to get in/out of clothing, etc.)
The material used is still similar – very tough, treated ripstop cotton/canvas tops/sides and (generally) a heavy-duty nylon base to assist with water-resistance. These swags are still quite easy to setup, but now, with said poles, are not that much quicker than erecting a hiking tent – and they are a hell of a lot larger when rolled up. (Not that it’s a race for setting up camp – although that is dependent on how desperately you want to knock back that first cold post-drive beverage.)
It is the swag’s size and significant weight (most modern single pole-type swags top out around 6-9kg; Black Wolf has just released some lightweight versions that weigh only 4kg) that is one of its main negatives: the sheer amount of cargo space a rolled swag (or two, or more) takes up in your vehicle. Even a ute tray quickly loses its generous cargo space to a couple of rolled-up single swags. And if you’re a wagon owner, don’t even think about trying to pack a couple of swags in your cargo area – even if you opt for a self-inflating mattress as your swag bed to reduce its size, it doesn’t really reduce packed size enough to make a significant difference. You can throw a couple of swags up on the roof, but their bulky shape seems perfectly designed to amp up your vehicle’s overall wind resistance and thus fuel usage.
For desert tourers, where clear skies and dry nights are close to guaranteed, there’s still little to compare to spending the night in a swag.
And then there’s rain. Yep, few swag owners will disagree there’s nothing worse than hearing those first drops of rain on the top of your swag; a wet swag – and wet occupant – can really make for a miserable experience. Erecting a fly over your swag is an option in this scenario and it serves the dual purpose of also providing shelter for your clothing/gear that would otherwise have to be packed in your vehicle.
So is there a place for the swag? Yes, most definitely. For desert tourers, where clear skies and dry nights are close to guaranteed, there’s still little to compare to spending the night in a swag – especially the traditional design swag that offers its occupant the full outback night sky experience. For solo travellers – or even two-up travellers who opt for a double swag (surprisingly, these don’t take up all that much more space than one single) – the simplicity of operation, the bombproof construction, and the fact a swag (if properly cared for) will last decades, all make for a still-convincing case for this adventure road trip accommodation option.
All shapes and sizes: tents
The tent is probably the most popular 4WD accommodation option. The wide variety – lightweight, compact hiking tents; large and tough canvas tourers; multi-room family palaces – adds credence to the cliché that the buyer is spoilt for choice.
For owners of compact 4WDs the lightweight hiking tent is a great option; minimal cargo space is needed with these tents and you can fit all your sleep gear (clothes, bedding, etc.) inside the tent or in one of its vestibules once it is set up. Speaking of vestibules, look for a hiking tent with two doors and two vestibules, whether you’re travelling one-up or two-up. This makes for easy entry/exit for occupants. Check out the tent height as well; being able to at least crouch or sit on your knees inside one of these smaller tents is a surprisingly big thing. There’s nothing worse than having to shuffle/scramble around all bent over inside a tent. Other features to look for include a “bathtub” floor design, where the stitching joining the floor to the tent body is above the ground. This avoids the potential for water ingress from underneath the tent.
… look for a hiking tent with two doors and two vestibules, whether you’re travelling one-up or two-up. This makes for easy entry/exit for occupants.
Hiking tents are made from a variety of lightweight materials, such as nylon and polyester, which means they need extra care. Things to look for include a “bathtub floor” design that has no stitching on the floor of the tent that comes in contact with the ground to avoid water ingress. Also look for a floor with a high “hydrostatic head” (a waterproof rating system, designated “HH”) number in millimetres as it will be more durable. It is durability that is the one downfall of hiking tents – due mainly to the thin, lightweight material used. The sun’s UV rays have a big impact on the life of your hiking tent in particular. This is dependent on actual amount of use, of course; if you only head out for five to 10 weekends a year and then ensure the tent is dry before storage, you’ll get many years of use out of it. The other – minor – negative of hiking tents is the potential of pole breakage. Most high-end hiking tents have poles designed to withstand high winds, etc., so it is worth spending a bit more to get a tent with aluminium poles. Steer clear of tents with plastic poles; plastic will splinter or snap with little effort.
If you opt for a polycotton/canvas “tourer” style tent, be prepared for them to take up a significant amount of space inside – or on top of – your vehicle. These tents are obviously a lot larger than a hiking tent but offer all the associated benefits of interior (stand-up) height and space for two to four (or more) occupants. Some models use a central pole (similar to a pavilion or tent pole; the Southern Cross Canvas tourer tent range includes this type), while others use a combination of this and/or interconnected poles for setup. (OzTent and Black Wolf are examples.)
A touring tent’s construction is its big plus. Most models are made from the same bombproof cotton canvas (for the tent body) and heavy-duty vinyl (for the floor) as a swag so will last many, many years. The extra space, too, cannot be underestimated – especially if you intent spending a considerable amount of time touring. These tents also usually feature plenty of ventilation in the form of windows on each side/face (with no see-um mesh for insects) and, in the main, are not difficult – or time consuming – to set up. The tent-pole designs are actually super quick, as is the OzTent, with its clever hinged/fold-out design. For families, these are a fantastic choice; there’re no worries about kids inflicting too much damage on the tent materials and they can be pitched pretty much anywhere flat, without being too concerned with damaging the floors, etc. As stated earlier, these tents are heavy – in fact, some of the larger four/six-person models are definitely a two-person job to load/unload from your vehicle – and they also eat up cargo space. However, their generous interior space and ample shelter in a storm, make these big boppers a worthy mobile accommodation option. You just have to figure out how to transport them – inside is great, but up top is preferable, which leads to another variation on the tent theme.
Above it all: rooftop tents
The origins of the rooftop tent are purported to be the African continent. It makes sense, too; think big, hungry carnivores and their potential human meals and you can see why sleeping up on the roof of your 4WD would be a commonsense option. Rooftop tents have been available in Australia now for many years and for two-up tourers – and those with a couple of little ’uns – a rooftop tent can make perfect sense – especially as it frees up valuable interior cargo space. Although there is a caveat...
As with anything roof-mounted, the weight of a rooftop tent will affect your vehicle’s handling, courtesy of the additional load up top shifting the weight distribution higher, but most rooftop tent models are relatively light. Manufacturers tend to use marine-board or ply bases, comfy mattresses, lightweight polycotton/canvas (in the main – there are some synthetic-fabric variants available) and aluminium poles to keep the weight down.
Most rooftop tents fold to the side, enabling manufacturer’s to keep the actual “footprint” (or roofprint?!) of the tent base small, allowing you to – with care – utilise the remaining roof rack space for carrying additional equipment.
The rooftop tent’s simplicity and speed of operation – park your rig, pull the top half of the folded tent over, which opens up the “tent” section with an accordion-style action, then attach, or let down, the ladder to finish – means you can be sitting up pretty, checking out your campsite’s surrounds before you know it. That is, if there is only two of you. Add in a couple of wee tackers and then you will have to add on the readily available lower-tent sections (everything from awnings to additional rooms are offered by rooftop manufacturers). This may cause some concerns to parents as the kids are now down on the ground out of your sight/care but you can soon sort out whether one parent sleeps downstairs and one upstairs with the young ones.
One thing to remember with a rooftop tent is to make sure you’ve finished driving before you set up camp – or more pertinently, before you set up your bush bedroom. If you did decide to go and view the sunset from that dune half a kilometre away – and already had the rooftop tent erected – you’d have to then re-pack the tent before driving over there. The rooftop tent being constantly attached to your roof is only a slight inhibition if you think ahead, however. And, again, the speed of setup means you can leave it all until the last minute before bed-time. The other thing to be aware of with a rooftop tent is, if the canvas gets wet overnight, whether through rain or condensation, it’s wise to have some type of waterproof cover to put over your bedding so that if you do have to pack up early with a still-wet tent, you won’t soak your bedding. Again, a simple thing to do and not necessarily a negative aspect – just something to include in your camp setup routine.
Rooftop tents are expensive but are built tough, have myriad accessories for expanding families (or those who just like lots of extra space) and offer the bonus of keeping your vehicle’s cargo area free for other gear. For long-distance tourers – in particular those travelling two-up – they are the near-perfect choice for accommodation.
The outback mobile home
If you’re one of those tourers who wants the best shelter from the elements that money can buy, and who really does want to bring everything plus – literally and figuratively – the kitchen sink, you will need to dig a bit deeper into your pockets and look at an off-road camper-trailer.
Available in numerous configurations, from a converted box trailer with canvas tent on top, through to solid-body models that will set you back nearly as much as a new 4WD, a camper-trailer is the most luxurious bush accommodation you can own.
If you’re serious about comfort out in the bush and plan on spending weeks away from home a camper-trailer is tailor-made for your needs. A mini-caravan in terms of size and features, the camper-trailer offers oodles of extra load space for long-distance/long-term touring, courtesy of additional cargo areas both externally (for securing things like bikes, watercraft, etc.) and internally, with every available empty space converted into a storage facility. The hard-exterior models also come out the winners from all our bush accommodation contenders when it comes to the best protection from the elements as well.
Also included will be a roll-out/slide-out kitchen (with storage space for plates/bowls, etc) that usually includes either a fridge-freezer as standard or, at the minimum, a dedicated space for one. Add in a bed (obviously), power outlets (and included power source; deep-cycle battery and/or solar panels, for example) and lighting inside and out, space for extra gas bottles and any other accessory you can think of (hot showers anyone?), and you can see why camper-trailers are so popular. And it all sits on top of heavy-duty, off-road-specific suspension.
... a touring tent is a great choice for shorter adventures, while a camper-trailer makes the most sense for longer journeys.
The chassis and suspension is a must to check when you’re out shopping for your home on wheels; be aware that there are some quite cheap options on the market these days so it really is best to stick to an Aussie-designed/manufactured model. The local manufacturers have built their camper-trailers to withstand local conditions – think: galvanised chassis, heavy-duty suspension, good dust sealing – which cannot be discounted when comparing trailers.
So it sounds perfect, dunnit? Well, nearly. One of the caveats on camper-trailer ownership is the slight limitation on access to more remote terrain. Some of the top-end camper-trailers will follow your vehicle through or over pretty much anything – with a skilled driver behind the wheel. However, for those thinking of towing one across sandy tracks, it’s worth being aware that, although not difficult, it is a hell of a lot harder to traverse steep dunes with a camper-trailer due to a combination of the additional load weight, and the fact the trailer’s track measurement might be different to your vehicle’s, meaning the trailer tyres are also pushing through virgin terrain to maintain forward momentum. And then there’s the rise in fuel consumption. Even though we all like to think we pack light for a big road trip, the temptation of using all that available space of a camper-trailer is too hard to resist. The result is a significant increase in fuel consumption – and again, this will be most noticeable on sandy terrain, where your vehicle is already hard at work pushing itself through the sand, much less having to drag a trailer as well.
The length of the towbar/hitch setup has a huge bearing on whether you will actually get over that steeply pitched dune or national park water bar/spoon drain. Tight narrow forest tracks can also be difficult; the limited cornering capability of a vehicle-trailer combo can make for testing times on the way to that campsite – not conducive to a relaxing holiday.
While camper-trailer designs (in general) may seem to be geared toward two-up travellers, with their standard queen/king-sized bed and minimal extra sleep spaces, they are actually a great family bush accommodation option. Most makes/models feature awnings or additional covered areas when set up, which are perfect for throwing down extra camp beds. Depending on how deep your pockets are you can also stump up for additional annexes or covered areas so if it does rain outside, the whole family isn’t stuck inside a suddenly very confining space – the benefit of that goes beyond monetary concerns…
The perfect combination?
Each of these bush accommodation choices has its place; as stated earlier, it is entirely down to your (and/or your family’s) choice for what suits you best. For solo and two-up travellers any of these options (with the only issue for the swag option being available cargo space) are definitely worth consideration. For family-based tourers it gets a bit tricky; swags are out, as are hiking/small tents. Even rooftop tents are awkward, with the upstairs/downstairs arrangement and having to work around the lack of vehicle mobility once you are set up at camp. For this writer’s personal situation – a young family of four – a touring tent is a great choice for shorter adventures, while a camper-trailer makes the most sense for longer journeys. Yes, camper-trailers are more expensive than the other options, but in terms of bang for your bucks - a trailer will house, feed and entertain the entire family, keep them warm and dry in inclement conditions, enable you to bring all your outdoor toys, and make for a comfortable semi-permanent base-camp for many, many years.