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Old 08-16-2014, 01:15 PM   #1
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Location: Portland, Oregon
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Hi-top vs PH

Help, I am getting ready to make another offer on a SMB however it's for a hi-top. Other than not having additional sleeping area what are the draw backs to the hi top? Why does it appear that there is more of a desire for a PH vs Hi-top? I'd like to hear both sides of the coin and go in with an open mind. I would be eventually converting this hi top to a 4x4. I do travel with my five year old and wife and would be sleeping on the double with him on the floor for the next few years, then he can tent camp w/mom and dad. Maybe even set up an outdoor room for him and just leave the doors to the van open for security purposes. It's like the EB 70 w/ a sink/stove delete and they added cabinets. So there is no stove/sink which we would pull the forth seat and add a countertop w/ stove/sink.


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Old 08-16-2014, 01:20 PM   #2
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

I just had a long conversation with another forum member on this exact same subject. I had a CCV pop top up until my current SMB pop top, but the CCV was closer to a fixed top with the top down so I feel I can offer a bit on this.

SMB pop top pros: Plenty of light, open and much like a tent with the top up. Plenty of ventilation and
breeze as well.
Lower profile more likely to fit in a garage or clear obstacles/trees and less to think about when driving.
Full walk around height inside when bed stowed to rear or ceiling in newer SMBs, with almost 7' of head room
Easy to store things on roof and access them since top is lower

SMB pop top cons: much less storage
No stealth camping without it being pretty obvious
A little harder to heat and cool. The furnace or air conditioners work well but there is no comparison to a real wall vs. a canvas wall.
Noisier when camping: read above. If you are a light sleeper you will hear more things like neighbors etc. when sleeping up top. This is NOT a concern for most people but a consideration nonetheless.
Anything heavy stored up top (bikes/kayaks/canoe/etc.) usually has to be removed to lift top.

Fixed top pros: Walk around height
Storage inside
Stealth camping
Store whatever you want on top if you can get to it
Options for roof air/roof vents if needed
Stealth camping
No setup whatsoever
More space inside means more options for layout
Stealth camping
More privacy, depending on how many windows
Easier to fit a shower inside
generally better for wet or cold climates due to real walls, easier to insulate
Stealth camping

Fixed top cons: increased height makes heavy offroading more challenging, low tree limbs, etc. more likely to get in your way
Harder to park at home for some, won't fit in a standard garage
More to wash and clean
Harder to access roof for storage
If set up with a bed up top, lower clearance for that bed. In other words, harder to get in/out of or climb over someone.
More space to heat and cool
Less windows than a pop top means less light and less breeze.
You don't get to spend as much money on camping, because you can stealth camp. Economy could collapse.


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Old 08-16-2014, 01:46 PM   #3
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

Pretty much what 86Scotty said with one exception.

Anything heavy stored up top (bikes/kayaks/canoe/etc.) usually has to be removed to lift top.
Our top goes up/down easily with 2 kayaks or 100 lbs of gear on the roof.

I have no personal experience with fixed tops but 2 more cons I would add for them are

Increased front surface area = lower mpg.
Ugly as a mud fence!
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Old 08-16-2014, 02:28 PM   #4
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

I've only had a pop top SMB, but I think I would prefer a fixed top. However, as so well stated above, there are pros and cons to both.

What I love about the pop top:

1) Inexplicable cool/fun vibe.
2) It's like a special tent/treehouse up top when popped up. Windows/screens galore, feel of space and light.
3) If one person is sleeping up top, and the other below (at least on my aisle plan), there is a lot of privacy, both sight and sound. Like you go to bed and are suddenly alone in your private space (as is other person). I say this as compared to all sleeping on same level.
4) Two decent sized beds; upper is actually "better" than lower.
5) Great mileage, not overheight on ferries, etc.

What I don't love about the pop top:

1) When stealth camping, you either leave the top down and it's cramped/low and there is only one bed, OR you pop the top (there goes stealth) and feel more vulnerable and it's noisier/colder/windier, etc. There is very little headroom with top down (although if you leave upper bed at home you gain 4" or so).
2) Manual top difficult to raise if you are shorter, have bad shoulder, etc.
3) If canvas gets wet when top up, and then you lower it and drive, you need to dry it out later. This can be inconvenient depending on situation.
4) Moving parts (always worse than no moving parts).
4.5) Van is noisier when driving due to moving/metal parts/arms/latches/springs (even with care taken to quiet down various things).
5) Loss of upper storage as compared to fixed high top; everything from up above has to come down when on road, which can lead to horrible clutter down below.

I don't off-road, so this is all about on-road stuff, plus typical back roads, gravel, etc.
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Old 08-16-2014, 03:48 PM   #5
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

If I were planning on a cold weather van where my main goal is snow camping, the hard top vans have a big advantage; just the opposite in warm weather (IMO). For me it's more difficult to stay cool in hot weather over warming up during freezing temps but I have been in weather as cold as 8 degrees and was able to sleep up top in my penthouse. It just takes a good heater. I've yet to find a good air conditioner that's worth anything to be used when I'm off the road. Being I'm a more mild weather camper, the PH top was obvious for me. I also have had several times where the rack on my PH almost posed a problem with clearance while off roading. A lifted hardtop van might keep me from accessing some areas I visit. For the camping I do and more importantly how I deal with heat, I would not want a hard top van... JMO. YMMV
Would I like a second hard top van for winter camping? Yes if I could afford two vans.

[edit] BTW, I know Viva says to dry out the PH if it gets wet (and it might be a good idea in some cases...not cappin on ya Viva) but I've never done this. Now it might be different in warmer humid climates, but when I drive in rainy weather, the canvas gets hammered with water on the outside of the canvas. The top seal does not keep all water out clipping along at 55 MPH. In fact SMB warns to keep the zippered windows closed as this is what keeps the water out of the inside of the van. I've never had mold yet but like I posted I don't live in a humid climate.
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Old 08-16-2014, 03:56 PM   #6
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

I mentioned the pop top being "colder," but actually that was not a real problem for my use (down to about 25). And as you say, it is fantastic in warmer weather, with all the windows and ventilation! I could probably have left the word "colder" out and just said less stealthy and noisier (say if in a Wal-Mart or rest area enroute to the good spots).

For me it's a tough choice! On balance I think I would go fixed/raised top, but then I would miss the pop top. On the other hand, with the pop top, there are things I miss from a fixed top.
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Old 08-16-2014, 04:00 PM   #7
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

The only argument I can see about having a pop top, is if you're an old curmudgeon. If you don't want to talk to complete strangers in the camp ground, you're out of luck with the pop top.

As soon as my top goes up, people start asking about my "really cool van". When I picked up my SMB in 2005, Jonathan Feld did my "orientation tour". The last thing he did was hand me a bunch of SMB postcards. He said if I didn't mind, would I give them to anyone that asked me about my SMB. Little did I know, that a 4X4 SMB, with the top up, is an "Oh Wow!" magnet. I gave out all the postcards on about the 4th trip.

That being said, I think the pop top is better than the fixed top. Looks better, fits in my garage (a big consideration in keeping a $79k vehicle looking good and in good shape), the mileage must be better than with the fixed top, and even at 67 years old, I can still push the top up, (with a solar panel on it), without any problem. And I've never had any issues with mildew on the fabric sides. And I'm running about 50% with getting caught at the ferry terminal having to pay the "overheight" surcharge". 7'6" is the limit for Washington State Ferries. The Van is about 7'9". Depending on how alert the ticket seller is, I may or may not get caught.

2005 SMB RB 50 4X4 w/ a 6.0 PSD
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Old 08-16-2014, 04:08 PM   #8
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

I wouldn't buy a hi-top, van is tall enough to drive around as it is. So just clearance would be a deal breaker for me.

"A job worth doing is worth doing at least twice."
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Old 08-16-2014, 04:17 PM   #9
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

My 2WD SMB always got on underheight, but then it was only around 7'1" or so.

I thought of one more thing. This is dependent on how you camp, etc. (as it all is, really). But for me the SMB is my only vehicle when camping. So any trip to town or to go explore means taking the top down. That in and of itself is not bad at all (just pull it down and do three latches). However, there is invariably stuff up there (bedding, gear, etc.) Also windows might be open (unzipped), curtains down, etc. So that all has to be zipped up, and then everything taken down from the bed, before getting underway. Then all set up again when you get back.

Not that it is a huge big deal, but it can be a pain when it happens repeatedly, or when you want to get going in a hurry.

I'm trying to think of the various pros and cons to the pop top. Many of the pros are pretty obvious - the cool factor, the view and breeze, the small form factor when down. Some of the things that can be a little bit aggravating (again depending on use) are not as obvious until you have one (and presuming you camp like I do, which you may not).
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Old 08-16-2014, 05:00 PM   #10
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Re: Hi-top vs PH

I've seen pictures of European-type high-roof vans that have had a penthouse roof added for sleeping. It makes for an interesting combination of all the pros and cons listed above. I know it's not applicable in that he's probably only looking at used Econolines.

Underneath there is excellent storage space and standup room, and at night an extra bed for sleeping over roof. For shorter people I'm wondering if Sprinter and ProMaster low-roof vans with penthouses are somewhat similar in function. I can probably almost walk around in a low-roof Sprinter with PH top down. PM should be about the same.

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