Car top carriers: which is better, hard shell or soft?

The s.o. and I are looking for more storage capacity for our little station wagon. There are these carriers that tie to the roof of your car – they have hard shell carriers and soft ones in various sizes. We’re leaning toward the soft, but wondered if any of you have experience with either or both and your opinion. We’re civil war reenactors and besides our contemporary clothes, we carry an A tent,a small fly, two very voluminous sleeping bags, 2 wool blankets,2 small folding chairs, a small folding table,our civil war era clothes, a sword, and a musket along with sundry camping equipment. The tent poles go on the roof rack. On our last trip two weeks ago, we both got a bit cranky trying to unpack, keep organized, and re-pack the car. S.o. at first said let’s buy a small trailer; I said a roof-top carrier would be the ticket. We’ll still need to carry the tent poles on the roof rack, or put them in the carrier. We are both uncertain at this point. He seemed to think there wouldn’t be room for much else if the tent poles were in the carrier. We don’t want to buy one of these things (around $150) and then find out it won’t help us out much. Part of the problem is he’s so damned disorganized. I organize the clothes and stuff, and he goes in after me and tears the car apart looking for stuff and disorganizes everything. Any advice re packing and staying organized is welcome.

Just sat through one of these car top discussion a couple of weeks ago. One guy just wanted something to hold all the extras his wife brings on trips and the other wanted more room inside the car. One bought a soft top and said that he felt he had to not only empty it when the stopped over night at a motel but had to bring the carrier itself into the motel, too. He said that was a pain in the neck and he hated hooking it back up again in the morning. IIRC he said that it took both he and his wife to get the thing attached solidly, too.

Both guys decided that a hard shell would not have to be removed and brought into the hotel at night. The shape would be the same full and empty but the shape of the soft top would certainly indicate if full or empty. Hard shell would remain weather resistant and they thought the soft would eventually leak in rain.

In the end it seemed that if the cost wasn’t prohibitive, the hard shell might be the better bet.

As for re-packing, my mother made bags of heavy cloth (often with zippers) for our camping trips each bag was marked (black marker,nothing fancy) with the owner’s name or contents. Maybe you could have guessed what was in each bag by its shape or weight but it kept us from opening each other’s clothing and we knew which bags went into the tent and which went into the car top or stayed in the car until mealtimes.


Like so much, it’s all a compromise.
The hard shell keeps stuff from getting mashed. But then things can shift around if not padded well. The shifting can then bust up your stuff that you took pains not to mash.And an inopportune shift in a corner can make driving an adventure.

The soft shell can be cinched down to avoid shifting of cargo, but delicate stuff can be damaged.(Yeah, really delicate stuff goes in the car, but surprises happen) The soft shell can also be strapped down for a lower silhouette if it’s not completely full.

Me? I’d get the hard shell. One just big enough to load your stuff in. I’d also get one that locks to the roof rack, or get a lock to attach it. Since your cargo is the same for each trip (more or less) the adjustability of the soft shell really wouldn’t be much to your advantage.

Of course the mini-trailer has it’s up-side too. More space, easy to lock, and it doesn’t raise your car’s center of ballance. You can also organize (and customize) the trailer with racks and straps and little hammock thingies. And you could paint flames on the side, which would be so cool. Downside would be getting a trailer hitch put on your car, but that’s no big deal.(Could your station wagon pull a trailer?)

You might try renting different carriers (the U-Haul near me rents the hard-carriers and trailers) before you buy. Also you might call a local Boy Scout Troop. Odds are good some one involved with the troop has used all the different carrying options at one time or another.

Just a warning: we bought a soft carrier from Sears and took in on a 200 mile trip. When we got there, the vinyl was all ripped up on the upper surface. Evidently it had “flapped” itself to death. I couldn’t see how we could prevented it by having loaded and cinched it any differently, so I got my refund from Sears. (They weren’t too happy about it though)

We’ve used a big hard roof pod on our Volvo wagon. The tent poles strap along side and the pod itself locks. We loaded the pod full of all the soft stuff (clothes, folded sleeping bags, tarps) so they couldn’t break and weren’t heavy enough that shifting was a problem.

Also, what’s the weight limit on your roof rack? That’s what kept us from overloading the roof pod–the pod and the clothes we put in it were about as much as the roof rack was rated for, so we weren’t tempted to put heavy stuff up there anyway.

Our next step is going to be the purchase of a bigger vehicle, but that’s a ways off yet.

We have a hardshell. After looking at them, we didn’t think a soft one would hold up. We also needed something that would stay waterproof. Ours is a little cheapie we bought from Wallyworld (about $100 IIRC) and it’s worked fine so far. We also stick to mostly clothes & bedding in the cartop to keep weight down.

As far as packing & such - why is your sweetie looking through the car? Can’t help you much with stopping him if we don’t know why he does it.

My suggestions:

Since you’re doing the same thing most trips & therefore are taking the same stuff, sort stuff into bags by category. (Fer instance, for our biking we have one bag that contains helmets, shoes, gloves, waterpacks, firstaid kit, sunscreen & bugspray - the absolute must have stuff. Whoever’s packing that bag checks to be sure there are two (or four, as the case may be :p) of each. (Note the “checks” - most of our stuff lives in their bags, so that we don’t really have to pack them. More on that later.) We have another bag that contains bike clothing, especially weather-specific stuff. Another bag has the collection of crap (spare parts, loaner gloves, etc.) that we need for long trips but don’t take on regular rides. Another bag has all of the stuff for our other family members that don’t usually bike - if they’re going, we just grab the extra bag & are ready to ramble.) You may end up with a lot of smaller bags & a lot more bags then you have now, but it sure can make life easier.

Have a checklist for each bag - run off copies so you can actually check items off as you pack. Then he can be reassured that the bag is packed correctly & nothing has been forgotten. If he’s looking for a particular item, he’ll know where to look. Have a master checklist so that each bag is checked off as it goes into the car - again, reassurance that all is well. Stick the lists into the bags & you can cross items off as you pack to go home.

Pack ahead as much as possible. For instance, go ahead and buy a dopkit bag (or two). Buy extra toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, whatever you need - keep these packed at all times so that they’re always ready. Keep all your CW stuff packed - when you wash the clothes, just pack them back into the bags. Repack your camping stuff when you get home rather than waiting until you’re getting ready to go. Buy camping-only dishes, pans, supplies, etc. & keep them packed (Goodwill & SalArmy are great for this kind of stuff). This makes packing to go simpler, because most of it’s done. Then, the day before you’re going to pack, get everything out & leave it in the living room so he can go through & check everything before you put it in the car. :wink:

Ditto with the regular clothes & that stuff - pack the bags a day ahead & let him check everything before you put it in the car.

Have an “everything” bag, where you put all the stuff you thought of at the last minute. When you unpack this bag upon return, move things to the permanent bags as needed (& add to the checklist).

Try some of this out & you’ll come up with your own ideas, specific to your needs.

If none of this works, I’d say to give up. Pack your stuff & let him pack everything else. If he complains, tell him you’re not going to pack just so he can muck everything up, so he’ll have to do it. Probably won’t take more than a few trips to change his mind. :slight_smile:
Can you tell I’m the organized one in the family? :slight_smile:

I didn’t even think about the roof rack having a weight limit - I’ll ask him about that. As for why he tears everything apart looking for stuff, it’s a combination of putting too much stuff in the car (hence, the need for extra storage), not having a good packing system, and he’s a disorganized slob, plain and simple. I fold the cw clothes and put them in a nice, neat stack; he goes back later to get something else, and instead of removing the stack, just pulls the stuff aside and rummages around and ends up with one big pile of disorganized crap. E-E-E-K! I could’ve killed him. I had some stuff separated and put in plastic grocery bags, but most of those tore – more stuff on the loose. My thought was to get several of those tupperware-type boxes and keep stuff separated and organized in those. He was leaning toward the soft carrier, but it appears the hard may be better. I’ll share your thoughts with him. Thanks everyone.