Sunday, May 20, 2018

Roof Rack Improvements

It seems that one of the universal farkles of any overland vehicle is a stout roof rack - usually overloaded with Jerry cans of fuel, dented aluminum cases, and tools.  Clearly, in building an Overlander out of an Astro van, I've eschewed some of the more de rigueur "fashions" of overlanding, but let's face it, a roof rack is just so damned useful..
Camp furniture, firewood, bulky or dirty gear, even a children's molded-plastic playhouse (in panels) - anything that can't go inside or on the rear doors, ends up on the roof.

Wary of making the lifted, pop-top van any more top-heavy - I usually try to limit the load to a few key items - our lifetime camp table, the camp chairs (often dirty), my skottle, and my DIY Roadii clone, or the portable propane firepit, depending on fire restrictions where we plan to camp.
I've since moved the traction mats to a more accessible spot on the driver's side quarter window area, but that's the topic of a different post. 
We started with a Yakima Loadwarrior basket, but it was a little small for our needs.  Like everything else on the van, I scored a Surco S4550 on Craigslist for cheap, and that's worked out pretty well.  The one glaring deficiency in that rack is that, as delivered, it has basically no "floor".  You can see in the top photo that the sole structure of the rack is basically the two transverse cross bars that connect to the roof rails, and three longitudinal beams that sit on the cross bars.  This leaves some rather large holes for things to fall through.

Thus far, I've adapted with careful packing - the Lifetime camp table is 24"x48", so that went in first and filled in about half the rack.  Larger items were then loaded in the other half with smaller stuff on top.  Obviously this dictates a certain order to loading the rack, and worse - it almost obliges me to bring certain items, or to leave other items out lest they fall through the holes.  Clearly, I needed a real floor in the roof rack.

I decided to go with interlocking outdoor flooring tiles from Ikea - the Runnen.  These are 12" tiles that snap together - they're very light and even better - cheap.
The first step was to lay them out on the ground and measure for cutting to fit the rack.  For clean lines and speed, I used a table saw, but anything from a skill saw to a hacksaw would have done the job.

Next I rounded the corners to fit the radius of the rack.

Then finally I snapped everything together.  I could actually move the whole assembled system this way, but for a little extra security, I added a few zip ties at the junctions to keep things together if it should flex.

Finally, I inserted the new floor into the rack and fastened it down with heavy grade zip-ties around the perimeter and along the three longitudinal spars of the rack.

So, there are a lot of ways to skin this cat. Those planning to actually stand on their roof rack, or who need heavy-duty structure might weld in expanded steel or aluminum mesh.  Those who are more weight conscious seem to have graduated to, of all things, Chicken Coop flooring, which has serious weight advantages and is inexpensive.  So many people have adapted them for such that it's now listed by many farm-equipment retailers specifically as an "off book" usage.  
I almost went this way myself, but I wanted to see if I could go one better.  The synthetic coop flooring is much lighter than steel, but enough to do my roof rack would have weighed about 17lbs and cost a bit more, plus shipping.  The Ikea solution was moderately cheaper and lighter (~11lbs). 

The coop flooring has the advantage of the larger holes which might be useful for fastening *light* items down, but I feel anything heavy should be attached to the metal of the rack itself (another plus for all-metal roof racks).

For me, the biggest advantage of the Ikea tiles is that they're pretty "slick".  Since my roof rack is much longer than I can safely reach while standing on my rear door rack (even with the new step), I'm frequently reaching for items and dragging them to the rear so I can lift them out.

I'll file a report after some long-term usage, but I'm pretty pleased with the result so far.

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