Roof Toppers

This article looks at the features of the ‘roof topper’ and provides a guide to selecting, fitting out and carrying a roof top boat on your travels.

What is a Roof Topper?

The Roof Topper is an Australian colloquial name for boat carried on top of a vehicle. Most travellers carry their boat on top of a 4WD, although they can also be carried on top of a towed camper trailer or caravan. There are a number of ways to load and carry your boat. Simple heavy duty bars (ideally with rollers on the rear bar to assist loading), commercial boat loaders (some incorporating winches or other aids) and gas strut systems, particularly for loading on to a camper trailer are the main carry methods. The size of your boat, your fitness and your budget will help you make this decision. As you travel, take note of the rather ingenious methods developed by some people to help load and carry their boat. Most people are happy to discuss their set up and help you develop ideas. Other factors to consider include:

  • The load carrying capacity of your vehicle roof. Remember to include the boat, racks and any other equipment you plan to carry on top in your total.

  • The beam (width) of your boat.

  • Tie down methods if not using a commercial boat loader that incorporates this.

  • Managing the load and unload routine on your own. You can’t always rely on someone being fit enough or available to assist, so if you really want to fish, think through how you can do it independently.

  • If possible, it is a good idea to mount a basket on your carry bars or on the boat loader. You can fit fuel, seats, PFDs and other light items in the basket under the boat for added security and more precious space in your rig. Also, a 100mm plastic tube is a handy addition to carry and protect fishing rods.


Remember, you also need to carry other large items for the boat, principally the motor and fuel tank.

Considering Boat Size and Type

This is very much a matter of compromise. You will want the biggest boat you can for comfort, seaworthiness and load carrying. But you need it to be small and light enough to load and carry. Typical roof toppers are between 3 m and 3.7 m and weigh between 60 and 80 KG. But with the right set up, many people carry boats up to 4 m in length and 90 KG or more in weight. Factors to consider in deciding on boat size include number of people, the equipment you want to carry, how you will load it and the size and weight restrictions imposed by your vehicle.

Will you use your boat in small creeks and calm water or larger water expanses like estuaries and large dams? The hull type you choose should be based on the planned use of the boat. Flat bottom punts are very stable at rest, but are only safe in calm water. A deep V is more suited to choppy conditions. Remember, even ‘sheltered’ water can quickly become choppy if a wind comes up. The V also gives you a smoother, more comfortable ride across any waves or chop and keeps you much dryer. Some companies combine these designs in a V Nose Punt, but remember, while a flat bottom is very stable in calm water, they are quite unsuited to choppy or rough conditions.
Deep V style boats also typically have higher sides than punts. While this makes them a little heavier, it may make you feel a little more secure if fishing in the North of Australia where saltwater crocodiles are common.

Generally the gunwales of a roof topper need to be fairly flat and unobstructed by side rails, rod holders or any other protrusions which may prevent easy loading onto carry rack.

Boat Loaders

A boat loader is just that, a device that assists in loading a boat on the top of a 4WD. This purpose built roof rack usually incorporates a winch-like pulley system that’s used to raise the boat into position. When considering a boat loader, you must take into account not just the roof carrying capacity of the vehicle, but also the strength of the type of mounting to cope with the sheering action when the boat is lifted from horizontal position. The ropes need to be strong enough with roughly 750kg breaking strain yachting ropes on the front and 550kg breaking strain ropes on the stern. There has been some discussion, that winching from or attaching a boat to an airbag compatible bull bar may invalidate warranty on an airbag system. Now although you should look into this further, there are manufacturers that support good compliance such as those that use ropes that lock the boat down to the rack and also attach ropes over the front of the boat via holes in the frame/outriggers specifically for this purpose.

Getting the Boat to the Water

Old Fashioned Muscle Power

Some people just drag the boat across the ground or sand. Tinnies can take a fair bit of this kind of punishment, so it is possible to manage with this method. If you are unable to camp adjacent to the water though, you have to either dismantle and reload the boat on your vehicle after each fishing trip, or leave it in the water.

Jockey Wheels

Clamp on jockey wheels, often called ‘Tinnie Movers’ are a cheap means of helping with moving your tinnie over short distances. One person can generally move a tinnie quite easily with these wheels attached.

Fold-Up Boat Trailers

Many people carry a registrable fold-up trailer for their boat. These are available from a number of manufacturers in either aluminium or steel. They are generally carried on the drawer bar of a camper trailer or caravan or mounted on the rear bumper of a caravan. While more expensive and heavier than the other alternatives, they give complete freedom in moving and launching the boat when you are camped.


Be aware: these trailers are so desirable they can easily ‘disappear’, so make sure you secure them either to your vehicle or camper trailer! That also applies to the boat and engine.

Size of the Outboard Engine

Your motor needs to be matched to your selected boat, which will have a recommended and maximum HP specification. Although small motors (below 9HP) are quite light, they often don’t have the power to get a boat with 2 people and equipment on the plane. Unless you plan to only use your boat over very short distances in very sheltered water, it is an idea to ensure you set your boat up so it will plane easily with its typical load. There is little difference in price, weight and size of the two smallest motors that will generally achieve this with typical roof topper boats. With most manufacturers 2 Stroke 9.9HP and 15 HP motors are identical in size and weight. If your boat specification can handle a 15HP motor, it is worth considering this alternative over a 9.9HP.

Bigger Engines

Boats of 3.7m and above can generally take a bigger motor. A 4m boat will generally accept a 25HP motor for example. While a 15HP motor may weigh 35 or 36KG, a 25HP motor may weigh over 50 KG. If you choose a larger motor, you may need to ensure you have assistance to load and unload it and get it on and off the boat.

Two Stroke or 4 Stroke?

Two strokes are typically cheaper and lighter, but need fuel to be mixed and are generally a bit noisier than 4 strokes.

Four strokes are heavier, more expensive, but quieter running and need no fuel mixing. Most ‘roof top boaters’ tend to use 2 stroke engines, probably due to the lighter weight – but the choice is yours.


It’s a good idea to secure the engine to the boat as they have been known to come loose on the transom and disappear before you can say “King George Whiting”.

Boating Comfort

Your roof top boat is relatively small, but you will hopefully spend many hours of enjoyment in it. It is worth taking the time to set the boat up for comfort and convenience. Remember though, anything you add needs to be secured to the boat below the gunwale line, or removable for when you load the boat on your vehicle. Some ideas include:

    Floor:- A floor adds to comfort particularly if you like to stand in the boat to flick lures; a great way to fish for Barramundi. Methods of adding a floor include the use of plastic camp matting and a purpose made plywood floor covered with marine carpet. If you use ply, it can be either removable or in some boats it can be permanently fixed via screws through the boat ribs.

    Seating:- Many people fit (normally removable) folding seats, either plain plastic or padded. Having a seat with a back can make a big difference when spending a long time on the water. A swivel seat makes steering an outboard for long periods a lot easier.

    Rod Holders:- Remember to keep these below the gunwale line. They can be either fixed (screwed to the boat thwarts or built in seats) or removable and attached to the gunwale.

    Esky:- You might like to consider carrying an esky for two reasons. The first, to store your food and drink for your long day on the water and the second is to store your catch if you choose to keep some for dinner. Large soft cooler bags are generally adequate and have the advantage of being light and flexible to fit into an appropriate spot in the boat. But you might also consider a good quality insulated poly esky. These are available in many sizes and it is likely that you can find one that is just about right for your needs. A good shape is one that is long, but low and narrow. This takes up less space in the boat and its length lets you store that nice long barra or flathead to take home.

Safety Equipment

State laws vary on the safety equipment to be carried and the equipment required varies further depending on the type of water or location you are boating in. It is therefore important that you understand the requirements of the area you are in. The minimum you will typically need will be oars or paddles, Personal Floatation Devices (PFD, formerly known as life jackets) for each person, waterproof torch, bailing device (bucket) and anchor. Other equipment you may require includes V sheet, a signalling device (mirror), flares and EPIRB. Some of these additional safety items are worthy of consideration even if not required by law. You will need to organize storage places in your boat for all of these items so that they can be readily accessed when required.


Ask the locals about unique conditions that you should know about. Charts for the local area are always a good idea. Even more so than you would at home, keep a weather lookout and if in doubt, fish off the beach or the jetty.

Other Equipment and Ideas

Electric Motor

Although adding an electric motor adds something more to pack and carry (including the necessary battery), it can be worth the effort for some types of fishing. Trolling silently under electric power is very pleasant. Also if you enjoy flicking lures, the use of an electric motor can make this much more enjoyable. Easy and silent adjustment of position, use of the motor to hold position against wind or tide and silently sneaking in to retrieve a snagged lure are just some of the benefits. If you decide to get an electric motor, transom mounts are cheaper and lighter, but a bow mount may be worth considering due to the ‘hands off’ operation which is possible via foot controls.

Depth Sounder / Fish Finder

This item is relatively cheap and almost indispensable for some types of fishing these days. If you don’t know the depth when you are trolling, it is hard to select the correct lure to use. You must troll as close to the bottom as possible and yet not dig a furrow through the sand and mud. A depth sounder allows you to see when the boat is passing over big snags, and you can work your lure accordingly. It is an essential tool when trolling for barramundi, and like it or not, trolling is the most productive method of getting big fish with lures. It is also an essential tool when looking for a reef to bottom fish.

Unit Selection

You can purchase a portable unit which typically comes in a plastic carry case, or use a conventional set up (which is cheaper and has more models available) mounted in a manner that permits easy removal. You can buy a mounting bracket (or make your own from sail track) to allow the transducer to be easily mounted and removed from the boat transom.

Live Bait Tank

If you enjoy live baiting, you can purchase a professionally constructed and durable icebox or you can build your own. A simple live bait tank can be made from a plastic bucket with lid, a cheap submersible bilge pump and a few plastic fittings and hose. The bilge pump can be mounted on the transom with aluminium sail track for easy removal for transport. Live bait can be kept alive for many hours with this simple cheap set up.


If you are fishing in areas with channels and big tides or at night, a GPS (Global Positioning Device) is a wonderful bit of gear to have. How often have you thought you were in one place and then found out you were kilometres out. There are Depth Sounders that incorporate a GPS, or it is possible to buy small lightweight handhelds now that run for 24 hours on a set of small batteries.


You might consider adding stability to your boat by adding side buoyancy bags such as Air O Float type stabilisers. These are mounted on sail track and are easy to remove when transporting the boat.

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Created: July 2007
Revised: August 2007
Latest Feedback: April 2018

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