Roof Top Tents: Everything You Need to Know (And More)
Obsession is a cruel mistress. Since the first time I saw a roof-top tent, I’ve had a conflicted relationship with them. Like all obsessions, the idea of the thing doesn’t always match the thing itself. But I’m still obsessed…
The first time I saw a photo of a roof-top tent, I was instantly entranced by these rolling tree houses. With a roof-top tent on my Jeep, I could go anywhere, set up camp with ease, sleep in comfort, and wake up to epic views. That was the dream.
Like many roof-top tent buyers, I quickly discovered the reality of owning a roof-top tents is a mixed bag. They offer advantages and disadvantages. Spoiler alert: I still own a rooftop tent and I’ll probably own others in the future.
Here, I’ll distill what I’ve learned about roof-top tents after using them for overland camping for nearly a decade. I’ll share what I love about them, what’s annoying, survey the various types, offer some guidance on choosing one, and a few tips for getting a bit closer to the perfect roof-top tent experience.
Why Use a Roof-Top tent? Or Not.
When I first became enamored with roof-top tents, I was primed to see their appeal. I’ve been sleeping in vehicles in the backcountry since I was in my 20s and doing a lot of rock climbing, snowboarding, and whitewater kayaking.
Compared to camping in a ground tent, crashing in your car can offer superior stealth, convenience, and protection from the elements. But it can also be claustrophobic and uncomfortable.
Shelter is an essential part of overlanding gear, and a roof-top tent, it seemed to me, offered the same convenience as sleeping in a vehicle, with more comfort and space. Since I now have a family, space and comfort were at a premium.
That was the logical argument. Practicalities aside, roof-top tents exert a deep emotional pull, evoking a certain spirit of adventure that I find irresistible. Even though we mount them atop modern vehicles, they harken to nomads of ancient times. They put me in mind of Bedouin crossing the Sahara on camels or horse-mounted Apache passing through seas of Great Plains grass.
For me, the adventure factor of using a roof-top tent is probably as important or even more important than any practical advantage they offer over other sleeping arrangements. That’s not to say there aren’t practical reasons to use one. There are and I’ll get into them later on. But I think it’s worth noting that part of the allure and the pleasure of using a roof-top tent is that they are, well…fun.
Now that we’ve established that it’s perfectly reasonable to use a roof-top tent for the sheer pleasure of it, let’s talk about the practicalities (or lack thereof).
Roof-Top Tents Pros & Cons
Here’s a summary of advantages and disadvantages I outlined below:
Pros of roof-top tents
Cons of roof-top tents:
Are Roof-Top Tents Convenient?
Going camping can be a lot of work. Packing a tent, sleeping pads, pillows, and sleeping bags, and then setting everything up at camp is time consuming. One of the primary benefits (or perceived benefits) of roof-top tents that appealed to me was the convenience of set up and take down.
The tent would be on my Jeep and I could simply unfold it wherever I happened to post up for the night. No searching around in the dark for a flat place to pitch my tent. I wouldn’t need to pack and unpack my sleeping gear, I figured, as it would stay in the tent. Lastly, since the tent was on top of my car, it wouldn’t get dirty and wouldn’t need to be cleaned as often. I’m impatient and have a robust distaste for packing up and later cleaning a dirty tent.
Set Up and Take Down
On the point of ease of set up and take down, the truth is that it depends somewhat on your tent make and model. My first roof-top tent was an early model from Tepui, one the first US makers of roof-top tents at the beginning of the recent overlanding boom. Truth be told, I could set up a ground tent faster than that Tepui tent – which was pretty similar to a number of popular entry-level RTT models on the market today.
The main work of setting up and taking down this style of tent is removing the travel cover that protects the tent in transit and putting it back on again when you are breaking camp. Another bit of work is fitting tent poles that help stabilize the tent and hold open the windows. Modern ground tents can be dead easy to set up and stow thanks to the advent of quick release clips. In my experience they are just as fast to deploy as a basic soft-top roof-top tent.
It’s worth noting that I drive a lifted Jeep Wrangler, the height of which made opening and stowing the tent much more difficult. I took to bringing a step ladder with me to set up my first tent. If you have a tall vehicle and don’t like Spidermaning around to set up camp, think long and hard about whether a RTT is right for you.
That said, setting up a roof-top tent that’s closer to the ground is much easier. Also, some types of roof-top tents are very quick to deploy and stow. These tend to be hard-shell roof-top tents that deploy with the help of gas struts. The hard shell makes it easier to close the tent up, as there typically aren’t a lot of zippers and straps to mess with. One of the most annoying tasks is getting the tent fabric tucked inside as you sandwich a folding roof-top tent closed, and newer tents, especially the hard shells, make this simpler.
Another element of convenience a roof-top tent MAY offer is letting you stow your bedding in the tent when it’s stowed. This theoretically saves time having to pack up your gear between campsites, and can be helpful if you are on a long trip. In my experience, this it’s only marginally helpful. The tents I’ve owned haven’t offered space for more than unfolded sleeping bags or a blanket. And when I finish a trip, I want to unpack bedding to air it and/or clean it, so having to unfold the tent at home to retrieve it would be added work.
Finding a Campsite
At first blush, a roof-top tent offers the convenience of parking anywhere and setting up camp in a jiffy. In reality, it’s not always easy to find a perfect (or even close to perfect) place to camp. There are three things that can make finding a site a hassle.
First, it needs to be somewhat level. Even more so than a ground tent, you want your roof-top tent level, since you want the weight distributed evenly on the roof racks and you need to climb the ladder. You can level your vehicle or trailer with leveling blocks or rocks, but it’s a lot easier when your on relatively level ground.
Of course, if you are camping in a developed campground, the spots tend to be somewhat close to level (though not always). The challenge there can be parking multiple cars in a small parking area and then deploying your tent.
One advantage of a roof-top tent is that, while it can be a hassle to level your vehicle, typically you will eventually get it level. This isn’t always true of a ground tent. It’s very common to find a camp site where none of the spots are truly level and rock free. The ability to almost always have a level sleeping surface is a big advantage of roof-top tents.
Day Trips Away from Camp
I’m aware that I sound pretty negative so far. I really do like using roof-top tents. And I say that now, because I’m about to get into the thing that caused me to stop using them all together for a time. Here’s the scenario. You find a terrific camp site and set up your tent.
The next day, you want to go explore the area in your vehicle. Time to take the tent down. Get back from the day trip, and it’s time to put the tent back up for the night. It gets old furling and unfurling your car-top nest.
There are three things that can be done to address this, separately or in combination. First, you can try to stay in camp more or hike or bike from camp on outings. Or, you can get a tent that is very easy to set-up and take down (which I did). Lastly, you can do the other thing that I did, which is to get an overland trailer so you can leave camp without having to stow your tent.
To sum it up, a roof-top tent is not necessarily more convenient than a ground tent. I suspect manufacturers are getting wind of this, which is why newer, more expensive hard shell tents are easier to deploy and stow. For me, where roof-top tents really shine is what I’ll talk about next: comfort.
Are Roof-Top Tents Comfortable?
I have a hard time sleeping when I camp. I can’t get comfortable on air mattresses and sleeping near the ground gets me to thinking about critters. Sleeping in a roof-top tent feels more secure and, if the mattress is decent, can be more comfortable.
I add that part about the mattress being decent because the mattresses in my first two roof top tents were crap (or at least not bougie enough for my middle-aged bones). Both tents were older models that I bought used, and the mattresses were either too thin to begin with or worn out. Whatever the cause, I ended up sleeping with my backpacking sleeping pad on top of the tent mattress, which felt like it was defeating the purpose.
Now that I have a tent with a newer, better mattress (3 inches thick), I find sleeping in a rooftop tent more comfortable than sleeping in a ground tent. Here are a few reasons why.
- I like being off the ground, away from people, animals, bugs, and vehicles driving by. It feels more safe and secure, which helps me sleep, and a good night’s sleep is priceless.
- It’s cleaner. While not all dirt stays out of a roof-top tent, my family seems to shake off some dust on the way up the ladder.
- It’s dryer and warmer. A roof-top tent keeps you off the cold wet ground and retains heat better, thanks to thicker wall material, insulation, and foam matresses.
- It’s darker. Roof-top tents tend to be made from heavier material than your typical ground tent. This can make them darker inside, which is better for sleeping. A hard top helps with this also. My current tent from CVT is very dark inside when closed up, even in the middle of a sunny day.
Some tents have built-in lights and even cooling fans, which are nice amenities. My newest tent has lights inside and under the floor that folds out for outdoor lighting around the ladder. These are powered by a battery pack that attaches with a USB cable.
For more luxurious tents, you’ll pay more. So there is a trade off between money and comfort to some extent. A really nice ground tent will run a few hundred dollars. A high-end roof-rop tent will cost several thousand dollars. If you are on a tight budget, you’d be wise to get a quality ground tent and some high quality sleeping pads and save your money for gas and food. Better to get out there than spend so much money you can’t afford to go on trips.
One thing you don’t have to deal with in a roof-top tent is getting flooded during rain or melting snow or dealing with mud all over the bottom of the tent. This is a distinct advantage. I’ve woken up wet in ground tents with leaky bottoms a number of times.
Ground tents have gotten a lot better over the years at keeping water out, but they aren’t perfect. And even when they do work well, being so close to sodden ground inevitably makes the inside of the tent feel damp. Roof top tent also tend to be warmer for winter camping, as they are off the cold ground and tend to have thick foam mattresses, which have a higher R-value than inflatable sleeping pads.
Are Roof-Top Tents Safer?
Like I said before, whether I’m truly safe or not, I feel more secure in my roof-top tent. That said, there are a couple of ways that I think roof top tents actually offer a greater margin of safety.
While I’ve never come across a definitive source on this, I’ve always assumed one of the reasons people started using rooftop tents was to get some distance from dangerous animals. If you are on safari in Africa, crossing the Australian outback, or exploring far Alaska, on top of your vehicle seems like a reasonable place to be when a lion, grizzly bear or poisonous snake visits.
Of course, many animals can climb right up on your rig, so it’s not a fully defensible fortress, but a roof-top tent certainly provides some measure of safety from claws and fangs.
In my experience, there is more danger presented by humans than animals when camping. Not serial killers but people driving recklessly. My wife and I were once nearly run over at 5 am in the morning at a dispersed campsite by truck that was moving fast and didn’t see our tent until the last minute. In a roof-top tent, we would have been easier to see.
Protection from the elements is another possible way that rooftop tents are safer. I’m not so sure. The tents I’ve owned were sturdy – sturdier than your average ground tent. But then you are also raised above the ground, so more exposed to the wind. I’m sure if you talked to ground tent manufacturers vs roof-top tent makers you’d get an argument in either direction, but I haven’t seen any definitive testing on this front. I hereby challenge someone to do the test and let the rest of us know.
Like I said before, I do think roof-top tents keep you warmer, particularly those with thick mattresses and heavy duty construction. Some models offer insulation kits that really help keep in heat during winter camping. This can be a safety issue if you are camping in particularly cold places.
The one aspect of roof-top tents that can be dangerous is climbing up and down the ladder. You can fall and it’s important to be careful when climbing up and down. If you have kids, you need to be vigilant that they don’t fall off the ladder or out an open door or window.
Types of Roof-Top Tents
Over the past decade, roof-top tent design has gone through a renaissance. There are a number of companies making them and different styles of tents, differentiated by some key features, which we’ll highlight below.
Soft-Shell vs Hard-Shell Tents
One common way to categorize roof-top tents is by their cover. When a roof-top tent is stowed on the top of your vehicle or trailer, it will be protected in a case from the wind, sun and weather. These covers are either made of soft, rubberized fabric or a hard shell. Below I’ll go through a number of common types of tent, some of which have soft shells and hard shells.
Some roof-top tent covers are made of soft waterproof material that fastens over the collapsed tent, typically with zippers, straps, velcro or some combination of the three. When you remove the cover to open the tent, it will often fall out of the way to the side of your vehicle or trailer.
Pros of Soft-Shell Tents
- Less expensive
- Very large tents available
- Weigh less than Hardshell tents
Cons of Soft-Shell Tents
- More difficult to set up and take down
- Tent cover can get in the way of car access
- Cover is less durable
Other models protect the tent with a hard cover made of plastic, aluminum or composite, or a blend of these materials. When you open a hard cover tent, the cover becomes a structural part of the tent, either a roof or a wall or, in some cases, both. These tents often have hydraulic struts that help lift the cover to open it.
Pros of Hard-Shell Tents
- Easier to setup and take down
- No tent cover hanging down
- Cover may offer extra protection as part of tent walls or roof
- Covers tend to be more durable
- Can often stow bedding inside when closed
Cons of Hard-Shell Tents
- More expensive
- Tend to be smaller than soft top tents
Classic Soft-Shell Roof-Top tent
When roof-top tents first started making their way to the United States and becoming popular, they were most often tents that folded out from a hinge in the middle of the floor. Using a telescoping ladder as leverage to open the tent, the tent’s frame and fabric unfurled as the floor hinged into place. The ladder serves double duty as a support for the side of the floor that extends out from your vehicle.
These tents are still popular and are some of the most affordable on the market. There are too many manufacturers of these to name them all. My first RTT was a Tepui, which was one of the early US brands. They were bought out by Thule, which continues to make the tents under the Tepui brand name. Other solid options are made by Yakima, ARB, Roofnest, CVT, and Smittybilt.
Hard-Shell Fold-Out Roof-Top Tent
The hardshell fold-out roof-top tent was pioneered by iKamper, which started as a kickstarter project, but are now made by several companies. These hybrid tents are similar to the classic soft-shell tents I mentioned above, but they incorporate a hard shell to enclose the tent when stowed. When the tent is opened, the hard shell becomes part of the tent’s walls, offering extra protection.
The hardshell is supported by gas struts which push the shell open when setting up. In my experience, these tents are a bit easier to set up and take down than their soft-top cousines, thanks to the gas struts and the ease of tucking the tent fabric into the shell.
Another advantage is that the hard shell is typically near your head when you are sleeping, cuts down on the noise and light while you are sleeping. These tend to cost quite a bit more than a classic soft-top tent, and often have extra features built in, such as insulation and lighting. Other companies that make high-quality versions of this style of tent are Roofnest and CVT.
Hard Shell Pop-Up Roof-Top Tents
Hard shell pop-up tents are built with a hardshell bottom and top that sandwiches the tent and tent frame when closed. When opening, struts lift the roof straight up from all four corners, which causes the tent’s frame and fabric walls to expand. When set up, these tents are boxy, with the roof flat across the top and the walls all the same height.
Where these tents really stand out is the ease with which they deploy and stow. Because they are set up entirely with the force of the struts, and don’t require any manual unfolding of the floor and frame, they are very simple to set up and take down. However, because the floor is always the same footprint (it doesn’t fold out larger) they tend to be limited in size and the larger ones take up more space on the top of your vehicle or trailer. These tents tend to be some of the higher end designs on the market, and often offer fancy amenities, like lighting and even electric ventilation fans. Companies that make these models include James Baroud, Thule, Badass, Roam, and Roofnest.
If you are looking for a tent with lightning fast set up and take down, one of these might be right up your alley.
Wedge Tent (aka Platform Tent)
Another style of hard shell roof-top tent that’s quick to set up and stow are wedge tents. These tents are – you guessed it – wedge shaped, with a hard top that pivots from one of the short edges of the base to lift the frame and fabric into a large triangle. Like other hardshell models, these use gas struts to help lift the weight of the top.
These roof-top tents are fairly new as stand-alone tents, but they mimic the style of pop-up tops on campers vans that have been around for years. Many of them are designed to go on the back of pickup trucks and allow you to enter the tent from the bottom as well as a side ladder. GoFast Campers, which combine the wedge tent with side panels that enclose a truck’s bed, are good examples of this class of roof-top tent.
They tend to be fairly low profile, compared to other hard-top tents. But like the pop-up roof-top tents, the downside with wedge tents is that they tend to be limited in size, as the floor is a fixed size. Other companies that make wedge tents are Roofnest, Thule, CVT, Alu-Cab, and iKamper,
These can fit on any vehicle, but they are particularly popular among pick-up truck owners, as their configuration works well with a truck bed and tailgate.
Integrated Pop-Up Tents
There are also companies, such as Ursa Minor Vehicles and Hatchet Campers, that make tents that integrate into the top of vehicles so that the roof tent can be easily accessed from inside your vehicle. While these replace the roof of your vehicle, they aren’t exactly roof-top tents, as we are using the term here. But they ultimately serve the same purposes of added convenience and comfort.
Quality Roof-Top Tent Manufacturers
As roof-top tents and overlanding in general have gotten more popular, there has been an explosions of companies making roof-top tents. Below, for your convenience, is a list of some of the companies make good-quality tents (some more expensive than others).
Choosing a Roof-Top Tent
Now you know the pros and cons of using a roof-top tent–as I see them anyway–and the various type available. If you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you are seriously considering one. Below, I’ll highlight some factors to consider in picking one.
If you are only sleeping one or two people, the world is your oyster. You can pretty much pick from any of the tent styles listed above. If you are sleeping three or more, you probably want to look into a tent with a bottom that folds out to double the foot print. So classic soft top tent or one of the hard tops with a fold out floor, like the iKamper.
The occupant numbers listed on tents tend to be BS. A three person tent is really comfortable for two people, in most cases, for instance. Instead of relying on what tent makers claim as occupant capacity, look at the actual mattress size and compare it to the size of real beds – doubles, queens, kings, etc.
Roof-top tents are typically quite a bit more expensive than ground tents – ranging in price from $1000 to over $6000. The least expensive are the classic soft-top tents and the priciest are certain hard shell tents that include lights, cooling fans and other amenities. With the more expensive tents, you will typically get some combination of more size, weather resistance, durability, nicer mattresses, and ease of set up and take down. That said, a basic three-season, soft-top tent will work in many situations.
You’ll want to make sure that your tent will fit on your vehicle. This is mostly a contraction of the roof racks you’ll be using, but sometimes the configuration of your vehicle or trailer needs to be accounted for also. For instance, I have awning mounts on my overland trailer that limit where I can mount a tent, so I would need to alter them to use a larger tent. To figure out what racks will work with your tent, check out the tent manufacturer’s website or give them a call.
It’s very important to consider weight when choosing a roof-top tent. Some vehicles have limits on how much weight they can support on the roof, and you don’t want to exceed that limit. Also, check your roof-rack’s weight limits, both the dynamic and static weight limits. The static weight limit refers to the amount of weight the rack can support when the vehicle is stationary, while the dynamic weight limit refers to how much weight the rack can carry when the vehicle is moving. Since the dynamic limit is typically less, it will dictate the maximum weight the rack can carry.
Like ground tents, roof-top tents are typically sold with a seasonality rating – either 3 season or 4 season. Three-season tents are designed for camping during the temperate conditions of spring, summer, and fall. If you plan to camp in more extreme conditions, an extended-season (3+ season) tent or a 4-season tent may be more appropriate.
Extended-season tents are suitable for summer use but can also withstand moderate snow, making them a good choice for early spring and late fall trips.They have fewer mesh panels than 3-season tents and use heavier fabrics and more poles to provide increased warmth and sturdiness.
On the other hand, 4-season tents are designed to withstand strong winds and heavy snow loads, making them suitable for any season. Some roof-top tents have winter insulating kits available, which can help make them even warmer inside.
Mattress Thickness and Construction
Now that I’ve reached midlife, mattress thickness is one of the most important factors in considering a roof-top tent, because the comfort factor is where they really excel. Roof-top tent mattresses are typically one to three inches in thickness, though there are thicker ones available.
Basic roof-top tent mattresses may be covered in cordura like material, while the nicer ones may be quilted in a softer material. They are typically made of single or dual density foam. The dual density mattresses have a firmer foam on the bottom and a softer foam on top, and tend to be more comfortable.
Well-placed windows can go a long way to making a tent comfortable and letting you take in the nature you’ve come to visit. Some tents have more windows than others, and if you like an airy feel, you might prefer a tent with more windows.
All the tents I’ve owned have had skylight windows that let you look at the stars at night or even stand up through the open window to look around. I’m a fan.
The most significant accessories for roof-top tents are annexes, small tent rooms that attach to your roof-top tent to extend the protective living space. If you are planning to camp in inclement weather or post up for a while at one location, an annex can add an additional level of comfort and convenience.
They are particularly handy for protecting your gear from the weather and, to a lesser extent, thieves. Some tents come with the annex, but in most cases you’ll need to purchase them separately.
One of the advantages of hard shell roof-top tents is that some of them can hold roof racks on top. This allows you to carry extra cargo. Keep in mind that your vehicle racks will have a limited weight capacity, so you’ll need to account for both the weight of the tent and the weight of the cargo on the racks.
Bells and Whistles
When considering different tents, check out the various accessories that come included or are available for separate purchase. These might include shoe holders, storage webbing, lighting, and even electric ventilations fans.
If you won’t be keeping your tent on your vehicle or trailer all the time, you’ll need to find a place to store it. It’s worth checking the overall size of the tent you purchase to make sure you can fit it wherever you’ll want to store it.
I know that’s a lot of information to throw at you. But buying a roof-top tent can be a serious financial commitment and probably isn’t for everyone. There are other options, which I’ve outlined in a separate article on overlanding shelters.
As I noted above, one of the major drawbacks of roof-top tents for me was that I like to go on day trips, sometimes off-roading and didn’t want to take the tent down every time (or carry the extra weight while off-roading, for that matter). My solution was to build an overlanding trailer and there are plenty of prebuilt trailers on the market as well.
Despite the drawbacks, roof-top tents are a lot of fun and do offers some advantages over ground tents. If you are inspired to get one and are going into it well-informed (and with some money), you’re in for a great adventure.