I’ve never been the patient type so let me cut right to the chase – If you want a roof top tent, buy one. Look, let’s all agree to stop pretending that the heart isn’t a major factor in this decision and move on. Agreed?
Now, should you buy a roof top tent? That’s a much better question.
Roof top tents are a big part of the insanely popular overland movement that is rolling over the country right now and the appeal is obvious; A big comfy bed that travels with you and is ready at a moments notice, making wherever you park your own private campground.
So, let’s talk about roof top tents – or RTT’s for short – what they are, how do they compare to the alternatives and which one is right for you?
- What are the different kinds of tents out there?
- Pros and Cons.
- How do they compare to other ways to camp?
- What to look for.
What Are the Different of Roof Top Tents Options?
There is more than one kind of RTT, in fact there are basically 3 different takes on the RTT
Folding Roof Top Tents
These are by far the most common and they offer very good interior volumes for their packed size. They are fabric tents on aluminum frames with strong support structures. Rear or side entry.
Pros – Roomiest. Large internal volume for packed size. Integrated ladder. Comfortable mattress. Optional awning rooms available for standing room.
Cons –Heavier. Increased wind resistance and greater mileage and power penalties (compared to other RTT’s). More involved setup and takedown (the slowest of the three types).
Popup Roof Top Tents
These are less common than folding but much older in origin. These offer vertical lift mechanisms, either mechanical or pneumatic, with hard shell roof structures and aluminum or fiber bases. Side entry.
Pros – Better aerodynamics for reduced power and mileage penalty. Better roof insulation. May offer roof storage options on top of the hard shell. Faster setup and takedown. More protected stowed.
Cons – Limited living space, floor space is as wide and long deployed as it is stowed. More expensive. Ladder deploys separately. Most susceptible to wind.
Forward Pivot or Clamshell Roof Top Tents
Sort of a simplified popup, these pivot on a single pivot or parallelogram linkage to reveal their living space, tall on one end, short on the other. These offer the same basic experience as the popup trading interior volume for speed of setup and takedown. Rear entry.
Pros – Fastest. Aerodynamic. Good insulation. Minimal mechanical failure points. Light. May offer roof storage on top of the shell.
General Pros and Cons of Roof Top Tents
A roof top tent is an expensive piece of camping gear and the value of such an item is something you’ll have to weigh against their benefits.
- Cool. They just are, they make most vehicles look great.
- Gets you off ground up high away from the mud, the creepy crawlies and the rest of the animal kingdom . Even though the threat is mostly imagined the anxiety it can create is not. If the thought or sound of animal life bugs you, you’ll sleep better up high.
- Deploy anywhere you can find or make level ground. No stakes to drive into rocky soil, no need to find a smooth bit of ground for a tent.
- Gives you a high-quality mattress and room to store your sleeping gear already set out (in most cases).
- It’s not universally the case but generally you will get higher quality material than most tents due to your vehicle carrying the load, not you, so weight is of lesser importance over material thickness and quality.
- Really expensive, though the prices are starting to come down as more manufactures get in the market.
- Requires a sturdy roof rack. Some RTT’s are light enough to be carried on factory crossbars but most are not and will require heavier duty racks to shoulder the load. Especially true if you plan to off-road with it. (figure 2-3x rack rated capacity for serious off-road or overlanding)
- They are often 150 pounds at a minimum and are very large and difficult to install, remove and store. Where are you going to put it when you aren’t using it?
- Decrease handling and stability, on and off-road. A lot of weight up high is a bad idea for handling generally speaking.
- Decrease mpg and passing power. Folding tents especially will drain your highway mileage to the tune of about 15-20%. Other types will take about 10-15% same figures passing power.
- When deployed your vehicle is the campground and you can’t drive anywhere without also packing up camp. Advantageous for camping in a new place each night. A major drag if you plan to stay somewhere for a while and explore by car.
How do they stack up in the camping world?
Speed – An often cited example of the advantages of a RTT
- Foldout – 7-10 minutes both up and down. +5-10 minutes for an optional annex.
- Popup – 1-5 minutes up. 2-5 minutes down.
- Clamshell – Seconds up. 2-3 minutes down
- Sleeping in your vehicle – Seconds-10 minutes.
- Small ground tent – 3-5 minutes to erect. 5-10 minutes to furnish. 10 minutes to pack up. 3-5 minutes to take down.
- Large ground tent/canvas tent – 7-10 minutes to erect. 5-10 minutes to furnish. 10-15 minutes to pack up. 5-7 minutes to take down.
Comfort – More than speed
- Foldout RTT – Good mattress. Good weather protection. Terrain independent. Standing room with annex.
- Popup/clamshell RTT– Good mattress. Good weather protection. Better insulation.
- In vehicle camping – Terrain independent. Excellent weather protection. Moderate insulation. Quietest. Access to vehicle systems (lights/power/etc).
- Small ground tent – Versatile. Vehicle independent. Best ventilated.
- Large/canvas – Most floor space. Best standing room. Excellent weather protection (canvas). Best for waiting out bad weather. Room for very comfortable accommodations.
Truck Bed Tents
There is another option worth considering that splits the difference between RTT’s and ground tents, and that is the world of truck and SUV tents.
These tents, as the name implies, go over your trucks bed to give you cover and claim over the bed tray area for sleeping.
Add a custom molded air mattress and they can be incredibly comfortable. This is also a great choice if you have a truck topper already.
Pros – Stay high and dry. Makes the most of available space. Great for larger groups.
Cons – Stays with the vehicle (can’t use vehicle without packing up). Ground tent setup cons. Less weather resistant compared to in car or RTT. Must unload the bed or vehicle to use.
The SUV models are ideal for short cars or for tall people who like the idea of sleeping in car but for which the reality doesn’t work out. These tents allow you to leave the hatch open for that extra space while remaining protected from the elements. These also have the benefit of adding additional sleeping space so a couple can stay in the vehicle while kids or friends can stay in the tent but stay together. These are a fantastic budget alternative to using your vehicle to its full potential as a sleeping system.
As an aside – If you have to choose between putting gear on the roof or putting a roof top tent on the roof, you will get better vehicle performance without the RTT. If you don’t want to choose between camp comfort and ease and cargo space, a RTT might be ideal for you. NOTE: Be careful not to overload your vehicle, it’s dangerous and will restrict your off-road travels by limiting suspension travel and decreasing stability.
What to look for
So what do you look for in a quality, long lasting roof top tent?
- Find a reputable brand – The ARB Simpson tent was the default choice for years and its design is the foundation for most manufactures’ tents. TJM is also a well-known Australian brand. In many cases some manufactures simply rebrand tents like the ARB the Simpson tent, pay close attention to the design and you’ll spot them.
- Size to your vehicle – It may be tempting to go for the bigger tent “just in case” but you can easily “over-tent” a smaller vehicle and on off-road vehicles more tent is just more weight up top which any pro will tell you is a bad idea. Big vehicle for your big family? Tuff Stuff currently has what they claim to be the largest RTT on the market. At 94×79 inches floor space, it’s more than a foot wider than a king bed.
- Construction – Compare fabric type and weight, as well as mattress thickness. These should be specs a manufacture will list, or they can provide to you upon request. Thicker isn’t necessarily better (remember, more tent, more weight) but a thick nylon ripstop or cotton/poly ripstop blend will serve you for years. Yakima makes a lighter weight folding option for smaller vehicles but likely won’t be as abusive resistant. Check that the base of popup and clamshell types are rigid and up to the abuse.
- Weather protection – Some manufactures will sell a “severe weather” or insulation kit for cold and/or wet environment. Check to see if that’s an option if that’s important to your climate. Be sure to get a moisture barrier as well. Some tents come with one standard; some are optional. Tuff stuff makes a moisture barrier that will work in most similarly sized tents if you don’t have one. Even in arid environments, it’s a good idea.
- Consider your priorities – Like to travel light and fast? Consider spending more on a faster RTT like a pivot. Traveling with a family? A folder will be your best bet. Need to carry a surfboard or bikes on your RTT? Find a type and brand that allows for additional accessory mounting.
Hopefully that you’ve got a picture that is more complete than a few shots on Instagram can provide. Most importantly go out and explore. I’ll see you on the trail.