Recently, here at the AutoAnything Resource Center we’ve been featuring some articles about the many ways you can get a nature fix with your four wheel drive. Where you lay your head is a big part of the equation whether you’re headed out camping for two weeks or just a couple of nights. And, when we talk camping, we’re talking tents.
Over the last few years, the new rage in tent camping in the US has been the rooftop tent (RTT). While nothing new to our friends in Europe, South Africa, and Australia (the basic design has been around since the 1930s), we North Americans have been a little slow to the RTT game.
But, we’re catching up with a vengeance. The market is flooded now with new brands and designs, and some retailers can barely keep up with demand. Garrett wrote in depth about how to navigate the sometimes bewildering world of rooftop tents, you can read it here.
On the other hand, I wrote not too long ago about the features and benefits of the truck bed tent – a much more common sleeping solution for pickup owners here state-side before the reign of the roof tent. The truck bed tent still has its benefits, but will it get left in the dust by the fancy upstart?
Let’s take some time to compare the two options. For pickup truck drivers, both of these shelters can work equally well. But depending on your needs, you may find yourself preferring one to the other. Roof top tents first.
Rooftop Tents for Pickups
Price and Commitment
The two major factors in deciding on a roof top tent are how willing you are to add significantly more equipment to both your truck and your camping setup, and how much you are willing to spend.
Roof tents are an order of magnitude more expensive than truck-bed tents. To really maximize their usefulness, you will be looking at installing extra permanent or semi-permanent accessories to your truck. This adds extra cost onto the check you will write for the tent itself.
Of course, the big variable is right there in the name. Pickups are usually short on roof real estate, where the RTT needs to go. Some crew or double cab trucks may be able to accommodate a roof tent, but it’s going to be a tight fit. And, honestly, it’s going to look kind of awkward, not to mention make for some odd handling.
The better mounting solution for RTTs on pickups is the ladder rack, or bed rack. These open-framed racks create a versatile and super strong platform not only for your RTT, but also for other gear and equipment that you use regularly on trips into the wilderness. Jerry cans for fuel and water, traction boards, awnings, and shovels and axes.
A traditional truck-bed canopy can also serve as the foundation for your RTT install. It provides more all-weather protection and security for the gear you store in your truck bed, and offers a sleeker and more uniform look for your pickup. In either case, mounting your roof tent above the bed means better weight distribution, and a more convenient camp setup.
Also on the commitment front, a rooftop tent is a complex and heavy accessory, and it’s a pain to remove from your rig regularly. We’ve all seen folks out there on the roads with RTTs attached to their daily drivers, but the hit on aerodynamics and weight will affect your fuel efficiency. So, if you use your pickup for work or to drop the kids off at school, this might be a consideration.
Benefits of Rooftop Tents
On the other hand, RTTs do some things exceptionally well. If you have a dedicated adventure rig, or get out to the hills frequently, the convenience of having your shelter ready to go at the drop of a hat is unparalleled. Just load up the cooler or the fridge, and hit the road. They take minutes to set up and take down, especially hard-sided roof tents. They are built with heavy duty materials and with longevity and strength in mind. They can easily withstand severe weather conditions and years living on the top of your rig.
Soft-sided roof tents provide a more comfortable sleeping space than most truck beds – particularly width-wise. Most can also stow away your bedding inside the tent when you pack it up, saving storage space in your rig. Lastly, there’s a positive psychological benefit. Sleeping up high speaks to a deeply buried part of our evolutionary brain when we used to spend the night in trees to avoid predators on the ground. RTT’s are cozy – there’s no two ways about it.
All that said, I confess to some bias on behalf of the rooftop tent – I’ve owned three different roof tents from three different manufacturers on three different rigs, and traveled with them extensively on two continents. I’ve had some pretty amazing adventures with my RTTs in the past, and that may color my opinion on this. That said, none of my adventure vehicles were pickups. My Jeep, my Mitsubishi, and my Land Rover were all SUVs.
Pickup Bed Tents
Cost and Convenience
I reviewed some of the benefits of truck bed tents in my prior article, but it’s worth revisiting some of those here. First on the list is simply the cost factor – the truck-bed tent is much less expensive than a rooftop tent, and doesn’t require the costly accessories you need to install a RTT on your pickup. Ringing up at only $200 to $300 dollars, they undercut roof tents by a significant margin. Add a custom truck bed air mattress, and you’re ready to run for the hills for a total investment of less than $500.
Our pickups take on many jobs in our lives. It’s their versatility that makes them so appealing, and partly why manufacturers sell so many of them. The commitment to a roof top tent reduces that utility. So if you’re an infrequent camper, the truck bed tent may be more your speed. It’s easy to put up and take down, and easy to store in your garage when your truck is doing other truck stuff.
There is a big range of accessories now available for truck bed tents – from extended awnings and vestibules for shade and privacy, to truck truck bed air mattresses for sleeping in extra comfort in the back of your truck.
Compromises with Truck Bed Tents
There are some drawbacks with these old standbys. Truck bed tents are not built with as robust of materials as a roof tent. They are essentially traditional nylon ground tents you place on your pickup bed, rather than on the dirt. If you’re sleeping in your truck bed, you’re losing that storage space for all your camping gear overnight. You will need to find somewhere else to store it while you’re catching your ZZZZZs.
Truck bed tents, like roof top tents also limit your mobility. If you want to establish a base camp, and use your days to go hunting, hiking, or exploring off road trails, you’ll need to fold up and stow your tent every time you leave camp. A basic free-standing ground tent gives you more flexibility for short-term adventures.
A Tenting Detente
I think the final word of advice here is to think really carefully about how you are using your truck. If you’re a casual camper, with maybe only a few weekends a year out in the wild, the truck bed tent may be the way to go. If you find yourself getting more serious about your adventures, or spend a lot of time on the road, the rooftop tent is the perfect solution for your truck-based home on wheels.
In either case, get out there and explore the great outdoors! You’ll have a great night’s sleep either way.
Have any good pickup truck camping hacks? Questions about tents? Let us know down in the comments.