It’s easy to get tent envy when we pull into a campsite and there is that couple who pop up their rooftop tent within minutes and settle down to watch the sun slip below the horizon while sipping a glass of champagne, and popping strawberries into each other’s mouths.
Meanwhile, we have the fun of searching for a level spot to pitch the family tent with kids wanting to go play rather than help hold the complexity of poles together until the tent is finally pitched and guy ropes are fastened.
Sweating and grimy, we haul something out of the cooler and finally get ready to relax. But the tent took so long to erect the sun actually has slipped below the horizon leaving us with nothing to see but darkness. So we hope for some fireflies at least, until we get the campfire going.
A rooftop tent is however not for everyone – you need to know the pros and cons first before rushing off to buy or order one online. The best is to talk to friends who have rooftop tents and get their honest opinions, because let’s face it any salesman in a tent emporium is going to try and convince you they are the best thing since sliced bread and microwave ovens!
Here are the pros – and the list is quite long, followed by a shorter list of the cons. But if any of the cons are a real concern for you then stay with your standard on- the-ground tent – there are amazing options available.
Why Rooftop Tents are Great
Security for your vehicle
By being above the ground you are less likely to be the target of those who want to steal a vehicle – it’s not easy to steal a vehicle with a tent on the roof.
No, thieves much prefer a vehicle neatly parked next to a tent, where they can slip through the shadows and vanish like wraiths with said vehicle. Stealing a vehicle with its tent and irate occupants could make for a pretty entertaining video clip!
Safe from animals
Waking up in the night to realize there is something BIG walking around the campsite is pretty scary. If you’re in Africa is could be lions or a hyena, in the US it could be a bear, a wolf or an alligator.
From your perch atop your car you can observe with interest, instead of needing to change the sheets cause you were that scared.
Safe from creepy crawlies
While observing with interest all the insects, arachnids and reptiles on hikes we definitely do not want them sharing our bed. Being higher up means being able to spray the access routes for creatures like scorpions, ants, and the like.
Of course you have the fly-in insects but the rooftop tents do come with gauze on the windows and door. Up above the ground you can go to bed secure in the knowledge that you are unlikely to put on a shoe that has a frog in it, find a scorpion under the pillow, or realize that a snake has been taking advantage of your body heat to warm its cold-blooded self.
Safe from itinerant thieves
We have all probably had that experience where items have mysteriously disappeared from the campsite – whether it’s cash, sunglasses, a cellphone, or other personal items.
Leave stuff in your rooftop tent – it’s easy to spot someone climbing up a ladder… and thieves really don’t like to be observed, preferring to lurk in the shadows around the back of on-the-ground tents or behind vehicles where they are screened from sight.
Cheaper than an RV
While a rooftop tent may cost a bit more than a conventional tent it is still way cheaper than an RV, plus when not in use you can remove the rooftop tent from your vehicle and store it in a garage instead of having a great big RV to find parking for when you are not using it.
Your vehicle can then resume its daily duties of getting you to work, fetching and dropping kids and shopping, looking sleek and unencumbered.
No registration fees
Your rooftop tent is not subject to extra registration fees and roadworthy checks like an RV, or a caravan, or a camping trailer. It’s great to have the convenience and comfort of a rooftop tent because you don’t have to worry about extra costs.
Quick to unpack
It just take a few minutes to put the ladder in place, pop the tent up and you’re ready to relax at ground level or climb into your tent to do a spot of sunset watching from your perch in the sky.
At the loftier level the sunsets seem closer and the morning birdsong seems especially orchestrated for you where the trees form their patterns across the sky.
Enjoy a glass of red wine in the late afternoon, while taking in the on-the-ground activities around the camp – the rooftop tent makes a great spot for people watching!
Fuel costs not significantly higher
Although the rooftop tent does pose some wind resistance they are all fairly aerodynamically designed so while you may use a little more fuel to reach your destination the price hike in fuel will not be significant.
Frees up space in the car
We have all had the experience of going camping surrounded by ‘stuff’ – so much so that you can hardly move once wedged into the vehicle and heave a sigh of relief when you arrive and finally move your legs that were folded on top of various backpacks that were taking up the foot space.
Then there’s the ‘stuff’ from the back that keeps bumping you on the head anytime the driver applies brakes beyond the sedate manner in which Queen Elizabeth is chauffeured around. Now the tent can go on top and not inside, giving passengers more legroom and resulting in less when-are-we-getting-there rants.
A rooftop annex allows for extra space
If you thought rooftop tents were just for couples and not families then think again – many tents come with an extra annex so the kids can have their own space too.
The mattress supplied with a rooftop tent is usually a far better quality than the types of mattresses you can get for standard cots. This means a better night’s sleep on a level base leaving you feeling refreshed in the morning instead of wondering why we have hipbones that seem to want to connect with every lump on the ground.
Sand free sleeping
Some people won’t go camping simply because they can’t stand the feel of grains of sand between the sheets. With the rooftop tent above the ground, dust and dirt don’t get tracked in so easily, and I have seen people place a bowl of water next to the base of the ladder so they can rinse off their feet before climbing up and into bed.
Being a little above the ground means you can take advantage of the cool night breezes that get lost in between the vehicles and conventional tents.
The driver needs to be extra careful when towing a caravan or trailer – always checking following distances and aiming for a parking spot en route that will accommodate the length when people want to stop for snacks or toilet breaks.
With the tent on the roof the driver can still park in all the usual spots where the car usually fits, unless it’s a covered parking area with a height restriction.
More camp spots
As long as there is a flat spot to park the vehicle you don’t have to worry about there being enough space to pitch a conventional tent and whether there are stones and sharp twigs that might destroy the base of the tent and prevent a good night’s sleep.
Won’t get affected by runoff after rain
Most seasoned campers have had that initial camping experience where they didn’t take the lie of the land into account sufficiently.
A deluge during the night creates rivulets, which at the time seem like gushing torrents with the sole purpose it seems of flowing under or into the tent resulting in sodden bedding and that unpleasant squelch every time you move.
Instead of enjoying the sunshine the next day by going for a hike it’s spent trying to get everything dry again. Flooding from ground water is impossible in a rooftop tent – the only time to get worried is if the car starts floating!
The Cons of Rooftop Tents
You need a strong bladder
If a person needs to get up once or twice a night to go to the bathroom then a rooftop tent can be quite a pain. Negotiating your way up and down the ladder and crawling into your sleeping space is not for everyone. Many people like to be able to stand straight up and head out of the tent.
Activities are confined to kneeing or lying
Because rooftop tents are quite compact there isn’t room to stand up – so most of the organizing of your sleeping space is going to take place in a kneeling or sitting position. If you are not comfortable with this kind of confinement then a rooftop tent is not for you.
Not for people with bad knees and the frail
The necessity of climbing up and down the ladder to access the sleeping pad is not for someone with bad knees or who has arthritis and cannot stand the pain of being in a kneeling position.
Rooftop tents are also not for the elderly and frail who may have difficulty with range of motion and be at risk of falling from the ladder.
Vehicle is confined to one place once tent is set up
Unlike conventional camping where people can jump into the car on a whim to go somewhere or fetch supplies, the rooftop tent does not allow for this kind of mobility.
Once you are set up that’s it – you can only walk or cycle (if you brought bikes or there are some to hire). Planning activities must be carefully done so that you don’t keep having to pack up the rooftop tent because you need the car to go somewhere, and then have to pack it out again.
Don’t lose your place
If you are camping where there are no designated spots and you pack up to head off somewhere for the day you may return to find someone else has unwittingly taken your prime spot if camping alone.
If you are with a group of other rooftop campers you can designate a vehicle to take for the day and pile in, leaving the rest of the rooftop tents set up so there are no campsite invasions and you have your prime campsite to return to.
When it rains
When the skies open and a torrential rain lashes your rooftop abode you’ll probably find yourself wishing you were inside a RV. Even if your tent is fully leakproof, there is still that permeating feeling of dampness.
A gentle rain is fine – it just adds to the romance of the rooftop tent experience, but we are talking serious someone-just-pulled-the-plug-out-of-the-sky rain. This is where the hard top roof tents are a bonus, but they are heavier and need more muscle to get them onto and off the vehicle.
When the sun shines
In the midday heat you don’t want to be in your rooftop tent unless you are so organized you have air con up there or a fan as it can get pretty stifling.
A rooftop tent is definitely for evenings of stargazing – some even come with clear panes in the roof just for this – and early morning sunrise watching. During the heat of the day it’s time to head down from on high and seek shade.
Rooftop tents are quite small
The space you have is the size of a double bed with some nifty built up pouches down the sides for storage. The average rooftop tent will accommodate 2 people and maybe a small child. If you need far more space than this then a conventional tent may be better suited to your needs.
Extra height on vehicle
The extra height on the roof of the car when travelling may cut down a bit on the handling of the vehicle due to wind resistance. While not significant it is something to be aware of, and you need to be careful when entering covered parking that the vehicle fits underneath those height booms.
The extra weight may also add a bit to your fuel bill, but it will still be significantly cheaper than driving around in an RV or towing a caravan.
Should you buy a rooftop tent? Well, it’s all about preferences and needs.
A rooftop tent can be a cost effective solution to camping and they do last a long time. The set up of the stabilizer bars doesn’t take too long and you will soon be ready to head for the great outdoors, comfortably ensconced in your vehicle, with a bottle of champagne in the cooler all ready to be that cool couple or family that has nailed the camping setup.
The Best Rooftop Tents
The following tents are at the top of people’s buying lists based on their prices, durability, and ease of operation. But what suits one person and their vehicle may not be for you, so shop around taking into consideration the height of your vehicle, the maximum weight you need the tent to support, and the type of weather expected when you’ll be using the tent.
In summer you’ll really appreciate the mosquito netting and double doors on some of the models, but if camping in winter these are not as important as a quality material that can insulate you from colder temperatures.
The weight of the tent is important, as you don’t want to risk a ticket for overloading your vehicle. Check your vehicle’s dynamic loading weight to determine the maximum you can carry on the move, as this will affect the vehicle’s handling and braking.
Generally it should be between 150 to 170lbs, and as the average rooftop tent comes in at around 100lbs, you should have a pretty safe margin there.
When choosing a tent bear in mind that aluminum is lighter than steel for poles and the ladder, that seams should be double stitched and taped to ensure they are leak proof, that zippers are robust and waterproof, and that there is adequate ventilation.
The next big question is whether you go for a soft shell roof or a hard shell. The hard shells are quicker to set up while the soft shell ones take around 5 minutes.
Packing down the tent usually takes a bit longer and you need to make sure everything is zipped up first so it packs neatly and you don’t find yourself fighting with loose bits.
Allow around 10 to 15 minutes for the pack down. The hard shell tents are heavier and a little more difficult to remove from the vehicle – some people just drive around with them on the top using the space inside as a cargo carrier until their next excursion.
There are some tents that fit the load bin of a utility vehicle, obviating the need for a ladder, but they don’t fall within the scope of this article. The following popular rooftop tents are in no particular order.
1. The Tuff Stuff Ranger Overland Rooftop Tent
|Mounts to any vehicle with cross bars|
|Windproof material and polyester rain fly to keep tent dry|
|Sleeps 4 – two, maybe 3 with a small child in the rooftop tent and 2 in the annex.|
|Lightweight with all aluminum frame, ladder and roof rack mounts|
|Comes standard with the annex included|
This is an overall favorite because it’s way cheaper than the other brands, yet doesn’t compromise on quality. It comes with sturdy aluminum poles and floor and is made from a durable rip stop fabric.
With the hinges that take most of the strain being made from stainless steel and zips that are able to take some solid use, it’s up there with the more expensive rooftop offerings at a sweet price.
For those warm days there are two windows and two doors that open the tent up to any breezes. The annex, that comes standard with the tent, is useful if you are camping with another person; need space for a pet, or just somewhere to change standing up, without having to go knee in the main tent.
Get the Tuff Stuff Ranger here.
2. The Smittybilt Overlander Tent
|Tent sleeps 2 plus a small child (max 661lb load) comfortably||Mattress could be thicker for better comfort|
|Stable ladder with wide rungs||Rainfly does tend to pool water|
|600D rip stop waterproof polyester fabric, polyurethane impregnated, and comes with a separate rainfly||Rainfly not that easy to remove once tent is up – especially if it’s on a 4×4 vehicle rather than a car|
|Industrial zippers for easy closure||Outside storage pouch could be better designed to take shoes – the obvious place to put them.|
|Is cheaper than the competition and solidly constructed|
This standard size tent is ideal for a couple and maybe a small child. The foam mattress is a high density one and has a maximum load of 661 lbs.
The 600D waterproof top and rain fly are made to withstand what Mother Nature throws on a camp trip. The side windows come with mosquito netting to keep the little pests at bay for peaceful sleeping.
The ladder telescopes for ease of storage and the whole tent is pretty easy to set up and pack down. It comes with the choice to add the Smittybilt Tent annex that attaches with heavy-duty zippers and has a removable floor. What is convenient is the inclusion of the mounting brackets with the purchase of the tent.
Get the Smittybilt Overlander Tent’s latest price on Amazon.com.
3. The TMB Motorsports Universal Fold Out Tent
|Easy to set up – no special tools required||Outlay of around $2200|
|Sturdy construction supporting 750lb load|
|Solid double zippers – work from inside and outside tent|
|Mesh all round – maximizes airflow|
|Quality material resists weather|
This popular model fits onto vehicles that have the roof rails and cross bars to support this easy-to-set-up tent that does not require any special tools. What is a bonus is the memory foam mattress and the fact that the load bearing capacity is 750 lbs. making it a sturdy choice.
In hot weather, the fly screen mesh on all four sides and the front and rear entrances allows for maximum airflow, plus it has upper air vents and flaps on the sides that open.
Storage pouches make it easier to get organized inside, and the zippers are solid and work from both inside and outside the tent to make camping life that bit easier.
Although it is at the upper end of the range, it is hard to fault this tent and you should get robust service from this rooftop tent for many years.
Check out the price for the Universal Fold Out Tent here.
4. The Tepui Explorer Kukenam Rooftop Tent
|Easy to open – no special tools needed||The weatherhood does not come standard with the tent and is an additional costs|
|Load bearing 750lbs – sleeps 2 and a child||A 3 season tent – the material is not suited for cold weather camping|
|Front and rear entrances||Mattress could be a bit softe|
|Double sided zippers make opening from inside or outside easy||Instructions are not too clear – this is a Chinese import|
|Flyscreen mesh on all sides for good airflow|
The tent is water resistant and constructed from 600D rip stop material, but if there is going to be heavy rain maybe buy the weatherhood accessory that installs over the top of the tent to keep it dry and comfy.
Once you get used to setting up and taking down the tent it should all happen within 10 minutes. If you choose the sky model you can do some stargazing from the panel in the roof before drifting off to sleep.
Mosquito netting on windows takes care of the insects and with ample ventilation this model is ideal for catching cooling breezes. The high-density foam mattress is a plus for comfortable sleeping and getting organized is easy with the 4 internal pockets that are large enough to take care of all the goodies you need to stash.
5. TMB Pop Up Roof Tent
|Wind noise minimal when travelling||Set up instructions provided are not comprehensive|
|Ample storage with 4 pouches and bungee net roof||Mattress could be thicker for more comfort|
|Double sided zippers make opening from inside or outside easy.||Bit of a cozy fit for 2 average people|
|Load bearing up to 750lbs||Installation can take some time and effort|
|The cost is pretty good for a hard shell.|
We had to include just one hard top roof tent for those who are fans of this type of tent and TMB Motorsports make a really good product. The hard shell means no rain is going to get through the roof and this one is pretty easy to put up.
The problem with many of these tents if ordered online is the lack of instructions that come with them but once you have mastered the snap strap closure you’ll be very happy with the shock assisted arms to get it up and make sure it stays up.
The memory foam mattress is pre-installed, although some would say it could be thicker. The bungee net roof storage is a nice addition together with the side pouches, leaving the sleeping area uncluttered.
Get the TMB Pop Up Roof Tent here.
Frequently Asked Questions
When moving over from a conventional tent to a rooftop tent there are bound to be many questions. These are some typical ones.
Q: What does a rooftop tent weigh?
A: Weight varies depending on whether the tent poles and ladder are made from aluminum or stainless steel poles, whether it is a 4 sleeper or 2 sleeper and whether an annex is included with the tent or not, but it is safe to say that the average rooftop tent that sleeps 2 people comes in at around 100 lbs.
When buying check the actual weight the manufacturer records for the tent as this is important for your dynamic loading capacity of the car. If the tent is too heavy is may affect the handling and braking en route to your destination.
Q: Can I put a rooftop tent on any car?
A: Not exactly. The manufacturers of the tents will suggest which vehicles their tents suit best. Overall it’s not a particularly good idea to put a rooftop tent on a small sedan car.
They are more suited to trucks and SUVs, and the tent and annex height have to be considered – if the vehicle is a bit small the annex will drape on the ground, as it will be too long.
Q: What about roof racks and mounting the tent?
A: Because your vehicle already has roof racks, possibly designed for carrying surfboards or kayaks, this does not mean they will support the weight of the tent and the people in it – some tents are rated as being able to carry a load of 750lbs, which is quite a considerable weight.
If you do not have the correct racks and cross mounts fitted your off-the-shelf roof racks could end up buckling and damaging the roof of the vehicle. There are specialist fitment centers where you can take your vehicle and they will do the correct rack fitting and cross mounts so that the tent and the people in it can enjoy a stable and safe camping experience.
Q: What does a rooftop tent cost?
A: The cost varies between around $800 to over $2200. The reason for the difference in price is that some established manufacturers have spent time and money on R&D to make sure the tents they supply are top quality, backed up by aftersales service.
The cheaper imports have basically taken ideas from the experts and put together acceptable tents but one needs to understand that they may not be quite as durable and you may not be able to get the replacement bits you need, or the quality of after sales service you expect.
The lifespan of the tent will depend on how many times a year you use it – a cheaper tent used for a couple of days a year will last quite well but if you are going camping for a couple of months over a year the tent is going to be subject to considerable more wear and tear and then you probably want to go with one of the established brands. It also depends on your budget. Quality does come at a cost.
Q: How long will a rooftop tent last?
A: It all depends on the quality of the tent you buy and how well you look after it! Some people may buy a cheaper tent and treat it with care and it will last for years, whereas other people may find that within a year or two of use bits and pieces are going to be wearing out and straps may break, mesh develops holes and zippers stick.
The quality tents will probably last a bit longer but it all comes down to how well you maintain your tent – making sure no insects or rodents can get at it while in storage, that it is packed away dry so mold doesn’t develop, and that zippers are lubricated before storing it.
Q: Is it worth buying a rooftop tent?
A: A rooftop tent is fairly pricy and you have to be sure it is what you really want. Perhaps try out a friend’s one for a night or so before making the decision.
Are you buying it for some of the pros we listed earlier and are the cons sufficient to make you think twice? Traipsing up and down a ladder at night with a toddler who needs to pee might outweigh the prospect of stargazing at night from the sky roof.
There is no denying it – rooftop tents have been around along time – dating back to the 1930’s. Although they are used all over the world, social media and advertising photos lead a person to associate them with safaris in Africa.
But why should people on safari have exclusive rights to the adventure? Use one on your next micro excursion to feel like you’re on top of the world and king of all you survey if you have decided that a rooftop tent is the way forward for your camping experiences.