Guest Contributor: Craig Fitzgerald
Rooftop tents have some distinct advantages over traditional ground tents. Auto manufacturers are now offering either the racks and bracketry required to bolt on an aftermarket rooftop tent or their own branded tents through their accessory catalogs.
Along with the advantages, we’ll be discussing the things to look out for when you’re buying a rooftop tent, both from the tents themselves and from your vehicle, and the accessories required to attach one.
Advantages of a Rooftop Tent
When your author sampled a Tepui Low-Pro 2 rooftop tent attached to a Subaru Ascent a few years back, the biggest question we got was “What’s the point of having a tent on the roof when I could spend $35 on a tent at Walmart and sleep on the ground?”
First of all, you’re not sleeping on the ground. If you’ve ever camped on a night when the rain was pouring down in sheets, you know that your tent can pretty quickly turn into a part of a river system, with water channeling past your sleeping bag. Getting the tent off the ground avoids this entirely.
Second, you end up freeing up cargo space for other stuff. Your sleeping bags, sleeping pads (if necessary, we’ll get to that in a minute), and tent are all self-contained inside the folded tent, so your cargo area in the vehicle can be devoted to coolers, backpacks, and all your other necessary camping gear.
The worst part of camping is all the detritus you end up dragging into the tent. Sure, you can kick off your shoes before you get inside, but you still end up bringing in all kinds of leaves and dirt. The fact that you climb a ladder to get inside means that a lot of that woodland debris ends up falling off of your clothes and shoes before you get inside the tent.
Finally, having a tent like this is a major timesaver. After we’d unfolded it once, getting it knocked down and reassembled took minutes. In our example, the ladder attaches to the bottom of the unfolding half of the platform and you use it as a lever to pull the platform open. Other tents use gas struts to unfold the tent.
Disadvantages of a Rooftop Tent
However, it’s not all sunshine and roses. There are some disadvantages of a rooftop tent to keep in mind before you decide on purchasing one.
The biggest one is cost. You’re looking at a $1,000 investment, at least. The larger and more sophisticated you get, the steeper the price of entry, though we’ve noticed that the price has come down quite a bit as these have become more popular. The Thule Tepui Low-Pro 2 we used initially had a price tag of around $1,600, but you can buy one of these direct from Thule for $1,295 today.
While setup and knockdown are easy, it’s still something of a hassle to have to fold the tent and set it up again every time you want to go somewhere. The nice part about a regular ground tent is that you can leave it at your campsite and drive anywhere you want. Not so much with the rooftop version. It’s at its best if you leave your vehicle at the campsite and explore by bicycle, dirt bike, or on foot.
You need to understand just how much weight your vehicle’s roof can support, in both static and dynamic capacity. Static capacity is how much weight the roof can hold when the vehicle is parked. Dynamic capacity is how much weight it can handle when the vehicle is in motion with the tent folded. As an example, most of Subaru’s outdoor-oriented vehicles have had their static roof capacities increased to 700 pounds over the last few model years, specifically because older models were well past the capacity with a tent, rack, and two occupants on board.
You also may notice a fuel mileage penalty. Some of the tents are tucked into aerodynamic hard-shell boxes that help this a bit, but it’s still a big sail up on the roof that can lower your overall fuel economy.
Finally, you need to purchase the correct roof rack or rails for the tent to mount to, which can also add to the expense.
Best Budget Rooftop Tent
You can probably find a cheaper tent on Amazon, but this is an example of a good quality tent that isn’t insanely expensive.
This tent is described as “super low profile,” folding down to just 330mm (12.99 inches), meaning that it’s going to catch the wind a bit less than others. That said, it folds under a nylon cover, not a hard shell, so if it rains on your way to your location, things are going to get wet.
The tent includes a flysheet, a full tent cover, a collapsible aluminum ladder, mounting hardware, and a cover that protects the tent in transport. It also includes a mattress – an important consideration with any of these tents. The built-in 2.25-inch thick mattress ends up being warmer than an air mattress and a lot more comfortable than a crash pad.
There are also a million other inexpensive accessories like a vestibule than hangs under the platform, allowing you a standing space for changing clothes and keeping shoes and your other gear.
Best Hard Shell Rooftop Tent
At almost three grand, the OVS Bushveld II is a serious commitment. But it’s one of the more affordable hard shell tents we came across. Most of these come in at closer to $3,200.
Hard shell tents do have some advantages. They close entirely under a hard cover, which can be more aerodynamic, and protect your tent more effectively when you’re on the road. In a driving rainstorm on the way to a remote location, a tent under a hard shell cover is going to stay dry while one under a nylon cover has the chance to get soaked.
The disadvantage is the form factor. The hard shell on all of these examples becomes one wall of the tent when it’s unfolded. Some unfold up at a 45-degree angle. Others – like this one – unfold almost vertically. It’s not a bad thing, but instead of a soft wall with a zippered screen, the person stuck at that end of the tent has a solid wall and might not get the access to the breeze that other occupants might.
The OVS Bushveld II has a couple of nice features that lesser tents don’t, including an integrated LED light strip and gas struts that open the shell, making setup even easier than some competitive tents.
Best Rooftop Tent for Small Vehicles
These are kind of the Cadillac (forgive the expression) of rooftop tents, and the price tag lets you know it. The advantage here is that it’s small and light, tipping the scales at just 125 pounds. If you’re driving a vehicle with a less-than-optimal static roof capacity, saving weight on the tent itself is critical.
iKamper tents don’t have the most aerodynamic covers, but they do offer the advantage of a little more storage space inside for bedding. The hard shell opens at an angle and becomes the side wall of the tent. They also have a “SkyView” screened panel in the roof that offers an unobstructed view of the stars from your lofty perch.
Best Rooftop Tent for Head Room
The Roofnest Sparrow EYE is one of the hard shell tents that unfolds at a steep angle. It’s a weird look when the tent is unfolded, kind of like the A-frame cabin that Davey and Goliath lived in. But it does offer pretty substantial headroom of 44 inches inside. Are you going to be putting your pajamas on at full standing height? No, but it does provide a bit more room to maneuver than most tents of this cost and footprint.
There are a couple of other nice things here, too, including integrated LED lighting inside, and a memory foam mattress that’s about a half-inch thicker than most of the tents you’ll find.
Best Rooftop Tent for Easy Assembly
Same name, price, and manufacturer as the Sparrow EYE, the Roofnest Sparrow is a hardshell tent that opens straight up, rather than unfolding, so the tent itself is something of a cube when it’s open.
The setup is amazingly easy. There are two latches and one strap at the rear. With those unbuckled, the tent’s inner springs will open the tent fully with just a nudge of the cover front and rear. Seconds later, you have a space to sleep.
There are some nice additional features to the Sparrow, including an included waterproof storage bag that attaches to the cover, so you can stash bedding, clothing, and other gear inside on the road without worrying that it’s going to get wet. The hard cover is also designed to accept solar panels with a hook and loop fastener, providing power while you’re on the trail.
Best Rooftop Tent for Families
The Smittybilt Overlander XL should really fall in our budget category, too. MSRP is $1,595, but on the street, we’ve seen this tent sell for less than $1,000.
It has a four-person capacity, meaning the whole nuclear family can stuff inside. If there are more of you, you can add one of the company’s mesh awning rooms that attach next to the tent, though you’ve kind of lost the advantage of camping on the roof at that point.
The downside to the Overlander XL is that it’s the least user-friendly in terms of unfolding. The tent is tucked under a water-resistant soft PVC cover and then held in the folded position with a bunch of nylon straps. Once you undo all of those, you unfold the tent with the ladder attached to the platform like a lever, and then the awnings need to be propped open with included tent poles. Not exactly difficult, but not the setup ease of the Sparrow. Users have also complained about the quality of the ladder, and the thickness of the mattress. In the rooftop tent game, it does appear that you get what you pay for.
There’s a definite reason that rooftop camping has grown exponentially over the last few years. If you’re willing to invest in the gear, it’s a more fun, comfortable and spacious experience sleeping on the roof. Just keep your vehicle’s roof capacity in mind (check your owner’s manual).
Are you still on the hunt for a new truck, SUV, or crossover to put your tent ON? We can help with that, too. Just use BestRide.com to narrow down your search to the vehicle that perfectly fits your needs and budget.
(Oh, and don’t forget you’re up in the air if you need to use the outhouse late at night.)
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.