“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die of course. Literally shit myself lifeless.” ~Bill Bryson, from A Walk in the Woods
Originally published in 2013 / updated in October 2017
“A rooftop tent, what is that?” I asked.
I could also have asked what is a roof tent, a car-top tent, a pop-up tent, or an RTT. They’re all the same thing.
Ah, the questions of a newbie overlander, an enthusiast ready to ‘explore’ the world in a car and in search of a comfortable bed for that journey… Today, 15 years on the road, it is hard to imagine that yes, we too once stood on that crossing of swapping our comfortable home for a nomadic lifestyle.
Thankfully, Coen is much more into stuff, gadgets, gear and what have you, so it was him who came with the idea to buy a rooftop tent. After I saw images of it, I was sold.
“I want this too!”
This was in 2003 and the overlanding world was not that big, at least not outside Africa and Australia. The number of brands available was limited and the prices ranged ran from very expensive to very expensive. Many things, fortunately, have changed.
The Soft-shell Rooftop Tent
Today you’ll find numerous brands in different sizes and different materials. Especially the drop-down annex has become a popular add-on. They also fit in a wider range of budgets.
A quick search on Amazon shows that there are tons of them, such as:
- The Tuff Stuff (Delta) rooftop tent (under $1000), which also comes in a family-sized version.
- The Tepui Ayer (also under $1000, and with round zippers! Why don’t they all? More on that in part 2 of this series).
- The Tepui mosquito-net version with the option to buy the weather hood separately (making it a cheaper option).
- Among the sturdy looking ones is the Camco Rooftop tent (close to $2000).
- Among the cheapest I find is a Smittybilt ($250), which, like the Camco, comes with annex changing room.
And these are just a handful of the ones available at Amazon. On the road we’ve come across rooftop tents made in Brazil and Venezuela that are sold locally. At the risk of generalizing, we’d say these are generally cheaper and made of a lighter material (e.g. nylon) than the traditional canvas Eezi Awns and Hannibals.
Conclusion: There are so, if not too, many!
- In part 2 we discuss our experiences with two soft-shell rooftop tents.
- To save you hours of searching and scrolling, check out this extensive legwork done by Expedition Portal (March 2016). You’ll find an overview of a range of soft-shell rooftop tents with prices and features. Maybe that’s a good way to get you started.
Other Types of Rooftop Tents
So you thought that was it? Uhm, no. The choice is bigger than that. The ones above are all the so-called soft-shell rooftop tents. There more types of rooftop tents. We learned about their existence when meeting other overlanders (on the road and during our Overland Reunion).
Simply put, there are 3 other groups:
1- The Hard-shell rooftop tent
Among them are the Columbus and Maggiolina. It works on a system of internal gas rams and is therefore put up and taken down super fast. You access the tent from a ladder and you can store the bedding inside the tent.
2- An integrated pop-up tent
The sides are made of fabric and the roof is hard-shell (which is the actual roof of the vehicle). The roof pops open on one side (generally the back), giving you a place to stand up straight in your vehicle. You access your bed from inside the vehicle and you can store the bedding on your bed.
3- Varieties on #1 and #2
This is everything that doesn’t fit under #1 or #2. They are constructed in such a way that a part of the roof, or the entire roof, can be lifted on all 4 corners using internal gas rams (thus creating space to stand up straight). You access your bed from the inside of your vehicle. Depending on the construction you can store the bedding on your bed, or need to put it somewhere else when taking down the roof.
What these tents have in common with soft-shell RTTs:
- Sleeping high off the ground in a tent with mesh panels on all sides, which allows for maximum ventilation. You’ll have maximum comfort in sultry regions – or at least less uncomfortable nights than when sleeping inside a closed car or in a tent on the ground.
- Rooftop tents but also the integrated versions can be a bit of a problem in windy areas such as the Patagonia. The noise and buffeting have kept many overlanders awake.
The latter brings me to a general recommendation:
Consider building/equipping your rig in such a way that you can sleep inside the car (r with the roof closed) as well. Not just for when it is too windy, but also in cities or other areas where you’d rather be inconspicuous as campers and/or be able to drive away quickly if need by without first having to break up camp.
Which Rooftop Tent to Buy?
With so many options, how in the world do you decide which one suits your needs best?
The major decision criteria are:
- Comfort / Climate
While these are all very personal, these pointers may help you.
- Is budget super important? You may want to opt for a ground tent instead, especially if your overland journey isn’t that long. With little money you have a much bigger choice in tents. You won’t be the first to do so.
- The soft-shell and hard-shell RTTs are cheaper than building an integrated version.
- For the integrated-roof (pop-up) version you will pay a lot of money when it is done by a professional builder. On the other hand, if you’re a handy person, you may be able to do it yourself.
Remember that every dollar you spend on a tent, or any other equipment for that matter, can’t be spent on traveling. 200 or 500 dollars can take you a long way if you’re a low-budget overlander.
Another issue to consider is weight. To give you an idea: our Eezi Awn rooftop tent weighed around fifty kilos. Since many overlanders carry more on the roof than just a tent, make sure your vehicle has a strong roof rack.
We learned quickly that having too much weight (tent, 2nd spare tire, a box with stuff, 2 empty jerrycans) caused roof-rack bars and window pillars to break, as well as the Land Cruiser to sway too easily on rough tracks.
For sleeping, comfort largely is related to the mattress as well as proper mosquito netting for a bug-free sleep. Issues to consider:
- Do you want to set up the tent as quickly as possible? The hard-shell and integrated versions are much quicker to set up and take down than the soft-shell RTTs.
- You don’t want to leave your vehicle to take down the tent (e.g. for safety reasons)? That leaves you with an integrated tent.
- Do you like to be able to stand up in your vehicle when camping? That will be some variety of an integrated tent.
- How often do you need the car when camping in a fixed spot for a while? Daily? Not at all? Again, the soft-shell tents are more work (although Coen sets it up and takes it down in 10-15 minutes) than all hard-shell versions.
On that note, it’s clear that our soft-shell rooftop tent is more work and does the other above-mentioned advantages. Yet, we love it. Why? Read on in part 2.
What are your experiences? Or do you have questions? Fire away in the comments below!
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