Why Traveling with a Rooftop Tent? And Which One? (part 1)

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“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

A car with a rooftop tent set in a landscape of mountains and grass.
A roof top tent to admire, of Venezuelan making: Carpas Anaconda
Rough Camp in Iran

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!

Information:

  • 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.

Magnolia hard-shell rooftop tent
Toyota with Hard Shell Roof Tent
Magnolia hard-shell rooftop 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:

  • Budget
  • Weight
  • Comfort / Climate

While these are all very personal, these pointers may help you.

Budget

  • 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.

Weight

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.

Comfort

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!

(Originally published in 2013 / updated in 2017)

For more on Equipment & Gear, check out these articles:

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Thank you for your support — Karin-Marijke & Coen

21 thoughts on “Why Traveling with a Rooftop Tent? And Which One? (part 1)

  1. Pop-up roof. That’s what we have on our 1984 Land Rover 110 CSW. Obviously we have considered every option for travel accomodation.

    Hard-shell roof tents we found to be typically too small for tall people (2 metres, myself). Canvas roof tents are otherwise convenient, but can only be accessed via the outdoors. Folding the tent in damp conditions will inevitably moisten the bedlinen. What we wanted was the space of a roof tent, accessible from the inside, and without the other disadvantages of roof tents.

    So we compared PSP-expeditioncampers.com, Landy-camper.de, and Ex-Tec.de.

    We decided in favour of the latter. Ex-Tec we considered to be the original, manufactured by a most committed designer/engineer, using materials of excellent quality and durability. Additionally, at the time they were the ones to reuse the original car roof, to be integrated in the pop-up structure. This allows for a normally useable roof top (roof rack + load rating).
    Other plusses over the roof tents are the ease of use, the instant readiness, always dry for the lack of condensation on an insulated roof, flexibility in bed size. In every respect, the pop-up roof performes as advertised. Really no complaints.
    Just the price, well beyond the 6000 euro mark, could scare the unsuspecting prospect. We’re still convinced it is money well spent.

  2. Hi, i follow you at the social networks , and i really admire you a lot, thanks for share the knowledge!, about the roof tents i have two questions,
    1. the roof tent increase the gas consumption?
    2. the roof tent afect the stability of the car?

    Thanks

    Mauricio

    • Hello Mauricio,

      1] Gas consumption and the roof top tent. Hmmm I think that it all depends on the car. If you have a very aerodynamic race car and you want speeds over 200 km/hour, yes, a roof top tent will affect your milage. But if you are an overlander and keep your speeds on average below 70 km/hour, things will not change much.

      2] I’m guessing you are talking about off road capabilities and being top heavy? Sure, everything you put on top of your roof will affect stability on and off road. But the question is how much will you be affected by it? How extreme will your trip be?

      I you need to ask yourself this question also: what will a roof top tent also bring in exchange: absolute freedom to camp anywhere, simple easy set-up camp, all your stuff inside the tent. Never worry about creepy crawlers.

      Did this answer your question?

        • Hi Mauricio,

          I have a toyota land cruiser 90 (Prado) with 200Hp 5vz engine and when I travel with the roof tent at 120 km/h increase the gas consumption like 30% in order to reduce this efect you can use a wind deflector in front of the roof tent …and of course affect the stability of the car, but you get use to……

          However, I never change my roof tent for a floor tent

          http://vimeo.com/39998837

          sorry for my english I hope you undertstand

    • Bergum,

      Starting the journey as we did (basically without having any idea what we were going to do, for how long we were going to travel, etc) the rooftop tent has been a great choice, and so under the same circumstances, we would make that same choice.

      Having said that, one day we’d like to have that pop up roof as it gives so much more comfort inside: being able to stand up inside the car, and just having the feeling of (more) space. But to do that you need:
      – quite a budget
      – a place where they properly know how to build it
      So for the time being, for both reasons, this option is out.

        • I had seen those video’s a while ago. What I remembered from them is that if you have time and money, everything is possible. This set-up looks really nice. And had we have known that we would be in it for the long run, we might have invested a little more and opted for something like that. But I must say that we are happy to have a car on us that is slowly evolving during our travels 😉

          • Oh. I love your car, make no mistake there 🙂
            I just have that Urge in me to trawle.
            I am looking for a new car, and it that happend to be the right car for overlanding…..

            Just missing the right excuse…

  3. Hello, thanks for good articles. Just want to ad: today I had a cloose look at a Td5 with Landy Campers poptop mounted and that was absolutly top craftmanship. Far over what I had expected and far better than the Defender itself.. Im VERY much in to details and had nothing to pick on. Now planning to get one myself! See you out there//Fred Sweden

    • Heya Fredrik, while I’m a great fan of the old Land Rover, I’m not that keen on the Td5 or anything else that has advanced electronics on board. It’s fine if your not to far from the civilised world. But we’ve come across some folks who got serious stuck with a blinking light on the dash stating that they had to find a dealer only to find out that that was a 1.500 km ordeal on the back of a towtruck 🙁 But if you’re only referring to the poptop, then would you mind sharing with us the brand or link to it’s website?

  4. We too looked at all makes of roof tent ( canvas clamshell type) and found a landrover shop near Hastings on the south coast of the UK. The company is called Terrain Vehicles. They have a website which I won’t post here, but I’m sure you could find. They sell their tents via eBay UK and deliver. We chose this tent as we could not find any quality difference between this and the others on offer from other companies. The best thing was the cost…. £675!!!!!!!! We have had the tent for two years and are on our RTW trip with no reported problems with the tent… Happy days.

  5. Just looking for a roof top tent and decided to check reviews. Good article. I wanted this for my 1985 Range Rover to make life that bit easier than putting up a tent. An Australian brand we have here is Darche and appears to be of a good design and quality. Will have to ask questions and opinions of people who have such tents. Usually the best way to get good info is talking with people who are using them. Other point noted is staying away from computerised vehicles. A big problem in outback Australia as they usually have to be towed miles to a service centre to find out what the problem is. Best to get an older vehicle and look after it and keep things simple. Stay well clear of common rail diesels which are extremely prone to contaminated fuel. Another major issue here too. Have fun out bush! Trev.

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