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What Are Rooftop Tents?

Sleeping off the ground may really make a difference
Sleeping off the ground may really make a difference

In recent years, rooftop tents have exploded in popularity among campers looking for an upgrade over traditional ground tents. But what exactly are those? Rooftop tents are set up on top of a vehicle like an SUV or pickup truck instead of directly on the ground. What else? Keep reading.

What Are Rooftop Tents?

Rooftop tents are compact, lightweight shelters designed to be set up on top of your vehicle’s roof and provide elevated sleeping quarters for camping and road trips. Because they are set up on top of your vehicle and let you sleep above the ground, these tents offer key advantages over traditional ground tents – let’s see how.

Compared to pitching a ground tent, rooftop tents are easier and faster to set up, since there’s no need to scope out and clear a flat space or deal with tent poles and guidelines. You just park your car, pop the rooftop tent open, and voila: you now have a shelter with a comfortable bed above the ground.

When it’s time to hit the road again, rooftop tents are also very easy to pack up.

Types of Rooftop Tents

There are two main categories of rooftop tents: hard shell and soft shell. The type of fabric and materials used for the outer shell are the key distinction between the two.

Hard Shell Rooftop Tents

Hard shell rooftop tents feature rigid, molded composite shells that fully encase and protect the tent when closed. Most incorporate fiberglass or ABS plastic construction that can withstand highway speeds and bad weather.

Hard shell tents are normally chosen by people planning to drive long distances between camps, as the sturdy shells keep the tent fabric protected from rain, wind, debris, and UV exposure during transit. Hard shells won’t sag or flap at 70+ mph speeds like soft fabric alternatives can.

Their rigid construction also makes it easy for these tents to support their own weight plus any camping gear stored inside. When opened, the durable shells create a floor frame to keep the tent firmly elevated on the roof.

But not everything is perfect:

  • These tents are heavy – their robust construction adds extra weight when compared to soft shell options

  • They’re also typically more expensive than simpler canvas models or other types of tents

Soft Shell Rooftop Tents

These don't protect as much as hard shell tents, but they're still better than ground tents
These don’t protect as much as hard shell tents, but they’re still better than ground tents

Soft shell rooftop tents use canvas or ripstop nylon for the protective outer layer instead of hard composites. These fabrics are lighter than rigid plastics and fiberglass so it’s not a surprise that soft shell tents weigh less overall, making them easier to mount, and damage the roof rack less.

However, soft fabric shells don’t provide the same degree of protection for the tent while traveling:

  • At high speeds, soft materials are more prone to flapping and billowing on the roof

  • Without a totally rigid enclosure, soft shell tents do not support weight inside as well as the hard shell tents

  • Finally, overtime the canvas or nylon used for soft shell covers can sag from prolonged stress and exposure. You’ll need to make sure that there is enough tensioning to prevent fabric droop over the lifetime of the tent

But not everything is bad:

  • They are cheaper than hard shell tents

  • They do their job for campers not planning to drive many overlanding miles

Rooftop Tent Anatomy

Despite some variations in shells, fabrics, and features, all rooftop tents share common components in their design:

  • Tent Shell – The outer shell acts like a protective layer that covers the tent when it’s closed. While hard shell tents rely on molded composite materials, soft shell options use softer materials such as canvas or ripstop nylon

  • Tent Floor – The floor is the base of the tent. Floors are typically made from heavy duty ripstop canvas or durable vinyl fabrics coated for waterproofness, and some come with foam padding or mattresses for extra comfort

  • Fabric Canopy – To ensure ventilation and airflow, stretchy performance fabrics like polycotton canvas extend out from the shell structure to form the roof canopy and tent walls. Many tents also include removable rain flys or additional canopies if needed, as extra weather protection

  • Access Ladder – Ladders with wide rungs mounted on the side or rear are the way you get in and out of your rooftop tent. These are pretty resistant, with most supporting up to 500 pounds

  • Windows & Doors – Mesh windows allow for ventilation while keeping insects out while zippered doors with rain guards let you admire stargazing views

  • Mattress – Many rooftop tents will include built-in mattresses ranging from 1-4 inches thick

By combining hard or soft shells with tailored interior fabrics and furnishings, rooftop tents provide durable & customizable camping accommodations elevated off the ground.

Benefits of Using Rooftop Tents

They're expensive for a reason
They’re expensive for a reason

When compared to traditional ground tents, rooftop tents have some advantages that make them a tempting option for many campers.

The main difference is having your tent elevated off the ground: just this fact alone solves some common pain points associated with standard ground tents.

But before we dive straight into the benefits of rooftop tents, let’s first see how rooftop and ground tents are different:

Traditional Ground Tents

  • Ground tents use pole frameworks and stake systems to be set up directly on sand or grass and rely on guy lines and straps to be secure against strong wind and rain

  • They sit directly on the ground, leaving campers more exposed to the surrounding elements: wet earth, crawling insects, uneven rocky surfaces, etc.

  • Locating an adequate flat space and assembling all the gear and tools you need takes time and effort compared to rolling out a sleeping bag under the stars

  • Finally, tents left standing for days can also suffer from rain pooling if not angled properly

As you can see, in terms of setting up the tent, traditional ground ones involve some work. Are rooftop tents different?

Rooftop Tents

Rooftop tents take advantage of a vehicle’s roof to lift them completely off the ground. The hard or soft shell bases connect with roof racks to create a ready-to-go setup, and there’s no need to find any special flat ground – you just park and pop the tent open.

Inside, rooftop tents are spacious and 2+ people can sleep there comfortably. Built-in mattresses are more comfortable than the hard ground and windows and doors allow for airflow and views while mesh screens keep insects out.

Key Benefits of Rooftop Tents

  • Quick & Simple Setup – Rooftop tents completely eliminate the chore of pitching tents by hand. You just park, unlock the shell, and lift the tent open. Packing the tent up in the morning is just as fast

  • Elevated Off the Ground – By using the car roof, rooftop tents lift campers away from wet, cold, muddy, or uneven ground surfaces. There’s no crawling insects to worry about either

  • Spacious Interiors – Rooftop tents offer ample interior headroom and widths to sleep 1-2 adults comfortably. The extended height makes it easy to sit up, change clothes, etc. Some models allow standing fully upright inside

  • Built-In Mattresses – You won’t need to inflate separate air mattresses or sleeping pads before you can lay down. Rooftop tents have 1-4 inch thick mattresses integrated into the flooring (many feature high density foam for extra comfort)

  • Wind and Rain Resistance – Ground tents often shake and flap in windy conditions. Rooftop tents are different: they maintain stability in strong winds and adverse weather with their hard shell bases and rainfly accessories

  • Security On the Road – Hard shell rooftop tents provide locked, rigid enclosures to safeguard your gear while you’re traveling. Although not at the level of hard shells, soft shells are still more secure than ground tents vulnerable to critters and thieves

  • Versatility – Rooftop tents are great for off-road trails and city streets

Rooftop Tents vs. Ground Tents

Only you can decide which tent is best for your needs & circumstances
Only you can decide which tent is best for your needs & circumstances

To better understand the benefits of rooftop tents, let’s compare them directly against standard ground tents:

Set Up and Take Down

  • Rooftop Tent: Undo the shell latches, lift the tent open, and climb in – all under a minute. Reverse these steps to close it

  • Ground Tent: Check the campsite, clear any debris, assemble poles/clips, stake corners, and repeat this process in reverse for the takedown. This is a much longer process

Sleeping Comfort

  • Rooftop Tent: Elevated off the ground with built-in comfortable mattresses

  • Ground Tent: Direct ground contact can lead to dampness, aches and uneven support. You will need a separate sleeping pad

Wind and Rain Protection

  • Rooftop Tent: Rigid shell base keeps the tent stable and rain flies add more weather barriers if needed

  • Ground Tent: Flaps and shakes in strong wind; Rain can pool on top or soak through the bottom

Security

  • Rooftop Tent: Hard shells lock gear securely inside and soft shells prevent easy access

  • Ground Tent: Zips and tent fabric offer a more limited protection against thieves

Storage and Portability

  • Rooftop Tent: Folds into hard or soft shell cases with minimal storage footprint

  • Ground Tent: Bulky components like poles must be broken down and bagged

Accessibility

  • Rooftop Tent: Easy to use ladders to get in and out

  • Ground Tent: You must bend over or crawl inside through door flaps

Interior Space

  • Rooftop Tent: Vertical walls maximize headroom; 2+ people can sleep there comfortably

  • Ground Tent: Depends a lot on the tent size and on the tent type

Best Rooftop Tents to Consider

While the "best" tent is always subjective, there are key factors you need to consider when shopping
Only you know what’s the “best” tent for your needs; but there are a few factors you should consider when shopping

With rooftop tents becoming more popular, more and more brands are releasing models you can choose from.

We understand that choosing a rooftop tent is not always easy (especially with more expensive models), so we listed some key factors you should consider when shopping for one:

  • Tent Size – Choose a rooftop tent length and width that fits your vehicle without overhanging. Always compare interior floor dimensions

  • Shell Type – Choose between a rugged hard shell or a more affordable soft shell model based on your overlanding plans

  • Sleeping Capacity – Rooftop tents range from 1-person to bigger 2-3 person models. Decide your camping crew and choose accordingly

  • Ease of Setup – Look for quick-release mounting systems and easy opening/closing mechanisms to make your life easier

  • Packed Weight – Heavier rooftop tent weights can strain your roof rack and impact your gas mileage, so choose lighter models if you’re planning on driving long distances

  • Special Features – Compare integrated mattresses, number of doors/windows, rain flies, skylights, etc.

Affordable Rooftop Tents Worth Considering

You don't need to spend a fortune on your first rooftop tent
You don’t need to spend a fortune on your first rooftop tent

While rooftop tents can run over $2000+ for premium models, there are also more wallet-friendly options available in the $500 to $1200 range. Budget rooftop tents make elevated camping experiences accessible at lower price points without sacrificing too much on quality and performance.

What to Expect from a Budget Rooftop Tent

If you’re looking for a cheaper rooftop tent, you can expect these attributes that justify the lower price for brands:

  • Cheaper polyester canopies instead of pricier canvas materials

  • Basic foam or inflatable mattress options rather than multi-layer luxury mattresses

  • Manual setup instead of power lift assist mechanisms

  • Smaller packed weight and interior capacity than premium extra-large tents

  • Limited or no add-on accessories like annex rooms, awnings, etc.

  • Shorter warranty periods of 2-3 years on average

Key Takeaways

While premium rooftop tents have more bells and whistles, even budget models under $1200 can deliver an amazing camping experience off the ground. Not always do you need to go for the most expensive models – especially if you’re just getting started.

How to Install a Rooftop Tent on Your Vehicle

Installing a rooftop tent is an easy process if you have the right gear and know what you’re doing.

Here’s what you should be doing to get your tent up there in a safe way:

Choose a Suitable Roof Rack

First, make sure that your vehicle is equipped with a sturdy roof rack rated to hold the tent’s weight when packed and occupied.

Assess Mounting Locations

Determine the ideal mounting points on the roof rack’s crossbars or truck bed rails based on the tent’s size and overhang. Mark the locations with tape and avoid any interference points like sunroofs and hatches.

Attach Mounting Brackets

Bolt the tent’s mounting brackets or rails onto the rack at the marked locations. Use provided hardware and tighten everything to spec, and make sure that mounting components are flat and even.

Lift Tent Onto Roof

With a friend’s help, hoist the packed tent shell onto the roof and settle it onto the mounted brackets. Keep the tent centered side-to-side on the rack.

Secure All Points

Attach the tent shell to each mounting point on the brackets or rails using the provided eyebolts, clamps, or U-bolts. Tighten these fasteners evenly according to the manufacturer’s specs.

Seal and Protect Mounting

Seal any drilled holes in the roof rack with silicone and place protective caps on mounting hardware ends. This prevents leaks and shields bolts from vibration wear.

Check Clearances

Check that there is adequate clearance between the tent and roof edges, overhead obstructions, rear hatch, and hood open position. Open the tent and enter to assess overall fit.

Top Accessories To Improve Your Rooftop Tent

Once you’ve installed your rooftop tent, the fun begins: you can now add any accessories you want to make your camping trips super comfortable.

Here are some must-have accessories that you should think about:

Bike Racks

You can use roof-mounted bike racks to have 1-2 bikes tag along – once you make it to the campsite, you just need to unload them and you can now bike everywhere. Spare tire mounts work too.

LED Lighting

LED light strips and pods are useful for nights when you’re camping.

You can attach strip lighting to your tent’s ceiling and use remote control pods for direct light while cooking or gear prepping after dark.

Annex Rooms and Awnings

Both annex and awning add-ons create more livable square footage.

Portable Power

Portable solar panels, power stations and 12V outlets let you continuously tap electricity to charge your devices, running cooling fans, string lights, etc. With portable power you can stay off-grid.

Ladders and Stairs

You can install alternative ladders, stairways, and lift systems and replace the standard mounting ladders if you want to improve access to the rooftop, especially if your tent is set up on taller vehicles.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Much Weight Can My Car’s Roof Hold For a Rooftop Tent?

The roof of most modern cars and SUVs is built to support between 100-200+ pounds when outfitted with a solid, properly installed roof rack. You should always check your vehicle’s owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer to find the maximum recommended roof load capacity, as exceeding this rating risks overstressing the tent roof frame.

What Kind of Garage Clearance Do I Need?

When shopping for a best budget rooftop tent, or even more high-end models, make sure you measure your garage height and compare it to the total lifted height of the tent when fully set up. More classic tents, like a traditional ground tent, often have different heights than rooftop versions. Most hard shell and folding soft shell models extend to around 6.5-7 feet tall when opened.

Can I Mount My Rooftop Tent Directly in the Bed of a Pickup Truck?

Yes: mounting a rooftop tent in the bed of a pickup truck is normally a good alternative to placing it up on the truck cab roof. 

How Wind Resistant Are Rooftop Tents?

With stainless steel hinges and aerodynamic designs, rooftop tents are very stable in strong winds: hardshell exteriors made from molded composites are very resistant and fabric covers and anti-condensation mats inside help in damp conditions.

How Much Extra Gear Can I Store Inside a 2-3 Person Roof Top Tent?

One benefit of the large interior of most 2-3 person rooftop tents is the extra space you can use to store your gear. For example, if you have wet clothes, there’s normally enough room to let them dry inside.