Roof top tents have actually been around for quite a while, but they hit the scene in a big way about 8 years ago as some passionate companies decided that it was time to make comfortable rooftop tents for the masses.
We should all thank them.
Rooftop tents, and rooftop camping, are a key part of the whole “Overlanding” movement, which combines camping, offroading, and exploring. Like rooftop tents, overlanding has really been around for a while by different names, but as people try to become less-tethered and more nomadic, overlanding has created its own special niche.
What we love about rooftop camping and overlanding is the mass appeal. Baby boomers are doing it as they retire and want to roam the country. Millenials, notorious for not wanting to be commited to one place, are adopting it in droves. We expect that Generation Z will take it to “a whole ‘nother level” as they decide that it is time to explore.
Back to roof top tents, there is a lot to learn about them. After all, most people have only even known they exist for a few years or even months.
With no further wait, we will share with you an overview of rooftop camping and overlanding along with the best rooftop tents in our opinion.
What are Roof top Tents Anyway?
Roof top tents are sleeping quarters that mount on top of your vehicle. Basically, think of a tent like one that you camp in, only that sits on top of your car, is elevated off the ground, and has a built-in mattress. You access it via a ladder. When not in use, it folds-up into a small package that simply cruises along on top of your vehicle while you are driving, somewhat like a rooftop cargo carrier.
The Best Roof Top Tents for 2019-2020
We will discuss the details of what to look for in rooftop tents shortly, but we know that many people just want us to get to the point. We are rooftop tent junkies, so here is our list of the best ones:
Best Hard Shell Roof Top Tent: ikamper skycamp 2.0
The Skycamp is as phenomenal a story as it is a tent. It hit the scene after a crowdfunding effort, bringing in a whopping $2.3 million from people who wanted dips on a rooftop tent. Almost sounds like buying a Tesla.
The Skycamp II is a hardshell tent that, amazingly, sleeps up to four people. If you are talking full-growth adults who want space and comfort, two or three might be a better number. The company boasts that it has a 1-minute setup, and when we tested it, we found that a minute was feasible once you had a little practice. If you are actually setting it up to stay in it, installing all of the awning supports and getting it just right, plant on 3-5 minutes to have it ready to roll.
The speed of setup is assisted by some gas struts that push the hard top into position. That is a nice feature, and allows you to do nearly all of the base setup while standing safely on the ground.
The hard shell lifts up and to about a 45 degree angle when open, which is something that we think is a bit of a selling point. If you expect thunderstorms or a stiff cold breeze, you would simply want to position your vehicle so the raised hardshell becomes a bit of a roofline for you, protecting you from the elements.
Inside, you get to the real benefits of this tent. A king sized mattress allows comfort for adults, and one of the largest sleeping surfaces on the rooftop tent market. We like the positioning of the three windows — two on the sides, one on the top — which allows for venting and a nice cross-breeze. Although, in inclement weather, you are going to want to get the top window secured nice and sealed.
We like the construction quality. Lots of stainless steel, a sturdy ladder and strong hinges. We think they did a good job of making materials heavy when they needed to be, and lighter when they could be.
For those who are fine splurging even a bit more from the base price, the “Annex” option gives you indoor quarters underneath the extended floor of the tent, perhaps a nice option for people traveling through mosquito-prone areas or expecting evening temps to dip down around freezing. The annex adds a bit of setup and you need to find a spot to carry it while traveling, so we advise only getting it if you envision yourself being a regular user.
The Skycamp 2.0 goes for a pretty penny — over $3,500. But you have to really compare it to a pull-behind trailer at $8,000, given the sleeping comfort you will get from it. The price evidently is not scaring people off, because it has periods of being sold-out relatively regularly.
The Skycamp 1.0 will save you about $500, but is likely being phased out over time. Similar in size, the 1.0 just has fewer creature comforts, a less safe ladder, and slightly harder setup and takedown.
Best Soft Shell Roof Top Tent: Tepui Ruggedized Autana
We have been big fans of the Tepui lineup ever since we saw them in action a couple years ago. When it comes to the soft-sided roof top tents, they have a high-quality and plentiful lineup, and the Autana is perhaps their gold standard.
Getting a “ruggedized” version of the Tepui tents does exactly what it sounds like: Gives you a tent that is heavier-duty all around: Stronger frame base, heavier-duty hinges, and fabric that is 40% heavier and stronger. All of this this means that the entire unit will be heavier, but it will also be able to stand-up to rough roads and tough weather better than the standard versions. If you are someone who tends to hit rough dirt roads for example, the normal frame can sometimes get damaged if the unit is jolted too much.
If you feel you don’t need the “ruggedized” version, you can get the standard Autana and save yourself a little money, and some weight.
The Autana has lots of opportunity for both ventilation and light. Skyview panels and side windows make it so that you literally could have more daylight than tent showing when everything is fully unzipped.
When you need full coverage, you have an Oxford Nylon rain fly that covers the tent well.
The mattress runs from side-to-side and end-to-end, with a 2 ½ inch foam surface. We find it comfortable and like the cotton cover that can be removed for easy cleaning. This all sits on a strong aluminum base, and if you go with the Ruggedize version you upgrade to a ¾-inch frame (instead of ½-inch) as well as an anti-condensation mat under the mattress.
Sleeping space, when unfolded, is impressive. Very. It says it sleeps 4, and we think that is actually a valid claim. It gives you a couple feet more surface area than most other options on the market today. Exact mattress dimensions are 72” by 122”.
When stowed, the tent packs in to a nice, compact package. Perhaps not quite as bulletproof as a hard shell tent, but the tough PVC cover does a good job of protecting the outside so that hail or road debris is not going to cause major damage to your tent. Perhaps the main thing to be aware of is the occasional underpass or ramp ceiling — folded, it adds about a foot of height to your vehicle, above and beyond the roof rack. You would not be the first to scrap the tent as you are pulling into an underground parking garage — we have seen it happen!
We really think that if you are planning to get a soft shell roof top tent, and ready to go all-in on your investment, the Autana is the top of the list. Quality is an A+.
Regardless of which model you go with, there is lots to like about the Autana.
Best Rooftop Tent for the Money: Tepui Explorer Ayer 2
Perhaps looking to get into the rooftop camping game, but don’t want to spend $3,000 and don’t need the ability to sleep 3 or 4 people. If you can get by with a smaller overall footprint and are OK with a soft-sided tent, Tepui makes the Explorer Ayer 2 at what we think is an entry-level price point.
The floor area in the Ayer 2 is 4 feet by 7 feet. In our book, this makes it a snug 2-person layout or an adequate living space for one person. Note that at this size, you are going to want to be pretty comfortable with the person you are sharing the tent with — when sleeping, you will be shoulder-to-shoulder.
The good news about the smaller floor area is that it is also a smaller footprint on top of your vehicle. For narrower vehicles like a Subaru Outback (a common rooftop tenting vehicle, we notice), the Ayer 2 will have a nice, slim profile on the road and will not hang over the sides. A larger tent isn’t quite as compact and may have some extra space bleeding out from the sides of the car.
There are many things we really like about the Ayer 2, even besides the reasonable price. The entire unit weighs just 95 pounds, so is perhaps one of the easier ones to handle of anything on the market. It is common for these tents to be 150 or even 200 lbs. Installing it is a piece of cake, especially if you can have a helper. Because of the lighter weight, it is going to be rated as OK for nearly any factory-mounted vehicle roof rack.
The design has ample ventilation — quite a lot, actually. You can unzip windows and vents throughout the tent, giving yourself a nice cross-breeze when you want it. Given that one of the main benefits of a rooftop tent is the ability to be a little cooler on those warm nights, this is an nice additional feature.
Another nice thing about the Tepui brand is that they are carried by REI. You can order through REI using your member discount, if you have one. And we all know that REI is excellent for assisting with returns, in case you find flaws in the particular tent you receive.
Once you get the hang of it, setting up the Ayer 2 takes about 7-8 minutes. It is pretty comparable to setting up a regularly ground tent, and intuitive if you are someone who has ever used a tent before.
The only downers of the Ayer 2? Well, we mentioned that it is smaller. For some people, that is a plus. For others, it will make for some cramped camping. It is also soft-sided, like all Tepuis, so it takes a little longer to setup and is not quite as protected out on the road.
The runner-up would probably be the 23 Zero Litchfield model, also a very good tent from someone we trust.
Roof Top Tent Buying Guide: What to look for
There are several things to be on the lookout for when buying a roof top tent, and much like any other outdoors product, it often comes down to a balance between how much budget you have to work with and what priorities you have in the tent you purchase. Once you figure those things out, the decision becomes a lot easier.
Hard sided vs. Soft sided. Perhaps the #1 decision to make is if you want a hard-sided tent or a soft-sided one. The hardshell tent will often be quicker to set up (perhaps counterintuitive but it is true) and provides additional protection for the tent when rolling down the road. On the downside, they are more expensive and heavier. The softshell tents are going to be lighter and cheaper, and your dollar will go further when investing in them. However, they are often a little clumsy to setup and take longer, and they are not going to weather the elements quite as well as a hard tent.
Size. Once you decide on hard vs. soft, then you need to figure out what size tent to get. These are the two major decisions — hard/soft and size. Once you have those things nailed down, the choices become clear. Size is a factor not only in terms of the sleeping area you will have in the tent, but also the amount of space the tent will take on your car when stowed. A massive tent might be too big for a small car. Also think about how much storage space you have in your home for when the tent is not in use, and make sure that the packed size of the tent is compatible with that.
Weight. Similar to but different than size, you need to consider weight, for two reasons. First, the tent needs to be 100% safe on your vehicle and rack, and its weight needs to be less than the dynamic weight rating on your vehicle. Second, a lighter roof top tent is easier to handle, install, and work with overall than a heavier one. Not a factor if you plan to put the tent on and then go for months, but definitely a factor if it is a weekend thing for you.
Setup Ease. Setup is a factor, and if you have to wrestle with a tent for 20 minutes just to get to ready, that will get old in a hurry. A good hard-sided tent should go up (with the help of pistons or struts) in 3-5 minutes. A soft-sided tent should take no more than 7-10 minutes.
Construction Quality. Don’t skimp on your tent. We get it — these tents are expensive and it can be very tempting to spend a little less. Some companies “dabble” in the roof top tent business, others are committed to it. Buy from the ones who are making this their livelihod — like the ones we recommend above. This is your lodging and home-on-the-road, after all. Be sure the fabric is strong, the seams are uniform and rugged, that the frame is heavy-duty, and that the ladder is safe and stable.
Ventilation. Adequate ventillation is a must in a roof top tent, because it can get pretty warm inside during those summer nights. The tents we profile up above all have very good ventilation.
Accessories. We would not base our roof top tent purchase decision on accessories, but once you have a shortlist, accessories are a factor. Perhaps the most common accessory that people consider is the awning or canopy, which can be nice to create a living area under the floor of an expanded tent.
Roof top tents vs. Regular Tents
Comparing a roof top tent to a regular tent is pretty simple. While based on the same concepts, the two are quite different.
- Roof top tents are easier to setup. It might seem crazy, given how expensive a piece of equipment it is, but a rooftop tent sets-up and takes-down faster than a regular tent
- Roof top tents have better floor for sleeping. Many roof top tents have a built-in mattress or, at least, foam. Regular tents have you sleep on the ground. You need to bring a pad if you want comfort.
- Roof top tents take up no space in your vehicle. Instead, you save the vehicle space for other things you need on your trip.
- Roof top tents keep you up off of the ground. This can be a factor if the ground is wet, cold, or has rodents or snakes that you want to avoid.
- Regular tents are much less expensive. We are talking 1/10 the price. Big difference.
- Regular tents require much less space to store when not in use. A roof top tent probably needs to stay in a garage or shed, it is pretty large.
- Regular tents are much lighter. A roof top tent can weigh 100 lbs or much more.
- Regular tents don’t tether your vehicle. Once a rooftop tent is setup, you kind of need to stay put.
- Regular tents allow you to stay in backcountry, walk-in only sites. With a rooftop tent, you obviously need to be able to drive your vehicle to the site.
- Regular tents to not require a ladder climb — something to consider for those who might have physical considerations
Roof top tents vs. Trailers
We also hear lots of people comparing a rooftop tent to a small, pull-behind trailer…. The kind that don’t take up much space and sleep 1-2 people. They look cool, and evoke this image of cruising the West with no worries. Here is our quick take on how they compare to roof top tents, and for our purposes we are comparing to the very small, teardrop-style trailers.
- Rooftop tents do not require a hitch, or can keep the hitch open for other things like a bike rack
- Rooftop tents are smaller to store when not in use. A trailer likely requires a special place in one’s yard or driveway.
- Rooftop tents are less maintenance. Any time you have an axis and tires, the chances of a flat or other mechnical issue goes up.
- Rooftop tents are able to venture further into the backcountry than a trailer.
- Rooftop tents only affect gas mileage by 1-2 mpg. Pulling a trailer will affect mileage by considerably more, depending on the vehicle.
- Trailers protect you better against harsh elements like hail or a driving rain.
- Trailers allow you to pack them full of gear when travelling, expanding your storage space.
- Trailers typically have slightly more room inside, although they are smaller than you think.
- Some trailers offer a toilet, but if they do they are larger and heavier than the base models we are referring to.
Roof Top Tents FAQs
What is “Overlanding?”
Overlanding is the fusion of a few things: Camping, exploring by road, and offroading. Think of it as the new version of traveling the country in your VW Bus (although traveling in a VW Bus is still an option).
Because of the desire to stay in beautiful areas and not spend money on motels or hotels, tent camping is popular with the overlanding set. Rooftop tents have several advantages over traditional tents, as outlined above.
If you are intrigued by overlanding, we recommend two classic books for inspiration: On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. They are Americana classics and will give you the itch to roadtrip!
Can rooftop tents fit on any car?
No, you need to do a little research first. The good news, though, is that manufacturers have improved their offerings lately, and more cars can accommodate a rooftop tent. Still, you will need to compare the tent itself and its specs with the specs on your particular vehicle.
You will need to be sure that you have a roof rack (unless you have a pickup truck), and that it was either a factory rack or one that was mounted very well — ideally by a pro.
When it comes to some of the more common vehicles we see the tents on — Jeeps, Subarus, light trucks, other SUVS — there usually is no problem mounting, as long as the weight ratings hold up. Again, though, do your own validating with your specs.
As an example, the iKamper requires that your roof rack be rated to carry 165 lbs of dynamic weight, and that the supporting crossbars under your rack be at least 30 inches apart — we presume for stability and safe weight distribution.
How do roof top tents attach?
Most rooftop tents attach directly to your roof rack. Assuming your roof rack was factory-mounted or safely mounted by professionals, the roof top tent can simply sit on top of it, bolton-on by the brackets that come with the tent.
You will need some basic tools to attach teh tent, or you can ask a pro to do it for you. If you are going to leave it on for a while and are not handy yourself, a body shop would probably stick it on for just a few bucks, but the better bet might be to find a handy friend who can assist.
You will first need to mount the brackets on to your tent, measuring to be sure the spacing works with your roof top rack. Then, you will want a helper to get the tent up on to the rack (remember, they weigh more than 100 lbs). From there, it is all about positioning the tent correctly and tightening the clamps and bolts according to the specifications.
For people attaching the tent to their truck bed, most people use a separately-sold truck bed tent mount, which allows the tent to sit elevated above the bed of the truck. The bed mounts are not cheap, so factor that in to the purchase price of your overall tent setup.
Are roof top tents safe?
Yes, if installed properly, a roof top tent is quite safe. They are mounted on top of a vehicle using factory mounts from the tent manufacturer and ideally the factory-issued roof rack from the car maker. Every roof rack has a weight rating, so pay attention to what it is for your vehicle. That is very, very important, to make sure that the tent is compatible with your vehicle.
In some ways, rooftop camping is safer than tent camping. You can be away from snakes and other ground-dwelling creatures, and because your vehicle has rubber contact points with the ground, you may be safer in a lightning storm.
Are rooftop tents waterproof?
They are about as waterproof as a high-quality regular tent. What that means is that you will have a rain fly that comes with the tent, and it is a good idea to use it.
Most rooftop tents have a poly-coated polyester rain fly, much like a good tent that you might pick up through LL Bean or Patagonia. It is there for a reason — the fabric in most roof top tents are not meant to be impermeable to water. If they were, they would not be breathable, and being breathable is essential for ventilation as well as general comfort in warmer weather.
A hard-sided roof top tent might be slightly more waterproof, but only on the hard side. That is why we recommend situating your vehicle so the winds and rains will hit that side in a hard, driving rain storm.
Are roof top tents warm?
They are only slightly warmer than regular tents on a cold night.
A common misperception is that because a roof top tent mounts on your vehicle, it somehow is going to be warmer than a regular tent. This might be the case in extreme cases, like when you decide to camp on ground that has a ground temp of 40 degrees. However, a rooftop tent does not have natural heating abilities.
But because a roof top tent usually has you sleeping on a nice, thick mattress or piece of foam, you definitely get more insulation from the ground than you would in a normal tent. If the ground is frosty, this can be a factor.
Don’t expect a roof top tent to be warm in four-season weather, though. Most rooftop tents that we see are designed for and advertised as a three-season piece of equipment. You will still want a good sleeping bag and perhaps some thermal underwear if using on those evenings when there is a chill in the air.
How much can a roof top tent hold?
While it can be a little tricky to find specifications on the interior weight capacity, most tents are designed for 2, 3 or 4 adults and have been tested for that kind of weight. Because these tents are made with strong metal plates and a strong internal frame, we don’t worry too much about the interior weight. The Skycamp, for example, says that the unit itself can hold up to 900 lbs — so you could theoretically have 4 adults who all weight above 200 lbs in it. But the weight limit of your vehicle is just as big a factor.
Perhaps the more important weight research is to make sure your vehicle can handle it. Any vehicle with racks (which you will need for a rooftop tent, unless you have a truck bed) will have a rating on those racks. Pay attention to that. The static weight rating refers to the amount of mounted weight that a rack can accomodate when the vehicle is still and not moving. The dynamic weight rating refers to the amount of weight that a rack can handle as it is moving down the road. A vehicle and rack can always handle way more static weight than dynamic weight.
With that said, these tents are not designed to throw a party in — they are meant for sleeping.
Why are rooftop tents so expensive?
This is perhaps the most common question we get on rooftop tents. People read about them, get excited, and then realize they are $1,500 and up to purchase. Whoa! That can be a showstopper for many, and we totally understand.
The reason rooftop tents are so expensive is because of the materials and engineering that go in to them. Creating living quarters to sit on top of a vehicle that was really only designed to travel along at 60 mph is not exactly simple. You need to have strong support and attachment points, absolute stability so the tent doesn’t become a road hazard, and keep in mind that many people using the tents travel through challenging terrain and tough weather.
At the same time, you don’t want to create a tent that weighs 400 lbs. If you did, it would be unreasonable for people to handle and install, and would probably not work for most vehicles on the road today. Light, strong materials aren’t cheap.
We feel your pain on the price of a rooftop tent, but compared to a small teardrop-stye pull-behind camper at $8,000, a rooftop camper is still much cheaper and quite a bit simpler to own.
Does a roof top tent change the way my vehicle drives?
A roof top tent will not have much, if any, impact on the way your car moves at low speeds and smooth roads. If properly mounted (a must) it will solidly sit on your roof racks and ride along.
At higher speeds, the roof tent might cause some road / wind noise. It can also cause handling to be a bit more difficult in high cross-winds. This is lessened if you use a hard shell tent, or if you have it tied as compactly as humanly possible. Still, you will know it is there are high speeds.
The tent will also impact your gas mileage by probably 1-2 mpg.
If you are off-roading on bumpy ground, you need to be careful. The brackets that hold the roof tent mounts are not meant for crazy off-roading. A few nasty jumps and bumps, and you could bend the mounts or damage the brackets.
Do Rooftop Tents Come with Lights?
No. We are not aware of any rooftop tent that comes with lights or any type of electricity. After all, you are on your car, so you should have a power source very nearby. One of the main modifications that we have made to our rooftop tents is to install — or at least have on hand — a simple LED light to help illuminate the inside of the tent at night. We like LED because it doesn’t get hot, so there is no risk of burning the tent material and fabric.