A few years back, the only “roof top tent” we saw in American campgrounds came with a VW van beneath it. Now it’s hard to keep track of all the companies scrambling to enter the roof top market.
The truth, of course, is that roof top tents are in no way a new concept—they’ve been popular in places like New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa for years. Anyone who pays attention to off-roading or overlanding knows that folks across the pond have been strapping them to their Land Rovers for decades.
A roof top tent in some situations is an outdoor excursion game-changer. We’ve talked to plenty of people who rave about their new roof top tents. But when an entry-level roof top tent costs around $1,000 and a tricked-out hard top tent can cost upwards of $5,000, it’s good to ask some hard questions before jumping on the roof top bandwagon. To help you decide if a roof top tent is right for you, we’ve taken a close look at the five most common reasons roof top tenters love their tents:
ROOF TOP TENTS ARE WARM: There’s no denying that roof top tents are cozy. They don't transfer cold the way a tent on the ground will, and rain will not seep under the bedding. Unlike sleeping in a traditional tent, which for most people means a sleeping bag and an inflatable pad, the roof top setup usually allows you to pack the bedding of your choice within the tent itself (Egyptian cotton, anyone?).BUT THEN AGAIN . . . this isn’t 1982. Cold weather gear these days is amazing. For half the price of a roof top tent, you can buy a spacious traditional tent, a luxurious camping mattress, a travel-friendly down comforter, and still have money left for a box full of cool camping swag.
OUR TAKE: We are going to side ever so slightly with the roof-toppers on this one. Assuming the tent allows you to store the bedding of your choice (most hard shell versions do), the prospect of a thicker cushion and a more comfortable pad wins out.
ROOF TOP TENTS ARE COMFORTABLE: Roof top tent fans always rave about the comfort of their elevated bedroom, and they do have a point: Roof top tents come with thick foam mattress, and there’s ample room for plush sheets and a comforter. Plus, you don’t have to worry about pinecones, roots, or rocks poking you when you roll over. If it rains (as we mentioned before), water will not seep under your bedding.
BUT THEN AGAIN . . . packable sleeping pads these days aren’t too shabby (The Exped Synmat Duo, for example, is about 3 inches thick and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle). And don't forget, a roof top tent stops being comfortable when the ground isn’t level. You might be surprised how challenging leveling a rig can sometimes be--especially in the dark.
OUR TAKE: Comfort, from our perspective, has as much to do with enjoying the space that we are in as it does with the actually warmth and feel of the bedding and mattress. Sleeping on a raised platform, for us, is enjoyable, the bed is measurably better, and we don't mind spending a little time occasionally leveling our vehicle. When it comes to comfort, the roof top tent wins easily.
ROOF TOP TENTS ARE CONVENIENT: Most roof top tents are a cinch to set up. Assuming that the ground is level, a roof top setup allows you to roll into camp late at night and set up without much hassle. The top-end hard top models even open with the push of a single button and come with outlets, solar panels, and lighting.
BUT THEN AGAIN . . . while the hard top roof top tents are undeniably easy to set up, the soft versions aren't much easier than a traditional tent. And what about those times when you want to leave your tent behind and head out on an afternoon excursion? You can’t do that with a roof top tent. And let’s be honest, traditional tents (with a little practice) are fairly easy to set up these days (Even a middle-of-the-road box store tent is miles better than the canvas army monstrosity that our parents once cursed into submission). Also, while a ladder may look cool, it’s not conducive to midnight pee runs, infants, toddlers, or most pets.
OUR TAKE: We'll call this one a tie. In many situations, a roof top tent (particularly a hard shell version) is easier. But as we've pointed out, this is not always the case.
ROOF TOP TENTS ARE SECURE: Yes, there is something comforting about being off the ground, well above nasty critters and hungry bears. In a roof top tent, you’re like a king, high above in a castle, looking down on the tent-dwelling peasants.
BUT THEN AGAIN . . . Most people will camp for their entire life without a bear, snake, scorpion or other beastie ever crawling into their tent. And if the wind starts to blow, a roof top tent is far more exposed than a tent on the ground, which can be pitched on the lee of a vehicle, behind a rock, or in a protective glade of trees. Worse still, if you have too much wine while sitting around the fire, the ladder up to the roof top platform could prove far from secure, hilarious in the best circumstances and disastrous in the worst.
OUR TAKE: Sure, a fear of creatures attacking us at night is mostly irrational, but who's rational at 3am? Not us. We love the feeling of protection that comes with a raised sleeping platform. For this reason, rational or not, we're going to give this one to the roof top tents.
ROOF TOP TENTS INCREASE STORAGE OPTIONS: Placing your tent on top of your vehicle can definitely open up organization alternatives. For many people, this is a crucial selling point. While truck owners have lots of storage space and can sleep fairly comfortably under a canopy, SUV and car owners have fewer options. If storage space is limited, then a roof top tent might be worth the higher cost.
BUT THEN AGAIN. . . If you have room in your rig for a large duffle bag, then you have room enough for everything you need to sleep well. Yes, a traditional tent involves more moving parts and doesn't look as cool in Instagram photos, but it’s definitely more practical.
OUR TAKE: We are gear fanatics, so in our way of seeing it, the roof top tent wins big in this category. For us, the roof top option changes our storage configuration in exciting ways. More room for fly rods, chainsaws, coolers, beer, and other essentials is--in our minds--the number one benefit of the roof top setup.
ROOF TOP TENTS ARE WORTH THE MONEY: It’s hard to argue that roof top tents are economical. In most cases, they aren’t. Entry level tents run about $1,000. Roof top tents are, however, far cheaper than a new tent trailer, and they are certainly easier to store than a trailer. Are they worth the money? Sometimes. Value depends heavily on how you’ll use it and your particular needs.
BUT THEN AGAIN. . . as we’ve mentioned already, a traditional tent (even an expensive one) is far cheaper than a roof top sleeping arrangement. In addition, the high profile of the roof top tent diminishes fuel efficiency. The extra 100 pounds on top might also noticably affect your expensive vehicle's acceleration, braking, suspension, and cornering. Plus, don't assume that your current rack is strong enough for a tent (You may need to pony up for a new rack as well). When you start to add up the cost, a traditional tent is measurably more affordable for a variety of reasons.
OUR TAKE: Worth the money? This question has to be assessed case by case. For us, yes, it is worth the money. For you, well, think carefully about what you value and why. We'll call this one a tie.
FINAL THOUGHTSSTART SHOPPING FOR A ROOF TOP TENT IF…
- You aren’t turned off by a high sticker price.
- You are a gear junkie who obsesses about organization.
- You desperately need more room in your vehicle.
- You are planning a long road trip that will include some nasty weather and different (but level) campgrounds each night.
- You are willing to give up a little vehicle performance for a good night’s sleep.
- You prefer to sleep above bears and scorpions.
- You are on a budget.
- You plan to camp only a few times during the year.
- You see yourself setting up a tent for several days and using your vehicle for daily excursions.
- You lose sleep over things like decreased gas mileage or slightly diminished cornering.
- You are afraid of heights or clumsy on ladders.
- You camp with an infant, toddler, or a large dog.
- You can live without an Instagram picture of yourself coyly poking your head out of a roof top tent