From structure and materials to sizes, we’re going to look at the ways roof top tents are classified and help you figure out what types of roof top tent is best for your needs, budget and adventures.
Roof Top Tents by Structure / Shell Type
Soft Shell Roof Top Tents
Soft shell roof top tents, often called foldable roof top tents are tents mounted on the roof of your vehicle that can be unfolded when camping to offer you a surprisingly large and comfortable living space, most of them having built-in mattresses. Due to their design, soft shell roof top tents occupy a smaller space once folded, allowing you to potentially carry more gear with your roof rack, with the downside that they require a bit more effort to properly unpack.
The soft shell roof top tent is the most popular form factor (by sales volume), mainly because they offer an arguably similar experience to hard shell roof top tents for a lower price point, at the expense of setup ease & speed. However, most overlanders and campers don’t mind the extra setup time that much considering they can invest the savings (as opposed to buying a hard shell tent) in other accessories.
» Discover: The Best Soft Shell Roof Top Tents
Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
Hard shell roof top tents are tents built with a hard top shell and their structure provides four vertical walls when pitched, with up to 78″ in height. While more expensive, heavier and larger when stowed / closed, hard shell roof top tents provide more confort, ease of set up / stowing, are more aerodynamic (better mileage due to less drag) and are a more durable sleeping system in most cases.
Hard shell tents are definitely more comfortable, much easier to set up when camping (most systems are easy to operate and take less than 60 seconds to get your RTT ready) and generally better insulated than soft shell tents, but you’ll notice that they come with a considerable price increase.
If you’re an active reader of overland forums & blogs, you’ll know there’s an eternal debate around what is best: a soft or hard shell roof top tent? Our view is that, as with many things in life, it depends on your preferences, budget and your own adventures. Nevertheless, we’ put together a list of pros and cons for both and if you’re not sure what to choose, we recommend reading further:
» Read more: Soft vs. Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
» Discover: The Best Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
Inflatable Roof Top Tents
While it’s a bit gimmicky and has some issues in terms of perceived stability (wind is always the #1 enemy of ultra-light structures), inflatable roof top tents are a thing and they’re out there. We haven’t seen many inflatable roof top tents in the wild, but there are a couple brands selling them at a lower-than-average price point (still a more expensive proposition than classic ground tents, but cheaper than the standard soft/hard shell roof top tents.
Integrated Pop-Up Roof Top Tents
Not to be confused with hard shell roof top tents that “pop up” using a mechanism triggered by releasing various clasps, integrated pop-up or pop-top tents are fiberglass (in most cases) roof top tents that are integrated into the vehicle’s roof itself and are a somewhat rare & expensive proposition. These tent systems are either built-in such as in the case of Volkswagen’s California camper van or custom made solutions from specialized outfitters.
Roof Top Tens by Size
1-2 Person Roof Top Tents
Pretty much all roof top tents will comfortably fit one or two persons sleeping together.
3-4 Person Roof Top Tents
While some tents are marketed as 4 person roof top tents, make sure to read through the disclaimers, as they may count in the lines of “two adults and two children” or “3 adults”. Understandable, but you should make sure you get the right tent size if you’re planning on camping with another couple for example.
5-6 Person Roof Top Tents
The 5-6 person roof top tents are at the limits of space management and if you’re in the market for such a roof top tent, you might actually want to consider a roof top tent with an annex instead or at the very least make sure you’re getting some accessories / features such as removable split walls or double entries.
Types of Roof Top Tent Accessories
The two most common and popular roof top tent “expansion” accessories are annexes and awnings. With accessories such as mosquito nets, removable privacy walls and various organizers, these accessories can greatly expand your usable living space for a lower price per square foot.
Roof Top Tent Annexes
Roof top tent annexes can greatly increase your usable living space for a much lower price per square foot than the base roof tent and are a great solution for overlanders or campers traveling in groups. Coupled with mosquito nets, lighting, cooling / heating accessories and other cool gear, an annex can help bring you closer to the comfort of a real home, but out in nature.
Roof Top Tent Awnings
Awning are a huge quality of life improvement for campers, providing an open shaded area (which can be improved with mosquito nets) and we always recommend purchasing roof top tent and awning combos from the same brand. Why? They’re easier to install, they always match and are built to be stored in one package in most cases.