While it may seem like a hard question at first, we can definitely say that roof top tents are worth it as long as you’re willing to spend more than the average camper and the pros we’ll discuss outweigh the cons in your context. Whether you’re thinking of getting one or not at this point, it’s important to make sure you know the truth about roof top tents so you can either buy one now, start hunting for deals or delay your decision.
There are some good reasons to invest in one, but there are also some good reasons to not. That’s why we’ll go through the types of roof top tents, compare them to alternatives, weigh the pros and cons and then figure out how to make the most out of your purchase if you end up buying one.
What are the types of roof top tents?
The vast majority of roof top tents fall into the soft shell or hard shell roof top tent categories. The third type of roof top tent would be a hybrid super-light tent that easily comes off and can be used as a ground tent as well, but it’s a somewhat niche product. A fourth type would be the inflatable roof top tent, but it’s not exactly a popular solution.
A special mention about the hard shell roof top tent: they mostly come in a pop-up box shape or a in a pop-up wedge (triangular) shape and some even them feature some really innovative features such as integrated solar panels or cargo rails (so you’re not sacrificing most of your roof top’s storage space in this scenario).
Pop-top or pop-up camper tents are a separate type of roof top tent that is integrated into the vehicle. As far as sizes go, roof top tents are classified into 1-2, 3-4 and 5-6 person roof top tents, with the option of expanding living space with an annex and usable space with awnings.
If you want to learn more about the types of roof top tents and the differences between them, we recommend our separate post on the topic.
» Read More: Types of roof top tents
What is Best: Soft Shell vs. Hard Shell Roof Top Tent?
In a nutshell (pun intended), hard shell roof top tents are tents mounted to the roof of your vehicle featuring a strong shell made out of a durable material (ranging from premium materials such as fiberglass or aluminum to cheaper materials such as “good old” plastic). The wall materials vary, but they are mainly waterproof fabrics and some are even winterized.
It’s useful to know if you’re researching tents that the hard shell variants of the roof top tent come in either a wedge / clamshell form factor or a pop-up box form factor.
On the other hand, soft shell roof top tents are roof top tents mounted to the roof of your vehicle which resemble the classic ground tents and fold out (multiple folding styles are available) using (usually) an aluminum pole structure. Just like hard shell roof top tents, wall materials vary, but you’ll commonly see polyester, nylon and even polycotton.
Both hard shell and roof top tents feature are attached to a flat platform (baseboard) which is connected to your vehicle’s roof rack. The base is usually made out of aluminum or fiberglass.
Why and when you should choose a hard shell roof top tent: buy the hard shell variant if you’re looking for a premium experience and are willing to invest more in a long(er) lasting product with an added degree of comfort.
Why and when you should choose a soft shell roof top tent: buy the soft shell variant if you’re looking for the experience of camping in a roof top tent at a lower and are considering expanding it with an annex, giving you a lot more square footage per dollar spent.
For an in-depth comparison of pros and cons between hard and soft shell tents, feel free to check out our guide:
» Read More: Hard Shell vs. Soft Shell Roof Top Tents
Pros & Cons of Roof Top Tents
Why You Shouldn’t Buy a Roof Top Tent
Considering how expensive overlanding can be if you’re not an influencer making money off of it, it’s reasonable to consider budgets from the start and admit that from a financial standpoint roof top tents give you the following reasons not to buy them:
- Higher cost than the simpler alternatives such as car mattresses, truck bed tents and classic ground tents
- Increased gas mileage no matter how aerodynamic the model is or if you’re installing a windbreaker
- Increased wear and tear for your vehicle – might not add up that much, but should be considered nonetheless
- Higher risk for mold & mildew compared to other shelter options (which simply ruins your investment)
- Roof top tents are (maybe) worth stealing – considering their price point, we have to admit they’re a viable target
- Add-ons and upgrades (from annexes to gear lofts) can add up fast to the final price (depending on the brand)
Moving on to installation, compatibility and some other factors we should note that:
- You need to buy a compatible roof rack if you don’t have one…
- …and if you have an existing roof rack it might not be suitable
- Vehicle compatibility is not universal – make sure to check roof top load limits
- Potentially difficult installation depending on the specific model, weight and installation method
- Potentially time-consuming / tedious setup depending on specific model (manual RTTs)
- Wasted time with multiple setups and breakdowns if you’re camping in multiple spots
Convenience, comfort and privacy are important factors and, depending on what type of camper you are, we could consider the following reasons why you shouldn’t buy a roof top tent:
- Limited sleeping space (most models are built with 2 people in mind)
- May be slightly uncomfortable during strong winds
- Climbing ladders is just…not convenient or fun
- Somewhat inconvenient for very tall campers
- Not the best experience when it comes to toilet trips (down the ladder every time nature calls)
- Not the most private experience for multiple campers (with some exceptions)
- Breakdown / folding required to drive anywhere (seriously, don’t try driving without folding your roof top tent)
- Camping spots limited to vehicle-accessible spots (hopefully your vehicle is truly off-road capable)
Depending on your needs and who you’re camping with, there are also a few potential deal breakers which you should consider before purchasing a roof top tent:
- Roof top tents might not the best experience for pets, children and the elderly (to say the least)
- Roof top tents present a real risk of injury / falling down (especially if anyone’s drinking when camping)
- Potentially an issue depending on clearance heights of various places such as your home garage
Some other miscellaneous reasons to not buy a roof top tent might include (but are not limited to):
- Reduced vehicle handling due to increased weight and the change of center of gravity
- Sacrificing cargo space (RTTs with cargo rails may be a compromise in some cases)
- Storage space requirement – where will you store it after trips?
- Cleaning might be difficult depending on the model
Why You Should Buy a Roof Top Tent
Roof top tents have become insanely popular over the last 5 years and the secret to their success can be found in the advantages they offer to avid campers who value mobility. We feel it’s safe to argue that roof top tents wouldn’t have become so popular if they weren’t truly useful and it looks like they’re more than a passing camping trend. So, today it looks like roof top tents have earned their place in the list of shelter / sleep systems you can rely on while camping and overlanding.
With that in mind, if you’re considering buying a roof top tent and feel unsure about the investment you’re going to make (yes, it’s safe to say that a roof top tent from a reliable brand can be an investment when considering all factors) let’s go over the benefits of roof top tents, the advantages over other shelter options and then move on to their disadvantages and possible reasons why you shouldn’t buy one.
Our job isn’t to convince you that you should or shouldn’t buy a roof top tent – we just want you to be informed and be able to make the right decision. Your money, your adventures, your choice.
With that in mind, we could consider these to be the main advantages / benefits of buying a roof top tent:
- #1. Awesome Vantage Point, Amazing Views
- #2. Comfortable Sleeping System
- #3. Pest Protection / Avoidance
- #4. Year Round Freedom (Certain Models)
- #5. Quick Setup (Certain Models)
- #6. Extra Storage Space (Think RTTs with Cargo Rails as well)
- #7. Price (Compared to RVs, Motorhomes, Camper Vans etc.)
- #8. Long(er) Lasting Investment / Higher Resell Value
- #9. Easier Climate Control (Certain Models)
- #10. Safety & Security
- #11. Flood Proof
- #12. Time Saving (Certain Models)
- #13. Increased Mobility
- #14. Practical Vehicle Fit
- #15. Less Work (Certain Models)
- #16. It’s a Status Symbol