Roof top tents are a staple in the overlanding world. They mount easily to the roof of your Jeep or truck. This frees up space in the trunk or truck bed so you can haul the rest of your gear. People also love the tree-house feel of roof top camping and feel safer on higher ground. Is a roof top tent the right camping setup for you? Use this guide to find out.
What Are the Main Types of Roof Top Tents?
The roof top tent market is rapidly expanding, and startup brands are shaking up the industry. Their inventions have added a few new types to the roof top tent lineup. Note that some tents belong to more than one category.
Hard-Shell Roof Top Tent
Hard-shell tents are aerodynamic, ultralight and durable. Their body is made of fiberglass, aluminum or plastic. They collapse down to a small package that lies flat on the roof. Few people remove these tents from their overlanding rigs, but if you do, they fit easily in the garage.
Hard-shell tents tend to weigh much more than soft-shell tents, but the quick setup time is worth it. Many hard-shell roof top tents also allow for additional storage on top. This is great for carrying solar panels and trackpads.
Soft-Shell Roof Top Tent
These tents are similar to hard shells but with a fabric body that is waterproof and UV-resistant. The extra thickness adds to the weight and lets them withstand strong winds, though not as well as hard-shell tents. Some campers also find the flapping a little annoying in high winds.
Soft-shell tents face higher damage risks if a haboob passes through, as they often do in the desert. Additionally, the canvas does not typically block light as well as hard shells do for sleeping in late.
Pop-Up Roof Top Tent
This is the newest roof top tent design on the market. It folds out or pops up in seconds. The ease of use makes it a popular choice for new and veteran overlanders. Pop-ups come in both soft and hard shell designs.
Soft shell models tend to fold out and often extend beyond the width of a vehicle. A built-in ladder provides both stability and safe access. The downside is that these tents tend to be much heavier than the alternatives, even heavier than regular roof top tents.
Pop-Up Roof Top Camper
Is it a camper, or is it a tent? We’ll let you decide. Redtail Overland has made waves in the overlanding company with its Skyloft, which is not yet available to the public. This camper opens up similarly to a pop-up, but its hard shell is not just on the roof and the base; it’s also on the sides. In fact, it has real windows, a locking door, air conditioning and solar.
Sadly, the camper has such a large footprint that FJ Cruisers and Jeeps need not apply. This big boy will only fit on vans and full-size trucks like the Ford Expedition. You can also expect a hefty price tag for this level of luxury in the great outdoors, but the owners have not yet announced pricing.
If your camping rig is a pickup truck, you have room for one of the best overlanding setups on the market. These operate similarly to the Redtail campers but without all the added bells and whistles. Platform campers are also exclusively for trucks with a pickup bed, which facilitates two-story camping.
One of the best examples comes from GFC USA, a small but well-known company building campers in Montana. It features sleeping and “living” space upstairs in its roof top tents, with easy entry into the truck bed for midnight snacks or a bathroom break.
Hybrid Roof Top Tent
Most roof-mounted tents weigh over 140 lbs, but the Rev Rack weighs only 25 lbs. That makes it up to 80% lighter than every other tent on the market. Putting it on and taking it off is a breeze, and the manufacturers say you can set it up on the ground. The tent’s versatility is why we refer to it as a hybrid. It also does look like a ground tent mounted on the roof, which may or may not appeal to the overlanding crowd.
It’s not as ruggedly handsome as other tents, but the price point is decent. Easy removal could also be a big win among overlanders who must convert their adventure rigs to daily drivers by Monday.
What Are the Styles of Hard Shell Roof Top Tents?
Hard shells generally come in three main styles. The one that works best for you will depend on your weight restrictions, size preferences, camping conditions, and aesthetic choices.
Clamshell or Wedge
These tents commonly open up from the back end, but some do open up from the side. This leads to varying ceiling heights inside the tent, from back to front or side to side. Wedges tend to withstand high winds better than other tents. The trick is to point the wedge into the headwind so that the hard shell takes the hit. The downside to these is that they tend to have limited space.
Some roof top tents simply pop upwards into a box shape so you can sleep and hang out. Unlike the clamshell, the roof height is the same on all sides. This provides a feeling of more room on the inside, but the hard shell still determines the dimensions. Roofnest popularized this model with its Sparrow series.
These tents use a fabric roof that opens up in one simple motion. They are usually lighter than the clam shell tents, which makes them easier to haul around. Additionally, they can fold out into spaces wider than your vehicle. Most tents that sleep more than two people use this model.
What Kind of Roof Rack Do You Need for Roof Top Tents?
People often complain about the cost of roof-mounted tents, but wait until they see the price of the roof racks. You can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 for a good rack, brand-new. Unless you bought a new-age overlander prepped for roof top camping, you can almost guarantee your stock roof rack will not work. Here’s why:
- You need a flat roof rack base for the tent to sit on. Most standard roof racks are made for carrying cargo and have utility handles or utility baskets. Common examples include the roof racks that come standard on the FJ Cruiser.
- Your roof rack needs to withstand 600 lbs or better. Most stock roof racks can hold about 150 lbs or so. Yes, this includes the basket rack that comes stock with the FJ Cruiser. Some people have been able to beef up their weight limits by adding crossbars, but this is a gamble. Your best bet is to purchase a platform rack explicitly made for roof top camping.
- You need one that fits your vehicle. If your truck is new or still produced by a manufacturer in the U.S., you will have a much easier time finding compatible roof racks. Owners of discontinued overlanding rigs, such as the Nissan Xterra and FJ Cruiser, might need to shop around.
How Do You Know Whether Your Vehicle Can Handle a Roof Top Tent?
Before you start looking at roof top tents, you need to figure out whether your vehicle can hold a tent on the roof, as well as which one, and how to install it. Most rugged, hardtop offroaders can handle an RTT. However, vehicles with shorter roofs or convertible-styled Jeeps might have some issues. Here’s how to find the information you need.
Your user manual is the best place to get information about your vehicle’s capabilities. Ideally, you still have this in the glove compartment. If you can’t find your original manual, check online, but be sure to narrow down the specific year, make, model and trim of your vehicle.
Owners of customized rigs can check with their mechanics for a professional opinion. Mechanics who do routine maintenance such as changing your oil or rotating your tires may not have the best answers on the structural integrity of the body frame. Your best bet is to go to a body shop.
People who have already mounted roof top tents to their vehicles are typically in the best position to advise you on what to expect. Even if you know your vehicle can hold a tent, they can share firsthand experience on whether theirs works well with the truck and whether they would choose something else. If you don’t know anyone in person, online vehicle forums, Instagram and YouTube are great starting places.
How Does the Weight of Roof Top Tents Affect Vehicle Handling?
Some overlanders mount tents to their vehicles and never feel it at all. Others are not so lucky. Here are some of the many ways these tents can affect handling and everyday vehicle usage.
Your vehicle might handle differently with the added weight of a rack and a tent to its roof. These tents are typically raised a few inches above the truck and then add another few inches to the height. Combined with a small wheelbase, this could make the truck more likely to tip over when rock crawling off-road or taking curves at high speeds.
When you adjust your vehicle, it’s important to know the new height. Some RTT owners find they can barely make it on the raised mechanic shop ramp or can’t clear very low parking decks. Height restrictions can also be a problem at some car washes. Some refuse to allow vehicles with tents or cargo mounted to the roof.
You will probably see a drop in gas mileage with roof top tents. This is especially true if you must add a beefier roof rack and drive through windy conditions. Most overlanders aren’t considering MPG when they buy their rigs. Still, it’s worth considering if your vehicle doubles as your daily driver. Choose a lighter rack and RTT to reduce this problem.
Weight distribution plays a critical role in the stability of your roof top tent. It can also affect the suspension and how your truck rides on the road and off. The manufacturer of your RTT can usually tell you how far back or forward to mount the tent. In some cases, you can also upgrade your suspension or add airbags to improve the ride.
Road noise is another common complaint of roof top tent owners. This is due to the added weight and wind resistance on your roof. In many cases, you will have a quiet ride as long as you avoid high winds and speeding. You will rarely have wind noise when you get to the trails; if you do, RTT or no RTT likely wouldn’t make a difference.
What Should You Look for in Good Roof Top Tents?
There are plenty of excellent options on the market worth considering, and most people love whatever they end up buying. Naturally, if you want a platform camper, hybrid RTT or a roof top camper, there are only so many companies that make those. Overall, though, what you purchase will ultimately come down to the features you have in mind:
- Cost: Know your budget before you start shopping and set a realistic one. Be sure to factor in value. Choosing the cheapest option is not enough.
- Weight: Different brands and styles have varying weights. Soft shells typically weigh less than hard tops, but that’s not a definite rule.
- Brand: The overlanding community is big on brands. Look for one that meets your needs, fits your budget, and has the reputation you seek.
Want To Learn More About Roof Top Tents?
Knowing exactly what you want will help you narrow down your list of roof top tents much faster. Be sure to read more about the specific features you desire and how well they match your rig. Check out our adventure blog for more information about RTTs.