In a nutshell, roof top tents are compact tents that are mounted on top of your vehicle with the help of a roof rack or cross bars and they work by functioning as compact packages than can be unfolded, raised, pitched through a bit of handy work or a mechanism in some cases, in order to offer you an insulated living space atop your vehicle when you’re camping.
Roof top tents have become extremely popular, as they offer multiple benefits, such as extra comfort in all weather conditions, freedom to camp almost anywhere, affordability compared to RVs & campers, increased safety / security and the opportunity for amazing sightseeing by being an awesome vantage point atop your vehicle.
If that’s a bit vague or superficial, then let’s go over all the details on how roof top tents work (including what they are and the various types of RTTs you can buy), from how they’re supported / mounted on your vehicle, how they’re pitched (or opened, unfolded, unpacked, depending on what terminology you prefer), how avid campers use them and then move on to some useful tips to consider when buying a roof top tent.
What are roof top tents?
Definition: a roof top tent is a tent specifically designed and manufactured to be mounted on top of vehicles, with the help of specific cross bars or roof racks. Roof top tents must be closed or folded, depending on their style, while the vehicle is driven and they must be unfolded / unpacked / opened for actual use in a campsite. Roof top tents are now a very popular overlanding and camping habitat, as they are more affordable than RVs and camper vans and more expensive, yet more feature-packed, than classic ground tents.
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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. A third type would be the inflatable roof top tent, but it’s not exactly a popular solution. 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 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.
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How Roof Top Tents Work
First thing’s first: roof top tents are designed as “collapsible” (in the case of hard shell tents), “foldable” (in the case of soft shell tents), or “deflatable” (in the case of inflatable tents) tent packages and, for the sake of brevity, they simply fold-out or pop-up to become your new living space in nature.
How do roof top tents attach?
Roof top tents are attached through a combination of slide / mount plates, nuts and bolts to roof racks or cross bars that can support the weight of the roof top tent and its inhabitants. Mounting solutions can vary slightly from tent to tent, but all tents come with the required accessories to be attached to a roof rack system.
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Are roof top tents too heavy?
Generally, no, roof top tents are not too heavy. They are light enough to be supported by most roof racks and most vehicles’ roofs, without risking any damage or issues while driving. There are cases where a roof top tent might be too heavy for a specific vehicle or roof rack, but there are a few steps you can take to ensure that won’t be an issue in your case.
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Do I need a roof rack for a roof top tent?
Yes, for any roof top that that you plan on mounting to your vehicle, a roof rack (or cross bars) is required to be able to do so. Furthermore, you need to ensure that the roof rack you’re mounting your tent on is designed to support the static and dynamic load of the roof top tent in order to drive safely and use the tent without potentially damaging your car.
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How do you know if your car can handle a roof top tent?
You’re a couple of searches and a simple calculation away from figuring out if your car can handle a roof top tent safely and without risking any damage during actual usage. In most cases, if you own an SUV, Jeep, van or truck, you’re good to go, whilst sedans, hatchbacks, coupes are almost never a safe fit for a roof top tent. On top of that, you can pretty much rule out putting a roof top tent on any vehicle with a rooftop load limit under 165 lbs.
But let’s jump to the steps you should take to be absolutely sure you can buy, install and safely drive with a roof top tent.
What roof top tent accessories do I need?
While a roof rack is the only mandatory accessory you need for a roof top tent, you might want to consider a matching awning and a compatible annex room to make the most out of your camping / overlanding trip. Most if not all roof top tents come with the necessary retractable ladder and a high quality mattress. Additionally, there are some extremely useful accessories such as a condensation mat (if not included in your RTT of your) and more that you may want to consider for a great camping experience.
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What are roof top tents made of?
Roof top tents are made from a surprising amount of different materials, mainly centered around aluminum, steel, custom alloys for the frame and combinations of poly-cotton, cotton, polyester, nylon and more for the canvas. Additionally, you’ll see a lot of fiberglass used for hard shells and baseboards due to its low weight and durability.
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Of course, this all raises a series of other questions regarding the features, functions, materials, accessories and specifications of roof top tents and we’re more than happy to get into all of them in our Ultimate Guide to Roof Top Tents.
How Do You Install a Roof Top Tent?
All reputable roof top tents come with all the accessories (in terms of brackets, tracks, nuts, bolts, clasps etc.) you need to properly mount your roof top tent to your roof rack and almost all of them have an included retractable ladder that’s also easy to install. Depending on the tent, though, you may need a friend to help you lift it and position it properly during the installation process.
Installation rarely takes more than an hour if you know your way around a screwdriver or if you have a handy friend nearby. Here’s an example of the installation process for a ROAM tent:
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Disclaimer: You should avoid any sort of improvisations or following any other installation guidelines other than the manufacturer’s recommended installation process. We’re going to quote the installation manual of one reputable roof top tent manufacturer: “Improper installation or use of your roof top tent may result in serious injury or death.”
What Roof Top Tent is Right for Me?
There simply isn’t an absolute best roof top tent that will make every camper a happy camper, but there are ways to figure out what RTT makes the most sense for your budget, preferences and adventures.
What roof top tent features matter most?
From brand reputation, materials used, insulation level and ease of setup to the availability of various complementary accessories such as annex rooms and awnings, there are quite a few things that matter when purchasing a roof top tent. We go through at least 21 factors when ranking a specific roof top tent and our list can help you understand and identify the factors that matter most to you.
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How do you pick a roof top tent?
Choosing the right roof top tent can be broken down into the following steps to ensure you get the most out of your budget:
- Decide on a budget for your roof top tent & accessories
- Pick a specific style & type of roof top tent
- Compare roof top tent features & specifications
- Find the right roof rack for your roof top tent
- Check the rack, tent, vehicle compatibility and weight limits
- Choose the right roof top tent accessories
- Order, install & go on an adventure!
As we love over-analyzing any purchase decision, we recommend reading further so you can make your own check list of priorities in terms of features and accessories for your ideal roof top tent.
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Main Concerns on Roof Top Tents