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
Now that you’ve had a quick overview of the reasons why you shouldn’t buy a roof top tent, let’s get into the weeds and clarify all these reasons as objectively (and constructively, since there are solutions and alternatives to some of the issues that you may not be aware of).
#1. Roof top tents are more expensive than the simpler alternatives such as car mattresses, truck bed tents and classic ground tents
We’ve already covered how much roof top tents cost and it’s very straightforward: if you want to stick to a specific budget and roof top tents are not in the price range you’re considering, just go with the usual alternatives, ranging from car mattresses and classic ground tents on the accessible end of the spectrum or truck bed tents (if applicable to your vehicle) if you’re willing to spend a bit more to turn your vehicle into an actual overland shelter.
#2. Increased gas mileage no matter how aerodynamic the model is or if you’re installing a wind deflector
There’s no arguing that roof top tents add a lot of weight (anywhere from 75 pounds to 225 pounds depending on the model) which directly contributes to decreased gas mileage but weight isn’t the main factor.
You see, most vehicles are designed to be as light and aerodynamic as possible (well, a compromise between their design and aerodynamics) and even trucks are designed with aerodynamics in mind. Adding a massive roof top tent on top of them completely changes the aerodynamic profile and can greatly increase fuel consumption – greatly as in going from 45 to 35 mpg.
There are some nifty hacks such as installing wind deflectors (for example Ikamper has one) to decrease the impact of roof top tents, but as you can imagine…it does nothing to help with the added weight. At the same time, you should consider the difference between soft shell and hard shell roof top tents. While hard shell roof top tents are much more expensive, you may recover the extra money spent through fuel savings since they’re much more aerodynamic and have a smaller size (thus less drag) when closed.
If gas mileage is a big concern for you, we recommend looking for the lightest and most aerodynamic roof top tent models possible or sticking with a light ground tent packed neatly in your vehicle.
#3. Increased wear and tear for your vehicle – might not add up that much, but should be considered nonetheless
While your vehicle’s roof is going to be just fine as long as you get the right roof rack and respect roof top load limits, you also have to consider that there will be some increased wear and tear for your vehicle’s components (for example its suspension is the first thing to come into mind).
This factor depends a lot on what vehicle you’re driving – if you’re mounting a roof top tent on a sturdy 4×4 designed to take some beating – most likely it won’t matter. If you’re mounting it on some vehicles that have been designed and produced for…let’s say more friendly environments and conditions…the wear and tear could be more significant.
#4. Higher risk for mold & mildew compared to other shelter options (which simply ruins your investment)
To clarify, it’s not that roof top tent materials make them more prone to mold & mildew, it’s actually the extra time and difficulty required to clean them and maintain them which makes people skip steps and eventually deal with this issue..
For example, while you can go through a car wash with a roof top tent, depending on how you’ve packed it and secured it – water might get into all kinds of nooks and crannies and if you neglect to air it out and then store it properly – then you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. The same issues can be expected with storing roof top tents in damp places.
Realistically, the same risks of mold and mildew are present for most overland sheltering solutions, but removing mold & mildew in some roof top tent models is very difficult if not impossible. Once this is issue is present, its resale value goes down the drain.
#5. Roof top tents are (maybe) worth stealing – considering their price point, we have to admit they’re a viable target
Depending on where you live and where you’ve overlanding, this might seem like a strange concern but think about it: a multi-thousand dollar accessory on top of your vehicle might seem like a very attractive target to some guys with “entrepreneurial mindsets”. Sure, stealing a roof top tent might not be so easy considering their weight (no, we’re not going to write a guide on the topic!)
There have been quite a few reports about roof top tents being stolen and that’s why we recommend at least installing some security nuts for your roof top tent and awning. A lot of brands like Tuff Stuff sell them and while they’re not a guarantee your gear is going to be safe – they’re a deterrent and make it more difficult for thieves to pull it off.
#6. Add-ons and upgrades (from annexes to gear lofts) can add up fast to the final price (depending on the brand)
While roof top tents by themselves might be a good fit for you, many of them have been designed with matching awnings and annex rooms to increase your living space and improve your overlanding experience. And, of course, you might want to consider them and figure out if your budget can include them or not.
We’ve discussed how to customize your roof top tent and how to upgrade it before on our blog, but if you want to save time figuring out what accessories you need – check out our post on the most useful accessories for roof top tents.
Moving on to installation, compatibility and some other factors we should note that:
#7. You need to buy a compatible roof rack if you don’t have one…
Roof top tents do come with their own installation kit, but not with a roof rack. If you don’t own a heavy-duty roof rack, you’ll have to do your research and find one that works with a roof top tent and supports its weight OR buy a roof rack recommended by the roof top tent manufacturer.
So, that’s another downside from a financial standpoint – if you weren’t planning on buying or don’t own a good roof rack, there goes another little chunk of your camping / overlanding budget.
#8. …and if you have an existing roof rack it might not be suitable
Factory-installed roof racks / cross bars are rarely rated to carry a lot of weight and should not be used for roof top tents unless you’re absolutely sure the math adds up. As we’ve discussed in our “Are roof top tents too heavy?” post, you can find out the information required to choose the right roof rack for the right roof top tent.
We can’t stress this enough: don’t take any chances with your roof rack / roof top tent combo and avoid assuming “this should hold”. There are roof top load limits, roof rack load limits and roof top tent load limits – check all three and connect the dots or confirm with manufacturers to ensure you’re purchasing a product that won’t damage your vehicle and put you in danger.
#9. Vehicle compatibility is not universal – make sure to check roof top load limits
While most if not all vehicles allow you to install roof racks and cross bars, compatibility is simply not universal. Lighter city cars are designed with a maximum roof top load limit that will simply make it risky to try and install a roof top tent.
Keep in mind that installing a roof top tent on a vehicle that’s not suitable can lead to accidents, damage / dent your car’s roof and even void your warranty in most cases (including for the roof top tent and the roof rack).
#10. Potentially difficult installation depending on the specific model, weight and installation method
First of all, most roof top tents weigh too much to be easily installed by one person. That means that
While many installation methods are pretty straightforward, some models require a rather more time consuming installation process and it’s best to grab something to drink and a friend to keep you company while reading installation procedures.
#11. Potentially time-consuming / tedious setup depending on specific model (manual RTTs)
Again, your experience may vary, with some soft shell roof top tents being notoriously tedious to properly setup and secure. While most of them are desgiend to be set up by one person, in some cases you might want a friend to help you unfold and fold it when needed. Minor inconvenience to some, major deal breaker to others.
#12. Wasted time with multiple setups and breakdowns if you’re camping in multiple spots
Yes, most influencers will claim it’s a “quick one minute setup / breakdown” but the reality is that really depends on a per model basis. The more expensive hard shell roof top tent with gas struts are indeed fast to setup and breakdown, but you’ll still need to allocate time to organize things, secure your tent (at times cover it with a…cover) and belongings.
The fact that your camp is literally “tied” to your vehicle can make you less mobile at times and if you just want to drive down to the closest gas station for a xi pack, then you’re in for a bit of work to do so.
To avoid going into far too much detail for a pros & cons list, you can dig deeper into the reasons why you shouldn’t buy a roof top tent in our dedicated post:
» Read more: Why You Shouldn’t Buy a Roof Top Tent