Most Common Roof Top Tent Materials
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.
What is the canvas of a roof top tent made of?
With that short explainer covered, let’s list out the most common materials found in soft-shell and hard-shell roof top tents’ canvas:
- Proprietary fabrics* made out of various combinations of cotton, polyester, nylon, poly-cotton, rip-stop nylon and so on.
- Rip-Stop Nylon
- Acrylic Cotton
While “proprietary blend of poly-cotton rip-stop canvas” sounds really cool, we’re going to explain the advantages and disadvantages of these canvas types below. Alternatively, you can skip to the materials used in roof top tents’ structural elements if you’re not interested in this particular topic.
(1) Proprietary fabrics
“Proprietary fabrics” is a term thrown around almost randomly nowadays and it’s pretty unfortunate for the roof top tent brands that actually invested a lot of time and money to develop truly proprietary fabrics. If you dig deeper and ask your roof top tent provider what teh canvas is made, you’ll generally receive a straightforward answer around what the proprietary fabric is and…most times it’s poly-cotton with a couple special treatments.
Polyester is one of the most common materials used in roof top tents due to its low cost, better heat resistance than nylon and other synthetic fabric, low absorbency and moderate UV resistance. As an added benefit, polyester is slightly more wrinkle resistant, but that’s rarely a concern for overlanding.
Cotton is an amazing fabric for roof top tents, but not exactly in pure form. While pure cotton fibers are durable, abrasion resistant and offer great ventilation / breathability, they are not suitable due to the fact that cotton tends to absorb moisture very fast. That’s why most cotton fabrics used in roof top tents are either specifically “engineered” with various treatments for UV resistance, fire retardation and waterproofing.
Poly-cotton is the next logical step in optimizing for cost while keeping the important properties mostly intact in terms of roof top tent materials. Generally made out of a 80% polyester / 20% cotton blend, this fabric will retain its shape, offer better durability than pure cotton and eliminate moisture absorbency while combining the strength of both materials.
Nylon, known by chemists as polyamide, has an exceptionable material strength and it’s a common materials for at least parts of the canvas used in roof top tents.
Nylon vs. polyester: nylon is the superior materials in terms of roof top tent canvases because it’s exceptionally strong, thus more durable than polyester and it has the added benefit of being resistant to oil. The downside would be that it’s less UV resistant. In terms of moisture absobency, nylon is comparable to polyester.
(6) Rip-Stop Nylon
Rip-stop nylon is basically nylon that is woven using a reinforcing technique (you’ll notice multiple pattern variations if you inspect rip-stop fabrics) which makes it more resistant to rips and tears. While it’s still nylon, with all its advantages and disadvantages, rip-stop nylon is superior to simple nylon mainly because it’s less likely to require time-consuming repairs and stitches after prolonged use.
(7) Acrylic Cotton
The acrylic cotton blend is one of the more advanced fabrics used for roof top tent canvases and, while it’s pretty expensive, provides a very good cost-benefit ratio because it has the added benefits of:
- Enhanced chemical resistance.
- Amazing warmth & insulation.
- Great soft-feeling texture.
- Less prone to staining and color loss.
- Less prone to UV deterioration.
- Great waterproof rating, meaning it won’t absorb any moisture.
The downsides are increased price and lower breathability. If you want to learn more about acrylic-cotton blends, there’s a great, in-depth article from Silver Bobbin on what acrylic fabric is.
What are the structural elements of a roof top tent made of?
Of course, a roof top tent is much more than its fabric and the various structural elements are made out of the following materials:
- Custom / proprietary alloys – mainly centered around aluminum for its light weight and a mix of other metals to achieve a higher degree of resilience.
- Aluminum – a lot of aluminum (and aluminum-based alloys) is used in most tents to hold up the unfolded / popped tent, without adding too much weight.
- Stainless steel (or other variants of steel) for critical elements such as hinges. Sometimes the extra weight is worth it considering the extra resilience.
- Fiberglass or aluminum sheet panels and insulators / fire retardant materials for the floor.
- Fiberglass or other plastics with various coatings for the actual shells.
- Various density foams with multiple properties are occasionally used.
What is the cover of a roof top tent made of?
Roof top tent covers are rarely a concern for most customers, but they’re an important accessory and they’re generally made out of 100% water resistant PVC, with some featuring an anti-UV coating.
There are some other high-tech solutions such as Tuff Stuff’s “aluminized coated rainfly material” that provide extra insulation for cold weather and some slightly-more-reflective covers that help cool your roof top tent during the summer, but that’s mostly a matter of preference and the climate you’ll be camping in.
Other Roof Top Tents Materials
Keep in mind that besides the combinations of aluminum, steel, fiberglass and various canvases, roof top tents may also contain:
- Various pigments / paints with all sorts of specific properties.
- Various coatings (for water resistance, UV resistance etc.) and fire retardants.
- Various plastics and fabrics for tubing and small elements such as gear lofts.
Mattresses are generally made out of various fabrics such as cotton / polyester and foams / gels, but you can always buy a roof top tent mattress to your (back’s) liking.
What are the best roof top tent materials?
Simply put, the best roof top tent materials are the ones you can afford, but, if you’re looking for a roof top tent and your budget is flexible enough to consider the materials they’re built with, you should keep in mind that there are some materials to look for:
- High-quality stainless steel – while you don’t want a roof top tent with too much steel in it, the presence of steel in various structural elements is an indicator of higher quality overall.
- Poly-cotton rip-stop canvas – while more expensive, this combination offers you the most benefits possible out of all roof top tent fabrics (truly waterproof, extremely durable, but still breathable enough to allow for ventilation)
Keep in mind that good roof top tent materials are not enough for a high-quality end product: the craftsmanship that goes into properly assembling it and sewing the various pieces of canvas are also a huge factor, but that’s unfortunately something you’ll have to inspect upon arrival or at least do your homework and look up in-depth reviews of actual customers.
Premium Roof Top Tent Materials
As previously outlined in our take on the best roof top tent materials, you’ll want to focus on discovering the roof top tents that use materials such as stainless steel and higher-quality canvases. To help you identify which roof top tents use premium materials, we’ve put together a more comprehensive list of premium materials and how to differentiate between the various qualities of the same materials (not all steel is made equally for example).
» Read More: Premium Roof Top Tent Materials
The Big Debate: Soft Shell or Hard Shell Roof Top Tent?
Besides the obvious price difference, from aerodynamic profile to weight considerations, there are a lot of subtle differences between soft shell and hard shell roof top tents and there isn’t a clear cut answer on what the best choice is, but we can help you decide what the best choice is for your particular needs.
» Read more: Soft Shell vs. Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
Frequently Asked Roof Top Tent Questions
Are all roof top tents the same?
Absolutely not, not all roof top tents are the same, despite a lot of similarities between them and a lot of brands copy-pasting designs. There are huge differences in terms of comfort, utility, material quality, build quality, ease of use and much more between most roof top tents. For the purpose of helping you differentiate and figure out what’s worth your money and what isn’t, we’ll deep dive into the most common differences between roof op tents and their pros and cons.
» Read More: Are all roof top tents the same?
Where are roof top tents made?
As you’d expect, most roof top tents are made in China and Vietnam and shipped mostly towards the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and South Africa, where they are most popular. There are some brands producing roof top tents in the US, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and South Africa, but in most cases roof top tents are made from parts sourced from multiple countries and assembled in various places, depending on the brand’s logistics. If you want to know more about where your roof top tents come from and which brands produce what & where, feel free to read further:
» Read More: Where are roof top tents made?
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.
» Read More: Important Roof Top Tent Features?
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.
» Read More: How to choose a roof top tent