Gimme Shelter: Roof Top Tents

Gimme Shelter: Roof Top Tents

by Stephan Edwards

As you begin to plan or revise your overland build, one of the most important decisions and possibly one of the biggest investments you’ll make is your shelter. In the context of vehicle based adventure travel, shelter comes in many guises - protection from the sun, rain, and insects, and a place to lay your head at night.

Sleeping comfortably while on the move is an underrated priority for many overland travelers. But, it can have a huge effect on how much you enjoy your time on the road. Just because you’re living rough and ready out in nature doesn’t mean you need to suffer with cramped and stuffy sleeping quarters, stiff mattresses, and squeaky and leaky inflatable pillows. You can bring many of the comforts of your bedroom at home with you on the trail by taking advantage of the kinds of shelters that overlanders around the world have been using for decades.

While some still stick with the tried and true ground tent (it has its advantages), and others devise solutions for sleeping in their rigs, particularly adventurers with larger van builds, the go-to shelter for many overlanders is the roof top tent (RTT). 

The roof top tent is a curious beast - it has been around basically since people have been taking their cars into the woods on wheeled adventures. Many of the earliest designs showed up in the 1930s, and in a lot of ways the basic principle and blueprint hasn’t changed much since then. On the other hand, the boom in overland and adventure travel, especially in North America, has driven some really exciting innovation for these shelters in the last five or six years. 

For the uninitiated, what is a roof top tent? Exactly what it sounds like – instead of pitching a dome or wall tent on the ground, a RTT bolts to the top of your vehicle, and is usually accessed by climbing a ladder. They come in two flavors – hard side (a plastic-composite box that opens upward or at an angle via hydraulic struts to reveal the sleeping space), and soft side (usually made of canvas or nylon materials that fold into a separate water-tight cover). When unfolded to reveal the sleeping space, soft side RTT’s look more like traditional tents, only sitting on top of your car. 

If you’re considering adding a roof top tent to your overland kit, there are some important considerations to take into account.

The first is weight. Most roof top tents weigh between 130 to 225 lbs. It’s critically important that your vehicle’s load bars or roof rack are rated for that mass, plus the weight of one or two sleepers, or even possibly the whole family. Some manufacturers like Eezi-Awn offer models designed to sleep four  humans, so plan accordingly. Others, like Yakima feature featherweight two-person models that crossovers and Subarus can carry with ease. Not only is the roof weight rating key to your install, but your roof tent will affect the overall payload capacity of your vehicle as well. 

The second is size. Roof top tents, whether hard side or soft side, are bulky, and they will take up a lot, if not all, of the load space on your roof. If you carry a lot of gear on your roof rack, some rearranging or culling of your kit may be in order. Soft-sided roof tents, because of how they fold up tend to occupy less real estate, but their higher profile impacts your fuel economy and your rig’s center of gravity more noticeably. Hard shell RTTs, because of their fixed size, will take over the entirety of most vehicle’s roofs, but their sleeker silhouette keeps the weight lower, and cuts through the wind with more ease and less noise.

Third, and maybe most importantly, is thinking carefully about how you sleep. The sleeping area in a hard shell roof tent is static, and generally not much wider than the vehicle itself, if at all. If, like my wife, you sleep like a starfish with all your limbs at full extension, you may find yourself crowding your partner out (ask me how I know…).

Soft-sided roof tents have a lot more sleeping surface, and for the most part, considerably more headroom. In both cases, you can keep much of your bedding stored within the tent itself when you’re on the road. However, bulky comforters or pillows will be more difficult to fold into a soft-sided roof tent, whereas there is plenty of room in a closed hard shell tent for all the bedding you need. In either case, this frees up considerable space inside your vehicle, and makes the roof top tent sleep-ready in no time.

Lastly, the environments where you do most of your travel are useful variables to take into account. Soft-sided roof top tents, with their higher profile and less rigid design are more prone to catching the wind, and can be noisy enough to ruin a good night’s sleep even in light breezes. If you travel in heavily forested or jungly places, that extra height can sometimes make certain campsites off limits due to low-hanging branches. Hard-sided tents tend to be more wind and weather resistant, but, with their composite roofs they can get quite hot in desert environments, and they lack the added benefit of creating a shaded area near the vehicle the way a soft side RTT does when it’s set up. 

Once you’ve considered these ideas, the final questions are: why a roof top tent in the first place, and which one to get. 

High quality roof top tents have robust build quality that most ground tents can’t match. They are designed to live more or less permanently on the roof of your vehicle, and last for many, many years in all climates. The key words there are “high” and “quality”. Due to their universal design, there are lots of knock-offs out there on the market, but the brands that have been designing and producing roof top tents for many years both from abroad, like the venerable Eezi-Awn and ARB, and right here in the USA, like Tepui, use high-end materials and carefully controlled construction to ensure longevity and consistent performance over the long term.

One of the intangibles of a roof top tent is simply the motivation to get out there – with the tent ready to go on top of your vehicle at all times, it’s embarrassingly easy to jump in the rig and hit the road at the drop of a hat. Another is a positive psychological effect. There is a real benefit from sleeping up high that plugs into our early evolutionary brains. Our ancient ancestors lived their days on the ground, but slept up high in trees. The roof top tent offers a sense of security, and I dare I say it, coziness, that a ground tent just can’t replicate.

This results in more restful sleep. Can a bear climb a ladder? Can an elephant look you right in the eye through the mesh windows (ask me how I know this as well…)? You bet they can, but the roof tent is one more psychological barrier between you, the apex carnivores, and the animals that are much larger than you. 

Never underestimate the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Overlander has a wide selection of roof top tents from ARB, Eezi-Awn, Tepui, Thule and Yakima to complete your shelter solution - deliverable right to your front door.

How do you catch your ZZZZZ’s? Any cool roof top tent hacks that have made your life on the road that much more comfortable? Let us know in the comments.

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