Roof Top Tent - Choosing the best tent for you.

Roof Top Tent - Choosing the best tent for you.

by Patrick Rich

The roof top tent, or RTT, is as much a symbol of the overland movement as just about anything you can bolt to your vehicle.  Formerly a niche item for global travelers, the RTT market has exploded and now appeals to travelers of all types and for just about any vehicle.  The idea is simple enough - use the real estate of your roof for a quick pitching tent to keep you off the ground and make setup and takedown of camp fast and easy.  There is certainly no arguing their popularity, but which one is right for you? Or are they right for you at all?

Before you start looking at roof tents, understand that your first investment may be a roof rack. Check out your options here first.

RTT Pros

Keeps you off the ground - If the idea of animals sniffing around your tent or the thought of creepy crawlies on the ground keeps you up at night, then being up off the ground is a huge plus.  

Goes where you go - Anyplace you can park and level your vehicle can be a campsite. No need to find a level spot on the ground for a ground tent. 

Easy setup - The ease of setup for RTT’s is one of their big selling points. Some designs are better than others, but they all offer some level of reduced setup effort.  

Leave in bedding - This isn’t true of all tents but most types will allow you to leave some or all of your camp bedding in them for even an easier setup. In all cases you never have to worry about setting up a pad.  

Pad quality - Speaking of bedding, having a thick foam mattress means not having to sleep on something that rolls up or having to deal with a leaky inflatable pad. A good bed is a huge plus. 

Cargo volume. Having your tent and bed on the roof means it isn’t inside your car taking up valuable cargo volume. If you have a small car, or travel with more than a couple of people you need all the volume you can get. While it's true that you could put your ground gear on a roof as well, the all-in-one nature of a RTT makes it easier.

RTT Cons

Pricey - They used to be a lot less, but even then they weren’t cheap. Price of entry starts at $1000 and goes up from there.  Three grand is about the median range.

Heavy - Even the lightest models are a 2 person lift. Not only are they heavy, but the weight is up high, affecting your center of gravity. You’ll feel this weight as a handling penalty on and off-road.  

Bulky - When you aren't using it you will need to store it.  With its weight and bulk that may be easier said than done, especially if you don't have a garage or have to climb stairs to get to your place. Keep in mind where, and how, you will store yours when you aren't using it.

Limited living space - Even the largest RTT’s are sit and squat affairs once inside. There won’t be anything close to standing room to get changed, and if you have to hunker down through a storm in your tent, you won’t be able to get up and stretch out like you might in a large ground tent and it might start feeling pretty cramped. Some tents that fold out allow for annex rooms to be attached to give standing room to make up for that.

Annex room

Goes where you go - This was a pro and it still is but remember that your car and camp are tied together with a RTT. Driving anywhere now means packing up camp every time. Great for point to point travel, but less than ideal for basecamp or park style travel. This isn't an issue when installed on a trailer, but having a trailer is a whole other topic.

Exposure -  Being on the roof means you are high up in the wind and weather. It’s relatively minor, but motions and noise in an RTT will be considerably more than inside the vehicle or on the ground.  

Fuel hungry - Even the lightest and most aerodynamic tents will eat into your fuel mileage noticeably, especially at highway speeds.

Types of RTT

RTTs all consist of a few basic ingredients - a hard base that attaches to a vehicle rack, a thick pad, a canvas tent section and a mechanism to expand and collapse the tent.  There are a few basic styles on the market.

Soft Fold Out

EZawn Folding tent

 

Eezi-Awn, Tepui, ARB, and others come to mind.  The structure is almost all canvas type material that folds up when you pull the shell open, which is typically folded over in half.  These are the volume champions of tents as they expand out from the vehicle for their floorspace and can have a very large mattress area. They are airy feeling due to their canvas roofs and generally have excellent ventilation.  The downsides of this style are that they are quite thick and present a lot of area to the wind while driving, reducing mileage.  They also are fairly complex to set up compared to some other types and may or not be faster to erect and stow than other tent types, including ground tents. This tent can also be an issue if you camp in humid or wet environments as they present a lot of canvas to the weather and can be mold traps if not stored properly between uses. A last issue, in high winds, these types can move around quite a bit and be a little noisier. 

Hard Tip-Up

EZawn tipup

The tip up style is all about 2 things - aerodynamics and speed.  There is simply no faster tent setup than a strut assisted hard-top tip-up. Open a few latches, let the struts lift the roof and you’re done. The downside is that because the floor area is fixed and doesn’t fold open the mattress area is limited by the roof area. If you have the space for a king size mattress area on your roof, there are models that accommodate that, but they look - and are - huge. Flat, but huge. Another issue is that only one side of the tent has any real interior volume while the other side is good for only feet as it approaches the hinge, making them less versatile. 

Hard Pop-Up

Another hard shell type is the popup.  This is basically just the tip-up but it opens square instead of like a triangle.  This solves the issue of uneven interior volume and creates something like a mini roof top apartment or animal blind - great for wildlife photographers. Many if not all are assisted somehow and pop up and down with relative ease, though they can be tricky singlehanded. These have the same basic downsides of tip-ups where mattress size is concerned with the added negative of having a more complicated lift mechanism that can intrude on interior volume. 

Hybrid

Recently a new type of tent has entered the market that is a hybrid hard top/soft top that offers most of the aerodynamic advantages of hard top with the volume of a soft top. iKamper is the originator of the design but there are others out there as well. They aren’t as easy to setup as pure hard shell models and don’t have hard roofs overhead, but they are more compact on the roof and fold out to reveal large floor space. 

Alternatives 

As cool as RTT's are they are a relatively new thing on the scene and we've been getting along fine without them for some time. If the price or other cons of RTT's don't appeal to you, what are your alternatives, and who should consider them?

In vehicle

If you travel alone or as a couple and your vehicle is big enough then sleeping inside your vehicle has big advantages.  When I travel solo in my 80 series Land Cruiser this is my prefered method.  When the wind is threatening to push my friends tents closed on them, I sleep secure and comfortably in my tiny home. Setup and takedown time is faster if done right and I've found a very comfortable way to roll and stow my sleep setup for maximum comfort and ease.

Ground tent

Ground tent

A classic ground tent offers a lot of advantages, even against the RTT. It's far less money, you can leave it up and still use your vehicle, they can be FAR roomier and more comfortable if you have to sit and wait out a storm and they aren't at as much of a disadvantage as you might think in terms of speed.  

In my own testing I've found that even my labor intensive canvas tent was roughly on par with a folding RTT in terms of takedown speed.  The disadvantages of a ground tent in terms of speed and convenience are having to find a level site and recreate your sleeping area every night.  There are some great options on the market that make ground tent even more appealing including old solutions like an Oztent or one of the newer ice fishing style instant cube tents. 

Another way to do fast and light in a tent is with a swag.  An Australian invention a swag is sort of like a backpackers bivy tent combined with a ground tent and a roof top tent. They set up quickly, they contain pads and room to leave your gear and they are far more affordable than a roof tent.  

These semi-freestanding tents are usually individual or two person in size and offer a rollup and toss functionality for quick camping. 

On the ground

The last and least used method is to just sleep outside.  The bedroll method makes for an easy open-air swag experience while affording options to move into a car or tent if things go south.  A good ground tarp and a comfortable bed in a place without a lot of bugs is all you need here. It's a lesser used option that should definitely be reconsidered. 

Conclusion

There is no bad way to enjoy sleeping out on the trail, there are only different ways.  One of the RTT options out there may be just what you are looking for, or maybe you've decided you prefer another way altogether.  Whatever you do, getting the most nights outside is the best option.

 


1 Response

Daniel
Daniel

April 18, 2022

One type of ground tent that was not discussed is the pop up. If speed and simplicity is a major concern, the Gazelle 4-person pop-up tent can be set up in under two minutes. Taking it down is a breeze too. If a 4-person tent is not big enough they also have an 8-person model.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Overlander Life
Overlander Life

by Stephan Edwards

Show us your Overlander-inspired builds.
State of the "Industry". How the Overland Supply chain broke and where we are now
State of the "Industry". How the Overland Supply chain broke and where we are now

by Patrick Rich

You may have noticed the world has been a little strange the last few years. The global supply chain problems that are affecting everyday life are certainly felt by the overlander - from increased gas prices, to out-of-stock items.  So what happened? What is the current state of the industry? And what does the future hold?
Liquid Assets: Managing Fuel and Water Supplies
Liquid Assets: Managing Fuel and Water Supplies

by Stephan Edwards

Managing fuel and water supplies are crucial and related concerns for planning wilderness travel both for short and long distances. Their importance is obvious, but the actual details are often hard to get a handle on. 

KNOW THE TOP 6 PROBLEMS THAT RUIN TRIPS?

Learn how to avoid them and keep your trek on track.

You’ll receive follow-up emails from Overlander. You can cancel at any time and your information will not be shared.