Roof top tents (RTTs) are becoming more popular in the United States every season, and in this article we’ll take a look at why that is. Chances are you’ve seen vehicles driving around with what looks like an odd-shaped storage bag on top, but those are in fact tents that fold out to become sweet off-the-ground oases. If this list doesn’t convince you to have one in your life, nothing will.
What is the point of a roof top tent? Here’s 10 advantages:
1. Sleeping off ground level
Since you will be on top of your vehicle, most rooftop tents are accessed via a telescoping ladder. This means that if it rains, you will not be sleeping in a puddle or in a mud pit. It’s also easier to catch a breeze when you are off the ground, so your tent will be better ventilated and stay cooler in the summertime. Plus, you’ll have a better vantage point being up off the ground – it’s almost like being in a treehouse!
Being off the ground also helps keep dirt and detritus out of your tent. For instance, if you are camping on sand or dusty ground, you can climb up on the ladder, brush off your shoes, and then get into the tent without tracking anything inside.
2. It’s more secure
This is an added benefit of being off the ground, but it deserves its own point. Animals are less likely to get into your tent if it’s off the ground, and especially if you remove the ladder while you aren’t in the tent, so squirrels and such can’t climb up. It will be much harder for creepy crawlies like spiders, scorpions, or snakes to get into your tent as well.
In Australia and Africa, where there are extremely nasty critters on the ground, RTTs have been popular for some time, but they have begun to catch on the United States in recent years too.
It’s also more of a deterrent to people who might be looking to score some nice camping gear on a five-finger discount, as they will be hard-pressed to remove your ~150-pound rooftop tent from the top of your vehicle, particularly without making a huge amount of noise or hurting themselves. A tent on the ground can be taken apart and spirited away in a matter of minutes.
Having your tent on top of your vehicle allows you to stash your expensive gear inside your locked vehicle while you are sleeping. Some diehard offroaders sleep in their truck beds with a truck topper over them, but this means that when they are sleeping, all their gear must be stored elsewhere. With an RTT, your gear can remain in place and safely locked away at all times.
3. Comfortable sleeping platform/pad
If you have the swankiest ground tent and air mattress ever made, maybe this isn’t true, but in general, rooftop tents come with high-density memory foam mattresses which are vastly more comfortable than air mattresses. Especially if your spouse or significant other is camping with you – nearly being launched off the air mattress every time the other person moves at all gets old fast.
Rooftop tents also have a hard bottom (usually fiberglass, steel, aluminum, or something similar) which is perfectly smooth, unlike the ground. Even with an air mattress, sleeping on rocky ground isn’t fun. The story of the Princess and the Pea wasn’t even exaggerated that much if you ask me. Sleeping in a rooftop tent is much more like sleeping in your bed at home in terms of overall comfort.
If you’ve ever spent the night in a ground tent during a wind/rain/hail/snowstorm, you know that you are likely to be kept awake all night by flapping of the tent material, probably find yourself in a pool of cold water in the morning, and possibly even find your tent damaged beyond repair.
It’s particularly terrifying if you do somehow manage to fall asleep, and then are awoken to the battered side of the tent being blown so flat to the ground that it is essentially smothering you. Or, even worse, your tent gets ripped clear of its stakes and you are hamster-balled around the campground.
Fortunately, none of these issues are a concern in a rooftop tent. Many of them have a solid fiberglass panel that either pops straight up or at an angle, which protects you from most of the elements. Although most RTTs do still have canvas sides that could potentially flap in the wind, the canvas is much more durable and many of them have systems that allow you to crank the canvas extra tight if it’s windy.
Check out our list of the 10 Best Hardshell RTTs for information on this.
Most ground tents are made to be light and portable, whereas RTTS are made to be strong and durable since your vehicle is carrying all of the weight. RTTs are often constructed with steel or aluminum and the canvas is much more rugged than the lightweight material used on ground tents.
5. Convenient and quick to set up
Most RTTs are very quick to set up: you simply park your vehicle in a relatively flat spot, undo the locks or latches, and your tent will spring up on its own or you can quickly fold it open. Some tents have annexes that require a few more minutes to set up, but in general, RTTs are faster and easier to set up than ground tents since there are no poles to put together or stakes to drive into the ground.
Additionally, most RTTs allow you to leave your bedding in place even when the tent is packed down so everything is ready to go as soon as you open the tent. In a ground tent, that’s not possible and you would have to inflate an air mattress or sleeping pad and then lay out your sleeping bag.
6. Super mobile
Many people use RTTS on their offroad or 4×4 vehicles, and since the tent goes wherever the vehicle goes, it can open up a lot of places where car camping would otherwise be impractical. Even if you have driven to a place where there are no wide flat places to put a ground tent, if you can use blocks to level your vehicle, your RTT will still function comfortably.
Your overall footprint will be much smaller too, since your tent and vehicle will be occupying the same space, so if you are among dense trees or boulders, it won’t be a problem.
RTTs are also excellent for trips where you will be moving to a different location every day, since the setup and takedown are so easy and quick. Setting up and taking down a ground tent, air mattress, and sleeping bag every day gets old fast. Camping with an RTT is more similar to RV camping than tent camping in terms of convenience, which leads me to my next point…
7. Cheaper than RVs
A hardshell RTT ranges from about $2,500 to $5,000, which is still significantly cheaper than even the most barebones RV. Of course, you won’t have a bathroom, running water, or kitchen facilities in your RTT, but it does provide some of the comforts and mobility that an RV would, especially when compared to a ground tent setup.
With an RTT you can camp in all types of weather and all types of terrain, much the same as with an RV, whereas ground tents are really only comfortable and practical in relatively warm weather and on flat ground.
Additionally, it’s easier to drive your regular vehicle with an RTT on top than it is to drive most RVs, which are large, bulky, and generally not very responsive or fast. RTTs don’t have a huge impact on your gas mileage either (only half a mile per gallon or so), so you can save a lot of money by driving your regular vehicle with an RTT when compared to driving an RV or towing a trailer.
8. Save space inside your vehicle
As I mentioned in the security section, you can keep all your expensive gear locked away in your vehicle even while you are sleeping, since you don’t need to use the truck bed space for sleeping. This way you don’t have to rearrange your entire vehicle every time you want to go to sleep.
Additionally, you don’t have to keep a tent, sleeping bags, and air mattresses stored in your vehicle, since everything you need to sleep on is already ready to go up top in your RTT. This frees up room in your vehicle for other supplies and toys.
9. Additional storage on top
This is a feature particular to hardshell RTTs, but many of these types of tents have a gear mounting system on the hard upper surface upon which you can store in the neighborhood of 75 pounds of additional gear.
This is perfect if you want to store things like skis or other gear that you won’t access every day, or you can mount solar panels to power lights and provide charging capability. Most hardshell RTTs with this feature can still be opened and used even with the gear still stored on top.
10. Easy year-round use
Since RTTs are made with heavier duty materials that insulate much better against the elements than a ground tent, you can use an RTT in nearly every kind of weather conditions. This means that if you are an avid camper or traveler, your RTT will allow you to camp throughout the year and in all seasons and locations.
As long as your vehicle can safely get you to where you want to camp, your RTT will keep you cozy and safe from the elements. Some RTTs even come with optional four-seasons gear like extra insulation, weather hoods, and so forth.
Roof top Tent FAQs
Do you need a roof rack for a rooftop tent? Yes, you will need a roof rack or crossbars that have a dynamic weight capacity (DWC) of at least the weight of the tent itself. The DWC tells you the amount of weight that the rack can carry while the vehicle is in motion, so you only need to factor in the weight of the tent itself, not the weight of you and whoever else will be sleeping in the tent, since the vehicle won’t be in motion then.
Most roof racks will work with an RTT, but check with the tent manufacturer’s specifications for things like how wide the bars need to be, the spacing and weight requirements, and so forth. Some of the best roof racks for RTTs are made by Yakima, Thule, and Rhino Rack, although there are many other brands that will work just fine.
How much weight can you put on the roof of a car? In general, the DWC of most cars, trucks, and SUVs is about 165 pounds. This means that when your vehicle is moving, you should never exceed that limit. However, when your car is parked, you can add more on the roof since there are not any forces from motion being applied, and your added weight is distributed evenly by your tent structure and your roof rack bars.
Be sure to check the weight capacity of your RTT before bringing all your friends up into the tent though, or you may cause some major damage to the roof of your vehicle. If you transport any additional gear on top of your RTT, be sure that it’s securely fastened down.
If it’s something bulky like a kayak or SUP, be sure to use cam straps and guy lines to the front and back tow hooks on your vehicle to secure your load so that your car doesn’t end up as a convertible.
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Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!