Let’s face it. There’s something incredibly gratifying about being able to toss everything you own into the back of your car and setting off to wherever the road takes you.
Ditch the comforts of an air-conditioned hotel room and rough it out.
We aren’t talking about mainstream camping, like driving with an airstream or a plush RV attached to your vehicle either.
Definitely not a perfectly-groomed campsite that boasts of power supply, a well-manicured campground, and fellow campers for company.
Just explore the wilderness, where even soft ground, devoid of rocks and divots might be a luxury.
The Best 10 Rooftop Tents in 2020
Without further ado, here are our recommendations for the best rooftop tents in 2020.
As always, we have selected models in every price range, variety, and configurations ranging from one-man tents to capacious ones for large families who fancy climbing on to a rooftop to sleep.
Sit back and enjoy the read.
Do you find yourself veering towards such a lifestyle?
It’s amazing, we tell you. Boasting rights among the guys and pictures that are gram-worthy. But it takes a certain amount of prep, without which you’d be caught in situations that can be very uncomfortable. Like having to pitch a tent on a surface that’s too uneven, or is in the middle of a runoff. Or having to camp in an area that comes alive post-sunset with creepies, crawlies, and large predators.
Oh, did we mention inclement weather? Imagine that perfect evening being dampened. with a sudden storm that Don’t get us wrong here. There’s nothing more exhilarating than driving up to a remote location where you have the canopy of the stars above you and the murmur of the crickets to lull you to slumber. But at the forefront, your priority should be a comfortable and safe resting place. One that does not require you to spend hours digging, or breaking your back hammering cheap metal stakes into the ground. Enter the rooftop tent or the RTT.
The rooftop tent has gone from a vanity item to a lust-list one in the past few years. More and more campers secretly yearn for one of these do-it-all shelters, that can be set up just about anywhere without breaking a sweat. If you were one of the few who were contemplating rooftop tents but didn’t know whether these would worth your time, attention and hard-earned money, then you are at the right place. Today, we will decode these portable camping shelters for you. By the end of this blog post, you will be armed with enough information about RTTs to make a choice.
What are rooftop tents?
Rooftop tents are portable shelters that can be installed on your vehicle’s roof-rack (or an aftermarket one), giving you a comfortable and safe sleeping place with a vantage-point view to boot. These tents originally gained traction among recreational campers and researchers who had to gruel it out in the Australian Outback and the African Savanah. It kept them elevated off the ground, thereby negating the perils that come with on-ground camping.
No creepy crawlies (or big cats) to be bothered of, no flash rains to be worried about and no more cramping into a pigeonhole-sized car if you arrive too late to set up a full-sized tent on the ground. These portable tents set up in minutes and are incredibly stable. The very design makes them a great pick for someone who doesn’t want to invest in a full-sized RV or a trailer yet. Why you can get one of these for the price of renting a trailer for a week. Also, they are available in a gamut of shapes, sizes, configurations and price points. You can find one small enough for yourself or one big enough for a family of three.
So, we wouldn’t really blame you if one of these caught your attention and you are now seriously considering putting your airstream plans on the backburner. However, if you are shopping for RTTs, get ready to be greeted with tech specs, configurations and jargon that sound like it was written by a Chinese schoolboy in the fourth-grade. Here are the different types of RTTs available in the market currently.
Types of Rooftop tents
Primarily, there are two types of rooftop tents, the hardshell and the softshell. Every other rooftop tent is a spinoff of one of these that might be advertised as a distinct ‘Type’, whereas it’s not.
Hardshell Rooftop tents
As implied by the name, these have two hard outer shells made either from fiberglass or aluminum, which fold down to form a protective layer packing everything else, like the mattress, within. Hardshells are expensive, typically costing over $2000, even for a basic one-person model. Also, they are heavier than softshells and are available in two styles.
- The Pop-Up: The Pop-Up hardshell tent features two hardshell layers, with an upper half that is raised completely to form a rigid structure with four vertical walls.
These usually come with internal struts and gas powered lift mechanisms that make it a breeze to set up. Just unlatch a few buckles and the entire upper half raises and the tent springs into the erect position by itself. Extend the ladder and you are ready to roll. Can even be done with one hand in less than a minute. Some models have mechanical lift mechanisms instead that need to be deployed with a crank. While this takes more effort, it is less prone to failure during extremely low temperature. Also, it can sustain a larger load. Pop-up RTTs are preferred by small groups and families as the four vertical walls provide ample living space. In fact, two to three campers can easily sit upright in a pop-up RTT.
- The Wedge: The Wedge-styled hardshell RTT has a hinged upper hardshell layer that only opens from one end.
These are easier to deploy and provide more space length-wise, making them a slightly better pick for taller users. The caveat is that vertical usable space is limited to the head or the entryway, which makes it difficult for two people to sit upright. The wedge might be a better option if you expect a lot of rain or precipitation. The sloped roof provides runoff and it also redirects strong winds. But if you are a group of two or three campers, you might find yourself elbowing each other as you jostle for space.
Softshell rooftop tents are a great starting point for first timers, or for campers who aren’t ready to make a substantial upfront investment, while wetting their toes in rooftop shelters. These typically have a foldable frame with a hard floor, a mattress and interconnecting PVC or nylon walls. They are lighter than hardshells and mostly need to be deployed and folded manually. Some newer models do incorporate gas struts though. Despite the compact size when folded, softshells are capacious as compared to their hardshell kin. There’s tons of inside living space, which makes them a favorite with groups and small families. These are available in two styles.
- Bi-Fold: If you have ever been intrigued by the picture of a full-sized tent that extends beyond the sides of a tiny vehicle’s roof, then it is the bi-fold rooftop tent.
The Bi-Fold is a very popular design that’s capacious enough for multiple campers. It features a supporting frame with fabric walls that sandwich in between two bottom plates. The entire unit is compact enough to fit snugly on the roof rack of even a small SUV or crossover vehicle. Some models feature an overhang with a foldable ladder that can be mounted on the ground and locked. The ladder then serves as a support for the bottom of the tent and as an entrance into it from underneath, which is more secure as opposed to an outside entrance. Setting up the bi-fold is a cakewalk. You just need to reach up to the roof rack, unlatch a few buckles and pull up the solid framework until the fabric gets taut. Folding it might be slightly more cumbersome as you have to tuck in a lot of fabric in between a tiny plate. Like we mentioned earlier, a bi-fold when deployed can easily house up to three campers. It offers a lot of living space and vertical usable space as well.
- Pull-Up: The pull-up softshell RTT is a smaller, basic model that features foldable upper plates that are pulled up until the frame is erected and the fabric is tight.
The bottom plates on these models are not folded. Nor do you need to tuck a copious amount of fabric in between the plates when folding. So, these are easier to deploy and fold. And are lighter than Bi-fold tents. The caveat is that the sleeping and living space will be the same when folded and deployed, just like hardshells. So these are preferred by solo campers or can house two campers at best. Some models offer a folding ladder that can then be mounted on the outer edge of the base to enter the tent. This design was first introduced by ‘Freespirit Recreation’ as part of their wildly popular, adventure series.
Hardshell vs. Softshell
All said and done, which one of these is a better pick? That depends on the kind of comfort you are looking for, the configuration that you seek, the type of vehicle you own, the amount of cash that you are willing to spend and the number of people who will be using the tent. Each type has its own share of pros and cons.
Hardshell rooftop tents: Despite the heavier upfront cost, a lot of seasoned campers prefer hardshells for the following reasons. Pros
- They are sturdier than softshells in extreme weather conditions. No noise even in extremely windy conditions. No risk of the tent getting bogged down under rain or precipitation.
- Easier to deploy and fold down after use. Electronically assisted folding mechanisms and the two hardshell surfaces make it effortless to fold. If you spend a lot of time on the road, then it makes total sense to go for a hardshell. It will make your life a lot easier.
- More durable, as the outer shells provide years of use.
- Low on maintenance. Just detach the fabric walls and wash it to clean. As far as the hardshell casing is concerned, they can be washed with the vehicle.
- More comfortable as these can accommodate thicker mattresses.
- Everything, including the bedding and some light gear can be stowed inside it. The average height of a hardshell case is 12-15”. So, if you remove the bedding completely, it becomes a roomy storage bin for transporting gear.
- Has a very low profile design when folded that will adapt to your car’s shape.
- Very aerodynamic design. The wind resistance is minimal.
- Some models also offer additional storage
- Sizeable upfront investment as even a simple model can cost well in excess of $2000
- Will eat up on most of your roof space
- Can only accommodate small mattresses and a limited number of campers
- You will most likely need to invest in an aftermarket ladder
Softshell rooftop tents: Despite seeming like a tepid version of their hardshell counterparts, softshell rooftop tents are in fact quite popular with families. And they offer many other advantages over hardshell tents which are definitely worth considering. Here are some of them. Pros
- An affordable choice. Depending on the brand and model, you can even pick one that costs as less as $1000.
- With electronically assisted lifting mechanisms, deploying a full-sized tent for six people can take as little as a minute.
- Tons of interior, living space
- The small footprint makes them compatible with a lot of small vehicles
- Some models feature an attachable annex that extends over the sides of the vehicle and runs all the way to the ground. This is like an additional room that accommodates the ladder, as well as provides tons of extra storage.
- Most models feature raised window covers that can be opened using spring-assisted rods. Partially opening these provide runoff during rains and offer excellent protection from the sun.
- A bi-fold model can house up to 6 campers at a time, which is amazing for the size of the tent when folded.
- The bigger the tent, the clumsier it is to fold down after use. If you have never folded one of these before, then we recommend that you spend some time practicing it. Also, it will require an additional pair of hands. Not a one-person job.
- If the conditions are windy, then there will a lot of flapping which might make it difficult to get a peaceful night’s sleep. Manufacturers these days throw in guy-wires which can be used to stake the tent down. But this will only reduce the noise to an extent, not stop it completely.
- After a few months or years or use, the waterproof coating on some fabrics tends to deteriorate with continual exposure to UV radiation. In heavy rain, the fabric starts to soak water rather than deflecting it. Thankfully, there are many cheap aftermarket solutions for this.
- If you have a bi-fold, then it will have a large brick-shaped profile even when folded, due to the sheer amount of material that it tucks in. Not only is this more noticeable as compared to a hardshell, which looks sleek, it will also cause more drag, especially if you have cross wind. A pull up is slightly better.
- The all-fabric construction might make it lighter. But hey, fabric is prone to tears and rips no matter what the manufacturer says. Also, the brick-shaped profile extends the height of the setup. There’s a risk of it getting damaged on a road with low-hanging obstacles.
Things to consider before you shop for the best rooftop tents
Alright, you’ve made up your mind on which type of rooftop tent best suits your camping needs.
Only, you have no clue what features to look while selecting one of these. For example, which hardshell material is better, aluminum or fiberglass?
Which type of fabric is more durable?
Don’t fret. We have you covered.
Here are some of the important factors to consider when you shop for a rooftop tent.
When it comes to hardshells, there’s fiberglass and aluminum.
Fiberglass is lighter, extremely durable, both on the trail as well as on the road, and the cheaper of the two. The caveat is that it’s not as impact-resistant as aluminum.
So, if you accidentally drive into a low-hanging tree limb, there is a possibility of that upper shell cracking.
It can be repaired mind you. But repairs aren’t cheap.
Aluminum is stronger than fiberglass. And can withstand stronger impacts without having as much as a scratch to show.
The tradeoff is weight. Aluminum hardshells are heavier which means that you need a roof rack that can support that weight. Also, you will be spending a lot more on the gas with that heavy a rig on the roof.
Softshell fiber Softshells usually have two layers of fabric. There’s a lighter, breathable, but durable main layer made of fabrics like polyester/ poly cotton 280g, which is covered by a heavier, rainfly layer with a fabric like Polyester 420D. While this is not the be-all, end-all, when it comes to fabrics, it is a decent thickness and can withstand the wear and tear that comes with rugged use. Many brands also throw in a PVC cover with sealed zippers. Look for aluminum bases as these are heavier and give the tent more stability when it is expanded, particularly on a windy day. Lastly, check the thickness of the mattress. 2-inches is a reasonably good thickness we guess. It’s subjective, we know. Some people find it too flimsy for their liking. But the thicker the mattress, the heavier the setup. So choose accordingly.
Weight and the rack
The weight of the tent will vary from one model to another. It also depends on the additional accessories and aftermarket fittings that you add to the setup. But even the lightest softshell rooftop tent that can house two campers will weigh at least 85 lbs. out of the box without anything additional added to it. So, you need a rack that can sustain that weight. If you still don’t have a rack, then here are some of the details that you need when you go shopping for one.
- Total tent weight: Check the product specification sheet.
- Compatibility: Ensure that you select a rooftop rack that is compatible with a rooftop tent. Not all racks are.
- Dynamic weight capacity: Check the dynamic weight capacity of the car roof and that of the aftermarket roof rack. The dynamic weight capacity will determine whether your car can sustain the weight of the tent while you are driving. Contrary to what a lot of people think, most cars arent rated to haul a truckload of stuff on the roof. The 2017 Toyota Rav4, for example, has a max dynamic weight capacity of just 100 lbs. If you throw in a roof rack, you have to subtract the weight of the rack from the total.
- Static weight capacity: The static weight capacity of the car and the rack will determine whether it can sustain the weight of the tent and all the people who will sleep inside it. Typically, this shouldn’t be a problem because car roofs are designed to bear the weight of the entire car in the event of an accident that causes a rollover. Also, the tent floor and the roof rack will distribute the load evenly.
Ease of use
How easy is it to mount the tent to the rack? How easy is it to deploy and then fold down after use?
Is the frame sturdy enough to withstand heavy winds? Does the fabric rustle in the wind even when it is staked down?
What about the quality of the latches, zippers and the mattress? Does the zipper lock securely?
How many windows are there? Are the windows protected with no see-um mesh? What about mosquito screens?
These are tiny details that get overshadowed by other ‘seemingly important’ things. But once you are out in the middle of nowhere, it is these tiny things that might make or break the experience for you.
So pay attention.
Most rooftop tents are designed for easy one-man setups, even if it does not come bundled with an assisted lifting mechanism.
So, once you attach the ladder to the face of the rack, it’s usually as simple as unlocking a few latches and pulling up the tent until the fabric becomes taut and the frame clicks into position.
Completely doable all alone. But, an electronically assisted lift mechanism is undoubtedly easier to use. On a tiring day, when you have hiked for hours, it can mean choosing between watching your tent magically unfold or doing it yourself.
Many hardshell tents come with gas struts. Some have mechanical systems. Both work equally well. But gas struts might malfunction during extreme cold weather when the pressure drops dramatically. If you are opting for a softshell RTT, double check whether it comes with an assisted lift mechanism.
How much room do you need to comfortably sleep in a rooftop tent?
Again, that’s subjective. A taller person would need more legroom as opposed to a child or a teenager.
Ditto with the width, which a heavier person would require more as compared to two or three petite users.
Most hardshell tents have an average length of 85”, which should suffice for most people to lie down straight. The width varies from 48” to 55”. Some models may have a wider design.
If you are looking to share the space with a fellow camper, look for a tent that can house at least three to four people. That’s the thumb rule.
The headspace in the tent will be determined by the type of hardshell you select. A hinged one will have limited headspace whereas a pop-up will have more, uniform headroom.
When it comes to softshells though, the sky is the limit. You can find bi-folds with enough room for a family of 6 to comfortably lie and sit upright.
Children can even stand upright in some of the expedition-grade models.
However, don’t think of a rooftop tent as an alternative to the on-ground one. Instead, treat it like a weatherproof sleeping bag and you will find that most of them serve the purpose pretty well.
All tents will come bundled with a ladder that leans on the face of the tent or hangs by the side. Some bi-folds have ladders that serve as an additional leg that stabilizes the base platform.
While most, stock aluminum ladders would support the weight of an average-sized adult, aftermarket ladders are sturdier and come with heavier maximum weight ratings.
These are also the telescoping variety that can be extended further while dismantling the tent.
Again, it’s not necessary. But it’s something that you must seriously consider investing in if you will spend a lot of time on the road.
Some tents come bundled with an annex, which is like an additional living area. Others allow you to attach an aftermarket annex or an awning. This isn’t a mandatory purchase. But if you are a family or a small group, then the extra room can be put to good use for storage.
Also, an annex that extends to the ground keeps one part of the car covered in shade. Other than this, grab shoe bags, Tiny led lights, USB powered fans, porta-porty or any other brand of portable toilet if it works for you.
In the wilds, most people stick to using tiny containers for urinating in case of an emergency. Else, they just avoid doing it by drinking less water close to bed time. But if you have kids and they’ve got to go, then you’ve got to look for workable options. Would you like to see the stars when you crash for the night? Look for a tent with a clear roof or at least a screen that can be removed if need be.
Do you camp mainly in rain country? Look for rain flys that can extend to all four sides of the tent rather than just one or two sides.
That sums up our list of the best rooftop tents. We hope that you enjoyed reading this and that you have enough information to base your selection on.
If you feel that we missed out on anything, give us a holler in the comment box below and we’ll get back in the blink of an eye.