Are Rooftop Tents Right For You?

Rooftop Overlanding Tents: Are They Right for You? 

Nothing's wrong with pitching a tent on the ground. But rooftop tents, which turn the top of your car or truck into a deluxe camp, offer some enviable upgrades. First, it’s like having a portable bedroom—wherever you can park, you can sleep. Rocky terrain won’t trouble you, which makes rooftop options the preferred overlanding tents for folks driving off-road. Plus, the views are better up there. And, let’s admit it, they’re cool. Here’s how to decide if a rooftop tent is right for you. 

Benefits of a Rooftop Tent

  • Quick set up: Once installed, rooftop tents are a snap.
  • Reliability: It performs the same wherever you are.
  • Comfort: Most rooftop tents have thick foam mattresses.
  • Great view: Compared to ground-level tents, you’re in a penthouse.
  • Elevated protection: No worries about mud or ground-dwelling bugs.
  • Level sleeping platform: Rocks and roots won’t poke you, but you might need to level your car.
  • Durability: Heavy fabrics and strong materials will last.
  • Weatherproofing: Most rooftop tents are made to withstand big storms.   

Drawbacks of a Rooftop Tent

  • Installation: This can be a hassle, and you have to be certain that your car and rack can handle the load.
  • Aerodynamic drag: A rooftop tent will put a dent in your fuel (or electric) mileage, both because of the aerodynamic drag and the extra weight (at least 100 pounds).
  • Limits day trips: If you’re basecamping with a rooftop tent, you have to collapse and stow it anytime you want to drive anywhere. 
  • Midnight exits: Remember you have to use a ladder to get in and out of the tent. 
  • Cost: Expect to spend up to 10 times more than you would for a conventional tent. 
Photos by Axel Brunst/TandemStock

Things to Consider 

Is a rooftop tent worth the price?

Don’t fall in love with a rooftop tent before checking the cost. They’re considerably more expensive than conventional tents. If you’re happy with pitching a tent on the ground, or just getting into camping and not sure what you like, the price is hard to justify. However, if you’re thinking about joining the van-life crowd but don’t have a van, the cost of a rooftop tent looks a lot more attractive.   

Installation

You'll need to check compatibility of both your car and rack to make sure they can hold the weight. You’ll also need to confirm the tent design works with your particular rack system. Don’t buy anything until you’re confident everything works together. 

Set-up and Sleeping

Some rooftop tents can be set up in just a few minutes (some manufacturers claim one minute). On uneven terrain you might also need to level the car with blocks. Once you climb that ladder, you'll enjoy panoramic views and better ventilation than you would down at ground level. 

Wind and Weather

Rooftop tents are generally more rugged and durable than conventional tents, with sturdy poles and tent materials. These designs will hold up well to wind and weather; however, pitching a tent 6 feet off the ground means it's more exposed to the elements. In strong wind, you could be swaying in your rooftop tent like a sailor in a sea storm. 

Breaking Camp

While a rooftop tent is easy to set up and break down, it’s not necessarily something you want to do daily if you’re camping in one place for a while. If you want to take a day trip, you’ll need to pack up your sleeping bags and stow the tent so you can drive anywhere. 

Storage

Consider how often you’ll camp and if you’ll leave the rooftop tent on your vehicle in between trips. You can remove the tent and store it for the off-season (or between camping).

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.