How To Choose A Roof-Top Tent


Camping / Thursday, May 6th, 2021

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How to choose a roof-top tent is based on the number of campers you need to accommodate, soft shell or hard shell version, the weight of the tent, the weight limit of your vehicle’s roof and rack, your vehicle’s storage capacity, cost, expandability of the tent, camping environment, durability, and safety.

Roof-top tents are nothing new for countries like Australia and South Africa where there’s safety in getting up off the ground and away from dangerous creatures. Here in North America, there’s not the same urgency to elevate our tents though roof-top tents still provide added safety. For us, it’s more about comfort, convenience, and looking cool.

Being able to turn almost any vehicle into a camper is pretty cool right? I think so. My wife… Well, she thinks they look silly.

If you have that hurdle to overcome, talk about the snakes, scorpions, and spiders. They can be avoided in a roof-top tent. Or mention how the sleeping comfort is far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground.

Comfort when camping can be a necessity for some campers. It is for me…

I have three herniated discs in my lower back. Sleeping in a ground tent after a day of hiking, fishing, paddling, or just hanging around the campsite has the potential of doing me in for the rest of the camping trip. Bedding solutions for roof-top tents can rival my bed at home.

If you are price-conscious, choosing a roof-top tent can seem daunting. It’s not like dropping a few hundred on a quality ground tent. Roof-top tents are an investment and with any investment, choosing wisely requires a little knowledge.

So, let’s get educated. Certain factors often dictate the right roof-top tent. Let’s look at ten factors to consider when choosing a roof-top tent.

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Sleeping Capacity of a Roof-Top Tent

Roof-top tents can comfortably sleep anywhere from 1-5 people. How many depends on whether it’s a hard shell or soft shell roof-top tent, the tent model, its footprint, and the size of the occupants. Larger tent footprints sleep more campers.

Is there a way to fit more people into a roof-top tent? No, but there are annexes if you need more room.

Factors to consider when looking at roof-top tents with a greater sleeping capacity.

  • Roof-top tent weight
  • Your vehicle’s roof weight capacity both the dynamic weight limit and a static weight limit
  • The rack’s weight limit

Most hard shell roof-top tents sleep 2-3 people but there are a few larger tent models like the Roofnest Condor XL that sleep 3-4 campers.

Soft shell roof-top tents can sleep up to 5 people.

The number of people you plan to sleep in a roof-top tent can dictate whether you’ll want a hard shell or soft shell tent.

Soft Shell or Hard Shell Roof-Top Tent

There are pros and cons to roof-top tents both soft shell and hard shell. Let’s take a quick rundown.

Soft Shell Roof Top Tents

Pros

  • More affordable
  • Lighter weight
  • Can provide a larger sleeping area size over hard shell roof-top tents
  • More living space
  • More headroom
  • Provides shade when deployed

Cons

  • Taller profile when taken down which affects gas mileage
  • Takes longer to set up and takedown
  • Lewer protection benefits than that of a hard shell roof-top tent
  • Noisier than a hard shell in wind

Related Content: Roof-Top Tents vs Ground Tents

Hard Shell Roof-Top Tents

Pros

  • Aerodynamic shape when closed
  • More attractive than a soft shell roof-top tent
  • Fast and easy setup and takedown
  • Weatherproof
  • Quieter in wind
  • Hard hells can keep things fully protected when taken down and as you drive
  • Usually has a thicker mattress than a soft shell roof-top tent
  • Box style roof-top tents (not wedge) provide optimal living space with vertical walls instead of sloped walls

Cons

  • Smaller sleeping area
  • More expensive than soft shell roof-top tents
  • Heavier
  • Fewer annexes and addons

There are advantages to both soft shell and hard shell roof-top tents. Your best tent depends on factors like your camping style, how many campers you plan to sleep, and your budget.

Weight of the Roof-Top Tent

Roof-top tents are heavy. They often weigh between 100 and 200 pounds.

  • You’ll need help mounting a roof-top tent on your rack. The weight makes initial installation a bit difficult but once they’re on your roof, they’re really easy to set up.
  • The weight of roof-top tents decrease gas mileage
  • Costly shipping fees may be incurred if free shipping options aren’t available. If your tent choice doesn’t come with free shipping like those from Roofnest, consider ship-to-store for free shipping.
  • Your vehicle’s roof and rack need to be able to handle the weight of the roof-top tent.
A couple sitting in camping chairs next to a Jeep Wrangler Sahara with a roof-top tent set up at a campsite in the desert at sunset.

Weight Limit of your Vehicle’s Roof and Rack

The majority of roof-top tents weigh over one hundred pounds. Though you can find a roof-top tent that will fit almost any vehicle, all vehicles and roof racks have limitations. Make sure your vehicle and rack meet the necessary requirements.

Roof weight capacities for your vehicle and its rack aren’t always easy to find. Some research or maybe contacting the manufacturer is often required. If you search out these specifications online. Make sure you are getting the data from a reputable site.

To know if your vehicle and rack are up for the task, you’ll need the following information.

  • The weight of the tent.
  • The vehicle and rack’s dynamic weight capacity. This is the amount of weight your vehicle can support while driving. If you have an aftermarket roof rack, you have to check the capacity of your vehicle and your rack separately.
  • The weight of everything on the vehicle’s roof while camping. This includes the weight of the tent, the weight of the roof rack if it’s aftermarket, the weight of those that will be sleeping in the tent, the weight of sleeping gear, and anything else that will be in the tent or on the roof of the vehicle.
  • The vehicle and rack’s static weight capacity. This is the amount of weight your vehicle’s roof and rack can support when not in motion which is quite a lot. The roof can handle a lot of weight when not in motion. Firstly because vehicles are designed to withstand rollover accidents. Secondly, the tent floor and roof rack are designed to evenly distribute the weight placed on the vehicle’s roof.

Not every vehicle is capable of taking a roof-top tent nor is every vehicle ideal even if a tent can be mounted to it. The weight and aerodynamic disruption of some roof-top tents can make driving more difficult.

Your Car’s Storage Capacity

Every vehicle has a limited amount of room for storing or carrying gear.

Placing a roof-top tent on your roof can eliminate the use of your roof racks for other gear unless you opt for a hard shell roof-top tent like the Roofnest Sparrow Adventure or Roofnest Falcon that has crossbars for gear, bikes, kayaks, or whatever fun you have in mind.

Will mounting a roof-top tent on your roof rack take up real estate you need? If so, you’ll need to plan ahead.

Roof-Top Tent Costs

Well, there is no secret to purchasing any product.

Better products cost more.

It’s the same with roof-top tents. Better crafted and constructed models cost more.

Soft shell rooftop tents are the least expensive with a price range from $1,200 to $2,400. Even higher if an annex is included.

Hard shell rooftop tents are the most expensive of the two versions. Their prices are $3,000 and up to the most advanced of roof-top tents, the Overland Redtail RT 110 for $25,000. Crazy right? But super awesome! I wish I had that kind of money to burn.

Roof-top tents aren’t cheap but they are priced far lower than an RV.

Expandability of Roof-Top Tents

Both annexes and awnings are a great way to easily expand the living area of your roof-top tent.

Annexes for extended living spaces are available for some roof-top tents. They are most commonly available for soft shell models but some hard shell roof-top tents like iKamper have annexes as well. Annexes provide a great place to sleep additional campers when the roof-top tent isn’t big enough.

Awnings provide shade and a pleasant escape from the sun’s heat. They can easily be added to either soft shell or hard shell roof-top tents

Camping Environment

Your camping environment will dictate which tent you’ll want as well. Whether you’ll be camping in hot, cold, windy, rainy, or other conditions, there is a tent designed for your needs.

Some features to look for in your tent might be…

  • 3-season or 4-season tent models
  • Mesh tent options
  • See-through vinyl windows
  • Mesh windows
  • Padded or insulated interiors
  • Breathability for reducing condensation
  • Polyurethane coating and taped seams for waterproofing
  • Double-layer shells provide insulation, added strength, soundproofing, and condensation resistance
  • Anti-condensation mats
  • UV and mold-resistant
  • Stainless-steel locks for hard shell tents
  • Even LED lights to illuminate the tent on those pitch dark nights

Durability of Roof-Top Tents

Though roof-top tents are built to be sturdy, the rigidity of hard shell models is much stronger.

Extra durable roof-top tents will have some of these features…

  • Thick, rugged, denier, weather-resistant ripstop material
  • Honeycomb or diamond plate bases
  • Welded aluminum frames

Safety of Roof-Top Tents

There is less of a threat from creepy crawly things when you’re sleeping way up high. Snakes, crocodiles, wolves, and more will be denied access to your roof-top tent penthouse. Even bears are less likely to have an interest. Just keep food out of your tent and they won’t come knocking.

An iKamper hardshell roof-top tent on a Jeep Rubicon and a softshell tent mounted to a truck bed in the the woods on a camping trip. The graphic says, How To Choose A Roof-Top Tent.