A roof top tent is an essential piece of Overlanding gear if you want to make your adventure more enjoyable. Overlanding with a roof top tent allows you to be closer to nature but keeps you protected from the weather and out of reach from most wildlife you might encounter in the wilderness.
Having a comfortable sleeping experience helps you wake up well-rested, in a good mood and ready to tackle the next leg of your journey.
So you’re ready to buy a roof top tent but you’re not sure which one would be best for your particular needs? Overlanded is here to help with our buyers guide to roof top tents. If after reading this you still have questions, send us an email or add your question in the comments section.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions people ask us before buying their first roof top tent.
How Do You Mount a Roof Top Tent?
Roof top tents can be quite heavy, typically weighing between 100 and 200 pounds. You can’t just throw it up on the bare metal of your roof. If you are mounting it on top of an SUV or hatchback, the least you’ll need are side rails running down the length of your vehicle’s roof.
We recommend using a platform roof rack kit such as those made by Front Runner. These are specifically designed for the vehicle they are being mounted to.
If you currently have a roof rack, roof basket or any other roof top accessories, you should remove them to obtain a proper mount. Always be sure to check the maximum recommended weight for your vehicle’s roof or roof rails. This is called Dynamic Weight Capacity or DWC. You can find this in your owner’s manual or by searching online.
If you have a pickup truck you’ll need an Overland bed rack on which to mount your roof top tent. While SUVs and crossovers can come with compatible side rails from the factory, truck owners are not so lucky unless you have a truck bed cap with a rail system.
Overland bed racks perform in the same way a side-rail/crossbar setup works on an SUV. They come in a variety of lengths to fit almost every pickup truck bed. The height is matched to the height of your truck cab.
Hard Shell vs Soft Sell
Once you decide on the size, weight and how you’re going to mount your roof top tent, the next decision is whether you want a hard shell of soft shell tent. While all roof top tents have their own unique style, they can all be classified as either hard shell or soft shell. You may also see them labeled as either pop-up or fold-out but for our comparison, we’ll look at hard vs soft.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each style.
Soft Shell Roof Top Tents
If you’re a traditionalist or a former boy scout, soft-shell tents probably look a little more familiar. You can look at them as being a second cousin to the typical Eureka or Coleman tents you’re familiar with seeing at your favorite campground, just up off the ground and on top of someone’s vehicle.
The main benefit of choosing a soft shell tent is the price. Roof top tents are not cheap regardless of what they are made of. You’re not going to stop by your local big box store and grab one off the clearance rack.
The average price of a soft shell roof top tent is in the vicinity of $1,600 but that price is low in comparison to a hard shell tent.
Besides the lower price, another advantage of a soft shell tent is that they generally have better airflow breathability and more windows so, in turn, better views and more visibility as opposed to the hard shell tent.
One more advantage is the soft shell tent has a little more flexibility in accommodating more people or more space per person. The hard shell tent is pretty much limited to the footprint of the rigid case it resides in.
Soft shell tents can fold outward giving you more space, more headroom and the feeling of more room to breathe. It can feel a little claustrophobic in a hard shell tent.
A final advantage is soft shell roof top tents tend to weigh less than their comparably sized hard shell counterpart. This would be better for a lower-to-the-ground vehicle like a Subaru Outback.
As you might guess, there are drawbacks to soft shell tents:
- They’re not as sturdy
- They are susceptible to high winds and other elements (like falling trees)
- When traveling they are not as aerodynamic as hard shell tents and can puff up a little when the wind gets under the tent travel cover.
- They are a little more difficult and time-consuming to set up
When setting up a soft shell tent you’ll do a lot of propping, hooking, folding and anchoring and then reversing the process when tearing down.
Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
If cost is not a factor in your decision-making process and you value convenience and good looks, your best choice would be a hard shell roof top tent. When they are all folded up they resemble a wide cargo box on top of your roof. It is sleeker, more aerodynamic, and in general, has a cleaner, more uniform look.
When you reach your stopping point for the day, the hard shell tents have either a pop-up or clamshell design, usually with gas struts to help push the tent open all the way.
Hard shell roof top tents are generally a bit heavier compared to soft shell tents so you will probably need a few extra people to assist in the installation process. This is probably the most difficult part of owning one. Opening the tent is just a matter of flipping open a few locks and watching it expand.
Most hard shell tents come equipped with a mattress making it a complete solution. However, a lot of soft shell tents come with a mattress as well so this isn’t necessarily a pro over those.
Convenience, functionality and ease of use come at a price. Hard shell tents start at around $2,500 and go up from there. You can plan on spending between $3,000 and $4,000 if you want to go the hard shell route. While there are some exceptions, most tend to have a maximum capacity of two people. So if your crew consists of 3 or more people, take that into consideration when making your choice.
Do Your Due Diligence
A roof top tent is an investment. Buying the wrong one will leave you with regrets for years to come so make sure you have done enough research to where you are comfortable with your decision.
Talk to fellow campers, compare different models, read up on the experiences of others on the Overland forums and shop around. Check out rigs that are similar to yours and see what they’re using. Think of this as one of the most important pieces of Overland gear in your collection. It will literally be your home away from home.
Check out an outdoor gear show, an off-road event or an Overlanding Expo. See what’s available and check out the tents of some of the attendees. Look for the quality of the materials, sturdiness, roominess and functionality.
Workmanship and Materials
All roof top tents by reputable manufacturers will have great protection from the weather. One thing you want to look for though is the “denier rating” which is indicated by a number followed by the letter D. What you want is a higher number for your D rating. What is considered a high number?
Your average outdoor clothing has a denier rating between 50D and 100D. Lightweight soft shell tents come in at around 200D to 400D. Higher-end hard shell tents are rated between 400D and 600D.
Another number you want to be aware of is the “hydrostatic head” rating (HH) which is also referred to as the waterproof rating. What this measures is how much pressure can the material endure before water seeps through the material.
The HH is measured in millimeters and once again, the higher the number the better. For a light rainshower, an HH rating between 1,000 to 1,500 MM should be sufficient in keeping you dry. If you plan on long stays outdoors and will experience the occasional downpour, look for a rating between 2,000 and 3,000 MM.
Important: If you plan on sleeping outdoors in all four seasons, do not go low on the D or HH ratings.
We hope you feel more knowledgeable about roof top tents now and are ready to begin choosing a roof top tent of your own. We think we covered everything but if you questions or if you have personal experience with tents you have owned, good or bad, leave those in the comments. We can also answer any questions via our contact form.