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How to Choose a Rooftop Tent

By Ross Patton ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday July 3, 2019

Purchasing a product as expensive and technical as a rooftop tent (or RTT) is a bit of a daunting task. There is a long list of factors to consider with these tents, and many people overlook some very important details. If you make a hasty purchase, you could end up with a tent that doesn't work for you, a rack that doesn't work for your vehicle, a tent that doesn't work for your rack, or all of the above. They show up to your house in massive freight trucks with hydraulic lift gates, so returning one would be quite the headache. It is crucial that you do the necessary research before you purchase a rooftop tent so that you don't open a very costly bag of worms. Continue reading below to get an in-depth overview of what it takes to get the right RTT so that you can save yourself from wasting any time or money.

Initial Considerations


The very first thing to consider is the actual logistics of owning an RTT because they are not for everyone. Keep in mind that you have to climb up and down a ladder to go to sleep or get up in the middle of the night. Everything that will go into your tent needs to be handed up to someone or taken up the ladder. For folks with injuries, disabilities, or large pets, a rooftop tent can be difficult to use. Also, be prepared to be climbing, crawling, leaning, and stepping all over your vehicle a LOT because there is no way around it. This doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to damage your vehicle by having a rooftop tent installed, but it is important to be cautious. Remember that they're heavy and that they require assembly. If you aren't confident using tools or you aren't able to lift a bulky 100+ lb object onto your vehicle, you're going to need to get some help from a friend. In some cases, it might be best to have the tent professionally installed.

Rooftop tents require a ton of climbing on your vehicle to install and set up.
Rooftop tents require a ton of climbing on your vehicle to install and set up.

I'm in. What's Next?


Deciding that you're ready to purchase an RTT still doesn't mean that you're ready for one. Most vehicles are not designed to hold that much weight on the roof. It is imperative that you know that your vehicle is rated to hold the amount of weight on the roof that you're going to have up there. It's not just the weight of the tent, but also your bedding, gear, the people, and pets that you need to consider. If you overload your roof, you could potentially damage your vehicle or injure yourself or somebody else.

The Rack


Any old rack is not suited for any old rooftop tent. Most racks are not suitable for rooftop tents, actually. The crossbars that come stock on many trucks, cars, and SUVs are only rated to around 100 lbs. You absolutely cannot use any aftermarket clamp-style rack systems that grab onto the vehicle in between the car door and the roof. These racks put all of the weight on four points of the roof and will likely damage your car with the weight of a rooftop tent. To safely mount a rooftop tent over the cab of your vehicle you need to have a track system that distributes the weight down the length of the entire roof, beefy towers, and crossbars that are rated to the proper weight. If you're going to mount your tent on truck bed racks or on a trailer, again, be sure to check the specs of your products to confirm that they have a good enough rating for this much weight.

Having a rack that is strong enough to hold the weight of the tent and its potential contents is crucial.
Having a rack that is strong enough to hold the weight of the tent and its potential contents is crucial.

How to Choose a Specific Model


Once you've decided that you do want an RTT, that your vehicle can handle it, and you've purchased the right rack for the job, you can start looking at tent specs. Rooftop tents come in many shapes and sizes with a variety of features and prices.

Fold-out vs Pop-up


There are two types of RTTs: fold-outs and pop-ups. Fold out tents are more compact and have thick rubber covers when they are not in use. They unfold over the side or over the back of your vehicle. Pop-up tents look like massive fiberglass cargo boxes when they are not in use, and extend vertically when it's time to camp. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but we chose to exclusively test fold-out tents for our review, as they are more affordable and more popular overall.

Weight


The weight of the tent can be a big deal for people with smaller cars, for people with larger trucks and SUVs this is likely less of a factor. It's also important to consider that at some point, you're going to be lifting the tent onto or off of your vehicle. If this is something that you plan on doing often, that extra 20 or 30 pounds can be significant decision factors. However, with added weight generally comes added durability. If your tent is going to be getting a lot of use whether it be off-road, at festivals, or just a ton of road trips then it might be worth the extra weight to get a beefier model.

Seasons


It is important to consider the type of weather that you're going to be camping in. Somebody who's headed to Moab in July probably does not need the same type of canopy as someone that's headed to the Cascades in April. Breathability is key in high temps, so a thicker canopy might leave you baking on hot days. That being said, if you want a tent that can handle anything, but still offers a good amount of ventilation, we'd recommend you go with a 4-season model. All of the tents we tested have a removable rainfly, but with taped seams and waterproof canopies, the 4-season models don't need one in lighter rain.

Be sure to purchase the right tent for the weather conditions you're expecting. All of the covers that we tested are completely waterproof.
Be sure to purchase the right tent for the weather conditions you're expecting. All of the covers that we tested are completely waterproof.

Ladders


There are two types of ladders for RTTS: sliding and telescoping. The telescoping ladders are more versatile, but sliding ladders are sturdier. If you aren't afraid of drilling into a sliding ladder to give yourself a few more options for height, tents that come with this ladder type are generally cheaper.

If you purchase a model with a sliding ladder  you may end up having to drill extra holes.
If you purchase a model with a sliding ladder, you may end up having to drill extra holes.

Security and Privacy


Not everybody has a garage, and sometimes it's necessary to leave your vehicle at a trailhead or parking lot for extended periods. If this is the case, it would be wise to get a tent that locks to your rack. As far as privacy goes, in an RTT, you're a bit exposed to onlookers in many ways. Some tents offer included large awnings and annexes that can give you a private place to change, shower, or hang out at a crowded campground or festival.

An annex adds more privacy to your camp.
An annex adds more privacy to your camp.

The Mounting System


The type of mounting system that comes with your tent can be very important depending on your vehicle, your rack, and the type of use you have planned. If you're going to be taking the tent off of your vehicle on a regular basis, a tool-free system might be the right choice. It is important to note that the tool-free systems can be limited as far as the width and spacing of which crossbars and racks that they fit. For a more permanent, more customizable mounting system, we recommend you go with a tent with the standard track mounts.

Rooftop tents require a lot of time and effort to install on your vehicle.
Rooftop tents require a lot of time and effort to install on your vehicle.

Accessories


When you're car camping, you want to have all of the amenities available. There are all kinds of accessories for RTTs. There are internal shelves, LED lights, boot bags, deluxe mattresses, and interchangeable canopies. If you're the type that likes to have all of the bells and whistles, then you should choose a tent that has all of the options. Keep in mind that some tents come with included accessories while others are going to charge you an arm and a leg to upgrade.

Style


For many people, style is everything. After all, it feels good to look good and stand out. On the other hand, a lot of people don't care what the tent looks like as long as it does its job. Certain brands offer a multitude of colors and styles of the tent while some only offer one generic option. If you don't mind sacrificing a bit style for functionality, you can save yourself money by going with a less popular or colorful model.

Conclusion


Buying the right RTT for you can make or break your camping experience(s). It is important to spend the time to look into every detail that you can so that you don't end up with something that doesn't work for you or falls apart. Look back through our Best in Class review and the individual product reviews to get a better idea of what you want. Be sure to make a careful, thoughtful purchase so that you'll save yourself time, money, and frustration.


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