(Almost) everything you ever wanted to ask about Rooftop Tents but were too afraid to ask!
It’s fair to say Rooftop Tents (RTTs from here out for brevity!) have seen an explosion of interest over the last year or so. There are plenty of good reasons that explain this ‘trend’, for a start, they’re suddenly all over social media, as they’re photogenic as hell! Besides that, they are easy to set up and pack down; don’t take up valuable space in your car; keep you away from the ground (great in wet British summers and killer-insect-ridden Australia alike); and afford you incredible views when you wake up!
Our Soft-Shell RTT on our Defender 90, Waffle.
BUT, that explosion in popularity has seen the market flooded with new models, from the outstanding, to the… leaky.
Using our now somewhat extensive knowledge of the state of the UK market (believe me when I say I’ve looked at more tents than I thought possible over the last few months!), we’ve put together some ‘top tips’ to help you choose the right tent for you!
The intention of this article is not to push you towards, or away from, any particular brand, so we will not be mentioning any names, in the interests of neutrality. We have our preferences, but they won’t influence this piece.
Soft-shell or hard-shell:
The first decision to make is perhaps the most important, as there are two ‘tribes’ in the rooftop tent world. (OK, technically hybrids exist too, and we’ll cover - pun intended – those later, but I think they can still be squished into one of the two tribes). Choosing your side really depends on a few factors:
- Speed of set up
- Vehicle aerodynamics (less important on Landys and the like, which are about as aerodynamic as a shed…)
- What you think looks cooler!
TOP: Hard-Shell RTT closed, BOTTOM: Soft-Shell RTT folded
Previously cost would have been a factor here, but with the new models on the market each category has options that span the budget ranges.
Before we get into the above, a quick 101 on the two types: Soft-shell tents are akin to most ground tents, a tubular frame with canvas (or other materials) bodies that unfold into a somewhat-recognisable ‘tent shape’. Hard-shell tents differ in that, as the name suggests, they have a solid top (think roof-box) that ‘pops’ up on gas struts or hinges creating a ‘box’ with fabric walls but a hard roof.
Speed of set up: As a general rule, hard-shells are quicker to set up, requiring little to no ‘work’ beyond raising the lid. Set up times are often claimed in seconds, but bare in mind most do not allow storage of bedding etc (which soft-shells do), so adding time for that, and setting up windows etc makes that…questionable. Soft-shell set up is more involved, though far from strenuous (we’ve managed in under 3 minutes between the two of us, yes we can provide video evidence :P). Usually the process involves unzipping and peeling back a fabric cover, extending a ladder, unfolding, then fitting window poles, and sometimes canopy poles. Again, soft shells can store bedding when folded, so with some practice we reckon you can go from closed to ‘ready for bed’ in about similar times with practice, but from closed to open only, hard-shells are certainly the lower-effort option!
Space: Soft-shell tents tent to be larger internally, as they hinge open, to the rear or side of the vehicle, effectively doubling the floor space when open, where-as hard-shells are limited to the closed body length/width dimensions.
With the hinging of a soft-shell, you also get the bonus of immediate shelter (from sun, or rain!) under the overhang, and many come with, optional-extra or included, ‘annexe rooms’, that enclose this space, essentially giving another room, some of which are large enough for a few camp beds.
Vehicle Aerodynamics: As a rule of thumb, when closed hard-shells are sleeker, lower, and wedge-shaped, whereas soft-shells are bulkier, boxy bodies. If you’re planning on doing long distance journeys at speed, this might be worth taking into consideration, especially on smaller vehicles. Ditto with electric vehicles, while both will likely impact range, a soft-shell is likely to reduce it more, especially on a Tesla with their super-low Drag Coefficients, messing with that will be noticeable.
MATERIALS (and waterproofing)
Materials have come on a long way from ‘old-fashioned’ tent canvas (which still has it’s place, for sure), and RTTs come in a wide variety!
While this section is probably more relevant to soft-shells, for obvious reasons (hard-shells have a solid, therefore inherently waterproof roof, for those asleep!), the side walls of hard-shells are also worth considering, rain doesn’t always come down straight, especially in the UK… The variety of materials used can seem dizzying, especially when brand names and trademarked versions of the same fabric come into play, and we won’t bore you with the full array. To simplify things, there are a few important specs to look for (or ask the manufacturer for, some aren’t upfront, for reasons which I’ll leave it to you to divine).
Key among this is the Hydrostatic Head rating, or HH rating. Put simply, the HH rating, measured in millimetres, indicates the height of a column of water which a material can withstand before it leaks. For example, a HH rating of 150mm means a material can support a water column about the height of a pint-glass before it is penetrated. Now, while it’s unlikely your RTT will be engulfed in water the depth of a pint of Guinness on all sides, the HH rating is a great overall indicator of weather-resistance.
The MOD, for example, considers a HH of 800mm to be ‘waterproof’, although it is widely accepted that a rating of at least 1500mm should be the minimum for use in Northern European climates, and higher than that if you expect to be out in a storm.
Other material specs to look for are UV resistance, cover material, mould-resistance, and fabric weight (which especially for a large soft-shell, will heavily influence overall weight, which may be a factor for your vehicle. More below). Things like taped/double stitched seams can also be key to keeping water out, and should be required for those likely to camp in the rain.
Another material concern (pun intended, again) is wind resistance. While this shouldn't be an issue for the majority of good tents, we have heard disaster stories of hard-shells being blown shut (closing you in like a coffin), or soft-shells with fabric that sounds like an aircraft taking off in a slight breeze. Many manufacturers will list wind-tunnel ratings (though many are strangely claiming the exact same, despite major design differences, make of that what you will...), and it's worth considering this specification.
If in doubt with any material spec, it's worth contacting the retailer/manufacturer for proof of their claims. Honest ones will be able to easily provide certification details that they may not have thought to put online, others may give you the run around. It can be a decent way to sort the good from the not-so-good.
To be clear: rooftop tents mount on roof racks or roof bars. You’re going to need them, full stop. Beyond that, considering the load rating of your vehicle, and bars/rack, is very important.
NEVER exceed these stated load ratings, as it may cause injury or death.
With that in mind, your vehicle handbook (or the web, more likely) will give you two distinct load ratings: Static and Dynamic Load. Simplified (my Mech-Eng hat is staying off), static load is the weight limit the vehicle can withstand when at rest, and dynamic load is the weight limit the vehicle can withstand when in motion.
Most vehicles static load well exceeds what you will need for an RTT plus occupants, but dynamic loads may not. This is important to consider, as loading your roof with extra weight changes the vehicle’s handling characteristics by raising the centre of gravity, and will introduce pitch (roll), and if too high can in extreme circumstances end up with your car upside down in a ditch: not ideal.
ALWAYS ensure the dynamic load rating is HIGHER than the sum of your RTT, contents, roof rack/bars/rails and any extra cargo. Similarly, ensure your static load rating (and load rating of rack/bars) is higher than the sum of the RTT, occupants, and cargo.
Luckily, RTTs vary greatly in weight, with new ‘lightweight’ models catering to all but the tiniest of soft-top cars!
While mentioning mounting, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to find, with their weight and bulk, mounting an RTT is rarely a one man job. Many suppliers will fit your tent at their store, or failing that, bribe a few mates to help with a BBQ. It’s not a hard task, but it can be a heavy one.
ALWAYS FOLLOW VEHICLE & RTT INSTRUCTIONS WHEN MOUNTING.
A Hard-Shell RTT on a Jeep - Andrew Hoyle/CNET
To be blunt, rooftop tents, in general, do not come cheap. Materials, manufacture, R&D, and shipping add up, so most RTTs will exceed the cost of most equivalent ground tents (though demand has pushed ground tent prices up recently). BUT, they do offer a unique camping experience, that we firmly believe worth it, IF you can make it fit your budget.
New, most RTTs in the range from ~£900 all the way up to more than £3000 at the top end. Part of the reason for writing this blog is because now a lot of £900 RTTs look very similar to tents closer to the top of that price range, and so understanding exactly what makes them cheap or expensive is extra important. The market has seen a glut of ‘white-label’ copies of established brands, manufactured cheaply (often with dubious ‘designed in the UK’ claims), with lesser quality materials sold very cheaply this year. While this is not necessarily bad, not everyone needs or wants top spec, it should be understood that though some of these claim to be ‘the best rooftop tent’, there are reasons they are cheap.
We suggest it is a case of deciding what specs are important to you, and finding the closest product that matches those in your budget, rather than basing it all on cost alone.
That said, the second-hand market for RTTs can get you some great deals. Frankly, RTTs are not for everyone, and it’s not uncommon to see almost brand new tents sold simply because the owner realises they don’t like the experience (if only there was a company where you could rent an RTT equipped vehicle to try before you buy…cough).
OK, we said up top that there were two ‘tribes’, hard-shell and soft-shell, but that hybrids also exist. What gives?
A few companies are innovating in the space with what they dub ‘hybrid’ RTTs. These include inflatable RTTs, soft-shells with ‘harder’ covers with cargo capacity, etc. Some of these are genuinely awesome products, and well worth exploring (though all at the top end of the pricing bracket), but we’d argue still fall under into the soft-shell or hard-shell categories in reality, based on the very obvious meanings of those two names…
We hope that this serves as a decent ‘primer’ to the somewhat confusing world of RTTs! We are always happy to answer questions you might have (or at least try to!), either in the comment section below, through DMs to our Instagram @LandyCampers, or via our contact form on our website.
If this blog has helped you kit out your own camper, or make purchasing decisions, we'd be extremely grateful if you'd consider a small token of thanks via our Buy Me A Coffee page. Hours, days, weeks and months of research, trade shows, discussions with manufacturers etc go into making our decisions and ultimately recommendations (and indeed agreeing discounts for our readers!) - we've opted not to paywall the content, but if you're in the position we'd be incredibly appreciative of the support! Thank you - Max & Bela