We Get to the Bottom of Camping in a Roof Top Tent

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me just say that I love camping.  It doesn’t matter if I am luxuriating in my folk’s RV,  car camping inside the my Toyota FJCruiser, tenting somewhere deep inside the Rocky Mountain backcountry, or just sleeping out under a canopy of stars.  “Roughing it” in any of these fashions always ends up being time well spent.  So when I came across the relatively new (for North America) concept of tent camping on the roof of your car/truck/SUV/hybrid I had to learn more.

There’s a new way to pitch a tent now: Roof Top Tents (RTT), as they are commonly now called, are nothing new.  originally coming out of places like Africa and Australia, RTT’s filled a gap in the Safari goers experience – how to get everyday people comfortable in temporary shelters – because let’s face it, how comfortable are you sleeping next to poisonous snakes, cackling hyenas, and busy scorpions?  Soon enough, Europe became the next consumer market to put RTT to use – strapping them onto everything from Morris Mini’s to Toyota Prados.  In the Americas, RTTs became popular with the ‘Overlanding’ crowds – people who would hit the US’ back roads, adventuring around from place to place.  Think of off-road or 4×4 roadtripping.  While, in America, we don’t seem to enjoy the same amount of risk from the throngs of poisonous arachnids as our friends in Aussie and Kenya do, RTTs are still making inroads into the hearts and homes of more and more campers here in the states.

What’s making them so popular?  Well for starters, novelty.  And convenience.  But first, the novelty.  There really is something fun about rolling into a parking lot, popping the top and having several folksy folks walk up smile, stare and ask questions about that thing on the roof.  “Is it stable?”  “Is it warm?”  “Is it big enough in side?”  Yep.  Yep.  & Yep.  As for convenience, it’s hard to beat the AutoHome Maggiolina Air-Top (the one we’ve settled down with).  There are others that take more time than the Air-Top’s 10 seconds of actual setup time, but still, most are generally less complex to set up than the average ground based tent.

Interested?  Here’s what you need to know:

Before you buy, you’re going to first get yourself a compatible roof rack.  Ideally, shop around for a rack that is well suited for your car or truck, has a high load limit (mine is rated for 600 lbs.) and is relatively flat on its upper surface. That means no side rails or irregular floor surface to get in the way of a solid ‘tent to rack’ interface.  Classic examples can be found from southern California’s Baja Racks and from FrontRunner.com.

Once your roof rack situation is established, now it’s time to decide on the tent.  There are many more than just one manufacture.  In fact, there are more than one style of tent.  There are, generally speaking, two types of RTT’s.  Those that are completely made of fabric (front, back sides and top) and a hybrid (soft canvas sides with a fiberglass roof & floor).   There are pros and cons to each style that need to be sussed out on a person by person basis, but here’s what I discovered for myself along the way:

  • On average, RTT’s weigh about 100-150 lbs. total.  Rack not included.  So installation and removal is usually a two person job.
  • The rack you choose is important.  Talk with your rack reseller about the intended purpose, as they may have relevant suggestions that can make a difference when it comes time to put it all together.
  • You can expect an increase in the vehicle’s air drag, as well as a corresponding drop in fuel economy.  You will probably also have an increase in wind noise when at speed.
  • Generally speaking, the soft-tents are built to fold up and out to the side of the vehicle, creating an overhanging space beside the car/truck.  This overhang is often used as an enclosure for an impromptu changing room or outdoor shower.  These are nice amenities, but come at a cost in the way of complexity and overall folded up volume.
  • All rooftop tents are more expensive than traditional ground camping tents.  Fiberglass clamshell tents are even more so with prices that can be found in the 1-2-3 thousand dollar ranges.
  • Make room in your garage for when it’s time to stow the tent away for the winter.

When it came time to decide which tent I was going to buy, I opted for the sleeker, and more easily deployable AutoHome Maggiolina Air-Top.  Made in Italy, AutoHomes are made in the hardshell fiberglass roof/floor type of tent.  The sides are made of heavy duty canvas and the tent is raised by a set of 4 gas-ram shocks that push the tent up when the buckles are released.  Inside, the Air-Top features a 3-4 inch foam mattress, a mesh upper ‘loft’ designed to stash some lightweight items like your clothes or pillows.  Also inside, AutoHome mounted a battery operated LED light for nighttime use.  There’s it’s all sandwiched shut, there is just enough space left over inside for you to keep your bedding, pillows, the ladder, and a small amount of other stuff inside as storage.  These considerations, plus the relatively aerodynamic profile of the tent when shut pushed me towards this more expensive option on the market.

We’re preparing a review so stay close to Basin & Range Magazine for a deeper analysis of life in the penthouse.  As for now, here’s a rather thorough comparison chart from AutoHome to help get you started Overlanding, (#vanlife FTW).