There are a number of differences between models and designs from manufacturers. However, the most significant differences seem to be in quality, craftsmanship and price. Part one will go over the state of the industry including styles of tents, and in Part 2 we’ll explore many of the brand differences.
With the exception of only a handful of tent models, all roof top tents open in a similar fashion: Remove the travel cover, deploy the ladder and open up the tent opposite the hinged edge. Below is a short demonstration that we made a couple of years ago illustrating how to open a roof top tent.
Hardshell vs soft top design
As you can see from the video above, traditionally-designed roof top tents open like a book, with the structure self-erecting upon opening. Virtually all of the roof top tents that open in this fashion require the removal of a waterproof travel cover. In most instances, this travel cover is made from a PVC material which is attached to the tent base. The travel cover is attached either via a heavy-duty zipper that goes around the perimeter (Hannibal, Howling Moon, ARB etc) or a ratchet strap which tightens the bottom of the cover (Eezi-Awn).
The exception to this rule is the older generation Technitop tent which functioned like a traditional roof tent but with a plastic shell for travel. Sadly, this plastic shell has been replaced with wooden flooring and a vinyl cover in the most recent iteration of the Technitop tent (which we’ll cover in part 2).
There are two different entry designs on roof top tents, with many manufactures offering tents with both types of openings. The traditional style features a rain fly which covers the entry and ladder which accesses the tent. The other style, which is found on the Eezi-Awn T-top tent, ARB Simpson tent, and the Howling Moon Stargazer, features a covered enclosure which extends far out over the entryway and ladder to the tent. This extension provides more shelter beneath the tent and allows the user to add drop curtains which add an additional annex beneath the tent. This shelter can be used as a sitting area in inclement weather, additional sleeping area for pets and kids or a changing/showering room.
Due to the fact that most roof top tents are designed and manufactured overseas, most roof top tents are built and marketed under metric sizes. They’re generally available in four widths:
1.4 meters – This tent gains 0.2 meters, or about 8″ in width over the 1.2 meter tent. At about 56″ wide most 1.4 meter tents are just a bit wider than a full-size bed and can sleep 2 adults comfortably. The 1.4 is about the same width as many SUVs roofs. We run 1.4 meter tents on our vehicles with the opening off to the side to minimize wind drag. This also creates an additional awning/shelter over the drivers side of the vehicle.
2.2 meters – These family-sized tents open up to a cavernous 87” wide and 96” long. They are typically designed to sleep up to four adults.
Most tents fold out from the roof of the vehicle with a ladder dropping down to provide both access and structural support for the extended portion of the tent. Many tents have the option of either a full length ground ladder or a u-shaped foot which allows the tent to be mounted to the bull bar of a vehicle. The bull bar mount requires the tent to open from the front edge of the roof line over the hood or bonnet of the vehicle. A ground ladder can be used over the front of the vehicle, but also offers the option of mounting the tent to open to either side or the back of the vehicle.
As the name implies, roof top tents are traditionally mounted on top of the roof of the vehicle. However, an increasing number of people are mounting tents either above the beds of pick-up trucks or on off-road trailers.
Use and Care
Roof top tents should be regarded as an investment. While the upfront cost can be expensive, they are designed to last for a very long time. With proper care, a good quality tent can easily withstand decades of use.
Click here to read our extensive article regarding care and maintenance for a roof top tent.
Is a Roof Top Tent for you?
There are a lot of great features and benefits that come with owning a roof top tent. The tent is easy to set up while the flat flooring and built-in mattress make for a comfortable night’s sleep. Because the majority of the tent occupies the same footprint as the vehicle, it can be easier to camp in tighter spaces. In a pinch, we’ve camped with the vehicle parked on the trail before. In addition, in wet conditions, you’re high above the muck and don’t have to worry about ground tarps or setting up your tent and sleeping in the mud.
Most of the tents feature a thicker walled material than modern backpacking tents — this translates into a tent that is both warmer and lets less light in (a boon for those who like to sleep in late in the morning). In addition, most tents can be folded up with your bedding, meaning that you have less valuable cargo space taken up inside the vehicle.
Once you’ve purchased the tent, you also have to figure out a way to mount it. There are essentially two options: either buy a roof mounting kit (another added cost), or install on your roof rack. If you choose to mount the tent on a roof rack, most tent designs will take up a good chunk of the rack space, while most Autohome tents occupy the entire roofline.
Furthermore, adding a tent to your vehicle doesn’t do wonders for aerodynamics. Expect a drop of at least a couple of MPGs. For most typical expeditions, fuel is by far the most significant cost, and a drop of 10-15% (or more) in fuel economy can significantly effect expenses.
In part two of this series, we’ll take a look at the current crop of roof top tents offered on the market as well as the features and drawbacks of each.