Roof Top Tent Overview – Part 1

There are few sights more evocative of adventure than that of a Land Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser out in the wild with a roof top tent deployed. It conjures up images of exploring the rugged interior of the African savannah, of camping among the endless dunes of the Sahara or of conquering the thick jungles of Central America.

Although roof top tents first appeared in Western Europe in the 1930s, they have been popularized through their near ubiquitous adoption on overland vehicles in Southern Africa. A common misconception is that their extensive use in Africa is to separate campers from the snakes, spiders, lions and hyenas that roam the savannahs. While being up off the ground does provide a bit of peace of mind and a small degree of safety, their primary benefit (aside from a comfortable night’s sleep in the bush), was to get campers out of the paths of wandering nocturnal elephants. While there’s something Hemmingway-esque about being mauled by a lion in Africa, there’s absolutely nothing noble about being trampled in your sleep by an ambling elephant.

Roof top tents made their first mainstream appearance in North America at the turn of the century with the importation of the Hannibal line of roof tents. Pangaea Expeditions became an early adopter of these tents, both using them and selling them. In recent years, there has been a veritable flood of companies bringing their products to the states, including Eezi-Awn, Magiolina, ARB, Mombassa and now Howling Moon.

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.

Overall Design

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.

Choices

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).

Hard shell tents like the Magiolinas don’t require a travel case, since the case itself doubles as the ceiling of the tent. Hinged tents such as Hannibal’s Impi and the Magiolina Columbus open up in a wedge shape, while the full size Magiolina opens via a crank mechanism which raises the tent roof on a plane parallel to that of the floor. These hard shell cases have the advantage of being more weather resistant (less fabric for leaks) but they trade this for less thermal insulation and typically a smaller footprint than their traditional soft cover brethren.

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).

Entry Design

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.

Sizes

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:

1.2 meters – This tent is about 48″ wide, which is a few inches narrower than a full size bed. The 1.2 meter tents are designed for 2 adults, but they’re a bit cozy.

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.

1.6 meters – The 1.6 meter tents are the largest of the commonly made 2 person tents. This tent picks up an additional 8″ of width over the 1.4, making the internal width 64″, or about 4″ wider than a queen bed. The 1.6 meter width of this tent is wider than most vehicle roof racks. As a result, it usually should be mounted so that it opens sideways off the vehicle. We recommend running 1.6 meter tents so that the tent opens to the 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.

Mounting Style

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.

Opening the tent over the front/hood of the vehicle has the advantage of offering a more compact footprint for camping. If the vehicle fits into a tight area, you can deploy your tent. Mounting the tent so that it opens either to the side or the rear of the vehicle requires a bit more space and thus slightly limits camping area selection. However, a tent mounted to open either the side or rear has the advantage of providing an awning, or shelter around the vehicle when deployed.

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?
Pros

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.

Cons

So far, this makes a roof top tent seem like a panacea for all of your overloading needs, but this convenience does come at a cost. The first cost is a literal one: they’re expensive. Low end roof top tents run well over $1000, while high-end tents such as the Eezi-Awn cost nearly $3,000 dollars (USD). Second, these tents are heavy, and the weight has to be carried up high. Unless you have a pick up truck or off-road trailer, expect to carry over 100lbs on the roof of your vehicle. This chips away at your payload capacity, while also making the vehicle more tippy in off-camber situations.

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.

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