Roof top tents are becoming increasingly popular among overlanders, road trippers, and off-roaders. When it comes to choosing a roof top tent, you have two main designs to choose from. This guide outlines the pros and cons of using a hard shell vs soft shell roof top tent. We’ll cover ease of use, setup time, cost, durability, comfort, aerodynamics, and more. I’ll also talk a bit about roof top tent materials, designs, lift mechanisms, sizes, and features that are available.
I’ve been using rooftop tents for around 5 years while overlanding. During that time, I’ve owned both hard and soft shell models. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.
Hard shell roof top tents are easier to set up, more aerodynamic (better fuel efficiency), more durable, longer lasting, warmer, more weatherproof, more spacious, quieter, and more comfortable. They allow you to leave your bedding set up inside and store gear on the top.
Soft shell roof top tents are cheaper, more spacious, lighter weight, and more compact. They also make your vehicle less top heavy and offer a built in awning.
Hard shell rooftop tents are better for frequent campers, 4-season campers, long road trips, expeditions, minimalists, those who value longevity, and those who want to carry rooftop accessories.
Soft shell roof top tents are better for those on a budget, camping in mild climates, smaller vehicles, those who need extra space, and off-road campers.
What is a Hard Shell Roof Top Tent?
Hard Shell roof top tents have a rigid outer shell made from fiberglass, aluminum, or hard plastic. The rigid shell forms the ceiling and floor of the tent.
The tent walls are made from durable waterproof fabric such as nylon or canvas. The fabric walls attach to the edges of the rigid ceiling and floor, joining them together. When closed for storage and while driving, the rigid floor and ceiling shells sandwich the bedding and tent walls.
Hard shell roof top tents open vertically. They come in two main styles. Wedge-shaped or clamshell models have a hinge at the front or foot end of the tent. When open, the top shell sits at an angle. The ceiling is high on the head side and low at the foot. The hinge points toward the front of the vehicle. Pop-up hard shell roof top tents open straight up in a box shape. All four walls are vertical and the ceiling is flat.
Most hard shell roof top tents open with the assistance of gas struts. Some models use a mechanical or electric crank system. The tent footprint covers most of the vehicle’s roof area.
Most models offer around 27-30 square feet of floor space with a peak height of 36-46”. When collapsed, the unit looks similar to a roof top cargo carrier with a thickness of about 8-12”.
To enter a hard shell tent, you climb a ladder. The ladder attaches to the bottom shell on the side of the vehicle. There is a door in one or both of the side walls that zips open.
What is a Soft Shell Roof Top Tent?
Soft-shell roof top tents resemble a ground tent when set up. They open like a pop-up book. The tent body is made from a thick and durable waterproof fabric. The tent body attaches to a rigid platform that is made of fiberglass, aluminum, or hard plastic. An internal folding support structure made from aluminum poles opens with the tent fabric to give the tent its form.
There are two different soft shell tent designs. The most common is a bi-fold design. These tents have two equal-sized floor sections with a hinge on one side. When stored, the tent body, support structure, and mattress sandwich between the two floor sections.
You open the top section 180° to the side of the vehicle. The inner support structure and fabric tent body are pulled open with it and the tent pops up. When open, the seam and hinge between the two floor sections sit in the center of the tent. The mattress covers the seam.
On some models, you enter through the floor that overhangs the side of the vehicle. Some models have a door in the side of the fabric tent body, like a regular ground tent. In both cases, you climb a ladder to enter the tent. The ladder also acts as a support for the section of the tent that hangs over the side of the vehicle.
The second style, pull-up style soft shell tents, open kind of like an accordion. The tent fabric body and metal support structure collapse down on the top of the tent’s rigid base. To open the tent, you simply pull the support structure up and the tent fabric pulls up with it. The tent opens in kind of a half-dome shape. The ladder attaches to the edge of the tent base.
Some soft shell roof top tents require manually placed poles or stakes to hold the rainfly up over the windows. There is also a protective outer cover that clips onto the folded tent. This protects the tent fabric and keeps the tent dry while you drive.
Most soft shell roof top tents have a floor area of 27-40 square feet. The peak height is usually between 40″ and 52”. When packed soft shell roof top tents measure 7-18” high depending on the design.
Hard Shell Roof Top Tent Pros
- Hard shell roof top tents are faster and easier to set up- A well-designed hard shell roof top tent can be set up by one person in 30-60 seconds. All you have to do is unlock some safety latches and pop the tent up with the assistance of gas struts or a crank mechanism. Hard shell roof top tents take very little physical force to open. Some models even include an electric crank to lift and lower the tent for you. Once the tent is open, all you have to do is lock a safety support in place. You can climb right into bed because your bedding is already set up. When you’re ready to leave camp in the morning, you just remove the safety support, push the tent fabric inside, pull the top down, and lock it in place. There is no need to roll up your bedding. To compare, soft shell roof top tents typically take 5-10 minutes to set up. Because they take so little time and effort to set up, hard shell roof top tents are a great choice for campers who plan to move to a different camp every day or those who are overlanding long term.
- More durable- Hard shell roof top tents tend to be made from tougher materials than soft shell models. The walls are made from thicker, higher denier fabrics that don’t tear as easily or wear out as quickly. The top shell is made from thick aluminum or fiberglass. These materials can survive hard impacts from a tree branch or other piece of debris falling on top. They also don’t degrade when exposed to UV light. Hard-shell roof top tents also tend to be more waterproof so mold isn’t as much of an issue. Build quality may be higher as well.
- Longer lasting- Due to the increased durability and better build quality, hard shell roof top tents tend to last longer than soft shell models. You should get at least 10-15 years of use out of a hard shell roof top tent if you take care of it. To compare, soft shell models may only last 5-10 years. For this reason, hard shell tents are preferable for long overlanding trips and heavy use. Some overlanders get thousands of nights of use out of their hard shell tents.
- You can store some gear inside of hard-shell tents when they’re closed- Most hard shell roof top tents have around 4-8 inches of space between the top of the mattress and the upper shell when the tent is closed. This leaves you enough space to store some gear inside. For example, you could leave some books, maps, extra clothes, a flashlight, a tablet or laptop, or some snacks and water inside of the tent while you drive. When you’re ready to crawl into bed, you already have everything you need already in the tent. Tepui offers the Hybox roof top tent. This model is a roof top tent cargo carrier combination. It features 23 cubic feet of gear storage.
- More comfortable- Hard shell roof top tents typically come with thicker and higher quality mattresses than soft shell models. The mattress can be thicker because it doesn’t have to fold when the tent is packed away. It just lays flat in the bottom shell of the tent. Most hard shell tents come with a 2 ½ – 3 inch thick foam mattress that covers the entire floor of the tent. An average mattress for a 2 person tent measures around 84” long by 48” wide. For more comfort, you can upgrade the mattress with a higher-end model with high-density foam, memory foam, gel tops, or extra insulation. Some measure up to 6” thick. These mattresses greatly improve comfort and your quality of sleep. The interior of hard-shell tents also feels more uniform. The bottom shell is a single piece with no hinge or seam. It sits on the roof of the vehicle so there won’t be any flexing. As an added bonus, because you can leave your bedding set up in the tent, you can use standard sheets and a down comforter instead of a sleeping bag. You can even buy custom-sized sheets for your mattress. Many campers find this setup to be more comfortable because it doesn’t restrict your motion like a sleeping bag.
- Better gas mileage- Roof top tents create additional wind resistance which reduces your fuel efficiency. Hard shell roof top tents tend to have a lower profile than soft shell models. Many hard shell tents measure just 8-10” thick when closed. The exterior is also smooth and aerodynamic. This low profile and aerodynamic design reduce wind resistance. Your gas mileage will still suffer when you install the tent, just not as much. The faster you travel, the more aerodynamics matter. If you plan to drive on the highway often, you’re better off with a hard shell roof top tent. Over the lifetime of your tent, you may save hundreds of dollars on gas. While driving at low speeds off-road, aerodynamics don’t matter nearly as much.
- You can leave your bedding set up- Hard shell roof top tents are designed in a way that leaves a bit of space inside, even when the tent is closed. This allows you to leave your sleeping bag, blankets, and pillows set up at all times. This saves you time and effort when setting up and tearing down camp. You don’t have to pack and unpack your bedding every time. You can just pop the tent open and climb into bed. To me, this is one of the biggest benefits of hard shell tents. Some soft-shell models have this feature as well.
- More weatherproof- The hard top shell is completely waterproof. Because the walls are vertical, they don’t get as wet during a rainstorm. For these reasons, leaks are less common. When closed, the hard top and bottom shells seal together to keep moisture out. You’ll stay a bit dryer inside of a hard shell roof top tent. For this reason, mold is less of an issue as well. You may also experience less condensation.
- Warmer- Hard shell roof top tents often have insulation built into the underside of the top shell. This reduces heat loss through the ceiling. The hard shell also provides some protection from the wind so you don’t have to deal with as much of a windchill factor. The inside of the tent may stay a few degrees warmer. In the winter, this can make the difference between sleeping in a below-freezing and above-freezing tent.
- Smaller footprint- The tent only occupies the space on top of the vehicle’s roof when set up. It does not hang over the edge. This allows you to camp in a smaller site. You can set the tent up wherever you can park. For example, you could open your hard shell roof top tent in a packed parking lot without taking up two parking spaces. This makes hard shell tents a good choice for music festivals and camping in busy beach parking lots.
- You can store gear on top of a hard shell roof top tent- One of the biggest drawbacks of roof top tents, in general, is that they take up a lot of valuable cargo area on the roof. You have to store everything inside of the vehicle. Some hard-shell roof top tents have a top rack available as an accessory. The rack attaches to the upper shell of the tent. This way, you can mount traction boards, a kayak, surfboards, extra luggage, etc. on top of the tent. This greatly expands your storage space. Of course, not every hard shell roof top tent offers this feature. There are also weight limits.
- Usable in 4 seasons- Most hard shell roof top tents are designed to be used during the winter months. The rigid top is capable of handling a heavy snow load. There is some level of insulation inside. This gives the tent a bit more versatility. You can go camping year-round.
- You can mount solar panels on top- These days, many campers use solar energy to charge a large battery that can power lights, electronic devices, a fan, an electric blanket, and even a small refrigerator. A major benefit of hard shell roof top tents is that you can mount your solar panels on top of the tent. Even when the tent is open, you can still charge your batteries with solar. This saves you the hassle of having to set up solar panels every time you camp. You can also charge while you drive.
- Hard Shell tents are quieter- Tents get noisy when the fabric blows around in the wind. Hard shell roof top tents dampen some of that sound. Because the roof it rigid, it can’t blow around and make noise. As long as the walls are taught, the tent stays quite. You’ll sleep better on windy nights. The aerodynamic shape of hard shell roof top tents when they’re folded also produces less road noise while you drive. This is nice if you drive at highway speeds for long periods of time.
- Hard shell roof top tents have more headroom and usable space- Due to the design, hard shell tents have vertical walls. This makes the tent feel a bit more spacious inside. It also leaves more room to sit up and move around. Wedge style roof top tents, in particular, are an excellent choice for taller campers. They have a maximum height of around 45-50”. Soft shell roof top tents offer less headroom. They also have sloping walls, which leave less usable space.
- Higher-end- Hard shell roof top tents tend to be made from more premium materials than soft shell models. The walls are usually made from higher denier fabrics which provide better insulation. The mattress is usually thicker and of better quality. The fit and finish often feels better. Everything feels a bit more premium. In addition, the tent might come with some luxury features such as an LED lighting system, USB outlets for charging your phone, a shoe rack or small shelf, etc.
- You can build your own hard shell roof top tent- Those who enjoy DIY or MYOG projects can build a roof top tent pretty easily with basic tools and materials. Most designs involve building a clam shell out of plywood or some other rigid material then attaching nylon or polyester fabric around the opening. The benefit is that you can build a tent to your exact specifications for a fraction of the price. It’s also cool to use something you build with your own hands.
- Looks- Many campers prefer the look of hard shell roof top tents. The low profile makes the tent look a bit sleeker when folded. With the right rack and tent combination, the tent is hardly noticeable. When set up, a wedge or box-shaped tent looks kind of unique and cool. Of course, looks are subjective.
Hard Shell Roof Top Tent Cons
- Expensive- Hard shell roof top tents cost around $2500-$3500 on average. Premium hard shell modes cost up to $5000. That’s about twice as much as comparable soft shell models, which run around $1000-$1800 on average. One thing to remember is that hard shell roof top tents tend to last longer. Over the life of the tent, cost per year of ownership will be similar. When budgeting for a roof top tent, you’ll also want to factor in the cost of a roof rack, shipping of the heavy tent, and professional installation if you can’t do it yourself. These could easily add an extra $200-$500 to the total price of the tent.
- Heavier- Rooff top tents weigh 100-200 lbs (45-90kg) on average. Hard shell models tend to weigh a bit more than soft shell models. On average, a hard shell roof top tent weighs 130-170 lbs (59-77 kg). The extra weight comes from the rigid top shell. A large piece of aluminum or fiberglass weighs a lot more than tent fabric. This extra weight makes hard shell roof top tents harder to lift up onto the roof of the vehicle. You’ll definitely need some help. In addition, you also have to make sure your vehicle’s roof and roof rack are capable of supporting the weight of the tent and campers. You’ll want to check both the static and dynamic weight capacities. Static weight capacity is the amount of weight that your vehicle and roof rack can support while you’re not in motion. You’ll want to make sure that this is higher than the weight of the tent, gear, and campers. Dynamic weight capacity is the weight that your vehicle and roof rack can support while in motion. To be safe, the weight dynamic capacity must be greater than the weight of the tent plus any gear you store inside.
- Hard shell roof top tents have a smaller sleeping surface- Hard shell tents are limited in size by the size of a vehicle’s roof. An average hard shell roof top tent has a sleeping surface that measures around 48” x 84”. Most models are designed to accommodate 2 people. They can’t be too large because they would hang too far over the edge of the vehicle’s roof. For this reason, hard shell roof top tents are best for individuals or couples. That said, there are a couple of models available that can accommodate 3-4 people. You would need a large vehicle to mount them to. Because soft shell roof top tents fold in half, they can have a much larger sleeping surface. A large model might have a mattress that measures 62” x 92”. That’s enough space to accommodate 4 people comfortably.
- Worse vehicle performance and handling- The extra weight of a hard shell roof top tent raises the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it more top-heavy. This makes the vehicle a bit easier to tip. Particularly if you drive a lightweight vehicle that is lifted. You’ll want to be careful when driving on steep inclines off-road. The extra weight can also cause your vehicle’s suspension to sag. This leaves you with less suspension travel. Your handling will suffer while driving off-road. This could be an issue if you install a heavy hard shell tent on a small vehicle. The solution is to install stiffer suspension to compensate for the extra weight of the tent. If you drive a full-sized truck or SUV, the extra weight doesn’t matter.
- Large and cumbersome- Hard shell roof top tents don’t pack down quite as small as soft shell models. They measure around 84” x 55” x 10” when collapsed. For this reason, hard shell roof top tents work best when paired with larger vehicles. When mounted to a small car, part of the tent can hang off of the edges of the roof. The large size also makes hard shell roof top tents harder to move around and mount to your vehicle. You’ll need at least two sets of hands. You probably won’t want to mount and remove the tent every weekend because it’s such a hassle. To make things easier, some people rig up a hoist or lift system to help them lift the tent onto the roof. These systems usually use pulleys, a winch, or a ramp for some mechanical advantage to make lifting the tent easier. The larger tent will also take up more space to store in your garage.
- No stargazing- One of the best parts of camping is falling asleep under the stars. Sadly, you can’t do this with a hard shell roof top tent. The rigid top shell blocks your view of the sky.
- Fewer accessory options and customizations- For the most part, hard shell roof top tents are designed to be used on their own. Most models don’t have an annex option. They all feature the same designs, more or less. They are either a wedge or box shape. If you want a dry place to hang out at ground level, you’ll have to install an awning or set up a tarp. Soft shell roof top tents, on the other hand, come in a variety of designs with numerous accessory options.
Soft Shell Roof Top Tent Pros
- More spacious- Soft shell roof top tents fold out so half of the tent hangs over the edge of the vehicle. This allows for much more living space inside. You aren’t limited by the vehicle’s roof size. A large model might offer up to 60 square feet of living space. This is enough space to sleep up to 4 people comfortably. For this reason, soft shell roof top tents are ideal for those who want to camp with their whole family or pets. The larger area gives you plenty of space to hang out and move around inside. This extra space is also nice if you get caught in a storm and you don’t want to go out. For even more space, you can attach an annex or awning. To compare, a similar hard shell tent might only offer 35 square feet of space, which is enough for only 2 people. Hard shell roof top tents are limited to the size of the vehicle’s roof area.
- Cheaper- Roof top tent prices have come down quite a bit in the past couple of years. These days, you can find budget soft shell models starting at around $800. Average prices range from $1200-$1800. That’s less than half the price of a comparable hard shell roof top tent. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re pretty much limited to soft shell tents.
- Soft shell roof top tents offer a built-in awning- When unfolded, half of the tent hangs over the side of the vehicle. The tent might stick out 3-5 feet. This acts like a small awning that provides shade and protection from the rain. You can use this small protected area to lounge around, cook, or keep gear dry. How useful this area is will depend on the height of your vehicle. With a tall vehicle like a truck or SUV, you can walk under the tent. ith a small vehicle like a car, you might get less use out of this area because the tent will sit too low.
- You can attach an annex or vestibule- Most soft shell roof top tents have an annex or vestibule option that is designed to pair with the tent. An annex is a small tent that connects to your roof top tent and sits next to your vehicle at ground level. Usually, the annex attaches to the bottom of the part of the tent platform that hangs over the edge of the vehicle. This acts as the roof. The annex encloses around the ladder and has no floor. An annex gives you a dry, private, and shady place where you can stand, get away from the bugs, cook, change your clothes, eat, and hang out. You could even set up a camp shower or toilet in your annex. Sometimes the annex is included and sometimes it is sold separately. Annexes are generally not compatible with hard shell roof top tents.
- You can stargaze- Some soft shell roof top tents feature a window in the rainfly that allows you to see the stars at night. Some models allow you to completely remove the rainfly. This can give you an excellent view on warm, clear nights.
- Soft shell roof top tents pack down smaller- When folded, soft shell roof top tents are smaller than hard shell models. Most soft shell models measure around 48” x 42” x 12” when closed. To compare, hard shell models measure around 84” x 55” x 10” when folded. The smaller size allows you to mount a soft shell roof top tent to a smaller vehicle. For example, you can mount the tent to a small car like a Toyota Prius, Mini Cooper, or Subaru. The tent won’t hang over the edge while you drive. The small size also makes soft shell roof top tents much easier to move around and install on the vehicle. They are less cumbersome. They also take up less space in your garage to store when not in use.
- Lighter weight- Soft shell roof top tents tend to weigh 20-50 lbs (9-14 kg) less than comparable hard shell models. Most weigh between 120-150 lbs (54-68 kg). It’s also easier to lift the lighter tent onto the vehicle’s roof. You may be able to get away with a slightly less heavy-duty roof rack as well. That said, you’ll still want to check the static and dynamic weight ratings of your vehicle’s roof and your roof rack to make sure they can support the weight of your tent and campers. Also, the weight savings of soft shell roof top tents typically isn’t that great.
- Better vehicle performance- Because soft shell roof top tents are lighter, they don’t make the vehicle quite as top-heavy. This is nice if you drive on steep terrain off-road. You’re less likely to tip your vehicle. Lighter tents also don’t compress the suspension quite as much. Your handling will be a bit better if you drive a lightweight vehicle off-road. This weight difference really only matters if you drive a small vehicle. If you drive a full-sized truck or SUV, you won’t notice the small weight difference.
Soft Shell Roof Top Tent Cons
- Soft shell roof top tents are harder and more time-consuming to set up- Most models take 5-15 minutes to set up depending on the design. First, you have to remove the protective cover from the tent. This alone can take a couple of minutes. Next, you have to fold the tent open. This can require quite a bit of physical force. Remember, roof top tents are heavy. It can be particularly challenging to lift the tent open if your vehicle is tall or if you’re short. You may need some help if the tent is large. Next, you must place poles or supports to hold the windows open and to hold the rainfly up. Some models even require stakes and guy lines for extra support. If you plan to use an annex or awning, it will take even more time and effort to set up. Before you buy a roof top tent, you should see how long it takes to pitch. Some models are more time-consuming than others. Soft shell roof top tents take longer to fold up for travel as well. The setup time can be a problem if you like to move camp every day or if you’re traveling long term. Spending 20 minutes setting up and breaking down camp gets annoying when you’re doing it every day. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of camper that just sets up camp once and stays for a few days, spending a few extra minutes isn’t a big deal.
- You may not be able to leave all of your bedding in place- When you fold a soft shell roof top tent, your bedding must fold in half with the mattress. Most models have enough space to fit a down sleeping bag or down comforter and sheets inside when the tent is folded. These compress well and don’t interfere with the fold. If you’re trying to use bulky synthetic bedding, you may have trouble folding the tent up. The bedding can bunch up and prevent the tent from folding completely. You’ll probably have to remove your camping pillows and bulky synthetic comforter and put them in your vehicle because they are too thick to fold with the mattress and tent. You may also have to move your bedding away from the hinge area to allow the tent to fold properly. You may have to move your bedding to the part of the tent that attaches to the vehicle’s roof. This takes time and can limit the kind of bedding you can use. In addition, bedding can interfere with the interior poles on some soft shell tents. It can also get caught in the poles when you unfold the tent. With a hard shell roof top tent, your bedding always stays in place.
- Soft shell roof top tents have a larger footprint- Because part of the tent hangs off of the side of the vehicle, you need a larger space to set a soft shell tent up. You can’t camp in just one car space. This may be an issue if you want to camp somewhere with incredibly dense vegetation. It can also be a problem if you want to set up your tent in a busy parking lot like you might find at a beach or music festival. For most users, this extra space requirement is not an issue. Regular campsites have plenty of space to set up.
- You can’t store as much extra gear inside soft-shell roof top tents- The tent needs to be pretty empty to fold up properly. You could store some flat or small items inside like a small flashlight or some maps or a book. Beyond that, there isn’t much space inside of a folded-up soft shell roof top tent. This means you may have to move some gear between the inside of your vehicle and your tent when you set up and take down camp. If you move camps frequently, this can be annoying.
- Less comfortable- Soft shell roof top tents usually come with a thinner mattress than hard shell models. This is necessary because the mattress has to fold in half with the tent. If the mattress is too thick, the tent can’t fold properly. A thin mattress provides less support. Because soft shell tents are cheaper, the mattresses tend to be of lower quality as well. Most models come with a foam mattress that measures about 2-2 ½” thick. Another problem is that the part of the tent floor that hangs off of the side of the vehicle can also feel a bit unstable. When you move, the floor can flex and the hinge may squeak. This can be an issue on lower-end soft shell tents.
- Worse fuel efficiency- Soft shell roof top tents have a boxy shape when folded. They also stick up 2-4 inches higher than hard shell models. This creates more wind resistance, which reduces your fuel efficiency. You’ll notice a bigger difference in fuel efficiency if you drive at high speeds often or if you drive a small vehicle. You may lose a couple of miles per gallon. You’ll spend a bit more on gas. If you drive long distances to camp, this can add up.
- Soft shell roof top tents can make it harder to get into your vehicle- While the tent is set up, you may have to bend down and walk under the overhanging part to get into your vehicle. This is really only a problem if you drive a small vehicle that sits low to the ground. Trucks and SUVs usually sit high enough for you to easily walk under the tent.
- Soft shell tents take up valuable cargo space- Roof top tents take up most of your available roof space. You can’t mount gear to the top of a soft shell roof top tent because the tent has to fold to open. The top of the tent faces down toward the ground when you open the tent. This means you have to store pretty much all of your gear inside of your vehicle. There isn’t space to mount large items like a canoe, cargo carrier, spare tire, surfboard, or solar panel on top of your vehicle. This greatly reduces the total amount of gear that you can haul. That said, because soft shell roof top tents are smaller, there may be a bit of extra room in front of or behind the tent if you drive a large SUV or pickup. You’ll still have space to mount smaller items like traction boards, a shovel, extra fuel, etc.
- Less durable- Soft shell roof top tents are a bit more fragile and generally don’t last as quite long as hard shell models. There are several reasons for this. First, they are generally made from thinner and less durable materials. For example, the tent body might be made from a lower denier fabric. There are also more moving parts that can fail. There are several poles that raise with the tent. These poles are attached to linkages that can also wear. There is also a large hinge in the middle. After enough cycles, the linkages and hinges can get worn. Moisture can also cause wear. Water can enter the tent and cause mold to grow if you don’t allow the tent to dry completely. You should get 5-10 years of use out of a soft shell roof top tent depending on the quality and how you take care of it. Some models have a detachable upper. This way, you can just replace the fabric if it wears out.
- Soft shell roof top tents are noisier- On windy nights, the soft tent fabric flaps around and gets pretty loud. Particularly the rainfly. If you’re a light sleeper, you may want to avoid soft shell tents. The blocky fold design also creates more road noise while you drive. This can get annoying while driving at highway speeds.
- More moisture can enter the tent- Soft shell roof top tents aren’t quite as waterproof as hard shell models. The fabric outer can form leaks. While driving in the rain, water can make its way under the tent cover and enter the tent. In addition, condensation is more of a problem in soft shell tents. Water evaporates from the ground and enters under the rainfly. This water vapor then condenses on the inside of the rainfly and can drip down on you. This can be a problem when camping in a humid area, near a body of water, or just after a storm. The best solution is to choose your campsite wisely and open your windows to allow the tent to ventilate. You’ll want to make sure your tent is completely dry before storing it. For more info, check out my guide to reducing condensation inside of a tent.
- Soft shell roof top tents are colder- The thin tent body fabric doesn’t provide much insulation. Heat can easily escape through the fabric walls. Some models get drafty as well. For this reason, the interior temperature will be a couple of degrees lower in a soft shell roof top tent. There are some solutions. Many manufactures offer a quilted insulation insert that you can install in your tent when the weather is cold. This is basically a quilted blanket that lines the inner walls of the tent. You can also use a heater in your roof top tent.
- Soft shell tents are designed for 3 season use- Most soft shell roof top tents are not designed to handle a snow load. The weight of the snow could damage the support structure. That said, there are some soft shell models that are designed for 4 season use.
- Lower quality- Oftentimes, soft shell roof top tents are made from lower-quality materials. This is done to meet a lower price point. The tent fabric may be thinner. The mattress might be made from cheaper and thinner foam. Sometimes the fit and finish feel a bit lower quality. You might even find a couple of minor defects. For example, maybe a zipper catches. Of course, not all soft shell tents are low quality. There are premium models available that are just as well built as any hard shell tent. If you’re looking for a high-end soft shell roof top tent, look for a model that is designed for expeditions. These are made from more durable materials and are designed to handle frequent and hard use.
- There is no space for mounting solar panels- You can’t mount solar panels on top of a soft shell roof top tent because they would be facing away from the ground when you fold the tent open. If you want to use a solar power system, you’ll have to set the panels up on the ground. Some large vehicles may have space for solar panels behind the tent.
- Less headroom- Due to the design, soft shell roof top tents have sloping walls. For this reason, there isn’t quite as much usable space inside. In order to sit up, you’ll have to position yourself near the center of the tent. Most models have a maximum height of around 40 inches. Taller campers may find this uncomfortable.
Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
When choosing a hard shell roof top tent, you’ll have some design decisions to make. A number of different materials are used in construction that can affect the longevity, comfort, and durability of the tent. There are also a few useful features to look out for that can affect useability. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the most important things to consider.
Most hard shells are made of either fiberglass or aluminum. Both materials are durable, long lasting, and offer plenty of structural strength. They each have their own benefits and drawbacks.
Fiberglass hard shells are lighter than aluminum. A lighter tent won’t affect the handling or fuel efficiency of your vehicle as much as a heavier model. For this reason, fiberglass shell tents are ideal for small or lightweight vehicles.
The main drawback is that fiberglass isn’t as durable as aluminum. It can crack or puncture during an impact. For example, if a low-hanging tree branch hits your tent while driving, the fiberglass shell can get damaged. A crack will compromise the structural integrity of the tent. It could also cause the tent to leak. Usually, you can repair cracked fiberglass. This can be an expensive job. If the damage is severe enough, you’ll have to replace the tent.
Aluminum is more durable than fiberglass. An aluminum outer shell can survive a harder impact without damage. This would come in handy if you often drive through narrow trails with overhanging tree limbs. If you run into a limb or if something falls on top of your tent, it probably won’t get damaged. In the worst case, the aluminum shell may dent or scratch.
The drawback to aluminum is that it’s significantly heavier than fiberglass. This raises your vehicle’s center of gravity and compresses your suspension more. Your handling will suffer if you mount a heavy aluminum roof top tent on top of a small vehicle. Your fuel efficiency may decrease as well. For this reason, aluminum shell tents work best with larger vehicles.
The lift mechanism assists you with lifting the heavy top shell and sidewalls of the tent You need some kind of mechanical advantage because the rigid tent top is so heavy.
Gas struts are the most common lifting mechanism. They allow you to lift and lower the tent with minimal effort. The gas struts assist you by lifting most of the roof’s weight for you. They also dampen the motion of the top shell so it doesn’t spring up or crash down when setting up or taking down the tent. Gas struts don’t take up much interior space because the struts themselves as well as the linkages are small.
The main drawback is that gas struts don’t function well in cold weather. As a result, the struts operate more slowly. In addition, there may not be enough pressure to keep the tent fabric completely taught on the sides. This makes the tent noisier in the wind. There is a safety pole that will hold the roof up so you don’t have to worry about the tent closing on you in your sleep.
Mechanical lifts use a hand crank system to lift the tent roof. These systems offer excellent reliability and durability. They work well in all weather conditions and are not prone to failure due to the robust linkages in the system. As an added benefit, mechanical lifts allow to tension the sidewall fabric by hand so you always get the perfect pitch, even in cold or windy weather. The tent will stay quieter and dryer as a result. Mechanical lifts can also lift more weight due to the mechanical advantage of the crank system. They are ideal for heavy tents. This can also allow you to store some gear on top of your upper tent shell. You may be able to mount solar panels, traction pads, or even a bicycle on top.
The only real drawback to mechanical lifts is that the lift mechanism can take up more space. Whether or not this is an issue depends on how the tent was designed.
Electric lifts are available on some higher-end hard shell roof top tents. These use an electric motor in the tent to raise the roof for you. The motor wires to your vehicle’s battery. All you have to do is press a button. Most even come with a remote control. These systems allow you to set up camp with pretty much no physical effort. They offer many of the same benefits of mechanical lifts.
The drawback is that the electric motor adds complexity to your setup. It’s another thing that can break. These systems are also more expensive.
Wedge Vs Box Shape Hard Shell Roof Top Tents
The tent shape plays a role in setup time, interior space, and the aesthetics of the tent. Wedge style tents hinge open vertically at one end. Box style tents pop up vertically. Both designs have their own benefits and drawbacks.
Wedge or Clam shell Design
Wedge style hard top tents are generally faster and easier to set up. Many models can set up in just 30 seconds. The lift mechanism is simple. Most models use gas struts. They simply hinge open and lock in place.
Probably the biggest benefit of the wedge design is the performance in poor weather conditions. If you park with the hinge side facing into the wind, the tent can withstand incredibly strong gusts. The angled roof diverts the wind over you. Rain and snow can slide right off the angled roof as well. Wedge-style tents also tend to be a bit longer and narrower, making them ideal for taller campers or smaller vehicles. There is also plenty of headroom at the end of the tent that lifts open.
There are a few drawbacks to this design. First, the interior is less roomy. The ceiling slopes down toward your feet so there is less usable space inside. These tents also tend to be a bit more narrow. Most models are only designed to sleep 2 people. Visibility isn’t quite as good with this design either. The roof blocks your view from one side. You can only see out of the sides and back of the tent. This design also isn’t ideal for those who want to mount solar panels on top of the tent because they will sit at an angle when the tent is open.
Box-style hard shell roof top tents offer loads of interior space. Because the walls are vertical, there is plenty of headroom everywhere in the tent. This allows you to move around and spread out. For this reason, box-style tents are ideal for multiple campers. Large models can accommodate up to 4 people comfortably. The design also allows for a spectacular 360° view of your surroundings. Most models feature windows on 2 sides and a door 2 sides. You can see out in any direction. The box design is also better for those who want to mount solar panels or haul gear on top of the tent because the top shell sits completely flat when the tent is open.
There are some drawbacks. First, setting the tent up generally takes a bit longer. Still, most models open in just a minute or two. A mechanical or electric lift makes the process easier. Box style tents tend to be a bit shorter in length. Many models are almost square. Tall campers might have to sleep at a diagonal to fit. Box-style tents also tend to be a bit larger and heavier. They may not fit well on small vehicles.
Other considerations when choosing a hard shell roof top tent
- Tent wall fabric- The wall fabric plays a major role in the durability, warmth, and weather resistance of the tent. Thicker fabric is more durable and longer-lasting. Thick walls also provide some level of insulation. They also do a better job of blocking the wind, reducing the windchill factor. This helps you stay warm while camping in cold weather. The fabric should also be 100% waterproof so you stay dry. To compare the wall materials of different tents, look at the denier of the fabric. This is a measurement of the thickness of the fabric. 400+ denier is ideal. Also, look at the weight of the fabric. Heavier fabrics offer greater durability. You may also want to consider a tent with removable walls. On higher-end models, the wall fabric detaches from the top and bottom shells. This allows you to easily replace the fabric if it gets damaged or wears out. The shells and lift mechanism should far outlast the fabric walls.
- Tent weight- The weight of the tent plays a role in your vehicle’s performance. A heavy tent compresses your suspension, which reduces your suspension travel. This can hurt your vehicle’s handling. The tent also raises your vehicle’s center of gravity, which can make it easier to tip your vehicle. In addition, a heavy tent can also reduce your fuel economy significantly. If you plan to mount the tent to a small vehicle like a car or small SUV, weight is an important consideration. The lighter the tent, the better. If you drive a full-sized truck or SUV, the weight isn’t as important. A large truck can easily handle an extra 200 lbs. The lightest hard shell roof top tents weigh 100-130lbs. Heavy models can weigh as much as 200-250lbs.
- Floor space/Capacity- Most hard shell roof top tents have around 27-32 square feet of floor space. The floor space typically measures from 83-88” in length by 48-50” in width. Most hard shell models accommodate 2 or 3 people. When choosing a tent, you’ll want to consider how many people do you plan to camp with. If you only camp alone, a small wedge-style tent is ideal. If you plan to camp with your family or friends, a larger box-style tent will be preferable.
- Headroom- If you’re tall, you’ll want to choose a tent with enough headroom that you can sit up and move around in. Wedge-style hard shell tents tend to have more headroom. Many models measure 45-55” at the highest point. Box-style roof top tents often have around 35-40”.
- Racks- If you have extra gear that won’t fit in your vehicle, you may want to consider a hard shell roof top tent that is compatible with a top rack. Even if you don’t need the extra storage space, this is a nice option to have. You might want to mount solar panels or carry some traction pads or extra cargo up top in the future. Some tents racks can handle large items as well such as a kayak or bicycle.
- Ladder- Most hard shell roof top tents include a lightweight collapsible ladder. Lower-end ladders tend to feel a bit rickety. If you’re on the heavier side or you’re a bit unstable, you might want to upgrade to a more sturdy ladder. Aftermarket options are available. These often have a higher weight rating and feel more stable.
- Extra features- Some hard shell roof top tents feature LED lighting. Some models have storage pace or a shoe rack built-in. These little features improve usability.
- Brand- Some brands offer better build quality than others. A few companies that make hard shell roof top tents include Cascadia, Roofnest, Thule, Trust-Made, and Smittybuilt.
- Insulation- If you plan to camp during the winter or at high altitudes, you may want to look for a tent with built-in insulation. This can trap a bit of heat to help keep the interior temperature a few degrees warmer.
- Price- Entry-level hard shell roof top tents start at around $1500. Mid-range models go for around $2000-$3000. Top-of-the-line models cost $4000-$5000. Also remember to factor in the cost of a roof rack, shipping, and installation.
Soft Shell Roof Top Tents
For the most part, all soft shell roof top tents have the same general design. There is a lot of variation in the construction materials and the build quality of these tents.
Most soft shell tents have two layers of fabric. The lower layer forms the body of the tent. It is made from breathable material that attaches to the tent base and interior pole structure. The top layer is a completely waterproof rainfly.
In addition, soft shell tents have a cover that goes over the tent when it’s collapsed for storage or transportation. The cover is made from a thick and durable fabric that protects the tent while you drive.
Some common fabrics used for making soft shell roof top tents include:
- Main fabric of the tent body- This should be made from a thick waterproof or water-resistant and breathable fabric with a weight of at least 280g. Higher-end soft shell tent bodies will be made from 360g fabric. The fabric weight indicates its thickness. Thicker fabrics are heavier but more durable. Polyester rip-stop, polyester-cotton, and poly-cotton canvas are some common soft shell tent body materials. Higher-end tents tend to use thicker and heavier fabrics.
- Rainfly- The rainfly should be made from 100% waterproof material. It should also be seem sealed. Most soft shell tent rainflys are removable. This way, you can take the rainfly off when the weather is hot and sunny. Ideally, the rainfly should be made from a thick fabric that is 420D or greater. D stands for denier which is another measurement for the fabric thickness. High-end tent rainflys are made from thicker and more durable 600D fabric. A couple of common rainfly fabrics include cotton polyester and polyester oxford. These materials provide some wind protection as well.
- Windows and door- These should include a layer of bug netting material. Ideally, the holes should be small enough to keep no-see-ums out. The zippers should also be of good quality. YKK zippers are the most common.
- Tent cover- This should be made from a rugged and waterproof material such as PVC fabric. The zippers should also be sealed to keep rain out while you drive.
Most soft shell roof top tent bases, poles, and ladders are made from aluminum alloy. This material is strong, lightweight, durable, and doesn’t corrode. Ideally, the base should be made from a made from heavy duty aluminum or honeycomb aluminum panels. These are incredibly durable and rigid. The poles should measure at least 0.75” in diameter. Thicker poles are less likely to get bent. Hinges, latches, and linkages are typically made from durable stainless steel.
The mattress will be made from foam. Look for a tent with a mattress that measures at least 2.5” thick. This will ensure that the mattress provides enough support to prevent you from bottoming out. Higher end tents often come with a 3” thick mattress. Aftermarket mattresses are also available as well as mattress toppers.
On some higher-end soft shell tents, the fabric tent body is replaceable. When it wears out, you simply unzip it and zip on a new one. The base and pole system should outlast the fabric. This is a nice feature if you plan to use your tent heavily.
Soft Shell Tent Set Up
Some soft shell roof top tents are more complicated and time-consuming to set up than others. The most well-designed models can be set up in around 3-5 minutes. The process involves removing the protective cover, folding the tent open, and securing a couple of poles to hold the rainfly up.
Some models are a bit more difficult. Heavy roof top tents can be a challenge to open. Particularly if the tent is mounted to a tall vehicle or if you’re a small person. You may need two people to fold the top layer over. After folding the tent up, you may have to attach the rainfly, tension guy lines, secure poles, and maybe even stake part of the tent out. Poorly designed soft shell roof top tents can take up to 15 minutes to set up. More if you’re using an annex or awning.
The quality of the components also play a major role in the ease of setup. For example, high-quality zippers and hinges make the tent much easier to pitch. A well-designed cover comes off and goes on smoothly. Before you buy a soft shell roof top tent, you should research how it pitches. Better yet, try setting it up yourself before you buy it.
Most soft shell tents take a bit more time to pack up as well. You have to make sure all of the fabric is tucked away safely then replace the tent cover. This process should take no more than 10 minutes.
Bi-Fold or Pull-Up Design
Soft shell roof top tents come in two designs. The bi-fold design is by far the most common. These have a hinge in the middle of the base, allowing the tent to fold in half when stored. The tent body and poles are sandwiched between the two base plates. When you unfold the tent, the top base plate pulls the tent body and support structure up by placing tension on the fabric. When unfolded, half of the tent extends off of the side of the vehicle’s roof. The ladder acts as a support.
These tents offer more interior space, making them ideal for families or camping with pets. They are also compatible with an annex. In addition, the part of the tent that hangs over the vehicle forms a small awning where you can store gear or sit. The drawback to bi-fold tents is that they have a large footprint. They are also heavier and taller when folded. This can reduce vehicle handling and gas mileage.
Pull-up soft shell roof top tents do not have a hinge. The support structure and tent body simply fold down on top of the tent base. The tent does not hang over the side of the vehicle. To pitch the tent, you simply lift the support structure up and the tent fabric comes with it. It will secure in place with some straps or a support pole.
This design has a small footprint. Most pull-up soft shell tents are designed to accommodate 1 or 2 campers. These tents are usually affordable as well. In addition, they are lightweight and easy to open and close.
A few more considerations when choosing a soft shell roof top tent:
- Annex- Many soft shell roof top tents have an optional annex accessory. These are designed to pair with a specific model of tent. The annex connects to the section of the base of the tent that hangs over the side of the vehicle. If you want an annex, you’ll want to make sure the soft shell roof top tent you choose is compatible. Some lower-end models don’t have an annex option. Some tents include the annex.
- Moonroof- Some soft shell roof top tents have a window in the roof that allows you to watch the stars at night. This is a great feature for those who camp in remote locations with little light pollution.
- 4 season- Most soft shell roof top tents are designed for 3 season use. A heavy snow load could damage the tent. Some models are built from thicker, stronger, and more rugged materials that are designed to accommodate a snow load and extreme temperatures. If you plan to camp in all 4 seasons, you’ll want to choose a 4 season tent.
- Floor space/Capacity- Consider how many people you plan to camp with. 2, 3, and 4 person models are available. Most soft shell roof top tents have 30-55 square feet of floor space. A 3-4 person soft shell roof top tent typically measures 70-75” wide, 90-98” long, and 50-55” high.
- Weight- Entry-level soft shell roof top tents typically weigh around 120-140 lbs. Higher-end models tend to weigh a bit more at around 150-200 lbs. High-end soft shell roof top tents weigh more because they are typically larger and use thicker materials. The extra material on the mattress, poles, tent body, and rainfly increase the weight of the tent.
- Headroom- If you’re a tall camper, you’ll want to choose a tent that offers enough space for you to sit up and move around in. Most soft shell roof top tents have around 45-52” of headroom. The tallest point is at the center. The walls slope down toward the edges of the tent.
- Extra features- Some tents feature built-in LED lighting that you can wire to your car’s electrical system or a solar system. Some models feature extra storage such as a shoe rack.
- Insulation- Some soft shell models have an insulating insert available as an accessory. This is basically a quilt that attaches to the inside walls of the tent. These can help you stay a bit warmer on cold nights.
- Brand- Some campers are brand loyal. A few entry-level to mid-range soft shell roof top tent manufactures include Smittybuilt, ARB, and TJM. High-end manufactures include Tepui, Eezi-Awn, Odin Designs, CVT, and Bundtec.
- Price- Entry-level soft shell roof top tents start at around $800. Mid-range models go for $1100-$1700. High-end models with all of the bells and whistles go for around $3000. This price often includes an annex.
A Few Roof Top Tent Recommendations
Roof top tents have become incredibly popular over the past few years. These days, there are dozens of options to choose from. In this section, I’ll outline a few popular options.
The Smittybuilt Overlander is one of the best value soft shell roof top tents on the market. The tent is made from heavy-duty 600 denier ripstop polyester with a lightweight 420 denier oxford fabric rainfly. The poles are made from durable anodized aluminum with tough stainless steel hinges. The tent features a door on each side and two large windows. It is designed for four-season camping.
The Overlander offers some features that are normally only found on higher-end roof top tents including a sunroof, LED strip lights, a rubber shoe bag, 12v cigarette lighter adapter, large side windows with mosquito netting, and a sturdy telescoping aluminum ladder. The tent sleeps 2-3 people comfortably. An annex is available as an optional accessory. The premium features, build quality, and fair price make this one of the best value tents available.
This box-style hard shell roof top tent from Thule features waterproof and breathable walls made from a blend of 260g cotton and 3000mm polyester. The walls are made from ABS and aluminum. The lower shell features a strong and durable honeycomb design. This tent should last many years if taken care of.
The interior of the tent is lined with felt insulation. This improves warmth and reduces noise. The tent also includes a telescoping ladder that can be mounted to either side. A 3 inch high-density foam mattress with a removable cotton cover is also included. The Hybox sleeps 2 people comfortably. This tent is also available in a wedge-shaped version.
The most interesting feature of this tent is that it converts into a cargo carrier. Thule’s unique zipper system allows you to quickly and easily remove the fabric walls. If you remove the mattress, the rigid tent shell becomes a roomy cargo carrier with plenty of extra space for storing extra camping gear, skis, or whatever else you need to haul. You can open the tent from either side to access your gear. The beauty of this is that you can get use out of your rooftop tent even when you’re not camping. It is incredibly versatile.
This budget 2 person roof top tent is designed to set up in seconds. It simply folds open like an accordion. Two straps attach to the bottom of the vehicle for support. The tent features a comfortable high-density foam mattress that measures 78″ x 42″. A large door allows for easy entry and exit and ventilation. An 8-foot telescoping ladder is included. This is one of the most affordable rooftop tents available.
When deciding between a soft shell and hard shell roof top tent, you’ll want to think about how and where you plan to camp. If you camp often, move camp every day, or plan to haul a lot of gear, you’re better off with a hard shell model. They are much faster and easier to set up and take down. They tend to be a bit more durable as well. If you only camp occasionally and you tend to stay in the same location after setting up camp, you may be better off with a roomier soft shell model. Of course, budget comes into play as well.
Do you use a hard shell or soft shell roof top tent? Share your experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and insights based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.