Rooftop tents are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to ground tents. Particularly among overlanders, road trippers, and off-roaders. This guide outlines the pros and cons of using a rooftop tent vs ground tent. We’ll cover comfort, setup time, costs, safety, ease of use, longevity, and more. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best shelter for your next camping trip
What is a Rooftop Tent?
A rooftop tent mounts to your vehicle’s roof rack or roof bars. The tent folds or collapses down into a flat, aerodynamic package that stays mounted to your roof while you drive. When you’re ready to camp, you simply fold the tent out or pop it up, depending on the design. Most models include a comfortable foam mattress. You sleep off the ground on the vehicle’s roof. Usually, a ladder is included to help you climb up into bed. Rooftop tents are typically mounted to 4X4 expedition or overlanding vehicles. Smaller and lighter rooftop tents are available that can be mounted on most cars. Rooftop tents sleep from 2-4 people depending on the size.
Types of Rooftop Tents: Soft-Shell Vs Hard-Shel
There are two different rooftop tent designs: soft-shell folding and hard-shell pop-up.
Soft-shell rooftop tents fold open to the side of your vehicle so part of the tent hangs off the edge. They open up like a pop-up book. A series of hinged poles and manually placed poles and guy lines hole the tent up. The tent body is made from a waterproof soft fabric such as nylon or canvas. The tent is attached to a rigid, hinged platform.
Hard-shell rooftop tents have a rigid ceiling and floor made from fiberglass, plastic, or aluminum. The walls are made from soft fabric like canvas or nylon. Most hard-shell rooftop tents either open with a hinge in a wedge shape or pop straight up in a box shape. Most models open with the assistance of gas struts. The tent footprint covers most of the vehicle’s roof area.
Rooftop Tent Pros
1. Faster and easier to set up
Generally, rooftop tents take less time and effort to set up than ground tents. A well-designed hard shell rooftop tent can be set up by one person in less than 60 seconds. You simply unlock some latches, pop the tent up with the help of some gas struts, then lock it in place with safety supports. This is faster and easier than setting up any ground tent because you don’t need to mess with a footprint, poles, stakes, guy lines, etc. It practically pitches itself.
Having said that, some rooftop tents are a bit more difficult and time-consuming to set up. Particularly if they are mounted to a tall vehicle. For example, folding rooftop tents often take 5-10 minutes to set up. They often require quite a bit of physical force to lift open as well. You might need some help. Some folding models require you to place poles and stakes as well. In this case, the rooftop tent may be more time consuming and difficult to set up than a ground tent. For comparison, a well designed 2 person ground tent takes 3-5 minutes to pitch.
Maybe the biggest advantage rooftop tents offer in terms of setup is time and difficulty is the fact you can leave your bedding in place when the tent is collapsed down. You don’t have to mess with stuffing and unstuffing your sleeping bag and rolling and unrolling your sleeping mat every time you camp. This saves a considerable amount of time and hassle every time you set up and tear down camp.
2. Easier to Find a Campsite
It is generally easier to find a suitable campsite when you’re using a rooftop tent. All you need to look for is a flat place to park. It doesn’t matter if the ground is wet, rocky, muddy, lumpy, or covered in snow or vegetation. You don’t need to worry about puddles or water flowing into camp if it rains. Because you’re raised off the ground, you don’t have to worry about getting muddy or wet. If your site is a bit uneven, you can drive a tire over a rock or dig a small hole to even things out. Rooftop tents also allow you to camp on solid surfaces like an asphalt or gravel parking lot. You don’t have to pound stakes into the ground to use a rooftop tent. If you can drive there, you can camp there with a rooftop tent.
3. More comfortable
Rooftop tens integrate a mattress into the floor of the tent. Rooftop tent mattresses tend to be thicker, larger, and more comfortable than ground tent sleeping pads. For example, most rooftop tents include a 2 ½-3 inch thick foam mattress that offers plenty of back support. The mattress also covers the entire floor of the tent. A 2 person rooftop tent mattress measures around 48” wide by 84” long. This is similar to a full-sized mattress. The large size allows you plenty of room to spread out and move around. Large rooftop tents feature mattresses that measure about 87″ by 96″. This is larger than a king-size mattress. To compare, most ground camping sleeping pads measure just 20” wide and 1-2 ½” thick.
Upgraded rooftop tent mattress options are available as well. For example, you can get layered rooftop tent mattresses with memory foam, high-density foam, gel, or extra insulation to suit your needs. Inflatable options are also available. High-end mattresses measure up to 6 inches thick. One of the more better options is this rooftop tent mattress from Denver Mattress. If you want to improve the comfort of your existing mattress, you can also install a mattress topper. You can customize your rooftop tent mattress to be as comfortable as your home mattress. For more info on rooftop tent mattresses, check out this great guide.
Because you don’t have to pack up your bedding every night when you use a rooftop tent, you can use standard sheets and a down comforter instead of a sleeping bag. Many rooftop tent manufacturers also offer sheet sets that are custom made for your mattress size. You can also use full-size pillows. Many campers find this setup less restrictive and more comfortable than using a sleeping bag.
Higher end rooftop tents also offer luxury features that improve comfort or convenience. For example, some models feature built-in lighting and USB outlets, a shoe rack, a gear hammock, condensation pads. As an accessory, you may be able to install a quilted liner for additional insulation.
4. Better view
Rooftop tents put you 5-6 feet off the ground, depending on the height of your vehicle. This allows you to enjoy an unobstructed view of your surroundings while you’re in your tent. There is nothing better than laying back and taking in the view of a towering mountain or beautiful beach. When you’re sleeping in a ground tent, even a small hump, shrub, or boulder can block your view of the landscape.
5. You can store your bedding and some gear inside a rooftop tent
Many rooftop tents are designed in a way that leaves a bit of space inside when they are closed. This way, you can leave your sleeping bag, blanket, pillow, and sleep pad set up at all times. This saves you a great deal of time and effort when setting up camp. To me, this is one of the biggest advantages rooftop tents offer. Rolling and unrolling a sleeping bag and sleeping pad is my least favorite part of setting up camp.
In addition, pop-up models often offer enough space inside to store some extra gear. For example, you could leave a book, some clothes, a map, a flashlight, a tablet or laptop, etc. in the rooftop tent while you drive. It’s nice having everything already in place and ready to go when you’re ready to crawl into bed.
Because rooftop tents are elevated off the ground, they tend to stay cleaner than ground tents. You can set a doormat at the base of your ladder so you can wipe your feet before you climb in. This way, you don’t track as much mud, sand, water, or dirt into your tent. Because the tent is elevated, it is less likely for the wind to blow dirt in. The inside tends to stay cleaner. Also, rain can’t splash mud onto the sides of the tent. In addition, you don’t have to deal with debris getting stuck to the bottom of the tent. Another benefit is that your car interior will stay cleaner because you’re never storing a wet and dirty tent inside. The rooftop tent always stays outside.
7. Rooftop tents may be safer
Many campers claim that rooftop tents keep you safer than ground tents. Overlanders traveling across Africa commonly use rooftop tents to put them out of reach of predators like lions and hyenas. Those who camp in bear or mountain lion country may also prefer the extra security of rooftop tents.
Rooftop tents are safer because wild animals may be less likely to climb up on the vehicle to try to get into the tent. Additionally, because you’re sleeping above any animals that wander through your camp, they’ll be less likely to stick their nose in your tent to sniff around. After all, you’re out of their line of sight. You won’t wake up with a bear rooting around inches away from your head. If a dangerous wild animal does enter camp, you can keep an eye on them from above. You may have more time to prepare your bear spray or horn as well.
As an added bonus, rooftop tents keep you out of reach of some venomous critters like scorpions, snakes, and spiders. These critters are unlikely to climb up into the tent when you’re so far off the ground.
Of course, rooftop tents are not perfectly safe because they have soft walls. A large predator like a grizzly bear can easily climb on your vehicle and tear its way through the tent fabric if it’s hungry and smells food inside. You’ll still need to practice proper food storage when camping in bear country in a rooftop tent. You should also keep bear spray handy while camping in bear country.
One of my biggest fears while camping in a ground tent in some campgrounds is getting run over in the night. Rooftop tents pretty much eliminate this risk. A parked vehicle is hard to miss. Nobody will run into you on purpose because they would damage their vehicle. This puts your mind at ease while camping in a busy campground.
8. Warmer/Better Insulated
Rooftop tents are generally warmer than ground tents. There are several reasons for this. First, rooftop tents use higher denier (thicker) fabric for the walls. Some rooftop tent models offer a quilted insulating insert as an optional accessory. With the extra insulation, less heat escapes in the night and the interior stays warmer. Next, you’re not sleeping on the cold ground in a rooftop tent. The floor is thicker so it provides some insulation from the outside. You don’t lose as much heat to the cold ground. Finally, rooftop tent heaters are available for extremely cold nights.
Of course, you can stay just as warm in a ground tent. Insulated ground tents and heaters are available. A good sleeping pad with a high R-value will prevent heat loss through the ground.
9. Fewer critters can get in a rooftop tent
Because rooftop tents sit so high off the ground, annoying critters like ticks, ants, slugs, scorpions, snakes, and mice can’t crawl in as easily, even if the door gets left open. It is possible for some of these creatures to climb into a rooftop tent but it’s pretty unlikely. Some creatures aren’t even physically capable of reaching you in a rooftop tent. Of course, you’ll still have to deal with flying critters like mosquitoes and bees.
10. More durable and long lasting
Rooftop tents tend to be more durable than ground tents because they are made from thicker and stronger materials. For example, most rooftop tents are made from 600 denier fabric. Ground tents, on the other hand, are often made from much thinner 60-150 denier fabrics. The thicker fabric is less likely to tear or develop holes. In addition, rooftop tents feature thicker and sturdier zippers poles, and floors. They can handle years of use and abuse. You should get a decade of use out of a quality rooftop tent if you take care of it. In general, hard-shell models last longer than soft-shell models. Ground tents, on the other hand, often only last around 5 years.
Manufactures can use heavier, more robust materials to build rooftop tents because your vehicle carries the weight instead of you. A few dozen pounds of extra weight isn’t an issue for a large vehicle and it greatly increases the durability and longevity of the tent. Ground tents are made from thinner and lighter materials. This is necessary to make them light enough to carry around. These thin and lightweight materials don’t last as long as heavier materials.
One issue you can run into with rooftop tents is damage from exposure. Because rooftop tents are such a hassle to install and remove, most people leave their tent mounted on their vehicle’s roof. UV light from the sun can damage your tent over time. The fabric can fade and degrade and plastic parts can crack. Moisture can also accumulate during a storm and from humidity. Mold can form, even if your tent was perfectly dry when you stored it. If you plan to leave your rooftop tent mounted to your vehicle long term, you’re better off going with a hard-shell model with UV and mold resistant fabric. Also, try to pitch your tent in a shaded area when you camp. When you get home, make sure the tent is completely dry before you store it.
11. Better ventilation/dryer
Rooftop tents tend to stay dryer than ground tents. There are several reasons for this. First, condensation isn’t as bad because rooftop tents offer better ventilation. Because you’re higher off the ground, you won’t have to deal with as much water evaporating from the ground and condensing on your rainfly. There is space between your vehicle’s roof and the tent floor for airflow. Rooftop tents also feature large windows that you can open for extra ventilation. Most models have small awnings over the windows so you can leave them open, even when it’s raining. Many manufacturers also install condensation pads under the mattress or in the roof to absorb excess moisture. These also provide a bit of extra insulation.
Next, water can’t seep in from the floor. When camping in a ground tent on wet ground, water eventually leaks through the tent floor fabric, even though the fabric is waterproof. You’re also less likely to track in water or snow as you climb in and out of a rooftop tent, in my experience. You can easily take your shoes off before climbing in. All of this helps you stay a bit dryer inside.
Havng said this, it’s best to open up your tent and remove your mattress after your trip to let everything dry out completely. Some moisture will build up inside. If you don’t dry everything out, you risk allowing mold and mildew grow. This can ruin your tent.
12. Rooftop tents look cool
Honestly, this is one of the biggest benefits of using a rooftop tent. It makes your vehicle look like a true go-anywhere overlanding rig. For some people, looks don’t matter. For others, looks are important, even if we don’t like to admit it. Maybe you want your vehicle to look like your favorite overlanding Instagramers or Youtubers so you can create your own content. Maybe you just want to use the newest and most popular type of gear. Whatever the case, rooftop tents look pretty great. Of course, this is subjective. Some people think rooftop tents look gimmicky.
Rooftop Tent Cons
1. Rooftop tents offer less living space
Most rooftop tents are designed to sleep two people comfortably. They are similar in size to two-person ground tents. Pop-up models are limited to the size of the vehicle’s roof. Larger folding rooftop tents exist that have space to sleep up to four. These often require that you have a large vehicle to mount them to. Also, you can’t stand up and walk around in a rooftop tent. There is only enough space to sleep or sit inside. For this reason, rooftop tents work best for individuals or couples, not large families.
Ground tents, on the other hand, are available in much larger sizes. Large ground tents can accommodate 8 or more people. Some models have enough space to stand up and walk inside.
If you want more living space with a rooftop tent, you can buy a model with a vestibule or annex. This is an enclosed space that connects to your rooftop tent and sits next to your vehicle at ground level. Most annexes attach to the bottom of the tent platform that hangs over the side of the vehicle. The annex usually encloses around the ladder. An annex offers a dry and shady space where you can stand up, change your clothes, cook, get away from the bugs, set up a shower or toilet, and hang out. You can climb from the annex into the tent without going outside.
Another option is to install an awning on the side of your vehicle if you want a living space that is protected from the elements. These are just roofs that attach to vertical poles on the ground. You could also simply pitch a tarp. The problem with awnings and vestibules is that they take more time to set up and add a considerable amount of weight and bulk to your setup.
2. Worse fuel efficiency
Rooftop tents stick up from the top of your roof. This creates wind resistance which reduces your fuel economy. Exactly how much your gas mileage will suffer depends on a number of factors including the type of rooftop tent you choose, the type of vehicle that you drive, your speed, your driving habits, the way you mount the tent, the tent’s weight, and more.
Generally, hard-shell rooftop tents are the most efficient because they have a lower profile. Many models only stick up about 6 inches. They often have an aerodynamic design that reduces wind resistance as well. Soft-shell rooftop tents are much thicker and boxier. They stick up about 12 inches. This shape and size has a greater effect on efficiency. You might also have trouble driving into some parking garages or your home garage with the tent installed if makes your vehicle too tall.
Lightweight and aerodynamic vehicles will see a bigger decrease in fuel efficiency than large boxy vehicles. For example, a small car that normally gets 40mpg may lose 10mpg when you install a rooftop tent. A big truck or SUV that gets 20mpg may only lose 2mpg with a tent installed. Some people install a small fairing to improve aerodynamics. This could help your fuel economy a bit.
A ground tent won’t hurt your gas mileage at all. A lightweight 2 person ground tent weighs just 2.5-10lbs and fits inside the vehicle.
3. Rooftop Tents are Expensive
Rooftop tents are much more expensive than ground tents. Decent soft shell models run around $1000-$1500. Hard-shell models run between $1500-$3500. Budget models are available starting at around $800. High-end models with all the bells and whistles run upwards of $5000. Prices have come down over the past few years but rooftop tents are still pretty expensive for what they are.
One way to cut costs is to buy used. People often buy rooftop tents, find they don’t use them enough, then sell them at a loss. If you keep an eye out on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, you may be able to score a good deal and save a few hundred dollars on a lightly used one.
In addition to the tent, you may also need to buy a ladder. A lightweight telescoping model runs around $100-$200. You’ll also need a sturdy roof rack on your vehicle to mount the tent to. These cost $200-$400. You may also need to modify your vehicle’s suspension if you plan to drive off-road. If you buy your rooftop tent online, you might pay an extra $100-$200 for shipping because they are so heavy. If your tent and rack aren’t designed for one another, you might need to buy some mounting hardware and even pay someone to help you mount the tent. As you can see, costs add up quickly.
You may also want to take into consideration the extra cost of fuel. Remember, the wind resistance from the tent reduces your gas mileage by around 2-10 mpg depending on the type of vehicle and your speed. Over the lifetime of the rooftop tent, you may spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars extra on fuel.
To compare, you can buy a nice 1 or 2 person ground tent for around $100. If you’re on a tight budget, entry-level tents can be had for around $30. Large or high-end ground tents run around $600-$1000.
One thing to remember when considering the price is that rooftop tents generally last longer than ground tents. You might get 10 years of use out of your rooftop tent but only 5 out of your ground tent. This means you may need to buy two ground tents for every rooftop tent.
4. Rooftop tents make the vehicle top heavy
Installing a rooftop tent adds 100-200 lbs to the top of your vehicle. This raises your vehicle’s center of gravity, which can be a safety issue. Your vehicle becomes easier to tip with so much weight sitting so high up. You’ll have to be a bit more careful when driving on steep or uneven terrain with a heavy rooftop tent installed. You’ll have to be particularly careful if you drive a tall, lifted vehicle.
5. Worse performance and handling
Rooftop tents can add so much weight that they cause the vehicle’s suspension to sag. This is most likely when you install a particularly heavy rooftop tent or install a rooftop tent on a vehicle that is too small. When your suspension is overloaded, your vehicle’s handling suffers. You’ll really notice this when driving off-road because your suspension won’t have as much travel. The solution is to modify the suspension so it can accommodate the extra weight of the tent. The added weight on the top of the vehicle also raises the center of gravity. This compromises the vehicle’s handling as well. you may notice this when cornering.
6. Rooftop Tents are Heavy
The average rooftop tent weighs between 100 and 220 lbs (45-100 kg). One of the lightest rooftop tents is this Superlight Roof Tent that weighs just 80 lbs. The weight of rooftop tents makes them hard to install, move around, and store. They are cumbersome. The wieght also hurts your vehicle’s efficiency and handling. To compare, an average ground tent weighs just 5-10lbs, which is negligible.
Before buying a rooftop tent, you’ll want to check to make sure that your vehicle and roof rack are capable of supporting the weight of the tent and sleepers. This is a safety issue. You wouldn’t want your tent coming off while you drive or sleep.
You’ll need to check both the dynamic weight capacity and static weight capacity. The dynamic weight capacity is the amount of weight that your vehicle’s roof and roof rack can support while in motion. This number should be greater than your tent’s total weight. The static weight capacity is the amount of weight that your vehicle’s roof and roof rack can support while stationary. This number must be higher than the weight of the tent plus sleepers plus any gear. For most vehicles, the static weight isn’t an issue. For some vehicle and roof rack combos, the dynamic weight can be an issue.
7. You have to climb a ladder to access the tent
To enter a rooftop tent you have to climb up a narrow ladder. This can be difficult for people with physical disabilities, elderly people, or those with reduced mobility. Small children could also have trouble climbing the ladder. If you camp with a pet, you’ll have to lift them up into the tent or rig some kind of ramp for them to use. Cats and dogs can’t climb ladders. If you regularly need to get up in the night to go to the bathroom, it can get kind of annoying having to climb up and down a ladder. It can feel cold and hard on bare feet.
8. You have to fold up your tent to drive your vehicles
You can’t drive with a rooftop tent set up. If you want to explore the area or drive into town, you must fold up your tent then unfold it again when you return to camp. This can be a bit of a hassle if you like to set up a base camp and explore the area with your vehicle. If you use a ground tent, you can just leave it pitched at your campsite.
One solution is to mount your rooftop tent to a trailer that you tow behind your vehicle. This way, you can detach the trailer and leave your tent set up so your vehicle stays free to roam around with. As an added bonus, this setup frees up your vehicle’s roof for carrying more gear or solar. Most trailers also feature storage space and mounting points. These trailers are often called expedition trailers.
9. Rooftop tents are a hassle to install and remove
If your overlanding vehicle is also your daily driver, you probably won’t want to drive around with your rooftop tent all of the time. The problem is that mounting and removing a rooftop tent regularly isn’t really an option. The average rooftop tent weighs 100-220 lbs (45-100 kg). It takes more than one person to lift it onto the roof. It also takes time to safely secure all of the bolts that lock the tent in place. It’s a job that you won’t want to do every weekend.
Some rooftop tent campers have rigged up a hoist or lift system to help lift the tent onto the roof. These systems usually use pulleys or a winch to make the tent easier to lift alone. Some use a simple ramp to push the tent onto the roof. For some inspiration, check out this thread from Expedition Portal.
10. Rooftop tents take up valuable cargo space
Your vehicle’s roof can accommodate a lot of gear. For example, you can store your spare tires, extra fuel, traction pads, a roof box for cargo, a kayak, bicycles, tools, and more on your vehicle’s roof. You can also mount solar panels to your roof to generate electricity while you drive and camp. Unfortunately, a rooftop tent takes up most of the roof space. This greatly reduces the total amount of gear that your vehicle can carry.
A ground tent, on the other hand, packs down to a small cylinder that measures around 20” long and 6” in diameter. This leaves you plenty of space to haul all of your gear.
Of course, your cargo capacity depends greatly on the size of your vehicle. A full-sized truck or SUV will have cargo space behind or in front of the rooftop tent. You can also mount things like extra fuel and traction pads on the sides or back of your vehicle.
There are a handful of hard-shell rooftop tents with external storage capacity. Some models integrate racks on the side where you can attach gear or a cargo bag. Some models allow you to mount solar panels to the top of the tent. You can’t mount solar panels to a soft-shell rooftop tent. Of course, you could always set up your solar panels on the ground when you camp.
11. Can take longer to set up and take down
Some rooftop tents take more time to set up than ground tents. For example, folding soft shell rooftop tens often take 5-10 minutes to pitch. To compare, you can pitch a modern 2 person ground tent in around 2 minutes.
To set up a soft-shell rooftop tent, first, you have to unbuckle and remove the protective cover. This can take a couple of minutes alone. Next, you have to unfold the tent. Large models are heavy and take quite a bit of force to open. Finally, you have to place some poles manually to prop the windows open. You may also have to install a rainfly. Some models even require stakes and guy lines. If you plan to set up an annex or an awning, you’ll spend even more time setting up camp. Of course, some rooftop tents are incredibly fast and easy to set up. Well designed pop-up models go up in less than 1 minute.
If you camp frequently or you’re planning a trip that requires you to move camp every day, you’ll want to choose a tent that goes up quickly. Even a few extra minutes every day adds up and gets annoying over the course of a long trip. If you only camp occasionally, spending a few extra minutes to set up isn’t a big deal. Before you buy a tent, you’ll want to research exactly how it sets up. Better yet, you should try setting it up before you buy. For more info, check out this article about rooftop tent setup time.
12. Harder to clean
Over time, your rooftop tent will get dirty. You’ll track sand, mud, and dirt inside as you enter. Tree sap can drip on the outside. Bugs can get stuck to the sides and top as you drive. Dirt and dust build up on the walls during storms. You’ll want to give your rooftop tent a good cleaning every once in a while.
Rooftop tents are a bit harder to clean than ground tents. To clean the inside, you must remove the mattress and brush or vacuum the tent interior out. Most rooftop tent mattresses include a removable cover that you can run through the washing machine. To clean the outside of the tent, you can simply hose it down. You may want to use a cloth with a mild detergent to spot clean or scrub the walls if they are particularly dirty. Make sure the tent is completely dry before storing it so mold and mildew don’t develop.
The problem is that because the tent sits so high off the ground it can be difficult to clean the outside walls. To make things easier, you may want to remove the tent from your vehicle and place it on the ground so it’s more accessible.
13. Harder to store
Rooftop tents are large and bulky. While closed, they measure around 2-5 feet wide by 4-7 feet long depending on the design. They also weigh over 100 lbs. Hardshell models tend to be larger and heavier. When you’re not using it, you’ll have to store it somewhere. It will take up a lot of space in your garage or home. Of course, you could just leave it on the roof of your vehicle. A ground tent, on the other hand, takes up very little space to store.
14. Less versatile
A rooftop tent is only useful when camping with your vehicle. You can’t take it with you on a bicycle or motorcycle or in a backpack to go hiking. You also can’t sleep away from your vehicle. For example, you can’t stay in campgrounds that require you to hike in. This can be limiting in some situations. A rooftop tent ties you down to your vehicle.
In addition, you can’t easily move a rooftop tent from one vehicle to another. If you want to do this, you’ll need at least two people and around 30 minute to an hour of time. Both vehicles also need to have a compatible roof rack. You can throw a ground tent in any vehicle and go camping.
15. Rooftop tents can get stolen
Occasionally, rooftop tents get stolen off the top of vehicles. After all, they are secured with just a few bolts. A couple of guys with some hand tools could easily steal one if they wanted it bad enough.
If you live or travel in a seedy area or you plan to park your vehicle for multiple days without moving it, you may want to stick with a ground tent instead. You can just lock it in your vehicle or take it inside with you so you don’t have to worry about it.
There are some ways to make your rooftop tent more secure. You can park in the garage if you have one. You can remove the rooftop tent and store it somewhere secure. It is also possible to make a minor modification so you can use some locking cable or bike lock to lock the rooftop tent to your vehicle. This would make it harder to steal.
16. You need a compatible vehicle to mount a rooftop tent to
Before buying a rooftop tent, you’ll have to make sure that your vehicle, tent, and roof rack are compatible. Most SUVs, trucks, and mid-size and larger cars are capable of carrying a rooftop tent. Ideally, you want to choose a tent that doesn’t extend past the edges of your roof when it is folded up. You’ll also need to buy a roof rack that is compatible with both your vehicle and the rooftop tent that you plan to use. Most rooftop tents are designed to fit a wide range of racks.
You’ll need to check the static and dynamic load capacity of your vehicle and roof rack to make sure it can handle the weight of your tent and campers. For example, a 200lb rooftop requires a large vehicle and heavy-duty rack. Next, you’ll need to think about how you want to mount your tent to your vehicle. You can mount it on the roof, over the bed of a pickup truck, or on a trailer.
Some vehicles aren’t compatible with rooftop tents. For example, you’re probably not going to mount a rooftop tent to a sub-compact car, sports car, or convertible. There are some small and lightweight rooftop tents that are designed to fit on small cars. I have seen people mount these to their Toyota Prius, Mini Cooper, and small Subarus. If you drive a small vehicle, you’re probably better off going with a ground tent.
After you get your tent and rack, you have to figure out how to install them. This may take some research and a trip to the hardware store. With a ground tent, there are no compatibility issues to worry about.
Ground Tent Pros
- Cheap- Ground tents are incredibly affordable. You can buy a basic one for $30. A nice 2 person ground tent goes for $100-$300. Big yurt style ground tents start at around $750 and max out at around $1500. You’ll also need a sleeping pad, which you can buy for $20-100. If you’re on a tight budget or you only camp a few times per year, a ground tent is the way to go. Rooftop tents, on the other hand, start at around $900 for the cheapest model. An average rooftop tent goes for $1500-$3000. On top of that, you’ll have to buy a ladder and roof rack for your vehicle.
- More living space- Ground tents are available in much larger sizes than rooftop tents. Some models are large and tall enough that you can stand up and walk around inside. A big ground tent can comfortably sleep 8 or more people. This kind of setup works great for those who want to sleep inside the same tent with their whole family and pets. With a large ground tent, you can also set up living quarters inside with a table, chairs, cots, and other luxury items. Some ground tents also allow you to install a small wood stove inside with a chimney sticking out the side. This kind of setup is great if you have to stay inside all day due to bad weather. Rooftop tents can only accommodate 2-4 people.
- More versatile- You can use a lightweight ground tent for car camping, bicycle touring, motorcycle touring, hiking, hunting, travel, and more. You don’t need a vehicle to use it. You can also use any vehicle or swap vehicles. There are no compatibility issues to worry about when using a ground tent. A rooftop tent is only useful when camping with your vehicle.
- Ground tents allow you to camp away from your vehicle- Using a ground tent gives you the freedom to separate yourself from your vehicle. This can come in handy in several situations. For example, maybe you want to park at a trailhead and go for a multi-day hike. You can just carry your ground tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad with you in your pack. Maybe you want to park your vehicle in a secure parking lot and camp at a hostel or campground in another part of the city. You might want to do this while traveling internationally. Having your tent separate from your vehicle also opens up wild camping opportunities. You can park your vehicle somewhere safe then find a hidden spot to camp nearby.
- Fast and easy to set up and take down- Modern ground tents are incredibly fast and easy to pitch. For example, I can pitch my Big Agnes Fly Creek HVUL1 in less than 2 minutes if I’m in a hurry. This is faster than many rooftop soft-shell rooftop tents.
- You can use your vehicle while camp is set up- If you’re staying at the same campsite for several days, you can leave your tent set up and drive your vehicle. This may come in handy if you want to explore the area, drive to town to pick up supplies, or travel to a different fishing hole, hunting spot, or trailhead for the day. You don’t have to set up and tear down camp every day. You can’t drive with a rooftop tent set up.
- Ground tents are easier to access- To enter and exit a ground tent, you just open a zippered flap and crawl in. There is no ladder to deal with because the tent sits at ground level. This makes it easy for people with disabilities or reduced mobility to camp. This is also nice if you go camping with your dog or cat. They can easily walk in and out of a ground tent. Small children can easily and safely access the tent as well. The easy access is also nice for those who need to get up to use the bathroom during the night. To access a rooftop tent, you have to climb a ladder.
- Ground tents do not affect your vehicle’s performance- Your ground tent fits inside of your vehicle so it does not affect the vehicle’s aerodynamics. This way, your fuel economy won’t suffer. Ground tents also weigh very little. They have no effect on your vehicle’s suspension, center of gravity, or weight distribution.
- Takes up less space- Ground tents are incredibly compact. A 2 person backpacking tent packs into a cylinder that measures about 18” x 6”. A large 8 person ground tent can pack down to around 30” x 12”. That’s small enough to fit into the trunk of a compact car. The beauty of this is that it leaves you plenty of space for your gear. Your entire roof is free to haul gear or mount solar panels. It’s also easy to store your ground tent in a closet at home. Rooftop tents occupy most of your roof. This leaves you with a lot less cargo space.
- Easier to clean- When your ground tent gets dirty inside, you can just turn it inside out and shake it out. All of the sand, dust, and debris that you tracked in will come right out. Once in a while, you may want to spot clean the walls with some mild detergent and a rag if they get dirty.
- Lightweight- An average tent weighs 5-10 lbs (2.26-4.5 kg). An ultralight ground tent weighs just 1.5-2.5 lbs (680-1130 grams). Large 8 person tents weigh 25-50 lbs (11-22 kg). To compare, the lightest rooftop tents weigh in at around 100 pounds. Larger models weigh over 200 lbs.
- Better performance in the wind- Ground tents can be designed with a low profile that allows the wind to blow over them. You’ll get a quiet night of sleep. You also won’t have to worry as much about the wind causing damage or blowing the tent down. Rooftop tents can act like a sail in the wind because they stick up so high. Particularly soft-shell models.
Ground Tent Cons
- Less comfortable- One major difference between ground tents and rooftop tents is the sleeping pad. Standard ground camping sleeping pads are generally thinner, more narrow, and less comfortable than rooftop tent mattresses. With a ground tent, you’re also limited to using a sleeping bag or quilt. Because you can leave your bedding in place, rooftop tents allow you to use standard bedding. That said, modern sleeping pads and sleeping bags are surprisingly comfortable. Thick air mattresses are also available.
- Harder to find a campsite- Finding a suitable site to pitch a ground tent can be a time-consuming job. You need to find a flat spot without any lumps, rocks, or thorns. In addition, you also need to make sure you’re not setting up in a spot that could get flooded if it starts raining. You also want to consider humidity so you don’t experience too much condensation. In addition, the site has to have soft ground or trees nearby for staking the tent or tying guy lines. I’ve spent well over an hour hunting for campsites before. In addition, you need to find a safe spot to park your vehicle.
- Less durable- Ground tents are made from low denier (thin) fabric and lightweight materials. This is necessary because the tent needs to be light enough to carry around. The drawback is that these lightweight materials tend to be more fragile. Ground tents tend to wear out faster than rooftop tents. With average use, you should get 5 years out of a quality ground tent. A rooftop tent should last about a decade if it’s well cared for.
- More dangerous- When you’re sleeping on the ground, you’re a bit more exposed to wild animals. A bear can wander into camp and start sniffing around right outside of your tent. It’s rare for an animal to attack a camper in a ground tent but it does happen. A rooftop tent puts you above the animals in a slightly safer position. They would have to climb on your vehicle to get to you. Another concern when camping in a ground tent is getting hit by a vehicle. A driver could hit a small ground tent while driving into a crowded campground. Particularly if they’ve been drinking. Someone could also run you over purposefully. With a rooftop tent, you are somewhat protected by your vehicle. Ground tents are also more exposed to critters. Poisonous scorpions, snakes, and spiders as well as ticks can climb in as well.
- Less consistent sleep- Every campsite is a bit different. Sometimes you’ll end up pitching your tent on a rock, dip, incline, or hump. When this happens, you’ll get a poor night of sleep. With a rooftop tent, you’re always sleeping on a flat surface.
- Dirtier- Your ground tent will get dirty. Particularly after camping in a rainstorm. The rain splashes mud onto the sides of the tent. The bottom of the tent and groundsheet also collects debris. After tearing down your muddy tent, you have to put it inside of your clean vehicle. It is also easier to track dirt into a ground tent as you enter and exit. Rooftop tents tend to say much cleaner inside and out because they sit higher up away from the dirty ground.
- More difficult and time-consuming to set up- This point really depends on the design of the tent. An average 2 person tent takes around 5 minutes to pitch. You also have to deal with staking it out. This can be a challenge on hard ground. You’ll also have to place the rainfly. In addition, you have to set up your sleep pad and sleeping bag every time you camp. A well-designed pop-up rooftop tent can be set up in less than 1 minute. You can also leave your bedding in place, which saves time.
- Can be colder- Ground tents are made from thin materials to keep weight down. These materials don’t provide much insulation. You also sleep on the cold ground, which sucks heat from the tent. If your sleeping pad isn’t warm enough, you can lose a lot of body heat to the ground as well. Rooftop tents are typically made from thicker or insulated materials that trap some heat. They also keep you off the cold ground. Of course, you can stay perfectly warm in a ground tent if you choose a good sleeping bag and sleeping pad with a high r-value. Insulated ground tents are also available. You can also use a heater.
- Condensation- You have to deal with condensation in pretty much every tent. Condensation occurs when warm humid air hits the cold walls of your tent. Ground tents tend to collect more condensation than rooftop tents. One reason is that moisture can enter your tent as it evaporates from the ground. The solution is to choose a good campsite and make sure your tent is well ventilated. Condensation usually isn’t quite as bad in rooftop tents. For more info, check out my guide: How to Reduce Condensation in a Tent.
- You have to deal with more critters- Ants, ticks, spiders, mice, snakes, scorpions, and other critters can make their way into your ground tent if you leave the door open. For the most part, crawling organisms can’t make their way into a rooftop tent.
Hard-Shell Pop Up Vs Soft-Shell Folding Rooftop Tents
There are two main rooftop tent designs: Soft-shell folding and hard-shell pop-up.
Soft-shell tents fold open like a popup book. They hinge open and a series of poles hold the tent up. Part of the tent hangs off of the side of your vehicle. Soft-shell tents look similar to a ground tent. The walls and ceiling are made from soft waterproof tent fabric like canvas or nylon that is attached to the tent base.
Hard-shell pop-up rooftop tents open vertically. Either in a wedge or box shape. The roof is made from rigid plastic or fiberglass and the sides are made from waterproof fabric. The tent footprint occupies most of the vehicle’s’ roof.
In this section, I’ll outline the pros and cons of each. For more in-depth info, check out my complete guide to hard shell vs soft shell rooftop tents.
Soft-Shell Rooftop Tent Pros and Cons
Soft-shell rooftop tents tend to be a bit roomier inside. They fold open and double in size. Part of the tent hangs off the side of the vehicle. Folding rooftop tents also pack down a bit smaller for transport. This leaves more room to haul gear on your roof. They also tend to be $500-$1000 cheaper than comparable pop-up models. As an added bonus, the overhanging part of the tent creates a small awning that you can use for shade or protection from the elements. Most soft-shell rooftop tents also have an annex option if you want more space.
The main drawback of folding rooftop tents is the setup time. They take around 10 minutes to pitch. Also, when the tent is folded for storage, it has a taller and boxier profile. This is bad for aerodynamics, which reduces fuel economy. In addition, most models don’t allow you to store any gear inside while the tent is folded. The soft material also tends to blow in the wind, making the tent noisier on windy nights. moisture buildup can also be an issue.
Hard Shell Rooftop Tent Pros and Cons
Hard-shell rooftop tents offer fast and easy setup. Many models can pop up in less than 1 minute. When folded, the tent has a low profile and aerodynamic shape. This is great for fuel economy. They also feel a bit roomier inside because the walls are vertical. In addition, there is room inside to store bedding when the tent is collapsed. Hard-shell models also tend to be a bit more weatherproof. Moisture less of an issue so mold is less likely to form. Wedge-shaped hard-shell tents can also handle heavier winds if you park with the hinge pointing into the wind. The rigid roof also provides some protection from falling branches and debris.
The main drawback is the cost. Hard-shell rooftop tents are expensive for what they are. Prices start at around $3000. They also have a smaller sleeping surface because they are limited in size to the size of the vehicle’s roof. For this reason, most hard-shell rooftop tents are designed to sleep 2 people. In addition, hard-shell rooftop tents tend to be physically larger and heavier. They are a bit harder to mount and store.
A Third Option: Sleeping Inside of the Vehicle
Some overlanders choose not to bother with a tent at all and just set up a sleeping area inside of their vehicle. Some build an elevated sleeping area with storage underneath. Others just throw a sleeping pad on the floor. This works best with larger vehicles like SUVs and vans. People also sleep in the back of cars and pickup trucks as well.
Pros of Sleeping in the Vehicle
- Warmer- Vehicles have insulation. You also don’t have to deal with a windchill factor because the hard walls and windows protect you from the wind. If worst comes to worst, you can turn on the vehicle’s heater.
- Safer- Wild animals and dangerous people can’t get to you as easily when you’re locked in your vehicle. You also have more time to escape if worst comes to worst.
- Cheap- All you need is a sleeping pad and sleeping bag or blanket. Chances are, you don’t need to buy anything to sleep in your vehicle.
- You can stealth camp- You can camp in places you’re not supposed to like in cities on residential streets and in parking lots.
- Weatherproof- You don’t have to worry about rain, snow, or wind.
- You can leave camp quickly- If someone asks you to leave or you encounter any danger, you can climb in the drivers seat and leave.
Cons of Sleeping in the Vehicle
- Some vehicles aren’t large enough- You’ll want to make sure that you can lay flat and get a good night of sleep. If you’re tall, this can be an issue. In some vehicles, it’s impossible to create a flat spot. You can often remove the back seats.
- It gets cramped with more than one person– You can sleep 2 in the back of most SUVs and vans but not any more than that. If you’re camping in a car, there will probably only be room for one.
- A bed takes up a lot of cargo space- You can’t carry as much gear. A roof rack helps free up some space.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide: Sleeping in a Car Vs Tent: Pros and Cons.
A Bit of Rooftop Tent History
Rooftop tents first appeared in Western Europe in the late 1930s. These early models were simple ridge pole tents that sat on a piece of plywood mounted to a roof rack. The tent collapsed down into a compact package. These models never really took off in popularity.
After World War II, automotive touring became popular in Europe. In 1958, a couple of new rooftop tent designs were introduced in Italy. One used a vertical lifting hard-shell design and the other used a folding design with a hinge. The folding model became the more popular design because it was easier to manufacture and cheaper. Over time, both designs evolved into the folding and pop-up rooftop tent designs that are popular today. Designs and materials have improved.
Rooftop tents became particularly popular among overlanders traveling in Australia and South Africa because they provide protection from dangerous and venomous animals. Rooftop tents have also increased in popularity in Europe and North America over the past few years. Today, they are a popular shelter option for overlanders around the world.
A Few Rooftop Tent Recommendations
Before buying a rooftop tent, you’ll want to think about the design, ease of setup, size, and comfort. If possible, it’s best to try it out before you buy. Try setting it up and collapsing it down. Also, lay on the mattress to make sure it’s comfortable. A few popular models to consider include:
This affordable folding rooftop tent offers one of the best values of any tent on the market. It is made from heavy-duty 600 denier waterproof material. The mattress measures 92″ x 55″ and is made from comfortable high-density foam. It can sleep 2-3 comfortably. An annex is available as an accessory.
This 4 season rooftop tent is Thule’s most popular model. It is made from durable and water-resistant 600 denier ripstop fabric. The tent features a comfortable high-density foam mattress and large mesh panels for excellent airflow. It can accommodate up to three people and weighs 131 lbs. The price is reasonable as well.
This budget rooftop tent sets up in seconds. It opens up to the side with an accordion design. This unique design is kind of a hybrid between folding and pop-up rooftop tents. Two straps attach to the bottom of your vehicle to hold the tent open. A large door allows for easy entry and exit as well as good airflow. The tent features a high-density 78” x 48” foam mattress that can sleep 2 comfortably. It includes an 8-foot telescoping ladder. This is one of the better value rooftop tents available.
This premium hardshell rooftop tent features a comfortable 2 ½ inch foam mattress. The interior is lined with insulation, making this a great choice for cold weather camping. One unique feature of this tent is that it doubles as a cargo carrier. It can accommodate up to 23 cubic feet of gear. It easily opens from the sides so you can access your gear without opening the whole tent. This way, you can get some use out of your tent even when you’re not going camping. A telescoping ladder is included as well.
Who Should Use a Rooftop Tent?
Rooftop tents are ideal for overlanders who are on the move to a different camp every day. The fast setup and the fact that you can leave your bedding in place makes it easy to set up and tear down camp. This saves you time every day and cuts down on the hassle of camping.
The comfort of rooftop tents also makes long trips and frequent camping possible. You don’t have to deal with thorns, rocks, or humps under you. Having a nice thick mattress to sleep on with nice soft sheets allows you to get an excellent night of sleep. In addition, insulation can help you stay warm.
Looks are also a major part of the appeal of rooftop tents. Some people buy them just because they are trendy and cool. Nothing wrong with that either.
Who Should Use a Ground Tent?
Ground tents are ideal for those who need the versatility. You can carry a ground tent in any vehicle or in a backpack. This way, you can use the same tent for hiking and car camping.
The large living space makes ground tents a great choice for families. Everyone, including the dog, can sleep in the same tent. You could also carry multiple ground tents if you prefer. They are incredibly compact and lightweight. Those with reduced mobility will also appreciate the easy entry of ground tents.
Those on a tight budget will also prefer ground tents for their low cost. You can buy everything you need to go camping for less than $100 including a budget tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.
Final Thoughts about Rooftop Tents Vs Ground Tents
As you can see, both rooftop tents and ground tents have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. On paper, ground tents appear to have more advantages than rooftop tents. In practice, the advantages of rooftop tents may outweigh the drawbacks.
For me personally, it’s hard to prioritize anything over comfort and ease of setup. If I can’t get a good night of sleep, I won’t enjoy myself. I’ve endured plenty of miserable nights in ground tents. In rooftop tents, I tend to stay more comfortable. I also dislike the process of setting up and tearing down camp. It’s a hassle. For that reason, I prefer the convenience of rooftop tents.
To help you decide for yourself, you’ll want to consider how frequently you camp, your budget, the type of vehicle you drive, where you camp, the climate, how far you plan to drive, the terrain you plan to camp on, and how you camp. You may find that one type of tent is better for your style of travel.
Either type of tent will work for any overlanding trip. People travel around the world with both setups. There is nothing that a rooftop tent can do that a ground tent can’t. That said, rooftop tents do have some limitations. For example, they only work when camping with a vehicle. Many overlanders also travel by motorcycle or bicycle these days. In this case, a ground tent is the only option. Whichever style of tent you choose, hopefully, this guide has helped you decide.
Where do you stand on the rooftop tent vs ground tent debate? 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 incites 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.