Cool Rig Dude:
You may have seen them on the highway, neatly stowed on the roof of SUVs, or on racks mounted above pickup beds, but didn’t really pay too much attention. If you have seen one set up at camp, you have likely stopped in your tracks and said, “that is so cool!”, or “what in the world is that?”
Rooftop tents are a growing craze among the adventure set, and they attract a great number of gawkers and questions from passersby. Among the first questions I always get is, “aren’t you afraid you’ll fall out?” The answer is no, it’s not actually possible to fall out. You do however need to take extra care when exiting the tent and climbing down the ladder. It’s a relatively easy maneuver. Simply unzip the door flap, sit on the edge of the open doorway, place your foot on the top rung, pivot and exit backward. After a few late-night jaunts to relieve yourself (number of trips increase with age or pre-bedtime beverages), you get the hang of it. When zipped up, you are secure, dry and elevated from any unwanted guests (disclaimer – bears probably can climb ladders, but I don’t have any picnic baskets in the tent). Basic rules still apply: never keep food in your tent, rooftop or not. It is the most comfortable sleeping arrangement I have ever experienced camping. We added a 2-inch-thick memory foam topper to the stock 2-inch-high density mattress that comes with the tent. The result makes for an incredibly cozy, plush night sleep. The added topper stays in the tent permanently, even when the tent is folded.
There are several brands of rooftop tents on the market – each with different features and price points. Our tent is the Tepui Kukenam Sky(2). Tepui is based in Santa Cruz, California. We chose this model because it was the right size for the two of us and the “Sky” designation means it has mesh windows in the roof (we live in the desert southwest and the added ventilation is very useful). As you can imagine, when the rainfly is folded back, and the roof windows are rolled open, you can stare dreamily at the dramatic view of the Milky Way. The mesh is fine enough to keep even “no-see-ums” out, but for a great view of the starry night, you’ll want to unzip and roll the mesh screen back too.
Sleeping up high has the added advantage of nice cross breezes with the flaps open. Rooftop tents are built to handle just about any kind of weather, and do remarkably well in windy conditions, and rain, but really shine on a nice breezy day. It makes for the most amazing place to take an afternoon nap or to read in comfort (with spectacular views, if you choose your site carefully). One word of caution on weather: I would not feel comfortable in a thunderstorm up there.
The biggest advantage is the ability to camp anywhere your vehicle can go (big advantage with offroad vehicles), like near a lake, river, beach or even a cliff. Just keep in mind where you are if you get up in the middle of the night. When you’re set up on the rim of the Grand Canyon, that first step may be a doozy. You’ll want to check with The Bureau of Land Management and local Ranger Stations if you plan to simply camp in the wild. You may be surprised how many places allow camping. Just be sure to pack out what you bring in.
Sure a rooftop tent allows you to camp anywhere your vehicle will take you, and sleep in incredible comfort, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. We have taken ours through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, California, Nevada and Arizona. Along the way, we have learned some things that may help you decide if it’s the right investment for you. Here are some issues to consider before purchasing a rooftop tent:
A Mounting Challenge:
Not only does your rack need to be compatible with the mounting points on the tent, it needs to be rated for the weight of you, anyone else who will be up there with you, and the tent itself (usually about 100lbs for the tent alone). There aren’t many vehicle roofs or racks that will support that weight (there are even more that will not, so do your research). Mounting the tent to my AEV branded Rhino rack(1) required custom mounting hardware. I made the hardware I needed by simply cutting four pieces of 1 ¼” steel plate from home depot, long enough to span the runners on the rack (around 8” long each, versus the 4 ½” stock plates). I then needed to drill a hole in each end to receive the mounting bolts. The hardware that comes with the tent will work with almost any rack you choose, with the unfortunate exception of the one I chose (of course). Also, there is limited space between the bottom of the rack and the roof of the vehicle.
In fact, my forearm barely fits, so using a wrench is not easy in these tight quarters. I highly recommend a ratcheting box wrench like the one pictured (available at most any hardware store). It saved me easily thirty minutes in both attaching and removing the tent. There are quick release mounts available now(3), but they are almost $300 US for a set.
You’re Gonna Carry That Weight:
The tent is not exceptionally heavy (100lbs), but it brings up another challenge: Can you and your camping partner lift 100lbs above your head and onto the roof rack of your vehicle for mounting before you leave home? This may seem simple, but I can tell you it is awkward at best and frustrating at worst. My 5”2” wife is mighty, but at her height, to deadlift one side of a large, shifting object (that weighs the same as she does) over her head, then walk up a step ladder to slide the tent on to the rack of our lifted Jeep (6’9” off the ground) is not easy, and probably not safe. The lesson learned here is be sure to have a few friends over to help you the night before you leave (send-off party at my place, B.Y.O.Gloves). It’s also good to remember as you drive, that you have an extra 100 pounds on your roof, so take it easy on the road, especially on the curves.
Once your tent is mounted on the roof, your vehicle may not fit in your garage, or any parking garage you may need to enter on your way to your destination. With the tent mounted, my rig is just a smidge over 8 feet (most rooftop tents are between 14” and 18” when stowed), and will not fit in a standard garage. This is a problem in my neighborhood where you cannot park in your driveway overnight (HOA’s are a discussion for another time).
Your Mileage May Vary:
My lifted Jeep gets about 14mpg without the tent mounted. Surprisingly, it turns out that having a giant square brick on top of your vehicle doesn’t help the aerodynamics. I end up getting about 11 or 12mpg with the tent mounted.
Wind in Your Hair:
More like wind makes it kind of hairy. Sudden wind gusts will affect how your vehicle handles with this giant brick on the top. My Jeep wasn’t designed in a wind tunnel, but this exacerbates the problem.
Is it or Isn’t it:
Some campgrounds will classify a vehicle with a rooftop tent as an RV. National parks have only allowed us to use RV sites, since most “tent sites” provide parking separate from the tent area. In many campgrounds this isn’t a problem, with sites designated RV or tent. The difference in these is only the presence of having hookups or not. One thing we learned early on: campsites are set up to exit a trailer or RV on the passenger side. With the passenger side exit in mind, mount your tent so it opens out that way. This will enable you to back in and maintain the proper orientation. Additionally, this is a tent, a very nice tent but you hear all the sounds around you in the night, so beware of camping among (or too close to) RVs. You will hear their generators run, pumps cycle, water rush, and if you’re truly cursed their televisions blaring through the night. Try to pitch camp near other tent campers instead of RVs when possible.
Set it and Fugetaboutit:
Once you’re set-up, you’re no longer mobile. If you want to drive to a trailhead or some other point of interest, you’ll need to fold up camp. The tent folds out and sets up in about 15 minutes. This includes unstrapping, folding out, setting the ladder length, adding the window awning struts and setting up your sleeping bags. Once you’re set up (especially after a long day’s drive), trust me, you will not want to fold up camp. Should you decide to fold up camp temporarily (especially if you stay in a first come, first served campground), you will want to leave something set up in your site so you don’t return to find someone else in your perfect spot.
A Level Up:
Being perfectly level isn’t as critical with a rooftop tent, like it is with an RV, but if you aren’t mostly level, sleeping can be a challenge. I carry stackable leveling blocks, that are lightweight, compact and easy to carry. Just place the blocks in front or behind the tires on the lowest ground, and drive up onto them to level out.
We love our RTT, and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It does require some planning and preparation, but in the end, we love the experience and freedom it gives us. There is a great deal of information online, but if you want to see them up close, head to your local Overland Expo(4). Overland Expo West is in Flagstaff, AZ in May, and Overland Expo East is in Asheville, NC, the end of September. Get out there!