Over the last several years, the rooftop tent has gained legions of loyal fans and until recently, it seemed like no overland vehicle was complete without one. This is not to say the popularity of the rooftop tent has waned, but it’s no longer a foregone conclusion that every overlander is best served by sleeping on the roof. How you decide which system best suits your travels requires a careful evaluation of the benefits and drawbacks of each system.
The Rooftop Tent
Rooftop tents have been around for decades with Africa and Australia the two continents most apt to use them, and understandably so. A typical African or Australian adventure involves covering lots of ground, and the quick pitch of a rooftop tent is convenient. A more compelling reason involves toothy beasts and the desire to not sleep within easy reach of them.
Beyond those obvious advantages, there are several others. Rooftop tents eliminate the late afternoon ritual of hunting around for prime tent real estate. With a roof top tent, all you really require is a level place to park, and within minutes your sleeping quarters are ready to go. Some rooftop tents are quicker to set up than others, but most are far quicker than the average expedition-grade ground tent. Taller vehicles can sometimes prolong setup time, but for the most part, a rooftop tent “pops up” with relative ease. I will say, none of them pitch with as little effort as the advertisements claim, but with practice they can be set up quickly enough.
Sleeping in a rooftop tent is––sublime. Most are fitted with a luxurious mattress that offers wall to wall sleepy bliss. Perched high above the ground, a rooftop tent is also capable of catching even the slightest breezes making summer nights arguably more comfortable than those at ground level. Many tents like those from Eezi-Awn are constructed of heavy materials which give the tent a sturdy, cabin-like feel. Ground tents are often wispy things whereas a rooftop tent feels like a proper living structure. Once tucked away in a quality rooftop tent, it’s hard not to feel safe, protected from the elements, and cradled in comfort.
Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? It is, almost. The most glaring drawback to a rooftop tent is the size and weight. These are not featherweight items to be placed so high on an already top-heavy vehicle. They’re also not exactly aerodynamic, although some like the Maggiolina are rather sleek. This means a vehicle fitted with an RTT will be less fuel efficient due to the weight and drag, and drivers will need to be mindful of how the weight displacement effects offroad handling. If your overland rig is also your daily driver, you may not want your RTT on the truck at all times, and getting even a light RTT on and off a tall roof is not exactly easy. In fact, it can be a proper pain.
A less conspicuous downside to an RTT is the fact, they really are made for sleeping––and that’s about it. If weather should confine you indoors, it’s not easy to just “hang out” in an RTT as they’re mostly just covered beds. To offset that limitation, many people fit their vehicles with awnings and additional enclosures to increase usable living space. The more complex these configurations become, the further away they get from the convenience advantages of an RTT. They also add to the weight and bulk of the overall system. Lastly, once these compound living structures are assembled, the vehicle is definitely not going anywhere. To add one final peccadillo, some overlanders quickly tire of the ladder. It’s not a big complaint, but midnight excursions for nature breaks can be a little tricky.
The oldest ruins of Mammoth skinned tents to be found by archeologists date back 40,000 years. This is to say, we humans have had ample time to design a good portable shelter. For the overlander, the options are limitless and include uber-lights that can almost fit in a glove box, and canvas tents reminiscent of those used by the likes of Burton and Speke. If you can’t find the perfect tent for your needs, you’re not looking hard enough.
The advantages of a ground tent are many fold. For starters, they offer maximum flexibility and can be moved from one vehicle to another as needed. They can be pitched away from the vehicle, which is sometimes preferred, and well, they’re at ground level. Once pitched, ground tents are easy to enter and exit and allow for a sleeping and living space all under one roof. Capable of accommodating more than two people, ground tents can be adorned with cots, chairs, tables, or any other camp comfort creating a cozy quarters. Ground tents can also be very space efficient. Some nylon tents are cavernous when pitched, but pack down to a small bundle for easy transport. If space is a premium, a tent may be the only option.
This brings us to the downsides of a ground tent. With 60 million square miles of land mass in the world, it’s amazing how hard it can be at times to find just ten square feet suitable for a tent. Then there’s set up time. Although tents like the Oztent offer almost instantaneous setup, most tents will take as many as twenty minutes to get properly deployed. That’s not a deal breaker unless you’re on a protracted journey. That twenty minutes, twice a day, starts to add up on a long voyage.
There is no perfect solution be it on your roof, or on the ground; there will be compromises with either option. The biggest deal breaker for the rooftop tent is probably going to be the height of the roof itself. This is why RTTs are such great choices for trailers. The biggest challenge with a tent is mostly going to be about setup time and effort. Each end user has to weigh the pros and cons against their individual travel needs.
Images and information provided by Equipt Expedition Outfitters