Rooftop tents are more and more popular especially with people looking at travelling more and wanting something that is simple and easy to put up.
Rooftop tents are worth buying if you want the camping experience without having the hassle of putting up a normal tent. Rooftop tents are a worthwhile alternative to motorhomes, campervans and caravans. Rooftop tents aren’t worthwhile if you are unable to climb ladders or don’t like staying up high.
In this article we are going to go through the different advantages and disadvantages of rooftop tents along with reasons why we think rooftop tents are worth buying.
What Is A Rooftop Tent?
A rooftop tent is a camping solution designed with driving and touring in mind. Typically a rooftop tent comprises canvas or other tent sheet material and a pole erection system, all of which attaches to the roof bars on your vehicle.
Rooftop tents tend to be designed with the rugged outdoors environment in mind, and as a result, are mostly made from more robust materials than your average ground camping tents.
As they are specifically designed to be driven to a camping location weight isn’t as great of a consideration as it would be for activities such as hiking, cycling, and kayaking.
Rooftop tents were first introduced to the market in the late 1950s as a fairly targeted niche product, although more prosaic examples existed as early as 1937. Originally known as ‘Maggiolina’, and ‘air-camping’ tents, the Italian invention was a reaction to changing market trends in travel.
Personal car ownership was booming, both post-war intranational and international travel were growing, and existing hospitality options were becoming busier year on year.
The horror and suffering of war were receding from the popular psyche, many countries (outside of the Soviet bloc) had shaken off the yoke of food rationing, and economies were starting to benefit from an international cash injection.
The combination of all these circumstances meant the market was ripe for vehicle touring solutions, and as a result the rooftop tent was born. People were still wary of the unknown aspects of other countries and were concerned about the dangers of sleeping on the floor in unfamiliar territories.
The simple, and yet oddly complicated to apply solution was to raise tents off the floor by balancing them on the roof of cars. Right from the off rooftop tents took advantage of roof bars on vehicles to balance a tents weight across the roof of the vehicle.
Over the years the basic design and principles haven’t really changed all that much. Almost all tents balance on car roofs by using the cantilever principle; part of the tent overhangs the edge of the vehicle, supported by upright poles or a ladder, using the weight of the tent on top of the vehicle to act as a kind of seesaw, preventing the overhanging part from tilting over.
This has the benefit of maximising space usage and comfort whilst keeping you as far off the ground as possible; this makes keeping warm as well as safe from creepy crawlies and some wild animals a doddle.
Strictly speaking almost any car can be fitted with roof bars and a rooftop tent (naturally this excludes soft tops, some kit cars, and other strange concept designs). But there are many pitfalls and considerations to take into account.
All roof bars have a limit to the amount of weight they can support while the vehicle is in motion, but as the weight on roof bars is spread across the frame of the vehicle when it is stationary they can take a lot of weight when parked.
With that in mind, it is of course entirely possible to erect a rooftop tent on top of a Fiat 500 or a Suzuki Swift, as examples, but it is not recommended, and you certainly shouldn’t transport the rooftop tent on the roof bars while driving!
How Much Are Rooftop Tents?
The most common price range for rooftop tents is between £1,000 – £2,000, with a lot of variance in between. Prices fluctuate based on quality, size, and berths (number of people they can accommodate), as well as brand recognition.
If you are purchasing a rooftop tent for the purpose of touring UK campsites in fair weather then you need to worry less about structural quality and ruggedness than an adventurous desert explorer for example, and can afford to scrimp on the quality.
On the other side, if you need something more durable then you should expect to pay more for that premium.
The cheapest rooftop tent in the UK is the Ventura Deluxe 1.4, at £749.00. This gets you a 2-3 berth tent suitable for 4×4 vehicles, pick-up trucks, vans and trailers.
This price is discounted, and it is usually sold for £1,200.00, however it has been on sale for the best part of a year. The manufacturer is currently facing a shortage, and is offering a further £100 discount for pre-orders during the shortage period. The next prices closest to the Ventura Deluxe are £850.00 and £909.00 respectively.
The top of the price range, unless you are buying from expensive dealers, is the iKamper Skycamp 2.0 roof tent, at £2,845. The iKamper Skycamp is a 3-4 berth expandable hardshell rooftop tent, made from extremely durable materials. It can sleep a family of two adults and two children, or three adults in comfort.
It features a cantilever design supported by a ladder, and the material construct uses air-insulation to keep the tent as warm as possible (in layman’s terms, that simply means there is an air-gap between two pieces of material). The floor is constructed of honeycomb aluminium panels, and the materials used to make it suitable for four-season camping.
As with any large or expensive purchase there are multiple factors that determine value for money. Think very hard about how you intend to use the rooftop tent, where you wish to use it, your vehicle type, and what seasons you intend to camp during.
Once you have considered all of those factors it is a case of deciding how much you want to spend, and how much store you set by quality of materials.
A good factor in regards to buying rooftop tents is that the market is generally defined by quality, size, and purpose, rather than branding. Of course there is a small element of buying a name, but the market relies so much on word of mouth that there is little point in a company overpromising and underselling.
How Many People Can You Fit In A Rooftop Tent?
The amount of people that can sleep in a rooftop tent is expressed in berths, the same way that normal tents and caravans work. Typically berths range from 2-4, purely based on size. Like with a hiking tent the number of berths relates to the number of people who can sleep ‘comfortably’ in a rooftop tent.
This is always subjective, and you can always find horror stories of people buying 3 berth tents and being squeezed for space with three people.
Bear in mind that manufacturers define berths by different interpretations of the ‘average’ person’s dimensions, and they don’t account for people trying to fit camping gear and equipment in the same floor space.
Purely in terms of weight the limit that can sleep in a rooftop tent is the same as the limit that can sit inside of a car, seeing as the weight distribution is managed the same.
If this sounds counterintuitive then you are possibly picturing people sitting or lying on the roof of a car without the benefits of load-spreading roof bars. The weight distribution means that it is shared out as if people were sitting inside the car; unless you make a conscious effort to bash the roof from outside of the tent you are highly unlikely to dent it.
The largest rooftop tent that money can buy is the GentleTent Sky Loft, which can sleep an impressive berth of up to five people!
It achieves this by using an inflatable pole structure and spreading the weight load over three roof bars laterally crossing the roof of a vehicle (running sideways rather than lengthways).
This rooftop tent isn’t designed for small vehicles, and can only be used with large SUVs and vans. This rooftop tent is so large that it is divided into two rooms, and can roll down it’s fabric sides to create a conservatory-like effect with outstanding all around views.
Large rooftop tents like the Sky Loft are not the norm. You should realistically expect to find rooftop tents that accommodate berths of 2-4 people, and most of those will be a squeeze if at capacity. Make sure you take into account the size of your car when deciding on the right berth for you.
Are Rooftop Tents Worth It?
If you are looking at getting into serious touring and camping then you should absolutely consider buying a rooftop tent. They allow such a degree of freedom that simply beats traditional caravanning and touring.
A rooftop tent has advantages over caravan terms of its versatility. Travelling by ferry and the Eurotunnel is both far simpler and less expensive as you don’t have to pay any extra for it.
They are also much less obtrusive; people are far less likely to frown upon a vehicle in a layby with an erected rooftop tent in a remote area than they would if someone was staying in a caravan for example. It’s possible to do with looking less like illegally occupying land than someone staying in a caravan.
A perfectly reasonable question is whether a rooftop tent is better than a traditional ground-based tent cannot also achieve.
In short, yes, A rooftop tent has some major advantages over a traditional tent. A rooftop tent is usually far quicker and easier to pitch than a ground tent.
Most of them simply fold out and have a pole or ladder inserted to prop it up, rather than faffing around wirth poles, pegs, and groundsheets with a ground tent. Ground tents also normally need a flat surface to be pitched on, which is not always a necessary factor for a rooftop tent, as the vehicle provides the flat base.
Anyone who has pitched a ground tent on a likely looking area at night only to realise too late that they have pitched on a rock, hard tuft of grass, or a mound will know the benefits of having a perfectly flat base to sleep on.
Not having to pitch the rooftop tent on muddy and wet ground also makes the rooftop tent easier to clean and maintain over time.
Almost all rooftop tents allow you to keep the bedding in place, simply rolling or folding it up with the tent as you disassemble it for ease of transit. With a traditional ground tent all bedding needs to be rolled or folded away and stored in either a bag or vehicle.
The one area where rooftop tents provide something that cannot be provided by a traditional ground tent is the protection from creepy crawlies. By raising the sleeping surface very high off the ground you are protected significantly from most ground-based insects, bugs, and bacteria.
Not only that, but you are also protected from most small wild animals, giving you a much more secure feeling. Things that go bump and moo in the night are far less concerning when you have the advantage of height.
Rooftop tents do have some disadvantages when compared to traditional ground-based tents, however. One example is that they are far less stable in high winds.
This doesn’t mean that the rooftop tent is going to be blown off the roof, but any sleepers are going to be severely buffeted by high winds. This is a simple truth for anything that is raised from the ground on a suspension system.
By contrast, most but not all ground-based tents are designed with wind shearing in mind, and as long as they are pitched into the wind they do this job well. Not only that, whilst a tent may move and sway in the wind, the person lying on the ground won’t be moving with it; it will be loud, but you won’t run the risk of waking up seasick.
Another disadvantage when compared to camping in a ground tent is the potential for space and berths. With a rooftop tent you are limited to four, or at best five berths.
Ground-based camping does not have these limitations, allowing you to purchase and pitch tents of much larger berths. Also, family tents will generally have a lot more space for storage and general camping activities than a rooftop tent, as a result of their greater floor space.
Other downfalls of rooftop tents over ground tents are the cost and storage issues. Even base model rooftop tents tend to be more pricey than expensive ground tents.
This is because you are buying into a relative niche market, with all of the expenses that demand and supply entail, and also because you are having to pay for more complicated research, development, and engineering, as well as occasionally more amounts of material.
Rooftop tents are generally larger than ground tents, and as such take up more space in storage when you are not touring. Not only that, when it is affixed to the roof of your car you lose the use of that space for luggage and specialist equipment like bikes and kayaks. This means they need to be stored somewhere else both during transit and at your camping location.
Rooftop tents are great for adventurous couples and small families, due to the space premium. Any family unit larger than the nuclear family of two adults and two children will struggle with a rooftop tent. But for a small family unit they are a great solution for holidaying both close to home and abroad.
It has to be said that rooftop tents aren’t particularly suitable for people with mobility issues. Staying in a rooftop tent requires the ability to climb a ladder, which precludes them from people who are unable to achieve this.
That does not necessarily mean they aren’t suitable for all elderly or mobility challenged people, as there are plenty of people within those groups who are perfectly capable of enjoying rooftop tent camping.