Roof Top Tent 101: The Nuts and Bolts Overlanding Basics
Are you new to the world of rooftop tents? Don’t know where to start? Good news - you have all the information you need.
Rooftop tents mount to your vehicle’s roof rack. They’re the best way to camp - set up in less than a minute, sleep on a level surface and stay away from insects.
What type of roof top tent suits you? Should you get a hard or soft shell? How can you secure your tent from theft? What about storage? Roof racks? Waterproofing? Bears?
Read on - to answer all your questions!
Roof Top Tent Basics
Let’s explore some fundamentals for starting your roof tent overlanding journey.
Hard Vs. Soft Shell
The two types of RTTs are softshell and hard shell.
A bit about hard shells:
- They have a hard outer shell which makes up the roof and floor. The shell is usually aluminum or fiberglass.
- They’re easy to set up. Some open using a motor, others have gas-struts or hand cranks. Some take less than 30 seconds to open fully.
- Look more like your standard ground tent.
- Come with a waterproof rainfly.
- Open with a folding or pull-up mechanism.
Pros and Cons
Unsure which is best for you? Here are a few things to consider:
- Weather – hard shells are generally better suited to tough weather conditions. That’s not to say that softshells can’t handle it. But, hard shells have a sturdy structure. They hold up well in high winds and there’s less noise of fabric flapping. Many have insulation in the floor and roof, or the option to add it later.
- Setup time – any roof tent is quicker and easier to set up than a ground tent, but hard shells win the race. Softshells can take 5-15 minutes.
- Roof storage space – a hard shell tent takes up your whole roof but softshells fold, leaving extra space. With that said, you can install crossbars on hard shell roofs to make up for it.
- Weight – softshells are usually lighter.
- Space – softshells generally sleep more people, especially since you can add an annex room.
- Gas mileage – hard shells are more aerodynamic, saving you fuel.
- Solar power - it’s easy to install solar panels on hard shell roofs.
As we said, some softshell tents have an optional annex. To use the annex for sleeping, you need a groundsheet like any other ground tent. Some annexes come with a groundsheet, like the Eezi-Awn XCLUSIV. Its largest size is a 4 person roof top tent.
If you buy a tent without the annex and decide to add one later, make sure it’s compatible with your model.
Before your Overlanding excitement gets the better of you, make sure you get the right tent for your vehicle. You need to consider:
- Roof rack weight limits and styles – is your roof rack able to support an RTT? Do you need an upgrade? If so, which roof rack can support which tents? Which type of attachments do you need to fit the rack to your roof?
(Yakima makes roof racks that work with any vehicle, specially designed for vehicle top tents. If you have rain gutters, flush rails, or any other setup, they have a solution).
- Tent dimensions – how many people do you want to sleep inside? How big is your roof surface? Do you need an annex to accommodate extra people?
- Weight limits for your vehicle – what are the static and dynamic weight capacities? What about your off-road limit?
All the information about weight limits should be in your vehicle’s documentation. If not, ask the manufacturer.
The static weight capacity is the maximum weight your vehicle can support when it’s not moving. The dynamic weight capacity is the maximum weight it can support while driving. Finally, an off-road limit exists for every vehicle which is lower than the usual dynamic limit. If you’re planning some remote off-road trips, definitely check that out.
Once you’ve spent a few minutes gathering these details, you’re ready to look at your tent options!
Secure Your Tent From Theft
Ways to protect your tent from theft:
- Lock your tent to the roof rack – use security nuts that can’t be unscrewed with a standard spanner. Tent manufacturers supply these. You can also use lockable straps.
- Lock your roof rack to your car – Yakima roof rack locks do the job nicely – you need a key to open them.
- Insurance – check if your home or auto insurance covers it. If not, get separate insurance.
Secure Your Tent From Bears
Bears and other animals have only one reason to visit your camp – food. Being in a roof tent doesn’t automatically protect you from bears – you need to follow the same precautions you would if camping in a ground tent.
If you haven’t stayed in bear country before, here are some quick tips:
- Don’t store food or scented products in or near your tent. Store them in bear cans at least 100 feet from your camp.
- Store all trash and food waste in bear cans.
- Don’t use scented toiletries.
- Prepare food away from your tent so the scent of food doesn’t linger. Wash all cutlery and plates straight away.
- Don’t wipe your hands on your clothes and don’t sleep in clothes you prepared food in. Store those clothes separate from your tent.
- Don’t camp close to trees – bears can climb.
- Bring a deterrent – flashing lights, a way to make a loud noise (like pots and pans or a horn). For longer-term camping, placing bells around your camp alerts you to any intruding bears. At the same time, it encourages the bear to go elsewhere because they don’t like the noise.
- If a bear is about to attack – which is rare – bare spray will temporarily affect their vision and breathing, giving you time to escape. (It doesn’t cause permanent harm).
The same principles apply for cougars – they’re interested in food, not humans. Keep your camp free of the scent of food and toiletries and be prepared with a deterrent – like bears, cougars don’t like flashing lights or loud noises.
Where do you store a car-top tent? Some overlanders keep their tent attached to their roof all year but this isn’t ideal for fuel-efficiency.
When the camping trip/season is over, take it off your roof rack until next time. Store it a few inches off the ground so no moisture gets in. Small amounts of moisture can do great damage, causing mold and rot to devour your tent like a hungry beast.
Storing at a height prevents rats, mice, and other creatures from visiting soft shell tents.
How to Store Your Tent Off Ground
- Beams, bricks, or a pallet - use them to create space between your tent and the ground. Clear space, layout the supports and place your tent on top.
- Lean it against a wall - ensure it’s securely supported and the edge isn’t touching the ground. You could install wall brackets instead.
- A hoist system – our jeep tent top tip – or for any other tall vehicle, especially if you mount and unmount your tent often. It hangs in your garage above your vehicle and you raise and lower it with a pulley system.
Before installing, locate the ceiling joists - they’ll support the weight. Don’t install mounting brackets anywhere else – the last thing you want is your tent tumbling down onto your car – or worse – a person. For safe installation, get professional advice about your property.
After a trip, it’s a good idea to take the mattress out for a few days before storing it, letting the underside breathe. In summer, protect your tent from warm, humid conditions. Keep it in a shaded, well-ventilated area.
If you have a van roof tent or another tall vehicle setup, consider vertical storage space. You need a place to dry your tent – an easy way is to open it while it’s still attached. Is your garage ceiling high enough for your vehicle plus an opened tent?
If not, make sure you can dry it elsewhere – this is essential. If space is limited, a truck rack tent may work best on the truck bed instead of the cab.
How to Stay Dry
Your comfort levels will plummet if your tent gets wet. Sleeping in a leaky tent on a soggy mattress is hardly enjoyable. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen with vehicle top tents. Ground tents are made with low-quality material that is not always waterproof. Sleeping in a ground tent means relying on the rainfly.
Polycotton is a common roof rack tent fabric. Cotton is breathable and polyester provides waterproofing. RTTs often have waterproof coatings like Teflon, aluminum, or polyurethane.
Tents leak if the zips aren’t waterproof. Good quality tents have waterproof zips and extra waterproof sealant at the seams, like the TentBox Classic Hardshell.
Water can get into softshell tents in-transit, so make sure the cover is sealed when you’re on the road.
Do You Need to Waterproof Your Tent?
Any material can lose its waterproof properties over years of use. While you don’t need to waterproof your roof rack tent, you can go the extra mile to keep it in the best condition.
Cheap ways to waterproof a tent:
- Lightly spray polycotton tents with water before their first use. The stitching has small gaps – spraying makes the thread expand and tightens the weave, enhancing its waterproofing. This step is especially important if you’re going to camp in rain or snow.
- Use waterproofing spray like Fabric Guard (it’s also stain-proof).
- Use waterproofing wax.
Use Fabric Guard or wax once per season. If you camp a lot, use it more often.
Waterproof, water-resistant, and water-repellant – what’s the difference?
- Water-resistant – the lowest level of protection. The material can resist water, but not fully.
- Water-repellent – the next level up, water-repellent materials usually have been treated with coatings. Water beads on the surface of water-repellent materials.
- Waterproof – completely blocks water.
Watch out for these terms when you look at tent material so you get something fully waterproof. Luckily, this isn’t a problem with most RTTs. (But it could be for cheap knock-offs).
Even with high-quality waterproof material and extra waterproofing techniques, the battle is not over – you need to prevent condensation.
How to Prevent Condensation
For your comfort (and to prevent mold), follow these steps.
- Anti-condensation mats - placed between the mattress and floor, these mats improve air circulation. Your tent may already have one – if not, find one that fits.
- Store wet items outside – put wet clothing, towels, and shoes outside or in your vehicle.
- Buy a well-ventilated tent – the best tent for ventilation is one with multiple, large windows like the Overland Pros Anza 1400 Extreme Edition. You can zip down all four outer walls for the ultimate ventilation.
- Open windows – keep air flowing during the day and if possible, at night.
- Remove the rainfly if it’s not going to rain - condensation can build between the rainfly and tent roof so if there’s an opportunity to remove it, do.
- Avoid camping near lakes and rivers - as we said, the air is humid near any water source.
- Park in a breezy area – unless you need shelter, set up camp where a breeze can flow through the windows.
- Get a fan – Battery-operated or solar-powered, hanging fans are a great defense against moisture.
- Don’t cook inside – if you have an annex, you might be tempted to prepare food inside during bad weather. Avoid that temptation – cooking releases lots of moisture (it’s not the safest practice either).
- Get a dehumidifier – How many people will sleep in the tent? What will the weather be like? These questions help you work out how humid it will be and how powerful a dehumidifier you need.
Check the specs to see how much moisture each dehumidifier can extract. One liter of vapor per person due to breathing – aim for at least that amount. The cheaper (less effective) option is dehumidifier bags.
Following these steps will keep you dry in most situations. With that said, keep spare towels to hand, just in case. If needed, gently wipe away condensation and get as much air flowing as possible.
How to Stop Condensation in Winter
In winter, condensation forms as frost or water droplets. What are you supposed to do if it’s too cold to sleep with windows or vents open? What if you’re using a heater? How can you prevent condensation in this scenario?
Try sleeping with the vents or windows open. We all tolerate cold to different extents so judge what’s comfortable for you. In the extreme cold, this isn’t viable so you need another strategy.
Invest in high-quality sleeping bags. The more insulation they provide, the more chance you can open vents without feeling cold. Sleeping bag liners boost warmth by up to 10° C.
Placing hot water bottles or hand warmers inside your bedding is an alternative – the heat contributes to condensation but with the extra warmth, you can open the vents. With that said, the heat generated reduces through the night so they’re not sufficient in all climates.
Whatever tent you have, the best you can do in the extreme cold is limit condensation – not prevent it entirely. Sometimes, it’s too cold to go without heating and you’ll have to do your best to dry your tent the next day.
A few more precautions:
- Leave the snow outside – obvious as it sounds, take extra care that all your belongings and clothing are snow-free when you enter.
- Don’t breathe into your sleeping bag – if you do, moisture will build up. This increases the air humidity since moisture can’t escape so easily.
- Air out the tent – when changing location, give yourself time in the morning to open all the windows and let it ventilate before packing up.
- Dry bedding in the sun – on a sunny morning, remove your bedding and let it dry outside.
If condensation forms as frost inside your tent, make sure you scrape it off into a container and throw it outside before it melts.
Caring For Your Tent
Look after your SUV roof tent to maximize its lifespan. Here’s how:
Prevent Mold and Mildew
When manufacturers treat tents for mold and mildew, they can’t account for every strain. Caring for your tent correctly reduces the chance of fungus developing.
Some manufacturers don’t include mold and mildew growth in their warranty terms so it’s important to keep on top of it.
Always let your tent dry before storing it. Never skip this step and assume your tent is dry enough – remember, your breath alone increases moisture levels.
If you have a soft shell tent and it’s been raining, the rainfly can transfer water onto the tent fabric in-transit. Even if you think it’s dry, small amounts of moisture can transfer this way, so it’s better to be too cautious than negligent.
A hardshell tent requires the same precautions – on the plus side, there’s less surface area for mold to develop.
Keep It Clean
Keeping your tent clean prevents mold. After your trip, brush off any debris and clean off dirt with a sponge and tepid water. Next, leave it to air out for a few days in a dry place.
Vinegar damages canvas, netting, and polyurethane coating. Regardless of your tent’s body fabric, remember - vinegar is a caustic substance. No matter how weak it seems, it’s corrosive. It might not do immediate damage but with repeated use, you never know. For uncoated tents, it’s okay to use vinegar for cleaning off the mold.
Before storing your soft shell tent, ensure there are no holes in the fabric cover.
Never store a wet tent. Ensure your tent is 100% dry before packing up and always store it in a cool, dry place.
Polyurethane coating wears out after years of use. An unpleasant smell is a sign the coating is breaking down. A visible sign that it’s time to refresh your waterproof coating (polyurethane or another type) is when it’s flaking.
If you’re not sure, spray the tent to check if it leaks. Notice if water forms beads on the outside or if it seeps through. Make sure you spray the seams – they’re the most likely parts to leak.
When it’s time to refresh, apply a seam sealant or refresh the coating - or both if needed. (Even if a small part of the seams are leaking, it’s a good idea to reproof). Make sure the products are suitable for your tent’s coating and fabric.
To reproof your tent:
- Find a dry area.
- Open your tent.
- Clean off any flaking.
- Apply product:
- Apply sealant to seams inside the tent (and rainfly, if needed).
- If refreshing the coating, follow the product instructions to apply the coating to your tent and rainfly.
- Let it dry.
Roof Rack Maintenance
It’s not just your tent you want to keep in top condition. Now and then, you need to check your roof rack.
- Shake it to see if there’s any movement. If so, tighten the bolts.
- Apply lubricant to parts from time to time.
- Never go through a carwash with a roof rack on. To give it a light clean, brush off any dirt and wipe with a wet cloth. If it needs a thorough clean, remove it first. Make sure it’s completely dry before putting your tent back on.
- Yakima recommend removing and reinstalling roof racks once per year in case long-distance travel and high winds have set them off balance.
- Check if all parts are in working order. If any parts have corroded, replace them. Make sure you get the correct parts i.e. from the same manufacturer as your roof rack.
- Check that the end caps are attached properly so that water can’t get in,
- If you’re not going to use the rack for a while, take it off and store it.
- To be really thorough, you can clean the lock cores with a silicone-based product.
How to Make Your Tent More Comfortable
By default, RTTs are more comfortable than your bog-standard ground tent. But why not take it up a notch? Here’s how.
1. Upgrade Your Mattress
For more cushioning, upgrade your mattress. The cheaper, lighter option is a standard air mattress. Higher quality mattresses like Kings inflating foam mattress is 10 cm thick and costs over $100. Some RTT manufacturers offer upgrades.
If you don’t want a new mattress, try a mattress topper. Toppers containing gel are breathable and keep you cool during summer.
Who says you have to use a sleeping bag? Unless you need insulation, why not feel at home with duvets and pillows?
As for sheets, make sure they fit the mattress – RTT mattresses aren’t the same as standard double, queen, or king sizes.
To match your overlander lifestyle, embrace minimalism inside your tent. Store belongings in the annex and keep footwear in shoe pockets – the ARB Simpson III Annex Combo comes with a set. Some tents have built-in storage netting but you can add it after if there’s a suitable place to attach it.
Unless camping under the midnight sun, you’ll want a light source. Why is this essential for roof rack tents? Because climbing down a ladder, after dark – with no lights – is not safe. Especially in wet weather. Besides, soft lighting is cozy.
Areas to light are: inside the tent, in the annex/around the ladder, and under awnings.
Are roof tents worth it? Absolutely. They’re not the cheapest tents but their quality justifies the price - especially if you’re on the road for weeks at a time.
Care for your rooftop tent and it will last years. With a durable home atop your car, you can fearlessly embrace the wild, knowing a good night’s sleep awaits you.