Bolting a roof top tent for a 4WD is not something new. People have been doing it for years, and when you see thousands of 4WD’s in Australia with roof top tents on, you know they’ve got to have some merit.
However, like anything, they aren’t perfect and there are lots of downsides to roof top tents too.
Does it suit your style of travel? Is your vehicle suitable for a roof top tent? What’s a good roof top tent? How do you mount a roof top tent? Read on below and you’ll soon find out!
What’s great about roof top tents?
You’re away from animals
If you aren’t a fan of spiders and bugs, a roof top tent can be very appealing. Sleeping high up in the air means you have to deal with far less, or none of them. Bugs can still get onto, and into your tent but there tends to be less of them, especially spiders and slower moving, ground dwelling creatures.
More importantly, you are away from other animals that might cause you problems. Snakes for one, and in the top end of Australia, big salt water crocodiles. There’s certainly a level of comfort taken from being out of reach of some of Australia’s less pleasant animals.
Whilst it is possible to camp in salt water crocodile country on the floor, its recommended you have a significant distance from the water, and you still wouldn’t be the first person attacked in the middle of the night.
When you are 2 metres off the ground in a roof top tent the chances of this happening are basically none.
They are quick to setup
Many roof top tents are super fast to setup. Some are quicker than others, but most of them can be ready to sleep in within 5 minutes. A lot of them allow for your bedding and pillows to be left in place, so all you have to do is pop them up and crawl into bed.
That said, roof top tents can be time consuming and tedious, depending on what you get, and how much access you have to put it up and pack it away.
They are comfortable and easy to use
Roof top tents are also very comfortable, and easy to use. With a good quality mattress, decent windows and plenty of ventilation they can be comfortable in almost all of the weather you’ll get in Australia.
If they weren’t comfortable and easy to use people wouldn’t be bolting 50 + kg of tent on their roof racks!
The ground can be rough and uneven
When you camp in a normal tent, you need to find somewhere that is level and relatively smooth. This rules out camping on rocky or muddy terrains, and limits your camping options considerably.
With a roof top tent, providing you can get the vehicle level, you can camp on a rocky creek crossing, or over the top of a puddle if you really need; there’s no ground tent issues to concern you!
You can camp with a smaller footprint
For the camping that most 4WD owners do, you are always with your vehicle. When you camp in a roof top tent though, you only need enough space for your vehicle, and that’s it.
There’s no need to find another suitable place to set a tent or swag up on the floor, as you already have one on your vehicle!
What’s not so great about roof top tents?
Fuel economy losses
There’s no denying that making the aerodynamics worse on your 4WD is going to cost you in fuel. Even roof racks will make your car use more fuel, and roof top tents aren’t exactly the smallest things.
You can get some pretty slim line ones, but the majority of the taller (around 30 – 40cm) units are going to cost you a lot of money in fuel.
Consider 2L/100km to be pretty normal, with big variances depending on your motor and vehicle.
You’ve got to pack it up to move
You can’t drive around with your roof top tent up. This means every time you want to move your vehicle more than a couple of metres, you have to put the tent down and pack it away.
Now, for some tents, that’s a 2 minute job and you just latch it down, but for others it might take you 5 or 10 minutes, and the removal of bedding if its required.
Think about how often you jump in your car to get some firewood, head to the beach for a fish, go out for the day or what ever it might be. Every time you do this, you have to fold your tent up.
Increased centre of gravity
Roof top tents aren’t light. Putting 45 – 100kg on your roof (roof racks excluded) is going to alter the way your vehicle handles dramatically.
Not just for slow, low range driving when you hit some nasty side angles, but for fast corners too. The more weight up high, the more chance your 4WD is going to end up on its side, or lid at some point in time.
You need to park level
If you’ve ever spent a night sleeping on a bed that tilts, you might have already learnt this lesson.
If it tilts to the side a bit, or your feet down a bit you get away with it, but sleeping with your head pointing down is a recipe for disaster and you’ll probably wake with a thumping headache as you upset the blood flow.
I’m not sure if its easier to find a flat, suitable tent site or a site that you can make your vehicle sit flat in, but either way you want to get it right. One advantage of a vehicle tent is that you can just drive onto a rock where its down lower, and you are set!
They can cost a fortune
Roof top tents start off at about $800, and then work their way up from there. If you are looking for a high end roof top tent, you can be paying about 5k, and that’s working its way into camper trailer money!
Excessive wind can be unpleasant
Camping in heavy wind is never much fun, but it can be even worse in a roof top tent as you are higher up, the vehicle can rock and you are far more exposed.
I’ve seen people pull their roof top tents down in the middle of the night at Exmouth because the vehicle was constantly rocking, the tent was flapping and they were afraid it was going to break.
You need a suitable rated roof and racks
If you haven’t read our post on roof rack ratings, you need to. Before you even think about purchasing a roof top tent, you need to carefully investigate the rating of the vehicles roof, and the rating of the racks that you are intending to fit (on road and off road ratings).
Roof top tents are heavy, and you need a vehicle and roof rack system that is suitable to carry it. This means more money, and more work to install, but its a necessary evil.
You lose your roof racks
Something a lot of people forget about is that once you have installed a roof top tent, you’ve lost that roof storage for anything else.
That means Maxtrax, fishing rods, solar panels, LPG bottles and anything else you might normally carry up there has to be re-homed, and that can be a bit of a challenge.
You can’t stand up inside
I’ve never seen a roof top tent tall enough for someone to stand up inside. That means you cannot get changed standing up, and makes for an entertaining shuffle as you pull your pants on and off. It’s not the end of the world, but it is something you should think about.
They are harder to get in and out of than a normal tent
To get into a roof top tent, you have to climb up a ladder. I have seen a couple of setups where you stand on the back of the vehicle, then a step, and then the 4WD tyre into the tent, but for the most part you have to go up a ladder, and back down it when you need to exit.
You won’t see too many older people using roof top tents for this exact reason; its more difficult and takes more care. If you are someone that has to get out once a night to pee, a roof top tent is going to require you to be a bit more careful; one wrong footing and you could easily injure yourself.
If you are someone who likes a few drinks before bed, roof top tents can be an interesting adventure in finding your bed and making it safely up the ladder!
It increases roof height substantially
Roof top tents are not small. Even the most slim roof top tent is going to be about 150mm tall, and that doesn’t even consider the roof racks.
This extra height not only affects fuel economy as we touched on above, but it physically restricts where you can drive, and park.
If you do a lot of 4WDing, you’ll find the roof top tent is more likely to get damaged on side angles when you are leaning towards a tree. It also means you probably won’t fit the vehicle in your garage at home, or the car parks in the city where they have a maximum height restriction.
Roof top tent construction/type
Soft shell roof top tent
The original style roof top tent folded out 180 degrees, and had a soft cover over the top when you packed it away. These are the cheapest style, and tend to be quite bulky. They are also the cheapest, and possibly the most common.
Clamshell or hard shell roof top tent
From there, you move to the clamshell and hard shell roof top tents. These generally run fibreglass covers, and seal in a relatively solid box when packed away.
The clamshell roof top tents tend to only open about 45 degrees, or some of them open 45 degrees in both directions so rather than ending up with a triangle shaped tent, you still get the full height the whole way across.
Pop up hard shell roof top tent
The last type of roof top tent is still a hard shell, but the tent just pops up in a vertical manner. This means that the tent size is literally the clam shell size as there is no expansion except upwards.
Other roof top tent choices
Mechanical or Electric
Some roof top tents run electric actuators, in that you undo the latches (don’t forget) and press a button and they open up themselves. The alternative is a mechanical setup using gas struts, or just relying on muscle to set them up entirely.
2 or 4 people
In the past, you were limited to only two people in a roof top tent. Today though a number of manufacturers make them to sleep up to 4 people, which means it is possible to sleep a family in a roof top tent!
Who makes roof top tents?
Going back 10 years ago there were only a handful of roof top tent manufacturers, and the difference between low quality and high quality was less.
Today, you can buy tents from more places than you can poke a stick at and the prices very from cheap to eye wateringly expensive. Starting at the bottom price wise, and working up, we have:
Adventure Kings, XTM, Dune, Camp Boss, 23Zero, Yakima, Darche, Thule, Dometic, TJM, Ironman, Ocam, ARB, Ikamper, Drifta, Alucab, Motop, Bundutec, James Baroud.
Kings roof top tents are one of the cheapest options, and there are a huge number of people running them too.
What should you look for in a roof top tent?
If you are eyeing off a roof top tent, there’s a few things you should think about before making the purchase:
I hate having excess weight up high, and the weight of a roof top tent is my first priority.
There are some pretty nifty designs out there today that have managed to keep the weight down as much as possible, but the idea of having 70kg of roof top tent plus 50kg of roof racks on the roof is not appealing to me, and it shouldn’t be to you either. On that note, have a read of this: Roof Rack weight limit.
Setup time and difficulty
Before you buy any roof top tent, make sure you’ve physically set it up yourself. This way you know not only how long it takes, but how easy it is to do.
Have a think about how it will be in the bush too; if you have a soft cover roof top tent that is dirty, and you have to work your way all the way around the tent while balancing on the edge of your 4WD are you going to get covered in dirt and muck?
Some roof top tents today are so quick, easy and clean to setup that its almost hard to believe in comparison to the older styles.
You don’t need a huge tent to sleep in. At the same time, you need enough to be comfortable and to match the number of people sleeping in it, and getting changed etc. Climb in, have a poke around and make sure you are happy with the width, length and height.
Some people feel claustrophobic in smaller places, and getting a tent that isn’t big enough is not going to end well.
If you are tall, like me, make sure you can lay down properly without your feet hitting the canvas, or head poking out the door
Mattress thickness and quality
I’ve said it many times; a good camping mattress will make or break your trip. If you are sleeping on a 40mm piece of foam, you are not going to have a good nights sleep.
Mattress thickness and quality can be subjective, but it needs to feel comfortable for you. Please know you can get mattress toppers that are quite popular and will take an average bed and make it decent.
Depending on when, and where you are camping you are going to want some decent ventilation. On a warm summers night there’s nothing better than a gentle breeze coming in one window and going out the other.
If it starts to rain, do you have to put all of the windows up or is there some form of protection against it?
Ventilation is hugely important for condensation too, as you’ll find a significant amount of moisture will build up inside any tent without the right air flow. Take the air flow away and you’ll wake up to drops of moisture landing on your head!
Speak to people who have the tent you are looking at. With social media today this is super easy to do, and you can get real feedback from those that use the product.
Ask what they like, and what they don’t; you’ll almost always find things that you didn’t think about that might change the direction of roof top tent you take.
YouTube almost always has tutorials and reviews on these products, and as long as they aren’t sponsored and biased you can get a pretty good idea about what you are looking at.
What can you shut inside?
One of the hugely important factors when choosing a roof top tent is how much space is left inside the tent when you close it up. Some allow you to leave your bedding and pillows in place, along with a few clothes as needed.
Some allow you to leave nothing inside except the mattress, and that’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow due to the constant relocation of your sleeping gear. Climbing up and down a ladder with something you need to keep clean is a right pain in the backside.
Electrical outlets and lights
Many people want roof top tent lights and a couple of USB outlets, but this isn’t a standard fitment on a lot of roof top tents.
The high end ones will come with it straight off the bat, but the cheaper ones you’ll need to do some DIY work. You can run power to the tents fairly easily, but keep it out of the way, and waterproof!
Rooftop tent attachments
There’s a heap of different attachments that you can get, which marry into the roof top tent. Have a good think about awnings, where the ladder is going to go up, whether you want another room at the bottom of the roof top tent and so forth.
Roof top tent installation requirements
How are you going to mount the roof top tent? Does it have brackets that you can easily move around to suit your existing roof rack, or are you going to have to change the roof racks around to suit the tent? Are your roof racks, and the roof of the vehicle itself actually rated for the weight on road, and off road?
Aerodynamics and weight distribution
A roof top tent is going to hurt your aerodynamics. There’s no question about it. However, where you install it can play a big role in how much. In general, the further back the tent is mounted the less drag it will create. However, think about where the weight is in your 4WD.
For dual cab Utes that are heavily loaded, you are better off with the tent on the cab of the vehicle so the weight is more evenly distributed (as the rear is almost always heavier).
Do not tie the cab and tray together with roof racks, or a roof top tent as they need to move independently of each other!
Solar panel options
If you are wanting to go down the solar panel route, where are you going to put it? For portable panels (blankets and folding ones) you’ll have no issues, but if you want a fixed panel that always feeds charge in you may have to be a bit more innovative.
I’ve seen people build slides under their roof racks which allow panels to pull out, or you can glue the semi flexible ones onto the top of a hard shell roof top tent. Allow for proper ventilation, secure it as per the manufacturers instructions and you’ll be just right.
Where and how to mount a roof top tent
The most common place for a roof top tent is as per its name; on the roof! However, you can mount them on trailers, over the top of boat trailers, on top of a Ute Tub or anywhere else that is suitable.
It’s imperative that they are secured properly, positioned well for weight distribution and rated for their location.
You can pay for a shop to install them for you, or do it yourself, but make sure its done perfectly or you might end up with a roof top tent on your bonnet (like has happened many times) or worse.
My advise is to keep these as low as possible, and to mount them to solid racks that are rated for the weight, and a roof that is rated for both the weight of the roof racks and the tent.
You need to check this very carefully, as you wouldn’t be the first person to have a tent come off their roof racks, and that’s a major problem.
Ideally you want them attached to racks that are no more than 100mm off your roof. This keeps the centre of gravity down, reduces wind resistance and will make your vehicle handle better.
Roof top tents are a great option
There’s a reason so many people use roof top tents. They bring a lot of different benefits together, and the downsides are reasonable for many. If you are considering your next 4WD Camping setup, a roof top tent is a brilliant option to weigh up.