Alexandre Patrier [CC BY]

Do I Need a Roof Top Tent?

Overlanding and back country camping have exploded in North America over the last few years. The idea of outfitting a 4×4 vehicle and heading off into the forests, deserts, grasslands; into the places most other people have never seen is gaining a lot of traction.

The question becomes how do you spend days off grid? Do you pull a trailer, or do you want to? How about a ground tent? Throw sleeping bags in the back of the truck? Or do you get a roof top tent?

Roof Top Tents

RTT Mercedes, Virginia State Parks
RTT on Mercedes

The origins of the roof top tent are well-known in the community. Campers in Africa and Australia needed a way to protect themselves from the prolific predators and other dangerous critters roaming through the camp sites. A roof top tent mounts to a rack on top of a vehicle and is accessed by ladder. Most predators will wander past and just give the tent a sniff and a curious glance before moving on.

Here in the USA, we don’t have tigers, lions, rhinos, or a hundred different poisonous snakes, but we still have to watch for bears and cougars, and smaller critters like coyotes, or even a wolf now and then. Except for bears, most of them will avoid human contact. If you’re a regular camper, you know how to keep food hidden away to prevent a visit from a hungry bear. That just leaves smaller animals such as rodents, snakes, maybe scorpions, ants, spiders… mostly harmless but irritating nonetheless.

Ground Tent VS. RTT

The biggest comparison most people are looking at is between a roof top tent and a ground tent. If you’re just starting out, or on a budget, a ground tent is a great way to go. They aren’t very expensive- ranging from less than 50 bucks to a few hundred dollars, depending on size, quality, options, etc. Ground Tent

For $160, you can pick up a decent 3-person tent. Add a sleeping pad ($50) and a bag ($130), and you’re good to go. If you’re solo or going as a couple, there’s enough room to stash your clothes and some gear inside with you.

The problems with a ground tent can be a deal breaker for some. First, you have to find a level spot to stake it down. You need to clear the ground of any rocks, sticks, or fill in any holes that will definitely keep you from a good night’s sleep.

Also, being on the ground puts you in the same place as all the critters. I’ve read stories where people wake up to find snakes curled up under the tent, or people coming back from a hike and finding unwanted friends inside, such as a skunk…

I’ve also read about people setting up in a slight depression, only to wake up with water in their tent when it rained.

A roof top tent is significantly more expensive, but it gets around these problems. Also, you can leave your bedding in place. You don’t have to remove sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, or the pad. Just fold the tent up with all the contents and you’re good to go.

Finally, ground tents can take as long as half an hour to get set up. Most RTT’s can be finished in less than 10 minutes.

RTT Options

Roof top tents are made by several companies, including SmittyBuilt, Cascade Vehicle Tents, Tepui, Yakima, Freespirit, and many others.

You can get them in sizes ranging from one person to four+, and some come with a vestibule that serves as a secondary room or entrance. Some have a ladder inside, some outside, depending on if it’s an extended tent. Some come pre-wired with built in USB ports and LED light strips. Generally, the more you pay, the sturdier the materials. Many have a skylight built in so on a clear night you can stargaze from the comfort of your bed.

Some tents have a hard shell, like the one pictured at the top of this article. These are tough enough to ignore abuse from overhead branches and years of sun and weather exposure. These tend to be smaller though, so if you have a larger family you’ll likely stick to a soft tent, such as the CVT pictured below.

CVT Rainier 3 person with vestibule
CVT Ranier 3-person Hybrid with Vestibule

RTT Downside

Are you a roamer? Do you like to establish a base camp and then go explore the area? One of the problems with a RTT is that you can’t unpack it on your rig, then drive off and see what you can find. Or, if you have to run into town because you forgot the toilet paper, or ran out of water, you have to pack up before you can drive away. While it only takes a few minutes, it is still a hassle.

Also, if you want to come back to your site, you have to pick some of your gear to leave behind and hope someone doesn’t come along and take it, or move your stuff and claim the spot for themselves. You can get around these problems if you mount it to a rugged trailer, but that introduces other problems, like backing down a long, muddy road.

Another thing to consider is the cost. An inexpensive RTT will run about $800. Then you have to buy or build a rack that is strong enough to support the tent, and you. For a pickup, you can find a rack for a few hundred bucks, depending on options, how much weight it can support, etc. Some rack systems can cost several thousand dollars, if you want to include built-in locking boxes, mounts for rotopax (water, fuel, liquid containers), and recovery gear. They will even build in light systems if you want. Take a look at Lietner or Nuthouse Industries for the high-end rack systems.

I am looking at a high quality 3-person tent with a vestibule, and a high-end rack system for my truck. I’m expecting to pay over $6000 for the set up, not including recovery gear.

There’s also the night time potty break problem. If you’re not keen on using Gatorade bottles, you’ll have to shimmy down the ladder in the middle of the night to relieve yourself.

RTT’s are heavy. Mounting them to a vehicle isn’t easy, and it can take an hour or two, even with help. Once you get it up there, you’re not going to want to remove it, at least not very often. As such, you can think of it as a semi-permanent fixture on your rig. If you’re setting it up on your daily driver, expect a reduction in gas mileage. Also you’ll have to think about low-ceiling parking garages. Finally, if it’s a soft shell, expect to replace the cover every few years.

CVT RTT Toyota
CVT Tent and Awning on Toyota

Other RTT Camping Options

One of the advantages to a roof top tent is the unique places you can set up for the night. You may have seen a group of motor homes and RV trailers parked in a Walmart parking lot; many Walmart locations allow people to stay overnight if they have an RV. You won’t find a tent pitched there, but a roof top tent is classified as an RV in many places, so you can still set it up if you are a couple of hours away from your next destination and can’t make the drive.

Also, some parks, such as Moab, may not allow ground tents for safety reasons, but they will allow a RTT.

Is It Worth It?

Depends. For the most part, a roof top tent is a great solution. You can go anywhere with it, as opposed to lugging an RV trailer to a site just off the highway. They get you off the ground, and give you more site options.

They are expensive, however, and you can’t go for a drive after it’s set up. You can easily find a used RV for the price of a good RTT set up.

Many experienced campers have a RTT, but they also have hammocks & sleeping bags, ground tents and cots, and other options available to them, depending on the specific area they’re visiting.

I hope this has been helpful for you. If you have any questions, please contact me and I’ll get you the answers.

Happy trails!


2 thoughts on “Do I Need a Roof Top Tent?”

  1. Great article Alan! Very informative, heck I didn’t even know these existed until I saw them here! I run a camping and RV website, also. I will have to look into these some more, would really come in handy for those with cars that can’t handle towing an RV but still want to camp and not be on the ground!



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