How to Choose the Best Roof Top Tent for You

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Roof top tent, rooftop tent, or RTT… whichever way it’s written, this post is all about the camping accessory that allows you to safely and comfortably sleep on the roof of a vehicle.

Dating back as far as the 1930s, the basic concept of today’s roof top tents has, surprisingly, not changed a great deal. It’s a tent with a solid base that is mounted to the existing roof racks on your vehicle. Nowadays, there are both hard shell and soft shell variations, and with the latter, a telescopic ladder doubles as a leverage point for opening the tent up – essentially creating an easy pop-up solution!

There are many schools of thought around RTTs – some campers swear by them and others would rather spend their money on a different setup. Regardless of whether you rule in favour or against, there are a bunch of questions worth asking before you make the decision:

  • Is a roof top tent worth it?
  • What are the pros and cons?
  • Can my car support a roof top tent?
  • What should I look for & consider when buying a roof top tent?
  • What are the mounting options?
  • Hard shell or soft shell roof top tent?
  • Which roof top tent is right for me?

So, we’re going to do our best to answer some of these questions, and help you figure out how to choose the best roof top tent for you!

A black 4WD with a Foxwing awning and roof top tent set up. It's parked on green grass with trees in the background.

Darche roof top tents include the Hi-View range, the Panorama, the Intrepidor, and the Ridgeback Hard Shell in canvas and eco variations.

Is a roof top tent worth it?

There’s no point pretending otherwise, so we’re just going to tell it straight. Yep, roof top tents are an investment and the answer to whether they’re worth it is largely dependent on who you are, and what setup suits you and your adventure the most.

Depending on brand, size, features, quality, warranty, etc – roof top tents can range from $1000 to upward of $4,000. Then there are additional accessories such as annexes, racks, rails, anti-condensation mats, etc. It can all add up and before you know it, you’ve burned a serious hole in your wallet!

But, there are, arguably, more pros than cons to buying a roof top tent.

A Jeep packed on sand near the ocean with a roof top tent set up.

One of the great things about a roof top tent is they allow you to camp just about anywhere.

What are the pros & cons?

Let’s start with the pros:

  • Super-fast setup
  • They allow a safe and comfortable sleep almost anywhere
  • Off the ground – great when camping on tricky terrain, or to get away from creepy crawlies, snakes, and wild animals including crocs (excluding drop bears ;))
  • More affordable than a camper trailer, camper, or off-road van
  • The good ones can last up to 15-years
  • Having the load on top frees up space inside your vehicle
  • A great alternative to towing
  • They don’t affect your driving speed (*however, there’s a matching con)
  • The mattress and bedding can be left inside when packed away

Now the cons:

  • They’re heavy
  • They cost more than a tent or swag
  • Although driving speed is unaffected, RTTs increase drag and, therefore, fuel consumption (*this is the matching con to the driving speed pro)
  • If not mounted correctly, or if the weight exceeds your vehicle’s capacity, you risk damaging your vehicle which can be costly and will void your insurance
  • You have to pack up to move your vehicle, whereas you can leave a tent at the campsite while exploring and day tripping
  • They’re not necessarily suitable for family camping with young kids, or those with limited mobility, since there is a lot of climbing required
  • They’re best removed from your vehicle between trips so you need two people to lift it on and off, and somewhere to store the RTT when not in use
A silver SUV parked on green grass with a roof top tent set up.

Darche’s Intrepidor is the cheapest in their range and comes with a sky window for gazing at the stars.

Can my car support a roof top tent?

The most important factor to consider before buying a roof top tent is your vehicle!

Will this roof top tent fit on my roof racks?

This, or variations of it, is hands-down our most FAQ from customers. Nevertheless, despite a mountain of accumulated knowledge between the Snowys crew, we are not legally allowed to provide a definitive answer, nor can the brand of said roof top tent. The good news, however, is that a roof rack specialist like Rhino Rack, can!

You need to know the load rating of your roof racks AND your vehicle’s roof load capacity. The first, as already mentioned, can be answered by a roof rack specialist, or should be detailed in the paperwork you received when purchasing your racks. The second question regarding the roof load capacity of your vehicle should, again, be either detailed in your vehicle’s manual or contact the manufacturer.

A sneak shot taken through foliage of a man walking towards his black 4WD set up with a roof top tent and awning.

Roof top tents are heavy, so you need to make sure your vehicle and roof racks can take the weight.

The load capacity of your vehicle’s roof is the maximum weight that can physically be accommodated by the roof. It’s illegal to exceed this maximum weight capacity. To do so is not only dangerous but will also risk damage to your vehicle, and will void any insurance!

Just so we’re really clear, there are two weight capacities to be aware of. One is the maximum load your roof racks can carry, the other is the maximum load your vehicle’s roof can carry. Your roof racks will often accommodate a heavier load than your vehicle’s roof.

Be aware that the physical weight of your roof racks needs to be calculated in addition to the weight of the roof top tent, and the sum of those figures is the weight that must not exceed your vehicle’s roof load capacity.

Furthermore, if you plan to carry any additional gear on your roof – gas cylinder, jerry cans, swag, etc – the weight of these items also needs to be factored in. Triple check your GVM specifications – the Gross Vehicle Mass is the maximum allowed weight of the vehicle for driving on the road and includes passengers, cargo, etc.

A man stands on the bonnet of his Jeep unloading gear from the roof racks. He's holding a swag and about to toss it onto the ground where another swag already sits. Also on the car is a packed roof top tent.

It’s important to factor in all your cargo when calculating the total weight.

What should I look for & consider when buying a roof top tent?

  • Your budget – balance how much you are willing to spend/invest with the frequency of use
  • Sleeping capacity and how many people you need to cater for
  • What setup and style of camping do you prefer – remote, off-road/4WDing, beach, riverside, touring, family, solo, couple (this blog post and this blog post may help)
  • Dimensions – in use and packed, including low-profile/aerodynamic options
  • Weight – see the previous section, plus, ‘hard shell or soft shell’ section below
  • Mounting – more on this below
  • Features – skylights, seam sealing, mat thickness, ladder, LST (Light Suppression Technology), pre-fitted racks (for solar panels, SUPs, surfboards, recovery tracks, etc)
  • Build quality – materials, construction, components (brackets etc)
  • Waterhead rating – this varies from about 1500mm to 3000mm
  • Ventilation/condensation – windows and built-in air vents
  • Manufacturer’s warranty
  • Do you want an annex? Not all RTTs are compatible with annexes
Looking up at the night sky through the skylight of a Darche Ridgeback Hard Shell roof top tent.

What features do you want in a roof top tent?

What are the mounting options?

Here’s something that is often overlooked – you don’t have to mount a roof top tent onto the roof of your vehicle!

There are other options worth considering, especially if you are on the fence and the only thing stopping you is the thought of the daily pack down so you can drive somewhere.

Most roof top tents can be mounted on two horizontal roof rack bars, and are then fixed at four points. Therefore, mounting can also be done to a freestanding frame, a trailer, or a boat trailer, where some people weld a frame over the top. Either setup allows you to unhitch and use your car for whatever you need.

They can also be mounted to the tray of utes, whilst still leaving room for additional cargo in the tray itself. Just fix the roof rack bars to the tray walls across the width.

An additional point to note for those choosing to mount in the usual way – aka on the roof of your vehicle – is to ensure you have enough clearance for your antenna. Yep, you’d better believe it, it’s a mistake that’s been done many times before and many a curse word has ensued!

A roof top tent mounted on top of a trailer.

Roof top tents can be mounted on trailers.

Hard shell or soft shell roof top tent?

Is one better than the other? We could just about fill another pros and cons list here, but it boils down to three main considerations – cost, longevity, and weight.

Hard shell roof top tents

As their name suggests, hard shell roof top tents have a hard cover that is either constructed of fibreglass, plastic, or aluminium. They are hinged on one side and open up rather like a clamshell.

Hard shell RTTs tend to be on the heavier side which makes them more suitable for gutsier vehicles that allow for heavier loads, eg. a dual-cab ute with canopy. They also are more expensive, however, the additional weight and cost do come with perks…

They last longer, especially those with an aluminium cover and steel components! They also allow for additional roof rails where solar panels, recovery boards, SUPs, surfboards, etc, can be carried (so long as the weight of these is accounted for!). Generally, hard shells are faster to erect but not as flexible.

23Zero's Saber Hard Shell roof top tent popped open.

23Zero’s Saber Hard Shell uses gas struts to assist with opening and closing.

Soft shell roof top tents

Soft shell roof top tents are more in line with the original 1930s design and allow for a larger footprint. They are cheaper than hard shells but do not tend to have the same lifespan.

Most soft shell RTTs are of canvas construction, however, there are a few entry-level models using alternative materials, like Darche’s KOZI Series 1300 with its polyester oxford PU.

Darche Hi-View RTT set up on top of a white vehicle with annex attached.

Darche’s Hi-View 1400 is tough, durable, and compatible with the 1400 annex.

Which roof top tent is right for me?

Roof top tents are one of the most convenient ways to camp and they are perfect for those who love to get away regularly, especially going off-road.

  • If you are on a tight budget and want the most bang for your buck, go for Darche’s Intrepidor 1400, or the KOZI Series 1300
  • If you are a solo adventurer or a couple, check out the 1400 and 1600 models which are ideal for 2 people. Darche’s Hi-View and Panorama are compatible with their corresponding sized annex (separately available), as are all of 23Zero’s soft shell roof top tents
  • If wanting to maximise your fuel efficiency on the road, and your sleep-in off the road, check out 23Zero’s Stealth 1400 with its low-profile design and light suppression technology coating
  • If you want the quickest set-up possible without compromising on lasting luxury, it’s worth considering a hard shell
  • If you want durability for going off-road, but need greater sleeping capacity, you’ll find 3-4 person tents among the soft shells, where the 1800 – 2200 models cater respectively

From a warranty perspective, we can only speak to the brands we are familiar with and our team report very few problems across our range. Some people do find installing them a little tricky, but it’s nothing that can’t be overcome and is just part of the territory when mounting a roof top tent. Once it’s on the car, you’re good to go – anywhere, anytime!

Which roof top tent is best for you? Get in touch if you need more help.

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Joined back in October, 2015

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