If you love to camp, odds are that you know the risks. For all the fun you'll have, there's always a chance of wild animals invading your tent while you're (hopefully) not around, or bad weather leaving your tent sitting in a puddle. Any of these hazards could severely impact the quality of your trip and the condition of your property.
Thankfully, there's a solution that takes some of the ground-level risk out of camping: the rooftop tent. Rooftop tents are designed to attach to the roofs of cars and stay there, giving campers several feet of distance from the ground. They're undeniably handy, but they come in so many sizes and models that it can be hard to determine which one is best for you.
We've selected the best rooftop tents across a variety of categories, based on customer satisfaction and expert opinion. After our choices, read on for more information about rooftop tents and how to select one that suits your outdoor adventure needs.
Rooftop tents cost more than ground-based tents -- that's the trade-off for being able to camp away from the risks of the forest floor. That said, since the price tag can run high, it was imperative to make sure that our recommendation for the best overall rooftop tent delivers in every category... which the Thule Tepui Kukenam Rooftop Tent certainly does.
The Kukenam roof tent can accommodate up to three people with a maximum weight capacity of 600 pounds (though your car's roof may not be able to support that much, as we'll get into later). It's good for use in all seasons with strong tent fabric that protects from the elements, as well as mesh panels that allow for ventilation.
The tent is also available in a "ruggedized" model for $2,400, which incorporates higher-quality fabric for better wind resistance and a diamond base plate. It has 4.5 stars out of five on Amazon, based on almost 20 customer ratings.
Rooftop tents come in softshell models that are made entirely of canvas (like the Kukenam) and hardtop models that have hard plastic floors and roofs. Hardtop models are typically more expensive than softshell models, but the plastic sections make the tents more durable -- and more aerodynamic when broken down.
Roofnest's Condor XL is our pick for the best hardtop tent, and one of the best overall rooftop tents you can buy. It sleeps three to four people, with a higher-than-average max headroom of 50 inches when set up. The hard shell tent also comes with an 8.5-foot ladder for easy access and egress, as well as detachable pockets to stash gear and an interior LED light.
In addition to the Condor XL, a standard Condor model is also available from Roofnest. The standard Condor costs $3,395 and sleeps two to three people.
Even "cheap" rooftop tents cost in the four figures, so you'll still be making a pretty sizable purchase. With that in mind, you'll want to make sure that you're getting your money's worth -- and if you pick up Smittybilt's Overlander Tent, you'll be doing just that.
The Overlander Tent costs just over $1,000, making it one of the least expensive rooftop tents you can find. And while the size may be smaller than some other models, it can still comfortably fit two adults. The Overlander also has a waterproof top and a rain fly, windows with mosquito netting and interior LED strips.
The Smittybilt Overlander Tent has 4.7 stars out of five on Amazon, with more than 500 customer ratings. It has an "Amazon's Choice" designation (reserved for items the site's editors deem exceptional) in the "Truck Bed & Tailgate Bed Tents" category.
As mentioned earlier, rooftop tents cost quite a bit more than other kinds of camping tents with price tags that can reach well over $3,000. For a price in that range, you want to make sure that the car camping tent delivers in every category -- and the iKamper Skycamp 2.0 does just that.
The all-season Skycamp 2.0 sleeps four people and incorporates a fiber-reinforced hard shell that provides air insulation while in use, but also protects the tent when it's broken down. The polyester canvas also has a polyurethane coating that makes it waterproof and a skyview window in the roof for sunlight or stargazing.
The iKamper Skycamp has 4.8 stars out of five on REI's website. Satisfied users tout the tent's simplicity of setup and quality of construction as areas where it excels.
Thule produces some of the best rooftop tents around (check out our pick for the best overall model), so it comes as no surprise that they'd make a top-notch large-sized tent that does a great job of supporting families looking to go on an overlanding adventure together.
The Thule Tepui Autana Rooftop Tent comes in multiple sizes, with the largest model able to accommodate a four-person group (but again, make sure you know your car roof's maximum weight capacity). It also comes with a detachable annex room that covers up the access ladder and creates a sort of additional room for campers to get away from potentially uncomfortable weather or temperatures.
The Thule Tepui Autana Rooftop Tent currently has 4.3 stars out of five on Amazon. Satisfied users recommend the camper product for its ease of assembly on the road and comfort.
Just because your car is small and not the size of a Toyota Land Cruiser doesn't necessarily exclude you from a rooftop tent. If your roof has a high enough weight capacity, you can still camp on top of it, even if it doesn't have the surface area of a smaller car. The iKamper Skycamp Mini Tent is a two-person tent that's ideal for smaller cars.
In addition to including the important features that the Skycamp 2.0 overland vehicle systems offers (a hard plastic top, a skylight window, weatherproof material, etc.), the Skycamp Mini is also a breeze to set up. All rooftop tents are relatively easy to set up, given that they're already attached to roof racks and simply need to be opened up, but the Mini is an especially quick build -- iKamper touts its one-minute setup prior to use.
The iKamper Mini is one of the pricier models on this list but given that it offers everything a larger tent does while still making sure it fits on a smaller car, it could be just the camping experience solution for which you've been looking.
While some rooftop tents are good for all weather conditions, others are meant to be used during specific seasons. The ARB Simpson III is one such tent, designed to be usable in warm weather. The walls of the tent contain fine mesh designed to allow breezes but keep even the smallest of insects at bay, while the tent's PVC cover blocks out the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.
The ARB Simpson III is also notable for the headroom that it affords: 51 inches after setup. While ground-based tents do offer higher clearances (many traditional tents are high enough to allow inhabitants to stand), this isn't the case for rooftop tents. Its 51 inches of space should be enough for even tall campers to sit up comfortably.
ARB's Simpson III tent has 4.6 stars out of five on Amazon. Satisfied users mention the value offered for the price, as well as the tent's ability to accommodate taller campers.
Just like some rooftop tents are designed to excel in warm weather, there are those that show their value in colder weather. The Roofnest Sparrow Eye is one such tent, as in addition to solid construction, the hardtop rooftop tent is built with a layer of insulation inside the shell. This helps it retain heat, which makes it an ideal choice if you want to camp during the cold winter months.
The Sparrow Eye's benefits don't stop there, though -- while it is on the smaller side, it's among the best two-person tents available. The insulation also keeps out noise, while the hardtop design makes the tent more aerodynamic when it's folded down during travel. It's also worth noting that this tent is a clamshell model, meaning that even when it's in use, it only opens up on one side.
The Roofnest Sparrow Eye is unanimously praised by users on Roofnest's official website. Satisfied customers recommend it based on the comfort it offers, the ease of setup and the customer service provided by Roofnest's team.
Since rooftop tents break down and attach to roof racks and cross bars, many people keep them on their vehicles year-round. That way, they can always ben deployed and set up with relative ease.
The trade-off to keeping your rooftop tent attached to your car roof at all times is that it makes your car less aerodynamic. Typically, you won't notice any drag from a tent when it's collapsed, but it can subtly affect your gas mileage.
Roofnest's Falcon 2 tent is one of the most aerodynamic models available, breaking down into a flat, hard-shelled sandwich shape when not in use. It's only 6.5 inches tall when closed and the lack of projection also means a lack of effect on your mileage. The Falcon 2 also includes the foam mattress for added comfort and high-quality canvas that make all of Roofnest's tents worth purchasing.
Comparison of the best rooftop tents for 2022
|Best rooftop tent overall/Best softshell rooftop tent||Thule Tepui Kukenam Rooftop Tent||37.3 square feet||131 pounds|
|Best rooftop tent overall runner-up/Best hardtop rooftop tent||Roofnest Condor XL||47.8 square feet||160 pounds|
|Best cheap rooftop tent||Smittybilt Overlander Tent||36.9 square feet||117 pounds|
|Best rooftop tent if money is no object||iKamper Skycamp 2.0||49.2 square feet||227 pounds|
|Best big rooftop tent/Best rooftop tent for families||Thule Tepui Autana Rooftop Tent with Annex||61 square feet||190 pounds|
|Best rooftop tent for small cars/Best easy-to-assemble rooftop tent||iKamper Skycamp Mini Tent||28 square feet||125 pounds|
|Best rooftop tent for warm climates/Best rooftop tent for headroom||ARB Simpson III Tent||36.1 square feet||171 pounds|
|Best rooftop tent for cold climates/Best two-person rooftop tent||Roofnest Sparrow Eye||28.2 square feet||130 pounds|
|Best aerodynamic rooftop tent||Roofnest Falcon 2||28.7 square feet||160 pounds|
Why buy a rooftop tent?
Car tents are an increasingly popular part of camping. After all, many campers use their cars to bring them to their campsites, so why not get the vehicles in on the action? Cars provide a lot of extra storage when it comes to camping supplies, as well as a power source that can be harnessed to charge up phones or other electronic equipment.
A rooftop tent is a specific kind of car tent that attaches to a vehicle's roof rack and sits on top of it. They come in different shapes, sizes and materials. Many include built-in mattresses for comfortable sleeping and some come with tent-like annexes designed to increase the total amount of space offered. Since rooftop tents remain attached to vehicles' roof racks (they collapse while not in use), they can be set up and taken down more easily than a ground tent. They also include ladders for entry and exit.
Regardless of the features, rooftop tents provide a much-desired sense of separation from a campground -- by getting a few feet off the forest floor, campers can avoid many of the creatures and critters that make wilderness excursions a bit more scary than fun. Keeping a tent off the ground also provides some protection from precipitation -- while rain and snow will still hit the tent, you won't have to worry about waking up in a puddle that formed overnight.
The different types of rooftop tents
While there's a wide array of rooftop tents, most of them fall into two categories: softshell and hardtop. Softshell rooftop tents are made from canvas or another soft material, while hard shell rooftop tents have ceilings and floors made out of hard plastic. Both tents offer their own benefits -- hardtop tents are typically more sturdy than softshell tents, as their hard surfaces are better when it comes to weathering the elements. The hard surfaces also make them more aerodynamic when they're folded up. Softshell tents, on the other hand, are lighter and usually less expensive.
Clamshell tents, like the Roofnest Sparrow Eye model, are a subgroup of hardtop tents. They're named for the way they open -- from one end, like a clamshell, while the other end has the hinges that allow them to open and close. The tent remains in a triangular shape when in use, high on one side and low on the other. This means that clamshell tents are on the smaller side and not made to house more than a couple of people at a time.
What to consider when shopping for a rooftop tent
The kind of rooftop tent you buy will ultimately depend on your own needs and budget. Not only does this apply to whether you get a softshell or hardtop tent, but it also applies to the dozens of other ways in which rooftop tents differ. For instance, tents come in different sizes with different weight and storage capacities. The smaller ones can sleep two people, but there are larger rooftop tents designed to accommodate parties of three or four. Larger tents are typically more expensive than smaller ones, and given that rooftop tents are fairly pricey to begin with, the costs soon add up well into the thousands of dollars.
"Rooftop tents are typically more expensive than traditional ground tents for a number of reasons," says Fred Hoffman. Hoffman is the founder and chief editor of The True Wilderness, a website devoted to camping guides and tent reviews. "First, they are generally made with higher-quality materials in order to withstand the elements and provide a comfortable sleeping experience. Second, they often come with features that make them more convenient and easy to use, such as built-in mattresses and rainfly covers. Finally, because rooftop tents are typically larger and more complex than traditional ground tents, they require additional time and labor to manufacture. All of these factors contribute to the higher cost of rooftop tents compared to ground tents."
Some tents also have additional features that make them better suited for a particular kind of weather. There are tents with mesh windows that are designed to let breezes waft through the material -- these are ideal for warmer days in the spring and summer. If you prefer to camp during the fall or winter, then you should look for a tent that has insulation in the material to keep occupants warmer.
Additional features may be important to you, or may not be necessary based on your needs. For instance, if you plan on leaving your tent mounted to your roof rack and you don't want it to slow you down while driving on the road or impact fuel economy, you'll probably opt for an aerodynamic tent (typically a hardtop that folds all the way down while not in use). Some tents have additional features you may find helpful, like storage space or skylights.
Finally, it's important to note that not every car should use a rooftop tent. If your car's roof doesn't have a high enough weight capacity to support your tent and the campers inside, then you'll end up damaging your vehicle, regardless of the tent's weight capacity. Putting too heavy a load on top of your car can cause damage to the car's roof, which is very expensive to fix. It's also worth noting that your car has different weight limits depending on whether it's stopped or in motion on the road, so find out the information and use it accordingly.
"To find out if your car can support a rooftop tent, you'll need to take into account the vehicle's roof load capacity," says Hoffman. "This information can usually be found in the owner's manual. Keep in mind that the load capacity includes not only the weight of the tent, but also any other items that might be stored on the roof, such as luggage or bicycles. In addition, you'll need to make sure that the roof rack system on your car is compatible with the particular model of rooftop tent you're interested in."
Cascadia Vehicle Tents President Bobby Culpepper agrees that it all starts with a roof rack: "If a vehicle has a roof rack, it's a great start to ensuring it can accommodate a rooftop tent. In most cases, travelers will need to upgrade the crossbars or, in some cases, completely change them out for aftermarket crossbars. Roof rails are one of the strongest points on a vehicle. By law, vehicles aren't permitted on the highway with a rooftop tent if the vehicle isn't able to hold the weight of itself upside down."
Rooftop tent installation and use
The first rule of installing a rooftop tent is that you must have a roof rack on your car. The tent itself will attach to the roof rack -- whether you keep it there all the time or only attach it when you're going camping, the rack is a necessity. Beyond that, different tents have individual sets of rules regarding installation. It's important to always follow the manufacturer's rules to the letter in order to ensure safe use.
Taking good care of your rooftop tent (cleaning it regularly, taking it off your car if you won't be camping for a while) will ensure that it lasts as long as possible, retaining all of the benefits that led you to purchase it in the first place. Cleaning methods will differ depending on tent material, but as a rule, softshell tents will require milder cleaning solutions than the shells of hardtop tents.
Driving with a (folded) rooftop tent on your car should be no different than driving without it. If the tent is properly folded, you shouldn't be slowed down at all. That said, the bit of additional drag that the presence of the tent creates will drain your gas a bit faster than driving without it would.
Written by Scott Fried for CNET.
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Rooftop tent FAQs
Are rooftop tents worth it?
Only you can decide if a rooftop tent is worth the purchase for you. You should base your decision not only on how often you think you'll use it, but also on if the unique features offered by a rooftop tent are of value to you. Is it important for you that your camping setup is elevated off the ground? If so, a rooftop tent is not only recommended, it's necessary. That said, different rooftop tents come at different price points. It's up to you to decide which features you want in your tent and how much you're willing to spend -- that's the only way to determine if a rooftop tent is worth it.
Are rooftop tents sturdy?
If properly attached and set up, reputable brands of rooftop tents are very sturdy. It's crucial that a rooftop tent is attached to a car's roof rack. After that, setup will vary depending upon the specific tent, but the manufacturer's installation instructions should be strictly followed. It's also worth mentioning that every tent has its own maximum weight capacity, but so does each car roof. If you exceed the maximum weight limit of either, you not only risk damaging it, but you compromise the sturdiness of the setup in a way that may ultimately be unsafe.
Why wouldn't you want a rooftop tent?
There are many reasons to opt for a ground-based tent over a rooftop tent. Ground-based tents are almost always far cheaper than rooftop tents, with even large models typically costing less than $1,000. On that note, ground-based tents are also available in much larger sizes -- while rooftop tents need to be small enough to sit on cars (and hold campers) without damaging them, ground-based tents have no such restrictions. There are ground-based tents that measure 10-inch-by-10-inch and hold six or more people -- such a thing would never be possible with a rooftop tent. Finally, some car roofs don't have the weight capacity to support rooftop tents, so using one would be harmful and dangerous.
How much are rooftop tents?
Rooftop tents are, by and large, more expensive than other tents. Even the smallest, most inexpensive models typically cost over $1,000. Larger luxury models can run to over $4,000. All of the tents on this list fall in that price range, with many of them totaling in the $3,000 range. Paying for a rooftop tent means paying for the convenience and piece of mind that comes with not having to camp directly on the ground. Only you can decide how much money that's worth to you.
Can a rooftop tent be installed on any car?
A rooftop tent can physically be installed on any car, but that doesn't mean that it should be. While each rooftop tent has its own maximum weight capacity, so too does each car roof. If a car roof's maximum weight capacity is exceeded, either by the rooftop tent or the campers inside, then the car's roof or suspension is at risk of sustaining damage. This type of damage is very expensive to repair and it's worth mentioning that any damage sustained to your vehicle ultimately puts the occupants' safety at risk. Make sure you know your car's roof weight capacity before installing a rooftop tent.