There is no question that rooftop tents (RTT) have a special cachet in the overlanding fraternity. When travelling, there is arguably no better way to simplify the camp set-up process, particularly when you are just two people making frequent overnight stops (and that often in Big Five territory).
Blame it on some primal arboreal connection, but it is deeply comforting to be above the ground in unfamiliar places, with a view over the surrounds. Not only are you safely out of the way of predators large and small, but you are not affected by uneven or rocky ground, and changing hazards like mud, thorns or sand are way down there, not being trucked into your sleeping quarters.
RTTs have evolved massively in the last decade or so, with hardshell and softshell variants emerging as the two distinct groupings. Each of these have their own pluses and minuses, and each of course is linked to a range of price and quality points.
So what are the benefits over a ground tent?
Apart from the fact that you are now sleeping in a penthouse with fantastic views, rooftop tents have a few practical upsides. They are extremely fast to set up, particularly the hardshell variety: simply unlock two catches and the upper shell raises on gas struts or a similar mechanism. It takes a bit longer for a softshell, and usually involves removing a vinyl dust cover first, but it certainly beats fiddling with guy ropes and running around looking for lost pegs.
You can camp anywhere you can park. There’s no worrying about uneven, muddy or sandy ground. If push comes to shove, you can doss down in a hotel parking lot. Because, like a tortoise, you are carrying your house with you. In many of the examples on the following pages, there is space to pack all your bedding inside the RTT shell, which frees up packing space inside the vehicle and is another time saver when striking or pitching camp.
RTTs are made from premium materials, in general, which means thick mattresses, high grammage ripstop canvas, the best zips, interior lights, storage pockets and quality headliner materials for insulation. Treated right, they could last a lifetime of camping.
While interior space is restricted in the hardshell varieties, and one should ideally also invest in an awning for additional cover, the softshell tents are easily coupled to an optional annex. When these are equipped with sides, the annex can be utilised as a wind-free space for changing, cooking and equipment storage.
In foul weather and high winds, a RTT has the odds over a ground tent: no pegs to rip out, a sturdy fly or hard cover, no poles to break and relatively compact dimensions.
What’s not to like?
Roofrack dynamic loads should not exceed 80kg in most cases, and a RTT takes up most of this quota. Any more weight and the vehicle’s centre of gravity is adversely affected. It’s always better to place weight down low.
The aerodynamic trade-off of having a bulky item on top of your 4×4 is often a fuel debit of up to 10% more than without the tent. In addition, a hardshell will take up most of a full-length rack, and a softshell at least half of it. That leaves room for little else – though some examples have rails to mount roof bars and accessories to a strict weight limit.
Most hardshell designs are optimised for two people, and then not standing up. Some softshell designs are larger and wider, though are still vertically challenged. For changing purposes, one still might prefer to purchase and set up an annex for supreme camping comfort.
For some campers, the need to clamber up and down a two-metre high ladder for ingress and egress is a problem. Nobody wants a midnight call of nature to end badly.
Finally, all that quality and convenience comes at a price, and it is fairly steep compared to a typical ground set-up. Then again, when a lion or hippo is scratching around way below, that consideration pales massively.
All things considered, as a solution to modern overlanding needs, using a standard SUV or double-cab vehicle, there is nothing to beat the advantages of a RTT.