“Seriously though, these things are kind of ridiculous, right? Is it really that much better than sleeping on the ground?”
This was me. I honestly said this to a Yakima rep at Outdoor Retailer a few years ago, standing in front of a rooftop tent (RTT) mounted to a pickup, festooned with overlanding accessories, parked next to a delightful pretend camp setup. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember his response, other than a bemused chuckle. Something about “don’t knock it ’til you try it.” I was convinced RTTs were too fussy, difficult to put on and take off a roof, and way, way too expensive to possibly be worth having.
I was wrong. At least about the first two points, we’ll get to the last one in a bit.
Not terribly long after that awkward moment with the Yakima rep, I was camping with a friend in Big Sur, and my mind started to shift. I had set up my ground tent, and was sitting in it, contemplating the trees, when I saw a woman pull up to a nearby spot with a RTT on her wagon. She got out of her car and dropped a leveling block on the ground, drove up onto it, then got out of the car again, nodded with satisfaction. 30 seconds or so later, she’d unzipped the RTT cover and rolled it to one side. She deftly stepped onto the car’s floor, reached up for the RTT’s ladder, stepped down, walked back ten or so feet, and the tent unfolded triumphantly, ready to go. She locked the rungs into place, and was done. Within 5 minutes, she was sitting feet dangling, six feet off the ground, cold beer in her hand.
That looked easy, I thought. The next morning, as I shook out my groundcloth, turned my tent upside down to shake the dirt little sticks out of it, I watched her pack the tent up just as easy and drive off. It dawned on me then: Oh, I get it. RTTs just make any car into a pop-top camper. Suddenly, the whole thing made sense and I wanted one.
In the years since, I’ve tried two now, one from Yakima and one from Thule (Thule bought Tepui tents a couple years ago, and their RTT division is now Thule Tepui, confusingly). The Yakima Skyrise HD, which is an insulated tent meant for use in very cold conditions as well as balmy weather, and the Thule Tepui Low-Pro, a much lighter tent, with a thinner profile when folded for less wind resistance while driving. Both have been wonderful tents, and I’ve been converted to a RTT camper. I don’t think you can go wrong with either, but I do have a preference, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Functionally, they’re nearly identical. In fact, if I was blindfolded and setting them up, I wouldn’t be able to tell a difference at all from the inside. Both tents use the ladder as the unfolding mechanism and once the ladder is positioned, the tents are effectively erected. Both have ample windows that can be closed via a hook and loop system, awnings that use a similar method of setup, and a rain fly that attaches from the inside, quite easily in just a few minutes.
A weatherproof cover wraps the whole tent when closed up for driving, and both the Yakima and Thule covers work the same way, a zipper and velcro system. It seems when you first install the tent that getting it back in the cover will be difficult, but it’s easy peasy every time.
Both tents have foam pads that are always in the tent, they fold up with the tent when the system is closed, so no need to fuss with the pad each time you set the tent up. The Yakima’s is slightly thicker, at 2.5 inches compared with the Thule’s 2-inch pad. Both feel impossibly luxurious, as compared with a standard sleeping pad for ground camping.
And that’s really what you’re getting with a RTT. Luxury. You just can’t beat the comfort factor of one of these RTTs when compared with ground camping. The foam pad feels like your mattress at home and doesn’t move around, covering the entire floor of the tent. Provided you leave your shoes off, you don’t track dirt into the tent, which feels terrific after a few days of camping. Not having to stoop and bend to get and out of the tent, as you do on the ground, does wonders for your back and knees.
I leave my sleeping bag or blankets in the RTT if I’m gonna travel around a little bit and they fold right up with the tent when it’s closed. (If it’s warm, I’m in the Zenbivy Bed 23; cooler to cold, or with my wife, I’m in the Sierra Designs Frontcountry Duo.
Plus, campsite availability changes dramatically. You can’t level the earth beneath you while camping on the ground, but you can in your vehicle by bringing along leveling blocks. If your vehicle fits on a patch of ground, boom, you have a lovely campsite, regardless of it being rocky, not level, or swarming with bugs.
There’s just something too about sitting way up off the ground, your legs swinging free, with a RTT. Can’t beat it.
Now then, there are downsides. In my experience, they follow this order.
1. They’re heavy and require two people to put on and take off. The Yakima Skyrise HD weighs about 115 pounds, and the Thule is 120 pounds. If you live alone and don’t have the capacity to install some kind of pulley system in a garage to lift it off from above, be prepared to have the RTT mounted almost all the time.
2. You need somewhere to store the tent when not in use. I don’t keep mine mounted unless I’m camping, which means a big area in my storage shed is devoted to my RTT most of the time.
3. They can wreak havoc on your gas mileage. In my 2016 Subaru Outback, I notice at least a 4mpg hit when a RTT is mounted, depending on wind, elevation, etc.
4. They’re expensive. Figure between $1,500 and $2,500 for most good RTTs out there, depending on style. Plus, if you don’t already have heavy duty roof racks, that can run you another $300-500.
5. If you like to set up a tent, then drive off somewhere leaving your tent at a campsite, a RTT isn’t quite conducive to that. I can set mine up in less than 10 minutes, and collapse it in about five minutes, but it’s something to think about.
To me, however, that expense is worth it for the ease, comfort, and sheer enjoyment of a RTT. I have space to store one when not in use, and a partner who can help me take it on and off. Those two factors are crucial. I’m not sure I’d recommend a RTT to someone without the same situation. Also, it’s a must that you determine whether or not your car can safely support a RTT.
So who are these for? Well, judging by the looks of mountain towns across the west, they’re for anyone with a Tacoma or a 4Runner, as part of the “off-road look” accessory package. But you increasingly see RTTs on wagons, small SUVs, even Priuses, occasionally. That, I think makes sense. I imagine these tents were originally meant for hardcore overland use, where people are driving way, way out into the desert and couldn’t predict ground surface conditions. They work great for that. If you spend lots of time driving deep into BLM land, well, you probably already have one. But that they can turn even suburban commuter wagons into little adventure rigs is pretty cool.
Oh, right, my favorite.
I run the Thule Tepui Low-Pro 3. It has a whopping 95 x 58 inches of floorspace, more than enough for me and my wife, (both of us are over six feet tall), and our two-year-old daughter. The ceiling height is 3.5 feet, which is excellent. When packed closed the max height is 10 inches, tapering down to about 7 inches on the non-hinged side. (The Yakima is a 16.5 inches tall, further reducing mpg performance). The tent can support 600 pounds of weight, which, when paired with a heavy duty crossbar system, is safe and stable. Even in a heavy wind, you feel solid as a rock up there.
The Thule does require using nuts and bolts to attach it to crossbars, which is a little more of a pain than the Yakima system, which clamps on with no tools required, but that’s the only place where the Yakima stands out over the Thule in terms of ease.
There are of course, hard-sided RTTs out there too, but they lack the roominess of the fabric RTTs I’ve tried, and they’re not for me.
Other than using a fancy cot and a massive 4-person standup tent, I can’t imagine ground camping ever feeling even remotely as comfortable as RTT camping does. I never imagined I’d fall in love with RTTs, and now I can’t imagine going back.
Other RTTs and accessories
The Smittybuilt Overlander 2 can be found for as little as $1,200 and has a solid reputation, if fewer frills than the Yakima or Thule.
The Roofnest Sparrow EYE is a hard-sided clam shell tent. It’s durable, can have solar panels mounted to it, but it’s also $3,000.
For shoe storage, the Yakima Sidekick attaches to the rail of a RTT, both Thule and Yakima use the same attachment system, so this should work for both.
Thule makes fitted sheets for its RTTs and they’re great for keeping your mattress clean.
Like that propane fire pit in the photo? Well, that model is sold out, but the Camp Chef Portable Fire Ring same thing, without the metal ring for a footrest. And it’s available. $85