If you frequently go overlanding or camping during long road trips, a rooftop tent is a game-changing upgrade. Popularized by adventurers in the Australian Outback who needed an elevated place to sleep to keep away from predators, it’s now an incredibly convenient, if expensive, camping shelter option for anyone who sets up camp near their car. Just attach a tent to your vehicle’s roof or truck bed rack, and you can deploy it very quickly when you make camp for the evening.
Since you’re high off the ground, you can set up just about anywhere. Is the ground uneven? Or soft and muddy? Is your trailhead parking lot made of large, sharp chunks of gravel? No matter, you can set up just about anywhere and you’ll stay warm and dry with your tent several feet in the air. It’s kind of like being in a tree fort that comes with a soft foam mattress and a watertight roof. It’s a whole new way to camp out.
Best Rooftop Tents
The Expert: As a veteran gear tester for Travel + Leisure, Outside Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, REI, Runner’s World, Sierra Magazine, and Popular Mechanics, you’ll often find me overlanding in my Toyota Tundra, working on my assignments out of my rooftop tent. I especially like how high my office is, shaded and bug free, parked next to a river, where the sound of water running makes a nice soundtrack for my writing.
What to Consider When Buying a Rooftop Tent
A rooftop tent requires more from you than the average pop-up shelter. What you gain in comfort and convenience, you will lose in rooftop storage. It’s a big purchase, both in terms of the cost and actual size. Many weigh more than 100 pounds, so double check that your vehicle’s roof or factory rack is rated to carry the load. If not, you may need a stronger, aftermarket rack.
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They also take up a lot of space. Most require your full roof rack, so you probably won’t be able to stow a rooftop carrier on top of your ride. That said, many of these tents are relatively compact when stowed, so you can still use your vehicle’s hitch to attach a bike rack or small storage tray.
In addition to the hit to your wallet and rooftop storage capability, the added drag from storing a large tent on top of your car may hurt your car’s fuel efficiency, so you may need to fill up more often. Then again, think of all the money that you’ll save on hotel rooms and snake-bite kits.
Hardshell vs. Softshell
A softshell is going to be a lot like a standard tent—think a canvas roof and walls. This helps keep its cost and weight down. Hard Shell tents are a bit heavier, but the shell adds more protection, both to the tent during transportation and to you during inclement weather like sleet or thunderstorms.
Soft tops are easy to unfold, but many hard shells either pop open or even rise automatically. As for cost, most soft shell rooftop tents come in around $1,000 to $2,000, while a hard shell can run $2,000 to $5,000.
Mounting a Roof Top Tent: Everything You Need to Know
Attaching the tent to the roof rack of your vehicle is a simple installation that doesn’t require much in the way of additional hardware. You will need a car with a roof rack that’s rated to handle the weight of your tent. In some cases, the space between the bars may need to fit within a certain range.
Even small cars can accommodate a rooftop tent with the right aftermarket rack. If your vehicle does not have any sort of roof rack apparatus, you’ll need clips like these from Thule that attach to your vehicle’s roof frame, plus a set of crossbars like these. Be sure to check the weight limit of your car’s roof in the owner’s manual.
While the process isn’t complicated, installing and uninstalling rooftop tents isn’t exactly breezy: These tents are very heavy and you need to lift them high. You’ll want to install the tent on your car before you start your trip and leave it attached until you return home. Once installed, though, putting up and taking down the tent is incredibly easy. Some hard shell tents even have push-button setups.
It’s also worth pointing out that even in its flat, closed state, having a tent on the roof of the car will introduce additional drag, which will impact fuel efficiency. Placing a tent on a truck bed rack behind the cab of a truck, but beneath the roof line will mitigate the impact, but at the cost of bed space.
Rooftop vs Truck Bed Tents
If you’re camping with a pickup truck, it’s worth noting that there’s a second type tent you can use. Truck Tents, or truck bed tents, connect to the sides of a truck bed and hold themselves up with supportive straps. Truck tents usually cost far less money than a rooftop tent, but still give you the ability to sleep up off the ground. While you’ll have to clear out the bed to sleep, either before you start your trip or before bed every night, it’s an interesting and affordable alternative if the multiple-thousand-dollar price tags for rooftop tents seem extreme.
How We Evaluated The Best Rooftop Tents
We called in several tents and tested them in every way you would use a rooftop tent, installing them on our cars, deploying and collapsing them, and camping out in them. All the while we gauged them on ease of use, how comfortable (or not) they were to sleep in, and how much they impacted fuel economy and wind noise while installed on our rigs. We also took into account material quality and whether the tents leave room for anything else on the roof, like racks for gear or a storage box.
We’ve also included some models that we haven’t tested yet but that look promising based on our knowledge of rooftop tents and their reception among expert sources and thousands of consumer reviews.
The Popular Mechanics test team loved Roofnest’s original Falcon hardshell tent, and we’re just as thrilled about the sequel. The Roofnest Falcon 2 still has all the features we love about the Falcon: Its low-profile closed form still minimizes wind drag. It comes with a 2.75-inch thick foam mattress with machine-washable cover, an anti-condensation mat, crossbar compatibility, a smooth top shell, an 8-foot telescoping aluminum ladder, deployable shoe bags, 4×4 ground mat, universal mounting kit, and two USB-powered LED light strips.
We appreciated being able to enter the tent from three sides. The 320GSM coated Polycotton tent material with blackout coating also gives the tent a waterproof rating of 3000 mm and a chance to sleep in late. The standard Falcon 2 sleeps two, but there is an XL version that can hold up to three if you’re camping in a slightly larger group.
Thule struck a nice balance with the Foothill. Whereas some hardshell tents can accommodate gear racks on top of them, this softshell only takes up half the car’s roof. That leaves room for equipment like a bike, a kayak, or a thin rocketbox. The interior features padding, complete darkness with the windows closed (if that’s your thing), and temperature retention similar to a ground tent during sub-freezing trips.
As with many softshell RTTs, even once you’ve got the Foothill on your car’s roof, it’s an endeavor to set up. “You install the ladder, pop three poles inside the tent, and then attach eight poles for the rain fly,” said our tester. “My first time setting it up took much longer and more effort than setting up a standard tent—it’ll definitely be faster the second time, but there are still lots of steps.”
It also wasn’t a selling point that you have to store the ladder inside your vehicle, taking up valuable trunk space. Breakdown was slightly less complex, with our tester describing it as a “bit easier than the universal struggle of trying to fit a tent back into its bag.”
Because it sits fairly high on the roof, the Foothill dragged down his efficiency by about 3 mpg and created a lot of noise in crosswinds. But its small build makes it easy to get on and off (with two people) should you need to use the full roof. Overall, it’s well built and well designed.
The Crua AER won our “Best Rooftop Tent” in 2021. Based in Ireland, Crua debuted the first rooftop tent that could be removed from its base and function as a ground tent. Another first is the Crua Culla Haul, which is a tailor-made inner tent sold separately that provides thermal insulation, temperature regulation, noise cancellation and blacking out the light.
Best of all, it is quickly set up through inflation. But our favorite feature is the ability to connect this tent to other Creations so we could each have our own separate tents but still be connected like a hub to a central space where we can eat together.
The AER accommodates 3 people. Leading textile experts designed the mattress, which is made of high quality density foam 10 cm in thickness, and we all had the best night of sleep on it. Accessories include shoe bags, an awning, an anti-condensation mat, blanket, picnic table, gear hammock and firepit.
Many rooftop tents give you the option of adding an annex room beneath the tent where it hangs over the side of the vehicle, but few include one with your purchase. The Ranger Overland does, and it comes in at an impressive 90 x 90 inches. That’s plenty of room for more campers (or lots of gear) in addition to the main tent itself, which can accommodate two adults on its foam mattress. Of course, if there are only two of you, then you’re free to use the annex as a kitchen, living room, or changing room.
The tent install is easy and shouldn’t take two people more than an hour or so. It garners praise for offering high quality for a relatively low price.
If you’re worried about fuel economy or having to install a heavy tent on the top of your car, this one from Front Runner could be your ideal shelter—it weighs less than 100 pounds. And yet, its Oxford tent fabric is still waterproof, strong, and breathable.
You’ll also get handy features like interior pockets, overhead Velcro light loops, and a mesh window in the roof for stargazing. One reviewer on the brand’s website wrote that they bought the Front Runner because of it’s light weight and quick–release mechanism, which makes it easy to put on and take off.
Made in South Africa, BunduTec’s BunduTop roof top tents are the ultimate luxury overlanding shelters. Once you’ve installed the tent on your truck, you can raise and lower the motorized tent with the push of a button. Instead of fiberglass, the shell is made of aluminum, which is lighter and warmer. Inside, the built-in mattress is thick and comfortable. It also features built-in fans, LED lights, and a 12-volt outlet. Frankly, it doesn’t get any more comfortable than this.
Yakima’s SkyRise HD Medium is one of the only rooftop tents that features rack locks and a toolless mounting system, which makes the installation process simple. When installed, it conveniently packs down to low-profile square between uses, minimizing the extra wind resistance you get from having a tent attached.
That said, be careful to check both the make and model of your truck and your bed rack to make sure it’s compatible.
This three-person, four-season waterproof tent features four large windows, including two skylights in the rainfly, which offer more ventilation and the ability to study the night sky through two sky windows even on rainy and snowy days. Without the rainfly, you can even stand up through the windows. Inside, it features a 2.5-inch thick mold-resistant mattress. (You can buy specialty fitted sheets for it separately.) It also features a light strip, storage hooks, hanging storage bag, and an annex.
Q+A With Our Experts
PM: How can I check if my roof rack can handle a rooftop tent?
LHO: After making sure that your rooftop tent fits on the type of rack you have mounted on your car–crossbars, rails, etc.–you need to make sure that your rack and roof can support the weight of the tent. Gather the load ratings of your vehicle, your roof rack, and the tent. The component with the lowest load capacity sets the effective maximum load you can safely carry.
It’s worth noting that most vehicle and tent ratings are for dynamic loads, or what they can handle when you’re driving. You also want to consider the maximum static load, or how much weight the car, rack, and tent can handle when the car is parked. That number needs to be high enough to accommodate the tent, plus all the people and gear inside the tent while you’re resting inside. According to Prorack, you can expect that your tent’s static load rating should be about three times its dynamic load rating. For example, if the dynamic load rating is 70 kg then the static load rating would be 210kg (70kg x 3 = 210kg).
Math aside, if your car and roof rack can handle the weight of the tent, you should be able to safely sleep inside so long as you don’t overcrowd it.
PM: How Do I Level a Rooftop Tent?
LHO: Leveling is important for both ground and rooftop tents if you want to sleep on an even surface. Always try to choose the flattest place to park. If you have no choice but to park on an incline, position the ladder toward a hill. Make sure the ladder fully contacts the ground.
A leveling tool such as a T-level or electronic level and angle gauge or a leveling app on your phone can measure pitch and roll. Then build a pyramid with leveling blocks, adjust air suspension, use 2” x 6” lumber about 10” long, logs or rocks. After leveling, make sure the wheels are chocked and test the stability of your ladder.
PM: How do I prevent condensation inside my tent?
LHO: The easiest way to prevent moisture from building up inside your tent, which will get you and your clothes wet overnight, is to bring along an anti-condensation mat, which is installed under your mattress on top of your tent floor. If you don’t have one, leave the tent windows slightly unzipped and let the breeze flow through the tent. If there’s no air circulation, use a rechargeable fan or realign your vehicle so the tent faces into the wind. It also helps to avoid bringing any excess moisture into the tent: Keep wet clothes and gear outside or in the car.
Many brands offer specific condensation guides for their tents, so always check the manufacturer’s websites for a more thorough breakdown. In many cases, though, some condensation is inevitable, even when your tent isn’t in use. Make sure to air out your tent every few weeks to prevent mildew and mold from growing inside.
Director of Product Content
Will is the director of product content for Hearst’s Enthusiast Group, leading reviews and gear coverage across Best Products, Bicycling, Popular Mechanics, and Runner’s World.
Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning travel journalist and veteran gear tester for Outside Magazine, Popular Mechanics, REI, Runner’s World, Sierra Magazine, and Travel+Leisure. She believes that having a stress-free or comfortable experience outdoors depends on the quality of your gear. She’s tested fly fishing gear beneath a waterfall in Iceland, canyoneering kits in Jordan’s Wadi Mujib and Old Town, and Ocean Kayak pedal kayaks in Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent waters. Leslie has a degrees in biology, ethnobotany, and an MFA in creative nonfiction, as well as a public health degree from Harvard.