We’ve criss-crossed Europe from west to east with our travel trailer & our car. This time we tried to gear up to something more adventurous. After checking vans and pickup-campers from various manufacturers, we fell in love with a rooftop tent mounted on our 4×4 pickup truck.
Are you on the hunt for ideas on what rooftop tent (RTT) to buy for your vehicle? Look no further. Here you will find all the answers to questions that we also had before we bought our own roof top tent. As in other cases, there is a universe of options. Let’s see what the universe has to offer for your next adventure.
There are many ways how to convert a pickup truck into a house on wheels. Not every conversion is good for a family though. Some might even argue, that any pickup conversion is not for families, but there are good examples this is not true. And it gets even more challenging, for a slowly travelling digital nomad, working on the road, as we do. Car rooftop tents are one option, but there are others, some heavy and comfortable, some lightweight.
Options for Pickup Camper Conversion
- Fibreglass Camper Shells
- Off-road Trailer
- Soft Roof Top Tents
- Clamp Shell Tents
- Other, more crazy, options for Pickups
We were considering fibreglass shell campers and various expandable pop-up solutions for our Toyota Hilux at first. And after months of research, we have ended up with a low-profile budget, by buying a vehicle rooftop tent mounted on an aluminium canopy with an awning. But let’s start in the beginning of our thinking — the most luxurious solution.
With fibreglass you get the highest security, highest comfort and also highest price tag. But if you plan to do a lot of long overland expeditions, this is the way how to stay agile in even the most hostile environments you can find on planet Earth.
The list of fibreglass pickup campers is sorted by what we feel is the best value for money, down to options that might be a little bit overpriced or undeveloped in terms of ergonomics for work or family.
Price-range: $20,000 to $45,000
Gazell (France, sold as EarthCruiser GZL in USA)
Kerouac 4×4 Camper (Czech Republic)
Alu-Cab Ossewa (South Africa)
Four Wheel Campers (once owned by MaliMish family)
Palomino RV Real-Lite (USA, cheap & good)
SVA Pop-Up Camper (Czech Republic, super cheap)
Off-road trailer is a popular camping solution in Australia and Africa. The biggest benefit of a trailer like this is that it doesn’t consume weight on the pickup, so you can take way more gear with you by spreading it to the pickup and trailer evenly.
Price-range: $10,000 to $35,000
Roof-Top Tents on the Market
We need to go out and explore, as folks from Overland Bound would say. So we thought: “Hey, let’s try something new!. Let’s scale down, no matter that we’re a family of four.” And we’re ready to explore all available options with you. Let’s see the best rooftop tents that World has to offer.
There are two categories of pickups. The first is a North American type of vehicle, like Ford F150, which is petrol based and way bigger in most cases. And then there’s rest of the world, diesel (gasoil) powered, where Toyota Hilux is the king of pickups, followed by Nissan Navara, Mitsubishi L200 (now Triton), Ford Ranger and recently also Volkswagen Amarok and Mercedes-Benz X-Class. They’re roughly the size of Toyota Tacoma.
These are sometimes called Book Style Tents and they remind you of a usual ground tent, with an internal pole and an almost triangular shape. They definitely look the coolest and would attract attention. They are also lightweight, especially Tepui rooftop tents and FrontRunner tents, even that they are usually made from the most robust canvas. But from the usability perspective, they’re pretty difficult to maintain, to dry and to pop-up and collapse. They might also be less aerodynamic than clamp-shell tents, which decreases fuel economy.
Actually, these tents started it all, so they are made by the most experienced tent making companies. They play a natural role in evolution from the ground tent to a solid roof-top tent of today.
Price-range: $1,000 to $2,500
Eezi-Awn (South Africa)
Cascadia Vehicle Tents or CVT (USA)
Front Runner Outfitters (USA)
Smittybilt Overlander available on Amazon (USA)
Yakima SkyRise (USA)
And finally, the solution where form meets function. These tents are the most popular today. They’re a little bit more expensive because of the fibreglass part, but they’re highly effective from many views, sturdy and well manufactured. They’re also aerodynamic and easy to carry all year long without much risk of being damaged by weather conditions.
This type of tent was our final choice from all 4×4 rooftop tents we considered. At the time we were purchasing our iKamper Skycamp roof top tent, the product just hit the market after a successful Kickstarter campaign (second place of all time at Kickstarter). So our order was shipped directly from South Korea to Europe. Since then, the tent is becoming more and more popular, they also started to make smaller version (for two adults) and many cool accessories. So this piece of gear is really a solid choice that I’d recommend if you don’t know what to choose.
We have also received a great service after the purchase. And Skycamp received RedDot Design Award in 2018. So all in all, they really deliver quality for rooftop tents camping 🙂
Price-range: $2,500 to $3,500
Our iKamper Skycamp in Porto, Portugal (South Korea)
Alu-Cab Gen 3 Expedition (South Africa)
James Baroud (USA)
There are also many obscure options to fit on your truck bed. One of them could be mounting a truck-bed tent directly on the car. But you’ll loose all the storage capacity.
Another one would be to support ideas like Leentu Camper. A super light-weight camper solution that delivers a lot of space for camping, but also can collapse to a tiny footprint for agile driving. Being on the edge of a tent and pickup camper. This piece of kit should start at a pretty decent pricepoint of $10,000 or a little more. But now, it’s still just a project.
Why to Buy a Rooftop Tent
Car roof-top tents, also called RTTs, are more popular recently as the overlanders community and overall availability of vehicle related travel tools and equipment is growing. The car-roof mounted tent is a blend of regular, less comfy, ground tent and a heavier true camper solution or even a car modification. They are easy to mount to virtually any vehicle, not just AWDs and true adventure vehicles.
The tent can be deployed in minutes, while it is out of the way when moving from place to place. There is ladder included so you just need to unfold it to get access to the tent. The tent offers significantly increased comfort over a ground tent but has its downsides as well.
Because the tent can be unfolded or packed quickly, you get more time to do what you like and that’s I’d say the best benefit and solid reason why to buy this a little expensive tent.
Once you travel and meet other campers, there is alway the feeling of that “I might be better and happier with a different setup that my camper friend has” That happens to me constantly. We are constantly searching for a possible better setup. But the big risk of this is that I usually don’t see the downsides right away, so everyone else’s solution feels better than what I currently have. These pickup or car-travel options were circulating in my head before we bought roof-top-tent.
- Pickup Camper
- Roof Top Tent as a value/price Compromise
- Keep existing setup – Travel trailer (Caravan)
- Stealth Van
I love our Toyota Hilux pickup truck. It’s agile, strong, easy to repair, higher from the ground and comfy enough to travel long distances. So I was searching for something compatible with the CrewCab truck that our family of 4 operates with.
Pickup Camper would be a little bit overkill for us. It’s too pricy and there’s not much space for working and cooking when the weather is not good. Also, keeping existing setup would not be much progress, which I personally need to grown my own experience and knowledge – so I can keep owning the name GuruCamper 😉
Obviously, one option that we also considered for camping, many times, would be a stealth van. That would probably work the nicest, but that would require to replace Hilux and build it from scratch as MaliMish family and many others did.
So we’ve chosen Roof Top Tent for now. That said, we don’t yet know if that’s the final destination for our travel vehicle. We’re still looking around, visiting events and meet-ups so that finally we might find the ideal vehicle, that we would keep forever.
That said, let’s sum-up the pros & cons of tents mounted on a vehicle.
The Positives of Roof Top Tents
- Keeps the agility of the original vehicle
- Storage location up top on the roof
- Cheap price compared to other options
- We keep our Toyota
- Easy to pop it up (erect the tent)
- Less storage hassle than trailer and fibreglass camper
- Not much dirt from the ground gets inside
- It has its own mattress
- It’s also a storage for sleeping bags
- No critters, bugs & other animals around
One could say these tents have some serious drawbacks, but if you are an expedition traveller and your only work on the way is to travel and sleep somewhere, then such a tent is good choice as it really can make your day happier than a standard tent on the ground. Even that it is good to keep in mind the downsides:
- Wind & increased drag lowerts fuel economy a little
- Security is not as good as in a real camper or fibreglass shell
- Dressing up is not easy, you can’t stand up in a tent
- Ladder security is a serious risk
- Ventilation & moist aggregation could be an issue in some weather
- Higher centre of gravity
Andrew, in this video, mentions many important decisions you need to make before buying a rooftop tent for you car, that would be a breeze to use, not a pain in the ass.
Although installation of a rooftop tent might require some skills, and most likely some time and help of friends, once the tent is on the vehicle, you would probably keep it on there for a few months or years. That is what we do. Obviously you would need to count with a little lower mileage, but I was surprised by how little the thing on the roof adds to fuel consumption. Also, you or your wife would look much cooler while driving around the town with a expedition looking rig 😉
There are also some further challenges to the sleeping in the tent, such as being able to park on a relatively level surface if you would like to sleep well. That is the same for any camper or tent on the ground. And there is also the challenge of climbing up the ladder every now and then, same as getting a dog up there. The worst being leaving for a bathroom in the middle of the night.
Comparison Table of Roof Top Tent Manufacturers
|ARB Simpson III||Soft Shell||2||81 kg||Option||TBD|
|Cascadia Vehicle Tents / CVT||Soft Shell||2-3||57 kg||Option||$1,695|
|Tepui Kukenam||Soft Shell||2-3||59 kg||Option||$1,275|
|Front Runner Outfitters||Soft Shell||2||43 kg||No||$1,099|
|Smittybilt Overlander||Soft Shell||2-4||63 kg||Option||$899|
|Yakima SkyRise Medium||Soft Shell||2-3||52 kg||No||$1,099|
|iKamper Skycamp||Clamp Shell||2-4||70 kg||Option||$3,599|
|Alu-Cab Gen 3 Expedition||Clamp Shell||2||76 kg||No||$4,000|
|James Baroud||Clamp & Soft||2-3||TBD||No||$2,749|
|Roofnest||Clamp Shell||2-3||55 kg||No||$2,495|
Questions for the Right Decision
Each tent has it’s own benefits, and this guide can only give you the basic info for comparison. Then you’d better make your shortlist and dig deeper. I usually go to YouTube to see any reviews, then download the full pricelist and options prices (such as annex room, alluminum poles, wind deflector or rain fly) and start comparing each shortlisted product in an excel sheet.
Cheap rooftop tents are usually lightweight, but might not survive the tough condition your vehicle can get into. Also car camping with children might challenge the rooftop vehicle tents quite significantly. On the other hand, all tents are waterproof and have mosquito netting.
Also important is to keep in mind that some tents have better high-density foam mattress, some can easily hold sleeping bags while packed and all would stay clean up there as they’re far from the mud on the ground.
There are also two major fabric types: canvas & plastic (called with some scientific brand name). Canvas is usually heavier, needs more care and is the material that all traditional tents were made of. New materials are lighter, but can isolate you less from outside temperature.
Last but not lest is type of telescopic ladder. If you’re going to travel dusty locations, the better option is folding ladder rather than telescopic one. As the dust can get inside the second one, making it hard to use over time.
Gear & Equipment for the Rooftop Tents
So it’s not a cheap thing, this tent. Some basic hard-top tent, plus a roof rack, requires you to pay over $2,500. For such money you would be able to buy a used van or truck and do a lot of plywood magic. Maybe even bigger and more comfy. Or you could spend the money on some quality camping gear and buy ground tent for sleeping. Yeah, all that is an viable option. So — think twice before you take action.
Here is a brief list of gear we have in our truck. Feel free to inspire yourself.
- IKEA LJUSA hand powered flashlight
- Decathlon FORCLAZ hand powered dynamo torch
- SnoMaster 12V Fridge
- 4 sleeping bags, two heavier, two lighter
- Kiboko Paddleboard & 2 safety vests for kids
- AeroPress Coffee Machine
- 100W Solar Panel (solid glass)
- MSR DragonFly Stove (gas or petrol powered) tested in Spain
- BioLite Camp Stove 2 (powered by wooden sticks)
- 3 litre petrol can for the MSR stove
- 10 litre water cans originally from British Army from eBay UK
- Some cutlery, pots & pans from AliExpress
Solid Roof Rack
For a rooftop tent you need some sturdy roof-rack system installed on your vehicle. The weight capacity is usually around 80 kilograms / 176 lbs dynamic (when driving), meaning few hundred kilos in static mode (when sleeping in the tent). There are several established manufacturers such as Rhino-Rack, Thule, or Yakima. My personal choice would be FrontRunner. As they are doing much more clever gear.
To summarise, roof-top tent allows you to sleep virtually anywhere, while keeping your car or off-road vehicle still as agile on the road and offroad as before. Camping trip is also more comfortable up there, more than in a ground tent and it’s faster to pop-up too. Still not as comfortable as a camper trailer or a full size RV.
So if you are getting into overlanding or just would like to escape to the nature from time to time, vehicle roof tents are actually the cheapest while most likely enough comfortable way how to sleep safe and easy in the forrest or on the beach.
I’d definitely recommend you to visit some dealers in your area, so you get the impresion of the size. The tent is not a huge sleeping area, but is usually big enough for two adults to spend a few nights. If you’re a family like us, I’d recommend iKamper Skycamp for four rather than anything smaller. Yakima tent would be a solid option in case your budget is limited and you don’t need as much space. That would be a solid choice for the start, which is easy to put on the vehicle or remove when not needed. Without any bolts.
So, some people might like the super cheap price of a ground tent, especially for one trip a year. But if you’re serious about exploring your area and beyond, rooftop tent adds a huge value to your travel experiences, removing the hassle of finding a hotel, campsite or at least a flat surface without rocks every night.
We like our tent so far, and we hope you would soon too 🙂