The most asked question I get is “What roof top tent should I buy?” I've had experience with a ton of different roof top tents (RTT), from soft shell tents to hard tents and some of the highest end tents you can buy. Here’s my RTT buyers guide.
My second soft shell tent was a Cascadia Vehicle Tents (CVT) Mt. Cayley, with the extended room and annex. It cost about $1,400. This was a massive upgrade, it actually felt like the tent could handle some weather and not rip apart. The fabric on the tent was much better than the past tent, It actually held some heat in throughout the night. The mattress was slightly better, but I still needed to purchase a foam topper to help make it a bit softer. I had this tent mounted onto my trailer and when I sold the trailer the tent went with it. I had about 100 nights in this tent.
After a few months of not having a tent I decided it was time to invest in a new one, this time I went with a James Baroud Grand Raid XXL. It cost about $4,200. This was a massive investment for me, but knowing I was going to leave on a trip to Alaska in the following months I knew I needed to get the best tent possible. Once this tent was mounted, I knew I had made the right decision, the build quality on the tent was insane. The Mattress was comfortable, the fabric on the walls were very well thought out, and being my first hard shell RTT the setup/breakdown was amazing. Setup took about a minute and breakdown about 2 minutes. I took this tent on my first major overland trip, spending about 43 nights straight in it while on the road to and from Alaska. I sold this tent a few months after my trip to Alaska, I had about 150 nights in this tent.
The main reason I sold my old James Baroud tent was because another RTT company had reached out to me, asking to shoot photos of their tent. That company was Alu-Cab and OK4WD, I ended up getting a Alu-Cab Expedition III tent ($4,000) and Shadow Awning ($1,500). This is like a normal hard shell tent, but it's made out of Aluminum, not fiberglass. Being made out of aluminum gives it some huge benefits over the soft shell or fiberglass tents. First off I can load gear onto the roof, I purchased the separate load bars which gave me the ability haul smaller gear on the roof, up to 80lbs of it. Its also much more durable than the others, normally when going down the trail with a RTT you have to watch for low hanging branches, they will severely damage normally tents, but with the aluminum it won't do nearly as much damage. This tent is still mounted to my FJ Cruiser and I have about 10 nights in it, look out for an in depth review on the tent soon.
Pros Vs. Cons
One thing people don't get is that different RTTs fit different people's style of camping or overlanding. Soft shell tents are perfect if you're going to be staying in one place for an extended period of time, as they take a while to setup/breakdown, they can wear you out if your doing that daily. I’ve always thought soft shell tents are perfect if you're going to be mounting them on a trailer, using that as a basecamp that you explore out of. Hard shell tents are better for people that are going to move daily, this is what most overlanders are going to be doing. Most of my camping is done in route to a location, yes ill spend a night or two in the same spot, but most of the time it's just a stop on the way to a destination much further away. This is one of the biggest benefits of the hard shell tent, setup/breakdown time is usually under 5 minutes, this is extremely important on trips like my one to Alaska, when it’s below freezing outside you don't want to spend 15-20 mins setting up your tent so that you can go to sleep.
Another downside to the soft shell tents is that you can't store gear inside of them, because they fold in half you're restricted to a very limited about of interior space. With my CVT tent I was able to keep a sleeping bag, foam topper and one blanket inside. The hardshell tents on the other hand have the benefit of being able to store a good amount of gear inside, in my Alu-Cab tent I keep 2 pillows, 2 sleeping bags, a blanket and the ladder inside of it full time. This saves a lot of precious interior cargo space.
One major downside to the hard shell tents is that it uses up most, if not all of your roof cargo space. Because the tents don't fold in half, the tent is required to take up a lot more space on your roof rack. One tent that solves this is the Alu-Cab tent, with its load bars you can keep some items on the roof. Soft shell tents fold in half, which helps because when open they hang halfway off of the roof rack, supported by their ladder. This saves space on your roof rack, giving you the ability to keep some larger items up top.
Another major bonus to the soft shell tents is that they can have an Annex and covered openings. Because they hang off the side of your roof, most companies make a room that attaches below it, giving you a second room to use. Most soft shell tents also have covered openings, which when its raining is amazing. Hard shell tents don't normally have annexes or covered openings, because of their design none of the tent hangs over the edge, preventing a room from being attached below. Also most of the manufacturers don't create covered openings, which in my opinion is a very important thing to have.
RTT Pros Vs. Cons Chart
Soft Shell Tents
|Large interior space when opened||Slow setup/breakdown|
|Annex room available||Not much interior space when closed|
|Window overhangs||Not aerodynamic|
|Lower cost||Condensation issues|
|Takes up less space on roof rack||Wont last as long|
Hard Shell Tents
|Fast Setup/breakdown||Takes up most of roof rack|
|Aerodynamic||Small interior space when opened|
|Lots of storage inside tent when closed||No annex|
|Ease of use||No window overhangs (Alu-Cab has one)|
|Holds heat well|
In the end there is a tent for just about everyone, you just have to do a bit of research to see what tent is going to fit your budget and lifestyle the best. Hopefully this guide helped you decide on what tent will work best for you, if you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments below, i'll do my best to answer them all.