Camping. American culture romanticized it long before it looked kind of macho in John Wayne westerns. But bedding down on the ground and sleeping on a thin air mattress isn’t everyone’s cup of bucolic brew. For one thing, it can be uncomfortable. For another, setup and breakdown is nearly always more time consuming than you guesstimate, especially because unless you’re a professional dirtbag, you’re always re-learning the process.
Rooftop tents — boxes that live above the car and readily deploy to create a dwelling you clamber up into via an included foldout ladder — provide a more convenient solution for a lot of would-be, kinda-sorta semi-into-nature types (a.k.a. your significant other who’s not as into pine-scented goodness as you are).
Think of rooftop tents as relatively expensive gateway drugs to the outdoors. Sure, they’ll set you back between $1,500 and $4,000, depending on the model, but once purchased, you’ve got an instant VRBO with you at all times.
Still, there’s some important fine print to understand. You need the right tent for your rig, and shorter-roofed compact cars cannot spread the weight of a heavy, 100-plus-pound shelter as far as the rails of a longer SUV; getting that wrong could damage your car or truck. So note our recommendations for matching the right tent to your car or SUV. You’ll need a friend to help with initial mounting, too.
Lastly, we’ve organized this guide around sophistication and price, and you should know that while softshell tents tend to be lighter and more affordable, they also require a cover when packed and, frequently, a rainfly for foul weather. Their soft surface is less sleek, so it creates more drag, too.
Yakima Skyrise HD
Best for Small Cars and Small(ish) Budgets
At just 101 pounds, the two-person Yakima Skyrise HD is light for this breed and is the most “tentlike” of rooftop units in this guide. Meaning, it has a domed shape that allows you to sit up comfortably once inside. The clever opening system — you use the ladder as a giant pry bar to unfurl the unit and get it set up — is the same as several other clamshell designs in this guide. It’s a slight chore to anchor the rainfly, but ultimately not that challenging. However, if you want to use the tent’s top window for stargazing or to stand up out of it (which is handy for getting dressed) you’ll have to remove the rainfly and gamble that no thunderheads roll in overnight.
Extras: 2.5-inch foam mattress
Open Dimensions: 84 x 48 x 42 (H) inches
Closed Dimensions: 48 x 42 x 16 (H) inches
Thule Tepui Low-Pro 2
Best for Cheating the Wind While Driving
With a closed height of just 8.5 inches, the Low-Pro is, as far as rooftop tents are concerned, low profile. That helps you save on gas while minimizing the lift-off effect a rooftop tent can have on a small car rolling down the interstate. Like Yakima’s Skyrise, Tepui’s tent is also relatively light at 105 pounds, and uses the same mechanism to transform its clamshell design into a fully deployed shelter — you pry it open by using the telescoping ladder. As for differences, it’s slightly less finicky to work with the rainfly, but the mattress is a thinner two inches.
Extras: 2-inch foam mattress
Open Dimensions: 84 x 50 x 44 (H) in
Closed Dimensions: 50 x 43 x 8.5 (H) in
iKamper Skycamp Mini
Best for Small Cars
While iKamper started by making four-person hardshell tents, this downsized model fits better on smaller cars, and at 125 pounds, it isn’t much heavier than softshell models (though it is more expensive). Advantages include a sleeker design and quick setup, and if you’re not running it on a compact car, more remaining roof real estate than other hardshell models allow. Also, a clamshell opening allows for a higher peak roof height of 45 inches.
Extras: 1.8-inch memory foam mattress
Open Dimensions: 82 x 57 x 45 (H) in
Closed Dimensions: 57 x 54 x 12.5 (H) in
Best for Living Large on an SUV
The ultra-clever trick the Condor pulls is how it unfolds its “wings.” Like most hardshell designs, it pops up, but the lid forms one wall (very much like the iKamper Skycamp Mini). From that position, the tent unfurls like a soft clamshell design. This makes the Condor and Condor XL absolutely huge inside — over seven feet across when open. Interior height is also maxed-out at 50 inches, and the weight is reasonable too: 135 pounds for the smaller unit, and 160 pounds for the XL. Like the Yakima Skyrise HD (and unique for a hardshell), there’s also a zip-open skylight for stargazing. Another bonus is a hardshell lid that lets you rack other gear on top, like kayaks, bikes, or skis.
Extras: LED lighting; 2.3-inch memory foam mattress
Open Dimensions: 83 x 60 x 50 in (regular); 92 x 74 x 50 in (XL)
Closed Dimensions: 60 x 48 x12 (H); XL is 74 x 55 x 12 (H)
Thule Tepui Hybox
Best for Hauling Gear
One issue with rooftop tents is they eliminate the capacity for rooftop gear storage. The Hybox takes on both responsibilities, though, so you have a considerable gear locker with 23 cubic feet of capacity and can deploy the tent when you need it. Gas struts help lift the shell of the tent, which floats skyward in seconds. While the 177-pound weight means you need a truck or relatively large crossover or SUV to use the Hybox, the 51-by-81-inch sleeping dimensions are reasonably roomy. Negatives? The 37-inch ceiling height is a tad low compared to most other hardshell competitors.
Extras: gear storage; 3-inch foam mattress
Open Dimensions: 84 x 55 x 42.75 (H) in
Closed Dimensions: 84 x 55 x 12.75 (H) in
James Baroud Explorer
Best for Camping in the Heat
The nicest feature, besides the instant opening of this tent, is that it has wrap-around screen mesh windows that provide superb ventilation in addition to views from a raised vantage. Camping in a hot climate? A solar-powered fan pulls air from those side windows and sucks it out the top. Polyester walls are said to breathe better than the coated cotton other manufacturers use, too, and the mattress is a plush three inches thick. However, this mattress is shorter — just a hair over six feet — than other models offer, and it’s also not as wide as tents that unfurl. Still, it’s relatively tall inside for a direct-opening model, with 40 inches of height. You can rack gear to the top of the shell, too, but that feature is for smaller items, like camp chairs or a wetsuit bag; you’ll have to find another place to carry a SUP or bikes.
Extras: LED lighting; three-inch memory foam mattress
Open Dimensions: 78 x 55 x 41.5 in
Closed Dimensions: 78 x 55 x 13 in
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