Rooftop tents aren’t new. First designed in Italy, they’ve been around since the 1950s and are popular for African safaris and expeditions to the Australian outback.
But they are getting a high-tech revival in the U.S. as more people take up car camping. After all, why sleep on the ground when you can perch atop your car? The tents keep you safe, dry, and comfortable several feet above the dirt—away from lions, tigers, bears, and any other creepy-crawlies. (Just be careful when getting up to relieve yourself at night.)
Take Chad Kendrick, who founded Treeline Outdoors after a run-in with an irate grizzly in Canada. "One night I'm awoken by a quiet shaking. A big ole grizz was rubbing up against the tent,” he says. "I've ran into plenty of bears in my time but not in my tent, where you're in the most vulnerable position you could possibly be in.”
Rooftop tents offer benefits even if you’re not camping in grizzly country. Treeline Outdoors makes models that come with built-in, high-density foam mattresses that stow inside the tent during travel. Plus, the tents set up quickly and offer great views thanks to oversize windows.
“We’re making a conscious effort to bring (rooftop tents) to a lot of different activities, like mountain biking, weekend warriors, urban dwellers, rock climbers," Kendrick says. "The first night someone spends in a rooftop tent and wakes up refreshed, after a super comfy sleep, they're sold."
Here are four of our favorite models:
Treeline Outdoors The Tamarack Constellation ($2,232)
The Tamarack Constellation features a lightweight aluminum honeycomb base that’s strong and insulating. To set up, snap the base, which is attached to the tent, onto either Thule or Yakima racks.
Not only is it easy to pitch, it's also very durable. The Constellation is built from burly poly cotton fabric, and comes with a 420-denier ripstop polyester rainfly. "We didn't have to spend any time making these tents ultra-light," Kendrick says. "We used sturdy materials that would stand the test of time. They're all water resistant, and have mold-, UV-, and fire-resistant coatings." Bonus: Two drawstring skylights let you watch the stars from bed.
Poler Outdoor Stuff Le Tente ($999)
"We put a man on the moon, and now we've put a tent on a van. God bless America!" boasts Poler Outdoor Stuff's video promoting its Le Tente.
Like most rooftop tents, the Le Tente is hefty, weighing a whopping 140 pounds. But you get a lot in that package. The Le Tente's heavy-duty waterproof canvas and aluminum poles are easy to set up, and the ladder easily folds out to the ground. Like the Tamarack Constellation, the tent works with any car that has Thule or Yakima bars.
Tepui Tents Kukenam Ruggedized ($1,425)
Tepui has a number of durable high-end rooftop tents, but the Kukenam Ruggedized is the toughest of the lot. Designed for remote, rugged adventures, the tent sleeps three and is coated with waterproof-, UV-, and mold-resistant coatings. The internal frame is constructed with heavy-duty aluminum tubes, and the base is coated with diamond plates.
It’s also pretty damn comfortable. The Kukenam Ruggedized's foam mattress is a step above your average camping pad, and its removable cotton cover is easy to clean post-trip. Tepui recommends the tent for folks with 4x4 trailers who are planning off-road adventures.
AutoHomeUSA The Maggiolina Grand Tour (From $2,599)
Founded in 1958, AutoHomeUSA is one of the oldest rooftop tent manufacturers in the country, but that doesn't mean its tents can't compete with the new kids on the block.
The company's Maggiolina Grand Tour is contained by a hardshell that latches onto your bars. When you're ready to call it a day, just pop the lid to set up a cozy shelter. The Grand Tour has more headspace that AutoHomeUSA's other models, plus you can stow your bedding and other gear in the case while traveling.