The rooftop-tent dream involves instantly-accessible, cabin-like comfort you can take anywhere on top of your off-roader. Perched up high, they protect you from curious animals and afford you excellent views. Most importantly, they’ll make all your Instagram followers insanely jealous.
But your average rooftop tent also weighs in excess of 150 pounds (before you add a bed), costs more than $1,500, will ruin your vehicle’s aerodynamics (and therefor fuel economy), and is very difficult to load onto the top of your vehicle, meaning you can’t just throw it up there before you leave on a trip, then take if off as soon as you get back.
Canvassing users of rooftop tents, we also found complaints about how loud and uncomfortable they become to sleep in during high winds. And virtually everyone mentioned how hard it is to pop out for a quick pee in the middle of the night—something that involves climbing up and down a rickety metal ladder that gets very slippery in the rain.
To be totally comfortable in a rooftop tent, you’ll also need to ensure your vehicle is totally level when parked. That can be surprisingly difficult to achieve off-road, in the middle of nowhere where you want to go camping, and which will probably involve stacking various wooden board off-cuts as shims. Sinuhe Xavier, the creative director of the eponymous Overland Journal, describes the leveling process “like doing calculus.”
While we’re on the subject of math, I feel like we should also discuss the weight penalty. Those 150-plus pounds probably sound just moderately heavy to most of you, but you also have to understand the full burden carrying that weight so high up, outside your vehicle, causes. Sure, that’s only the weight of an adult human, and adding one of those inside your truck doesn’t really impact the way a car accelerates, handles, or tackles off-road obstacles. But your truck is designed to handle weight on the inside, not outside its cabin, as high up and as far from the ideal center of gravity as possible. All the way up there, the forces generated by that weight cause your suspension to dive more significantly under braking, squat more during acceleration, and twist more to the sides in corners, or, more problematically, through off-road obstacles. In so doing, 150 pounds on the roof is enough to overtax the suspension on many stock trucks. Fit one to an upgraded, lifted truck, and suddenly the problem is much worse—an already raised center-of-gravity becomes even higher, possibly making the vehicle unsafe to use through off-camber terrain and making it more likely that the truck could tip over onto its side.
Surely, there must be a way to significantly reduce that weight and make a rooftop tent safe and convenient to carry. At least that was our thinking when we set out to find the ultimate rooftop tent solution. And I think we did just that. But before we divulge details, let’s look at what people like so much about rooftop tents:
Quick, easy setup: Most rooftop tents simply need to be opened up to deploy. Clamshell models flip open, while others raise on scissor-lift style frames or just lift up on sturdy tent poles. In bad weather or at the end of a long day, you can get out of your car, deploy the tent, and climb inside less than 10 minutes later.
Increase interior storage: By moving the tent and mattress onto the roof, you free up storage space inside the vehicle. This can make your life more organized and more accessible or just enable you to carry more crap.
Home-like beds: By cutting a piece of memory foam to the exact size and shape of the rooftop-tent’s interior, you get a unified sleeping surface that can comfortably fit multiple people. Rooftop tent sex, anyone?
Large dimensions: More a home on wheels than a claustrophobic backpacking tent, rooftop tents typically have vertical walls, tall ceilings, and plenty of space inside.
Instagram-ready looks: Nothing says “I’m a L33T Overlander” as powerfully as a rooftop tent. Not a lifted FJ, not an ARB Fridge, not a hi-lift jack, or even a saturation-free Instagram filter.
I think we achieved all of that with our setup, did it with an all-in (including bed) weight of just 48 pounds, and for an all-in cost of (just!) $1,200. Here's how we did it.
Waterproof shell: The first thing you’ll need to worry about is how to carry everything in a package that’s convenient, secure, and waterproof. We opted for Touratech’s new Expedition Bag ($250). Made for them by Ortlieb, its polyurethane material is both waterproof and abrasion resistant. It’s closed by a waterproof T-Zip like the one you'd find on a dry suit, and is fitted with rugged but minimalist tie down points, handles, and backpack straps. Loading it onto and off of the roof of my Discovery takes just seconds.
Comfortable mattress: We included our favorite two-person sleeping pad of all time—the Exped MegaMat Duo ($279). Made from both memory foam and a pressurized air chamber, it’s way more supportive than foam alone, and more support equals a better night’s sleep.
On top of that, we’ve fitted a cheap flannel sheet set from Target (full-size sheets fit the Exped perfectly), pillows from home, and a synthetic quilt. We pulled our quilt off the otherwise disposable REI Kingdom Queen sleep system, but you could get similar comfort using a queen-size Rumpl Puffy blanket ($199). We’ve additionally included a generic fleece blanket ($12) that I bought at a Walmart on Maui. It makes a nice tent floor, gives Wiley a bed, or adds some extra insulation on cold nights.
Spacious interior: There’s no better packed-size-to-interior-space ratio in a tent than there is with the new Nemo Wagontop 4P ($499). It weighs just 18 pounds and packs down to the size of a large briefcase, but opens up to reveal an interior with six-and-a-half feet of standing room throughout. Its vertical walls make the most of its enormous, 100-by-100-inch footprint.
But wait! It’s a tent, surely it must be a pain to setup, and get wet inside if you set it up in the rain, right? Well, no. Nemo employed a single-wall design (no separate rain fly) and external poles to make setting it up easy, while keeping the weather out. The first time you try it, it’ll take you 20 minutes to figure out the gigantic pole system, but after just three uses, I’ve already got my total setup time down to around five minutes. And that’s typically one-handed, using the other to transport a beer can between my tailgate and my face.
So how do we set all that up on the roof of a Land Rover? Well, the big trick here is that we don’t. Instead, we throw the bag containing all the parts off the roof, and then set the tent up on the ground. I know that may seem radical, but hear me out. By moving our rooftop tent off the roof, where it’s carried, and onto the ground, where we set it up, we achieve a myriad of benefits no other rooftop tents enjoy:
Increased weather resistance: Camping on that beach in Baja, high winds would have had us moving inland if we were trying to sleep on the roof. With our radical tent-on-ground solution, however, we were able to park the truck at an angle with natural rocks, creating a very effective wind break. Additionally, the Nemo’s structure is very strong, providing excellent wind resistance.
Ease of egress/ingress: When I wake up in the middle of the night for an inevitable pee, I can simply unzip the door, and stagger outside. There’s no ladder to climb or fall down. This ladder-free setup also enables my son, Wiley, to easily sleep inside the tent with us. He was born without opposable thumbs, or even hands, and has trouble climbing ladders as a result.
Easily leveled: If I’m unable to park my truck on a precisely level plot of ground, I can simply throw the Touratech bag on my back, and walk a few yards to a clear patch of ground. Heck, I could even walk a few hundred yards, and camp away from my vehicle.
Unimpaired vehicle dynamics: Already suffering from a fairly high center of gravity when stock, my Discovery has additionally been lifted with the addition of suspension that’s three inches taller, and much larger, 33-inch tires. A conventional 150-plus-pound rooftop tent would make its handling positively dangerous, but our radical rooftop-tent-on-the-ground design weighs only 48 pounds. Light enough that its effect on the vehicle can’t be felt. Additionally, by attaching to my roof rack with simple bungee cords, that package is light and easy enough to move onto and off of the roof, enabling us to keep it there only when needed. That means neither what little fuel economy my vehicle has left, nor its driving dynamics, need be compromised by the unnecessary fitment of a rooftop tent in day-to-day driving.
Cost: You needn’t rush out and buy all-new equipment in order to achieve most of our rooftop-tent-on-the-ground’s benefits. Many of you will already own a spacious car camping tent, a comfortable mattress, or a nice quilt. By simply housing them in a waterproof, portable container of your choice, then throwing that on your roof, you could build your own rooftop-tent-on-the-ground setup. Listed here is simply the best equipment for the job, money no object.
Undoubtedly, our sharp-witted readers will have spotted several potential problems with our new design. Like any radical new idea, our rooftop-tent-on-the-ground is subject to both skepticism and teething problems. Let’s identify those issues, and discuss how we can address them:
Animals: In all my 35 years of camping, I have yet to be eaten by the chupacabra, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or even ManBearPig. That’s led me to form the hypotheses that—I know this will be controversial—the scary animal plague exists only in people’s minds. If you choose to disagree with me—as I know some of you will—I do have what I feel is a 100 percent foolproof suggestion: get a dog. Thanks to our rooftop-tent-on-the-ground’s radical ease of ingress and egress, that dog will even be able to protect you from inside the tent.
Sleeping on the side of the road, or in parking lots: This is a fairly constant reason given to me for why people want to sleep in or on their cars. It’s also not one which I understand. Again, during my 35 years of camping experience, I’ve never wanted to, had to, or just found it easier to set up camp on asphalt. If you’re unable to camp, why not simply get a motel room? Those have showers and cable television. You can pay for one with the money you save with our radical rooftop-tent-on-ground solution. And it’s not like you’re exactly stealth camping in a 10-foot high cabin on top of your $100,000 SUV.
Convincing people on Instagram that your life is awesome: Does our radical rooftop-tent-on-the-ground design look cool enough to get likes and accrue followers on social media? I’ll let you be the judge. Look at this picture and tell me if you feel any inkling to click a heart-shaped button. Do you? Be honest.
If you are having trouble adequately curating your life experiences through your phone, may I suggest that you may be better served by visiting more, and more interesting places, than buy purchasing unnecessary lifestyle accouterments?