Best Car Camping Tents - Where To Sleep
Rooftop tents are a popular way to increase campsite comfort, but as I discovered recently, there’s a lotto consider before you climb that ladder.
Words: Adam Jane
Ah, the simple life; canvas waving gently in the breeze, dappled sunlight swirling across the roof of your tent as campsite trees sway in the morning air. Laying there, it occurs to you that you pitched your shelter on top of a tree root last night after arriving in the dark. The dull ache it causes sharpens as you deflate your air mattress and develops into a stabbing pain while stuffing your tent into its impossibly small bag.
I’d wager anyone who regularly spends time outdoors has a similar anecdote. Those of us who find solace in weekends out bush and are drawn to remote places, have no doubt entertained thoughts of upgrading to a more comfortable camping set-up. A little while ago I began having such thoughts on a regular basis and before too long, it was time. Once you start weighing up the options, you’ll realise that there are many, but a quick assessment of your situation can reduce the playing field significantly. I was able to rule out towing almost immediately.
Since I was living in an apartment with no garage and very little storage space, a camper trailer didn’t seem practical. I briefly looked into camper-vans, but the idea of driving a van every other day didn’t appeal. Besides, I already had a 4WD that I wasn’t keen to get rid of. It didn’t take too long for me to decide that a rooftop tent suited my situation to a tee. And it’s not just me, there are plenty of other people choosing to upgrade (or scale down) to a rooftop tent lately, for all kinds of reasons. For some, the idea of having an all-in-one rig is important; offroad trailers are remarkably agile, but it’s always easier to get down a track without something on the hitch; or perhaps the family’s growing, in which case a rooftop tent (RTT) can pair nicely with a camper for added sleeping space.
Spoiler alert; I did buy a rooftop tent. It’s seen me through plenty of weekends away and a long-distance interstate haul and I’m convinced I made the right choice. One of the most obvious advantages is the ease of setup and pack-up. Although the process is different for each design, the majority of RTTs are so simple that even the act of rolling out a swag will seem laborious in comparison. Lumpy ground isn’t an issue and your footprint is no bigger than the contact surface of your tyres, so you don’t have to worry about inadvertently crushing in excess of four square metres of new plant growth – plus, the sleeping surface is always flat. With a set of stepped riser-ramps you can easily level your vehicle on uneven ground. You can relax at beach and riverside campsites up north without the threat of a saltwater croc creeping up to your tent during the night, and it’s a lot easier to keep the sand from invading space. Heavy-duty construction and solid anchoring make good quality RTTs impervious to the elements and since most come with an inbuilt mattress – some even have lights and charging points – they’re a perfectly pleasant place to wait out the weather if things turn gloomy.
The ladder will be an instant no-no for some, but there are also little things that you may not have considered, such as figuring out where to put your hoes or what, if any, of your luggage can fit up there. Since installing my RTT, there have still been occasions where I’ve opted to pitch my dome-tent instead; generally because not all campsites cater to car campers. Once your RTT is setup, your movements are pretty much restricted to your campsite. Unlike a trailer, which can be unhitched to free up the vehicle, a RTT will need to be packed away if you want to head out from the site.
Types of RTT
There are two main types of rooftop tent on the market: hard-shell or soft. Hard-shell rooftop tents have a solid housing that lifts, sometimes hinged on one end. They open with the help of gas struts, winding handles or even electric motors, making them the easiest to set up and pack away. Their hard shells are reasonably aerodynamic, as well as durable and weatherproof. If you need a lot of space, however, hard-shell tents may not be the best option, since they tend not to expand beyond the length and width of their shell (there are exceptions). This also means they take up the whole roof and tend not to leave any extra room to store things on roof racks. Soft rooftop tents are more akin to traditional canvas structures that fold out and expand. They come in various sizes, some of which can accommodate four people, but tend to take a bit more time to set up and pack away. Since they fold up, they leave room on the roof for additional storage, though they tend to be quite tall when packed and their boxy shapes cause more wind drag. In general, soft RTTs are a bit more versatile but slightly less durable than hard-shells.
Materials and Construction
At a glance it can be hard to discern the strengths and weaknesses of various tents. If you’re serious about getting the best bed for your buck, then looking closely at how it’s made and what it’s made from can reveal a lot. Whether you’re after a soft or hard-shell RTT, there will be textiles involved. Each different fabric has benefits and draw-backs, and may suit different campers according to their habits and the places they go. Cotton canvas is heavy and durable, it’s breathable, insulates well and its tight weave makes it waterproof without the need for additional coatings or finishes. Cotton can be expensive, however, dries slower and is susceptible to mold and mildew. Nylon and polyester are lightweight and require less maintenance than cotton. The downside is that they don’t breathe so well (they get hot in the sun and will build up more condensation in the night), require chemical coatings to keep out water and flap around in the wind a lot. The difficulty in determining the quality of synthetic tent fabrics is that their weather-resistant properties are largely dependent on the kind of coating applied by the manufacturer, not just the way the material feels in your hand. A poly-cotton blend will offer degrees of the advantages and disadvantages of its constituent parts. Blended materials are common for rooftop tents (anything in the range of 260- 20gsm will provide a good balance between weight and durability). My tent uses a 300gsm poly-cotton canvas and has been comfortable in low-single digit temperatures without gathering much condensation, it holds up well in a downpour and doesn’t shake in the wind. One way to determine a tent’s ability to keep you dry is its Hydrostatic Head (HH) value. Without getting too bogged down on the detail, any tent with 3,000mm HH will do the job, but the higher the number is the better. Go for something in the region of 5,000 to 10,000mm HH, you'll be able to ride out a storm in complete comfort. Another key indication of quality is the way the seams and zippers are finished. All seams should be double stitched, taped and sealed to prevent water ingress. Zips should be covered with gutters or flaps to stop water from running across them and seeping through. Mesh panels are important for ventilation and keeping insects out of your sleeping space. A quality tent will have exceptionally fine mesh, with small holes that prevent any insect invasion.
Soft tents need a good quality cover to protect them from water and the ravages of UV when packed up. These should be made from something more substantial than the tent itself, and since they’re not required to provide the same comfort can be much more utilitarian. PVC coated material upwards of 500gsm are common. Some tents are made on a wooden MDF base, some use sheet metal and some are plastic, but by far the best strength to weight comes from honeycomb or extruded aluminium panel, which has the bonus of good insulation. When looking at hard-shell tents, you’ll also encounter a variety of materials. Metal panels are strong and weather resistant but will add a lot of weight. Fibreglass and fibre reinforced plastic are common, as they allow for aerodynamic shapes and can be easily reinforced, where simple plastic shells tend to be flimsier.
Weight was a big factor when it came time for me to choose a rooftop tent, and I’d hazard a guess that it’s the most common area in which people drop the ball. RTTs are heavy. At the lower end of the scale they weigh around 50kg, with the upper end nudging a staggering 100kg. First, you need to know what the load capacity is for the roof of your vehicle. Putting weight on the roof of a car changes the centre of gravity and affects handling, braking and stability, and the structure of the roof is subject to dynamic forces when driving over bumps and corrugations. I’ve heard stories of people mounting tents that were too heavy and buckling the roof driving over corrugations. When you get into the heavier end of the rooftop tent spectrum, many cars are simply not strong enough to support them. Your vehicle’s handbook should tell you the maximum roof load you’re allowed but if it’s not in there, contact a dealer and find out before you load up. Between 50kg and 80kg is common for urban vehicles, a handful of 4WDs get up to 150kg and there are a handful that go above that. In general, common 4WD models have a roof capacity of 100kg-plus. A Subaru Forester will even do the job at around 80kg. This does not, however, mean that the weight of a rooftop tent plus two sleeping adults will destroy your car. A vehicle’s roof loading limit refers to the amount of weight you can have on the roof while driving. Stationary loads don’t exert anywhere near as much stress, so they can be considerably higher. If the combined weight of your tent and roof racks is within the vehicle’s load limit, you’ll be fine up there. Despite my vehicle being capable of 150kg roof load, in the end I purchased a tent that weighs a relatively scant 55kg; why add more weight than necessary? The more you add, the lower your fuel efficiency, the quicker your tyres will wear out and the lower your payload becomes. Keep in mind that exceeding vehicle weight limits – roof load, payload, GVM, etc... – is illegal and can void your insurance, not to mention get you in a lot of trouble.
Most rooftop tents can be mounted to flatbed or crossbar roof racks, although there are some newer kinds that don’t require roof racks and mount using specially made brackets – a great idea, but they don’t make brackets to fit all vehicles. Roof racks are designed with maximum load ratings as well, so you’ll need to make sure yours are strong enough for the tent, and off-road capable if you plan on heading that way. Once the roof racks are in place, the tent can be secured with a few simple brackets, getting the tent onto the roof is the hard part. I wanted a tent that I’d be able to mount at home, without needing a fork-lift or some elaborate pulley system, and my 55kg tent was easy enough for two people to lift the two-and-a- bit metres onto the roof. After the initial haul it was straight-forward; the brackets slid easily into their channels and we cranked the nyloc nuts until the bottom brackets bowed slightly. One extra step we took on my install was to cut up an old bicycle inner tube and slip squares of rubber between the brackets and roof racks to dampen vibrations. If you have access to equipment that can lift a heavier load onto the roof, it’s an easy job. Otherwise, purchase locally and it’s possible to it installed at the point of purchase for a small fee.
Before you go getting all hot under the collar for a particular tent that appeared in a Google search, remember that not everything is available down under. Unlike day to day products that are easy to buy online, RTTs are cumbersome to ship. Some companies offer freight options, while others require you organise it yourself; either way, it’s likely to be an expensive process. And don’t forget you’ll have to pay GST once it arrives. The easier way to buy is from a local manufacturer or distributor. Not only will it save you the effort ofhaving to bring one into the country yourself, but you’ll benefit from after-sale care.
You can spend anywhere from $1000 to $6000 for a brand-new tent, or you may be able to grab a bargain second hand. Remember to factor in the cost of roof racks if you haven’t got them already. Regarding rooftop tents, and outdoor gear in general, price is often an indicator of quality – although that’s not to be considered gospel. Do your research, read reviews and ask those who’ve already made the purchase whether a brand is worth the coin, then splash out for the best you can afford. If you’re planning to use your RTT regularly or take it on any serious trips, the merits of quality will quickly reveal themselves.
Caring for your RTT
Once you’ve forked out the shekels for a top of the line tent, keeping it in good condition is a worthy endeavour, and a simple one at that. Ensure you let it dry before packing it away for long periods, this might mean setting it up in the driveway at home on a sunny afternoon. If any mold or mildew does form,
scrub as much of it off as possible with a stiff brush, vacuum the area to remove spores, then wipe the area clean with a sponge, water and non-detergent soap. If that doesn’t do it, try a commercial mold removing product. I like to tighten the mounting bolts and roof rack fittings before and after I go on trips or big drives, just to be on the safe side.
Depending on the design of your tent, you may also wish to adjust the latches to ensure they’re sealing properly and apply sealant or water-proofer to fabrics every once in a while (especially the seams, if they aren’t thoroughly taped). Any canvas damage can be patched up using an off-the-shelf kit, or you can have it done by a professional; in the short term a bit of gaffer tape can plug temporary leaks.
Go on then...You probably want to know what I chose, right? A false start saw me attempting to purchase a cheaper tent through a large outdoor retailer, which essentially fell through as a result of poor customer service. That lack-lustre experience motivated me to up my budget and go for the one I really wanted; an iKamper Skycamp 2x. The crew from the Australian distributor, Drifta Campers, were easy to deal with and the tent itself ticked all the boxes. It’s comfortable, sleeps two people (there's also a four-person version available, called the Skycamp 4x), provides ample headroom when sitting upright and is built exceptionally well. The addition of a clear panel in the roof that allows me to see the stars, or it can be covered over for total darkness, is a favourite feature of mine.
Pick of the Bunch
As you may have noticed, I did a lot of research when I was looking to buy a rooftop tent. On top of all the reading, I took every chance I got to approach rooftop tent owners for their two-cents, and I was also lucky to be able to see many of them in real life at various outdoor shows. I discovered that there loads of great products, many of which I might have ended up buying had my own needs been different. Here are a few of the others that stood out for various reasons:
- For Families
Darche have a huge range of affordable, family-sized tents that can be matched up with a variety of annexes and awnings to create large, functionals spaces.
- For Post-Apocalyptic Survival
Alu-Cab make ultra-tough checker-plate aluminium tents are likely to outlast the cars they're mounted on.
- For Technophiles
Backtrax make a tent that has remote control opening and is fitted with Bluetooth speakers, plus it has solar and an independent battery to keep your gizmos charged.
For the Weight Conscious
Bundutec's Moremi Extreme Lite V2 is a svelte little number that weighs in at 42kg – that's only two jerry cans-worth.
For a Custom Job
Hannibal Safari are an Australian manufacturer who will happily customise their designs and build a one-off to suit your needs.