Raising the roof(top)!

There are not many things that can put a damper on your carefully planned camping or adventure trip faster than not sleeping well. And with so many sleeping solutions available on the market today, there is no excuse not to have a good night’s rest even when roughing it. Last month we looked at trailer tents, hitting that sweet spot between space, comfort and value. This month we review whether rooftop tents are, in fact, worthy of their “darlings of the camping industry” title.

Long before social distancing was a requirement, many of us routinely sought escape from civilisation. Two ways to achieve this – overlanding and off-grid camping – have exploded in popularity over the last decade. But, while it’s great to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, going off-grid doesn’t have to mean losing all the creature comforts. With a well-constructed rooftop tent, you can have access to a go-anywhere sleep space that’s nearly as comfortable as your bedroom back home.

We chatted to our friends at Tentco to find out what you need to know before committing to a rooftop tent and – as one expects from the leaders in all things tent-related – this team gave us some expert advice. Although rooftop tents have become somewhat of a phenomenon in recent years, they’ve been around for decades. In fact, says Tentco director Dominique (Dom) Bello, the first rooftop tents can be traced back to the 1930s in Western Europe. In 1958, an Italian inventor named Giuseppe Dionisio patented the idea and developed better rooftop tents. As the years went by, more and more designs and styles have been made to accommodate a wider variety of vehicles and customer needs.

A rooftop tent is exactly what the name says – a place to sleep on top of your vehicle. The concept is simple: a mostly pre-assembled tent inside a protective shell or cover installed on your vehicle’s roof rack or over the canopy/load bed of a bakkie. When you’re ready to use it, you raise or fold open the tent, erecting it in the process. Typically, the canvas section (with windows and entrance doors) is raised on internal ribs mounted on a treated plywood floor, which in turn is folded out from the vehicle. You then install ancillary accessories like rain fly prop rods, set the access ladder in place, and you’re good to go. The beauty is the convenience. There’s no feeding of poles through fabric loops or hammering in of tent pegs unless you add a room section below.

There are two types of rooftop tents: soft-shell and hard-shell. From the name, you can gather that the former is usually based around a canvas material with typically a PVC protective cover that is removed before erecting the tent. A hard-shell features an aluminium or glassfibre composite clam arrangement which encases a canvas tent that unfolds when the lid is raised.

Tentco’s soft-shell tents are made with SABS-spec canvas ripstop fabric and high-quality aluminium frames. “Soft-shell rooftop tents are ideal for people who are looking for more space and comfort at a lighter weight and lower cost than the hard-shell counterparts,” says Dom. The flipside, of course, is that the soft-shell options take longer to set up, because you have to remove and later replace that PVC cover, plus fold out the floor. However, they are more customisable to suit your changing needs – you can, for example, add a cubicle underneath, which can be ideal as a changing, cooking or storage room.

Tentco offers three rooftop tent sizes – 1.2m x 2.4m, 1.4m x 2.4m and 1.6m x 2.4m – as well as a larger family option that measures a roomy 2m x 2.4m. Weight ranges from 62kg to 86kg, and the package includes a step ladder (two in the family option), mattress, flysheet, protective cover and aluminium extrusions fitted below the plywood floorboard to assure easy mounting onto a roof rack.

If you have never slept in a rooftop tent, it can be hard to imagine how different it is from sleeping on the ground. “Being a rooftop tent fan myself, I find sleeping in here generally safer and more secure than sleeping in a ground tent. But it does depend on where you want to camp and what your needs are,” says Dom. He adds that the bird’s-eye view of your surroundings, better airflow than in a traditional tent and peace of mind – knowing there is some distance between you and roaming predators and creepy crawlies – tends to swing his vote in favour of rooftops when wild camping.

Your questions answered

Can a rooftop tent fit on any car?

Rooftop tents are available to fit almost any car as long as it either has a roof rack or the capacity to support one. It’s essential to be sure your vehicle’s roof can handle the extra weight of the tent, plus the weight of anyone who will be sleeping in it, as well as bedding and other belongings brought in. How much a rooftop tent can hold depends on its length, width, and height. Some can snugly hold one or two people and a couple of sleeping bags, whereas others have the space for two adults (and a child or two) to stretch out in comfort.

How do rooftop tents attach?

Rooftop tents attach to roof racks using special hardware such as brackets and straps (which generally come with your purchase). When buying your rooftop tent, be sure to check whether the hardware is included (in Tentco’s case, it is). Without a roof rack, you’ll have no way to mount your tent so bear that cost in mind during your final consideration.

Are rooftop tents water and weather proof?

Rooftop tents are waterproof. In fact, they keep out the rain even more effectively than most standard tents. Additionally, they are naturally warmer than traditional tents since they’re made of thicker materials, and you can also purchase insulated weatherproof covers for added protection against the cold.

Does a rooftop change the way my vehicle drive?

Rooftop tents don’t drastically change the way vehicles drive, but because of the tent’s weight and reduced aerodynamics, you may notice increased fuel consumption or changes in handling (especially at high speeds on windy days).

Where do you store a rooftop tent when not in use?

Many people leave their rooftop tents mounted to their vehicles when they’re not using them. If you prefer to take it off, store it in a dry place, such as your garage or a climate-controlled storage building.


Pitching ease: It’s engineered for quick setup. Once in camp, you undo a few straps, pop it open and deploy the poles and ladder

Sturdy construction: Generally, the floor, tent fabric and pole materials are robust and able to withstand stormy weather.

Comfort: Most come with a plush foam mattress.

Camp anywhere: Set up in a campground, parking lot, remote dirt track, or wherever.

Camp above the ground: Keep your tent floor clear of rainwater runoff, crawling creatures and rocks and sticks.


Cost: Significantly pricier than a ground tent (but certainly cheaper than an off-road caravan or trailer).

Aerodynamic drag: The faster you drive, the greater the drag and impact on your fuel usage.

Complicates day trips: You can’t leave it set up while you drive your car away from your long-term camp so you have to break down and pitch daily.

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