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Two jeeps are parked in the mountains with Thule Approach car tents and the sun is setting.

How Do Rooftop Tents Work? - A Complete Guide

How do you choose a rooftop tent? And how do you make sure it fits your car? We answer these questions and more!

Roof top tents are made for campers who love adventure. Their quick set-up time means you can camp easily anywhere, and their durable construction makes them the perfect for the wilderness.

So is it time to ditch your tent on the cold, muddy ground and climb up among the treetops? Well, before you do, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. Our complete guide will help you answer any pressing questions.


In this article:


Why buy a rooftop tent?

There are lots of benefits of a rooftop tent:

The adventure. Rooftop tents are a unique way to experience the great outdoors, no matter the conditions. These tents are built to last. They handle bad weather better than ground tents and can be used in tricky terrain unlike RVs.

The view. Getting up off the ground means that you have easy viewing of the beautiful scenery just outside your tent. Some roof top tents even have built-in sky panels, so you can drift off gazing at the stars.

Two people sit in a Thule car top tent with panoramic skylights and a view of the mountains.

Quick to set up. Rooftop tents can be opened and packed away within minutes. You don’t have to connect a bunch of poles and secure them in the ground like a ground tent. All you have to do is unfold the tent and you’re done. This means more time exploring and less time setting up camp.

Comfort. Most roof top tents have built-in mattresses which are comfier than blow-up mattresses (especially a deflated one!). The bedding remains inside the tent which means you can jump in as soon as the tent is opened. Also, the tent’s flat floor means no more knobby stones poking your back at night.

Helps you keep clean and dry. These tents keep you up and away from mud, snow, sand and critters.

Built for all kinds of weather. The materials used to make rooftop tents are often designed to withstand harsh weather conditions better than ground tents.

A Defender is driving down a street with with a folded car top tent on the roof racks of the car.

What’s the best roof top tent?

Need help finding the perfect rooftop tent for your lifestyle? Here are some of our suggestions.

Car top tents for families

The largest roof top tents usually max out with a weight capacity of about 650 lbs (290kg), which is perfect as a 4 person tent for families. A roof top tent annex also gives you extra space to get the little ones ready in the morning, or even a separate place for them to sleep.

A jeep is parked in the mountains with a roof top tent and a woman sits under the annex while a man grills.
See our rooftop tent accessories like awnings and annexes to increase living space for the family!
A family with kids sit next to a camp fire in the dark beside a Thule rooftop tent.
Read our tips about camping with kids here

Recommended family tents

Some of our recommended rooftop tents for families include: Thule Approach L, Thule Approach M, Thule Tepui Autana

Car top tents for weekends and short trips

If you’re the type of explorer who likes quick weekend getaways or a short stay at a campsite, a compact lightweight car roof tent is ideal. A tent like the Thule Foothill frees up space on the roof of your car. This makes it ideal for smaller vehicles like crossovers and wagons and means you can bring along extra equipment like a bike or kayak.

Alt text A woman climbs the ladder into a rooftop tent parked in the forest with bikes on the roof of the car.
See all our rooftop tents here

Recommended weekender car tents

Some of our recommended rooftop tents for families include: Thule Foothill

Car top tents for rugged adventurers

If you have a long trip planned out to the hinterlands, choose a roof top tent that is designed for where the road ends. Thicker tent material and diamond plated flooring, for example, helps tents withstand brutal weather and off-road conditions. A tent like this is perfect for your 4X4 trailer or off-road rigs.

Hard-shell rooftop tents are also ideal for jeeps and truck beds. Their hard material makes them extra good at withstanding rain and wind.

A man climbs into a hard-shell rooftop tents on a jeep parked next to a snowy mountain.
What is the difference between hard-shell and soft-shell tents?
A man looks up at a woman sitting inside a Thule roof top tent.
See our rooftop tent accessories that make even the most rugged adventures more comfortable!

Recommended rugged rooftop tents

Some of our recommended rooftop tents for families include: Thule Basin, Thule Basin Wedge

What are the differences between our Thule rooftop tents?

Are you browsing our different rooftop tents and unsure which one would suit you? To narrow your search, start off by heading to our rooftop tent page. Click “Select your vehicle” and see which rooftop tents fit your car.

If all tents fit your car, here are some of the most important differences between them.

Thule Approach

Thule Thule Approach rooftop tent is our most modern car tent to date. With outward-angled walls, it provides a spacious feeling. This is also the only tent where every single size is compatible with an extended canopy that you can buy separately for extra living space. Also, Thule Approach comes with the Thule Mounting Brackets included, which make it super easy to attach the tent to your roof racks.

Thule Foothill

Thule Foothill is a compact, low-profile tent that doesn’t take up much space on your roof racks. This means that you can also load another sports carrier on your roof racks to bring with a bike, kayak, or other gear! Perfect for action-filled adventures.

Thule Autana

These heavy-duty tents come in sizes for up to four people and includes and extended canopy for even more living space.

Thule Basin and Thule Basin Wedge

These rooftop tents are hard-shell tents, which means that they are even more equipped for brutal weather and even faster to set up when you arrive at your destination. They also double up as cargo boxes.

The wedge shape of the Thule Basin Wedge makes the tent even more aerodynamic when driving, and even better at withstanding winds when it is set up. The Thule Basin, however, feels more spacious.

Rooftop tent accessories

Even on a rugged off-road adventure, it's important to be comfortable. Take your overlanding experience to the next level with these rooftop tent accessories.

Two people lie inside a rooftop tent with sleeping bags drinking warm beverages from mugs.
Check out our rooftop tent accessories

Recommended accessories

Recommended rooftop tent accessories: boot bags, annexes, insulators and more!

Hard-shell versus soft-shell rooftop tents

Rooftop tents can be divided into soft-shell and hard-shell rooftop tents. Hard shell tents have a plastic or metal roof while soft shell tents fold open like a book and the tent canopies are entirely made from fabric.

Two people cycle away from a vehicle parked in the snowy mountains with a soft-shell roof top tent.
Read about the differences between our hardshell and softshell tents here!

Making sure the rooftop tent fits your vehicle and roof racks

We know how important it is to make sure that your rooftop tent is secure and safe. That’s why it is important that your tent fits your vehicle properly.

Luckily, we’ve tested our car top tents with many vehicles and all Thule roof racks to provide a guaranteed fit. Head over to the rooftop tent subcategory page, click “Select vehicle”, insert your specific vehicle model and your roof racks to see which roof tents fit your vehicle.

A man and woman sit in a roof top tent on Thule roof racks looking at each other.
How do I know if a rooftop tent fits my vehicle? Learn more here!
Alt text A woman climbs the ladder into a rooftop tent parked in the forest with bikes on the roof of the car.
Check out the vehicle selector on our rooftop tent page

How do you use a rooftop tent?

How to install a roof top tent?

Before you get camping, you have to first mount the roof top tent to your vehicle. Rooftop tents are designed differently and have different installation methods, but the general process for most tents is:
1. Place the tent on the roof rack of your car, slide it into place.
2. Secure the tent by bolting down the provided mounting hardware.

Of course, for more specific instructions always refer to the manual of your specific tent.

The newest Thule rooftop tent models include premium mounting brackets that makes it super easy to install the tent on your roof racks in just 4 minutes — half the time of most traditional tents. This new mounting hardware also locks the tent to your roof racks, for extra security.

A man shows us how to install a roof top tent on your car using the Thule mounting brackets.
How to use the rooftop tent?

Once you’ve reached your destination, how do you set up the rooftop tent? There are two options, fold-out or pop-up, both are a lot quicker than traditional ground tents.


Fold-out:

Most common with soft-shell roof top tents. Simply pull off the travel cover, pull out the ladder and unfold the tent. Adjust the ladder so that it reaches the floor and then you’re ready to enjoy!


Pop-up:

Most common for hard-shell roof top tents. Simply unlatch the latches and the tent will pop up into place. It’s that simple!


How long does it take to open a rooftop tent?

Some roof top tent enthusiasts have been interested in this exact question. When timed, most rooftop tents can be opened and ready for use in about three to four minutes average.

The process of opening the tent, setting up the windows and rainfly rods can take a little longer, anywhere from 4-6 minutes. Hard-shell tents are usually quicker since there are no extra features like rain fly rods to set up.


Where can you camp with a roof top tent?

You can set up your tent anywhere camping is allowed. Campsites, certain national parks, or designated parking areas can allow camping. Check the guidelines of your local authorities to see if they allow camping with a car. Apps like iOverlander or Allstays help you find places in your area where camping is allowed.

Two vehicles are parked in the snowy mountain with Thule Approach car top tents and people biking around.

Frequently asked car top tent questions

Rooftop tent versus trailer?

The rooftop tent is more affordable than a trailer, camper van or RV – but is still a mobile home transported by your car. These tents can be transported on any vehicle which makes them more flexible. Also, they can handle bumpy terrain making them perfect for off-road adventures.

A trailer, van or RV is a better option for those who like being in a home away from home, with a water and plumbing system. As they are larger, they are often less flexible than rooftop tents.

Do you need a roof rack for a roof top tent?

Yes! Rooftop tents are installed on the rack system of your vehicle, truck, SUV or van.

Can you put a rooftop tent on top of a jeep or truck?

Yes! Most roof top tents fit on most vehicles, whether it be jeep, truck, or SUV. Truck and van racks that fit pick-ups or truck beds are great for mounting your roof top tent.

Can I put a rooftop tent and a kayak on my rack? What about canoes or bicycles?

Yes! Some roof top tents give you enough space to also carry a kayak, canoe or bicycle on the side. A roof top tent and a cargo box is also possible. Just make sure the weight capacity of your roof rack and car is up to it.

A man with a kayak paddle is standing next to his vehicle by the sea with a Thule rooftop tent  and kayak mounted to the roof.