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A Thule car top tent is parked in misty fields and two people fill it with gear.

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:

The sun rises over mountains where two jeeps are parked with car roof tents.

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.

A couple sit inside a roof top tent looking outside the windows.

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.

Two men stand in the snow with their car parked with a Thule rooftop tent.

Rooftop tent vs 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.

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.

Remember the roof racks!

Thule rooftop tents are mounted on the roof racks of your car. If you have roof racks already, make sure they’re compatible with the tent. If you don’t have roof racks yet, Thule has the best options!

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.

What’s the best roof top tent?

A family sit in the grass looking at their child with a Thule car top tent in the background.

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.

At the harbor, a man sips a coffee leaning against a folded Thule Foothill roof top tent.

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.

In mountainous area, a woman stands under a roof top tent for pick up trucks.

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.

Hard-shell vs 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.

Read on to see some of the most important differences between the two.

Hard-shell rooftop tents

Hard-shell rooftop tents have a hardy aluminum or ABS plastic exterior and are ready to use simply by unlatching the latches so that the tent pops up. They are a great option for people who prioritize setup and takedown speed, and only need space for up to two people.

Features of a hard-shell car tent:

  • Can be set up in under a minute – simply undo the latches and the tent pops up automatically so you’re ready for a great night’s sleep. Faster than traditional ground tents and soft-shell rooftop tents that take roughly 3-4 minutes.
  • Made of sturdy ABS plastic, so they are great at withstanding bad weather and dry quickly after a rainstorm
  • Some tents double as a cargo box, which makes them useful when you’re not camping
  • They fit up to two people
By the mountains, two cyclists cycle away in front of a car with a soft-shell rooftop tent.

Soft-shell rooftop tents

Soft-shell rooftop tents are made out of durable fabrics and come in a range of sizes for up to four people.They are great for campers who need extra space for kids, pets or gear. They’re also a great choice for avid nature lovers who want to sleep under the stars.

Features of a soft-shell car tent:

  • Can be set up in 3-4 minutes – simply remove the travel cover, unfold the tent and you´re ready to camp. This makes them a lot faster than traditional ground tents.
  • Lightweight which make them easier to put on and take off your vehicle
  • Fold compactly on your roof racks so you have space for other sports carriers
  • Work together with an annex or awning for even more sheltered space
  • Panoramic skylights allow for better ventilation, evening star gazing and a closer feeling to nature
  • More spacious than hard-shell tents, with the largest models fitting up to four people
  • A more affordable option
Two hikers walk by a mountain where a jeep is parked with a hard-shell rooftop tent.

Roof top tent accessories and features

  • How do you heat a roof top tent? Use a quilted insulator, this rooftop tent insulation is fitted to your tent and attaches to the internal frame for extra protection from the cold. For the most part, car top tents are warmer than ground tents because their material is thicker and because they have a layer of insulation built into them. Not to mention the added benefit of being up off the cold ground.
  • Why use a roof top tent with an annex? Some roof top tents come with a detachable annex. This gives you more sheltered space to get dressed before heading out on a day of exploring or extra space to keep your gear.
  • Bedding: One of the benefits of a roof top tent is the fitted mattress that allows for a well-deserved night’s rest, which is already set up in the tent so all you have to do is open the tent and jump in.
  • Anti-condensation mat: This mat creates an airflow that allows moisture to escape which prevents the buildup of mold and mildew.
  • Boot bags and tent organizers: To keep the inside of your tent as clean and dry as possible (a true feat when camping) hang a boot bag outside your tent to place your muddy shoes.

How do you know if a rooftop tent fits your vehicle?

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.

For your reference, the most important thing that determines vehicle compatibility is whether the rooftop tent weighs less that the max load capacity of your car, both when the car is moving and when it is parked. See below more details.
An illustration that shows one arrow pointing down on a car on the street with a folded rooftop tent.
  • The static weight capacity, on the other hand, is the weight that your car can take when the car is parked, the tent is set up and the ladder is added. Since the ladder adds extra support, the static weight capacity is usually three times more than the dynamic weight capacity. This tells you the weight needed to hold the tent and the people sleeping inside.
An illustration of a car with an unfolded rooftop tent and three arrows pointing down.

Roof rack fit

  • You will want to buy an aftermarket roof rack since they have a higher weight capacity than most factory installed racks that come with your car.
  • Roof top tents fit on most Thule roof racks. See some suitable roof racks below (use the car selector on the rooftop tent subcategory page and select your Thule roof racks to get a guaranteed fit).

 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.

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.

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