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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.

A jeep is parked with a hard shell rooftop tent and a man climbs the ladder to grab his gear.

Hard shell roof top tent vs soft shell roof top tent

Hard shell roof top tent: A hard shell tent is opened just by releasing a few latches. For this reason, they are even faster than soft shell roof top tents to set up and tear down. Also, since they tend to be made of sturdy material like aluminum or ABS plastic, they are great at withstanding wind and rain. All these factors make them popular for overlanding and off-roading trips. Also, some hard-shell tents double up as a cargo box for extra storage, or to use during the off-season.

Soft shell roof top tents: Soft shell tents are the most common type. One half is mounted to the roof rack of your car, and the other is supported a ladder. To open it you simply pull down the ladder and the tent folds open. Soft shell tents come in bigger sizes than hard shell and the largest roof top tent fits four people. Also, soft-shell tents can have an annex attached which allows for extra space below the tent.

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.

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. 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: When placed on the floor, this mat helps keep the inside of the tent from getting musty and damp.
  • Boot bags: 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 roof top 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 car properly. Below are some things to consider when checking if a tent will fit your car.

Weight capacity

  • The dynamic weight capacity is the weight your car can handle when driving. This is the maximum weight capacity specified by your vehicle manufacturer. It’s basically the weight capacity needed to hold your rooftop tent.
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.

Distance requirement

  • There are aluminum bars at the bottom of the tent used to attach the tent to your car roof. These bars can’t be too wide for your car. Check the recommended distance requirement in the tent’s manual to make sure it fits your specific vehicle.

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. Your rack will need to be able to handle the dynamic weight of the tent.
  • Roof top tents fit on most Thule roof racks. See some suitable roof racks below (although always double check that it’ll fit the specific rooftop tent you’ve chosen).

Roof Type

  • Roof top tents work with all roof types except for bare roofs with no tracks or rails (as illustrated below). A car with a sunroof works fine, but not glass roofs.
Drawing of roof with no tracks or rails.
  • A rooftop tent works on vehicles with crossbars, siderails, gutters, tracks and roofs with fixed points (as shown below). But do not mount your tent on factory installed crossbars or siderails that came with your car since they often won’t be able to handle the load.
Drawing of roof with tracks and rails.

Use our fit guide to simplify the process! We do all the calculations so that you don’t have to. Just select your car brand, car model and manufacture year into our guide and we’ll suggest some of our rooftop tents that fit your car.

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.

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