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Time Needed: ~60 minutes, Difficulty: Beginner, Cost: $850-$5,000

There’s merit to considering rooftop tents a paradigm-altering advancement in the world of vehicle-based camping. Originally championed by outdoorsy types in South Africa and Australia, rooftop tents have been gaining popularity in North America in recent years. It seems more people want access to the outdoors but don’t like the idea of sleeping directly on the ground.

Adding to their appeal, rooftop tents also reduce the time it takes to set up and tear down camp, with some structures that can be raised or lowered in less than five minutes. With a ground tent, even a smaller one, you will be the first and last one setting up your campsite if others in your group have rooftop tents. Rooftop tents are not all rainbows and sunshine, however. They’re supremely expensive, they require specific vehicles and equipment, and they can add complications to both your driving experience, as well as reduce your fuel economy.

A Thule rooftop tent installed on top of a Volvo XC90.
Consider the packaging size of the rooftop tent before purchasing. Photo by Thule

The Car Bibles’ editors want to help you determine if a rooftop tent is right for your upcoming adventures, and for those who buy one, we also want to lead you through the steps to install the tent on your vehicle. Let’s get lifted!

Pros of Rooftop Tents

Deciding to buy a rooftop tent is not an easy decision. Consider both the pros and cons, and manage your budget to find out if it’s the right move.

  • Convenience. Once the rooftop tent is installed, it doesn’t take much time or effort to set it up and get it ready for use. When you’re arriving late to the campground and it’s already dark out, or you’re rushing to get out to the trails, quick setup is extremely helpful.
  • Sleeping off the ground. Some people simply do not like the idea of sleeping on the ground. It’s spartan, it’s on top of dirt and bugs, and depending on the climate, it can significantly affect your sleeping temperature. It’s also more accessible to animals, those most bugs and forest animals like raccoons can still make their ways up ladders toward your rooftop tent.
  • It’s rad. When’s the last time you saw somebody with a rooftop tent? Exactly. These types of tents are fairly rare, so their novelty makes them pretty cool. Plus, if you’re really doing up your rig for overlanding, it greatly adds to the overall aesthetic package.
  • Tent protection and longevity. One of the premium aspects of a rooftop tent is that your tent never touches the ground, so it’s devoid of all the wear and tear that comes from dirt, rocks, sand, sticks, and bugs. It’s also typically stored in a soft or hard case

Cons of Rooftop Tents

  • Requires suitable vehicle. Not every vehicle will be the right shape, size, or have the correct equipment to be compatible with rooftop tents.
  • Requires suitable roof rack and/or cross bars. You might need to buy a roof rack or crossbars if you don’t have the right ones already.
  • Price. There’s no denying most rooftops are expensive, especially when compared to a regular ground tent.
  • Increases vehicle height. Adding a rooftop tent increases the overall size and height of your vehicle, so if you’re going to be squeezing through tight spaces, it might not be the ideal method for tenting.
  • Added weight. Depending on the size of the tent, it could greatly increase the load your vehicle has to carry. If the vehicle is small or underpowered, that could affect performance, plus …
  • Fuel mileage penalty. It will also reduce your fuel efficiency.
  • Limited to car-accessible campsites. Some of the best campsites cannot be accessed by a car and require backpacking or carrying all of your equipment to the site. You can’t do that with a rooftop tent.

Crossbars or Roof Racks?

Before you are able to install your new rooftop tent, you will need to make sure you have the proper base. And guess what? You cannot simply use the roof of your car, you’ll need a sturdy set of crossbars or a full-on roof rack. If you have a vehicle that already has crossbars, then you’ll need to check their weight capacities and capabilities. Make sure you check both the static (parked) and dynamic (moving) load capacities. Many OEM crossbars will not be heavy duty enough to withstand and support the weight brought on by a rooftop tent. If yours is not strong enough, you’ll need to remove the old crossbars and install new ones or a install a fully caged roof rack.

Installing a rooftop tent on a roof rack will be somewhat different from installing a tent on crossbars, but the same guiding principles apply.

The Job: How To Install a Rooftop Tent

Use these tips and suggestions to safely and properly install your new rooftop tent. In this specific instance, we are discussing installing the tent on top of a vehicle with crossbars.

The Safety Brief

Car Bibles would like you to be as safe as possible when installing your rooftop tent. Wearing safety glasses and some gloves will ensure that no errant metal spurs grab your skin or shoot into your eye. Other than that, take care not to smack a knuckle while using a wrench.

If you are installing your tent inside a garage, double-check that your vehicle will be able to exit the garage with the tent attached. There is no point to installing, uninstalling, backing out of the garage, and doing it all again. 

The Tools and Parts You Need

Each tent will be a little different in the exact items you will need for installation. A majority of tent manufacturers include the required tools for installation. Structures made by Tepui, Cascadia Vehicle Tents, and Free Spirit Recreation all come with a tool kit.

Tools

Parts

  • Rooftop tent
  • Crossbars or roof rack
A multi-colored Front Runner rooftop tent unfolded and setup on top of an SUV.
Some rooftop tents extend beyond the car, while others are self-contained. Photo by Front Runner

Step-By-Step Installation

Installing your tent is not complicated, but don’t rush the process. Mounting correctly means that your tent won’t blow off the top of your vehicle while in motion. Use caution.

  1. Use a box cutter to open your rooftop tent box, remove the tent, and lay it on a flat surface.
  2. Included with your tent is mounting hardware, a ladder, tent cover, ladder brackets, channel sliders with bolts and nuts, steel mounting plates, and bolts with washers.
  3. Mount the channel slides parallel to the tent hinge. Make sure to align the track with the pre-drilled holes in the base of the tent.
  4. Slide the bolts with washers between the mattress and the tent base. Screw these bolts into the nuts in the channel slides. This secures the mounting tracks to the tent.
  5. Turn the tent over and attach the ladder brackets. This is similar to attaching the mounting tracks as bolts go between the mattress and tent base. Utilize the nuts to secure the bolts, but do not tighten them yet.
  6. Attach the ladder to the ladder brackets using the proper hardware. Be sure to follow your tent’s instructions. Once the ladder and brackets are all attached, tighten the bolts per your instruction manual.
  7. The next step is to attach the tent cover to the C-channel that the cover slides into. This is where metal spurs on the end of the C-channel could cause injury. Use the metal file if there are spurs.
  8. Zip the tent cover closed.
  9. You will need help with this step. Two people should lift your tent onto the top of your vehicle. Make sure that the mounting tracks are perpendicular to your roof-rack crossbars.
  10. Position the tent, so that it will open in the direction that you would like it to. Most users have them open to the passenger side, but the direction is up to you.
  11. Place the channel sliders and bolts into the mounting tracks. Slide them across until they straddle a roof-rack crossbar. You will have to lift the tent to get one bolt to the other side of the crossbar. Repeat this process for all four mounting tracks.
  12. Attach the steel mounting plates to the underside of each mounting track. Secure them with the provided nuts and tighten with a wrench.
  13. Install the plastic end caps into the ends of the mounting tracks.
  14. Gas up, load up, check your tire pressures, and go camping.
Two people put a rooftop tent on top of a vehicle's roof rack.
Using a second person can make installation easier and quicker. Photo by Thule.

The Car Bibles Questionnaire

Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!

Q: Can you mount a tent to an aftermarket roof rack?

A: This question is a little trickier. The quick answer is yes, but you will want to check with your tent manufacturer before you purchase your tent. Some racks will require some mild modifications to install particular tents, so double-check with the tent or rack manufacturer before purchasing. Shipping these tents is not cheap, and return shipping is even more expensive.

Q: Can you mount a tent without crossbars?

A: We do not recommend it, as there are not many manufacturers that suggest or offer that type of installation. The mounting tracks and steel mounting plates can sandwich the side rails of your roof rack. But be careful. The tent could slide on those rails if there isn’t a track lock. The crossbars ensure that the tent is not moving forward and backward on your vehicle.

Q: Can you mount a tent on a trailer?

A: Yes, as long as the trailer is outfitted with the appropriate type of crossbars. Not having crossbars means there will be some fabrication involved to mount the tent. There are a number of crossbars that are made specifically for the purpose to use with a trailer.

Video Tutorials on Installing Your Rooftop Tent

To make things even easier to understand, we’ve collected numerous installation videos that show exactly how various brands pair their rooftop tents to different vehicles.

Tepui

iKamper

Yakima

Thule

Smittybuilt

Roofnest

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