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Oh! The lure of the roof top tent… Evoking road trips, freedom and outbound adventures.
The many overlanding pictures of vehicles with RTT’s (Roof-Top Tents) on them provide dreamy impressions to those who are in search of liberty, where nothing stops us from just taking off, and exploring uncharted territories.
We actually chose an ARB roof-top tent on our Jeep JK for our 10 month North, Central & South American overlanding trip for these exact reasons. A trip in which we drove from Montreal, Canada, 38,000 km with an RTT atop our Jeep Wrangler. The tent sheltered us all the way to Ushuaia Argentina and back. From windy Cape Hatteras to wintery Bolivian weather at 4800 Meters to extreme heat and dampness in the Jungles of Costa Rica, we covered it all, or better said, it covered us!
Ever wonder what it’s like to sleep in a Roof Top Tent?
Here are 10 key factors to consider when travelling with a roof-top tent
Here are 10 key factors to consider when travelling with a roof-top tent
Parked in crushed seashells – East Coast of Argentina
Note: The following review and considerations are based on the ARB Simpson III model Roof-top tent.
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#1) A Roof Top Tent Sets Up Fast… actually in 2 minutes
Don’t believe me? Watch this video that proves it. Of course, at first, it takes practice and extra time to set up, but it doesn’t take too long to get it down to a science. The setup can be done quite easily by one person, once deployed, all there’s left to do is to open the tent’s window flaps.
TIP: Leave the sheets and pillows inside, they’ll compress and fold away from the tent and you can also keep other items permanently tucked away, such as a reading lamp and a 12v fan. Be prepared for a “hot environment” when you first climb into it, open the flaps to quickly cool off the tent’s quarters.
#2) A Roof Top Tent Doesn’t Stow Away as Fast…more like 10-15 min.
If you plan to travel by yourself, putting it away and folding it back can be a bit of an issue for a single person. Folding the tent back up is pretty easily done, but the hard part, or trickier issue consists of snuggling back the extra flabby fabric that hangs out as you fold back. Tucking everything in requires a certain amount of coordination.
Once the tent is folded (plopped) back, one person can pull down on the overhanging ladder, which reopens it in order to enable the other person to tuck the fabric back in place, on all three sides. Afterwards, all that’s left is to secure the velcro straps holding both halves of the tent in place, they can be tightened by having a person stand or kneel on top sides of the tent. Adjusting the protective exterior rubber shell over the tent is the last step of this 10-15 minute operation.
TIP : Zipping up all window openings before folding reduces extra material from flapping out and helps cut time off the tucking away process.
#3) Roof Top Tents Stay Dry Even in Downpours and Snow
Staying dry is always a major preoccupation for campers. Nobody wants water in their sleeping quarters. The ARB tent kept us dry in even the worst weather situations. We’re talking major tropical downpours and gale force winds in Cape Hatteras. It passed every test with flying colors. I was partly responsible for the only water issue we’ve had. Trying to identify why the tent’s ceiling was caving in so much, I tapped the overhead lining, only to realize that yesterday’s drizzle had turned into snow during the night. There was a good cover of wet snow on the outside of the tent and unfortunately, by touching the textile, it started to transfer to the inside… Talk about water torture!
TIP: Treat your tent with a sprayed waterproofing product before your departure.
#4) Roof Top Tents Fabric Isn’t Breathable
Hot & Humid in Costa Rica
The same material that keeps you nice and dry is also responsible for near suffocation and extreme heat, as it doesn’t let much air in. This said the window openings ventilate well enough once deployed, but the mosquito mesh creates an added barrier that prevents good airflow. If you’re in a bug-free environment, opening up these screens will cool the tent off quickly. Otherwise, a small 12 V Fan will soon become your new best friend. Hang it overhead, as most models can be clipped to centre metal arch of the tent.
#5) In a Rooftop Tent, You’re Sleeping Off the Ground.
This comes with its PRO’s & CON’s. By far the best PRO is not having to sleep on the ground with all of the creepy crawlers. Obvious intruders come to mind… Spiders, rodents, snakes, but let’s not forget bigger, four legged ones such as cougars, wolves or bears. Being atop your Jeep adds an extra 6 feet of distance from predators, or at a least, it gives you time to react if ever you hear any movement or activity around the vehicle.
The biggest CON that comes with sleeping aloft may well be the middle of the night stroll to the loo. Guys have access to “natural” equipment to sneak a leak in a portable urinal contraption ladies are obviously at a disadvantage here.
TIP: Plan a trip the restroom just before going to bed.
#6) Essential Roof Top Tent “Interior” Accessories:
The most frequent question we get about our RTT is: how comfortable is it up-there? It’s actually quite comfy and it’s roomier than you could expect. The mattress is double-sized, but there’s an additional 12″ of space lengthwise. This area creates a sort of miniature vestibule at your feet.
With the following items, your aloft ”bedroom” will be comfortable and secure.
MATTRESS FOAM PAD: The mattress provided with the tent is made of very dense foam, hence quite hard. Adding extra padding gives the old bones some additional comfort.
TENT HAMMOCKS: Tent hammocks and gear lofts provide floating drawers for stashing clothes. As they don’t touch the outer shell, everything stays dry.
CLIP-ON LIGHTING: Lighting should have been a built-in feature. Adding a clip-on reading light will offer the needed visibility for nighttime reading or playing cards.
MINI-SWEEPER: A little sweeper at the tent’s entrance to sweep up the sand or soil from invading the bed area
BEAR SPRAY: Considering only a piece of cloth is in between you and the wilderness this is just an extra measure in case of a predator (shoots to 30ft) but can also be used as a white arm for potential intruders. Get it here
SECURITY WHISTLE: Keeping a security whistle nearby is a smart way to deter any unwanted critters and to warn them away.
FOLDING KNIFE: A folding knife for extra safety at the door in case of an emergency or to scare off any unwanted visitors.
WATKINS REPELLENT: By far the best bug repellent out there, not sticky and not too smelly with 30 Deet. Very efficient.
#7) Valuable Roof Top Tent Add-Ons
Initially, we thought these add-on purchases were a bit of overkill, but they ended up being a smart investment. Even though in retrospect, we’d used them on occasion, we were glad to have them with us when the use of them arose. Let me add that we’re totally impressed with the quality of all the ARB products. Built to last, well designed and quick to set up and put away. The best part: both add-ons pack up easily into small rolls, and they’re also pliable and easy to stash anywhere.
We expected to use the annex regularly as a vestibule for changing clothes and, of course, to use our portable toilet in private. In reality, we used it only once for our portable toilet when we were in Salta, Argentina as the campground’s washrooms were beyond nasty. This add-on is a perfect option when you’re experiencing heavy wind conditions, it lets you cook and eat in a protected space, sheltered from the elements.
TIP: It’ll require some good staking down in strong winds, so plan to park the vehicle in a way that the annex can align in a position that enables you to do so. Avoid areas where a concrete slab would prevent pegging down.
THE MOZZIE SCREEN
Technically the mosquito screen is not an RTT add-on, it’s more of an awning accessory. But given the choice between the annex or this unit, the mosquito screen wins, hands-down. It saved the day on multiple occasions, particularly on the East coast of the United States where the “No See-ums” are ferocious. The 8×8 area is plenty big for 2 chairs and a folding table, it even has room to spare.
TIP: Position the centered zipper access with your vehicle’s side door. By doing so, you won’t need to leave the screen zipped up, providing easier access to the fridge and those cold brewskies 🙂
#8) Roof Top Tents Reduces Your Mobility.
Often an overlooked factor, you’ll need to take into account is the lack of mobility you experience once you’ve set up your campsite. Of course, you can pack up and go, getting the tent folded back in about 10-15 minutes, but if you’re using the awning, the annex or the mesh screens on top of that, then the process becomes a bit more of an overall issue. You might want to venture out on foot or use public transport if it’s available nearby. If you expect to be in an area that requires the use of your vehicle for exploration, try to get most of the furthest and remote areas covered before your arrival or head out to these once you’ve left the campsite.
TIP: If you plan to be in a rural area, plan ahead and see if there are campgrounds with easy access to public transportation or available city shuttles.
#9) Roof Top Tents Add Extra Weight and Height to Your Vehicle
We totally underestimated the weight aspect of adding an RTT on our Jeep Wrangler. In part, because we hadn’t seen the product in the showroom, it was custom ordered from a local Jeep part reseller. The 150 lbs this adds to the vehicle’s rear suspension is not a deal killer on its own. But the bigger issue is that it adds up quickly when you also have the roof rack weight, 4 containers for storage, the back rack, the water or gas tanks if they’re full and, of course, a 35 inch mounted spare to boot! All this extra gear also affects the centre of gravity of your vehicle and creates wind resistance which in turn reduces gas mileage and performance. It feels more like driving a ’75 Fleetwood Cadillac than riding in a 4×4 Jeep!
TIP: Check that your vehicle’s suspension can handle the extra weight and the obvious possibility that you’ll need a lift kit. Also, consider that the extra height might restrict you from accessing certain places like indoor garages or low overhead passes. In our case, it was a tight fit in a maritime container, as we shipped our vehicle from Miami to South America and then again from Colombia to Panama. (Read about it here: https://www.marquestra.com/vehicle-container-shipping/ )
#10) Roof Top Tents Are Pricey
The prices vary from distributors and regions but expect to pay between $800 to $1200 or more depending on models and brands. We love our ARB Simpson III model. The quality is exceptional and we really like the ladder feature which leads under the entrance and not above the side.
One could argue that a RTT investment is equal to over 100 nights in low budget lodging and accommodations. But choosing to camp is much more that just sleeping in a tent. It’s about connecting with nature, and just like in hostels, you meet great like minded people and you can enjoy cooking meals on the fire.
We’ve enjoyed camping in true comfort on the beaches of Costa Rica and bush camping in remote areas of Patagonia. Freedom that’s well worth the price of our rooftop tent.
Want to know more about living out of your car, this article from Two Wandering Soles gives great insights about 10 Things You Need to Know Before Living in a Campervan