Car Camping in a Rooftop Tent | Camping Tips

Last Updated on January 7, 2021 by Jody

After years of camping on the ground and not always loving it, I gave my hubby an ultimatum: find a way to make camping more comfortable or go camping alone! His solution? Car camping with a rooftop tent!

From the very first trip, it was love at first night and now I am encouraging him to go on more camping trips! Car camping with a rooftop tent is not only easy when it comes to set up and take down, but with the types of cars that are required for camping this way, you can get to more remote places, with less people, which only enhances your camping experience even more.

What is a Rooftop Tent?

A rooftop tent is your little home away from home while car camping.

roof top tent before installation
Rooftop tent before installation

Despite its name, a rooftop tent doesn’t actually sit on top of your roof directly, you need a rack system that serves as a foundation that supports the all-in-one tent. The actual tent is a fold-up or fold-out pavilion inside a box kit that opens with a pulley system generally attached to a ladder. It is meant to be able to come on and off your vehicle, usually a Jeep or a truck.

In terms of trucks, the rooftop tent generally sits on a crossbar rack system on the back of the truck rather than the roof.

How to Choose a Rooftop Tent

The 2 main considerations for choosing a rooftop tent are budget and vehicle type. In order to have a tent on the roof of your car, you need to ensure that you have the appropriate surface space for the base of the tent and that it can handle the weight. It’s important to note that it isn’t just about how much weight your car can take, but also how much YOU can lift.

rooftop tent set up on truck
Rooftop tent set up on the truck

The nice thing about these tents is that they are not a permanent fixture on your car, so you can add and remove them when you want. You can keep it on seasonally when you are doing a lot of camping or just put it on your vehicle when you leave for a trip. (There are advantages to this when you are not camping and you want to go into say, a parking garage!)

Keep purchasing factors

  • Surface area of your vehicle roof
  • Weight limitations for your vehicle roof
  • Your own ability to lift the tent (total weight)
  • Budget

Popular Rooftop Tent Brands

Popular Rooftop Tent Rack System Brands

  • Thule
  • Yakima
  • Rhino-Rack

Budget plays a part in all the decisions you make. Depending on how much you have to spend for your rooftop tent the types of materials, size of the tent (including whether or not you have an annex room), number of windows and comfort of the mattress will vary. 

Dos & Don’ts for Car Camping in a Rooftop Tent

sleeping under the stars in a rooftop tent
Sleeping under the stars in a rooftop tent

Just like anything you do in life, being prepared is going to make the experience that much better. I think it is even more critical when it comes to camping!

Whenever you buy a new piece of equipment, you should try it out. That means everything from a new conventional tent, to cooking equipment, a shade system or hammock and of course, when you are dealing with more complex (and expensive) pieces of equipment, like a new rooftop tent!

All the most popular brands provide written instructions on how to assemble your tent, but I HIGHLY recommend also finding the company’s YouTube channel or other videos that show you how to install your tent visually. Having both the written and visual instructions will save you a lot of grief. 

do not install your rooftop tent in the garage!
Do not install your rooftop tent in the garage!

Do not install your tent inside your garage. You will be unable to open it once your installation is complete and you will need to test the height clearance before you moving your vehicle. So be sure to do this in your driveway.

Practice installing it in your driveway or on the street. Have your laptop or cell phone with the above-mentioned videos available, as I assure you that you will want to rewind and watch the steps multiple times. Have an architect table, card table or sawhorses set-up so that if you run into any issues lifting the tent above your head to place on the rack for the first time, you have a nearby support system should you need to abandon your attempt.

Once you get the tent onto the rack, practice opening and closing it several times until you are comfortable with what needs to be tucked in, what order of movement works best, etc. Rooftop tents are designed to be compact and efficient so if you change something, like for instance the mattress, you will need to ensure that it can still open and close without issue.

test your rooftop tent before use
Test your rooftop tent before use

Do ensure that your visibility while driving is not blocked by any part of the rooftop tent system. 

Do make sure you account for the appropriate amount of space for the tent and/or ladder to extend at your campsite. Don’t park under trees that have low hanging branches that may scratch the tent when you open it.

Things You Need for Car Camping in a Rooftop Tent

In my experience, rooftop tent car camping does not require much more camping gear than regular car camping. But there are a few things that have come in handy that I think are essential.

go anywhere! car camping in a rooftop tent
Go anywhere when you car camp with a rooftop tent!
  • Carabiner hooks – these are useful both inside the tent where you can hang items (like car keys, watch, etc.) that you might need to quickly access. In addition, carabiner hooks are useful for hanging things underneath the tent that you might want to access from the ground.
  • Head lamp – beneficial for whenever you camp, but especially so when you are exiting the rooftop tent at night. You cannot just step out onto the ground, you have to find where to put your foot on the ladder in order to begin your descent. Otherwise, that is a very long way down and you may injure yourself!
  • Shoe Bag – in order to safely climb up and down the ladder to reach your “bedroom,” you need to be wearing shoes. In the evening and first thing in the morning when you are a bit groggy, you will want to find your shoes quickly and to keep the dirt that is likely to be on it away from the rest of your living space. Shoe bags allow you to do that. You can Velcro or attach it to the tent just inside the opening, or hang them from the tent right next to the ladder.
  • A tarp for the ground near the ladder. Keeps things clean and tidy as you move things in and out of the tent up and down the ladder. 
  • In terms of transportation, make sure you have spare nuts and bolts and a basic tool kit in case something loosens up during the drive. This is particularly important to check when camping off road on unpaved and bumpy roads.

Related Article: 7 Items You Should Always Take Camping

That’s it! Once you have opened and closed your rooftop tent a few times you will be a pro! It is easy to set, it will literally pop open in 3 minutes and close in about 5-7 (you’ve got to do more tucking, etc. to ensure it closes completely).

car camping in a rooftop tent

You will be sleeping off the ground which is generally cleaner, cooler (or warmer) and with less critters or creatures accessing where you sleep. There is no part of the tent on the dirty ground, so no cleanup from dust and mud.  I simply take a handheld vacuum to the inside and voila, clean!

You will have more freedom to get away from the crowds as you will have the ability to camp on BLM land, forest roads, etc. If you do stay at a traditional campground you will meet tons of new people who are curious about your tent, it is a conversation starter!

Tip: Use Hipcamp to find Private Campsites! Learn how!

How about you? Have you tried a rooftop tent? Do tell! Have any rooftop tent questions? Do share!

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car camping in a rooftop tent
car camping in a rooftop tent

About the Author:

Andi Fisher in her rooftop tent
Guest Author Andi Fisher in her rooftop tent

Andi Fisher is a full-time influencer and advocacy marketer and a part-time travel blogger who always has her eye on her next trip. She has three passions in life: food, travel and more food! She grew up an Army brat living all over the world, continued her rambling ways with global roles in international countries, and then chucked it all for 18-months on the road in an RV. At the moment she is settled in the Southwest where she is taking in Sonoran sunsets. Her blog, Misadventures with Andi is 11 years old and she believes whole-heartedly in the blogging community which she continually gives back to in any way she can!

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