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Rooftop tent camping is a fun way to get out to a campground or do some dispersed car camping without sleeping on the ground. Many people prefer the safety and comfort of being on top of their vehicle when sleeping in a tent but it can take a toll on your car or truck.
Most cars were not originally designed to carry the extra weight of a rooftop tent. It is heavy, and installing it will probably scratch the roof. Fuel consumption will increase, the suspension system will have a higher (possibly unbalanced) load, and the car’s center of gravity will be raised, making it less stable.
The reality is often somewhat different from the Instagram images you see about rooftop tents and camping. Rooftop tents first appeared in Africa and Australia, where they were used as a quickly erected habitation away from predators below. North America does not have these dangers, and therefore you should carefully consider whether the stresses a rooftop tent imposes on your car are worthwhile.
Roof Top Tents Are Not Good For Your Car
There are a number of different factors that could compromise your car’s stability, smooth running, and cause components to wear out prematurely.
How Much Weight Will A Rooftop Tent Impose On Your Car?
There are three types of weight loading capacities for rooftop tents.
Static Weight Is The Easiest For Your Car To Handle
Static weight is the load carried by the car when standing still. The burden is borne equally by all the mounting points, and, assuming it is empty, there is no variation caused by the weight shifting.
Dynamic On-Road Weight Is What Your Car Experiences While Moving
Dynamic On-Road Weight is the tent’s weight while the vehicle runs on a paved surface. The vertical load stays relatively static apart from the effects of wind resistance, the car turning, the odd pothole, speed bump, or other obstruction.
Dynamic Off-Road Weight Has The Most Severe Impact On Your Car
This weight is measured while the vehicle travels off-road on an unpaved surface; this is obviously when the car will experience the most significant variation in loads and the highest vertical g-force affecting the car.
Rooftop tents are heavy. Although the smallest can weigh as little as 50 pounds (22 kilograms), the average size roof top tents weigh between 100 – 200 pounds (45Kg-90 kilograms). Assuming two adults, each weighing 200 pounds, sleep in the tent, the total weight on the roof of your car will be up to 600 pounds (360 kilograms). Unless you are driving a vehicle designed for these loads, you will have to carefully manage the load to ensure you don’t exceed your car’s limits.
Your owners manual should provide you with your car’s maximum weight capabilities. If you can’t find these values, contact your dealer, who will assist you.
Do not use an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) roof rack. The typical roof rack will not be designed for loads this high; there’s a good chance you’ll break not only the rack but also damage your car.
To mount your rooftop tent, you must source a suitable mounting rack that will fit the roof of your car as well as the tent. The tent supplier will be able to guide you with this.
What Happens To My Car’s Fuel Economy With A Roof Top Tent?
The fuel economy of your vehicle will decrease with the added weight and drag of a rooftop tent. It is common to use more fuel when your rooftop tent is installed versus not installed.
When cars move they displace the air which affects the car’s speed and performance. The added resistance the air imposes on the car is called drag. The higher the drag on your car, the higher the car’s fuel consumption.
Rooftop tents increase the frontal area of your car and so increase the drag coefficient. The air moves off the hood and windshield and over the vehicle and then collides with the rooftop tent causing significant turbulence. Some rooftop tents are designed with a low profile leading edge to reduce the wind friction while driving.
The four effects of aerodynamic drag on your vehicle are:
- Increasing aerodynamic drag slows acceleration.
- Aerodynamic drag reduces the maximum possible speed of the car.
- Aerodynamic drag increases fuel consumption.
- Aerodynamic drag reduces the mileage range of your car.
It is the increased drag, wind resistance and weight of the tent that impacts the vehicle’s mileage. This is a significant factor and impacts your fuel economy dramatically over carrying a dome tent in the trunk of your car. This could be a consideration when deciding whether to purchase a Rooftop tent.
Is My Car’s Suspension Affected By The Weight Of A Rooftop Tent?
If the weight of your rooftop tent is not within your car’s permissible load carrying weight, the increased weight can cause premature wear to your car’s suspension components and tires.
Your car’s suspension is designed to cope with a static and dynamic weight limit and nothing more. Mounting a rooftop tent which exceeds these limits will unnecessarily stress and damage your suspension.
Remember, the problem is not only the pure static weight of the rooftop tent but the massive dynamic weight shifts that occur when you speed around corners, bounce over potholes, and travel on off-road tracks; this could cause the shock absorbers to wear prematurely.
The increased weight on top of your car will negatively impact the car handling characteristics.
- It could unsettle the ride quality, making the suspension harder and less compliant.
- It will lower the vehicle’s riding height which will cause the car to “bottom out” on bigger bumps, curbs and speed humps.
- The car’s handling will be less precise and more prone to steering drift.
What Happens To My Car’s Driveability With A Rooftop Tent?
A rooftop tent raises the vehicle’s height and therefore changes the car’s center of gravity. Changing the center of gravity will have several consequences, some of which could be disastrous. Larger vehicles, trucks, and SUVs can handle the load better and are less prone to these issues.
A top-heavy car will be prone to understeer; this means that the vehicle will steer in a wider arc than you expected for the steering input you made. Side winds will buffet the car more than usual and could upset the car’s direction of travel.
A smaller car with a rooftop tent installed is more likely to overturn if involved in an accident. You can make changes to the vehicle that will overcome some of these problems
- Stiffening the suspension and adjusting it for handling balance as needed
- Widening the track width of the wheels (within the bounds of what you can do without causing steering geometry problems) can help
- Uprate the car braking system
Installing And Removing The Rooftop Tent
Roof Top tents are heavy and nearly impossible for one person to lift over the car’s roof and install it.
- We recommend you get some help from friends or family
- Installing and removing a rooftop tent is a laborious affair that involves clips and bolts; once installed, the temptation will be to leave it installed on the car during camping season.
- If your car’s cosmetic appearance is precious to you, think carefully about whether you should invest in a rooftop tent. Your car will get scratched; it’s just the nature of the product. Lifting it onto the car roof is very difficult to do without the odd scratch appearing.
- With the Rooftop Tent installed, the car’s height clearance requirements change, and you need to be careful not to hit garage doors, security gates at complexes and parking garages, etc.
- In addition to looking strange, using a car with a rooftop tent installed as a daily driver will increase the fuel burn and cause higher mileage and stress on its suspension.
How Suitable Are Roof Top Tents To The North American Environment?
Rooftop tents were first introduced for traveling around Africa and Australia. They offer convenient and safe sleeping conditions for their inhabitants in territories with a danger of predators, snakes, and other creepy crawlies.
Being high up allows the occupants a better view of their surroundings which, in turn, makes risk avoidance strategies easier to plan.
These risks don’t generally feature as a consideration for the North American traveler. Except for grizzly bears in certain parts of the country, no significant risks exist.
The need for the security a rooftop tent provides is much less, so are they still a worthwhile purchase?
Each camper will have to decide for themselves. To help you, we have created the following pros and cons section;
The Pros Of Rooftop Tents:
- Rooftop tents are more convenient than conventional tents. Functionally they act more like RVs and campervans than traditional tents. You can sleep anywhere, on the side of the road, in picnic areas and parking lots.
- If you have parked in a location with scenic views, being higher up in a rooftop tent will provide a better, less obstructed view of the surrounding area.
- Particularly with the pop-up variety, rooftop tents are generally very easy to set up. Simply unlatching the cover and deploying the tent, and you can be up and secure very quickly.
- Most rooftop tents have a mattress built-in, so it will give you a comfortable night’s sleep, plenty of ventilation, and a flat surface on which to rest.
- You have to climb into the tent via a ladder, which means rooftop tents track less dirt inside. If you tend towards being obsessive-compulsive, this could be the answer to your dreams!
- They are also durable and weather-proof!
The Cons Of Roof Top Tents:
- Full time living in a rooftop tent is not convenient. They are relatively cramped and you can’t keep everything close at hand (some things are held in the tent and others in the car’s trunk). Unlike other forms of camping, rooftop tents leave you with the impression that you are always living out of a suitcase.
- Cars do not have lifting jacks like a camper so unless you park on completely level ground, this can lead to an uncomfortable night’s sleep.
- Rooftop tents are more prone to wind and other disturbances. Many rooftop tent campers complain about the noises from wind or rain.
- It isn’t enjoyable climbing over your bedmates and then down a ladder, at night, possibly in the rain, to use the bathroom.
- Roof Top Tents are not pet-friendly. The logistics of having your pet travel with you when you live in a rooftop tent is very challenging. Big dogs won’t fit and probably can’t climb the ladder (if they can – start a YouTube channel, you will be guaranteed lots of views). If they do get up but can’t get out to relieve themselves, it could be disastrous and could make an uncomfortable night even worse.
- We’ve discussed the possible negatives to your car, so we won’t repeat the points here; suffice to say that they do increase fuel consumption, place more wear on the vehicle’s suspension, and your previously pristine car will get some battle scars.
- Roof Top Tents are expensive.
Times When A Rooftop Tent On A Car Is A Good Idea
Some people’s situations and extreme lifestyles make investing in a Rooftop tent on your car a no-brainer.
In these circumstances, Rooftop tents are worth the expense. In these instances, Rooftop tents provide convenience, increased safety (fewer bugs in the tent), and faster setup times.
Rooftop tents are set up quickly, and you are saved from the hassle of packing in mattresses, sleeping bags, and pillows since bedding can be left inside when it is closed. Rooftop Tents free up space inside your car for other things.
Sometimes it’s possible to get caught up with a trending product, new technology, the impulse of seeing something which looks exciting. Until Rooftop tents become more widely available and cheaper, we do not believe that they are the way to go for most people.
Unless you’re an overland traveler who stops for a night and then continues the following day, or you live an extreme lifestyle, often traveling and camping out in the wild, we feel that there are more affordable solutions that will impact your car less.
If you are sold on camping, we suggest that you investigate buying an equivalent cost camper van, a second-hand RV, or invest in a nice big tent with super comfy air mattresses.