Should I Buy A Rooftop Tent?

Summary: I spent two and a half weeks on the road with a rooftop tent. Here's a general review with some things to think about if you're considering buying a rooftop tent.
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This is a general rooftop tent review. I spent about two and a half weeks camping (full disclosure: the trip included a couple of hotel breaks) with a Yakima Skyrise 3 rooftop tent.

My experience was mostly good, but there are some definite pitfalls of rooftop tent camping as well. If you’re asking yourself, “Should I buy a rooftop tent?” here are some things to think about before you invest your hard-earned dollars in an RTT.

Rooftop tents seem to be a popular camping trend currently. Curiosity and the desire to camp in a way that was more comfortable for my aging joints led me to consider taking the plunge and buying one. I’d love an RPod but my HOA would frown on permanently parking a teardrop camper on the street.

However, rooftop tents can be expensive. So, initially, I talked myself out of this purchase. Then I talked myself right back into it after finding a like-new Yakima Skyrise 3  tent for a deep discount at the REI garage sale. Oh REI! I know the man stating next to me whispering “Just buy it!” in my ear was your plant, but buy the tent I did!

Rooftop Tent Road Trip

After hitting some snags with the initial installation because of the way the previous owners had set it up, I finally hit the road on a solo rooftop tent-camping road trip. This was a boot-camp course in rooftop tent use, starting with difficulty and ending with proficiency at setting this thing up. I was joined later by my daughter and her friend. They also spent a couple of nights sleeping in the Skyrise.

I’m not reviewing the Yakima Skyrise 3  tent here or offering a tutorial or setup tips. I may do that later. Instead, here are some things to consider if you’re thinking of buying a rooftop tent and some pros and cons of rooftop tents in general.

Rooftop Tent Choices

Many types of rooftop tent choices exist — Tepui makes more rugged multi-season tents,  and I might invest in one if I ever really get into off-season rooftop tent camping (though I see Yakima has come out with a rugged tent now as well), and hard-sided rooftop tents available. I have no experience with these.

So the Big Question First: Did I Like It?

Traveling with the rooftop tent attracted quite a bit of attention. Campers told me I looked like a Subaru ad (Not true! To be a Subaru ad you need to be in your 30s and have a big dog.) and asked plenty of questions (including “What would you do if a bear decided to climb up in there at night?”).

Number one question? “Do you like it?” Usual answer: “Kind of.”

My daughter pointed out to me near the end of the trip that I rarely say I absolutely love or hate anything. It’s just that most everything comes with pros and cons, and rooftop tents are no exception. The rooftop tent falls more toward the “love it” end of the spectrum, so my nutshell answer is:

Yes. I liked it.

I liked climbing up the ladder at night, sleeping off the ground hanging my little lantern in the tent (I was glad I went ahead and bought the Noctlight accessory for my Petzel Actik headlamp, it made the perfect little rooftop tent lantern), and being able to keep my bedding in the tent, fold it up, and have it ready for the next stop. However, I’m not letting go of my standard tent, as rooftop tent camping has its limitations.

Rooftop Tent Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Opens up new possibilities for camping spots.

    While I only stayed at campgrounds, adventurous sorts could go out off-road or set up in the Walmart parking lot.
  • Comfort.

    While the “memory foam” mattress is not as comfortable as my bed at home, it was considerably more comfortable than sleeping on the ground or on a cot.
  • May free up room in your car.

    But not much.
  • Pre-setup.

    Keep your bedding or sleeping bag in the bed — everything is ready when you fold it out. Too much bedding would have prevented me from closing the tent, but I found that I was able to store a sleeping bag or comforter and pillow up there.
  • The Awesome Factor

    There’s just something cool about climbing up the ladder into your tent — kind of like a treehouse.
  • Stargazing.

    While I didn’t do much of this during my trip and generally kept the rainfly on, I found being a bit higher up was more conducive to gazing out the upper windows of the tent at night.

Cons:

  • You can’t set it up and then take off.

    With a regular tent, you can set up camp and then drive off somewhere. I found that when I was at a camping spot more than one day, I felt unmotivated to go through taking down the tent so I could use the car and spent more time exploring on foot or by bike.
  • Nighttime bathroom breaks.

    I was worried about having to get up in the night to “go.” However, just keeping my headlamp or a flashlight handy, I found it really wasn’t so hard to get up safely in the night when needed.
  • You need a level parking lot. Really.

    The tent instructions say to park on a level surface. And, having experienced NOT having a level surface to park on, I can tell you this is essential.

    Near the end of our trip, a sloped parking spot resulted in a bout of late-night giggling as my daughter and her friend discussed tying themselves into the tent “like astronauts” to prevent sliding.
  • Expense.

    Rooftop tents are considerably more expensive than a standard tent, running from somewhere between $1000 to $3000. I paid less because I found my tent in VERY “gently used” condition.
  • Rain Worries.

    I had one night of light rain on my trip, with a dry day afterward, so I was able to dry out the tent before folding up. But if it’s been raining and I need to get home, I worry about folding up a wet tent so I can get going.

    The Yakima setup instructions warn about the risk of Mildew – but what is the solution if you need to get home and then are confronted with several days of rain afterward, a frequent occurrence in the PNW? Take the tent off the car and open it up indoors?
  • Setup/Take Down

    After some initial mishaps, I became pretty proficient in setting up and taking down the tent.

    However, I needed to pack along a three-step step stool with me to accomplish this. I’m about 5’8″ and, while I’m not super-strong, have long arms. I worry about how the setup would go for a person shorter in stature or how I would do setup if I had the tent on a taller vehicle.
  • Fuel Efficiency and Wind Drag.

    I don’t know exactly how much of a decline in fuel efficiency my Subaru actually suffered. But there’s always some impact when you add things to the top of your car. And driving with the rooftop tent made me feel the strong winds I encountered on the twisty roads of the Pacific Coast Highway.
  • Getting it on and off my car.

    The tent is around 150lbs of heavy. It takes two people to get it on and off the car.

    As it would cause relationship problems if I constantly asked my spouse to go through this ordeal, I don’t frequently make this request.  So I have hard choices to make between using the rooftop tent or using the kayak racks.

A Few Rooftop Tent Camping Tips:

Make Your Bed

Before you leave on your trip, add a bottom and top sheet to your bed, and a comforter. Or you can just use a bottom sheet to protect your mattress and use a regular sleeping bag. You can then fold up your bedding (as long as there’s not too much) in your rooftop tent, and off you go. This makes camp setup easier if you’re on a multi-day excursion moving from location to location.

You can buy custom-fitted sheets for Yakima or Tepui tents, or just buy a double sheet set and tuck in everything.

Call the Campground

If you are going to be using your rooftop tent in a campground, make sure that you will have a level place to park your car. Call the campground if necessary.

Non-level parking places were a massive headache on my recent adventure — sometimes I was able to park at an angle to get the car level, but not always, and the campground didn’t want me to park on the brown and crispy thing they dryly referred to as their “lawn.”

I also ended up in one camping spot that was barely large enough for the car and rooftop tent. This was NOT a “carry-in” camping spot. If you have a reserved spot, know what you’re getting before you get there.

Lightweight Lights

While you could take an electric camping lantern up in the tent with you, I found it practical and enjoyable to bring up the Noctlight  I mentioned earlier and hang it inside the tent as a “ceiling lamp.” An inflatable solar-powered light like the Luci Connect  (another REI garage sale find) was also a fun accessory to use in the tent.

Bring the Bike

I found that my bike could be a good “tow car” for when I wanted to go somewhere but didn’t want to take down the tent. But make sure your bike is secured! My bike was fine at the campgrounds, but on the last day of my trip, my bike, locked to my locked hitch rack, was stolen off my car from a parking lot.

Shoes off In the House

I kept a whisk broom in the tent, but it’s no fun tracking dirt in. Neither is it fun leaving your shoes at the bottom and climbing the metal ladder with bare feet. Next time, I’ll hang a bag from the outside of the tent for my shoes. I see that Yakima has devised an accessory for just this purpose.

To summarize, rooftop tents can be a good camping investment, depending on your camping style and frequency, but they come with a few potential pitfalls to consider before you invest your hard-earned bucks in one.

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