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Roof tent guide

Mar 13, 2023

A roof tent can give you the freedom and flexibility to camp wherever you like at the fraction of the cost of a campervan. Here's our comprehensive guide to everything you need to know

Words by Iain Duff, Editor of Camping magazine

(Picture by Iain Duff )

Take a look around any campsite or festival and it's impossible to ignore the number of cars fitted with roof tents.

Once the sole domain of off-road types, these days you’re just as likely to see a roof tent on top of a family car or a van as a 4x4.

A roof tent opens up a whole new world of adventure and their popularity is booming among couples and families.

And it's not surprising. While a campervan might set you back £50,000 or more, for a fraction of that cost you can create what might just be the ultimate explorer's dwelling. Adding a roof tent to your car is undeniably cool, and turns it into a mobile basecamp, giving you the freedom to go wherever you want and set up camp in minutes.

But what exactly is a roof tent? Well, unsurprisingly, it's a tent that goes on the roof of your car or van. They generally mount on roof bars or a roof rack with brackets or clamps, and look like a roof box when packed away.

When you park up, the tent either folds or rises out of the ‘shell’, with a ladder that is then attached or extended down to allow you to climb up into the tent. In the morning, simply fold or remove the ladder and pack the tent away again until your next adventure.

Not only do roof tents offer a unique camping experience, but they also provide the convenience of being able to set up camp anywhere your vehicle can go. You don't need to worry about finding a dead level pitch or clearing away rocks and debris in the wild. Simply park your vehicle and pop open the tent. Some types can take a little bit longer than others to put up, but they are almost all quick and stress-free.

With minimal poles and in some cases just a couple of clips to release, roof tents really do make a lot of sense, especially if you often arrive at camp after dark and have more important things to worry about, such as getting the barbecue lit and cracking a drink open. It's the perfect shelter to prepare for – and recover from – a day hiking in the Lakes, wild swimming in Wales or surfing in Cornwall, for example.

With a cost of between £1,000 and £3,500, car roof tents have become increasingly popular among camping enthusiasts. Once the sole domain of hardcore explorers, these days all sorts of campers, from touring couples to adventurous families, are using them. If you need any evidence that they’ve hit the mainstream, consider the fact that even family camping specialist, Quechua, has developed its own models for sale in Decathlon stores, as has Go Outdoors.

Simon Towler, of retailer, Rooftent Utopia, believes the image of the typical roof tent user has changed in recent years.

The notion that if you have a roof tent you have to be a diamond miner in Namibia or something, is a thing of the past. They are for everyone to use now. You can use them on your local campsite, you can use them on the new pop-up campsites that are emerging, take them to festivals or even just on weekends away.

Simon added,

We’ve supplied them to people going off touring around Europe for several weeks, with anywhere from two to five people, on trips that can last months. Again, there's a tent style that suits every type of travelling – there are some very quick-to-use ones and some that are a bit more involved in setting up and packing down but will give you a lot more accommodation.

Most roof tents come with the option of adding an awning or other zip-on living area, giving extra room for relaxing, eating and storing things like mucky boots. Having that accommodation stored on top of the roof means you instantly free up tonnes of space inside the car for more passengers and kit.

It also means that if the weather is inclement – not unheard of in the UK – you’re not having to bundle a soggy, muddy ground tent into your boot. Simply put the roof tent back up and let it dry out when the sun comes out.

Each type of car roof tent has its own advantages and disadvantages. Here, we’ll explore the different styles of roof tents, including electric, inflatable and fold-out models, and how they can be fitted to different vehicles.

There are two main types of roof tent: hard shell and soft shell. Hard shell tents are stored in a roof box made of durable materials such as fibreglass or aluminium and are designed to fold out easily into a sturdy, comfortable sleeping space.

Soft shell tents, on the other hand, are folded into a soft bag made of waterproof fabric and are typically lighter and easier to attach to your vehicle. Both types of tents have a base constructed from plywood or aluminium.

Both styles have their advantages, so it's important to choose the one that's right for you based on your camping needs and vehicle size.

Hard shell roof tents are becoming increasingly popular among campers, and for good reason. These tents are made with a sturdy outer shell that's designed to withstand harsh weather conditions and protect you from the elements. When not in use, the tent folds up into a compact unit that sits on top of your vehicle. When you're ready to set up camp, simply pop the tent open, add any poles or extensions, and climb inside.

One of the main benefits of a hard shell roof tent is its durability. These tents are typically made from high-quality materials that are built to last. The outer shell is usually constructed with a tough, weather-resistant material, while the inner tent is made from a breathable fabric such as canvas or polyester. The combination of these materials ensures that you stay dry and comfortable in any weather conditions. Hard shell roof tents also tend to be more aerodynamic than their soft counterparts, which can improve your vehicle's fuel efficiency. Additionally, many come with built-in features such as lights, storage pockets, and even solar panels.

Of course, there are some downsides to hard shell roof tents as well. For one, they tend to be more expensive than soft shells, and they can be heavier as well. Additionally, some models can be more difficult to set up and take down, especially if you're doing it alone – but the Femkes Alu Khosi is exceptionally easy.

Soft shell roof tents are the more traditional option, and have been a popular choice among campers for many years. These tents are made from a soft, flexible material such as canvas or nylon, and they fold up into a compact unit that sits on top of your vehicle. A weatherproof cover goes over the top to keep them dry. When you're ready to set up camp, simply remove the cover and quickly unfold the tent. With a bit of practice they can be set up in a couple of minutes, but even complete novices can have them ready in a few minutes.

One of the main benefits of a soft-shell roof tent is its affordability – the Front Runner Outfitters tent weighs in at just £1,129. These tents tend to be less expensive than the hard shell option, which makes them a great choice for campers on a budget. Additionally, soft shell tents are typically lighter and easier to set up than hard shell tents, which can be a major advantage if you're camping alone or with a small group.

Soft shell roof tents also tend to be more versatile than hard shell tents. Because they're made from a flexible material, they can often be used on a variety of different vehicles, including cars, vans, and Land Rovers. Additionally, many models come with built-in features such as mosquito nets and ventilation panels, which can help you stay comfortable and bug-free throughout the night.

Of course, there are some downsides to soft shell roof tents as well. For one, they tend to be less durable than hard shell tents, which means they may not hold up as well in harsh weather conditions. Additionally, they can be more difficult to pack up and store, as they require more space than hard shell tents. You’ll also have to think about where you will store the cover while you’re parked up.

In recent years, new technical innovations have been introduced to the car roof tent market, designed to make them even easier to use. Although some people consider products such as electric and inflatable tents as gimmicks, there's no doubt that they are popular and can make camping easier.

Inflatable roof tents – such as the Terrafirma – are another innovative addition to the roof tent market. They are made with durable materials that can withstand the elements and are inflated with a manual or electric pump. Inflatable roof tents are typically lighter in weight than traditional roof tents and can be set up and taken down quickly.

One of the main advantages of inflatable roof tents is their ease of use. They can be inflated in just a few minutes, which makes them perfect for those who are short on time or who want to avoid the hassle of manually setting up a traditional roof tent. However, they do require a bit of extra care to ensure they are not damaged during use.

Eddie Priscott, Director of Terrafirma, says,

An inflatable roof tent is a really good option for somebody who wants to have a more compact tent on the vehicle. It's within the weight limit of most small SUVs and it's ever so easy to put up – it's more manageable because the sections are smaller.

Electric roof tents are a relatively new addition to the car roof tent market. They are fitted with an electric motor that allows for easy and quick set-up and take down at the flick of a button. This type of roof tent is perfect for those who want the convenience of a roof tent without the hassle of manually setting it up. Electric roof tents are typically made with hard-shell materials, which provides more protection from the elements and offers better insulation.

One thing to consider when choosing an electric roof tent is the power source. Most models require a 12V power source, which can be obtained from your vehicle's battery. However, this can drain your battery quickly if you are not careful.

(Picture by Iain Duff )

So, can you put a roof tent on any car? Roof tents are available to fit almost any car, from hatchbacks to large 4x4s. The two main factors to consider are that you have a roof rack or roof bars fitted that are the correct distance apart to suit the tent model and that your car is capable of supporting the combined weight of the tent, its cover and the roof bars. Before you begin fitting a roof tent to your vehicle, it's important to make sure that your roof is strong enough to support the weight of the tent. The roof load capacity of your vehicle must be greater than the weight of the roof tent you’re thinking of putting on top. The weight of the roof tent will be provided by the manufacturer.

Check your vehicle's owner's manual for weight limits and recommended roof bar systems. It's also a good idea to consult with a professional if you're unsure about your vehicle's capacity. Remember the roof load limit is the maximum your vehicle can carry while it is being driven and it takes into account the potential effect on the vehicle's handling and risk of rolling, as well as how much weight the roof can handle.

As the handling and roll risk are irrelevant when your vehicle is parked, it's only the load capacity that matters. The static load is considerably higher than the dynamic load because the vehicle isn't subject to the same pressures as it would be when on the road, so there's no need to worry about the weight of people in your roof tent. They can easily accommodate two large adults sleeping inside. Assuming, of course, they only get inside when it's not moving!

Once you've determined that your vehicle is capable of supporting a roof tent, you'll need to choose a roof bar system that's compatible with your vehicle and tent. Some manufacturers offer roof bars specifically designed for their tents, while others may require a universal system. Make sure to choose a rack system that's appropriate for the fixing system on your vehicle and for the weight of your tent and any additional gear you plan to bring along.

When installing the roof bar system, be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. This will ensure that the system is properly installed and secure. Even better, get it fitted by an expert at a retailer like Halfords. Once the bars are in place, you can lift the box into place (you’ll need some assistance) and attach it to the rack using the manufacturer's recommended method. This may involve using straps, clamps, or other hardware.

Whatever type you choose, setting up is usually fairly straightforward. When you’re on the move, the tent will be folded away on the roof, either in a rugged fibreglass or aluminium box or with a soft cover over the top, to protect the material from the elements. But when you’ve found the perfect spot to spend the night, they open up in seconds to reveal the tent. They usually come with a comfortable mattress, so all you need to complete your bed is a cosy sleeping bag and pillows.

As you will be a few feet off the ground, safety is obviously a consideration, and you should take care getting in and out of the tent. Access to your tent is via an adjustable, lightweight ladder and is fairly straightforward, even for someone as lacking in agility as me. Do be careful in wet weather as the rungs can get slippy. And having to negotiate the ladder for that bleary-eyed 2am toilet run requires a certain level of skill.

Apart from the convenience of the quick set-up, possibly the best thing about a roof tent is the views you get from your elevated position. Most roof tents have PVC windows or zippable panels that open fully, so, to take advantage of them, it makes sense to try to find an overnight stopping place with a spectacular panorama.

If your tent has a front window you can open it up and soak in the magnificent vistas as soon as you rise. And if you really want to make the most of the view, with some models you can completely open up the front.

One perceived disadvantage of car roof tents is that they offer limited living space. In fact, it's possible to buy roof tents in a variety of sizes that can easily accommodate a small family. However, if you want more space, it's often possible to add an awning or an annexe that reaches down to the ground and can be used for covered living and eating or as another sleeping area.

One top tip that applies to all roof tents is try to get your vehicle as level as possible so you don't find yourself gradually slipping downhill during the night. The beauty of carrying your tent on the roof is that it frees up the boot for all the rest of your camping gear, such as chairs, tables, stoves, etc. But there will also be net storage pockets inside the tent for any smaller items you want to keep handy.

Roof tent security is basically the same as with a regular ground tent. The number one rule is that you should not leave anything valuble inside if you are away from the tent. Lock anything you don't want to lose inside your car or carry it with you.

A roof tent shouldn't make a huge difference to your driving but there are a few issues to take into consideration to ensure your roof tent is safe.

For safety, manufacturer, TentBox, recommends that your speed should be restricted to 70mph when a roof tent is fitted to your vehicle, which is, of course, the national speed limit for dual carriageways and motorways in the UK. You will still need to stick to 70 if you’re driving on the Continent, even though speed limits are higher.

TentBox also warns that if you have a low, small car, the weight of the roof tent may affect its suspension, speed, acceleration and power. There will be a slight negative impact on fuel consumption as well, but the aerodynamic design of most roof tents means that this is minimal. Strong crosswinds may affect your car's handling, though, especially on exposed roads.

Hopefully by now you have an idea of what kind of roof tent suits you best. Here is a selection of our favourites to help get you started on a journey to true camping freedom

(Photo courtesy of Thule)


Soft shell



Stowed footprint:

143 x 124 x 28cm





Features:Panoramic skylights, removable rain cover, mosquito screens, dual-layer foam mattress, quick-release lockable mounting brackets, choice of colours

Available from:T: 01143 493550E: [email protected]W:

(Photo courtesy of RoofBunk)


Hard shell



Stowed footprint:

210 x 140 x 27cm





Features:Streamlined shell, stainless-steel gas struts, removable telescopic ladder, two access doors, 7cm foam mattress, interior storage net, fitting kit

Available from:T: 07940 900614E: [email protected]:

(Picture by Iain Duff





Stowed footprint:

159 x 125 x 27cm


68kg inc ladder



Features:2mm aluminium shell, integrated roof bars, anti-condensation mattress, three storage bags, additional awning canopy, flysheet, anti-theft bolts, telescopic aluminium ladder, two-year warranty

Available from:T: 07566 792690E: [email protected]W:

(Picture by Iain Duff)





Stowed footprint:

150 x 80 x 26cm





Features:Small roof footprint, 90mm inflatable tubes, inflatable mattress, PVC windows, high-performance pump, 2.3mm extendable ladder, vinyl cover, mounting kit included

Available from:T: 01427 753394E: [email protected]W:

Once your roof tent is installed, you're ready to hit the road. Here are some tips for using it:

If you love the idea of a roof tent but aren't sure if you want to take the plunge just yet, why not hire one for a holiday and see what they offer before you buy?

ElectricExplorers, based in the Lake District, has roof tents to hire that can be fitted to your own car.

Camping - The Essential Guide 2023 is packed with all the information you need to find the perfect tent for you and your family.

We know that buying a new tent is not easy, whether you are a first-time camper or a veteran. But in the Essential Guide we have the answers to all the big questions. Should you go for a tunnel, a dome or a vis-a-vis? Inflatable, pop-up or traditional poles? And is a four-berth really big enough for your family?

Download it now from Pocketmags for just £3.99.

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Simon Towler, of retailer, Rooftent Utopia, believes the image of the typical roof tent user has changed in recent years. Simon added, Eddie Priscott, Director of Terrafirma, says, Features: Available from: Features: Available from: Features: Available from: Features: Available from: Essential Guide To Camping 2023 Expert Camping advice! Camping magazine has been the voice of campers for over 60 years! Want to know more about Camping magazine?