Heading cross country on foot over several days is a marvellous way to explore. Pack your big rucksack with the bare necessities and off you go. However you can opt to head down an alternative route.
This alternative involves a roof tent on your car or van. You drive from point to point, completing hikes by day and returning to your vehicle and roof tent basecamp at dusk. It allows you cover a lot of landscape at the pace you wish, but without the need to carry so gear on your back.
Another use for roof tents is the quick weekend getaway. Because they’re so easy to pitch and collapse, roof tents are a very alluring form of shelter for almost anyone.
We’re not the only ones that think so. Roof tents are booming in popularity, similar to homemade campervan conversions, except roof tents are more affordable and practical. Interested? We want to see every camper and hiker enjoy their roof tenting experience to the full, which is why we’ve put together our guide to the best models available.
What to look for in a roof tent
Roof load limit: Vehicle roofs all have a dynamic roof load limit and you need to know what this is before putting any significant weight on your car roof. The dynamic roof load limit refers to the maximum weight a roof can bear while being driven. When parked, the load limit is several times higher.
Size: Roof tents vary in size and some are suitable for bigger vehicles only. Roof tents that have folding bases can often be fitted to small cars, while single-piece roof tents might require at least a medium-sized car.
Mounting system: Most roof tents must sit on lateral roof bars (not just factory-fitted side rails!), so you’ll need these too. It’s easy to find the correct ones for your car by using the online search filters provided by retailers such as Halfords and Autodoc.
Installation: Though roof tents try to be as light as possible, they also have to balance that with durability. Therefore they tend to weigh between 45 and 70 kilograms. You’re not going to want a roof tent permanently affixed to your roof so bear in mind you’ll want a helping hand to get these things on and off your car roof.
Internal space: Roof tents tend to have about the same bedroom space as a two-person hiking tent, give or take a few centimetres. Some models have extra niceties like skylights too.
Durability: This is usually what price reflects most. High-quality fabrics are more durable but inevitably cost more. Even if you’re a first-timer, it pays to invest in a top quality roof tent. You’ll enjoy better use from it and if you decide to sell it down the line, get a reasonable second-hand price for it.
Hard or soft shell: Roof tents that collapse down into a sleek hard shell are more aerodynamic and aesthetically satisfying than those that sit under a heavy-duty cover. The latter will also save you a little bit on fuel too, but they cost more to buy.
Access: Roof tents come supplied with a telescopic ladder that allow to easily and safely access the tent. Though, if you’re climbing and descending in the dark, you might want a head torch.
The best roof tents
Verdict: Aerodynamic when collapsed, and very easy to pitch, the TentBox Classic is the ideal rooftop tent – but it is more expensive than others.
Pros: Hard shell design, gas struts, sturdy, good comfort level
Cons: Top end of the price range
Being called the Classic is very apt because this roof tent pretty much nails the concept. There is real thought that has gone into the design of the Classic and it shows.
Working from the outside in, the Classic tries to be as aerodynamic as possible when collapsed down. Partly by having a hard ABS shell rather than folded fabric, and partly by being just 27cm thick. Naturally, it attaches to a vehicle roof via roof bars, so you need to have these prior to fitting. Once you do, you can use the included TentBox fixing kit to install the Classic.
The tent fabric is durable canvas and the seams are silicone-taped. The zips are also sealed against water ingress. The frame is aluminium while the hinges and fixings are all stainless steel so resistance against weathering is sound – the Classic is rated up to wind speeds of 39mph.
Inside the Classic there is a 6cm foam mattress, which is thicker than the competition. TentBox also offer a memory foam topper as an extra if you want even more comfort. This mattress covers the entire floor and measures 210 by 125cm, which is similar to that of a two-person hiking tent.
The canvas walls offer good breathability, as users of old camping tents will know. There are also a couple of side pockets and a cargo net for storage. Aiding convenience even more is the ability to leave your sleeping gear inside when you collapse the Classic down and continue your journey.
The Classic is at the top-end of the roof tent price range, but we think it’s worth if you want the very best roof tent.
Sleeping capacity 2 | Weight 65kg | Dimensions open 128 x 210 x 100cm | Dimensions closed 128 x 210 x 27cm | Wind rating 39mph | Materials 280gsm rip-stop canvas walls; UV-protected ABS shell
Front Runner Roof Tent
Verdict: A dependable roof tent that is good value and spacious, but it is bested by the TentBox Classic in many areas.
Pros: Excellent value, lightweight, durable fabrics, good internal headroom
Cons: Quite chunky when packed down
The TentBox Classic might be the ideal roof tent, but it expensive. Going a long way to address this issue is a durable design from Front Runner.
Instead of popping straight up, the hard case of the Front Runner tent unfolds before you can release the roof tent in all its magnificence. It’s only marginally less convenient than the TentBox Classic and still leaves you with an excellent tent.
The walls are made from polycotton, so it wears well and is quite breathable. Meanwhile, the fly is made from heavy-duty polyester. With openings on each side, no view is wasted here. Even the roof has skylight panels that allow for a spot of stargazing.
Given the A-frame style of this roof tent, you get to enjoy a bit more headroom, in addition to greater interior length than the TentBox Classic. But for some strange reason, the 6cm-thick mattress remains only 1.99m long.
In almost every respect, the Front Runner model is a great alternative to the TentBox Classic. However, it’s important to note that it’s not as sleek or compact when packed down. The Front Runner doesn’t have a hard shell and uses a heavy-duty PVC cover instead. We’ve no qualms about its durability and protection, but it does make the Front Runner a bulkier package.
Sleeping capacity 2-3 | Weight 43kg | Dimensions open 330 x 229 x 133cm | Dimensions closed 133 x 124.5 x 33cm | Wind rating Not given | Materials 260gsm rip-stop polycotton walls; UV-protected 400D polyester fly; 650g PVC cover
Verdict: An excellent roof tent for first-time users or anyone not wishing to spend the asking price of the TentBox Classic.
Pros: Spacious sleeping quarters, good value, fits small cars too
Cons: Front Runner is cheaper
The Tentbox Lite is a perfect starter option if you like the idea of a roof tent, but don’t want to fork out for a top spec model straight away. At 50kg it’s the lightest option in the highly regarded Tentbox range (which also includes the higher priced Classic and Cargo models) and that’s because its feature set is much more stripped back.
This is basically a pop-up canvas tent that unfolds on the roof of your car. Like most roof tents, the Tentbox Lite attaches very simply to your car’s roof bars. Once you’ve got it all unboxed and attached, all you need to do is drive to your camping spot, remove the PVC cover, unbuckle a few straps, flip it open, drop the telescopic ladder, and you’re good to go.
The Tentbox Lite comes with a comfortable 6cm memory foam mattress that fills the whole interior of the tent, so that saves the hassle of inflating air beds. It also has plenty of options for venting and letting in light, with doors at each end, windows at the sides, and a skylight on the roof.
We haven’t found many drawbacks, other than the fact that because it’s a single skin tent it sometimes builds up a fair bit of condensation during the night. There is also that fact that when you don’t want it on your car, you need a second person to help you safely remove it, and either a big shed or a garage to store it in. But that’s the case with almost all other roof tents too.
All in all, the Tentbox Lite is an impressive roof tent at a good price.
Sleeping capacity 2-3 | Weight 50kg | Dimensions open 140 x 240cm x 110cm | Dimensions closed 140 x 120 x 27cm | Wind rating 39mph | Materials 280gsm rip-stop canvas walls (2000mm HH); 600D nylon fly (4000mm HH)
Quechua Rooftop Tent Van 500
Verdict: An interesting design that does have merit – and value for money. However, traditional roof tents are easier to set up.
Pros: Great value, stable design, good internal space
Cons: Designed for vans only
Decathlon has taken a different approach to roof tents with this Quechua model. Rather than attaching to a vehicle roof via roof bars, the Rooftop Tent Van 500 gets fitted on arrival and uninstalled on departure.
Having arrived at your campsite, you unroll the tent on your van’s roof and secure it with anchor points. The tent is then inflated into shape with the air tube. The obvious criticism of this concept is that it replaces all the convenience that a roof tent traditionally removes, and that’s somewhat true. However, it’s no hardship to pitch and does mean your vehicle stays as aerodynamic as possible, saving you fuel. It is possible to pitch this roof tent solo, but it’s certainly easier with two.
The Rooftop Tent Van 500 comes with an inflatable mattress and a base with build-in wooden slats so you are sleeping on something solid. There’s a decent amount of space inside, measuring 210 by 130cm, plus windows on each side in addition to the door. Though, the Fresh&Black fabric turns the tent into a blackout room if you want it.
Unlike the TentBox and Front Runner models, this uses a single layer polyester fabric, so it’s breathability isn’t as good. But if you're using it in summer, it's not such as issue.
Sleeping capacity 2 | Weight 23.6kg | Dimensions open 130 x 210cm x 93cm (internal) | Dimensions closed 130 x 37 x 32cm | Wind rating 37mph | Materials 2000mm HH polyester