1. EASE OF INSTALLATION
Before considering a tent seriously, check it’s compatible with your roof rack. If not, are you happy to pay for expensive roof rack modifications? Get up to speed on the installation process on YouTube or with instruction manual PDFs. Ensure you have the necessary tools and check whether drilling is required. Non-arduous on-and-off procedures are obviously preferable, especially if you intend on removing the tent during periods of inaction. Ask the manufacturer if they can install for you and at what cost.
In Australia, 42kg to 52kg is about the best you’ll find. Some market leaders include James Baroud’s Grand Vision, Drifta’s Wildland, Darche’s Intrepidor, and Bundutec’s Moremi Extreme Light. Light models like these tend to have fibreglass or full canvas roofs. Tents with aluminium or steel roofing push 80 to 100kg. While advantageous in other ways, they increase fuel economy, negatively impact handling, and may push certain cars over their official rooftop capacity.
3. AERODYNAMIC SHAPE
All rooftop tents will adversely affect fuel consumption, but some are worse than others. The precise impact is a function of weight and aerodynamics. A boxy RTT may add about 3L per 100km, whereas sleek fibreglass lids with rounded contours tend to create a little less wind resistance, thereby making the 4WD less thirsty. Over the long term, a more expensive aerodynamic model could pay for itself!
4. COMPATIBILITY WITH GEAR
Some rooftop tents reduce how much gear you can bring, where others are not quite as limiting. Lighter tents allow you to load more before you reach your car or roof’s weight capacity. Smaller tents that don’t take up the entire roof rack leave space for additional accessories or accessory-mounting fixtures — either in front, behind, or to the side of the tent, as is the case with awnings or shovel holders. Certain tents even incorporate storage bags or compartments.
5. SIMPLE SETUP
A quick set-up is great for morale, frees up time, and prevents the nightly ordeal from dragging on. The very quickest tents involve just a nudge to lift gas struts or the press of a button. Divide essential steps from non-essential to see how many minutes you can get set-up down to at a push. Also consider how much lifting, weight-bearing, finger strain, awkward manoeuvring, and risk the process will involve. Hopefully you don’t have to stand on tyres, the bull bar, or a car seat. Ask for a demonstration before buying if possible.
6. SIMPLE PACK-UP
Pack-up doesn’t always mirror set-up. For example, gas struts that are over-strong will be easy to raise but hard to lower, a tight-fitting road cover may be easier to lift off than squeeze on, and during pack-up canvas may need to be carefully tucked so it doesn’t catch in zippers or seals. A quick and easy pack-up motivates you out of bed, makes it plausible to temporarily set the tent up for a quick arvo nap, and makes life better when you need to unexpectedly head back out in the evening — especially if the pub is calling your name.
7. ABILITY TO STORE BEDDING
Pillows are a given, and in cool climates you’ll need to use plenty of blankets and/or sleeping bags at night. If you can find a tent that allows you to keep this gear inside when you pack up, you’re onto a winner. Storing bedding up top frees up car space in a big way. Additionally, climbing up the ladder with a bundle pressed to your chest or handing your partner blankets adds time and frustration and reduces hygiene should they touch the ground.
8. ROOM FOR USER ERROR
Ideally you can make mistakes in the set-up and pack-up of your tent without damaging it. The worst I’ve managed with my Darche was bending one of the spring-steel poles when folding the tent in half. Other tents, if opened or closed incorrectly or before taking a certain precaution — for example, undoing latches — could suffer worse damage. On this point, if your tent has an electrical opening, is there a manual override? Or could the tent possibly get ‘stuck’ in one position? Another related note, if you pack away the tent with your phone or wallet enclosed, is it easy to retrieve?
9. COMFORTABLE MATTRESS
Most RTT mattresses are high-density foam and at their thinnest offer 5cm of padding. The thinner the mattress, the more likely your hips and shoulders will press into the hard floor and develop pins and needles, or that you’ll lie in strange positions and risk hurting your back. The best mattress I’ve seen was a 100mm-thick one with a convoluted upper within a Backtrax Ascent. Better mattresses like these are more common in hard-lid RTTs, where the mattress doesn’t fold-over on itself when packed away. Also keep in mind that mattresses that fold will wear thin in the middle. Investigate if you can permanently leave a convoluted 'egg-crate' foam upper layer inside to improve comfort. We could in our soft-shell folding RTT, but it packed away lopsided.
10. GENEROUS DIMENSIONS
The interior needs to be 20cm longer than you are so that you don’t make contact when sleeping. Longer mattresses allow for storage at your feet. 150cm is the width of a standard queen and is preferable for couples, but 140cm is more common and 130cm is still doable for most. Aim for at least a metre of headroom so you can sit up without bending your neck. Don’t focus just on the highest point, but on how headroom is distributed. Ideally you can sleep lying either way, which means you won't have to sleep with your head lower than your feet — which can cause headaches.
11. A HIGH-QUALITY LADDER
Check that the ladder is sturdy and that its length can be adjusted; that doing so is a non-fiddly process; that the rungs are comfortable and non-slippery to stand on barefoot; that its feet can dig in to dirt or grass and has some grip on concrete; that the ladder doesn’t flex when weight is applied; and that it attaches — if not permanently attached — to the RTT securely. Also weigh up whether you’d prefer a ladder that stores in the tent itself, whether the ladder blocks any car doors, and whether it can go on various sides of the tent.
12. COMPREHENSIVE WEATHERPROOFING
Check whether the canvas is waterproof, UV-stable, and whether it has a reasonable UPF rating. Are the seams sealed, and is the roof slanted for run-off? Are the windows covered by awnings so you can still have them open in the rain? How about ample airflow? Are there any gaps that bugs could get through? These are just a few aspects that can make all the difference to a good night's sleep, so investigate thoroughly.
13. QUALITY MATTERS
Try to see your desired tent on display. Look at the neatness of stitching, cleanliness of welds and metal edges, and general presentation. If someone is happy to let you examine their well-travelled tent, look for canvas tears, fibreglass cracks, mould, and any other wear and tear. Read customer reviews or browse posts on owner Facebook pages. Never assume price correlates perfectly with quality, nor that the tent and its materials are made where the company is 'based' or 'owned.' Familiarise yourself with the market until you have an idea of which designs are generic and which are bespoke.
14. FAIR WARRANTY AND EASY REPLACEMENTS
Investigate the duration and terms and conditions of warranty coverage. Some brands offer 12 months with restrictive clauses, where others provide inclusive terms of up to five years. If the tent is imported or stocked by a distributor, can the importer/distributor make decisions, or will you have to wait while they relay with a remote manufacturer? Favour tents with replaceable parts so that if a part breaks, you can replace it without uninstalling and shipping the entire tent — or worse, ditching your purchase entirely.
15. EXTRAS AND ADD-ONS
Some of the best rooftop tents incorporate 12V power outlets, in-built lights, and fans. These features are often powered by tent-based batteries which are charged via solar or are removable and chargeable by other power sources. Other RTT 12V accessories run off the car’s auxiliary battery, with power sourced via Anderson/Deutsch plug connections or permanent wiring — which is harder and costlier to set up, but hassle-free once in place. If you want to customise down the line, look to brands that sell add-on accessories, such as sturdier ladders, mattress upgrades, compatible awnings, annexes, condensation matts, and thermal kits.