Overlanding, an activity born generations ago in the Australian Outback that involves driving long distances over rough roads, popping a tent and reveling in nature, is growing in North America as more people look for vacations off the grid.
A new category of tents — they fit on the rooftops of pickup trucks — make planning for such an adventure easier than ever, said Michael Repas, an overlander from Chesterland, Ohio.
As Repas gets ready to launch into a six-month across the U.S. state, he assembled his ultimate convenience-and-economy overlanding rig: a 2017 Nissan Titan XD 4-wheel-drive, 5/8-ton four-door pickup, topped with a tent.
“A rooftop tent is exactly what I need, an instant hotel that sets up in seconds anywhere, in a Walmart parking lot or a remote, dirt-road mountaintop,” Repas said.
Bolted to a roof rack, rooftop tents, or RTTs, unfold from a flat rectangle to fully assembled tents in seconds, like pop-up greeting cards, and keep you away from undesirable things on the ground, like sand, snow, scorpions, snakes and lions, which explains their roots in the Outback and the African bush.
Although RTTs have been available here for decades — they were a factory option on a 1949 Nash — they went under the radar until a recent rooftop renaissance ignited overland fever and began making inroads into mainstream family camping.
Quick facts about rooftop tents:
- RTTs typically set up in under a minute and use a pull-out ladder for access and support. A foam mattress is usually included, and many offer optional awnings and connected ground-floor annexes.
- RTTs are available in “hardtop” and “soft-top” models. Soft tops are lighter-weight and unfold into a conventional-looking canvas or nylon pole tent. Hardtops have heavier fiberglass lids that either rise straight up or open like a clamshell and most often have floor space similar to the square footage of the vehicle’s roof and truck bed. Some of the clamshell models have expanded floor space, as do most soft tops.
- RTTs aren’t cheap. Low-end soft tops start at around $1,000 and hardtops run $3,000 or more. Expensive as this sounds these prices do not include the cost of the roof rack, which must be heavy-duty enough to support the tent’s 100-200-pound weight.
- Many companies, foreign and domestic, offer RTTs through U.S.-based distribution channels.
After months of research, Repas settled on a soft-top model from Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Tepui that has a reinforced exterior and zip-out windows to facilitate his photography. Here’s a look at that product and two more unique models.
ROUGH & TOUGH — WITH A VIEW
Ruggedized Sky 4Tapui, an early RTT pioneer, calls this day-glow orange 210-pounder its “toughest” tent due to its heavy-gauge frame, base and hardware and “ding-proof” 360-gram rip-stop fabric that is 40 percent heavier than the fabric used in its other models. It includes a 2.5-inch high- density foam mattress, rain fly, large internal pockets, anti-condensation mat, 8-foot x 6-foot sleeping area, 8.5-foot telescoping ladder and removable “Sky” screen-panels that allow for unobstructed star-gazing. $2,250. Tepuitents.com
Made of super-light 210D rip-stop nylon, the three-person SkyRise weighs just 75 pounds and attaches easily to a rack with a non-bolt latch system. It includes a 2.5-inch memory foam mattress, rain fly and pull-down ladder and will support up to 600 pounds of weight. $1,099. yakima.com/skyrise-tent-small.
ROOMY HARD SHELL
The product of a South Korean who road-tripped across North America with his family for months and hated the long camp set-up time, the Skycamp is a rare “expandable” hard-shell RTT. After lifting the clamshell, a slide-out floor section gives it the large space (82.6 x 74.8 inches) of a soft-shell tent. In contrast, the footprint of a typical hard-shell tent is limited to the size of the vehicle roof. The aerodynamic design weighs 150 pounds including the ladder. It also features Skyview, a waterproof urethane window. $3,300. Ikamper.com