Overlanding, and the adventures you are sure to encounter out on the trail, is filled with thrill and excitement in the great outdoors. With that excitement, though, comes a certain element of risk. To help mitigate some of these trail dangers, the roof top tent was designed to keep overlanders up and off the ground at night.
Are roof top tents safe? Yes, roof top tents, when properly installed on your vehicle, are safe for use on your overland adventures, as they keep you off the ground and out of reach of anything that may be crawling around outdoors.
However, while roof top tents do provide an element of additional safety for overlanders, several factors make roof top tents unique from traditional camping, which can affect their safety rating if not considered carefully.
Rating a Roof Top Tent’s Safety
If you are a frequent overlander, or simply like to spend a lot of time camping outdoors, you have probably considered investing in a roof top tent to make your outdoor evenings safer and more comfortable.
Given the hefty price tag (most roof top tents cost at least $1,000) roof top tents are expected to provide superior benefits to traditional ground tents, with safety being a primary focus among these added benefits.
Let’s take a look and see how roof top tents across a variety of situations.
Roof Top Tents and Wildlife Safety
As roof top tents have gained popularity in Australia, a land known for its wild landscapes and abundance of fierce creatures, it can be said that roof top tents are excellent in protecting overlanders from wildlife.
In the United States, bears are the primary animal of concern for campers, as they are known for detecting the scent of food and raiding campsites.
Overlanders, even with roof top tents, are still encouraged to take all of the recommended precautions for protecting their campsites from bears:
- Leave no food out overnight or when away from camp.
- Store food in a covered container and put in your vehicle when not in use.
- Dispose of trash away from camp in bear-safe receptacles.
However, while it would still be unnerving to have a bear show up unexpectedly to your campsite. In a roof top tent, it pales in comparison to being trapped inside your ground tent while having a bear scratching and clawing to get inside. The roof top tent keeps you up and out of the bear’s reach.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are incredibly safe for protecting overlanders from wildlife, especially bears.
Roof Top Tents and Weather Safety
The safety of roof top tents varies in different weather conditions.
For conditions like rain, hail, or snow, a roof top tent will perform similarly to a ground tent, as it does not offer any unique or additional protection from these elements.
The one area that the roof top tent is clearly superior, though, is when it comes to any runoff or flooding that occurs as a result of rain, hail, or snow.
Ground tents typically lay down a tarp or footprint prior to set up in order to protect them from ground moisture. A lot of runoff can flood the tarp and make its way into the tent. This can be a miserable situation and potentially lead to illness if the camper were to get wet and cold overnight.
While roof top tents protect from ground moisture and runoff, the one area they may perform worse than ground tents is in conditions with high winds.
The roof top tent will be securely fastened to the vehicle’s overhead stowage rack, so it is unlikely to go anywhere in the wind or incur any real damage. However, the sensation of experiencing the wind from a roof top tent will seem more extreme than from ground tents, potentially making campers feel unsafe.
Moreover, when camping in open spaces, there is no way to shield the roof top tent from high winds, while a ground tent can be situated around the vehicle for some added protection. The same can be said of trying to find the shade for your roof top tent.
All in all, the roof top tent does fine in a variety of weather conditions, with windy weather being the only area of concern.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are safe for protecting campers from the weather.
Roof Top Tent Safety and Your Vehicle
Most modern vehicles are designed to support their own weight in the event of a rollover. Therefore, even the most cumbersome roof top tents should not cause any structural damage to your vehicle.
However, as mentioned in the previous section, having the proper roof rack or bed rack is essential in your vehicle being compatible with a roof top tent. If you have a small car with a small rack, you may only be able to support a two-person roof top tent. It would be a little bit reckless to try and use a large family tent that can sleep more people than the vehicle can carry.
Regardless, you will always want to double-check your vehicle’s payload capacity (weight of all the stuff that can safely be carried by a vehicle), prior to mounting a roof top tent, with extra consideration given to older cars that may not be rated to withstand a rollover.
One secondary benefit of using roof top tents, when it comes to safety, is the added protection it provides from the elements. The tent will absorb the majority of sun, wind, or hail damage that your vehicle would have received on an overland expedition.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are very safe for your vehicle, as long as reasonable size considerations are made.
Safely Transporting Roof Top Tents
Yes, roof top tents are safe to transport. Their flat, compact design, when folded, makes them much more aerodynamic than some other items carried on roof tops.
The key is making sure that all straps are correctly fastened and that bolts are securely tightened between the overhead rack and support beams prior to hitting the road. Any moving or flapping part of the setup can catch some serious wind momentum when driving at high speeds, leading to disastrous effects.
Another thing to consider is that if you are trying to use a tent that is too big for your vehicle, your fuel efficiency can be severely compromised when trying to haul a roof top tent; this can make you think that your fuel reserves are better than they actually are when out in the backwoods with no gas station within miles.
What’s more, in these same situations, the added weight on the roof can cause some stability issues in your vehicle. While it will not make your vehicle topple over, you will every crosswind more acutely and be anxious to keep both hands on the wheel at all times.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are safe to transport, as long as all stowage precautions have been executed and you are not trying to haul a tent that is too big for your vehicle.
Choosing a Safe Camping Location
One drawback to roof top tents is that they require a little more space, as the vehicle and tent must both be considered when choosing a camping location.
On top of that, you will need to find a flat area on which to park your vehicle, as the ladder to your tent needs to have both feet anchored on level ground for safe use.
In addition, parking on an uneven surface may exaggerate the incline felt within the tent, causing objects to roll or shift unexpectedly.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are safe to use in a variety of terrains and conditions, as long as your vehicle is parked on flat ground.
Safely Setting Up a Roof Top Tent
One of the major complaints about traditional ground tents is that they are a pain in the neck to get set up on site. It always seems like the floor is never anchored adequately, and whenever you have it almost where you need it, a gust of wind comes up and negates all of your hard work.
While roof top tents are generally simple to get set up on-site, there is a lot of leg work required to get them installed correctly.
First and foremost, roof top tents are very heavy, with some models weighing around 200 pounds, so you should always employ the help of at least one other friend when attempting to install a roof top tent to your vehicle.
Trying to install a roof top tent alone presents a severe risk for injury, as even for very strong people, the wide, cumbersome base makes it difficult to handle by yourself. Outside of personal injury, your vehicle may be scratched or damaged in the process.
In addition, roof top tents must attach to a vehicle’s overhead rack, so the correct overhead rack for your vehicle’s size and dimensions must be safely and securely installed before attempting to attach a roof top tent.
While not extremely difficult to execute, the following steps must be performed to safely install a roof top tent:
- Install an overhead rack to your vehicle. This will be sold separately from your roof top tent and must be securely mounted before tent installation. Roof top tents are compatible with a wide variety of overhead racks, so whether you use a flat rack, crossbars, or a canopy, you should be fine for installation as long as it is securely mounted.
- Add support beams. After removing the roof top tent from its box, you will need to attach the support beams to the underside of the tent’s base. These beams are what will connect to the overhead rack, so you need to ensure they are adequately secured. Align the beams with the holes in tent’s base and use the included screws to fasten.
- Attach the ladder mounts. As the roof top tent is on top of your car, you will need a ladder to access it. Once the support beams are secured, flip the tent over so it is sitting on its base. At the end of the tent, about 18 inches apart (the width of a ladder), you will notice some eyes with which to bolt the ladder mounts in place.
- Place the cover over the tent. Any time the roof top tent is being installed, stowed, or transported, the cover should be securely placed and fastened to avoid the tent inadvertently opening and causing damage. When covering, keep track of where the ladder mounts are, as their location is key for proper installation.
- Position tent on the overhead rack. With the assistance of a friend or friends, lift the roof top tent onto your vehicle’s overhead rack, aligning the support beams appropriately. Keep in mind that if you want the tent to open by the driver’s side door, then the ladder mounts need to be on the passenger’s side when the tent is closed.
- Add sliding mounts to support beams. The set up kit will include sliding mounts that fit into the grooves on the support beams of the tent’s base. Thread bolts through these mounts and slide them into the support beams. There should be two mounts on each support beam, with one on each side positioned at the front and back of the tent’s base.
- Fasten the sliding mounts to the overhead rack. Once the sliding mounts are positioned conveniently near support structures of the overhead rack, add the included steel bars to the opposite side of the bolts and tighten them in place by screwing in the nuts. Once completed, the tent base should be firmly anchored to the overhead rack.
- Add plastic caps to support beams. The grooved support beams on the bottom of the tent’s base, in which you positioned the sliding mounts, need to be covered to prevent water, debris, and foreign particles from entering the grooves. The setup kit will come with four plastic caps that slide in easily into the beams to seal these grooves.
- Attach the ladder. Remove the cover from the tent’s base and locate the ladder mounts. Using the smaller nuts and bolts that remain, attach the ladder to the ladder mounts and fold the ladder up onto the tent’s base, replacing the cover and fastening the entire unit into place.
This video is a good example of how to install a roof top tent.
After these steps are performed, check to make sure that all of the bolts connecting the support beams to the overhead rack are tight. Also ensure that the tent does not shake or wiggle when shaken. Be meticulous in checking all of these connections when the tent has sat for any period, as a loose installation is a primary safety concern.
Once the tent is safely and securely installed, the setup process on site is very straightforward and is actually much easier than setting up a traditional ground tent. Setup can be achieved through the following six steps:
- Remove the tent cover and annex. Once you have located your campsite, unfasten all of the cover straps and take off the protective tarp. If you plan on using the annex (additional skirting that extends from the ground and protects the ladder), have it out before unfolding the tent.
- Unfasten the tent containment straps. After the cover is removed, you will notice a couple of small straps on each side that keep the tent tight and contained in its base. Carefully remove these straps to free the tent to fold out.
- Slide out the ladder and unfold the tent. Lift up on the latches that keep the ladder in place. Slide it out so that it will be extended once the tent is unfolded. The tent will fold out like a giant folding fan, with the tent popping up into full erection and the ladder touching the ground once it is completely unfolded.
- Add the support bar. The support bar threads through an opening at the door, folding out to support an awning that allows entrance into the tent.
- Attach the annex. This will zip on beneath the awning and provide a protective skirt around the ladder. Once attached, peg the annex to the ground using a mallet and the included anchors.
- Mount window rods. There will be some ventilated mesh at the side of your tent that serves as a window, with some protective canvas hanging down to cover it. Thread the included rods through this canvas and prop them up against the tent, opening the windows and allowing fresh air to circulate through your tent.
If all of these steps are followed correctly, then roof top tents can be safe to set up. However, a little extra help and attention to detail will be necessary to ensure that the tent is correctly installed on the overhead rack.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are safe to set up, but they need to be properly installed and frequently checked, as any malfunctions or improper use could lead to more severe consequences than with traditional ground tents.
Roof Top Tents and Comfort
One area that roof top tents are safe beyond compare is in the realm of comfortability.
As sleeping on rocks, jutting roots, and cold terrain can lead to health issues when camping on the ground, the base of roof top tents fold out into a padded mattress, which not only provides a flat and comfortable cushion but also insulates from the elements for a comfortable and safe night of sleep.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are extremely safe in terms of being able to provide comfort.
Ease of Entrance and Exit Functionality
One of the areas where roof top tents may be considered the least safe is in terms of entrance and exit functionality.
While crouching to get into traditional ground tents is not convenient, it is probably not as dangerous as climbing a ladder to get into your tent. Roof top tents provide particular problems for people with bad knees and backs, the obese and elderly, or those without sufficient dexterity to climb a ladder, making getting up to go to the bathroom a chore.
While on the topic of bathroom visits, footwear becomes an issue. With traditional ground tents, campers simply open their tent door and set their boots outside to avoid getting the inside of the tent dirty. However, this is not an option for roof top tents, so campers will need to have some kind of footwear that is sturdy enough to be used outdoors but clean enough to store inside the tent.
Finally, roof top tents provide some challenges in the face of danger, as it will take longer to get everyone out of the tent to flee a scene. On top of this, driving off with a tent attached to the top of your vehicle presents challenges in and of itself, perhaps making it impossible without severely damaging your car or other people/structures in your wake.
Final verdict: Roof top tents are not as safe as traditional ground tents when it comes to entrance and exit functionality.
Roof Top Tents and Accessories
When using the annex with your roof top tent, you are afforded a protective canopy in the event of rain or nasty weather without having to actually get into your tent.
They’re an extra cost, but they’re well worth the money. Not only do they provide a little extra safety, but they also add a little more comfort and privacy at your campsite.
Final verdict: The roof top tent’s annex offers protection from the elements during waking hours.
How to Stay Safe in a Roof Top Tent
While the aforementioned guide gives you a solid outline of how roof top tents rate in terms of safety, the following steps should be taken to ensure that no safety issues arise during your roof top tent’s use.
#1 – Pick the Correct Vehicle and Overhead Rack
Decide which vehicle you are going to use on your overlanding adventures and get it fitted with an appropriate overhead rack. Check your vehicle’s payload capacity to narrow down the types of roof top tents you may be able to use.
#2 – Choose a Roof Top Tent
There are many brands and models of roof top tents on the market. While the vast majority are compatible with a wide range of overhead racks, confirm that the specific tent you want to use will work with your setup, including the number of sleepers the tent will support in relation to your vehicle’s size.
#3 – Install the Roof Top Tent to Your Vehicle Properly
With a friend or friends, take time to make sure that the roof top tent is properly installed to your overhead rack, as this is the single most important factor in keeping you safe. Any incorrectly or shabbily mounted tents can lead to serious consequences. Ask yourself the following questions before, during, and after the setup process:
- Are all of the mounts, bolts, and steel plates thoroughly screwed in and tightened? Is there any wiggle when I try to shake the tent’s base?
- Is the ladder securely attached? Is it well connected enough to support the weight of people going up and down?
- Is the cover snugly fitted and fastened in place? Are there any loose or disconnected straps?
#4 – Find an Ideal Camping Location
Look for places where your vehicle will be able to park on level ground. Ideally, you will want to be in a place where there are trees or hillsides to provide shade and block wind, but you need to be certain that no falling branches or rolling stones are a threat, as you will have limited mobility once the roof top tent is erected.
#5 – Bring the Materials You Need Inside
Make sure you take sufficient water, flashlights, blankets, and pillows into the tent once you are ready to call it a night. As it is a bit hazardous and inconvenient to be climbing up and down the ladder in the dark, you will want to limit these trips as much as possible.
Also, you will want to be clad in clean footwear that is soft enough to be introduced to your tent bed but sturdy enough to traverse the ground outside, as there is not the option of opening your tent door and sitting your dirty boots outside the tent.
Final Thoughts on Roof Top Tents
Overall, roof top tents score very well in terms of safety. As far as keeping campers away from animals, out of flooded and marshy conditions, and providing a comfortable and therapeutic night’s sleep, there is no comparison between them and traditional ground tents.
The areas where the safety may not be quite as great for roof top tents is due to the fact that they are more susceptible to catching wind when fully erected, so roof top tents may not be the best option in areas known for wind with no buffer in sight. In addition, the ladder makes it difficult and inconvenient to get in and out of the tent when nightly duty calls and may be hazardous for people with health conditions that cannot ascend and descend a ladder with ease.