by Tom Savage, Massachusetts Crew
I’ve always been an outdoors type of person. I grew up in the woods, camping and backpacking with my father since I was old enough to carry a backpack. I’ve slept in countless tents and many different types of outdoor sleeping arrangements. I’ve found though, as I get older, I value comfort more than anything else.
Having been an avid backpacker through my 20’s and into my mid 30’s I evolved into the “ultralight” mentality. I justified this goal with many reasons, the main one being that I was tough enough to endure being uncomfortable at night in order to pack lighter, carry less, and therefore travel further on foot. I’ve used this same method of packing for motorcycle trips because, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot of room on a motorcycle. This form of traveling is quite effective and helpful in many situations. It has even allowed me to pack enough gear for a week backpacking through the Grand Canyon into a “carry-on” pack for a flight from Boston to Phoenix. I’ve found, however, that as I’ve grown older, certain aspects have evolved. Overlanding has made this evolution quite easy and allowed me to be more comfortable.
At this point in my life I truly value sleeping comfortably and I’ve tried many different ways to make this happen for me. When I combine my lightweight approach to travel, I’m able to “cheat” on some things. There is no perfect system. In order to lose weight, one must cut back on certain comforts and it all boils down to which comforts you enjoy the most. I’ll be the first to admit, I love food. But, with my love of food comes the ability to eat almost anything. I can thrive on mac and cheese and packaged tuna and find this meal to be an easy staple that’s lightweight and filling. I don’t need steak and potatoes or canned beef stew in order to be comfortable. I do require my two, cushy, hotel style pillows. Taking all of these aspects into account is what brought me to purchase a roof top tent.
There are several different reasons I wanted a roof top tent to begin with. First of all, comfort. I wanted to be comfortable sleeping at night. Comfort to me means physical comfort, as in a thick sleeping pad and room to roll around all night long. Comfort also means emotional comfort. By this I mean that when I’m camping in the desert, I don’t have to check my boots for scorpions in the morning. I don’t have to worry that the monsoon rain will wash its way into my tent. And, if we’re being honest, everyone has had moments, in the middle of the wilderness, in the dead of night, alone, after reading several chapters of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and wondering what type of critter/bear/wolf/snake/zombie is wandering about your thin, nylon tent just waiting to pounce. But really, being up on top of your vehicle may at least give you a fighting chance for a minute or two. The thing I love most about a rooftop tent is the fact that you can set up in almost any situation. If you’re on uneven ground, a ground tent will never work. In a vehicle, with some ingenuity, using rocks or your imagination, you can level a vehicle. With a rooftop tent, as long as you can park, you can set up. Rocks, mud, tall grass, snow, creek bed, fire ants, no problem; with a ground tent one has to be much more vigilant.
After much research on finding a suitable, workable rooftop tent, I selected the Smittybilt Overlander Rooftop Tent. The price was very reasonable, weight was manageable comparatively, ease of setup seemed average, and quality appeared to be on the mid-higher end. Since Smittybilt was relatively new to the rooftop tent business their prices are pretty good, on average $899. I’ve purchased several other Smittybilt products and have been more than satisfied with their quality so I found it an easy choice to make. The runner up was the Tepui Ayer Sky for $925. I chose the Smittybilt because I knew the brand and even though both tents had similar prices, sizes, weights, and protection; the Smittybilt offered a few other things that I enjoyed. Some of the small things that come with the tent that make it for me are the LED light strip which fastens into the tent so it never has to be removed, and illuminates the whole tent nicely. It also doubles as a charger for your phone if you desire, and plugs into a 12volt slot in your vehicle. It has a nice little “shoe bag” which connects adjacent to the ladder, so there’s no need to ever bring your boots into the tent, although I’ll be honest and say it takes a few trips up and down to be comfortable turning around and sitting on the edge of the tent. The zippers are well crafted and seem to be able to withstand abuse. The pad is not quite as thick at 2 inches but the foot print is a good 92×55 which is slightly longer than a queen sized mattress. The rain fly comes off very easily and allows you to open either of the two sunroofs for a cool breeze when needed in the summer. I’ve used it down to 40 degrees with all the windows closed and have been comfortable with a blanket and sleeping in my underwear. To be most comfortable, I have found that I am able to use a queen size bed sheet set complete with a blanket (for colder weather) and regular pillows (FYI a queen fitted sheet is just an inch or two short and causes the mattress to slightly curl at the end to fit, a king may fit better).
To make it even easier, I’m able to pack the tent this way for travel (not storing obviously). With a small amount of compression it closes up nicely with everything inside. There are multiple large pockets in every corner of the tent, along with multiple loops that hang in every corner and on each wall for hanging things such as lights or small radio or other small item. Each window has a rain fly which can be propped open, a zippered screen and an inside zippered canvas closure to retain heat when needed. I’ve found that with all the windows and screens open the breeze on top of my jeep is very nice in the summer. They sell a ladder extension for lifted vehicles. To give a comparison, my jeep has a 2.5inch lift and currently running 35inch tires and I’ve yet to have an issue with the standard ladder. It takes me about 5-10 minutes to secure the tent to my roof racks with two people. I can get this on top of my jeep alone however, this is a complete disaster. I’m not overly strong or tall (5’ 7”) and with a significant amount of swearing, sweating, muscle strain, a truly significant chance of breaking a window on my jeep, and I’m sure much to the enjoyment of my neighbors, I’ve twice been able to get it up in a pinch by myself. This is not recommended in any way. At 130lbs it’s very awkward alone, but quite easy for two adults
Setup at camp takes a few minutes depending on what type of equipment you bring and what you want out of the tent. If it’s summer and you want the fly on and all the windows propped open it takes me about ten minutes to get the cover off and to prop each window open. I usually do the propping from inside the tent which leads to me sweating significantly because it’s quite warm all zipped up and the metal hoops necessary to prop the windows open require an odd amount of leaning out the window to accommodate this action. If you bring a small aluminum step ladder, or you are ok stepping on the hood of your vehicle it can probably be done quicker. If you don’t keep your “bed” made, such as I do, it will take that many more minutes to add whatever type of sleeping arrangements inside the tent. The last time I set it up, not racing, but my father was able to erect a ground tent faster than I was able to set up my rooftop tent. However, I was finished several minutes before him because he had to air-up a sleeping pad and pillow/bag/etc.
All in all, I do sometimes miss the ease of sleeping on the ground. I could definitely still take my high thread count bed sheets, throw them in a ground tent and find a nice quality, plush, mattress to sleep on, and it will all add up to much less than the cost of a roof top tent , but I’ve grown to love my RTT. Not only does it look cool, it offers me all forms of comfort, reduces my anxiety of finding a suitable camp, gives me great protection from the elements, and Smittybilt offered a reasonable prices with great quality, ease of use, and just the right options I didn’t know I was looking for.