Roof Top Tent - Set-up on the Oregon Coast

Uncle Dave's Guide to Roof Top Tents

Words Dave Tolnai
Photos Dave Tolnai
Date Mar 28, 2017

I was lucky enough to grow up with a family cabin on Shuswap Lake. It's one of those places where you have to stand on one leg, flip a light switch and jiggle the handle just so, in order to make the toilet flush (and if it's yellow let it mellow is taken very seriously, indeed). As a result, we never rented it out.

Except for once every few years when we'd be going away on vacation and one of my Dad's coworkers would bother him relentlessly until he caved in and agreed to rent it to them. "Rent" being the closest approximation available for the situation. Money never changed hands. They'd always just sort of give us some bit of recreational apparatus that they never used and that was taking up space in their backyard. A sailboat. A windsurfer. And, most famously, a tent trailer.

This tent trailer was an amazing piece of recreational vehicle. We towed it with a station wagon straight out of National Lampoon's. We jammed it full of camping gear and fireworks and actually thought we were pretty bad-ass, not having to slum it with those regular people whose tents didn't come with trailers. With the tent up, it was a technicolor dreamcoat of colours, made of a material that laughed at the concept of "waterproof". With the tent down it looked like we'd just robbed a junkyard. But I loved it. I once got in a fight at a campground because some kid walked by and talked badly about it. There was absolutely no reason for me to feel this way about such a crappy thing.

I have a history with tents on top of things that move is what I'm getting at.

Roof Top Tent - Set-up on the Oregon Coast

Truck. Tent. Ladder. Easy.

Why on Earth?

So that goes part of the way towards explaining this ambition. I feel like I must go further.

Roof Top Tents (RTT's for those in the know) seem to be all over the place amongst off-roading circles. Which makes sense. You're seldom going to come across a manicured campsite out in the boonies at the end of a 4x4 track, and you certainly don't want to be hauling a large trailer behind you down those roads. All things considered, strapping a tent to your roof is a really great idea.

We outdoorspeople* could probably learn from this. We always seem to be driving places with carloads/truckloads of gear. We're familiar with roof racks. We love paying lots of money for complicated gadgets. There are countless ways we can benefit from a shelter arrangement that frees up space inside our vehicles (by travelling on the outside) and allows us to comfortably sleep disconnected from the ground.  We should be all over anything that turns an un-occupied corner of a parking lot into luxury sleeping arrangements.

Roof Top Tent - Set-up on the Oregon Coast

The Nuts and Bolts

Figuring out an RTT set-up makes building up a mid-90's DH bike look tame by comparison. It will stretch your math skills to the limit, worrying about compatibilities, load ratings, sizes and configurations. I eventually settled on an ancient pair of Yakima rain gutter mounted roof racks that I bought off Craigslist and an RTT from Tepui (multiple RTT's from Tepui, if we want to get specific). I also made use of the brilliant Summit mounting brackets that allow me to keep my tonneau cover in place with a rack over top, so that I can haul a tonne of gear without too much worry that it will get wet or stolen.

Here are a few things you should consider.

The Summit Bracket

The Summit bracket was critical in my system coming together.


Tepui and CVT are the two most common RTT's that you see in my parts. For locals, Tepui has distribution in Canada, so they are pretty easy to get a hold of. The offerings from Yakima are limited, but interesting, at a good price and probably with easy availability. Wild Coast Tents is a Canadian option worth checking out as well.

Tent Size

I went back and forth for months trying to decide on what size to purchase. I spent numerous hours in my bedroom with a tape measure (a few more than is usual). Most tents are the same length (48" closed, 96" open), so you're really only looking at which width suits you best. Most manufacturers sell 72" wide as a 4 person, 56" wide as a 3 person and 48" wide as a 2 person, but unless a large chunk of your party is growth stunted children, I would subtract at least one person from that count. Honestly, I think you're crazy if you go narrower than 56" for two people.

Closed up RTT

The four man is overwhelming on the back of a Tacoma...

Inside a 4-Man RTT

...But provides more room than two people and a dog will ever need.

3-man and a 4-man RTT

My 3-man fits the Tacoma a lot better. My brother's well-used 4-man in the background.


The majority of these things seem to be a poly/cotton blend - essentially canvas with some synthetics woven throughout as a rip-stop. There are some full synthetic options though, which are a bit lighter and cheaper. This link is as good a breakdown as any.

Covers all seem to be a heavy duty coated nylon affair and seem to be the place you're most likely to see some wear. After not too long on mine, the straps started to wear through, tears on some of the corners and zippers hanging on for dear life. The good thing is they're replaceable and easily available from most of the manufacturers for a hundred bucks or so.

Worn out RTT cover

Early wear to the cover, just from driving down the highway.

RTT window close-up

The poly-canvas blend seems durable, plus some detail on how the windows are held in place.

Roof Racks

Your average Thule or Yakima is going to struggle under the weight of the larger Roof Top Tents. Yakima limits out at 165 pounds of dynamic load, for example. They'll deal okay with 150 pounds of tent plus a few hundred pounds of stationary adult, but a 200+ pound tent is probably going to cause a few things to bend once your vehicle gets up to speed. Rhino is one manufacturer that makes heavier duty racks at a reasonable price that will attach to most things.

Other Things to Consider

With your racks sorted, your size figured out and your vendor chosen, you're almost there. Vestibule?  Changing room?  Should you fork out for the ruggedized option?  Is an anti-condensation mat necessary? What about integrated lighting? Like any burgeoning outdoor segment, RTT's are filling up with choices. Wonderful, paralyzing choices that will suck away gobs of money.

How does it actually work in practice

I knew we had something special when we rolled in to our campsite on Night #1 of our RTT ownership. We parked across from one of those motorhomes that shames you with its opulence. It had a chandelier!  We spilled out of the truck and started setting up the tent. A few minutes later the motorhome owners, gin and tonics in hand, sauntered over, forming up into the world's smallest spectator gallery.

“I told him it was going to be amazing!  You were just going to hop out of that truck and have it set up in no time. Amazing!”

This from the owners of the quarter million dollar dream house on wheels. Later that night they fed us drinks while we hid out from the mosquitos. I sat on their leather recliner, topped up my drink with ice from their wet bar, and they continued to tell us how amazing our tent was. 

And it never stops. You can be deep into a logging road, miles from the nearest main road, unfolding the tent in pitch blackness, and it’s not unlikely that somebody will pop out of the woods, point and yell “what the heck is that!”

The thing creates attention. No. It demands attention. Which is usually a problem for me, but in the case of the tent, when that awe comes from yuppie campers with more money than outdoor cred**, it feels pretty great.

I mean, you’re still a car camper, so don’t get too ahead of yourself. But you’re so much smarter than that guy digging trenches around his Coleman. You’re set-up in 10 minutes. Your bed is flat, relatively soft and stands no chance of deflation. Rain is a pleasant sound that serenades you off to dreamland rather than a weekend ruining menace. Well, you still are out there in it cooking your dinner like an idiot, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Dog in Tent

Oh my goodness, does this dog love this tent.

Should you do it?

Of course you should do it. You're in this deep, already. You have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of bikes and no spare space to store anything, as it is. What's another couple grand? Just shove some of that 26" shit aside and jam this in the corner when you're not using it. I guarantee once you spend this much money on a tent, you're going to force yourself to take at least one, maybe two, more camping trips each season. I love the damn thing, even though it's a bit of a hassle and makes me feel like a dick sometimes.


Uncle Dave

*You know...loosely speaking.

**I mean...I'm not suggesting that I don't fall into that category.

Uncle Dave's Music Club

Would adding links to music take away even more credibility from what is already a pretty half-assed review? Will the effort required detract from the overall theme of laziness? Well...

Chuck Berry. I'm not going to get into a whole thing about how sad it is that one of the pioneers of Rock'n Roll was denied his rightful place in history. But in the wake of his death, the CBC played this song that I'd never heard, and it blew my mind. Can you imagine what it would have been like to hear this song for the first time back in 1955? Oh my god. It would have melted brains. Blown minds. Soiled underwear. Have a listen yourself.

Uncle Dave just might go back to answering questions if you have fuel to ignite his clean burning, high octane grey matter. Otherwise he'll do just as he pleases. Send your questions to Uncle Dave.

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jason  - March 27, 2017, 10:26 p.m.

But you have to take down your tent every time you want to do a quick run to the beer store.  Whereas with this:

You can leave it set up, do your beer run etc.


jason  - March 27, 2017, 10:27 p.m.

Oh and what is your brothers trailer in the picture beneath his tent?


Dave Tolnai  - March 28, 2017, 8:26 a.m.

It is true that it needs to be taken down.  But it's basically 15 minutes in the morning to take it down and 10 minutes at night when you want to put it back up.  It's no big deal.

The trailer is his pride and joy.  I think there is a relatively largish subculture of offroad trailer haulers.  He bought it off some guy and slapped a tent on the roof.  You definitely avoid the constant breaking down of camp with that solution.


Shoreboy  - March 28, 2017, 8:37 a.m.

I think the concept of the RTT is a great one.  I do agree that the deal breaker for me would be having to pack up camp everytime I needed to drive anywhere.  If you are on the move everyday, they would be a great solution.  If I were staying somewhere as a 'basecamp' and doing day trips, it doesnt make as much sense.


Dave Tolnai  - March 28, 2017, 10:57 a.m.

Ya.  See my above comment.  Once you figure it out, it's not really a big deal.  To the point where I sort of forgot to mention it in the article.  Remove your pillows, take out a few poles, fold it up, strap it down and you're on the road.  Reverse once you get back.  Once you do it a few times, you don't even think twice about it.  To the point where a few times we'd go out for a late dinner, get back to "camp" quite late, throw it into reverse and 10 minutes later you're in bed.


Cooper Quinn  - March 28, 2017, 9:05 a.m.

I'm guessing you're sort of expecting me here in the comments. RTTs rule. 


Cooper Quinn  - March 28, 2017, 9:10 a.m.

I'm not smart enough to figure out how to edit my comment in the new system. 

Something else to consider, that Dave didn't really have to. Yes, you CAN run a roof top tent on a full canopy (see above). But as with much of the above in the article, do your research. Not all canopies are created equal, and not all will support a tent, especially once you're in it. Admittedly its static load at that point, but with tent, two people, and a 55lb dog, that's a lot of weight on a cap.


Dave Tolnai  - March 28, 2017, 10:58 a.m.

Yes.  I thought I might see you here.  Good thoughts on the canopies.  That's a world I never explored.


natbrown  - March 28, 2017, 1:50 p.m.

Nice number plate.


Bux Bux  - March 29, 2017, 11:56 a.m.

Moab trip. Was a major hassle set up and breakdown every day.
If truck goes nowhere it's fine. If it's needed for laps, destinations with bikes. Tent on the ground for me.


Clint Koehler  - April 4, 2017, 9:50 a.m.



Matt Thomas  - Dec. 10, 2017, 11:10 a.m.

Thx for the article.  I have a 4 man 76" overland xl going on my tacoma until I get the offroad trailer.   Looks like its not "overwhelming" at all.


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