Rooftop or Ground: Where Should I Pitch My Tent?

OVERLAND CAMPING

The proper sleep setup will make overlanding a joy.  Get it right and you’ll be looking for excuses to extend your trip.  Get it wrong and you’ll be looking for the next motel. We’ll review the pro’s and con’s of rooftop or ground or a trailer to see where each shines.

When it comes to sleeping along the trail, the options have gotten surprisingly comfortable in recent years.  Individuals, or whole families, can trek far and wide without leaving the comforts of home.  Sleeping options can vary widely in features and price, so we’re breaking it down for you.  For simplicity we’ve grouped them into three categories: rooftop or ground or/and trailer.  Each solution has specific applications and pros/cons to be considered.  Read on to learn which setup is right for you.

Ground Camping

The trusty ground tent is the simplest, most affordable, and most flexible sleeping solution. Ground tents are typically compact and lightweight, and can be had in any size and configuration to suit your needs. For the greatest comfort, we recommend taking a cot and/or good air mattress, like the Teton

PROS

  • Affordable: $300 will get you a great tent, and another $150 will get you squared away with a comfy cot and mattress for a pain-free morning. 

  • Compact and Lightweight: our Gazelle 3 Person tent weighs only 27lbs, and takes up minimal space in your vehicle.

  • Flexible placement: set up camp wherever you like, not just where your vehicle can reach. 

CONS 

  • Slower setup and take-down: count on about 20-30 minutes to clear a site and set up a medium-sized tent.  Take-down can be longer and more involved to insure the tent is clean and dry before stowed.  
  • Exposure: Heavy rainstorms or curious critters can make for uncomfortable nights. 
  • Less Comfortable: Ground tents require you to find a dry, level spot free from rocks or tree roots. Even with soft soil, a good mattress and/or cot are recommended. 

Rooftop Tents

Rooftop tents are becoming quite common, and for good reason.  The convenience and comfort of rooftop tents are a huge leap over a ground setup.  They come with a higher price tag, but if you are doing weeks or months of overlanding, rooftop tents are well worth the investment.

 

Most rooftop setups consist of a collapsible tent, ladder, mattress and cover.  Some include lighting, annexes, hard shells and more.  

PROS

  • Fast and convenient setup: good rooftop tents can be ready for sleep in about one minute – a welcomed comfort after a long day!  This is a big plus if you do many multi-day/multi-stop trips.  
  • Up and out of danger: no worries about flooding or visits from creatures in the night.
  • Frees up vehicle space: tent, mattress and sleeping bags are stored on the roof, opening up valuable interior space for the rest of your gear.
  • Comfort: rooftop bedding support is superior because it is thicker and stays put when you fold up.  
  • Built-in Cover: when the bed is extended, rooftop tents create a canopy you can use for shade and weather protection below.  Add an annex and you’ll have privacy and wind protection for getting changed, showering, or addressing the call of nature at 3am.  

CONS 

  • Price: starting around $800, rooftop tents can cost upwards of $4,000 or more
  • Top-heavy/ Bulky: rooftop setups can make your vehicle more likely to tip on difficult trails, and the combined weight and wind resistance take a toll on fuel economy. 
  • Nighttime bathroom breaks: when nature calls, it’s not the most fun – or the safest – to scramble down a ladder half-asleep in the dark.
  • Harder to level: for the greatest comfort you’ll need to find a level spot to park, or be prepared to use blocks under your tires to level out your vehicle. 
  • Less flexible: ideal parking spots are not always the ideal place to set up camp.  Rooftop tents make it harder to camp near natural features like rivers, rock outcroppings, or under heavy tree cover.  
  • Exposure: their height can leave you more exposed to wind and less likely to find shade.

Trailer Camping

Offroad trailers are fantastic for extended trips, where convenience and comfort make a big impact.  They’re also the most expensive and limiting of the three solutions. Trailers can be fairly simple and cover just storage and kitchen items, or they can be full decked out abodes on wheels like this one from Opus.  

PROS

  • Most convenient: Fast to set up, no problems climbing in and out during the night, ability to leave as a basecamp while you strike out on adventures. 
  • Most comfortable: trailers stay warmer, and offer more creature comforts with room for thick mattresses, a full kitchen setup, heated water, and more.
  • Extra space: trailers provide room for all sorts of gear and equipment to support longer, more involved adventures.  
  • Less weight directly on truck:  Easier on shocks, less top heavy and potentially less aerodynamic drag can be a benefit on long drives.
  • Mild to wild:  Choose a small trailer for just extra storage or a large enclosed trailer if you are looking for pampering.  

CONS 

  • Most expensive: good trailers, like the Smittybilt, start around $7,000 and you’ll still need to add a tent and any other accessories that you like.  
  • Trail limitations: Rock crawling trails will likely be off limits with a trailer, and difficult trails will pose challenges that can make your trek a little less fun. 
  • Gas mileage: trailers make the biggest dent in your fuel efficiency, costing you around 3-10 mpg.
  • Less Flexible: finding clear, level parking for your vehicle + trailer can be a challenge

If you have a favorite sleep setup, rooftop or ground or tips for staying comfortable on the trail, share your story with us below!

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