Which 4x4 roof tent to choose?soft shell vs. aluminum shell vs. fiberglass shell
Photo: Joffrey Maluski
Ground tent or roof tent?
It is sometimes interesting not to be on the ground: rocks, pebbles, roots, non-flat ground, mud, small floods will make you regret not having chosen a roof tent. Another factor to take into account is the animals that roam the camps at night, especially in Africa. Being able to put your nose outside the tent without coming face to face with a hyena is not negligible. They also offer good protection against snakes and scorpions, which sometimes tend to crawl under your ground tent.
In this article, we will only talk about the equipment related to the car so we will not detail the choice on floor tents. See our selection of floor tent here.
Criteria to consider when choosing your 4×4 roof tent
Whether you are travelling alone, in a duo or with your family, you are bound to find what you are looking for. Please note that if there are more than 4 of you, depending on the size of your vehicle and the size of the first tent, you may also consider positioning two roof tents.
Caution: Make sure that the roof poles of your vehicle are able to support the weight of the tent, both while stationary and while driving. The vehicle also has a maximum permissible laden weight beyond which safety is no longer assured.
Before starting a comparison of different roof tents, it is important to set a budget. You will be surprised to see the prices vary from 800 to more than 5000 euros. In fact, the price of roof tents depends on many parameters (dimensions, accessories, design material, brand…). Some details can make the difference on the price: storage compartments, repair kit included, adjustable ladder…etc.
New or second-hand ?
If the tent of your dreams is not in your budget, don’t hesitate to take a look at the second-hand opportunities.
While the quality of the materials used by the manufacturer impacts the price, it also impacts your comfort and the durability of the tent. Your tent fabrics must be UV resistant, waterproof and breathable.
Waterproofing: refers to the ability to prevent the penetration of water from outside. It is therefore important to check the waterproofness of the tent, it would be a shame to wake up because water is seeping into your tent. A waterproofness exceeding 1500 Schmerber is the extreme limit to keep breathability to a minimum.
Breathability: The breathability of the fabric prevents the formation of condensation in the tent. When we perspire or breathe we generate a lot of moisture in the air and this moisture must be able to evacuate. The fabric of your tent must be able to “exchange” with the outside and thus evacuate the moisture. Breathability is therefore essential.
The balance between breathability and waterproofing is difficult to achieve, which is why some manufacturers opt for a non-breathable but totally waterproof “over-roof”!
Type of shell : soft or hard
There are two types of roof tents: The soft-shell roof tent and the hard-shell roof tent. Everything you need to know about these 4×4 tents is described below.
Soft-shell roof top tent
Advantages and Disadvantages
Soft-shell roof top tents are an excellent option for a first purchase. They are more spacious and more affordable than their rigid counterparts.
Lighter, they also take up less space on the roof, allowing room for accessories such as water or gas cans. It is also possible to put two tents to accommodate 4 people, which can be interesting if you are going with your family.
Folding and unfolding is mainly done by hand. You can leave the bedding in place when you close the tent. The mattress is cut in half but you don’t usually feel it. It takes a little longer to open or close it compared to hard-shell tents, but it doesn’t take more than 5-10 minutes, which is still reasonable.
No accessories can be put on top of the tent when it is closed, so no solar panels or luggage. When the tent is unfolded it forms a kind of awning, which is useful in rainy weather or to get some shade. When folded, the tent is covered with a waterproof canvas for protection.
There are two types of canvas:
– The bi-fold tent: this is the most common model where the entire tent, once stowed away, is sandwiched between the two floors. This means that when deployed, the usable area is double the stored area.
– The pull-up tent does not fold in half. Only the roof supports are pulled upwards like a fan. The floor and therefore the usable area is the same whether the tent is stored or unfolded.
“In South Africa, we opted for a second-hand Hannibal Safari 2-seater tent. We’re really happy about it! Of all the roof tents we have come across on our way, this is still the most spacious and sturdiest. It is a South African brand made for safari so the canvas is very strong. We have never had any problems with it, which is certainly due to its simplicity. The mattress is very comfortable. Only once we were afraid: We were in the desert in Iran and a sand tornado formed. The wind was blowing so hard that the tent folded down. Honestly this has never happened before, even during storms.”
The canvas of your soft top tent should consist of a breathable, waterproof and UV-treated main fabric and a heavier, fully waterproof over-roof to protect the outside of the tent from wind and rain. A heavy, thick fabric is used to cover the tent during transport.
In the majority of cases, the materials offered are :
- for the main fabric of the tent: a breathable but waterproof fabric, usually made of polycotton (a mixture of polyester and cotton), from 220 gr/m² this allows a good compromise for the balance between breathability/waterproofness. Be careful, above 320 gr/m² you lose breathability, which can be compensated by ventilation.
- for the over-roof: a thick 100% polyester fabric that is totally waterproof and protects from the weather and can be installed or removed depending on the conditions. High-end tents will have heavier and more resistant fabrics.
- for the transport cover: a waterproof and robust PVC cover with weatherproof zippers.
Pay attention to the finishing touches, especially the seams. In terms of watertightness, the heat-seals are more resistant and more efficient. The super strong YKK zippers guarantee long-term use.
Hard-shell roof top tent
Advantages et inconvenients
Hard-shell or hard-shell roof top tents are made of a hard material on the top and bottom which, when closed, forms a protective layer on the canvas and sandwich bedding inside.
They come in two main styles:
- Fan-shaped opening or “Wedge style”.
- Vertical deployment or “pop-up style”
They can be opened mechanically by means of a crank or a power-assisted mechanism.
To form the outer layer, the materials mainly used are fibreglass and aluminium.
Si la tente de toit à coque rigide est un peu plus lourde et prend plus de place sur le toit, on peut néanmoins y installer des accessoires au-dessus: Panneaux solaires, bagage ou même VTT et kayak. Attention de ne pas dépasser le poids recommandé par le constructeur. L’ouverture et même la fermeture se font en moins d’une minute. On peut laisser la literie en place et la retrouver exactement comme on l’a laissé.
Si on est 4, mieux vaut prévoir une tente de sol en plus. Il est impossible d’installer une seconde tente de toit (même de type « softshell »). Si on n’y a pas installé d’accessoire, on pourra l’utiliser comme plateforme d’observation, très utile en safari.
En cas de gros coup de vent, nous vous conseillons de mettre la voiture face au vent et la coque vous servira de protection. Dans la jungle, où l’on peut craindre la chute de grosses branches, la coque offre une protection supplémentaire.
“In June 2018, I equipped my Jeep Commander with a hard-shell roof tent to start a long road trip from Canada to Argentina. I am completely satisfied with it. Being able to install my bed on the roof of the 4×4 gave me easy access to remote places while keeping space inside the vehicle. Thanks to its rigidity, I was able to install above the solar panels. The interior is equipped with a few lights and outlets to plug in a computer, phone or a fan when it’s hot. Opening level, nothing could be simpler, just push the back of the tent up and in a few seconds the bed is ready. After a good night’s sleep at the top, it only takes a few seconds more to close it again and go back to the adventure! As for the disadvantages, I would say the humidity that penetrates it after a few days of rain or the fact that it is complicated to open it in town (discretion level…).”
Wedge or pop-up style?
A horizontal opening takes a little longer than a fan-shaped opening. However, this offers the possibility to open all 4 sides of the tent, as opposed to 3 sides for tents with a fan-shaped opening, so generally more ventilation. In case of strong gales this tent has maximum wind grip.
|Wedge style||fast opening|
more space in length
|Pop-up style||more overhead space||maximum upwind grip|
“Before we left for Africa, we bought a James Baroud recovery roof tent with our vehicle. It’s a second hand tent that is more than 15 years old and we are very happy with it! Unlike soft tents that take 5 to 10 minutes to fold up, ours takes 30sec to close. It is spacious, you can sit down and change easily for example. For Africa it’s really perfect, because it’s airy. It’s much less hot than in a converted van. For the insects this roof tent is really ideal: we can come and go in our vehicle in the evening without insects in the tent, we open it only when we go to bed. The fan-shaped or wallet opening is really perfect in case of strong winds. You put the vehicle facing the wind when there are gusts, and you don’t feel anything at all unlike canvas tents or vertically opening tents. We had a waterproofing problem once in a huge storm, otherwise we never had any infiltration problems.”
Aluminium ou fibreglass ?
repairable but expensive
|less solid (cracks)|
can be used as an observation platform on safari.
Fibreglass makes the shell lighter and strong enough. Although it is structurally very strong, fibreglass is still susceptible to cracking when it hits an obstacle such as a tree branch on a trail. While fibreglass cracking can be repaired, it can be costly.
Aluminum is also very strong and can withstand much greater impacts without cracking or tearing than fibreglass. However, there is a trade-off of extra weight. Unlike fibreglass roof tents, you can take advantage of its flat and solid surface to observe animals on safari.
So, soft-shell or hard-shell roof tent? our comparative
|Hard-shell roof top tent||- quicker to assemble/disassemble|
- storage space on the shell for solar panels, spare wheel, paddle... (true on most models).
- Longer lasting exterior coating
- protects better against bad weathers
|- heavy |
- onerous to purchase
- takes up more roof space
|Soft-shell roof top tent||- lightness|
- cheaper to buy
- easy to install
- occupies less space on the roof (possibility of a 2nd tent or jerry cans).
- more spacious inside
|- no storage space above the tent |
- more fragile (tear...)
- less durable material, faster natural wear and tear
- noisy in windy conditions
Many thanks to our adventurers for contributing to this article by sharing their experience. If you would like to participate in the writing of an article (mechanics, 4×4 equipment, motorcycle, etc…), do not hesitate to contact us! OunTravela is a collaborative resource centre.
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