Why Roof Top Tents are So Expensive: Could you DIY one?

Camping night scene with silver car, majestic hills on background. Beautiful view of blue evening sky over high mountains and SUV with rooftop tent. Concept of travelling, camping and mountain hiking.

Rooftop tents have blown up in popularity in recent years. If you’ve looked into getting your own, you may have noticed that they tend to be, well, extremely pricey! Why is this?

Rooftop tents are expensive because they are made from expensive materials, they are considered lifetime investments (which leads to the increased quality of construction and engineering), and usually include a built-in mattress. It is possible to DIY one as well.

This being said, there are a lot of nuances that influence the price of rooftop tents. There are also numerous things to be considered when looking to DIY one. This article will attempt to deepen your understanding of both issues.

Why are Roof Top Tents So Expensive?

There is a multitude of little reasons why rooftop tents tend to be so expensive. There is also a lot of variance in price between different types and models of rooftop tents. Here are some of the biggest reasons why:

  • Most rooftop tents have a built-in, wall-to-wall mattress, and usually, one which is (supposedly) comfier than some blowup mattresses typically used for camping. Thus, you are paying for a solid mattress at the same time you are paying for your tent.
  • The cost of a rooftop tent typically includes a rack for attaching it to the roof of your car. These racks often include locking and other safety and security features and are engineered precisely to be able to function over a lifetime. After all, if your tent was to slide off the top of your car while you were sleeping, you probably would want a refund. This adds to the price due to the construction and material, and R&D invested into making the rack.
  • The baseboard (which attaches to the rack) is sturdy by necessity, and anything that needs to hold a lot of weight and last a long time tends to run more on the expensive side.
  • Roof top tents tend to be made out of pricey materials. This includes fiberglass, aluminum, quality cotton, waterproof vinyl or ABS plastic, and more. They are also often made with quite a generous amount of material to increase wind resistance and durability.
  • In some ways, rooftop tents are (arguably) more convenient than traditional tents. Some of the more flexible soft-shell tents can be collapsed with sleeping bags and pillows and such still inside, making for a very quick take-down. They also can be assembled quite quickly. Most only need a few minutes when it comes to assembly and disassembly. Convenience does come at a cost, as they say.
  • These tents are very comfortable due to their position off the ground. Just like hammocks, you will end up being warmer merely from having some distance between the cold ground and you. You also have the luxury of never becoming swamped with water if you use these tents. This comfort is part of the price tag.
  • Many rooftop tents come with options for or even include a lot of accessories or luxuries that less expensive and traditional tents typically don’t. These include solid walls, storage options, extensions, and more. This can quickly drive up the price of these tents.
  • Some of the cost is due to the recent surge in demand for these tents. They are trendy right now and have been recently updated in their usability, meaning that their price right now reflects the hype surrounding them. If you want to save money when buying one, it would be wise to wait a couple of years for someone who thought they were more of a wilderness person than they actually are to get rid of one for a bargain. Secondhand is almost always cheaper than new.
  • Rooftop tents are also relatively niche. The truth is, hardly anyone (with the exception of very serious campers) needs a rooftop tent, and there are a lot of cheaper alternatives, meaning that you are paying more for something that is essentially always going to be a “luxury” item. These tents essentially fill the gap between a normal tent and an RV or trailer, meaning that their price will likely fall somewhere in between the average cost of those items the majority of the time.
African safari in own cars with tents on the roof, sleeping on the riverside of Zambezi in Zimbabwe, star trails on the sky and night picture.

Soft-shell vs. Hard-shell: Is One More Expensive than the Other?

Hard-shell rooftop tents tend to be more expensive than their soft-shell counterparts. This is the case for a couple of reasons. Hard-shell tents tend to be somewhat easier to set up compared to soft-shell ones. This is because soft shell tents require a special ladder to be set up in order to support them, and often require the use of rain fly rods and other little supports and such, which can be a hassle.

Hard-shell tents typically just need to be unfolded in order to be set up. They are like the popup tents of the rooftop tent scene. They often extend with the assistance of hydraulics. Hard-shell tents tend to be lighter as well, which is a beneficial feature when considering gas mileage. Keep in mind though, that there are so many options for each that there are certainly soft-shell tents more expensive than most hard-shell ones and hard-shell tents cheaper than many soft-shell ones.

Is it Possible to DIY Your Own Rooftop Tent?

It is certainly possible to DIY your own rooftop tent. If you make it with inexpensive materials, there is a large chance that you could save hundreds or even thousands of dollars by doing so. The methods for making these vary widely, and so does the price for materials. Some are essentially just custom static or extendable platforms for tents one might already own, and some are hard-shell rooftop tents made by hand with plywood or other materials. This article lists a whole lot of them that people on YouTube have created. The biggest concern when making your own is safety. If you do opt to do so, just make sure to create yours carefully, and you’ll have a rooftop tent for a whole lot less than what you’ll find anywhere else.

John Olsen

John Olsen is a seasoned adventurer with 20 years of writing, public speaking, team leadership, analytics and project management experience.

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