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Hard Shell Vs Softshell Roof Top Tent: What To Buy?
A softshell? Or a hard shell? What’s better for you, for your rig, for your needs or the weather you plan to use it in?
Is it better for you to get a hard top tent, or a 3 or 4 person rooftop tent?
Well, we will try to answer such questions in this blog post.
Before we break this section into smaller sections we will try and help you understand. Experienced overlanders or people that have been in the loop about RTTs know that there are two main types: hardshells and softshells.
Hardshells are those with a hard outdoor shell, usually made of either fiberglass or aluminum. The softshells are those that resemble a ground tent, usually made of poly cotton ripstop fabric that changes the thickness from model to model. Look at Image 1 below; it is a table comparing the two types on some basic features.
Hardshells are particularly more expensive, normally starting at $3,000, but they are stronger, easier to open, close, set up, and last much longer.
Softshells are a good starting point. They also weigh less, have many more options in price and style, and are still of good quality.
With this explained, we will start with Hardshells, and then we will have an in depth section for Softshells and their different types.
Image 1: Table comparing Hardshells and Softshells
This section will take an in depth look at what components make a hardshell tent, what are their advantages and disadvantages, who are they for, and then we will give a few specs on the models we carry.
What To Look For In A Hardshell
Hardshell roof top tents have usually a very simple design; they have two outer shells either made of fiberglass or aluminum, and then fabric joining both shells. The shell will either open as a mouth, or will open in a box-like-shape.
The difference between the two designs isn’t that relevant. It comes down to a subjective choice.
The hardshells that open only on one side have obviously a smaller headspace, meaning you will place your feet on that side. However, some models open up to a 56” height on the side that opens.
The measurements of both types re very similar, a length fluctuating from 83” to 87”, a width ranging from 48” to 57”, but some models may vary, especially when open (such as the Skycamp by iKamper).
Hardshells will always have a longer life span than softshells. They are very well built and strong, but it’s time to look at the features to consider before buying.
This isn’t as important as you may think. As said above, hardshells are extremely durable and either fiberglass or aluminum, they will last for a lifetime. It comes down to a subjective choice; will you prefer the fiberglass or the aluminum? The difference in quality is none. These aren’t RVs, these are tents with a smaller size, and made of welded aluminum of the highest quality, or fiberglass. Both excellent.
Luckily, hardshells are much more aerodynamic than softshells, as they are very slim, and adapt better to the shape of the car. They aren’t a “brick” creating a lot of wind resistance. However, they are heavier than softshells, and that means that the vehicle will spend more in gas. Now, the weight fluctuates a lot depending on the size of the tent, as well as other features such as roof racks on top of the outer shell.
If you need an RTT for 4 people, it’ll be bigger than one for 2, and normally heavier. Same applies for those models that include roof racks. Our advice, if you are already buying a hardshell, you know it’ll be heavy; so a few extra pounds here and there will not make a difference.
This one matters quite a bit. Will you use it only for yourself or for a couple? Or do you see a family sleeping there?
Keep in mind you are about to do a $3,000 investment, so buy it accordingly to what you plan to use it for. If you see yourself camping on them with more than just one more person, get a model that fits in 3 or 4 people.
Roof Racks Or Not
Some hardshells, such as the Alu-Cab, come with roof racks installed on the outer or upper shell. This is a great feature for many, as they can put their surfboards, kayaks, or other things on top of the tent.
Normally, the roof top tent will take the loading space from your of, meaning you have to put everything in the trunk of the car (unless you have a trailer).
Wedge (Mouth) Shape or Box Shape
This is the last relevant feature to look out for. Normally all hardshells will open in less than a minute. If they are a wedge shape, they’ll have a hinge on one end and you literally just pull it upwards and you’re set.
The Box shaped ones might take a few extra seconds. Some like the BunduTop come with an electric motor that automatically opens the tent for you, saving you the effort of doing it. Others, such as the Maggiolina, have a crank-assist opening mechanism that opens the upper shell.
What’s better? Well, the wedge shape means less risk of the inner frame of the tent ever having any problems. However, the box shape offers more headspace, and comfort.
Pros & Cons Of Hardshells
More Durable. Hardshells will last a lifetime, years and years and they will still be perfect.
Stronger & More Reliable. Hardshells are built with much better materials, meaning that no matter where you are they hold better against anything. They are better against water as the outer shell is completely water resistant, better against wind, as the shells will completely stop it, etc. Plus, if something impacts them, they will hold.
More Aerodynamic When Closed. A closed hardshell RTT will not be a problem for the aerodynamics of the vehicle, and that’s great for saving in fuel.
More Comfort. Hardshells are generally more comfortable. The reason being they can have thicker mattresses that will not mess with the packed size of the tent. They also have a more uniform interior, so it’s easier to move inside of them.
Easier Open-Close. Open and close them in 30 seconds, literally. It is a breeze to handle them, making your life and camping trip a better one. Generally people that will be camping for a very long time in an RTT will always choose a hardshell.
Easier Maintenance. The maintenance is much simpler. If they get dirty, the slipperiness of the shell will make it very easy to wash. As to the fabric, many can allow you to unclip it and just wash it in the washing machine.
Storage Space. When closed, most hardshells are around 13-inches of height, meaning that if you take out the mattress (or you can even leave it), you have around 8 to 10 inches of space inside of them to store food, clothes or other things and keep them safe and dry.
Seasonality. Hardshells are built for all 4 seasons. They will hold against snow as they keep you warm. They will protect you from wind and rain, and have a great ventilation (if you want) even during summer.
Expensive. This is no secret, hardshells are pricier than softshells, but they are worth the additional investment.
Heavier. Sometimes they aren’t even that much heavy, but they tend to be. Mounting them onto the racks can be a harder task.
Less Customizations Available. Softshells offer you a wide variety of designs, they have different shapes and even annexes, and there are lots of customizations. Hardshells don’t really offer a great choice.
In this section we will dedicate a lot of time to Softshell tents, the reason being: they are the most common ones. However, you must know that not all softshell tents are the same; they are very, very different even though they all look similar.
Wanaka by Guana Equipment
Unfortunately, the manufacturers haven’t yet come with a design that stands out from the rest (such as the iKamper for hardshells), so it makes it hard for people to really tell what’s a good or a bad tent.
For the purposes of the section, and to facilitate your reading experience of this guide, we will give you a heads up of what awaits for you ahead:
- Basic background information
- Entry-level RTTs: a section dedicated for the tents that newbies might want to shop for.
- Expedition Grade RTTs: a section dedicated to the more expensive models and brands targeted for experienced overlanders.
The first thing to keep in mind is that softshell tents are not all the same. Sure, the shape can be a similar one for most of them, but the materials vary a lot, even the hidden ones. Who hasn’t had a bad experience with a tent which poles break, water drips inside, the seams reap, etc? I’m pretty sure many.
Same applies for RTTs. You have some that just will not hold against strong winds, others that are made of cheaper fabrics, or manufactured in different ways.
Another thing to know is that at the moment most of the brands manufacture their tents in China. Bad thing? Not at all. Chinese manufacturers have improved A LOT in recent years, and there are hundreds of different factories ranging from cheap products, to high end ones. The case of many tents is the latter.
For example, CVT, Tepui, TJM, ARB, Smittybilt, are just some of the names that manufacture their tents in China. And out of all of them, the first two names are known for their excellent quality.
Well, they made sure they found the good factories, and they choose the correct products, inspect their tents carefully, and aren’t just here for the money, they care about the community they built, their customers and their products.
That said, there are other brands such as Eezi-Awn, Alu-cab, Howling Moon and Bundutec that make their tents in South Africa. They are some of the first brands to ever appear in the market, and they know their stuff. Their tents are known to be the best ones in the market. If you ever choose to buy any of them, you’ll be safe.
Finally, before we jump into the next sections, we have to explain something clearly: soft shell roof top tents can be divided in two: entry-level and experienced-level.
Entry-level tents are those roof top tents that have a much more accessible price, around $1,000, and despite being of good quality, they do not have the specs, features or add-ons that other RTTs of a higher-level have.
The reason being that they target another audience, they are looking for customers that haven’t tried RTTs before, or that are just getting into the niche. It’s fine, these tents can be great. The Yulara (just to name one), is a highly durable tent, made of excellent materials, but it will not be the tent someone that has been trying them before, will want to buy.
The expedition grade tents are much like hardshells: for experienced overlanders, or for people that are looking for an RTT that will help them have the trip of a lifetime.
These come with all the bells and whistles: great annexes, thick fabrics, outstanding rainflies, better bases, they are built for the 4-seasons and include a series of gadgets or accessories that will pretty much allow you to live inside of them.
As explained above, this section focuses on entry-level softshell roof top tents. Once again, we define these tents as those that have an affordable price, ranging from $700 to $1,200, made of good enough materials, that will last long, but not as long as higher-end tents. Entry-level tents are suitable for those looking to buy an RTT for the first time.
For example, if you have never owned one, you might want to buy first a Smittybilt tent costing $1,100, which can easily last more than two years, and will allow you to have comfortable camping trips.
Of course, this tent will not be ideal for a 4-season use, or for a trip of a lifetime, but it will hold up well, give shelter to you and your travel mates, as well as being sellable later on for at least half the price.
Like we did in the Hardshell section, we will look at three different things: features to look for, pros and cons and a few models we recommend.
Features To Look For:
Entry-level rooftop tents lack many different features, accessories or gadgets that experienced-level softshell tents have. That is why, even though you will see awnings in them, do not expect honeycomb aluminum bases, thick rainflies, or extended annexes. Nonetheless, a few things are important.
Materials & Build
Entry-level does not mean bad quality, on the contrary, they must be a good quality tent with the purpose of you falling in love with the concept and wanting to get a better one in the future.
Look for RTTs that have a rainfly that is 100% waterproof as well as at least 420D poly cotton ripstop fabric, the reason being this is a good thickness to withstand strong rain, wind and low temperatures. Make also sure the inner tent fabric is 100% waterproof and at least poly cotton 280g. Also, make sure the base is made of aluminum, and so are the tent poles and the ladder.
Needless to say, make sure they have a foam mattress at least 2-inches thick (2.5 is much better) as to have a decent sleep. Then mosquito nets are needed. Pretty much what all tents include, however, the thickness of the fabric and rainfly, as well as the aluminum base are a must.
Entry-level tents should never be for more than 4 people. If you want a tent that will fit all your family, then you want a good and comfortable one. Think about it, you are making more than 4 people sleep inside of it, they all have different needs and opinions, so you want a common ground, in which all think the tent is at least OK, and that isn’t easy.
Entry-level are ideal for 2-3 people, 4 pushing it a bit. They are not as comfortable, don’t have as many accessories or extras that make them as great. However, they are still good enough for 2 or 3 people to enjoy a good night sleep in them, as well as good ventilation.
This is a common feature of all softshells, as you don’t want a tent that gives you trouble. You want one that easily opens and closes in less than 5 minutes. There are a few that have poles that don’t stand up as easily (that is a headache), or that have bad quality zippers, hinges, etc.
Before buying one, ask for the open-close time; make sure it’s not more than 5 minutes to do any of the two. Enquire about the zippers (hopefully YKK), and how long it takes to attach the rainfly.
The weight of softshells is normally a much lighter one, especially on entry level ones. Since their fabric is thinner, they have a smaller capacity and their bases aren’t as thick, they should be light.
That is great for an entry-level as mounting it on top of your racks will be easier, plus it won’t be that much added weight to your ar. Go for RTTs ranging in between 120-135 lbs.
This may come in as obvious, but many people overlook it. We said it above, entry-level does not mean bad quality. Go for a brand you know and trust. TJM, Smittybilt, ARB are three excellent brands making entry-level tents.
Of course none are perfect, and of course some models have defects, but they are still pretty solid and reliable tents that will re-sell well later on.
Pros & Cons Of Entry-Level Softshells
Affordable Price: Or should we say a fair price. They are not coming in as flashy or perfect, they advertise themselves as good tents and they offer that in a price that reflects that.
Lightweight: They tend to be the lightest RTTs out there, and that is great news for fuel economy.
Ideal For Newbies: You have never owned an RTT? You need an RTT for a nice trip down the coast and then you want to re-sell it? Then entry-levels are for you. They will not make your bank account take a big hit, and they’ll get the job done for as long as you need them.
Don’t Need Extras: Normally entry-level tents are built to be used as the come, maybe with an annex, but that’s it. Very few of them have a range of accessories or extras you can or need to add to them. That is good for your bank account if you’re not planning on spending big yet.
Not 4-Season Tents: These are not built for winter, period. Some people say they have used them, we believe them, but they are not good enough for winter and it might damage them.
May Have Defects: This is not very common, but it happens. We are not talking of major defects like the tent falling apart. However, there is that zipper that fights you, or that pole that bends more than what you’d like it to.
Not The Best For Families: As we had explained above, entry-levels are better for 2-3 people capacity. If you have two kids with you, you might want a bigger, better, more reliable tent.
Finally we make it to the best RTTs out there, those for experienced overlanders, for people that have been in the niche for a while, or better, for those who want to take the trip of their lives.
What defines an expedition grade or higher-level softshell RTT?
Autana Ruggedized Roof Top Tent by Tepui Tents
They will be priced higher, most likely around $1,800 upwards. The materials are much better. We are talking about thick and reliable fabrics, excellent sewn seams, sometimes even handmade, honeycomb aluminum bases and a great attention paid to the construction.
The most common brands are CVT and Tepui, alongside the South African brands. However, new brands have surface such as Odin Designs and HIT that are battling up there with outstanding tents.
As in the other sections, we will look first at features, and pros and cons.
Features To Look For:
Similar to entry-level tents, these being softshells share many of the features, with the only additional section being the extras.
Materials & Build
Start with the tent materials, first you will want a 100% waterproof rainfly that is at least 420D ripstop poly cotton. Look for thicker and better canopy materials, such as 600D ripstop fabric and 360g-poly cotton canvas. The base must be heavy-duty aluminum or honeycomb aluminum.
Some of the brands offer hand sewn seams, or at least make sure that they manually check each tent as to make sure these little things are being looked over. The internal frame should be made of aluminum poles or tubes that should be around 0.75-inches thick. The mattress should be at least 3 inches thick and an overall well built tent.
Expedition grade tents are for those who have been in the niche for a while or are looking for something fancier and better. Normally, these are for people that want more space and comfort, and want to take families or bigger groups in their travels.
There are many higher-level softshells with a 3-person capacity, but they tend to go from 3-4. It makes sense to pay higher bucks for more space and comfort. 3-4 people tents tend to have an open size varying from 70” to 74” wide, 90” to 96” inches long and 50” to 54” inches of height. Of course they may vary a little, but those are good open dimensions for 4 people to sleep in them.
As mentioned on the entry-levels, you want a tent that is easy to handle, that means a tent that you can open and set up in 5 minutes, and close it in under 10 minutes. Ask the manufacturer or seller to give you the estimate. Most of the higher-end ones will easily open and set up in 3 minutes, and be easily closed and packed in less than 10.
Being normally bigger, with better materials, thicker ones too, as well as bigger mattresses, these softshells will be a bit larger and heavier. Without taking into account the annexes (which some include in the price), we are seeing at tents fluctuating between the 175 lbs and the 185 lbs. That is a fair weight for an excellent and spacious RTT.
No more TJM, ARB or Smittybilt in the mix. We are now talking big leagues, guys that ONLY build RTTs. You want an expedition-grade RTT, then go for a brand that ONLY makes them, a brand that exists to make them. We can recommend: Tepui, CVT, Odin Designs, HIT, Howling Moon, Eezi-Awn, and Bundutec.
This is a very important feature to look for. There are many different extras. Let’s start with an example: Tepui has built a Ruggedized Series, which are excellent tents made of a more rugged material, ideal for 4-seasons, as they will hold against snow and water better.
CVT, Treeline Outdoors and others have the skylight features. For example, CVT has the Stargazer series, which feature tents with a sky window to watch the stars at night.
Annexes are another extra, but the annexes of the higher-level tents are bigger, more spacious, and better, but usually more expensive. Then of course, you have smaller extras like shoe bags, LED lighting and all those small things that make your experience a more enjoyable one.
Pros & Cons Of Expedition Grade Softshells
Excellent Quality: These tents are made form the best materials, lasting longer (even years).
Spacious: Higher-level tents are normally from 4 people onwards, sometimes even holding up to 6 people if required. The whole family can use one.
Built For A Fantastic Trip: For those thinking on a trip of a lifetime, these are the ideal tents.
Have Many Extras: Higher-level RTTs are built with all the bells and whistles; you can add many different extras to make the trip a much better one.
4-Season Tents: As they are better and stronger, they are also suitable for literally any weather. It’s snowing? Who cares, it’ll hold.
Expensive: Yes, they are not cheap. This is a downside, but see it as an investment. They last forever, work anywhere and re-sell at good prices.Heavy: This is a bit of an issue, they are heavy, around 180 lbs or upwards if you think about the extras. Not the best for fuel economy and harder to mount onto the roof racks.
In conclusion, it is very subjective the type and model of roof top tent that you should buy. We cannot, by any means tell you buy this or that, but we can try and advice you and guide you towards that specific model that better suits your needs.
Remember to take into account all the factors and features we gave you,so that you have much more informed idea before jumping into buying one.
Well, this article has now come to an end, and if you want to visit our collection of tents, browse around, take a look, and if you have any questions give us a call: 844-200-3979 or email us: email@example.com.
If you're still looking for a tent, here's a list of the best roof top tents.
***If you're not sure whether your vehicle has the right roof rack, please take a look at our roof rack collection, most of which will be able to support any roof top tent.***
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