Roof Top Tent vs. Ground Tent: The Inside Scoop

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HOW TO CHOOSE BETWEEN A ROOF TOP TENT OR GROUND TENT

Pros and cons of a roof top tent vs. ground tent for camping and overland travel. The inside scoop on set up, storage, affordability, sleep space, and more.

roof top tent on camp trailer and ground tent on green tarp with front flap open

Dispersed camping and overland travel have afforded our family the option to see places and go on trips we never would have had the opportunity to take otherwise. This was the goal when we made the decision to invest in a roof top tent.

We’ve always enjoyed camping, and we’ve experienced both the good and bad of both a rooftop tent and more traditional ground tent.

These days, since our family has grown, we actually use both kinds of camping tents. There are pros and cons to each.

roof top tent on camp trailer in Petit Jean State Park

The decision to buy a tent is an important one. It’s an investment, and we want to help you figure out the best option for your family, whether you enjoy wild camping or more traditional campground digs.

Wondering where to go camping? Check out how we find free campsites in the USA.

A FEW QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF BEFORE BUYING A TENT

You really need to ask yourself a few questions before you make the decision to buy a roof-top tent or a traditional camping tent

  • Do you like camping as a family and camping with kids? Is it something you can see yourselves doing for the long haul?
  • What kind of camping do you plan to do? Boondocking? Traditional campground?
  • What is your budget for a family tent/s? How many tents will you need?
  • Do you have the equipment necessary for the kind of tent you’re purchasing? If not, do you have the budget for it, as well? (We’ll get into more detail about this in the pros and cons below.)
roof top tent ladder with hanging lantern and rope

PROS OF A ROOF TOP TENT

A car roof tent is especially helpful when you do a lot of overlanding, off the grid travel, or boondocking with your family. It gives you the option to find free camping spots in places all across the country.

You can go just about anywhere with a rooftop tent. It doesn’t necessarily require a level place to park your tent as long as your tent is on a trailer and you have jacks to level it up.

A car top tent pretty much unzips and pops up. We’ll talk a bit more about this in the cons, but depending on personal preferences, it can be a really nice set up process.

setting up a rooftop tent for tent camping

A roof rack tent also saves on packing and storage space inside your vehicle. You don’t have to pack the tent, and you can just keep your sleeping bags in the tent.

Roof top tents usually have their own mattress too, so no need to buy an air mattress unless you want extra cushioning. I actually use a self inflating sleeping pad for a little extra cushion.

Also, when we’re camping in Big Bend National Park where it’s very very hot, we’ve discovered that the bit of shade it provides from the part that flips over with the ladders, is wonderful.

rooftop tent camping setup at Big Bend National Park in Texas

You can sometimes put an extra room or awning on rooftop tents for more space, shade, and privacy.

One thing I love about our CVT tent…

It gets us up off the ground. We don’t have to worry much about ground water or critters, and the fact that it’s off the ground means it has less of an impact when we’re not camping on a tent pad.

CONS OF A CAR ROOF TENT

Believe it or not, there are cons to owning a tent like this.

For one, the initial price can be quite expensive if it’s not a true investment for your family. A larger rooftop tent can cost upwards of $2500 or more.

If you’re not using a camp trailer, you’ll definitely need a roof rack for the tent to sit on top of your car. And if your tent is on top of your vehicle, you’ll also need to find level ground to set it up when camping.

roof top tent setup on camp trailer with jacks

Especially if you do a lot of camping in the mountains, you may need to think about building a camp trailer so you can use jacks to level out the tent when the ground isn’t level. And then you can leave camp without having to tear down every single day.

Having a roof top tent on your vehicle when you want to go explore means you’ll have to take down and set up every day of your trip. You won’t be able to just drive away without losing your spot.

Depending on the height of your vehicle, you may need to carry a step ladder to help with set up and take down.

CVT tent, car roof tent on white Toyota 4Runner

And, of course, you have to climb the tent ladder to get into and out of your tent, go to the bathroom, and grab the blankie you forgot to grab out of the 4Runner.

One more con is that you can’t simply walk into your tent. There’s not enough room to stand upright, so simple things like getting dressed can be more of a chore to do in the tent (unless you add an annex onto your tent).

Wind can be a game changer in any kind of tent, even a durable roof top tent…

Dan would tell you that set up can be a huge pain when it’s super windy; and if you’re like us camping all over the place in the mountains, the desert, or the plains, you will encounter wind.

We had one particular trip where we went out on BLM land outside Roswell, New Mexico. We’d just gotten everyone settled, when all of a sudden, the wind came gusting like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was the scariest thing.

PROS OF A GROUND TENT

If you don’t have the money to invest in a rooftop tent, a ground tent can be a much more affordable option. Most ground tents start in the $50 price range, sometimes even cheaper than that depending on the size tent you need.

green camping tent on ground at Petit Jean State Park

You can literally just throw a tent in the back of your car and head out camping. No extra equipment needed for setup, besides maybe a tarp for the ground underneath and stronger tent pegs.

A simple camping tent can be a quick setup, especially if it’s one of these newer popup tents. And even a lot of the non pop up tents have improved to where they take just a few minutes to set up.

setting up a green pop up tent in Petit Jean State Park Campground in Arkansas

A ground tent is good for walk in sites, as well. If you do a lot of backpacking or you look for more private walk in sites at campgrounds (kinda like our site at Cosby Campground in the Smoky Mountains), a ground tent may be a better option for you.

CONS OF A TRADITIONAL CAMPING TENT

The cons of a traditional tent would start with being on the ground. There’s a higher risk of ground water getting in, and even critters getting in your tent if it’s not zipped up tight.

You have to find a level spot to set up the tent. Level isn’t an option in quite a few places, especially if you’re overlanding.

Speaking of a campsite, when you don’t have a tent pad available, you make more of an impact on the ground and hence the ecosystem with a traditional camping tent.

When it’s cold, you’re sleeping on or next to the ground, so you may be a little colder than you would be in a roof top tent.

boys airing up the air mattress in a green pop up tent at Petit Jean State Park

And you’ll need an air mattress or sleeping pad for sure. The ground gets quite hard when you’re trying to get some shuteye.

DECIDING BETWEEN A ROOF TOP TENT OR A GROUND TENT

We actually use both a roof top tent and a ground tent when we’re camping now.

We have a ground tent for our older two boys because we’ve kinda outgrown the whole family sleeping in the rooftop tent together. They actually prefer to sleep on the ground too, so it works out well for us.

When you’re making your decision, it’s important to think about your own family’s preferences and the impact your purchase will have on everyone involved.

Ask yourself the questions I mentioned above. Study the pros and cons, and give yourself enough time to make a sound decision.

roof top tent with annex on Toyota 4Runner in Great Sand Dunes National Park primitive camping site

A tent is such a personal choice for any outdoorsman/woman. It’s your home away from home and can actually make or break a trip.

If you’re trying to make a decision but just not sure which one to go with, you can always reach out with questions. We have a lot of experience with both kinds of tents and would love to help however we can.

More camping gear suggestions for you:

Wash up with a Solar Outdoor Shower for Camping

The Ultimate Camping Checklist for Packing

Homemade No Rinse Body Wipes for Camping

Best Baby Carrier Backpack for Hiking and Outdoors

Camping Cooking Gear and Outdoor Cooking Tips

Happy camping!

Roof Top Tent vs. Ground Tent: The Inside Scoop
how to choose between a roof top tent and ground tent
decide between a rooftop tent or traditional camping tent

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