When we stated to do more camping and overlanding with our two boys, there was one simple question that was surprisingly hard to find a solid answer to – Will a roof top tent work for a family of 4? Yes it will.
After looking at many tents online, comparing measurements, and making several mock-ups using mattresses, we purchased the Smittybilt Overlander XL roof top tent. The decision really came down to size and price; this was one of the largest tents on the market, and it also happened to be one of the most affordable (especially since we bought it on Black Friday).
Inside the tent, the structure is pretty minimal, which leaves plenty of room to move around. We have no problem with all four of us in there changing or getting ready at the same time. You obviously have to be on your knees, but it is still easy to get dressed. One huge advantage of the roof tent is that it is so much cleaner inside because dirt doesn’t get tracked in as easily as a regular tent.
As you can see, we are able to sleep four people inside the tent. I am 5ft 10in (178cm) and feel that this configuration works perfectly fine. Obviously if you are like me, and like to sleep on your side with your arm extended out, you will be touching the wall, but that hasn’t made my sleeping experience any worse, so it is kind of a null point.
Initially we were worried that the boys would have a hard time with the ladder, and had even planned on them sleeping inside the truck bed with the fiberglass shell, and just the adults in the tent. But the concept of a roof tent is simply too exciting, and there was no way the boys were going to let the parents have all the fun without them. Needless to say, our 3 and 5 year old boys have no problem climbing up and down the ladder.
Here’s a common question – What supports the part of the tent that hangs off the side? Well, I’m not sure if it is supposed to be this way, but, along with the black tension straps seen running along the roof, we have found that the Smittybilt ladder has a very stout lockout, and can be wedged into the ground ever so slightly. This seems to keep the floor very rigid and stiff while sleeping or getting in and out.
In general, when camping, the tent can only be as level as the ground it is on… however, with the roof top tent you can play some games to make things better. We often find random rocks or boulders to drive the truck on to get everything perfectly level.
This leads to another question we get asked frequently – Does the tent move around when people roll over at night? Yes the truck does wiggle a bit on the suspension, but it honestly hasn’t been that big of a deal. If you are really worried about it, you can get some scissor jacks and jack up the rear of the truck a bit to unload the suspension and keep the rear more firmly planted.
One thing to consider with kids, is that they often have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night… this is one that there is no work around, we just make sure to have a mat at the foot of the ladder that we can stand on without shoes; this makes it easier to take the boys out at night (having boys makes this much quicker).
Overlanding, by definition will take you off of the paved roads, which means dust and dirt will be everywhere. The velcro seal around the bottom edge of the cover works really well, and everything stays very clean inside.
If you already have a truck or SUV, do keep the size of your rig in mind. We have the F150 Crew Cab with the 6.5ft bed so the Overlander XL (which is 76in or 6.3ft) fits the bed perfectly. It will fit most SUV’s just fine, and we’ve seen a few short bed trucks where the tent overhangs the cab a bit, and it seems to work out OK, just not as clean cut of a solution.
There are many ways to mount a roof top tent, plenty of bolt on racks that you can buy and be ready to go very quickly. In our case we wanted to have it mounted to the fiberglass camper shell so that we could use all the storage space, and have a place for the dogs to sleep. The point to keep in mind, is that most standard fiberglass shells are not reinforced, ours had a maximum load limit of 150lbs. To surpass this we designed and built an integrated load bearing structure to carry all of the extra weight, the low profile and easy 4 bolt removal is a bit plus also.
You should consider the positioning of the ten based on how you plan to use the rig. There are options that can have it positioned such that the top of the tent is at roof line, which case you lose some storage space, and may not be able to have a tonneau cover to keep your dry and dust free, but you’ll be more fuel efficient, and won’t be afraid of covered parking. We opted for the extra storage space, but as a result, I have less than two inches of clearance between the tent and the parking structure roof beams at work… it fits, but it is definitely a nail-biter every time.
Just be sure to measure your overall height accurately; do it with an empty fuel tank, and without any gear in the bed, so that you have your absolute worst case highest measurement.
Smittybilt vs Tepui (or similar)
If you have gotten this far, and are still reading, here are a few quick thoughts on the different roof top tents out there. Disclaimer, we have only owned this Smittybilt, and the only other tent I’ve seen deployed was a Tepui. There is no denying that the Smittybilt tent is built for affordability; the corner joints are not anything special, and it has a few burrs here and there. But, so far, it has done an amazing job filling our need for a family sized roof tent to enjoy the outdoors on a monthly basis. The way we use it, I foresee it lasting us a long time. Tepui has a slightly more rigid ladder and more aesthetically pleasing finishing touches, which is nice and all, but at the end of the camping trip I have not found my self wishing for any of the finer details on the more expensive tents (often 2x or 3x the price). We don’t live out of it day to day, but the Smittybilt Overlander XL enables our whole family to go out and have fun.
Camper Shell Topper Reinforcement for a Roof Top Tent
By popular demand in the comments, here are some photos of our steel reinforcement structure that we built to reinforce the fiberglass truck bed topper. This approach worked great for us, and should work on any other truck.