If you're not ready to commit to an RV, a high-end, rooftop car tent may be just the thing to get you living your best #vanlife.

By Paul Brady
September 04, 2020
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Credit: Paul Brady

You better get ready for people to stare. Outside the fly fishing store. While sitting at an Italian restaurant. Walking down the street. From the next campsite over. Almost everywhere I drove the past few days, the rooftop rig seemed to attract attention. One guy asked me if it was a satellite dish, seeming to imply some nefarious motives.

Sorry to disappoint, conspiracy theorists: I was just trying out the #vanlife, with a rooftop tent that could make camping easier and better for anybody who’s been put off by the idea of, you know, sleeping on the ground.

If travel this summer has been defined by the road trip and the RV, it has also prompted a great many of us to wonder, could I make it, living out of my car, exploring hidden byways near home? Across the U.S., interest in recreational vehicles is at what could be an all-time high: The RV rental platform Outdoorsy says searches this spring were up 2,600 percent. The RV Industry Association said shipments this July were higher than they’ve been in 40 years, up nearly 54 percent over last July. Mercedes vans that have been converted into luxurious mini-campers are now selling for close to $200,000.

In other words, while this is the summer of camping and RVing, the odds of you actually getting your hands on a sweet rig are slim. So what’s a vanlifer-in-the-making to do?

Enter Roofnest, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that makes an ever-expanding variety of hard-sided, pop-top tents designed to fit on most vehicles. These car toppers can turn almost any ride into something approaching a bare-bones RV by adding a huge amount of living space, right on the roof rack. In the July 2020 issue, Travel + Leisure described them as the perfect way to “ease into the #vanlife.”

Eager to try one out — and see how it lives up to the roughly $3,000 price tag, depending on model — I arranged to borrow a Roofnest over a recent summer weekend. I tested out the $3,400 Roofnest Falcon model, mounted on a 2020 Kia Telluride, on a two-night camping trip in the Catskill Mountains. The verdict? While three and a half grand is a lot to spend on a tent, the Roofnest Falcon is a worthy splurge for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Though the West Coast roots of Roofnest might encourage a hardcore, overland expedition in some Bureau of Land Management wilderness, I opted for a closer-to-the-grid weekend in Sullivan County, New York. Arriving at a reserved camp spot in a family-run getaway near Roscoe, New York — one of America’s best places for fly fishing — setting up camp was a breeze: I flipped two latches on the Roofnest, and gas struts did the heavy lifting of popping it open. Setting up an aluminum ladder and opening the awning took another, say, two minutes. Just like that, camp was set. It was without a doubt easier than scrambling with tent poles or fighting with tarps, particularly since the sun was already going down.

Inside, a 7-centimeter (2.8-inch) foam mattress was more comfortable than a typical sleeping pad, and a layer of anti-condensation netting provided extra support and warmth. A mesh gear loft had plenty of space for jackets, headlamps, and other odds and ends. And big windows — with effective bug netting — let in plenty of breeze. All in all, it felt downright cozy, as tents usually do.

Of course, there were some downsides: Chief among them is the fact that, when your tent is attached to your vehicle, you have to pull it down every time you want to take a drive — say, to a nearby brewery or hiking trail. Because the Roofnest is elevated, it won’t benefit from the heat of your campfire but does catch plenty of the smoke. And should you need to get up in the middle of the night for whatever reason, well, you have to climb down a ladder to leave the tent.

Those quibbles aside, by the second night in camp, the Falcon felt like a cozy home. When a flash thunderstorm rolled through that evening, the tough poly-cotton tent wall fabric and aluminum hard shell kept every drop of moisture out. That's more than you can say for many traditional tents — at least the ones I've used.

A note about the vehicle: A rooftop tent is, of course, only as capable as what you mount it on. In my case, the Kia Telluride SX was a perfect match, with plenty of interior space for camping gear like sleeping bags and cookware, plus extra blankets, folding chairs, and a cooler. Advanced safety features like Highway Driving Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, and Smart Cruise Control made driving to the camp site easy. An option to manually shift through the eight gears plus on-demand all-wheel drive made it easy to negotiate muddy slopes and gravel back roads.

Many reviewers have raved about the Telluride — one favorably described its roominess as “comparable to sitting alone in a ski gondola” — and the model won accolades as the 2020 Utility Vehicle of the Year. Just wait until they try it with a tent mounted on top: Even more heads will turn.