last updated 5/09/2018
We got a roof top tent from ebay for our tour around Australia. They are pretty popular these days and so far it’s served us well. This article explains the couple of problems we’ve had with it and also its good points. Much of the info applies generally to all roof top tents rather than being specific to our brand. Ours is branded Indigo Campers but it looks very similar to the other roof top tents available on Ebay.
Why Roof Top Tent?
Roof top tents have many good features. For long term living it’s good to have something comfortable, particularly to prevent any whinging from the ladies, and since we didn’t want to tow anything there aren’t many alternatives that can compare comfort wise to a roof top tent. The standard mattress is a decent foam slab that is firm but comfortable by camping standards. Being off the ground means you’re out of the way of the sand, bugs, snakes, rodents, crocodiles, mud and flowing water in case it rains. Being off the ground also means it’s very warm in a roof top tent compared to a ground tent. The ground sucks a lot of heat from a ground tent. The roof top tent, being elevated off the ground and with a foam insulated base and foam mattress makes it warm by tent standards. Good enough to endure middle of the desert winter nights. Roof top tents are also pretty quick to set up and allow bedding to permanently remain inside the tent. They’re great for a quick overnight side of the road sleep, since you can flop them out so quick with all the bedding ready to go. Roof top tents also do not require any cleared or level ground area to deploy. If you’re on a trail and didn’t make it to camp in time, just park up on the side of the track, swing over the tent and let the ladder land in the gutter or the scrub or on uneven rocky ground, wherever it lands.
Why the No Brand Version?
Cheap, with reasonable reviews, and very similar looking to some brand name varieties. We thought we’d take a punt and give it a go. We got it off Ebay bundled with tent skirt and the annex for a bit over a grand including delivery.
At the time of writing this article we’ve used our roof top tent on and off for two years. First nearly every day for 6 months straight, then quite regularly on and off for 6 months whilst living in Katherine, then another few months of continuous use as we traveled across the Northern Territory to Queensland and up to Cape York. It’s seen heavy rain, strong winds and blistering heat. It’s withstood some heavy summer south west WA winds without any problems. Mind you I wouldn’t want to constantly apply that sort of stress to it. It does move around a bit.
We had a problem with delivery of the tent. The base had been damaged – punctured after probably being dropped. I had no insurance and didn’t notice the damage until after we picked it up from the depot. So I didn’t have a very good case to get it replaced. The eBay seller gave me $100 off the price as compensation and I filled the hole with some silicon. Overall not too bad an outcome – it doesn’t affect the operation of the tent. These things are big and awkward to move so if you are buying online I’d suggest insurance and a close inspection before accepting it.
The tent is opened up and ready for sleeping in less than 5 minutes. To erect the windows and peg down the end is another 5-10 minutes. The windows are only needed if using the tent on very hot nights or if using it during the day. Otherwise the main entry opening provides adequate ventilation. Pegging the end down is only required if it’s windy or raining. Usually we don’t peg it. We’re pretty happy with the little effort required setting it up. We don’t use the lower skirt. We didn’t even bring it on our trip, as we were short on room. It would be nice to have as a change room and area to dump some gear, but then it does add to your setup and pack up time. Our tent is arranged to open to the side, which was necessary for us because the ladder would interfere with our slide out drawers and access to the fridge. Opening to the side also means you do not need to worry about the cover getting in the way hanging over your tailgate. However opening over the tailgate would be nice because it provides shelter when accessing the tailgate and preparing food.
To fold away is a bigger job. Despite the internal bungee cords, it doesn’t self tuck very well, so there’s a few minutes consumed tucking it in. Throwing the cover over also takes a couple of minutes longer than pulling it off, as you need to pull it from both sides and shuffle it into position over the edges of the tent. Then zipping it up takes longer than unzipping, as there is a risk of getting it caught on parts of the tent that aren’t tucked in properly. Then throwing the straps over and tightening them up is also harder than taking them off. All this work is done overhead which makes it even more tedious. Still once you’re good at it it’s only 10-15 minutes pack up (extra 5 minutes if pegged and windows erected). Wow too long you say? You can beat that with a cheap dome tent? Keep in mind there is no additional time required to pack up bedding, mattresses, sleeping bags, etc. With a ground tent it’s the stuff inside the tent that takes the longest time to pack.
When considering a roof top tent keep in mind the overhead work and the need to step up onto the bumper / tailgate / side steps of the car to pack it up. This may not suit some people.
The tent is designed with a fair bit of space when folded to allow for your bedding to stay inside the tent at all times. There is enough space for pillows and some jumbo sleeping bags. Or an extra few centimeters of mattress and some compact sleeping bags.
After about 4 months of heavy use we broke the zipper when it got caught on some canvas that wasn’t tucked in properly whilst zipping up the tent. We wedged it in so tightly that we broke the zip trying to free it. Actually it had happened a few times before, each time we weakened it until it eventually failed. I repaired it by drilling a small hole and inserting a fishing clip.
When zipping up, take extreme care! It’s a major pain in the butt when it gets snagged. I’d recommend lubricating the zipper with some silicone spray so that less force is required zipping it up. In fact it’s a good idea to lubricate all zippers on all tents. It makes them easier to operate and reduces wear.
After about two years of regular use the zipper finally split in two and broke right off. Rather than replacing it with a standard zipper, we tried using a fixnzip. It’s sturdier than a normal zipper and screws together so that it can be fitted to a zip without unstitching it. However we found it didn’t engage the teeth of the zip very well when trying to zip it up. We’ll end up replacing it with a normal zip.
Our tent has performed well in the rain. Not perfect, but I’m not sure if this is specific to our roof top tent or applies to all of them. If given a chance to dry out at least once a day, water wont penetrate inside at all. In driving continuous rain lasting more than a day, you do start to notice it seeping in. The fly over the top does a good job at keeping the roof dry, but it’s the sides where we’ve noticed a problem. Anything touching the sides will eventually start absorbing moisture as the canvas sides slowly allows water to seep through. So you need to try to keep the mattress and sleeping bags off the sides. This problem only manifests if there is continuous rain without any chance to dry. We’ve endured many showers on our trip and we’ve seen this problem only a couple of times. Also, if the back window is not erected and the front end not pegged down, it allows the fly to sag which will eventually let moisture in through the roof where the fly touches the canvas. Again this might be typical of most roof top tents, as canvas naturally does allow some water to slowly penetrate.
The quality of the canvas seems good. It feels thick and durable. With two years of pretty heavy use it’s not showing much wear. The screen mesh on the tent are good. It’s a fine gauge and does not allow midges in. The stitching of seams, straps, etc also seems reasonably strong. We have had to perform 3 stitching repairs on the tent. One on the zipper for the rear window. One on the cover, caused when pulling the cover over and getting it snagged on the ladder leg then pulling with excessive force to get it free. The other stitching failure occured where one of the guy ropes fixes to the canvas. I had the tent pegged down, and I was doing an inspection on the car which needed the car to be jacked up. So I stupidly jacked up the car whilst the tent was still pegged down. It went with quite a pop, suggesting it’s pretty strong. Regardless, it’s not designed to win a fight against a vehicle jack. So really out of the three stitching repairs only one stitching failure is the tent’s fault. Maybe one and a half. Not too bad considering how much we’ve used the tent. Keeping with the strategy of using fishing gear to perform tent repairs, I used 20 pound braided fishing line for all stitching fixes. It’s really strong and behaves much like cotton. Don’t forget to keep a large needle in your sewing kit in case you ever need to do canvas work on your travels. It’s pretty tough to get through the thick canvas.
The poles and other fittings all seem reasonable and show no signs of wear.
The windows work well but are a bit tedious to erect. The spring struts need to be aligned and inserted into slots in the base of the tent, then bent up and hooked into the window flap. I do it from laying inside the tent. Takes a minute or two per window.
Usually we do not erect the windows. The front opening provides adequate ventilation at night. During the day you need all the windows open otherwise it gets really hot.
Our style of tent, with the extra undercover section over the main entry / exit, adds a minute or two to the setup time. An extra pole needs to be manually inserted when setting it up, and it requires some extra tucking in when folding away. But it provides shelter when entering or exiting the tent, keeps the bedding near the exit dry, keeps the ground below dry, and maintains privacy when the opening is left open. You can get some ventilation without people being able to see you in the tent. It also provides some privacy for the ladies when they’re backing out of the tent. Overall we prefer having it.
Climbing in and out of the tent is easy. You get used to the ladder and it becomes second nature. The steps are flat and comfortable for bare feet. There are some straps inside the tent to hold onto whilst on the ladder but we don’t need them. It is slightly annoying when getting up in the middle of the night to take a leak, but the hanging flap over the opening can be left unzipped whilst sealing adequately enough to keep the bugs out. So the extra effort of climbing in and out is offset by not having any unzipping and zipping to do.
The mattress that came with the tent is firm but comfortable. We have had many good night sleeps on the standard mattress. However we decided to whack on some extra padding to transform it from pretty comfortable to luxuriously comfortable. We got some foam egg shell mattress topper, cut it to size and put it on top of the standard mattress. Now it feels like one of those fancy mattresses with the latex padding. Super comfortable. Really good. With the extra mattress there is enough room left to leave our sleeping bags in the tent when folding it up, but not our pillows. They need to go in the car.
Our roof top tent sleeping area and mattress is longer than a standard mattress. It gives some extra space to chuck your jacket or bag or whatever at the foot of the tent. The egg shell mattress on top is standard length. It doesn’t need to go the full length. We bought a fitted sheet and got my mum to extend it so it could fit over both mattresses. Thanks mum!
The fitted sheet is loose in the picture. We don’t wrap it around underneath fully, because it interferes with the velcro that holds the mattress in place. When not velcroed down, the mattress does not stretch out properly when pulling open the tent, causing it to sag into the gap between the two halves of the tent.
The mounting of our tent to the roof racks is strong and sturdy. To see our roof rack arrangement over the canopy, click here.
Roof top tents aren’t perfect. You can’t move the car when they’re set. So if you’re camped up for a few nights but want to explore or head down to a fishing spot, it means packing up the tent. We have a ground tent that we set up when staying somewhere for a while and need to use the vehicle. It allows us to have a base station to chuck our gear in and a permanent bed.
It’s not always a bad thing that you can’t move the vehicle when the tent is deployed. I like walking, and if I have to walk a few hundred meters to go fishing I don’t mind. If some local attractions can be explored via hiking trails then I’d rather do that then drive. If we’re in a small town I like to walk through town rather than drive. And it’s nice to have the vehicle set up as base camp. It starts to feel like home. We have sleeping quarters in the tent, living / dining room under the shade of the annex, kitchen out back of the ute tray, fridge cranking with cold beers, easy lighting at night time and plenty of solar power for playing with laptops or charging stuff. Everything hangs off the vehicle in a semi-permanent base camp that is very quick and easy to set up compared to if you wanted to replicated a similar arrangement separate to the vehicle (unless you’re towing).
Roof top tents are pretty big so they add a fair bit of drag. I have noticed it does increase fuel consumption. I don’t drive too fast and our solar panels help as a wind deflector so the impact is not severe – maybe in the order of 5% increased fuel use at 90km/h, although I have never performed an accurate experiment with and without. If you cruise at 110km/h and above then expect a bigger impact to fuel economy.
The tent’s height means you can’t get into underground or multi-storey car parks. The weight of it can also be felt when offroading, making the vehicle sway side to side more on rough terrain than it otherwise would. Weighing in at around 45kg, it’s not really heavy but still significant.
We have run into some other people with Ebay roof top tents. Some of them have had similar experiences to us. Some of them have had quality problems. All the tents look the same but actually they are not exactly the same. We’ve seen some tents where the mesh screens have started scuffing and fraying after only a few weeks of use. We’ve seen some tents where the straps / strap fixing points have broken. So it’s hit and miss. They’re not all the same.
We are happy with our roof top tent. Comfortable, practical, good value and decent quality. We miss it when using the ground tent. It’s really warm, comfortable, and feels homely, like an isolated space where you can escape the bugs and dirt. A really good place to sleep or just laze around and read a book.