ADVENTURE TRAVEL ENTHUSIASTS DEDICATED TO OVERLAND EXPLORATION
I actually have multiple questions here, please feel free to respond to any part, or all...
I can buy a Smittybilt tent today and have it in a week or two. Who's happily using one of those?
How many of you enjoy winter camping? Mountain Snow? Coastal Rain?
I can buy one of those fancy & expensive hard shell tents in the spring. Are they worth the extra money?
Aaron, you might be a total d bag but you also would not be violating the terms of REI's satisfaction guaranteed policy. I used to work at REI and loved it, a great company to work for. There are some people who take advantage of the return policy, technically it is not a rental. However, again, your satisfaction is guaranteed.
Hard shell is a no-go with my current bed rack. I guarantee I'll smack my face on it repeatedly. I purposefully wanted to keep a low center of gravity, and really don't want to go high enough to clear the little Taco Shark Fin. Perhaps in a few years I'll do a redesign and reconsider, but today that's just not the look & layout I had hoped for.
So I'm back to a fold-over soft tent for now.
I looked at the Howling Moon tent & was impressed, but had another idea...
REI has a very liberal one-year return policy. It's conflicting my morals just a little bit, but that is one heck of a tent test.
Let me have it - would I be a total D-Bag if I returned a tent after 11 months of use if it didn't live up to my expectations?
Wow! Lots of great info here. A sincere thank you to all the responders! I was completely ready to pull the trigger on a Smittybilt and try to use it several times this winter. I appreciate all the insight. I definitely need to put some more thought into this. I already know I like camping, so I don't feel like I need to rent, but great thought.
Something else to consider... With my below-cab bed rack, the hard shell RTT would have to be mounted in a way that sticks out the back. I'm wondering how cranky I would get bonking my head while trying to cook at the tailgate...
The comment (Dan's I think) about the mold and mildew is concerning for sure. At the moment, I no longer have easy access to my shop where I can open things up and dry them out. I hadn't given much thought to having to close up a wet tent with nowhere to air things out...
I am well aware of "you get what you pay for" but I'm having some severe sticker shock with that Autohome lineup :)
My next step is to put a tape measure up there and see where a nice RTT will crack my noggin.
@Aaron Houk - I'm wondering if you have looked into renting something before making any long term investment / purchase? Check outdoorsy.com or the like. Here is one for rent in Issaquah.
So much to say on this topic it could fill a book...
There is a reason we (Defenders Northwest) never stock soft sided tents. While there are advantages to a traditional soft shell tent the regional use benefits of a hard shell tent make them far more useful in the PNW. We got into the tent business before instagram was a thing, and went looking for the best RTT available for year-round use.
First: Hard shell vs soft tent
Really easy to break this down into a simple strengths of each platform list. A caveat with this is to note that a well designed, and quality built item is what we are talking about here, for example a low quality hard-shell tent (IE Ikamper, CVT, Barud, BigFoot, Smittybuilt etc...) will still be worse than a high quality soft-shell tent (IE Howling Moon) in the wind.
Soft shell tents give you more room to sleep with less roof space consumed. They are ideal in very hot, dry, low wind areas. They take longer to setup, require storage space for bedding, and can add more wind resistance and noise than a comparable hard shell tent.
Hard-shell tents can mean weather protection, storage, and a faster cleaner, quieter experience in use. They are better in cool, wet, and windy areas. They take up far more food space for less sleeping area, and some can weigh twice that of an equivalent sleeping area soft shell tent.
Cost isn't a benefit to the soft shell because a well made Euro or Australian soft-shell tent is priced higher than the cheaply made Asia sourced hard-shell tents - what matters is how often you actually use the tent and how long you need it to last. A better measure is CPU for value. Buy the best tent you can afford and use it. There are only a couple tent makers that build high quality product, and the rest of the tents on the market are made by five mainland China tent factories. If you want a cheap tent , buy the cheapest cheap tent you can find and expect to replace it after 1-2 years of occasional use. Also don't expect a cheap tent to be quiet, fast, or comfortable, or for that matter have any sort of repairability or parts availability - they are a consumable (disposable) with a relatively short lifespan and are a great way to test the waters of RTT camping if you don't know it it will work for you.
Defenders NW has used and sold Autohome tents for the last 10 years - and as such our perspective on quality and tent brands is going to be biased. We have used, researched, and crawled around-in the offerings from most every tent on the market. Unlike most tent users we have lots of experience in lots of tents in lots of environments over lots of nights.
There are two brands of hardshell tents that we would describe as quality product - one we stock the other we can order but don't carry inventory. In our experience Autohome and Alucab are the two hard-shell tents that justify the prices they command. Alucab tents are very heavy for the size and we suggest them when there is a high probability of impact to the tent body in use or there is a constant need to mount heavy objects to the top of the tent. (trailers and pickup beds are the most common uses we find for the Alucab offering.)
Autohome - built by hand in Italy of all EU sourced materials , Autohome is the first roof-tent company in the world and has been making tents since 1958. There are Autohome tents still in use that are older than every other tent company. (Not just older than the other companies products, but than older than every other company). Autohome tents are built for long term, 4-season, hard use. They are the only company in the world making professional grade RTT for NGO uses. As a result the tents are sturdy, well built, serviceable, and lightweight. The Airtop tent that Dan has on his jeep only weighs 130lbs compared to a lesser quality tent in the same size range that is 175lbs. Well engineered equipment that is constructed of quality materials will weigh much less than a low budget knock-off using more to achieve less. Autohome makes the lightest full structural hard-shell RTT on the market, and we have mounted tents to everything from Tall-roof sprinters to Mini Coopers and everything 4wd in between. In 10 years we have only had two warranty issues - both handled flawlessly by the factory in Italy and North American importer. Of the hundreds of tents we have installed over the last decade nearly all of them are still in use by the original owner with a few people owning more than one Autohome tent as a result.
The downside to both these tent brands is that the initial cost is higher than other options. While the other hard-shell tents are all China sourced and rebranded or Asia sourced materials assembled in Portugal in order to claim to be "EU manufacturing" - they all are cutting corners in materials or design in order to sell a much cheaper tent in high volumes. Barud tents for example require 3-4 crossbars to keep the tent bottom from flexing under normal body weight. A comparable Autohome or Alucab requires only two crossbars as the tent bottoms are fully structural. CVT tents weigh 20-30% more than an Autohome tent of a similar size. Alucab tents are even heavier.
Flimsy shells, lack of in tent storage, thin or unsupportive foam, and flappy or thin fabrics are the hallmark of cheaply made import tents.
A final thought is just about CPU - Cost Per Use. A cheap tent that you take out a few times can still have a $100 CPU before it fails or gets pulled off a truck because of poor user experiences. These inexpensive tents have low resale value so it can be an expensive lesson if it turns out you do like to use a RTT and have to buy another (better) tent in the near future. Conversely a high quality tent that lasts decades can have a <$1 CPU if you use it often and keep it in good repair. The initial purchase price will be higher, but as a result there is a strong resale market for used tents. Like anything there is a bit of the buy-once cry-once truth to the pricing. Just make sure you will use a tent before buying one.
As always NWOL folks are welcomed to make an appointment and we are happy to talk tents for any vehicle (not just Defenders) - as said at the beginning we are biased toward Autohome or Alucab tents and believe in the product enough that the principals of Defenders Northwest acquired the corporation Autohome US in May of 2021.
Great questions. In my humble experience, and have had both soft sided tents and hard shell, the choice for me is an obvious one. Hard shell.
In 2006, I bought my first RTT for my '97 Defender. It was great. I had it for over 10 years and it was an absolute game changer for me. I vowed to never go back to a ground tent again. And as of today, I have kept that vow LOL!
In 2017, I got a deal on an Autohome Air Top hard shell tent, the one I currently have. I never realized the significant advantage the hard shell has over the soft sided pop up style tents.
The reality is, there are so many soft sided tents on the market that if you did decide to get the Smittybilt tent, it will not hold its value if you decide to sell it down the road, so just food for thought there. Also, the soft sided tents will mildew really fast if put away wet and that is a significant con for Fall/Winter/Spring camping. If you have a way to open it up and air it out between rainy days, maybe not a big deal.
The hard shell tents do not mildew due to the different style of treated fabric they use for constructing the tent. A huge pro for the hard shell is that they are way easier to deploy and secure when done. I've had my Autohome for 4 years. I love it. One con though is that it does take up a fair amount roof space. So, that is something to consider. Also, it is a little heavier than a soft sided tent. My soft sided weighed ~120 lbs. My Autohome weighs ~180 and is a huge PITA to install and put away. So, I usually leave it on all year.
Now, that said, there are now, many configurations of hard shell tents to choose from. Although they are pricy, they do hold their value unlike the smaller, soft sided ones.
If you have the cash, I'd wait until Spring and source the hardshell. Our friends @Defenders Northwest are the US distributor of the Autohome tents and they are located in Gig Harbor, WA.
I'm curious to see what other responses are... opinions on this topic are as numerous as the stars. I do not have a roof top tent but have done tons of research. Some overlanders are brand loyalists, but I just like to see what different reviews and comparison tests say (like here for soft shells and here for hard shells).
I do enjoy winter camping and have a long bed pickup truck topper / canopy to sleep in.
Do you keep your stuff for a long time? Do you have a place to keep it dry, away from vandals (theft and/or defacing), and out of the elements when doing your daily driving? Maybe get the expensive one.
Do you want to get something on the cheap, see how it goes, and then maybe sell after a season or two? Maybe get the cheaper one.
Are you handy? Either way (cheap or expensive) you may want to do upgrades and have to do repairs here and there. Nice stuff and cheap stuff all needs maintenance. See what warranties and return policies are as well depending on vendor.
If money is not really a concern in the spring, I might suggest being patient. You'll have more time to do research and get opinions - then if you still like the cheaper option(s), no worries.
Just my $0.02.