I’ve tried an awful lot of different car-sleeping strategies. I’ve slept in either front seat, across the back seats, removed back seats, folded them down, I’ve pitched a tent next to the car, slept in an RV and I’ve owned a conversion van with a folding bed in the back. Now, I’ve also slept in a rooftop tent which, save for the RV is the best way to sleep in a car. But, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to strap one to the roof of your car.
Full Disclosure: Roofnest wanted me to test out their “Sparrow” rooftop tent so bad, they sent me one to borrow. It’s on top of my car right now.
When I started building my Lexus, a rooftop tent, or RTT, was not a part of the plan. They look cool, and a lot of the cooler Instagram-ready builds have them, but I have two nice tents, one of which is big enough to comfortably sleep my whole family and I don’t camp often enough to justify bolting living quarters to my car. But, that didn’t stop me from wondering what living with one would be like. So, when Roofnest hit me up, I was game.
Initially, the plan was to for me to check out a new, larger model but the pandemic intervened and we decided I’d give the Roofnest Sparrow Adventure a try, rather than wait on the new one.
The tents ship assembled, so a freight carrier handles them instead of your regular UPS guy. Mine arrived in the back of a box truck with two guys who were not familiar with the idea of a rooftop tent. The box is big, roughly the size of a queen-size mattress. I think the tent weighs something like 130lbs, so it’s that plus a lot of cardboard.
The one that showed up to my house didn’t come with instructions, possibly because someone forgot to put them in the box, or because they’re on YouTube, or because it takes about 5-minutes to figure out what needs to happen to get it set up and affixed to your roof.
Basically, you lift it up, and set it on your roof, then slip the little padded strap pictured below beneath a crossbar and tighten it with the little plastic nuts. That’s it.
If I’d installed it on the stock Lexus roof rack, or if I had smaller arms/hands it would have been absolutely trivial. Since I put it on my Prinsu rack, I had to ask my wife to tighten a couple of the nuts. Since her hands aren’t super strong, one of them failed and my family fell into a ravine. Just kidding, it was fine. I left it open for a while to let the stink of off-gassing glue and plastic dissipate.
Trip 1: Camping
A few hours after getting the tent set up, we popped down to an abandoned rustic campground where my friends and I used to drink and try to kill each other when I was younger. We found a spot next to the river, laid a blanket out and started foraging for firewood. Setting up the tent means undoing a couple of locking clasps and loosening a couple straps. The hard plastic roof raises itself on four arms. There are some metal poles that turn those little flaps you see on the side into awnings, there’s a little collapsible ladder, a shoe bag and a little pad for you to kick the sand off your feet. The mattress is a firmish kind of memory foam. It’s great.
Pretty quickly, we figured out that there’d be room for an two adults or an adult and two little kids up there, but not two adults and two kids. So I strung a hammock up for me and the mosquitos.
After hotdogs, we put the kids in the tent and got busy sitting by the fire yelling at the kids to settle down and go to bed. They didn’t. One thing we didn’t really anticipate about the RTT thing, is that it’s way too much fun for two kids to sleep in by themselves. By 11pm, they were still rocking and rolling, so we aborted the mission, piled our belongings, the dog and about 3olbs of insects into the Lexus and drove home having learned a couple of valuable lessons.
One lesson is was that the hardest part of putting the tent away is getting the first strap cinched down. My guess is that because the Sparrow Adventure comes with rails that allow you to mount gear like MaxTrax on the roof of the tent, the mechanism that raises the roof is tuned to be stronger than it would need to be to raise the roof on its own. That means its also a little harder to hold down, at least the first few times you use it. With two people, pinning it down and getting the straps fastened is no problem. By yourself, there’s a learning curve.
Trip 2: Race Weekend
Not long after, my friend and far-too-occasional Jalopnik contributor Peter Hughes sent me a text that said something like, “Hey, I just got a campsite for the Watkins Glen race this weekend, you’re allowed two vehicles. Do you want to come?” I looked up the driving distance, which was only ten hours and said “Ya.” With a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, it ended up being about a 12 hour drive. but the kids were absolute angels and ready to party when we arrived at our site.
As you’d imagine, I had to stop a lot for gas. In the course of my owning this car, the biggest drop in fuel economy came when I installed the massive lightbar. If I had to do that again, I’d opt for a single row of LEDs. I’d guess the Robin cost me another MPG or two, but I’d be willing to bet the impact would be smaller if I ditched the big light and reinstalled the rack’s standard faring.
This time around, I brought our smaller tent so my wife and I could alternate sleeping in the Robin and in the ground tent. The kids were used to the tent, and mostly fried from walking several miles a day, so they slept great, even taking a couple of naps up there.
Roofnest should really be marketing these things to race fans, because waking up to watch race cars out your window, situated high above the other cars making use of the infield campsites is one of the coolest track experiences I’ve ever had. And, unlike the nearby RVs, it was easy for me to throw everything back in the tent and leave the track for a run into town. Roof top tent? More like Race Track Tent.
For a lot of GridLife-type people an RTT mounted on their tow vehicle would be life-changing.
Trip 3: Drive-In
The third time we opened the Roofnest last summer wasn’t an overnight, but a trip to the drive-in. We watched the Lebron version of Space Jam, which wasn’t very good, unless the goal was to remind the audience how many bad movies Warner Brothers has been responsible for lately. At the drive in, shows start when the sun goes down, around 10PM. The kids usually go down at 8, so we figured the tent would be a good place for them to snooze. But, because Space Jam is a movie for kids, they loved it and stayed up for the whole thing, hooting and hollering. It was a good time.
We parked in the back row, careful not to block any views, unlike the guy across from and to the right of us in the above picture, who had to be asked to turn his light bar off. The tent gave us an excellent if distant view of the screen, and we bought a little radio to play the audio in the tent. Best of all, we avoided the mosquitos.
This is my first experience with a tent like this, so I can’t say how it compares to other tents on the market, but my goal here is talk a little bit about what it’s been like to live with one, and answer the question of whether or not having a rooftop tent makes sense.
We had one more failed attempt at a camping trip a week or so ago. It ended with pizza on the beach, so not a huge dissapointment. We’ll probably do at least one more cold-weather camping trip this fall—regrettably without the kids, but I’m on thin-ice with CPS as it is.
So, we’ll have used the Roofnest a handful of times, and it will have been perched up on my roof doing nothing the rest of the time. I aspire to camp more, that’s literally why I have this GX, but I haven’t been able to make myself take a day off, and here we are. So, if the question is: If you camp 1-4 times a year, is having a rooftop tent worth it. The answer to that question is: probably not.
There are two downsides to owning a tent like this. One is that it’s on your car when you’re not using it. I have a barn now, and if I were going to keep this thing, I’d probably set up a pulley system to lift and store the tent when I’m not using it. If you don’t have a spot for it, you’re probably going to have to just leave it up there on the roof rack. Given the ease of attaching the Roofnest, it would be easy enough for two people to lift it off and lean it against a garage wall—again, if you don’t mind giving up the space.
The other downside is cost. This tent costs around $3300, which is a lot of money to spend on a tent. That said, it’s cheaper than a camper or an RV and doesn’t really diminish off-road capability. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a Sportsmobile or a converted Sprinter. And, just like anything else, when you get deep enough, you start finding ways to justify costs. Roofnest even offers financing...
If you’re camping often enough that spending more than $3000 on a tent is starting to make sense to you, then yes, get a rooftop tent. The Roofnest we borrowed was incredibly cozy, offered good protection from the elements including bugs, and most importantly was super easy to set up and take down—easy enough that if you’re at the beach or hanging with friends and realize you’re in danger of missing a crucial naptime, you can pop it up without dreading the take-down process. You can even leave your bedding up there, which is a really underrated part of the RTT experience.
On a long weekend overland trip where you’re setting up camp somewhere else every night, a rooftop tent makes more sense than just about anything else I can think of. I don’t mind sleeping on the ground, I can fall asleep just about anywhere. But I got more actual rest sleeping in the Roofnest than I got sleeping on the ground. If I was going to be out in the wilds for more than a day or two, I’d imagine the extra rest would add up.
Hopefully, I’ll buy another driver in the next few months and retire the GX to camping/offroad duty. If I do that, and/or if I can get my shit together to actually start using the GX the way I meant to use it when I started putting it together, I’ll probably be looking for a rooftop tent large enough to sleep my whole crew. I guess you could say that I aspire to be the kind of person that owning a roof top tent makes sense for.