Rooftop tents are becoming so popular that you may find yourself caving into the temptation to buy yourself a hardy rooftop tent for subsequent outdoor adventures. However, when you decide to purchase a rooftop tent, you will be faced with the tough decision of choosing between a hardshell rooftop tent and a softshell one.
Hard-shell and softshell rooftop tents are the two major types of rooftop tents today. Although they are both rooftop tents, their different features offer different experiences when used. To help you make the best rooftop tent choices when making a purchase, here is all you need to know about the differences between hardshell and softshell tents.
The Rooftop Tent Experience
If you are new to the rooftop tent camping scene, you undoubtedly do not know the major differences between hardshell and softshell tents. Sure enough, both tent types offer an excellent upgrade to the average outdoor experience. However, they are different and offer different features that affect the quality of camping trips.
With the global rooftop tent market size valued at USD 199.53 million and projected to expand to USD 312.45 million in 2027, rooftop tents are rapidly becoming popular because they offer an immediate upgrade to the average camping experience. Built to take outdoor adventures from zero to hero, rooftop tents offer everything that outdoor enthusiasts will want in a home away from home. From safety to comfort and even luxury, rooftop tents offer it all.
However, as with regular ground tents, there are different designs of rooftop tents to choose from when making a purchase. Rooftop tents come in different colors, materials, and designs, but they are classified into two major groups using their features. These two groups are hardshell tents and softshell tents.
Hard-shell and softshell rooftop tents both fulfill their primary function of offering shelter outdoors while installed on a camper’s camping vehicle. However, they both offer a varying degree of durability, comfort, ease of use, set-up time, and even cost. Essentially, hardshell and softshell tents may look similar to untrained eyes, but they offer different pros and cons that affect a camper’s experience outdoors.
To maximize your experience, it is best to choose a rooftop tent that aligns with your needs as a camper. To do this, you need to make the right choices.
Because choosing a rooftop tent is a long-term investment that will serve the average camper for years, it is essential to choose the best type of tent that suits your outdoor camping purposes. This will not only help you make the most of every outdoor trip but save money.
What Are Hardshell Rooftop Tents?
Hard-shell rooftop tents are easy to tell apart thanks to their unique sturdy structures. With a rigid outer shell made out of fiberglass, aluminum, or plastic, and walls made out of fabric like cotton, nylon, or canvas, hardshell rooftop tents are ‘hard’ as their name suggests.
Hard-shell rooftop tents are very different from regular ground tents in terms of strength, structure, and sturdiness. The frames form the ceiling and floor of the tent, while the fabric walls and floor plates attach to the hardshell frames. This tent is a box-like structure that is often usually wedge/clamshell-shaped or box-shaped.
Although hardshell tents have a definite structure, their design often determines the tent's style. Wedge-shaped or clamshell rooftop tent models often come with a hinge at the front end of the tent and open up to sit at an angle. In this design’s case, the hinge points toward the front of the vehicle.
Regular pop-up tents open vertically into a box-like shape. The floors and ceilings are flat, and the walls are straight.
Many had top rooftop tents open using mechanized gas struts systems, mechanical crank systems, or electrical crank systems. They vary in size depending on the weight capacity or limit to the number of occupants, usually ranging above 25 Square feet.
Hard-shell rooftop tents collapse into a flat box-shaped structure for ease of installation and detachment. Like softshell, hardshell tents are accompanied by a ladder that attaches to the tent.
Essentially, hardshell tents are tents with ‘hard’ structures that act as physical ‘shells’ or frames and offer support.
Benefits Of Hard-Shell Rooftop Tents
Other than being aesthetically pleasing, the average hardshell tent’s structure offers various advantages over softshell tents. These benefits include:
- Ease Of Set-up
When choosing tents, it is essential to consider the set-up's ease. Do you want to exhaust yourself while setting up the tent, or will you rather have something you can easily pop up and secure in a few minutes? In this case, hardshell tents offer the latter option.
Thanks to their structure, hardshell tents can be set up by one person in 30-60 seconds. This ease of set-up is a great option for campers who are constantly on the go and find themselves in different locations every day.
Many hardshell tents are designed to open with little physical effort. This way, all campers need to do is undo the safety latches pop the tent using whatever crank mechanism the tent is made of, and love the support in place. This saves time, ensuring that campers have no problem setting up and taking down their outdoor home.
- Increased Durability
Made from tough materials such as aluminum and fiberglass, hardshell tents are unsurprisingly more durable than their softshell counterparts. This increased durability means hardshell tents last longer, perform better in tougher conditions, and survive harsh impacts that will otherwise ruin a softshell tent.
Thanks to their more durable materials, hardshell tents do not degrade easily under UV lights, perform better in weather conditions, and are easy to maintain.
- Great Investment
Although the average ground tent lasts a few years, hardshell tents last as long as ten to fifteen years when taken care of. They are perfect for lifestyle nature adventurers and are preferable for people who constantly find themselves living out their naturist dreams outdoors. If you find yourself constantly on one expedition or the other, hardshell tents are the perfect option for you.
- More Storage
Hard-shell tents offer extra storage space when not in use. When in their collapsed position, many hardshell tents can hold mattresses and other sleeping supplies without any problem. This ensures that campers do not have to constantly empty out and load their tent when it's time to leave a camp or go to bed.
The additional space in hardshell tents offers space for campers to leave their mattresses, pillows, blankets, and other bedding needs that will take up storage in the back of the vehicle.
- Better Gas Mileage
Do rooftop tents affect gas mileage? The short answer is ‘yes.’
Because rooftop tents are installed on the top of a vehicle, their weight impacts the vehicle when it is in motion. This causes an increase in wind and drags resistance that simultaneously increases gas mileage (Don't know what gas mileage is considered “good”? Here is how you can calculate your gas mileage). Although this change or increase is never drastic, it can become costly over the long run.
Hard-shell rooftop tents solve this problem with their aerodynamic structure. They are designed so that they offer little drag resistance that will impact the vehicle’s movement and mileage. This not only helps people protect their vehicles but also assists them in saving hundreds of dollars on gas.
- More Weatherproof
Hard-shell tents are made from tougher and more durable materials and are unsurprisingly fit for many weather elements. The tents are waterproof, UV-resistant, and tear-resistant to the wind. They must exist as 4-season tents and are great shelter options while camping, regardless of the weather. With hardshell tents, campers enjoy fewer mold problems, can easily keep moisture out of their tent, and enjoy protection from windchill.
- More Headspace
Hard-shell tent designs offer more useable headspace. This headspace can be utilized as a storage space or can be left alone to provide more room for campers to move around.
Hardshell tents have less loose fabric and thus do not blow around in the wind. The walls are quiet, and the floor is rigid, giving the tent no specs to move around noisily.
Cons Of Hard-Shell Tents
Although hardshell tents offer numerous benefits, they also have their shortcomings. Some of the negative aspects of hardshell tents are:
Although their tougher materials offer more durability, it also means more resources go into producing hardshell tents. As a result, many hardshell tents are expensive, costing as high as $5000. Hard-shell tents offer numerous benefits, but the prices are often discouraging to campers.
Hard-shell tents are made out of heavy materials, making them weigh between 45kg and 90kg. They are considerably heavier than softshell tents, with their extra weight coming from the heavy materials and aluminum and fiberglass frames that line the floor, walls, and ceiling.
Although knowing how much weight a tent can hold is essential when buying hardshell tents (or any tent at all), it is also best to consider the tent’s weight to your vehicle’s static and dynamic weight limit. Ensure your vehicle is capable of supporting the tent before attempting to install it.
Hard-shell tents are more compact than softshell tents. They are rigid and have limited floor space that does not expand. This is because if they are designed to be too large, it will be at the vehicle’s detriment.
Hard-shell tents usually accommodate 2-4 people, depending on the size.
Softshell Rooftop Tent
Softshell rooftop tents are like ground tents erected on vehicles. These tents are made from durable materials such as cotton, polyester, canvas, and nylon and are attached to a sturdy floor made from aluminum or fiberglass.
Softshell rooftop genes unfold in several ways, such as a bi-fold (two equal-sized floor sections with a hinge on a side) or pull-up (open like an accordion), unraveling to reveal a durable shelter made mostly of waterproof fabric and a support structure. Regardless of the rooftop tent style, softshell tents come with a ladder and other accessories designed to make camping fun and more comfortable.
Benefits Of Softshell Rooftop Tent
There are some benefits that softshell rooftop tents offer. Some of these include:
- More Space
Softshell rooftop tents have more floor space than their hardshell counterparts. This is because the tent hangs off the vehicle, allowing a bigger living space inside that exceeds the vehicle’s roof size.
As a result, softshell rooftop tents usually come in large sizes that hold more than 4 people comfortably and without any problem. Softshell rooftop tents are the best option for larger families looking for outdoor shelters that offer them plenty of space to relax and be themselves.
This is an upgrade from the usually compact and small spaces that hardshell rooftop tents offer.
- Cheaper Prices
Soft-shell tents are usually considerably priced and cheaper than many hardshell rooftop tent brands. This can be because softshell tents are made from less durable materials and do not cost so much to manufacture. Thanks to this, softshell tents usually cost as low as $800 and an average of $1200, depending on the type and manufacturer. Regardless, there is a softshell tent that suits anyone’s budget.
- Extra Tent Attachment
Many softshell tents come with accessories that campers cannot attach to their hardshell tents. One of these is the annex.
A rooftop tent annex is another small tent that connects to an existing rooftop tent. The annex usually attaches itself to the bottom part of the tent, enclosing the ladder. It usually has no floor and offers an extra shelter or canopy-like enclosure that can be turned into an extra bedroom, dining area, or even shower area.
- Easy Stargazing
If you love to engage in stargazing and falling asleep under the clear view of stars, hardshell tents may not be perfect for you. They come with shell roofs that offer no view of the outside world.
Soft-shell tents, on the other hand, feature windows in rainfly that let campus enjoy a clear view of the sky whenever they want.
- Lighter Weight
Although softshell tents are usually bigger than hardshell tents, they weigh less. Most softshell tent models weigh about 9-14 kg less than hardshell tents, often averaging between 54 and 67 kg in weight. This makes it easy on vehicles with slightly lower static and dynamic weight ratings, ensuring that campers can enjoy the ultimate rooftop tent experience even with less car weight limit.
- Better Car Performance
Soft-shell tents are lighter, meaning they do not make vehicles feel top-heavy like hardshell tents. This makes the vehicle easier to control and less likely to tip when traveling on steep or incline terrain.
Cons Of Softshell Rooftop Tent
Just like hardshell rooftop tents, softshell rooftop tents have cons that do not make them the best choice for every camper. Some of these include:
- More Difficult To Set-Up
The softshell rooftop tent design makes it more difficult to set-up. The process is usually time-consuming and can take a range of five to fifteen minutes, depending on its design.
The entire process involves a rather strenuous range of motion that includes removing the protective cover from the tent, unfolding the heavy tent, placing the support poles in the necessary places, adding stakes and guy lines if necessary, and setting up the bedding. The take-down process is just as difficult, making softshell tents frustrating to some campers who are always on the go.
- May Not Hold Beddings
Unlike hardshell tents that offer extra storage space to hold meetings when campers are on the move, softshell tents may not have enough space to do the same. Although this depends on the tent model, most rooftop tests have to fold in half and be compressed, leaving little space for all bedding to be stored there.
Although your softshell tent will probably hold your mattress, you may have to remove your pillows, blankets, and other bulky sleeping gear.
- Less Headspace
Unlike hardshell tents with more headroom for increased comfort, softshell tents come with less headspace that may make it difficult to sit upright anywhere other than near the center of the tent.
- Less Durable
Soft-shell tents are made from less durable materials than hardshell tends. Although this makes them more affordable, it also means the fabric is cheaper, and the mattress is flatter. Other parts of the tent may also be of lower quality. As a result, softshell tents are less durable and will not last as long as hardshell tents.
- Three-Season Use
Most softshell tents are not fit to be used in all seasons. They usually come in a three-season design as they cannot handle the weight of snow during the winter or provide adequate insulation (thanks to the thinner materials and reduced support structure). Although some softshell tents come in four-season designs, they are more expensive.
On nights or days when it is windy or when you are driving down the highway, the noisy flapping of the extra tent fabric will probably keep you up or be frustrating. Soft-shell tents can be noisy in the wind, and many campers find this feature annoying.
- Worse Fuel Efficiency
Soft-shell tents do not have an aerodynamic structure and thus create drag. This creates wind resistance that is especially obvious when driving on a highway. There will be a more noticeable difference in fuel efficiency when using softshell tents versus when using the more aerodynamic hardshell option.
What's The Ruling?
Hard-shell and softshell rooftop tents both make great rooftop tent options. However, they have striking differences that shape a camper’s experience outdoors.
Where hardshell rooftop tents are aerodynamic, durable, offer better headspace, and saves gas, softshell tents increase gas mileage, are less durable, have less headroom, and will result in you spending a few more dollars than you usually would on gas. However, conversely, where soft-she rooftop tents are larger, lighter, cheaper, and offer better vehicle control, hardshell tents are smaller, heavier, expensive and can make vehicles top-heavy.
There is no good or bad tent option. All you need to do is weigh the differences to know which offers more benefits for you and your subsequent camping trips. To help you make the best rooftop tent choice, here are answers to some rooftop tent frequently asked questions you may have.