Hard Shell Vs Soft Shell Rooftop Tent

By on 2 November 2021 / 1 Comment Updated on: 2 November 2021

For overlanding, life on the road, or just a big camping trip, rooftop tents are a great way to ease your camping setup. They first became popular in Australia, they were a means of getting sleep away from the ground due to the huge number of spiders, bugs, and insects that will happily bite and poison you. The elevated sleeping position and ease of setup (sometimes) are of course easy appeals. But there are also plenty of things to consider when making the change from a standard tent.

A rooftop tent provides you with different location options than a traditional tent. Because it mounts on your car, you can use it in locations where a traditional setup would be impractical or possibly illegal. For example, a parking lot, an RV lot, or even a highway rest stop. Rooftop tents are a way of experiencing the freedom of parking, opening the roof tent, and enjoying your surroundings without limits.

So, one of the first choices people have to make when buying a roof tent is which type to get; a soft shell or a hard shell. In this guide, we are going to talk about the benefits of owning a rooftop tent. Of course, no product design is perfect, so we’ll also talk about some of the drawbacks too, so you can find out what kind of rooftop tent is worth investing in for your particular needs.

Hard Shell Rooftop Tent

The first type of rooftop tent we are going to talk about is the hard shell rooftop tent. You’ve probably seen lots of trucks and vans on the highway with these mounted on the roof, its a big hard plastic box that mounts on roof rails. A sturdy and quick way of living the rooftop tent life, this tends to be the most popular choice for those living on the road for longer than a couple of weeks.

The tent walls are made from durable waterproof fabric such as nylon or canvas. The fabric walls join attach to the edges of the rigid ceiling and floor, joining them together. When closed for storage and while driving, the rigid floor and ceiling shells sandwich the bedding and tent walls.

Hard Shell Rooftop Tent Pros

Stronger Structure

Hard shell rooftop tents have a stronger, more stable structure, making them handle storms and fierce weather a lot better. They tend to have higher wind ratings as their structure means they don’t move around as much.

Quieter

Hard shell tents are quieter in strong stormy winds because there is less canvas rustling due to their solid design. Some designs are also insulated on the inside, this also makes rain less noisy, as it absorbs the sound better too. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to sleep during bad weather, which always seems to come at some point during vacations!

Warmer

They’re warmer due to less heat escaping through the ABS/fiberglass hard shell rooftop and some models are insulated at the roof too, which can be a particular advantage when camping on extra cold nights.

Faster To Unpack/Pack Up

It’s much faster and easier to unpack/pack up hard shell roof tents. This is especially useful if you’re moving around a lot during your travels or are planning on doing activities that require driving to a location. On average, a pop-up hard shell roof tent takes around 30 seconds to set up and put away compared to more than 10 minutes or more for soft-top roof tents each time, which can add up if you’re moving around a lot.

More Aerodynamic

The more aerodynamic design of hard shell roof top tents when down means they’re more fuel-efficient compared to a soft shell tent of the same or similar weight, most of the soft shell roof tents are considerably lighter, so this balances out. The hard shell design does make them quieter when driving though, there won’t be any canvas flapping about.

Pack Tent Down with Mattress Inside

You can pack down hard shell versions with a thick mattress still inside, unlike some soft shell designs that often need to fold in on themselves when dismantling. This means with some soft-top models you have the inconvenience of either taking your mattress out each time or using a thinner, less comfortable mattress to sleep on.

Easier To Clean

Cleaning hard shell roof top tents is way faster and easier than soft shells. This is because of a combination of dirt generally just coming off the shell material on top easily and the fact that there aren’t many difficult areas to get to on the fabric of hard shells due to the way they’re designed. This can be super helpful when you’re spending a prolonged period of time on the road.

Looks

Many campers prefer the look of hard shell rooftop tents. The low profile makes the tent look a bit sleeker when folded. With the right rack and tent combination, the tent is hardly noticeable. When set up, a wedge or box-shaped tent looks unique. But of course, looks are subjective.

Less Likely to Leak

You can often get problems with the roof leaking because of pooling in soft shell versions. This doesn’t happen with hard shell tents though because of the rainwater being unable to soak through the plastic and it simply running off the vertical sides.

Hard Shell Rooftop Tent Cons

Expensive

Hard shell rooftop tents cost more than their soft shell counterparts. Over the life of the tent, the cost per year of ownership will be lowered due to longevity. When budgeting for a rooftop tent, you’ll also want to factor in the cost of a roof rack, the shipping cost of the heavy tent, and professional installation if you can’t do it yourself. These could easily add an extra $250-$500 to the total price of the tent.

Heavier

Hard shell models tend to weigh a bit more than soft shell. This extra weight makes hard shell roof top tents harder to lift up onto the roof of the vehicle. You’ll have to make sure your vehicle’s roof and roof rack are capable of supporting the weight of the tent and campers. You’ll also want to ensure that your suspension components.

Smaller sleeping surface

Hard shell tents are limited in size by the size of a vehicle’s roof. Most models are designed to accommodate 2 people, and they can’t be too large because they would hang too far over the edge of the vehicle’s roof. For this reason, hard shell rooftop tents are best for individuals or couples. That said, there are models available that can accommodate 3-4 people, but you would need a larger vehicle to mount them.

Worse vehicle performance and handling

The extra weight of a hard shell rooftop tent raises the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it more unbalanced. This makes the vehicle a bit easier to tip. The extra weight can also cause your vehicle’s suspension to slump, leaving you with less suspension travel. This could be an issue if you install a heavy hard shell tent on a small vehicle. The solution is to install stiffer suspension to compensate for the extra weight of the tent, but then the price starts shooting up. However, if you drive a full-sized truck or SUV, the extra weight doesn’t matter.

No stargazing

One of the best parts of camping is falling asleep under the stars. Sadly, you can’t do this with a hard shell rooftop tent. The rigid top shell blocks your view of the sky.

Soft Shell Rooftop Tent

soft shell rooftop tents are more similar to a ground tent when set up. The tent body is made from waterproof fabric like nylon, polyester, or canvas. The tent body attaches to a solid platform that is made of fiberglass, aluminum, or a form of hard plastic. An internal folding support structure made from aluminum poles opens with the tent fabric to give the tent its form.

The most common is a bi-fold design which consists of two equal-sized floor sections with a hinge on one side. When stored, the tent body, support structure, and mattress are sandwiched between the two-floor sections which unfold like a pop-up book to reveal the sleeping space. The tent takes some setting up and this procedure can be quite tricky. However, because they can extend over the sides of the car, meaning that you can sleep up to 4 adults when needed.

Soft Shell Rooftop Tent Pros

More spacious

Soft shell rooftop tents fold out so half of the tent hangs over the edge of the vehicle. This allows for much more living space inside. You aren’t limited by the vehicle’s roof size. Soft shell rooftop tents are ideal for those who want to camp with their whole family or pets. This extra space is also nice if you get caught in a storm and you don’t want to go out.

Cheaper

Rooftop tent prices have come down quite a bit in the past couple of years due to their popularity and lots of businesses trying to get ahead of the market. These days, soft shell tents are around half the price of a comparable hard shell rooftop tent. If you’re on a tight budget for a roof tent, you’re pretty much limited to soft shell tents but there is bound to be something that suits your needs.

Offering a built-in canopy

When unfolded, half of the tent hangs over the side of the vehicle. The tent might stick out 3-5 feet. This acts like a small canopy/covered area that provides shade and protection from the weather. You can use this small, protected area to lounge around, cook, or keep dry. How useful this area is will depend on the height of your vehicle. With a tall vehicle like a truck or SUV, you can walk under the tent but with a car, you might get less use out of this area because the tent will be too low for function.

Opportunity for an extension

Most soft shell rooftop tents have an annex or extension add-on that is designed to pair with the tent. Usually, the annex attaches to the bottom of the part of the tent platform that hangs over the edge of the vehicle. An annex gives you a dry, private, and shady place where you can stand, get away from the bugs, cook, change your clothes, eat, and hang out. You could even set up a camp shower or toilet in this space. Sometimes the annex is included and sometimes it is sold separately. Annexes are generally not compatible with hard shell rooftop tents.

You can stargaze

Some soft shell rooftop tents feature a window that allows you to see the stars at night. Some models allow you to completely remove the rainfly. This can give you an excellent view on clear summer nights.

Soft shell rooftop tents pack down smaller

When folded, soft shell roof top tents are smaller than hard shell models. The smaller size allows you to mount a soft shell rooftop tent to a smaller vehicle. The tent won’t hang over the edge while you drive. The small size also makes soft shell roof top tents much easier to move around and install on the vehicle.

Lighter

Soft shell rooftop tents tend to weigh 9-14 kg less than comparable hard shell models, so it’s also easier to lift the lighter tent onto the vehicle’s roof. You may be able to get away with a slightly less heavy-duty roof rack as well. That said, you’ll still want to check the static and dynamic weight ratings of your vehicle’s roof and your roof rack to make sure they can support the weight of your tent and campers.

Better vehicle performance

Because soft shell rooftop tents are lighter, they don’t make the vehicle quite as top-heavy. This is nice if you drive on steep terrain off-road and lighter tents also don’t compress the suspension quite as much. This weight difference really only matters if you drive a small vehicle. If you drive a full-sized truck or SUV, you won’t notice the small weight difference.

Soft Shell Rooftop Tent Cons

Harder and more time-consuming to set up

Most models take up to 15 minutes to set up depending on the design. It can be particularly challenging to lift the tent open if your vehicle is tall or if you’re shorter due to them still being heavy. The setup time can be a problem if you like to move camp every day or if you’re traveling for a prolonged period. Spending 20 minutes setting up and taking down camp gets annoying when you’re doing it every day. But if you’re the kind of camper that sets up camp once and stays for a few days then it’s not that big of a deal.

You may not be able to leave all of your bedding in place

When you fold a soft shell roof top tent, your bedding must fold in half with the mattress. Most models have enough space to fit a down sleeping bag/comforter and sheets inside when the tent is folded. You’ll probably have to remove your pillows and bulky comforter because they are too thick to fold with the mattress and tent. This takes time and can limit the kind of bedding you can use.

Soft shell rooftop tents have a larger footprint

Because part of the tent hangs off of the side of the vehicle, you need a larger space to set a soft shell tent up. You can’t camp in just one car space. This may be an issue if you want to camp somewhere with limited space. It can also be a problem if you want to set up your tent in a busy parking lot like you might find at a beach or music festival. For most users, this extra space requirement is not an issue, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

You can’t store as much extra gear inside soft shell rooftop tents

The tent needs to be pretty empty to fold up properly. You could store some flat or small items inside but beyond that, there isn’t much space inside of a folded-up soft shell rooftop tent. This means you may have to move some gear between the inside of your vehicle and your tent when you set up and take down camp. If you move camps often, this can get annoying.

Less comfortable

Soft shell rooftop tents usually come with a thinner mattress than hard shell models. This is necessary because the mattress has to fold in half with the tent. Because soft shell tents are cheaper, the mattresses tend to be of lower quality as well. Most models come with a foam mattress that measures about 2-2.5″ thick. Another problem is that the part of the tent floor that hangs off of the side of the vehicle can also feel a bit unstable. When you move, the floor can flex, and the hinge may squeak. This can be an issue on lower-end soft shell tents.

Worse fuel efficiency

Soft shell rooftop tents have a boxy shape when folded and are not very aerodynamic and they also stick up a few inches higher than hard shell models. This creates more wind resistance, which reduces your fuel efficiency. You’ll notice a bigger difference in fuel efficiency if you drive on the highway for long stints. You’ll spend a bit more on gas, so if you drive long distances to camp, this can add up.

Less durable

Soft shell rooftop tents are a bit more fragile and generally don’t last as quite long as hard shell models. Generally, they’re made from thinner and less durable materials. There are also more moving parts that can fail and there are several poles that raise with the tent. After enough wear, the linkages and hinges can get worn. Some models have a detachable upper, this way, you can just replace the fabric if it wears out.

Soft shell rooftop tents are noisier

On windy nights, the fabric flaps around and gets pretty loud, particularly the rainfly. If you’re a light sleeper, you may want to avoid soft shell tents. The blocky fold design also creates more road noise while you drive, which can get annoying on the highway.

More moisture can enter the tent

Soft shell rooftop tents aren’t quite as waterproof as hard shell models. The fabric outer can form leaks. While driving in the rain, water can make its way under the tent cover and enter the tent. This can be a problem when camping in a humid area, near a body of water, or just after a storm, as this may leak into the tent. You’ll also want to make sure your tent is completely dry before storing it to avoid mold.

Soft shell tents are colder

The thin tent body fabric doesn’t provide much insulation, so heat can easily escape. Some models get drafty as well. For this reason, the interior temperature will be a couple of degrees lower than a hard shell alternative. Many manufacturers offer a quilted insulation insert that you can install in your tent when the weather is cold.

Soft shell tents are designed for 3 seasonal use

Most soft shell rooftop tents are not designed to handle snow. The weight of the snow could damage the support structure. Although, there are some soft shell models that are designed for 4 season use.

Lower quality

Soft shell rooftop tents are often made from lower-quality materials due to being the budget-conscious choice. The tent fabric may be thinner, and the mattress might be made from cheaper and thinner foam. Of course, there are premium models available that are just as well built as any hard shell tent but expect the price to reflect this.

In Conclusion

When deciding between a soft shell and a hard shell rooftop tent, you’ll want to think about how and where you plan to camp, that is pretty much the most important factor when deciding between them. If you’re a frequent camper, move camp every day, or plan to haul a lot of gear, you’re better off with a hard shell model. They are much faster and easier to set up and take down. They tend to be a bit more durable and less bulky as well.

If you only camp occasionally and you tend to stay in the same location after setting up camp, you may be better off with a roomier soft shell model. Of course, budget is a deciding factor too, and soft shells will often be cheaper. However, whichever style of tent you end up choosing, we hope this guide has clarified any pros and cons you needed to know.

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Collin Andrews

Automotive Journalist and all around gearhead. I am the first U.S. and one of Czok’s newest contributors. I have grown up in California surrounded by classic cars and drag racing and ever since I could walk and talk I’ve been helping out in the shop wrenching on old iron. I now help run our family’s shop as well as write automotive articles and work on my automotive photography skills. I am an avid drag racing enthusiast and currently bracket race my 1967 Chevrolet Nova that I have had since I was 14 and hope to continue for years to come. Hopefully I can share my knowledge and experiences to help as many people as possible both work on and make decisions for there own automotive adventures.

1 Comment

  • Shammy Peterson says:

    The best part of your blog is when you said that hard shell rooftop tents have a more stable structure, so they can handle storms and fierce weather a lot better. My husband and I love to try camping starting next month. We want to be comfortable while on a camping site, especially at night. We will be sure to do your tips since we want to choose a tent that will last for a long time.

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