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Hardshell Or Softshell: What Roof Top Tent To Buy?

Let's start with the basics. Rooftop tents come in two styles as most people refer to them by, hardshell and softshell. Hardshells have a hard exterior shell usually made up of aluminum, fiberglass, or hard plastic. Softshells on the other hand, are made of a thick outdoor rip-stop fabric material. Hardshells have the advantage in durability.

Price wise, hardshells will almost always run you more money. With newer and more affordable options being available on the market today, you could get a hardshell starting around $2500. Higher end hardshells will cost you a bit more and some are well over $4000! Softshells on the other hand will be cheaper and may be a more practical option for those who only use it handful times a year. Softshells win the price category.

So you arrive at camp and want to get set up. Hardshells will only take a few minutes to get fully setup. They are usually secured by latches or straps on the sides and have shocks to help raise it up once you get it started. Some clamshell styles can be opened in under 2 minutes! Setup time will vary depending on if you have a clamshell or fold out style. Tear down is just as quick as setting up, and is one of the major pros of hardshells. Softshells on the other hand require more setup and tear down time. Usually the outer cover is secured by a zipper and must be unzipped and flipped off. Then the tent itself is usually strapped down again below that. Once that is undone, now you must flip it out to its extended position. While it doesn't seem like that much more work, if you plan on moving campsites after one night, it will get a little annoying. Another problem arises when trying to fight the wind. Setting up a hardshell in the wind will be significantly easier than a soft shell. Hardshells win with their quick setup/teardown.

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Digging a little deeper, let's look at build quality. Hardshells are made of heavier and more rugged materials such as aluminum, fiberglass, and plastic. This means one thing, they are heavy. Softshells are still heavy don't get me wrong, but they will almost always be lighter than their hardshell counterparts. What you trade off in weight, you gain in durability. Over time softshells will tend to take a beating by the elements, especially their outer cover. Although they are usually replaceable, it is another thing to consider.

So what are some of the other differences? Hardshells, especially clamshells, usually offer a shorter headspace. The hardshells that open only on one side have obviously a smaller headspace, meaning you will place your feet on that side. However, some models open up to a 56” height on the side that opens. When mounted on the roof, you will notice a distinct difference between a hardshell vs softshell. Hardshells are usually much slimmer and more aerodynamic than their softshell counterparts. For us, we felt extremely top heavy being on a lifted SUV, especially in high wind and off camber situations. Softshells will create more wind drag, and might cost you a bit more in gas in the long run.

Softshells have a slight edge when it comes to fancy add-ons. Annex rooms are a popular choice which provide an enclosure around your entry/exit. We used ours as a storage area and changing room. It is definitely one thing we miss about our softshell.

Another benefit to the hardshell design is some allow roof racks to be mounted on top. Thus allowing you to carry other accessories and gear on top of the hard top. Due to their more rugged construction, hardshell tents will hold up much better in the wind. For clamshells especially, by strategically positioning yourself to divert the wind over the incline of the tent, you will notice a much better comfort level in windy areas. Hardshells tent usually come with a thicker fabric, which is then stretched tight, which helps reduce the tent flapping in the wind.

Our opinion? If you have the funds and are frequently out and about, go hardshell. The convenience and benefits are worth it. Those who find themselves on longer journalese, or in harsher environments, you don't want to skimp where you sleep. If you are looking for a budget friendly way to get into roof top tent camping, start with a soft shell. You always have the option to upgrade if you find that you enjoy it! That is exactly how we started and where we are today. We do recommend sticking with a reputable and higher quality softshell, so you don't taint your first experience with a cheap tent. Pay attention to the materials, reviews, and lastly do your own research.


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