Hardshell or softtop rooftent?

Which is better?

Written by
Aleksandar Veljković

It’s time to enter the family of overlanding nomads and provide a home on the roof of your offroader for yourself. But how to choose your ideal rooftop tent? In this short article we try to explain the good and bad sides of the two major types of rooftop tents.

I’ve been into nomadic travel through the wilderness of the Balkans for quite a number of years now, so I could say that I’ve got “some” experience on what’s important for a comfortable life in the wild. I’ve been using a softtop foldable tent for the first 7 years of that period, and must say that I’ve been quite happy with it, although over time I’ve started being more and more aware of it’s shortcomings. A moment came when I realized that a hardshell tent would be the evolution in the right direction for me, despite it’s higher price – packing and unpacking a softtop foldable tent day after day (especially in cold or rainy conditions) simply became too much of a hassle.

So let’s cut the long story short by making a table with the good and bad sides of both tent types, and then explain everything in more detail.

Advantages of…
Ease of setupLower price
Better rip protectionLower weight
Problemless high speed transportA “roomy” feeling
Better rain endurancePretent upgradable

Ease of setup

I’d say this is the crucial advantage of the hardshell tents, the one that is sufficient to decide to get one instead of the softtop. Opening and closing a hardshell tent is performed with a few easy moves – unfasten the clips, then pushing (to open) or pulling (to close) the tent lid ends. Most models are equipped by gas struts, so it’s just as simple as opening or closing of the vehicle’s back door. If it’s an operation that you perform on daily basis, it means a world to you.

Simple setup – just push the front and back end up, and it’s ready

On the other hand, setting up a softshell tent is quite a lengthy procedure, which can be highly unpleasent in bad weather. First you have to untie the bands holding the tent cover down, and then unzip the tent cover (and these zips do tend to get stuck sometimes). Then comes taking the cover off, and only then can you start unfolding the tent, usually holding it by the ladder. After it has been brought into position and the ladder fully extended, you will want to install the window holders too (on one or more windows). So by the time you’re ready to enter you tent, the hardshell tent owner is already resting inside for quite a while! Packing the softtop can be even harder, with a high probability that you’ll get it all wet if it’s raining.

Rip protection

This is a very important issue if you’re among those who often venture into uncharted territory and use trails that are quite overgrown by vegetation. The thick, plastic covering of a hardshell protects the tent practically from everything, except maybe being hit by a tree or a rock with excessive force. On the other hand, most soft covers for the softtops have a high risk of getting ripped if confronted by a sharp branch (even a tiny one). No matter how thick the cover is, it can never provide you the protection that you get from a hardshell.

The thick plastic hardshell is sturdy in contact with obstacles

High speed transport

This is usually a problem that you don’t have a faintest idea about until you try driving on a motorway with a soft top tent. Then the quality of the tent cover really shows. The well tailored and packed ones hold relatively well. But some made of thin fabric (especially those that don’t have strong side belts to hold it down) take in so much air, that after prolonged driving at 80+ km/h you shouldn’t be surprised if there’s not much left of the tent cover. It can get completely ripped, and thus useless as protection against the elements. Many owners of cheap softtop tents have to order custom made covers in order to resolve this.

The soft cover doesn’t exactly behave well either in contact with vegetation, or in fast driving on the motorway

This issue simply does not exist with the hardshell tents. They’re for security reasons usually declared for a maximum speed of 120 km/h, but in practice can endure more. And the plastic covering stays in place at all times, of course, you don’t have to worry about it at all (and not a single drop of rain will enter the tent, no matter how strong it is).

Rain endurance

No matter how hard and long it’s been raining, in a hardshell tent you’re guaranteed to remain 100% dry, as the rain hits the plastic roof and evenly flows off it’s edges, practically not hitting the fabric of the tent sides at all. I must admit that it’s a great pleasure sleeping in a hardshell tent in the rain!

Normally you should remain dry in a softtop tent too. But in certain conditions you shouldn’t be surprised if a few drops of rain find their way into the tent when it’s been raining long and strong. The fabric is usually impregnated with some waterproof solution, but on the stitches some tiny droplets of water often manage to get through in lasting rain. It probably won’t get you wet, but it can get you sprinkled. So you’ll probably wish to spray the tent with some impregnator from time to time to improve it’s water resistence.

With an awning life’s quite bearable in a hardshell tent

The question of price

No matter whether you want to buy an expensive tent of some western brand or a cheap chinese copy, you’ll always pay less for a softtop than a hardshell tent, which is understandable – they’re cheaper to manufacture. So you’re the one to decide the tradeoffs that you can agree to.

However, in my opinion, the extremely expensive brands from the western world just can’t justify their prices by the production quality and convenience details they offer. For example, some of them have the central elastic band that automatically pulls the fabric in when packing up the tent, making it easier to close it (you don’t have to push the excessive fabric in manually). Or they have better quality zippers than the Chinese and similar details, but that simply can’t justify paying an extra 1.500 € or so for a tent, can it?

I’m personally a fan of the Chinese tents, as I have no issue at all with their durability. As someone who spends most of the season outdoors, sleeping on the roof, I feel quite competent to make such a judgement. No matter whether you opt for a hardshell or a softtop tent, don’t waste your money on paying for a tent “brand” more than you really have to. It makes no sense. For the price of a new famous brand’s rooftop tent you can often buy very descent used camping trailers, containing everything you expect from a luxury mobile “house”.

Softtop in it’s romantic setting

How important is the weight?

Well, if you’re not into rough offroad terrain, the weight of the tent probably won’t be an issue for you. But in case it’s rocking left and right on your roof all the time in some rock crawling environment, you better check out how solid your roof rack is, and what kind of weight it can safely hold – if in doubt, reinforce it preemptively. Being in average about 20-30 kg lighter, the softtop tents make a difference when it comes to the seriousness of inspecting the endurance of your roof rack. For the heavy hardshells, you shouldn’t allow any surprises.

Tent spaciousness

An average hardshell and softtop tent have a very similar, if not same footprint when open. As the softtop tents are foldable, they take up twice as little space on the roof when packed up, leaving space for more equipment on the roof; a hardshell usually takes the entire roof to himself.

The softtop tent looks quite roomy
But the hardshell isn’t bad either – it looks smaller on the outside than on the inside

Both being 1,2 m to 1,4 m wide, softtop tents tend to be slightly longer (2,4 m vs. 2.1 m of the average hardshell), and as they’re higher in the middle, give a feeling of offering more space. If equipped with an enlarged entrance covering shielding the main entrance and the ladder, this roomy feeling can be even stronger. And if you equip them with the zip on pretent stretching all the way to the ground, you practically get a two story tent, which does not exist as an addon for the hardshells.

However, new tent types are released every season. It seems that in 2019 some kind of hybrids between the hardshell and softtop concept, based on the enormously popular iKamper (which the Chinese have now also succesfully copied), will offer the unprecedented roominess of some XL softtop tents, coupled with the ease of setup of the hardshells.

So which is better? That depends on the factors that you value. I vote for the hardshell without hesitation, because it makes my nomadic life much simpler. But you make the call for you, after reading the arguments and watching the pictures.

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