Hard Shell vs Soft Shell Roof Top Tent

Soft shell, or hard shell, roof top tent (RTT)?

 Which one is best for you?

Find out the pros and cons of each and the different types in this in this comparison of a


 Soft Shell vs Hard Shell RTT

Ok so a few things to keep in mind and bring you up to speed on

Before we get too far in the comparison is the


Lets talk about

Roof Top Tent Build Quality 



You have to keep in mind

Things can vary some, from one roof top tent (RTT) to another



Well because,

There are many different designs of RTTs

And they can be made to different standards of quality

For different budgets, and users in mind.

The higher end hard shells RTTs will be higher quality (expedition grade).

Although there may be budget buys out there


But when it comes to the

Soft Shell RTTs There’s Two Types


  • Expedition Grade
  • Entry Level


So, an

Entry Level Roof Top Tent

Is priced for the beginner, and more affordable

The entry-level type RTTs are a good start to get going with RTT camping

And they can hold up for a while

But they’re typically not recommended for 4 season camping



They don’t have heavy duty aluminum or honeycomb aluminum bases

Or thick rainflies, extended annexes like the expedition grade RTTs can.


Although sometimes they can have annexes

Entry-level RTTs don’t have the options available like the expedition grade RTTs

But can they can get the job done


Alright now the

Expedition Grade Roof Top Tents

 Are made for the avid overland traveler in mind

That plans on using it often

And they are also made more durable giving you that extra level of quality

To stand up better on those rigorous backcountry adventures

And like mentioned above

They have thicker, more robust fabric

Stronger built bases, the rainflies are better, and they have quality annexes.

And they’re also capable of 4 season camping

Along with having more options available for them

But, they do cost more


Ok since that’s out of the way

Keep in mind

Soft Shell RTTs Come in Two Design Types


Either the


  • Bi-fold Type RTT (aka Fold-Out type RTT
  • Pull-Up Type Soft Shell RTT


Now The,

Bi Fold Soft Shell RTT

 Is probably the most popular design you will see when it comes to soft shell RTTs

They will fold out, creating, an overhang, off the side, or back, of the vehicle.

Depending on how you decide to mount it.


And when put away, the bottom base plates will cap the top, and bottom of the tent

The ladder on fold out type RTTs supports the base of the tent on the one side

So you have to make sure it lands in a level spot that ground is firm so it don’t sink

When the tent is flipped out


And then the you have the

Pull-Up Type Soft Shell RTT

An example of this pull up style would be

The Freespirit Recreation Adventure Series

It will pull up, it doesn’t fold out off to the side or back

You lift them up,  (Although the new versions have gas struts on them)

The poles are attached on a pivot point at the base on one side

They pull up from one side toward the other pulling the tent roof with it

So when they’re pitched the base will still stay directly on top the roof of the vehicle

The base of the tent doesn’t fold out.


The mattress (base) of the tent is the same when pitched and put away

Just like an average pop up hard shell RTT would be.

They are also typically easier to close up and put back away in the protective cover

Due to the less material being used

And they also use the same similar ladder as a hard shell style tent would.



Moving on to the


Two Different Types of Hard Shell RTTs


You have the


  • Wedge Design (aka Clam Shell type)


  • Pop-Up (box type) Hard Shell RTTs


So, the


Clamshell Hard Shell RTT

 Also known as the wedge shape (design) RTT they are hinged on one end, and open up on the other

 Giving it a wedge or clam shell look

Example the Alu Cab


Now the

Pop Up (Box type) Hard Shell RTT

These have 4 vertical walls that rise up to the same height at both ends

They are typically rectangular shaped though being longer than they are wide

But when pitched the resemble a box shape



Keep in mind there are a few different types of

Hard Shell RTT Lifting Mechanisms



Mechanical Style

 The Mechanical style lifting mechanisms found on some hard shell units

Can be an efficient reliable way to raise, and lower the tent

Also some might be able handle raising and lower gear on top the tent.

But of course the amount of weight could vary

So, you have to refer to manufacture for specifics

Also since you can put more tension on the fabric with the mechanical lift setup

They are typically better in higher wind type conditions


You can have two type of mechanical type

Some you have to manually crank to raise and lower them

Or some with the push of a button automatically lift up and lower with 12v electric

For example the Bundu Top Tent


Now on the

Gas Strut (shock) Style

 These are the same basic type setup used on most modern vehicle to hold the hood or tailgate up

Gas shock assist setups are a very fast way to raise a tent with minimum effort

They can be a little more effort to close at times

Having to pull against the resistance of the shocks


But it’s usually not to bad

And they don’t take up as much room inside the tent

Like the mechanical linkage type can do


Sometimes the struts can get weak in cold weather and take a little longer to rise.

Because the pressure isn’t high enough in the shock as the gas contracts

Which can also cause the fabric not to be as taught on the tent at times.

Allowing it to flap in the breeze a bit



Something else to consider is the

Hard Shell RTT Outer Shell Material

 Because With Hard shell RTTs

You will have typically see two main types of outer shells materials

They can be made of





Now, the


Can withstand greater impacts without it cracking

If you would happen to bump something on your adventure

Like heavy branches

The aluminum will probably just dent or bend


However although they’re durable the aluminum type are typically heavier

Which is a big deal for something mounted high up on the roof

Giving the vehicle a higher center of gravity


And then on the other hand


 Is typically lighter in weight than the aluminum RTT shell

And although fiberglass can be very durable, and hold up well

But the thing you have to consider is in general fiberglass will be more prone to cracking

If you hit something.

Like those heavy tree branches going down the trail


However, keep in mind fiberglass can be repaired

But it can be pricey at times if you don’t know how to do it yourself




That we covered some basics, of the different designs and quality

Let’s dive into the overall

Hard Shell vs Soft Shell Roof Top tents Pros and Cons



Room to Move (living space)


Hard Shell RTT (CON)

This is a con



Clamshell type RTT

Have a lack of head room (ceiling height) on the one hinged end

And then they have a really high headroom on other end

You can put your feet toward the low end though

So with clam shell style RTTs not having as much height on the one end

You loose some livable space



Hard Shell RTTs sometimes may not be well suited (depending on the tent) for really tall users Because some of them only have about 78” sleeping length so just keep an eye on that


And although the

Pop-Up roof top tents (Box Type RTTs)

Are a bit more comfortable used as a shelter vs the clam shell style RTT

As they have more room in them to move around

Because of the vertical walls

Making it possible for an adult to sit up on either end of the tent

Helping with more room to move around and can be preferred by some

And they also can sometimes take up less length on the roof overall

Which is nice



But the

Soft Shell RTT (Pro)

Is the clear overall winner here

As the most common type of soft shell RTTs are bi-fold type

And they typically will have more room inside them to accommodate more people to sleep.

And some have extra options for annexes giving added room there as well

Which also nice to give you a place to take dirty shoes off so you don’t track it up the ladder into the bed


But keep in mind, soft shell RTTs

The walls are usually sloped on 2 sides

So you have reduce head room on the edges so that could be a con to

But when pitched it can double in size

Which helps if you have a user in it.

More than 6 feet tall as they can most of the time accommodate taller people to sleep


They can have additional extended rainflies vestibules

The fold out platform can be used as a shade or shelter area.

Or can even be enclosed with a n annex option.

Which helps when you’re out in bad weather


But there are some hard shell RTTs that have an added-room annex options


Campsite Footprint


Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Take up less space at camp because they stay right on top the vehicle




Soft Shell RTT (CON)

Fold out and take up way more space

So you have to have a parking spot big enough to accommodate it




Clean UP and Drying Out



Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Easier to wash off with the hard top and bottom

And there’s less fabric on the sides to deal with

Also you don’t have to handle them as much.

Pitching and putting them away so you can typically stay cleaner

Along with typically much quicker to dry since it just have tent walls to dry.




Soft Shell RTT (CON)

More overall footprint of fabric to collect dirt and grime

And you also have to handle them more when putting them away

so you have a higher chance that you could covered it grit packing up camp

Also it could take longer to dry off before you can put it away as it

Because a soft shell has more fabric



Aerodynamics (Lower Center of Gravity)


Hard Shell (PRO)

Hard shells are more streamlined and aero dynamic than soft shell RTTs

As they sit lower profile on the roof

The Lower profile design and better aerodynamics

Helping to give less wind resistance riding down the road

Which can help with reducing fuel economy

Along with reducing some of the wind noise




Soft Shell RTT (CON)

They are boxier in design when packed up

And sit higher up on the vehicle

Increasing the center of gravity causing more wind drag when driving

When it’s closed up riding down the road

Which can hinder fuel economy

But they are typically lighter in weight than the hard shell units.




Haul Extra Gear on Top


Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Take for instance some hard shell roof top tents

Come with a roof rack on the outer upper shell

So you can put your kayaks surf boards or other gear up there.

Which is a nice feature

Having a rack on top of the RTT

Because the RTT itself is taking up your roof rack space on top the vehicle




Soft Shell RTT (CON)

With a soft shell RTT you typically have to find something else to do with those things

Once you put the soft shell tent up there on the roof rack

You’re going to have to find a place put extra gear

Because, now you don’t have a place to store it, and or tie tem down

They’re not designed for that




Overall Packed Size on The Roof


Hard Shell RTT (CON)

 Some hard shell RTTs

Can use a lot more roof space vs a soft shell RTT

 As they will take up more length on the roof of a vehicle

So some are typically best suited for vehicles with a longer roof

Also they will have a smaller mattress size

Compared to the bi fold soft shell when deployed

To the amount of roof space they take up packed away. (Bigger Packed size)




Soft Shell RTT (PRO)

Because most of them are  bi fold type soft shells

You will gain the length, when they fold out off the vehicle

To accommodate users

And when packed away they can sometimes be half the size when folded back up

Generally taking up a smaller overall footprint on the roof

Although like mention above.

They will have a much bigger campsite footprint



Storage Area


Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Closed the packed size leaves you room to leave blankets

And even extra gear stored inside the tent as you travel




Soft Shell RTT (CON)

They don’t allow you to add extra gear as they fold back on themselves




Open and Close Time


Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Typically less than 60 sec for some to open and close it

Also take for example the clam-shell style RTTs

The lifting mechanism on them is also less complicated

Unlatch it and let it raise up

Clam shell RTTs tend to open easier as they just flip up on the one end

Then attach your ladder

And you pull the strap to pull it down

Sometimes putting it away may take a little longer but generally under a few minutes


Now ,

The Pop-Up roof top tents (box shaped)

Sometimes can have a little longer setup time depending on the model though

As you might have to push up both ends and then have to pull it back down on both ends to put it away and latch it


Models with the gas struts

But some RTTs have an electric motor with a pulley system

To raise, and lower it for you evenly

Making quick work of it

And some other units have a crank assist to raise and lower them


Soft Shell RTT (CON)

Now the soft shell RTTs will typically take a lot longer to pitch and put away.

Because you have to unfold them and possibly put poles in for rain fly

So just more pieces in general and can be complicated



How Does it Handle Weather (Seasonality)


Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Hard shells hold up to all 4 season well made to handle the snow have good ventilation keep the wind and rain out

Can handle wind and are more rain resistant

As the hard roof will handle more allowing the water to run off

Rather than soak through the fabric eventually like the soft shell could

So the clamshell or pop up hard shell RTT gets a thumbs up here


Now the

Soft Shell RTT (CON)

 Like mentioned above fabric can get water logged

So you can have more moisture issues

 Because they’re not completely weatherproof

As the fabric will become less weatherproof as time goes on

Sucking up the water rather than shedding it off

Which then you have to let it dry out in warm weather which can take longer

They are noisy in wind though they can have guy wires on them for extra stability






Hard shell RTT (CON)

Hard shell RTTs are typically heavier than a soft shell

Though in some cases it may not be much heavier just depends on the specific tents



Soft Shell RTT (PRO)

 Well this is a pro soft shell well at least on the entry level roof top tents

As the fabric is thinner there for typically lighter by nature


The expedition grade soft shell roof top tents can start to creep

With the heavier thicker fabric, so keep an eye on that.

Depending on the brand and model  they can be 150 to 250lbs in weight



Just keep in mind  a 4 person tent is going to be heavier than a 2 person RTT


Some RTTs you have to include the weight of a roof rack

And that adds weight as well

Also make sure the RTT is not too heavy or big for the roof of the vehicle you’re putting it on



Extra Options, and Designs (customization)


Hard Shell RTT (CON)

Hard shells don’t offer as much when it comes to additional options

 Since most pop up  hard shell RTTs don’t hang over the edge of the roof line

There is generally no annexes for them though there is some that do


I should also mention some hard shell RTTs give the ability to attach accessories on the outside of the tent shell

Or you could get an awning and attach one to that

Although you are adding more components to your setup by doing that

However it can kind of take the place of the annex

And if you’re able to go with a 270 degree awning it make quick work of it


Though it won’t allow you to access your tent from the ground floor room

So its not exactly the same but does give you cover to sit under




Soft Shell RTT (PRO)

Some Soft shell RTTs have the option for annexes

And there are many different designs (shapes) of soft shell RTTs on the market to pick from.

 The annex allows you to have a ground floor entry room

Where you can sit out of the weather change clothes

Take your shoes off at the ground, so you don’t track dirt up the ladder in your tent

And if you travel with dog, and don’t have a way for them to get up in the tent

Some people you hear leave them down the bottom on the annex floor giving them a closed in room





Soft Shell RTT (PRO)

This one goes to the soft shell


You can pick up an entry-level soft shell RTT at a more economical price point

If you need to get a hold of one on a tighter budget

 But of course the expedition grade soft shells can get pricey as well



Hard Shell RTT (CON) (might not be for some?)

 Well this is con for some as the Hard shell RTTs are very pricey

Cost more initially than most soft top RTTs in general

But, they’re usually worth it though

For the durability and ease of use they bring to the table.

 Giving you that expedition grade quality

 So, this one could be a toss

Totally depending on your needs budget, and travel requirements



Open and Close Time (set up time)


Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

Quicker to pitch simple design less parts to move around

Easy to pitch and put away


Soft Shell RTT (CON)

They can have more pieces

And be more complex to setup and tear down

Along with the protective cover you have to take off and put back on and they can take more time than you think to get off

Then position extra stays fasteners and supports may be needed to

Wouldn’t say it a hard job but time consuming

Which can take for some tent about 15 min to pitch

And adding an annex to the bottom half to the ground can even in some cases could take twice the time

Becomes extra time consuming to take out and put away


Additional Cover Shade (Overhang)


 Soft Shell RTT (PRO)

Well this on goes to the soft shell RTT because most being bi fold type they will fold out

And this can give you an awning to sit under

Only if your vehicle roof is high enough

Otherwise this could be a con making it hard to get under and in your vehicle for other gear if you needed to

 This overhang also will allow you to add the annex



Hard Shell RTT (CON)

Hard Shell tents don’t fold out like that, and overhang the vehicle unless you add an awning

Well other than the hard shell iKamper skycamp RTT does a bit

And I guess it breaks that rule of thumb some





Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

 Hard shell typically have better comfort cause you have a thicker mattress in them

And it doesn’t affect the pack size when you close it down

Although they have a thicker mattress generally but mattress space is fixed

And they are easier to move around in

Because of the more even interior design


On the box type hard shell RTT

As the walls raise up evenly at both ends

Hard shell quieter to sleep in overall less fabric to flap n the wind

Better insulating properties than soft shell tents

Making them cooler in warmer weather warmer in the colder days



Soft Shell RTT (CON)

 They typically don’t have a thick of a mattress

Typically 2 to 3 inch high density foam

Because most are bi fold and they have to fold back on themselves to be put away

 So thicker material and stuff in them can cause problems

Also sometimes a lot of soft shell RTTs have rainflies that flap in the wind

Which can be annoying

The ones that fold off to the side the platform is supported by the ladder

The tent base can move around which the flex can cause it to squeak

Making this is a con




How Many People Will it Accommodate (capacity)


 Soft Shell RTT (PRO)

Because of the fold out design.  They will have more room available,

To accommodate more people

Soft shell RTTs can generally be found to fit anywhere between 2 up to 6 people



Hard Shell RTT (CON)

 Generally most will only accommodate 2 people

Other than the ikamper skycamp can house more like up to 4



Also If you plan on having more than one other person come along with you get one that can sleep 3 to 4


But when it comes to RTT



 Hard Shell RTT (PRO)

 Hard shell roof top tents a more durable and robust build

With the durable aluminum or fiber glass outer shell.  Will last a very long time.

 To stand up to the elements and the test of time better

 Sturdy in all weather wind and various condition

Also in general set up and down easier in wind which is an advantage




Soft Shell RTT (CON)

They can be real noisy in windy weather

Also they can get water logged, if not maintained properly

And they can rip easier


And they do not last as long and are prone to wear out faster

As there is more fabric rubbing together when packed

Due to the mostly fabric construction


Keep in mind some of the entry level soft shell RTTs

You could run into a few quality control issues here and there as well

And you can have some problems

The long and short of it you have more moving parts which can give you overall less reliable




Final Thoughts

As there are pros and cons to both set ups.  And really no right or wrong option here.

You just have to find which one them that seems to best fit your needs

Depending on your budget, traveling, and camping style

While making sure it will fit the vehicle, or trailer you’re mounting it on

And that you vehicle and roof can handle the size and weight of the RTT.

Or accommodate the amount of people traveling with you


Hard Shell RTTs since they’re simpler, and can be pitched and put away easier.

This could give them a slight edge in windy weather

Plus saving time traveling on the go



Soft shell RTTs are typically more affordable in price (the entry level)

Lots of space inside the interior (on the bi fold type)

Typically Lighter in weight overall

You can generally fit it on more types of vehicles

Because you may not need as long of a roof for some.

With them being smaller size, when closed up (packed size)

And they can also have additional options like an annex.

Allowing you to have more enclosed space



 If, you plan on using it a lot, especially camping on the go.

You have the budget, and your vehicles roof can handle the size and weight

The hard shell is usually the go to choice most of the time

For it’s fast open and close time

And just remember an RTT is an expensive investment

So make sure its big enough for your needs, or maybe even future needs