High Roof VS Pop Top Sportsmobile VS Roof Top Tent (RTT)

RTT Roof Top Tent or Pop Top Penthouse for Overland? High Roof vs Low Roof pop top Van ?

In the world of Overlanding, speed often equals cost. Most people start with boxes and a simple ground tent, but the more they explore and move around, the more they start to consider other more expensive alternatives such as a hard shell roof top tent (RTT). However, if you stay at the same location for multiple days, or you favor urban areas, your needs will differ from someone who travels constantly and is always seeking the remote outback. If you aren't traveling in narrow trails often, and aren't on a tight budget, then you may benefit from a pop top on a camper conversion instead of a RTT for more comfort in colder climates and an increase in privacy. If you need to be "stealth", then maybe a high roof van is a better option.

What are the different kinds of RTT (Roof Top Tent)? Hard Shell vs Soft shell?

Roof Top Tent Soft top RTT VS Rigid RTT

If you have been around the growth of the overlanding community, then you probably noticed the growth of RTT within the last 5+ years. RTTs come in two different variants which are hard and soft shell. The popularity of Roof Top Tents over ground tents has grown due to their ability to unfold faster than most ground tents but also their ability to provide better shelter from animals and extreme weather due to their elevated design. It should be mentioned that RTT are heavy and placed at a high center of gravity with makes them less ideal for rock crawling or smaller vehicles that may not have 500lbs static roof capacity to support tent plus two people. If weight on roof is a deal breaker, my favorite ground tent for overlanding in a vehicle is the ShiftPod or Gazelle

Shiftpod Ground Tent Overland  (Ground Tent: ShiftPod III ) 

Soft Shell were some of the first RRTs with the likes of ARB, Tepui (Thule), CVT, EEZI-AWN, 23Zero. Their main advantages are affordability and relatively spacious interior along with a habitat extension on some models which can be combined with an awning. Once fully open with all the sidewalls, it will provide a lot of private interior space at your campsite but it will only be advantageous if you stay at the same location for multiple days due to the time it takes to pack everything up. Another consideration is that soft shells roof tents take a little longer to pack back up in comparison to other hard shell alternatives due to the folding design and the cover that is difficult to zip all around. This design makes it les desirable as a permanently mounted solution due to the cover getting worn down by the elements. Another downside, would be the inability to keep pillows and large comforters inside tent once folded, two light sleeping bags may be all you can fit. That’s where the hard shell RTT shines with either a fully open rectangular design or a single side triangular design. 

Tacoma CVT Mt. Bachelor extended with awning enclosure.jpg 

(Soft shell: CVT Mt. Bachelor extended with awning & enclosure)

Hard shells can be made of fiberglass such as the original James Baroud which includes a fan for humidity control, or aluminum such as the Alu-Cab version. Most hard shell RTTs have enough room to pack all your bedding needs, and are much quicker close than the soft shell since they do not require to be folded or a cover to be added. Another advantage of hard shell RTT is their durability since they can be kept on the vehicle permanently without the risk of tearing due to sun fade, ice, rocks, branches and other environmental conditions. They also often offer the ability to add storage on top. Many other companies nowadays, including those mentioned in soft shell, offer hard shell RRTs such as Roofnest, or the hybrid IKamper. The main downside of most hard shell RTTs is that you won’t be able to add an extension habitat like the ones found on some soft shell models to create a full multi-room camp around your vehicle. To achieve this with a hard shell, you will need to buy an awning with compatible sidewalls to expand the sheltered spaces around the vehicle. 

 James Baroud Evasion hard shell RRT 

(Hard shell: James Baroud Evasion)

James Baroud Evasion with bagless Awning and enclosure 

(James Baroud Evasion with bag-less awning and enclosure)

Should I get an awning and which one? 

Awnings are not necessary, unless you enjoy camping or overlanding no matter the weather forecast. However, they can provide much comfort when shade is needed and become necessary for outside cooking during an unexpected rainfall. If you have a large family, an awning with enclosure can provide more shelter and increase living space, particularly on smaller rigs. Awnings for vans and other large campers are different than those for smaller overland vehicles. Vans and larger campers will want a canister type system with rollers, due to height, that is electric or pole activated to easily open and close without having to climb a ladder. A popular large camper awning will be the  Fiamma S or Eagle. The Fiamma Eagle is electric, doesn't require poles but it can't be partially extended if space is of concern and is mounted differently than the S series and other awnings. For smaller overland vehicles there are plenty of options, but first, you will need to decide between the 270 degrees models which cover one side and rear (Alu-Cab Shadow) or 180 degrees for single side only based on length such as the Eezi-Awn 2000.

When purchasing an awning, ideally it should have 1. an aluminum casing instead of vinyl cover, 2. be self-standing when poles aren't needed, and 3. self-rolling so that the canvas doesn't need to be rolled by hand. Two 180 degree awnings will extend further, offer more flexibility, and often have aluminum casing; however, it won't cover the rear corner and most often won't be self-standing like a 270. An awning with all these 3 characteristics will be used much more often and last longer. Once you have decide which type, you may also want to consider whether an enclosure is necessary since not all brands offer them. Another consideration is the type of cover for the awning once folded, rigid would be more durable. Finally are you in the market for a self-standing awning or one with poles? Self-standing awnings are much faster and easier to setup and will work in good weather conditions without the use of tie-downs or poles. 

Alu-Cab Shadow Awning 270 degrees self-standing

(Alu-Cab Shadow Awning 270 degrees self-standing)

Fiamma F65S Sprinter Awning RB Components 

(Fiamma F65S Sprinter Awning by RB Components)

Why is a Pop Top a better option than a RTT (Roof Top Tent)? 

Roof Top Tent RTT VS Pop Top

Before going into details, pop tops are not available for every vehicle. They can be installed on some trucks such as the Defender 110 with the AluCab Icarus conversion or a wrangler with Ursa Minor. A more popular option would on the bed of pick up trucks, or on a van conversion. Pick up trucks have the ability to fully replace the factory bed with a flat bed and then add a camper such as the Hawk, or add a slide-in camper such as the Scout, or do a shell with an integrated pop top such as the GFC, Alu-Cab, or Four Wheel Camper Project M. A newer company offering good camper conversions is OEV (Overland Explorer Vehicles). In regards to vans, one of the oldest companies providing pop top extensions on vans is Sportsmobile going back to the 1961 with their VW hippy buses. Later on, Sportsmobile separated into two companies and on the west coast the other branch is called Field Van.

Norweld Flat Bed with Four Wheel Camper Hawk  Camper  

(Norweld Flat Bed with Four Wheel Camper Hawk)

Sportsmobile 60s Volkswagen Poptop Penthouse

(Sportsmobile 60s Volkswagen Poptop Penthouse)

One of the main advantages of pop tops over RRTs is that it enables the user to go from the cabin of the vehicle to the sleeping area without going outside. This is particularly useful during inclement weather or crowded campsites with no privacy. With bed is the up position, the pop top allows the user to stand up fully  with windows providing natural light and cooling when open. Pop tops also surpass RRTs with their ability to be heated from the vehicle’s cabin and offer a thicker canvas similar to a convertible car. Furthermore, they provide the comfort of being able to go to the restroom at night, below the bedding area, without the need for shoes or fear of wildlife encounters. However, the main downside of a pop top is cost; which starts around $10k, and depending on vehicle, can cost five times more. 

Sportsmobile Pop Top penthouse 2020 Sprinter 4x4 low roof 

(Sportsmobile Pop Top Penthouse on a 2020 Sprinter 4x4 Low Roof) Look at video here for an inside look! 

Regarding van conversions, the choices are different depending on whether you have a low roof or high roof; low roof vans have the ability to do a full roof replacement and high roof versions can do an access hole to the attached pop top. For a long time, pop top aka penthouse were only available on low roof vans due to the structural rigidity with Sportsmobile leading the charge. Followed by companies like CCV (Colorado Camper Vans) who started offering other options in height for various platforms, and the ability to DIY install the pop top. CCV roof shell differs from SMB (Sportsmobile) in height and they offer for both low roof and high roof configuration; but they are not a Mercedes approved conversion company like SMB, so warranty may be voided once pop top is installed. However, in recent years, high roof vans also felt like they could benefit from the additional sleeping area to either add an extra bed or maintain the lower cabin floor as a multipurpose open design. Multiple companies are leading the charge with high roof options such as CCV, SCA-Roofs (SCA252), GRTV, CarAvan, and more options in the EU such as Poptoproofs, etc. 

sca_252 SCA-Roofs pop top sprinter conversion high roofsca_252 SCA-Roofs pop top sprinter conversion high roof access hole
(SCA-Roofs 252 High Roof Pop Top Sprinter with Access Hole)

Low Roof with Pop Top VS High Roof VS High roof with Pop Top? 

High Roof Van VS Pop Top Penthouse Sportsmobile

It really depends, It's important to remember that adding a pop top will increase overall cost. A pop top will also decrease your roof weight abilities, so if you are in need of roof storage, this may be a deciding factor. Sportsmobile claims 250lbs, not including bed weight. However, if you intend to maintain a proper center of gravity, you will want to avoid adding roof weight no matter the setup.  I would recommend a pop top except if: 1. You need to be “stealth” because you want to sleep in neighborhoods; if so the pop top stands out, and you will need to plan to sleep on the lower level with pop top down. 2. If you are living full-time in your van, you probably won’t want to bring the pop top up and down or make your bed everyday prior to departure. 

High roof VS Low roof pop top Sprinter

As such, a main level bed that is easily accessible might be a better option for those on the road 365 days a year, but in such case, I would consider an extended van such as the 170 or 170ext Sprinter because you may also benefit from a full shower and kitchen; in turn, sacrificing off-road ability. With a low roof van and the pop top down, unless you are 5’8 or shorter, it is unpleasant to walk around for an extended period of time. However, if you choose a high roof without a pop top, I recommend buying a EuroLoft lift bed platform such as the one from Lci. Having the ability to raise the bed enables the user to walk around and install a dining living area in the rear similarly to a pop top configuration. It will also enable you to have two tight bed setup on a high roof if that's what you need.  You can also install a versatile foldable bed on a high roof such as the Moab Elevator Bed by Adventure Wagon; however, when traveling, my experience is that people keep the bed down at all times forcing the user to access storage from the backdoors.

 Lci1 Lippert EuroLoft Bed Lift WildernessVans

(Lci1 Lippert EuroLoft Bed Lift WildernessVans)

 Moab Elevator Bed Adventure Wagon

(Moab Elevator Bed Adventure Wagon)

Other than lower living space, a big advantage of a pop top is natural light, and a lot of ventilation from open windows in warm climates. Regarding colder climate, a pop top isn’t as insulated but a quality diesel heater can comfortably keep up in below freezing temperatures since heat rises to the sleeping area. Overall, I would say a pop top has a lot of advantages. For me, being part time on the road, having a lower center of gravity off road and the ability to park my van in my garage was a deal breaker (a few inches matter). Furthermore, since stealth isn’t a concern when camping in nature or established campground, the ability to keep all my sleeping area out of the main floor was extremely attractive. 

 Sportsmobile Pop Top Low Roof Sprinter 4x4 Winter

(Sportsmobile Pop Top Low Roof Sprinter in Winter)

Another option, is to combine both ideas and do a high roof with a pop top. This is a great option for families who need two sleeping area, or those who wish to be able to walk comfortably around on the main floor without the need to raise the top. However, unless you have two sleeping areas, you will still need to use pop top for sleeping which still prevents “stealth” camping. Furthermore, high roof pop top designs have a smaller access hole which limits main floor heat from rising into sleeping area. Lastly, a high roof with pop top isn’t a good idea if you like to travel off road on jeep trails due to the weight distributed at a high center of gravity which increases tip-over. It would also decrease clearance from trees or rock formations which lowers the vehicle’s maneuverability on trails.

Low Roof Sprinter with pop top in 10' garage

(Low Roof Sprinter 4x4 on 275 tires and AO RIP kit suspension with Sportsmobile pop top fits in 10' garage door)

More Q/A regarding pop top configuration: 

Why did you choose Sportsmobile over CCV (Colorado Camper Van)?

CCV is good for DIY, or people who need a more custom design in regards to height. However, I'm not sure they are an approved Mercedes conversion company; as such it may void the factory warranty. Sportsmobile (SMB) passed EU crash tests, and are an approved Mercedes conversion company, and have been installing pop top since 1961. It was also important for me to keep the roof as low as possible and the CCV option was taller than the SMB model.

Is the pop top good in winter?

Yes, even though not as good as a well insulated high roof, the canvas is the same material as convertible cars. It is much thicker than conventional tents and RTTs such as CVT, Tepui, James Baroud, etc. Also, if you have a diesel heater,  the heat will rise and fill up the pop top space. I used the Espar S2-D2L and I'm warm and cozy even in temps below 20F

 Is the pop top too hot in the summer?

No, thanks to all the windows which open with bug screens. All you need is a slight breeze to cool you down. However, we did have a summer night in St. George UT with NO breeze and 100 degrees at 3am and we installed a 12v fan for those situations. 

How high is the ceiling in the pop top?

Between 7-8ft when the pop top and bed are up. About 5-6ft when down depending on if you are talking about the front or middle/rear portion.

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