Rooftop Tent for Jeep – On a Budget

The best budget rooftop tent is the Smittybilt Overlander. The best budget rooftop factory rails come from the junkyard. You have flexibility with crossbars but one cheaper option is the Malone AirFlow2 crossbar.

The overwhelming response for best budget rooftop tent seems to be the Smittybilt Overlander. It’s a 4-season rooftop tent that sleeps up to 3 people. It weighs only 117lbs. The price at Amazon.Com has gone up recently from $900 to $1,025, and now only 3rd parties are selling it. It looks like Smittybilt is discontinuing this tent in favor of the brand new Gen2 model which I discuss below.

The Smittybilt Overlander is a much better value as compared to more expensive Tepui tents. The differences are actually pretty minor except for the ladder. The ladder is kind of crappy compared to other tents, but it still does its job. The ladder is also load bearing to take some of the weight of tent away from the vehicle. Initial installation is slightly more of a pain, and so is putting it on the vehicle. The Yakima SkyRise 3 is super easy to pop on and off the vehicle, for example. Some people have noted that the straps aren’t as good as compared to the Tepui tents but not really a big deal.

How has my [Smittybilt Overlander] ROOF TOP TENT held up after 1 Year?

Well, it held up pretty well. Overall, he likes it.

One way to mitigate the pain of popping on and off the tent is with the super-simple ramp you can build. One person can easily put on and take off a rooftop tent.

Now Smittybilt has come out with another model: Smittybilt GEN2 Overlander Tent – 2583. Check out the video:

This tent is available at 4WheelParts.Com for $1,150. This next generation tent has solved the crappy ladder problem. The fabric is the same but the color is different. Overall, this tent looks to be very similar to the prior model, although there may be some minor issues addressed like the poor straps.

Another budget rooftop tent that you should consider is the Raptor Series Voyager. It’s actually cheaper than the Smittybilt at $850 but it has an issue. It’s base doesn’t fold in half like most other rooftop tents. The base is about 7ft long which your Jeep will have to accommodate. Some overhang is OK. It’s a little heavy at about 150lbs which could potentially be a problem during off-road driving. You will need to take it easy until you understand the handling issues associated with the extra weight.

In the question and answer section at Amazon.com people are saying that Jeeps can accommodate the Raptor Series Voyager. Get an appropriate rack and measure for any overhang to make sure you’re comfortable.

Here’s a Raptor Series Voyager mounted on a Jeep:

Those are really the two (now three) best budget rooftop tents that a lot of people seem to like. Better rooftop tents are going to be priced north of these. I have covered these tents and a couple more here. I covered the Yakima SkyRise rooftop tent here. It might be good to look at a few good higher priced tents just to see the differences.

One of the problems with a Jeep is the stress on the rack if you go off-road in a big way. It’s not clear to me that going really cheap on the rack is the way to go. But this guy in the next video did just that and didn’t have any problems. Check it out.

Here’s a Jeep Wrangler with a Smittybilt rooftop tent and Thule rack.

His Thule rack:

However, he was nervous about that rack. Probably because people were warning him. So he later switched to a new rack. He switched to a rack from ACE Engineering. But his friends had to drill into the Jeep:

All is well in this next video of a 2012 Jeep JK, but in the comments we learn that he later had a rack problem: it sheared in half.

Our Budget Jeep JK (2012) Rooftop Tent & Water Bumper Setup – YouTube

Note:

“Unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend my roof rack as it completely sheered in two while on the trails about a month after filming this. It was drill free, but it’s proven to not be as reliable as I once thought.”

In his description he says it’s a Garvin Adventure Roof Rack w/ Ladder.

Just because one person had a problem with a rack doesn’t mean you will have problem. Maybe the rack was just defective which happens to the best rack companies. Or maybe the guy’s off-road driving was really stressing out the rack. I would be thinking about how I drive before I buy a rack. Maybe you need a beefier rack if you like to go off-road big time.

Below is the “Teraflex Nebo Roof Rack Main Rail Kit; Silver.” The price is $530. You could mount your rooftop tent directly to these rails. The dynamic load limit is 200lbs and static load limit is 850lbs. It’s for Jeeps 2011 to 2018.

If you wanted some inexpensive crossbars, then the Malone AirFlow2 crossbars might work. Below they’re being used with the Yakima SkyRise 3. This tent weighs about as much at the Smittybilt Overlander. The AirFlow2 crossbars cost from $153 to $170 depending on the length.

There is a problem with the Malone AirFlow2 crossbars. The manufacturer won’t tell us the static load limit. It only says the dynamic load limit is 165lbs. But people are using it for rooftop tents as one person says over at Amazon.com Q&A:

Will these support a 150# roof top tent with a person inside? (if you “don’t know”, no need to respond)
Answer:
I called Malone about this. I also wish to put a 145 lb hard shell tent on the roof of a Honda Ridgeline. They will only say that the racks are rated for that one number whatever it is. They will say that they have heard of people using their racks for this application but will only give that one number. This number has to be a dynamic load number, the static number has to be several times that but Malone will not acknowledge that. In this litigious world liability is the concern.
I found out about Malone from a recommendation I got from a roof top outfitter. see less
By repeterpan on March 30, 2019
I’m using it with a roof tent and my and my boyfriend both sleep in it. Works great. Probably a combined weight of ~470lbs ish
By Harley on April 3, 2020
The Malone website says the Airflow2 roof rack system can support 165lbs.
By Dale D. on March 27, 2019

I’ve done quite a bit of snooping around the internet concerning racks for rooftop tents. I’ve never seen a rack rated for 165lbs that didn’t have a static load limit of at least 600lbs.  Although, some don’t say. Many car manufacturers don’t say either.

Roofnest.Com is recommending it for their tents. Obviously you have to note the 165lbs weight limitation while driving.

The Malone Aerobar system is designed for vehicles with raised side rails and creates the perfect mounting system for the Roofnest roof top tent! This system can be attached to anything with two rails on either side of your car’s roof such as baskets, after-market racks, etc. We sell this crossbar in 50″ and 58″ widths for different cars and our various Roofnest models – check with us if you’re not sure which to order!

Rooftop rack fit guides:

Yakima Configurator
Fit my car | Thule
Fit My Car (AirFlow2) | Malone
Fit My Vehicle | Rhino-Rack

These rack guides let you input your make, model and year, and show you which racks fit. Maybe the cheapest rack is not necessarily the way to go when driving pretty hardcore off-road.

According the CarAndDriver.Com, the maximum payload capacity (pounds) of a 2019 Jeep wrangler (4-door) is at least 1,100lbs. It varies a little depending on trim. That includes people and cargo.

Assume:

  • 2-People: 400lbs
  • Tent: 150lbs

I would allocate 600lbs for tent and people – the static load limit. That means no more than 400lbs for everything else, and 100lbs as a buffer in case you screw up. You’re going to need a rack that can handle at least 600lbs. I use a 4x multiplier to go from dynamic load limit to static load limit. If the static load limit is 600lbs then the estimated dynamic load limit would be 150lbs.

There is a problem with estimating the dynamic load limit from the static load limit. It does not reflect the change in handling characteristics of the vehicle. I’m going to use the minimum ground clearance in inches to reexamine my dynamic load limit estimate. The minimum ground clearance for a 2019 Jeep Wrangler is 10in. That’s kind of high compared to some other vehicles:

  • The 2019 RAV4 dynamic load limit is 176.4 lbs and it’s ground clearance is 8.4in.
  • The 2019 Land Cruiser it is 154lbs, ground clearance is 9in.
  • The 4Runner (9.6in.) and weight limit is 120lbs.

A higher ground clearance implies more off-road usage. And more off-road usage suggests a lower dynamic load limit. Admittedly the sample size is tiny. Should the dynamic load limit be even lower than 150lbs? Maybe I’d like to stay closer to 120lbs.

In one video, the guy puts at least 150lbs onto his Rhino-Rack. For two years he beat the hell out of it without a problem. But it’s the $1,500 (on sale) Rhino-Rack Backbone system. And he drilled through the roof of the Jeep in order to install an interior structure. The only way that rack is coming off is if you ripe out the entire roof. He likes the crossbars instead of the Pioneer platform:

Interestingly, he had an unexpected problem with the Pioneer platform. It sat so low to the roof that getting underneath the platform to tighten the bolts for the rooftop tent proved to be extremely difficult.

Other racks can mount to the rain gutters without drilling through the roof. That method is not going to work well for rooftop tents.

Factory Roof Rails from Junkyard

If you really want a budget rack then you’ll have to go the junkyard (JY) route like these guys over at the JeepForum.Com and here too. This guy got some 4Runner factory rails at the junkyard and some Thule crossbars from Craigslist. The total cost was less than $200. The installation of the 4Runner factory rails is slightly more complicated on another vehicle. The rail is expecting a slot that’s not there.  You could possibly grind some of the rail that attaches to the roof, make a larger cut into the roof, put a piece of metal down, or get creative like 3D printing. Getting factory rails at the junkyard is more important than the crossbars. You can actually attach a rooftop tent to factory rails. People usually don’t do it because it might scratch up the rails. But once you have factory rails then options open up for crossbars: new ones, good used ones or the junkyard. Even if a vehicle comes with a complete rooftop rack, rooftop tent requirements might force you to only keep the factory rails and look for other crossbars.

This is from WranglerForum.Com:

Well I am gearing up for a week camping trip to Big Bend Nat’l Park with my son and needed a way to carry more gear. Naturally I googled the topic and came across a slough of jy rack mods mainly including the use of Ford Explorer and XJ factory parts. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the high and narrow look and height of the posted Explorer mods, and cringe at the thought of bolting any thing Ford to my rig, so I ventured out to find a better fit. I spent a few hours at the junk yard with tape measure and came across the very sturdy and aero-dynamic roof rack of a 2001 Chevy Suburban. I haven’t seen this done online and IMO I feel this is a lot stronger application as well as a way better fit to the contour of the YJ factory hard top, plus really looks like a factory option!

There are  lots of pictures including the finished product which looks real good in my opinion. He gives us some tips too. Cost was $40. Definitely an incentive to get creative with junkyard roof racks.

Don’t just throw on a rack and tent, and head out camping. Test everything before you go. You can test the factory rails by putting them on blocks of wood. Install the crossbars and RTT. Now sit on it while filming with your phone. Note deflection. Load another person onto the RTT while filming. Again, note deflection. Notice a problem? If no problem then add the total anticipated weight onto the RTT and note deflection.

Take it easy when driving off-road at first. Check for lose bolts regularly attaching the crossbars and RTT. You may also need to use Locktite.

Does this all sound like a pain? I guess you get to buy a new rack.

I’ve been checking around for information about broken or bent factory roof rails? How much of a danger is that? Will the junkyard roof rails bend or break? The problem seems to be mostly related to the bolts attaching it to the roof or the cover for the attachment to the roof. They break from time to time. Any set of crossbars may suffer a structural failure – bend so much that the roof is dented. That includes aftermarket name brand crossbars as well. Attachment failure may occur in an accident where the whole RTT gets launched into the thing you hit, but that seems to be more of a crossbar problem. Crossbars seem to be more of problem than factory rails.

This Ford Explorer factory roof rail was broken by a car wash – see forum here. Looking at the pictures shows that the attachment to the roof was broken. Apparently, this problem was relatively common in this Ford Explorer. The car wash brush probably applied a force in a direction that the rack wasn’t expecting. Makes me wonder what would happen to a mounted RTT in the event of an accident?

Take a look at this video of an unloaded roof rack. Notice the roof flex when he pulls down on an unload rack. This seems to be a roof problem rather than a factory rail problem. The factory rail itself wasn’t bending. The Rhino-Rack crossbars looked good. The roof itself was the problem.

WK2 Jeep Grand Cherokee Roof Flex – YouTube

That’s strange given that roof is suppose to be designed to withstand a rollover accident. The roof should hold the weight of the vehicle plus occupants plus cargo.

Another even bigger problem is people overloading their roof. Regardless of the rack you put on your vehicle, you must always pay attention to the original dynamic weight limit. Your new rack means you can load more while the vehicle is parked. Loading more for driving, because your new rack says you can, might be a problem due to center of gravity.

Disclaimer: You must assess whether any set of roof rails or crossbars are appropriate for your situation. It is your responsibility to make sure your complete rack can handle the expected load in a safe manner. Test first before heading out to camp. If you are unsure then don’t it.