a picture of a car with a rooftop tent and some big question marks
Where did they come from? And why are they there? (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyJanuary 27, 2024

What’s with tents on car roofs?

a picture of a car with a rooftop tent and some big question marks
Where did they come from? And why are they there? (Image: Tina Tiller)

The new accessory for suburban four wheel drives is sun-baked, bulky, and barely used.

There was a time when convertible cars were coveted by everyone and in particular a certain someone squirming in a school chair seven hours a day. Perhaps they’d lean back, close their eyes and imagine driving down a coastal highway with the canvas top folded down. Who is homework? Never heard of her. A convertible was the ultimate symbol of freedom, until 2001, when Bridget Jones showed me that actually that much wind in your hair is not a good look. Convertibles are stupid.

Now, since convertibles are nowhere to be seen, the canvas is sitting on top of hard metal car roofs. The canvas packages started appearing in central Auckland suburbia on the tail end of Covid lockdowns, always perfectly clean, neatly zipped up and baking in the sun. It took me several months to know what these packages contained. Then, at a tiny campsite on the South Island’s east coast, a tent magically unfolded from one of them. It took about 15 seconds, only one person, and no shouting, for the tent to emerge. It teetered above all the campers, with a ladder connecting it to the ground. 

I hated it.

On that summer evening at the campsite, my partner and I side-eyed the roof-top tent. We were road tripping in the only acceptable vehicle for it, an old beat up Toyota van, with a double mattress stuffed in the back. Why, we wondered, would anyone want to strap a tent to their roof racks, taking the valuable space assigned to surfboards and kayaks? And why would they want to sleep up there – where, should they need to pee in the middle of the night, they were ten dark ladder steps away from the bushes or the longdrop? Forget about setting up camp and then going away for a little adventure, you’d have to pack it all up again. Also, it looked windy up there. What a painfully inadequate idea for a tent.

a van in front of a beach textured photo
Camping is for vans, not roofs!

Marketing for roof top tents suggests they are practical. Get one and worrying about pegs, blow-up mattresses and fights over which pole goes where are things of the past. They claim to have comfortable built in mattresses and amazing features like mesh windows and pockets for all your gear. This is probably all true because the tents are expensive. In New Zealand, many of them are Feldon Shelters, the smallest and most basic of which will set you back over $2,000. Meanwhile, a basic Kathmandu two person tent is $249.98 (it’s not as flash, but you can definitely camp in it). Hawkers of rooftop tents instead point out that they’re cheaper than campervans and hotels.

Given that so many of the tents appear to be neatly packed up and in immaculate condition, one can’t help but wonder what the price per sleep is. On Facebook marketplace, hundreds are for sale. All look to be in suspiciously good condition, with sellers claiming they’ve only been used “once”, “a handful” or “a few” times. One excellent amateur sales person noted its “easier to just get a room”. They’re selling them at about half the price – so hundreds per sleep – pretty close to fancy hotel prices, where you can also get a free bathrobe and toiletries in tiny containers.

an image of a car with a ugly beige tent atttaced
A very modern campsite with a dreaded car tent (photo: Don Rowe)

One unfortunate feature is that the roof top tents are warmer than regular tents. It’s listed as a positive, but anyone who knows about a summer morning in a tent knows that is actually a TERRIBLE thing. There are other cons which are more soundly put forward, like the fact they’re bad for fuel economy, and the weight they add at the top of the car isn’t great for handling. Still, what they promise is freedom, through the ease of driving anywhere, and easily popping open your tent.

I admit that the promise of popping up a comfortable tent in 15 seconds with little to no effort is appealing. So is the fact it would be impossible to accidentally position your thin camping mattress on top of a protruding tree root or rock. But as much as these things are painful and turn us into grumpy sleep deprived gremlins, they are also the joy of camping, to strip life, and you, back to the bare essence. If you want camping to be easy and comfortable, maybe you don’t want to go camping at all. 

The appeal of any well-marketed product in our era is not the product itself but what it symbolises and adds to our personal brand. Consciously or subconsciously the tents aren’t bought to be used, but rather to prop-up people’s identities and daydreams. I’ve decided this in part because of the types of vehicles they’re most often seen on – they say the tents can be put on most cars, but you only ever see them on suburban four wheel drives. We all know that SUVs aren’t ideal because they pollute the environment more than smaller cars and make roads more dangerous for other users like cyclists. Little hatchbacks or station wagons would probably fill the practical needs of these drivers, but that is not what they’ve chosen to buy.

Just like they could drive around in a little city zipper, they could also go camping with hardly any gear and stay in a DoC hut for $15 a night. Then there are also the large, immaculate spades which are sometimes strapped to the side of the SUV. It’s as if the driver thinks their life might one day be so thrilling that they’re going to need to dig a big hole. Dream on.

There is one reason that I would debase myself by sleeping in a rooftop tent. If there were snakes around. Luckily we don’t have land snakes in Aotearoa.

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