CAMPING & HIKING

DIY Roof Top Tent: How to Make the Perfect Getaway Shelter

DIY Roof Top Tent
Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

Spending the night in a tent on top of your car in nature is absolutely amazing, but finding a good roof top tent is pretty hard. Roof top tents that you can find in stores are expensive and they kinda always have something you don’t like. That’ why building a DIY roof top tent is the best option.

A homemade roof top tent will give you the comfort you prefer. On top of this, it will be cheaper and you’ll build it based on your needs and the options your car gives. Or in other words, building your own tent is good both for your wallet and for your pleasure.

We had the chance to try many different roof top tents over the years and we believe that building your own tent might always be a good option. In this article, we have a made a list of thing you need to know before you start building and a step by step guide to what you need to do in order to make the tent. Follow up and see what’s needed to make a great roof top tent.

Know the Basics

Now, a roof top tent is something that can be bought in stores for something like $2500 to $5000, or you can spend a few months or your summer break and build one by yourself from scratch for not more than just a few hundred bucks. Maybe even less. All you need is a goodwill and some tools – so if you’ve got that, we ready to go.

Make a Plan

Before you begin looking for materials and building, you need to make a plan what you’re going to build. A simple sketch on paper with dimensions and positioning will be just fine. With it write down what material you’re going to need and how much of it.

Make a Plan

Have in mind the type of vehicle you drive and how much space there is on the roof. You’ll need to make a good math homework and calculate the space, the height, the weight, and the amount of material you’re going to need. A good plan is a half job done – after it, you can just write off the steps you planned and work your way to the end.

Choose the Wood

Building a homemade roof top tent begins with choosing and getting a good wood that will be used as a floor for your tent. There is no best option or wood that you must use, so make a choice based on your experience and desire. If you like some type more – use it, just make sure that’s it’s not too thick and hard to work over.

You’ll want the material you’re going to use to be flexible and easy to cut. Also, it is best to use wood material that is lightweight enough so it doesn’t weight too much over the car and to make it easier for you while mounting and dismounting it.

Plywood

Image credit: ibuildit.ca

A good choice for wood that you’re going to use as a floor is plywood. It is easy, soft, and it’s not too easy to break. You’ll have no problem in cutting it to dimensions that you’ll need, and it will be very easy to implement the little things as screws – but in the same time, you won’t need to worry if they fall off, break or doesn’t hold.

Find a Tent

Let’s be honest – no matter how much you want to say that you built everything from scratch, that is never absolutely true. The tent is the best example for this because it’s simply madness to begin sewing your own tent from nothing. That’s why it is best to visit the stores and find a tent that will suit your needs best.

You can by something new and shiny for a higher price or you can find some old and used tents on flea markets or the internet. The new ones are over $100 but you can find very cheap ones if they were previously used. Whatever choice you make, you need to be sure that the tent your purchasing will fit your needs.

Make a plan about how big your roof top tent will be and how big wooden floor you’ll have. Then look for a tent with dimensions that will best for this. You can find some options in specialized stores for tents, but know that it will cost you more. It all depends on what you like.

Choosing a Tent

If you want to feel a little bit like royalty, spend some more, if it’s more important to save some money and still feel good out there, then go for the cheaper option. If the tent you get is slightly damaged, you can fix it with just a little extra effort. If you don’t like wasting time on this, then a little duct tape can do magic for your roof top tent.

Buy the Metal Materials

Before getting into construction, you need to have everything prepared. A good roof top tent needs a good frame, and this means you’ll need to buy some metal holders, hangers, clips, racks, screws, conduits etc. Of course, this means making another trip to the store.

Be sure that you already have a plan before you go to the store! Never buy materials without knowing exactly what and how much of it you need. If you do that, you can be absolutely sure that you’ll have to go back to the store at least once more.

Hardware Store

Usually, a good frame is made of at least four metal conduits that you’ll attach to the plywood. With it, you’ll need at least four holders for the tent, and all the little things that are obligatory to all this. Don’t forget the metal racks you’ll need to fix the car’s carrier construction and make sure you’re all good with the car’s construction itself.

Make a Bed

You can use a bunch of materials for sleeping on the roof top tent. The most comfortable solution is a mattress – just like the one you use at home for your bedroom bed. This option, however, might not always be the best fit for your needs, if the roof top tent is not big enough. Also, the mattress might be too thick and make a problem while opening and closing the construction.

Since we’re talking about a roof top tent, a construction that you’ll most probably use for camping in the outdoors, you might think of a more simple solution. How about a foam pad? You can combine a few foam pads and turned them into one great home-made mattress.

Foam Pad Mattress

Knowing the dimensions you’ll need, go to the store and get a few foam pads. Then buy or make by yourself a covering for them. You can buy this from specialized stores that sell outdoor equipment or make an improvisation with materials you already have. Make it thick as much as you need and like it.

Don’t Forget The Stairs

If you search the internet you’ll find lots of different options and ideas for how to make your own roof top tent. All of them, however, need stairs as the tent is positioned on top of your car’s roof. The type of the tent will define what kind of stairs you need.

If you make a tent that is completely standing on top of the roof, then you don’t need any special stairs, a simple 5 feet stepper will do the job. But, if you’re planning your tent to expand out of the roof then you’ll need stairs that will also help with the stability and make the tent more secured.

Roof Top Tent Stairs

There are no preferred stairs – only stairs that will fit. The most important part when looking for the write one is knowing the exact dimensions you need. If your stairs act as both a way to climb up to the tent and as a security part of it, then you must find stairs that will have the exact height you need.

How to Build From Scratch

The first and most important thing you need to know at this phase is that there is no right and wrong. Yes, you’ll need to follow some basic logical ways of building, but many roof top tents differ one to the other. This means you should be free to use your imagination and experiment based on your needs and feelings.

If you like some idea, feel free to try it out. If it works – great if it doesn’t get back to the basics and try an option that is proven to work. Below, we’re going to use our way of doing it, but feel free to make some of the things you like them more, and tell us in the comment box how you’ve done it.

Start Cutting

The plywood – if you chose this – is very easy to work with. If you have a plan and you have the list with the dimensions, start cutting and working on the board. Cut the board in half as this will help you later in folding the whole tent and make it more compact for transport.

You’ll need to work on the edges and make them fit perfectly to the metal construction you’ll make later. When you have it ready, work a little on the surface. Process the surface and make a nice finishing so that the clothing materials don’t get cut and damaged by the unprocessed wood.

Build The Frame

The frame might be the most complex part of the whole construction, but once you get to work you’ll realize it’s not as bad as you thought it will be. The frame can be made of wood too but we prefer metal. It is stronger and more flexible if connected well.

Place two hinges on both sides of the middle of the board. When you do this your floor should be able to open and close – this will save you a lot of space in transport and will give you great comfort while using it. Now, you need something that will hold the fabric of the tent in its place.

At this point, you can make a more serious craft and create holders for the tent that are modern, expensive and will make a perfect job in nature. There are countless options, from vertical metal bars connected with mechanisms to hydraulic systems that open and close on a button. It’s up to you what you’re going to choose.

Building the Frame

Image credit: tierraeste.com

We prefer a more simple and cheaper solution. Place at least two and maximum 5 conduits that will go all the way from the one side to the other of the board and will keep the tent high enough so you have space to sleep in the tent. You can find the conduits or other similar metal bars at flea markets where old portable beds usually have these kinds of things.

Screw the ends so when you close both boards the bars will connect and get inside the closed construction. If you add more than three conduits, you’ll need to add some extra hinges. Your tent will be stronger and more secure, but you’ll have more trouble in constructing it. Of course, if you have a better solution, simply go with it.

Get Things Connected

When you have the sleeping board ready and the frame all tight up, you need to connect all the parts. You have to screw the conduits and the hinges to the board. You need to be careful to screw exactly the same on both sides of the board because if you make a mistake here, and one of the sides is just an inch different than the other, the two parts won’t close like they should and the whole construction will be useless.

Metal Parts on Tent

When you have these two parts connected, it’s time to try the tent. You can secure the tent more seriously with screws or you can go for a more flexible solution if you like to have your tent always ready to reassemble. Use staplers that are easy to be taken out or duct tape, but maybe the best option is to use a stronger fix on one side and make it flexible on the other – this way you’ll be able to collect it completely on one side and make it easy for transport.

Attach it to the Car

After this, you’re almost ready to go. Get the whole construction to the car and mount it to the racks on the side of your car. If you don’t have the racks ready, you’ll need to spend a little time with this. You can use a standard metal construction bought from car shops for placing extra baggage, or you can make this by yourself.

It’s nothing complicated – simply take the racks, place a few screws on the places you think it’s best on the car and do the same on the construction that you’re about to connect to the racks. Of course, this means that you already planned and attached the needed parts of the construction before. When you’ve done this, open and close the tent altogether to see if there’s something missing.

Try the Stairs on The Spot

If everything seems to be in order, you need to insert the stairs and make your way to the tent. It is best to make a clip on which the stairs will hold the second part of the board. This way you’ll have an easy way to the top of your mini caste and you’ll also have the full support of the whole tent.

Testing the Stairs

Image credit: wranglerforum.com

The most important part of the stairs connecting the tent is to know the exact height you need so that the tent is flat. You can also secure the legs of the stairs on the ground but it’s not necessary. It can be of use for the moments you move in the tent – sudden moves might move the stairs left or right and they might change the position.

Things We Didn’t Mention

While talking about the steps of building your roof top tent, we didn’t mention many things in order to keep the length to a fair minimum. Things like “how to screw with a screwdriver” are not mentioned at all as we assume you already know how to do this. Little things like connecting the stair to the construction are also left out.

We assume these things are pretty simple and if you started a project like building a homemade roof top tent, you know a thing or two about screw driving. Everything we didn’t talk about, but you feel it is needed, simply go ahead and do it.

Sleep under the Stars

Building a homemade roof top tent is never easy, but the pleasure when you finish it is outstanding. While doing it, you might become frustrated with some parts and be unable to connect the dots like they suppose to be connected. It is only normal, no one builds roof top tents by themselves every day and the first try is always the hardest.

Roof Top Tent

The most important thing you need to focus on before you start you building journey is experience and creativity. In this article, you learn how to do it, but lean on your experience when you need to do a job that seems complex. Use some imagination and creativity when you encounter a problem that seems unsolvable.

Use the parts and materials you have at home and build your own personalized tent. After all, you’re the one that’s going to use it and things we create for our own enjoyment doesn’t have to follow any strict rules. They need to be made the way we want so we can enjoy them the most.

Do you think we’ve missed out on anything? If that’s the case, do let us know – we’d love to hear back from you!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.