Review: Roof Rack Tents are the COOLEST New Way to Camp in Comfort & Safety
It was the groaning and snorting that woke Chad Kendrick and his fiancée in the middle of the night while camping. The unmistakable sound of a hungry bear rustling through their campsite. Inside a flimsy tent, they quickly realized they were trapped, and the bear seemingly had no intention of going anywhere. Even as the bruin leaned against the flimsy nylon and bowed the wispy fabric in toward them, they had to try to stay calm — and quiet.
“We were having a quiet freak out,” Kendrick says, “She was literally in a quiet panic. It was like, we’re in real trouble now, how do I get my fiancée out of this? I don’t have my gun, I don’t have my bear spray, it’s in the car.” He finally managed to frighten the bear away by hitting his car’s remote alarm. But the fear they felt, and his fiancée’s refusal to return to the great outdoors at night, became the inspiration to invent for Kendrick, a born and raised Calgarian, who now runs his fledgling business from Turner Valley.
So what to do? Give up tenting altogether?
There are two kinds of people in the camping world; the tenters, who consider themselves the purists, and the RVers, who want the comforts of home and the security four walls and a door provides. Until now the only in-between on that score was a tent trailer; requiring a (not inexpensive) trailer hitch, and a half-tank of extra gas to get you there.
Enter Treeline Outdoors. After that frightening midnight encounter with a bear, owner Kendrick realized he needed something more durable than nylon film, but he wasn’t ready to upgrade to a diesel pusher or tent trailer, or to give up the flexibility and ease that comes with tenting.
After some collaboration and some sketching, and a lot of research, Kendrick realized a roof top tent was the way he wanted to go. Packing the tent onto the roof meant he could add some modifications that would weigh down a traditional tent, like warmer canvas, and a better mattress, without having to worry so much about weight, and size, or the ability to fit it on your back.
“We really like to travel as light as possible and get to places you would never be able to get to if you were pulling a trailer behind you,” explains Kendrick.
I knew I had to try one of these tents for myself. The idea was intriguing. I’ve never felt the need or the desire to upgrade to a camper or RV (it just seems like so much work and trouble when I can simply grab my tent and go) and I’ve never felt unsafe enough to warrant a more secure sleeping situation. So I wanted to see what this kind of camping experience would be like.
The tenants look otherworldly; they jut out over nothing but air once unfolded. In fact, while I was getting Kendrick to run though the tent with me in my driveway, I had neighbours I’d never met before making a beeline for the tent, eyes wide, and wondering in disbelief, “What is that? And how did you get it up there?”
Part of what makes it look so strange is that there are no legs to support these tents, they flip open and hold flat thanks to that thick aluminum base and a sturdy hinge that locks into itself. These tents are designed to be pop open and climb in. Or pop closed and hit the road.
Set up was really easy. Chad walked me through each of the simple steps, from unzipping the cover and pulling it aside, to an easy unfold-and-lever to open the springy tent. The base unfolds easily, and from there, the tent structure pops up all on its own. Hardly any assembly required!
With instructions and a practise set-up fresh in mind, my husband and I and some friends headed off to our selected campsite in a bear-prone area. It probably took about 10 or so minutes to get the tent set up without Kendrick’s guidance. That’s mostly because we were taking our time, as we didn’t want to wreck the tent we had been loaned. In truth, it was very easy. Lots of Velcro and easy to use straps plus hooks, loops, and other buckles just where you would expect them to be. It felt kind of like the iPhone of tents. When we were stuck on what to do next, we just thought of what would be most logical, and low and behold there was the needed strap, loop, or lever. With the tenant in place, it wasn’t long before nearby children needed to get a look inside, followed closely by curious parents.
It’s impossible to describe what seeing one of these tents fully set up in person for the first time feels like. I felt like a giddy little girl as I climbed the ladder and popped my head inside my temporary home. I started to giggle as I climbed up inside. It really felt like I was back at age 7 climbing into a tree house for the first time. The first thing I noticed, was the comfort. The mattress base of the tent is very thick and spongy. Peering out the windows and looking out over top of everything was really cool; it really felt like a pricey penthouse view of the wilderness. I was excited to be able to get to sleep later on.
I will say, the first few times up or down after having a campfire adult beverage was a little odd. You need to watch your step both in and out and make sure you’ve got your footing; it’s a motion most campers would not be used to when tenting! But once up in the roof tent, it was very secure. There was none of the expected to bounce or give on the platform. It was truly rock solid. The mattress was reasonably comfortable for a night of camping. It’s certainly not luxurious, but I would equate it to the use of an inflatable mattress. It gets the job done and keeps you from having a sore back in the morning.
One of the impressive things about these tents is the attention to detail. Kendrick has solved some of the most pressing camping concerns about storage, and erm, elimination. If you are concerned about having to get up in the middle of the night and make a run to the local outhouse, or large tree, Kendrick has thought of that. He equipped his tents with a plastic bathroom jug, made for both men or women. If it’s too cold, or too scary, and you just can’t bear to climb down the ladder in the middle of the night, open up the jar and you can stay where you are.
Another touch I found very smart; shoe bags at the top of the ladder, so when you’re climbing in, you can remove your shoes, drop them in the velcro bag, and have easy, dry access to them in the morning! There’s also hooks inside to clip a light to, and pockets for wallets, eyeglasses and yes, cell phones.
The tent itself is made from a heavyweight waterproof canvas. It’s definitely kept us warm through the night. The only downside I noticed, was a good amount of condensation inside the tent on our second night. Now, granted, it was an extremely cold night and pretty much any tent is prone to a lot of condensation when it’s warm inside and cold outside. Once the sun came up, most of it evaporated in short order.
Treeline also points out the tents, while not bear-proof, give you an advantage over any predatory wildlife arriving in the middle of the night. “There is a distinct difference between sleeping on the ground in a fetal position, with nothing standing between you and potential threatening wildlife but a thin layer of material,” Kendrick explains. “We all know what bears are capable of.. a tent trailer is nothing to a bear. But that sense of being on top of your vehicle, having that hard shell beneath you, having that height advantage over an animal like that.. when you’re in the middle of nowhere, that’s just a sense of security.”
Taking the tent down was a bit quicker than putting it up. I reattached certain elastic cables that keep the tent structure taught inside, took out the awning poles that hold the window awnings open, and then basically just used the ladder as a lever and folded it up, then pulled the cover over top and strapped it down. We were ready to roll in about 10 minutes or so; just as much time as it would have taken us to pack up our regular nylon tent.
While I’ve never been bear-scared, I have to say sleeping high above the world and any wayward wandering wildlife does makes it easier to fall asleep. And of course there’s a lot to be said for driving around with your very own tree house.
The Lodgepole is the company’s entry-level model with basic aluminum sheet base. The Tamarack is the next level up, with improved base material, made of aluminum honeycomb. The Constellation model is the top of the line, with the more rugged flooring and dual skylights to let in light and condensation out.
The roof-rack pop-up tents available from Treeline Outdoors’ website. Prices start at $1,699 and go to $2,399.