Field tested: Is car-top camping the next big thing?

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We put the Tepui Kukenam—and the idea of car-top camping—to the test in Maine’s rugged backwoods.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Depending on your vehicle and preference, you can set the Tepui up to open off either side (shown) or towards the back. // Photo: Ryan Wichelns

IT WAS DARK WHEN WE PULLED INTO OUR CAMPSITE at the end of a dusty, bumpy road. I had been driving for more than 11 hours and the last thing I wanted to do was wrestle with a tent in the blackness. For once, I didn’t have to.

Within five minutes flat, my friend, Lauren, and I were chucking sleeping bags and pillows into our spacious luxury suite…on the roof of my Jeep.

Up until 2009, when Tepui started bringing car-top tents into the U.S. from Australia and South Africa (where they’ve been popular since the 1950s), the category was largely obscure to campers in the U.S. To the few people who knew it was possible at all, it was kooky—gimmicky, even—to pitch a tent on top of a vehicle. But the demand for car-top camping gear is growing as Millenials, dirtbag climbers and digital nomads alike began shifting from a stationary life to one on the road.

In the last year, the floodgates have opened as other brands—Cascadia Vehicle Tents, ARB, Smittybilt and 23 Zero—have moved their sleeping arrangements to the roof, all offering variations on the popular foldable design. Most recently, roofrack giant Yakima introduced their own play on the concept.

Tepui Kukenam

On paper, the Kukenam—Tepui’s four-season, three-person shelter—was the ideal arrangement for my test trip, driving across five states to explore an untracked patch of woods in Maine. Tepui touts supreme mobility (the ability to quickly drive off anywhere with your shelter on board), comfortable quarters and an ease and speed that surpasses any other non-towable option. The big question lingered, though: Was car-top camping really as perfect as Tepui promised?

Installation

Installing the rig on my roof rack (a good roof rack, not included, is the only requirement to putting one of these on your vehicle) took me under an hour. The kit comes with everything you need, including wrenches, but you’ll need to recruit a strong friend to help hoist the 180-pound tent up to the rack. Once installed, I had what looks like a 12-inch high box—protected by a rugged, waterproof cover—sitting flush on my rack. From there, the only challenge was finding the coolest campsite possible.

Set up

Our days were busy from dawn to dark with hiking, swimming and driving narrow, dusty roads to another corner of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and the benefits of this portable bedroom quickly became clear.

We spent less time making camp and more time exploring. When bed time approached, we just looked for a flat enough spot to pull over. After a quick walk around the car, the cover was off. From there, you just extend the ladder and pry open the clamshell, which automatically unfurls and pops up the tent. Depending on the weather, we could prop open the the awnings over the windows (or leave them down for a tighter seal against rain and wind). Worth noting: That platform is bomber. We could both sit on the end--extending away from the car--without it feeling unstable or rickety.

 Pro tip: Spend an extra few minutes searching for a perfectly flat parking spot; you'll notice a tilt even more once you're up in the air. // Photo: Ryan Wichelns

Pro tip: Spend an extra few minutes searching for a perfectly flat parking spot; you'll notice a tilt even more once you're up in the air. // Photo: Ryan Wichelns

The sleeping experience

No joke: Comfort-wise, the Kukenam was hardly distinguishable from my bed at home. The floor measures 56 by 96 inches—Lauren and I had ample room to move around, and a third person would be no problem. The A-frame design peaks out at 52 inches; we could easily sit up, and being tent-bound by the weather would hardly have felt like an inconvenience.

And you can skip blowing up air mattresses, too. The platform is covered by a two-inch foam mattress with a cotton cover, which proved more comfortable than any sleeping pad.

Since weight is no object when you have an SUV to carry your gear, Tepui is not constrained by lightweight materials. The tent body is a heavy 600-denier waterproof canvas and the partial (over the top and doors only) is a 420-denier polyester. Fat, ¾-inch aluminum poles create the framework. There are two doorways on the short ends (although, without an additional ladder, one requires scrambling up the side of your car). Two windows and roof vents provide plenty of ventilation. We felt the cool breeze blowing through (another benefit of being elevated), and could batten down the hatches to create a fully enclosed sanctuary in bad weather.

Mornings have never been simpler. No more stuffing and unstuffing sleeping bags, no more inflating and deflating pads. We could just leave our bags right in the tent and close up shop (the reverse of the set-up process) and drive away.

 Fun fact: Tepui runs their California-based operation with just 8 employees. // Photo: Ryan Wichelns

Fun fact: Tepui runs their California-based operation with just 8 employees. // Photo: Ryan Wichelns

Bottom line

The only real downside to car-top living is that if you find a nice campsite, you can’t leave your setup there while you go off and explore for the day.

By the end of our 5-day trip, I was hooked. For people like me in need of a mobile basecamp (or anyone who wants to spend a little less time worrying about their sleeping arrangements) the Kukenam—and the concept of car-top camping—is a revelation.

Yep, car camping has officially moved to higher ground.

MSRP: $1200
tepuitents.com

Ryan Wichelns is a gear-obsessed journalist from the Northeast who spent this last summer roaming the Pacific Northwest, questioning his sanity and living out of his Jeep Liberty. Follow him on Twitter: @ryanclimbs.

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