Renting a Camper Van with a Roof-Top Tent: Off-Grid Living

The rental van and its roof-top tent. Every pece of campig gear you see in these pictures came with the van as part of the rental price.

The rental van and its roof-top tent. Every piece of camping gear you see in these pictures came with the van as part of the rental price.

As you probably know, the popularity of this website has brought me some notoriety and because of that I was in a documentary about vandwelling that turned out really well called “Without Bound.”  Last month at Thanksgiving I had a second film crew come into camp  to start work on a second documentary. The director, Lars, is a German national who has been living in France for the last 20 years, and the cameraman, Michele, is a Frenchman; both spoke fluent English.

Michele in back of their van.

Michele in back of their van.

However, this blog isn’t about them, it’s about their rental camper van! Adventurous people, like filmmakers, travel all over the world traveling, exploring, partaking in extreme sports and making documentaries and rental agencies have sprung up to support them with inexpensive rental camper vans. They were in a rental camper van that I thought was so cool I just had to share it with you. There are two things about it of interest to us:

  • It’s cheap enough that most of us could afford to rent one of their vans and try it out for awhile to see if vandwelling is really for you. Vandwelling sounds wonderful, and most people fall in love with it, but it isn’t for everybody–renting a van to camp out of can help you decide if it’s for you or not before you uproot your whole life and jump in with both feet. You could even fly into Los Angeles and rent one there to visit the RTR!
  • They were in an older Astro van with a very good layout and a roof-top tent. Included in the rental price was every camping article that you could need to camp in comfort, stove, pots and pans, plates and utensils, chairs–everything!! All you had to bring were your clothes, sleeping bag and personal items. I’ve got to admit the tent was very cool! It took just minutes to set up and take down  and yet it provided total protection for the weather and from crawling or walking predators that might be interested in you.

First, let me tell you about the rental agency. They have offices worldwide but only two in North America which are in Los Angeles and Vancouver, which makes sense because they are both major hubs of the film industry and international tourism to North America.  The one in LA would work very well to fly into and rent a van to come to the RTR! Their website is here:  http://www.wickedcampers.com/  and rental information for the Los Angeles office is  here; https://secure.rentalcarmanager.com/sslwicked/WickedCanada133/CANStep2.asp?refid=&URL=.

All this camping gear came with the van, even the propane. The backseat of the Astro goes in and out very easily so they used it as outside seating.

All this camping gear came with the van, even the propane. The backseat of the Astro goes in and out very easily so they used it as outside seating and to gain space inside the van. When it comes time to put the tent away, you’ll be glad you have the step-stool.

Lars and Michele putting the back seat back in. With two people it was easy, alone it would have been difficult.

Lars and Michele putting the back seat back in. With two people it was easy, alone it would have been difficult.

Of course they aren’t the only camper-van rental, there are others for about the same price and they all have pros and cons. I’ve got to admit the roof-top tent would really appeal to me  because it gives you the whole van opened up. It was a joke with Lars and Michele that Lars snored, but after a few nights it wasn’t funny anymore so Lars slept in the tent while Michele slept downstairs in the van. They were friends before the trip and wanted to stay that way! There are several other places to rent camper vans and I did a quick search and found these, but you’ll have to do your own research and see which works best for you:

  • http://www.lostcampersusa.com/ these were the cheapest of any I looked at.
  • http://www.escapecampervans.com/?lang=en They rent minivans and full size vans and also have offices in Las Vegas and the East Coast.
  • http://www.jucyrentals.com/vehicles/jucy-champ.aspx they offer minivans and roof tents.
  • http://www.campervannorthamerica.com/rates.shtml  nicer but more expensive
It comes with a well designed kitchen in back that's stocked with water jugs, pots and pans and plates and utensils.

It comes with a well designed kitchen in back that’s stocked with water jugs, pots and pans and plates and utensils.

With the back seat out, it's very large and open. Even the coolers came with the van.

With the back seat out, it’s very large and open. Even the coolers came with the van.

Mainly in this post I want to focus on the tent and the advantages it offers, which are a lot! At the bottom of the post are a lot of photos and a video showing them packing the tent away. Here are some of the main advantages I see:

  • Safety from predators: In some parts of the world, and even some places here in America, that is a serious issue and many people will sleep better being that far off the ground. As long as you never, ever have food in the tent, most animals should just ignore it.
  • Bug protection: With a van you are constantly opening and closing the doors so its very easy for mosquitoes and flies to get in. But with the tent you just get in once or twice a day and keep the netting zipped up otherwise. So flying insects shouldn’t be an issue. It should also be much better for things like mice, scorpions, snakes, brown recluse  or black widow spiders. While some of them still can get into the tent, being further removed makes it less likely and safer.
  • Room for gear and hobbies: Many sports, hobbies or jobs require extra gear that vans just don’t have. But if you can get rid of the bed by sleeping up on the roof in the tent, that opens up a lot of space in the van. Obviously Lars and Michele had brought a lot of camera gear and that took up lots of room, without a bed downstairs, they had enough room for it.
  • Plenty of room during bad weather: When you’re stuck inside by bad weather, more space is better because you can be more comfortable and can do more things.
  • Privacy: if there are two of you, it lets you get away from each other if you need to.

But roof-top tents have their disadvantages as well:

  • They are very expensive: Because they are intended for a small market, overland world travelers, who demand only the highest quality, they are very expensive. The cheapest I found was $700 but I wouldn’t trust it’s quality.   There were a couple at $900 but most were $1500 and up. I would budget a minimum of $1500 for one and expect to pay $2500 for one that would last me a long time.
  • Wind can make sleeping in it difficult: In a bad enough wind the van will be rocking and the tent itself will be flapping and shaking, as well as cold. That might force you into the van for sleep.
  • Set-up is inconvenient: Even though it was remarkably easy, it still took about 30 minutes for the two of them to put it away and doing that every time you needed to take a trip into town would get old fast. Scroll to the bottom of the post for pictures of the process of packing the roof-top tent away. It’s surprisingly easy and setting it up is as easy or even easier.
  • Getting in and out of bed is inconvenient: for sure I’d want a pee-pot in it with me because a trip outside at night to go to the bathroom will be an adventure! It wasn’t hard at all to get in and out, but neither was it easy! Also, if it’s raining you have to leave the dry van, go out into the rain and climb the ladder to get into the tent. In a hard enough rain that could leave you very wet when you got to bed.
  • Durability: The tent seemed very well made and very high quality, but over a period of time the wind will take its toll on it as will rain. Much worse are the damaging effects of the suns UV rays which eventually will destroy all fabrics. So both on sunny and rainy days the tent is slowly being damaged, and on windy days it’s being damaged even more quickly.  A high quality tent like this one should easily last a few years or it may last decades, there’s no way to know. But you know for certain that some day it will need to be replaced.
  • It makes installing solar very difficult. Unless you  have a full-size van, the tent takes up the whole roof, leaving no room for solar. Even with a full-size van it leaves you with a shadow to contend with.
  • It will cut your gas mileage and kill your stealth. The tents are big and impossible to miss either by law enforcement, nosy neighbors or the wind.
The tent is very large and comfortable. Except for in the very worst weather you could sleep well here.

The tent is very large and comfortable. Except for in the very worst weather you could sleep well here.

Conclusions

1) I love the rentals and think more people should consider them as an alternative. If for some reason you can’t go full-time but still long to travel, they may be perfect for you. You can keep your economy car as a daily driver saving a lot of money on gas every year and fly into the place you want to explore and rent a camper van. That way you will save on gas getting to the area and on wear and tear on the vehicle. By the time you factor in the cost of buying, maintaining, insuring and operating a second van or RV as a travel vehicle, I think they rental camper vans might be competitive cost and convenience wise.

2) If you are considering a roof-top tent for a full time nomad vehicle, I don’t recommend them. While we are all different and have different needs, unless you are an Overland World Traveler I can’t see a good reason to full-time with a roof-top tent. There main advantage is safety from predators, but in the USA our main fear is bears and they offer no real protection from them. A bear can pull that thing down in a second. You do get away from snakes and scorpions but honestly they are a very low risk and not worth all the disadvantages and price of one of these things.

There are people for whom a tent offers enough advantages to be worth the hassles, but a high quality mountaineering tent can be bought for around $500 and offers almost all the advantages and few of the disadvantages of a roof-top tent. The MSR Fury has an outstanding reputation as able to handle any weather: MSR Fury Mountaineering Tent  North Face makes a reasonably priced Mountaineering tent that will stand up extremely well to a vandwellers us: The North Face Mountain 25 Mountaineering Tent  as does Mountain Hardwear: Mountain Hardwear Trango Mountaineering Tent 2-Person 4-Season
Here’s why a mountaineering tent would be better:

  • They cost much, much less and are made just as well or better. They are built with severe mountain storms in mind where your life depends on your tent and tent failure is a death sentence. Therefore they will last longer.
  • You’ll sleep better in wind and rain in a tent on the ground than you will in a roof-top tent. You can park your van to be a wind break for a tent on the ground and being lower it will be hit by less wind, plus, the ground won’t rock under you but the van will. The geodesic and aerodynamic design of mountaineering tents will flap less and hold up better.
  • You don’t have to take it down every time you go into town. That alone makes them a better choice for me.
  • They pack much smaller and won’t take the whole roof leaving you room for a storage rack or solar.
  • It still leaves you the van empty without a bed giving you much more room for gear and comfort. In fact, if you put a gear rack on the roof instead of the tent, you will have less stuff inside than you would have with a roof-top tent because more can go up top.

Scroll to the bottom of the post for pictures of the process of packing the roof-top tent away. It’s surprisingly easy and setting it up is as easy or even easier.

I’m making Videos on my good friends James and Kyndal’s YouTube Channel. See them here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_W_E5SFCxwpSOaqMjOOBTg

We shot a video of them packing up the tent so you can see it in action:

If you don’t see the video above, click or cut and past this
//youtu.be/1RoAQ7ivCR4

Thanks for supporting this site by using these links to Amazon. I’ll make a small percentage on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything, even if you buy something different.

CLICK HERE TO SHOP AMAZON.COM

MSR Fury Mountaineering Tent
The North Face Mountain 25 Mountaineering Tent
Mountain Hardwear Trango Mountaineering Tent 2-Person 4-Season

To put it away one person stands at the bottom and uses the ladder to flip the long side over onto itself, forming a "sandwich."

To put it away one person, Lars in this case, stands at the bottom and uses the ladder as a pole to flip the long side over onto itself, forming a “sandwich.”

It just flips over and lays down on itself like a "sandwich." Michele is guiding the fabric so it stays inside the "sandwich."Here gravity is pulling it down on itself like a “sandwich.” Michele is guiding the fabric so it stays inside the “sandwich.”

Her Lars is folding up the ladder which then lays across the top. Then you go around the whole perimeter tucking it inside as Michele is doing here.

Here, Lars is folding up the ladder which then lays across the top. Then you go around the whole perimeter tucking the fabric inside the “sandwich” as Michele is doing here.

It comes with an attched, heavy-duty cover that you throw over the tent. It has Velcro all around the bottom that secures and protects it from the wind and weather.

Once the ladder and the fabric is all inside, it comes with an attached, heavy-duty cover that you throw over the tent “sandwich.” It has Velcro all around the bottom that secures and protects it from the wind and weather.

Au revoir my new friends! Until we meet again....

Au revoir my new friends! Until we meet again….

Bob
About

I’ve been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

25 comments on “Renting a Camper Van with a Roof-Top Tent: Off-Grid Living
  1. tommy helms says:

    I imagine the roof top tent isn’t a good idea for sleepwalkers. That first step would be a doozy

  2. Cae says:

    My roof carries bikes, kayaks and some other gear. Considering solar in the future. It’s also a pretty secure place to keep the gear. Otherwise, I like the set up.
    I thought about a 4 wheel truck with some fold up platforms where I could pitch a tent after I took my gear off. Being able to go a few more miles down a rough rode is very appealing to me.

    • Cae says:

      PS: I’m hearing more talk in the media about work camping and boondocks living. And now Another movie!?It must be a sign of our persistent “economic recovery”.

      • Lucy says:

        YEAP, ‘ our economic recovering ‘ is been worse than molasses in January it’s been 7 + years & our economy improvements are minimal perhaps is that we, as a country don’t have the industry any longer to provide with jobs ( most of american businesses are overseas ) besides over time more & more small business are closing their doors. The ‘re-shoring project’ seems to have died as soon a it was born. I get the feeling that our dear USA will never be the same- unfortunately .

        • Bob Bob says:

          It’s hard to argue with that Lucy.
          Bob

        • Calvin R says:

          Some of those jobs didn’t go anywhere. They vanished completely due to automation. I’ve even seen a news story about McDonald’s putting in terminals rather than using people at the counter. (Many retail stores already have self-checkouts.)

          • Lucy says:

            True Calvin, but what i’m referring is to the BULK of jobs we lost to China, Mexico, Bangladesh, India, Nicaragua etc , I’m talking about the millions of jobs we progressively lost in the 70′,80′ & 90’s.
            Like you said automation also is not helping at all. So I guess it will be a good move to get ourselves a nice & comfy van & begin working on it to make it homie, in my case I will need a VERY stealthy one as to park it in front a hospital without been detected ! LOL.

            My regards, Lucy.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Cae, a 4×4 truck is on my short list of future rigs.
      Bob

  3. Hahahaha, love their website! It even says that if you pick the vehicle up naked, you get an extra day!

  4. Calvin R says:

    http://www.amazon.com/Sportz-Blue-Grey-Screen-x7-25-Feet/dp/B004O74Z0G/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2_m?s=sporting-goods&ie=UTF8&qid=1454013936&sr=1-2-fkmr0&keywords=Norton+Sportz
    *Would need added UV protection
    *Setup/takedown time: they say 20 minutes, I think shorter
    *Stands alone if you need to go to town or use a tent pad. Easily detached and re-attached.
    *I enjoyed mine (similar, not identical) a great deal.
    *Vehicle not included. Available for SUVs, minivans, hatchbacks, station wagons, and covered pickups.
    *There is a smaller model if needed. That’s what I’ll probably use.
    *Buy through Bob’s Amazon link.

  5. Karen says:

    A reflection of our slow recovery economically? Maybe, but I see it as further development of options for people to consider as they reevaluate what is important to them and ensure that their choices match their needs and desires. Thanks again Bob for showing us another option with pluses and minuses to consider. Options + Choices = Freedom

    • Bob Bob says:

      I agree Karen. The 2008 crash brought vandwelling to peoples minds and even though the economy is better it still isn’t good. I think escaping is a lot more appealing to many people even if they are still surviving.
      Bob

      • Lucy says:

        SOOO true Bob, many of us would love to get into a van,or MH & get the heck out of the big messy cities it’s that many of us are unable do it due to age, medical conditions, or both.
        Bob, thru your videos lots, LOTS of people are getting to know you – & friends- which is NEAT !! Wish you success on future endeavors, you’re doing wonderful, you are a natural, no camera-shy at all… I’ll pee my pants if I have to face a movie or video camera !

        My regards, Lucy.

  6. Ming says:

    hey Bob, 2 rigs caught my eye on the video and you have done posts on both of them! I am referring to the Tacoma truck camper and now the car top tent.

    Having lived with a car top tent for a couple of years, I would agree with your assessment – they are good for travel, not so good for full time living. I had a different model than the one in this post, mine was a Columbus from Autohome. I loved pulling into a campsite at the end of a long driving day and just popping up the tent and my bed would be ready for sleeping, as I kept the bedding all set up. The next morning, I would pull it down, tuck in the fabric, and be ready to go. It saved hours of tent and sleeping bag/ mat/ pillow packing and unpacking.

    It is nice to be above things, maybe not predators, but it was much better waking up above a herd of cows than below them one morning.

    It did not impact my gas mileage much at all, and my Fit got great gas mileage to begin with.

    Not so convenient issues:
    – getting in and out in the rain without bringing in lots of water, and bringing you clothes and and umbrella up that ladder is awkward
    – had to arrange a pee pot/ funnel system to deal with nighttime pee breaks
    – if you need to do no.2 in a hurry, you’d best learn to put your clothes on in a hurry, before scrambling down that teeny ladder
    – hoisting the dog up and down is a bit of a pain
    – you get up there and realize that some item you need is downstairs in the car
    – ditto with hunger pangs in the middle of the night
    – big desert windstorms may not work out well. The first time I was able to park facing into the wind, so we rode it out ok, but the second one hit us broadside and we had to collapse the tent and wait out the storm in the car all night. That made me a fan of hard sided sleeping shelters.
    – not stealth, in fact you will make many friends as your rig is so irresistibly cool…

    Now that I have moved on to a truck and canopy rig, I really appreciate having most of my gear packed up and ready to go on a trip at a moment’s notice. It’s also nice to have snacks handy for those nighttime hunger pangs.

  7. joe says:

    I have seen this in Colorado on a older Yoda ( toyota) it is a great idea in the back country those pesty bears have a bit more trouble getting in them also

  8. Kevin says:

    Bob

    I have wondered why tent trailers aren’t popular. Is it just that nobody thinks of them or are there issues?

    • Bob Bob says:

      Kevin they are great for trips but they aren’t good for full-timers. Several issues:

      1) They’re cold in the winter and no getting around that.
      2) Pain in the butt every time you want to go somewhere.
      3) Terrible in the wind and the desert has LOTS of wind.
      4) They aren’t very durable

      I don’t recommend them for full-timers
      Bob

      • Kevin says:

        Thanks Bob. Guess that explains why I see tent campers at state parks but not in videos of full timers. BTW I think your cargo trailer is the best idea for a trailer for living in a moderate climate.

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