When adventure takes you far away from the homestead in search of the finest of singletrack, it can be nice to know that you have a place to stay. Unfortunately, the aforementioned “finest of singletrack” is typically far from budget hotels, and if you aren’t game to shell out $150+ a night on a room and want something a little more comfortable than sleeping in a tent, then the clever folks at Tepui may just have the solution for you.
Why Sleep in Your Car When You Can Sleep ON Your Car?
I’d hazard a guess that almost all of us reading this site have at some time spent an evening in their car after a day of adventuring. I’ve lost count of how many nights that I’ve found myself curled up in the back of whatever car I drove to the trailhead, with wildly varying results in regards to comfort. Of course, classic camping is and will remain a viable option for a lot of people reading this article, but sometimes the urge to treat yourself takes hold, and you start looking for nicer accommodations than the tried-and-true tent. But short of entering into the oh-so-hot and trending world of #vanlife, options for something more inviting than dirt at the trailhead are somewhat limited.
Enter the Tepui Kukenam Sky Rooftop Tent.
Tepui’s Kukenam is a 3-person, 3-season tent that sits atop your vehicle of choice and provides a comfortable home for the night with minimal pitching time. In true deluxe tent fashion, it offers a number of different configurations to suit the various weather conditions and climes that you might drive your new mobile campsite to, making it a versatile option for travelers who want to have a comfortable basecamp to return to.
Expectations vs. Reality
With social media as pervasive as it is these days, it’s hard for the outdoorsy commoner to escape the charms of #optingoutside or daydreaming about quitting their job and jettisoning their worldly possessions to achieve nirvana while living the #dirtbaglife. Truth be told, when I saw the Tepui tent sitting on the loading dock at my office, I thought that I was being gifted my own set of keys to the #lifeontheroad kingdom. However, if you check into my feed (shameless plug — like my account, @cervenksalot, and help me realize my dream of becoming an internet celebrity) you might be hard-pressed to find much content starring the Tepui Kukenam. It’s not really by any fault of the tent itself, but rather a matter of my expectations just not quite aligning with reality.
While on the subject of the social meeds, searching for rooftop tents will present the casual viewer with breathtaking images of the raddest people you could hope to know in the most beautiful locales living out the dream life that you didn’t even know you wanted. Everyone is smiling, or looking stoically at a mountain that they just climbed, or they’re eating Michelin Star-worthy meals with their $9,000 mountain bikes parked ever-so-neatly next to their $80,000 Land Cruiser (all of these toys remained inexplicably clean even after playing in the mud), and you can’t help but think, “this could be me, if I had a rooftop tent.”
So there I was, with my bright, shiny, #dreamlife future sitting neatly bundled on a pallet next to my truck, with that “kid on Christmas morning” feeling welling up inside me. With a very real sense of excitement, my buddy and I hoisted the tent onto my (questionably) trusty 1995 Toyota 4Runner’s roof.
This is when the first crack appeared in the shiny veneer of my rooftop tent-fueled fantasy.
“Wait, they seriously want you to attach it with these?” remarked my coworker incredulously, holding a small piece of steel stock with two holes drilled through it.
“I don’t see anything else in the packaging, so I guess so.” I responded.
Though I can’t fault Tepui too much for their mounting design, I can’t help but wonder if a more robust solution could have been designed, especially when taking into account the tent’s price tag. The system just seems like an afterthought: trusting ~$8 of carriage bolts, nylock nuts, and some bar stock to hold all 130lbs and $1,395 of tent onto the roof of a speeding vehicle didn’t sit well with me.
However spartan the design is, after a half hour or so spent fiddling with the nuts and bolts, the Kukenam was relatively secured to the roof rails, and all that stood between me and certain adventure were the three hours left in my work day. Tedious mounting process notwithstanding, I was excited to hit the road and let my life be revolutionized by the new home away from home on my rooftop.
Living the High Life
The first trip with my newly-acquired mobile hotel in the sky was up to the forests outside of Bellingham, Washington for a quick overnight rendezvous before a day of skiing some of the Pacific Northwest’s glorious powder. My girlfriend and I were meeting up with one of my good friends from Alaska, so we were going to be hitting the Kukenam’s advertised capacity–perfect for testing the comfort of a fancy rooftop domicile. After exploring some of the backroads outside of Bellingham, we came across a seldom-traveled street that terminated at a bay, a perfectly picturesque setting for the tent’s inaugural pitching.
The aforementioned pitching couldn’t have been simpler — undo a couple tie down straps, unzip the protective cover, flop the tent over, and it opens right up like the pop-up books you used to read before you devoted your time to reading Singletracks.com. There were no stakes to tamp into the ground, no guylines to draw tight, no rainfly to attach, just open it up, and just like that, a tent appears. At the end of a long day, this ease of set up is an absolute boon.
After climbing up the retractable ladder to the newly-pitched tent, we were all pleasantly surprised to see just how nice of a stay we were going to have. Tepui opted to use a high-quality memory foam mattress that rivals the comfort of a night’s sleep at home, let alone the “comfort” sleeping pads commonly used when out in the woods. Around the perimeter of the tent, pockets abound, so there is always a convenient spot to stash away smaller items. Additionally, there are elastic lines strung across the ceiling of the tent to hang clothing, headlamps, and any other smaller items.
The Kukenam’s spaciousness makes one question the size of the three people that the tent was designed to fit; giants maybe. All three of us were able to fit in the tent with extra gear and had plenty of room to spare, making unintentional spooning impossible. However, midway through the night we realized that maybe some physical attachment may have been in our own best interest.
The Low Lights
“Holy sh**!” Isn’t something that people typically want to hear at 3am, let alone say, but this is just what my friend exclaimed, startling me awake. “I almost fell out of the tent!” she added. Sure enough, there was nothing but air between my friend’s sleeping bag-confined feet and the ground 8 feet below. It seems a peculiar thing to find oneself hanging out of their tent in the middle of the night, and I can say that before using the Kukenam, I never found myself anywhere but inside safely-zippered confines while camping.
In the morning, I inspected the setup to see if there was anything obviously wrong with the tent, and while everything appeared to be in order, something had to be out of sorts. With the Kukenam, half of the tent is supported by the vehicle’s roof, with the other half supported by the access ladder. This all sounds well and good on paper, but in practice, I’ve had little success with getting the tent to be securely leveled. The ladder uses a telescoping design and is convenient for setup and stowing, but I was unable to get the ladder to lock into position to supply a rigid pair of legs for the tent to stand on. Because of this, the tent assumes a pretty defined lean when loaded, and unfortunately for those sleeping inside, the lean is toward the entryway of the tent.
After reaching out to Tepui, I learned that the ladder has a built in locking system for the unused rungs of the support ladder that are designed to create the aforementioned rigid support system. Unfortunately for me, I received a seemingly well-worn Kukenam for my review and the locking system was inoperable. Now, I don’t know who reviewed it last, but I can’t imagine that they treated the tent all too well, which is a shame. Had the ladder been in proper working order, I may not have had to worry about taking a fast ride to the ground in my sleeping bag every night out.
After flopping the tent back in half and zippering the whole setup back into its protective cover, the three of us hit the road, well-rested and eager to get in our turns at Mt. Baker. Midway up the mountain, we heard what sounded like a knocking on one of the 4 Runner’s doors. We all checked our respective windows to see if an especially ambitious hitchhiker had jumped on to our moving vehicle and was trying to get a seat inside. After confirming that no stowaways were onboard, the tapping seemed to quiet down. For a few minutes at least. Throughout the rest of the drive, the tapping came and went, and just as I was about to go into a full Telltale Heart-esque frenzy (yes, this is an Edgar Allan Poe reference on a mountain bike website), my girlfriend thought to stick her head out the sunroof and survey the scene.
“Hey Alec, we should pull over.” she said calmly.
“Oh?” was my reply.
“Yea, the tent’s flapping around. A lot.”
The bits of steel and bolts trusted to secure the tent to the truck didn’t seem up to the task and had backed off enough that the Tepui was slapping the roof like the back of a long-lost buddy at a 10-year high school reunion. The first time home from camp, I gave it a pass, but subsequent trips led to the same results. I can’t help but think that when someone crosses into the $1,000+ range for a tent that there has to be a better way to secure the tent to the vehicle. Unless Tepui has farmed their manufacturing processes out to a high school shop class, there’s little excuse for having such a shoddy solution for keeping the tent attached. When you’re driving off into the mountains for a weekend adventure and are trusting a rooftop tent to be your home for the night, listening to it slap away at your roof is disconcerting, to say the least.
At the end of my stint reviewing the Kukenam, the 4Runner’s roof was a bit worse for wear. While not fully Tepui’s fault, I’d be remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I didn’t make mention of this. In my case, the added load of a rooftop tent+people proved to be too much for my factory cross bars and they eventually failed, which resulted in the rooftop tent taking the “rooftop” bit more literally than I would’ve liked. The cross bars supporting the tent cracked and forced me to rely on my rock climbing background to jury rig up some high strength webbing as a solution to keep the roof tied down, which was less than ideal. The Kukenam itself weights close to 130lbs, which was fine for my cross bars, but the additional weight of humans and their gear proved to be too great a load for the roof racks. Tepui does cover this on their FAQ site and recommends using an aftermarket roof rail setup. Be sure to take this into consideration if you find yourself shopping for a rooftop tent. In my case, I suppose I’ll consider this a forced upgrade.
Finding a Place to Call Home
The biggest gripe for me, and this is more a dig on the Forest Service and the BLM, but I seemed to have a hard time finding places to use the Kukenam in Washington. The majority of campgrounds that I wanted to travel to were designed for a standard tent, precluding me from driving my 4Runner up to camp. Along the roadside, pull-offs were regularly patrolled by the state’s finest and flashlights woke me in the middle of the night. The best views were consistently out of reach, and my Instagram dreams were always stifled as I was relegated to the RV lots just outside of some of the Northwest’s most beautiful wilderness areas. In said RV lots, listening to the drone of a neighbor’s generator, I couldn’t keep from wondering if I wouldn’t be better off just packing a tent and heading up the trail to get a real sense of solitude.
It’s a difficult judgement to pass, but I can’t help but feel that the Kukenam is a bit of a miss for most mountain bikers. Since many trailheads frown upon or outright forbid camping, and often times there isn’t a viable option near the trailhead, it’s a tough sell for the rooftop tent. Again, if there are areas available that allow both mountain biking and camping, then the Kukenam may be your solution. However, I’ve felt a bit disenfranchised by the #vanlife movement throughout my review and have struggled to combine my two loves, camping and biking, in a way that makes the Kukenam a real option for me. As confusing as it may seem, the Tepui Kukenam is a great option that just isn’t for me.
Unpacking it All
I’ve tried to ignore the shortcomings of the Kukenam and appreciate it for its merits, of which there are many, but the sense of cut corners and what could have been was too hard to shake. I began to wonder what made Tepui’s offering better than the more classic tent and bivy options in the marketplace. Sure, it set up quickly, but given another two minutes, I could have a 4 person tent set up on the ground. The memory foam mattress was super comfortable, but then again, a nice Thermarest did the job just as well. The expansive views with the Tepui’s flaps opened wide led to some pretty spectacular views of the night sky on top of my truck, but just 6 feet below, the views were largely the same.
In a sense, I feel like I’m lost on the Tepui Kukenam. It lends itself so nicely to well-framed photos on Instagram and it makes me feel that much closer to living the life of those social media mavens who have left their jobs behind to pursue their dreams of seeing the world. On the other hand, every time I drove to a suitable spot to pop the Tepui, I found myself lying atop my roof thinking that I could do just as well elsewhere.
My biggest personal takeaway is that I just don’t get it.
I want to get it, I want to be that one half of that dream couple sitting under the Milky Way atop their overlanding-worthy SUV, but I always felt a bit of a fraud. I thought that the Kukenam on top of my roof would open up the wilderness to me, but instead it ensured that I stayed at the trailhead. I wanted to drive to an extensive network of trails with my gnarliest of gnarly mountain bike friends and spend days shredding trails and have a glorious base camp on top of my truck, but instead, I had a lopsided platform with an above-average tent attached.
As with all things, your mileage may vary, and if you find yourself surrounded by vehicle-accessible and mountain bike-friendly wilderness, the Kukenam may be a great addition to your life. It certainly isn’t a bad choice when setting up camp for a night, but in my case, it served to restrict me rather than open up possibilities.
I feel that the main takeaway for you, the reader, is this: if you regularly find yourself sleeping in your car, the Tepui Kukenam is most definitely an upgrade. However, if you find yourself looking for a key to open up the vastness of the wilderness, this might not be the solution, depending on where you are allowed to park.
Thanks to Tepui for lending us the Kekunam for review.