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Bugout Time: Camping With the Roofnest Sparrow and the Kia Telluride

We escape to the desert to give this innovative rooftop tent a try.

Billy RehbockWriter, Photographer

California was on fire and I needed to find a place to go camping. Why? The fine folks at Roofnest had offered us the chance to borrow a 2020 Kia Telluride SX equipped with their Sparrow hardshell rooftop tent before the Golden State was ablaze, and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to get away from it all after being cooped up at home for so long.

Fortunately, our National Parks system has great online resources and a quick search was all my fiancée and I needed to locate a campsite in Joshua Tree and reserve a space, despite less than a week's notice. Our last-minute planning session fits the spirit of camping in a tent affixed to the top of a car—as long as the roof box is already secured to the vehicle, one can theoretically grab their gear and get out of Dodge at a moment's notice.

I hadn't been camping since I took a Honda Passport on a road trip from Oakland to the Trinity Alps for a backpacking trip, and since my camping friends prefer not to car camp, I hadn't had what I view to be a luxurious camping trip in a long time. After a quick run to REI to pick up whatever remaining essentials we needed, we loaded up the Telluride and hit the road midday on a Saturday. It's worth noting that despite our fairly space-inefficient gear, Kia's three-row SUV is so spacious we only needed to flip down the back seats to have oodles of room to spare. It was great not having to stress about using my Tetris skills to get everything to fit.

Streamlined Sparrow, Stable Telluride

Both in town and on the highway, the Roofnest Sparrow was barely noticeable on top of the car. I had driven the Telluride before this excursion, in almost the exact same specification as the one pictured here, so I was familiar with its handling and feel. Its naturally aspirated V-6 engine produces a stout 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, and the Telluride never felt encumbered by wind resistance or weight. Roofnest built the Sparrow out of ABS plastic reinforced with hand-laid fiberglass, keeping the weight down to a modest 130 pounds. Even in the curvier mountain passes we traversed to get up to the desert there was little sense of a higher center of gravity.

The tent box is anchored to the roof with a Thule Rapid Podium Foot Pack fastened to the Telluride with a vehicle-specific Fit Kit. The Roofnest is attached to Thule SquareBar Evo 135 cross bars which cost $339.90 in total, so be sure to factor that into the budget if you're in the market for a new roof-top tent.

Setting Up the Tent and Spending the Night

Getting situated with the Roofnest Sparrow is easy, and packs some wow factor. All you have to do is pop off the latches on each side of the hard-shell roof box and the tent springs up with rapid hydraulic action. Roofnest includes a collapsible ladder that attaches to either bottom side of the tent's shell to provide access to the sleeping quarters. It's very light and easy to hoist into place, although due to its segmented construction there was quite a bit of flex when I climbed up to stow our stuff. Once I got used to the flex, though, I had no issues scurrying up and down from the top of the SUV.

Since setting up the campsite took just a few minutes, we were able to spend the rest of the day hiking and appreciating the awe-inspiring rock formations. After an evening of star gazing, we clambered up the ladder to get a good night's rest before the drive back to Los Angeles in the morning. The thick anti-condensation mat inside the tent was comfy enough to sleep on and felt great after a day outside.

Overhead there was a convenient cargo net from which we could hang a lantern and I could safely place my glasses. We tossed most of our stuff at the foot of the bed and still had room for our legs. If we were any taller (I'm the taller one at 5'9") we'd have had to put our backpacks up above to have a comfortable amount of room. The five-foot wide compartment was just spacious enough for the two of us, but larger folks will be very snug if they attempt to sleep side-by-side.

Roofnest Sparrow: Tough Struts

We kept the awnings that cover the netted doors and windows down, so it stayed warm all night. The sides of the tent are thick enough that the light hardly penetrated through the material, so in the morning we were woken up by the heat rather than by the sun's brightness.

For the Sparrow, Roofnest upgraded the folding support struts to be stronger than previous models. The struts on our unit seem to have been a lot more powerful than other Sparrow tents depicted in video reviews online. Our tent popped up way faster than what I saw in my pre-trip research.

Our test tent's mighty struts were convenient when we opened it but presented a challenge when it came time to pack up. Closing the shell required quite a bit of strength—the rear seemed to want to pop back up unless we strapped it down with the provided tab and buckle. Once that was sorted, pulling down the front of the shell required my body weight and then some. After fighting with the struts, the tent stayed down only with help of the latches on each side of the box. It seems like my experience isn't universal however, and that there may have been an issue with the example we borrowed.

The Roofnest Sparrow costs $2,895 and is on sale now. If this is in your budget and you want to live the bugout-at-any-time lifestyle, it's a great way to see our country's natural beauty by car, even at a moment's notice.

Roofnest Sparrow Roof-Top Tent Highs

  • Super easy setup
  • Very low impact on vehicle dynamics
  • Spacious and cleverly designed interior

Roofnest Sparrow Roof-Top Tent Lows

  • A lot more expensive than just using a normal tent
  • Difficult to collapse, especially for shorter folks

2020 Kia Telluride Specifications

PRICE $32,735 (base)/$46,860 (as tested)
ENGINE 3.8L DOHC 24-valve V-6/291 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7- or 8-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 19/24 mpg (AWD, city/hwy)
L x W x H 196.9 x 78.3 x 68.9 in
WHEELBASE 114.2 in
WEIGHT 4,482 lb
0-60 MPH 7.2 sec