Canvas tents come with a higher price tag (and weight) than tradition nylon tents, but the benefits are vast. The sustainability, weather reliance, spaciousness, durability, strength, and breathability of a canvas tent have made these tents the choice of seasoned outdoor travelers for centuries.
With the many technical specifications and options available, shopping for a canvas tent can be a bit intimidating and confusing. We’ve compiled important considerations to evaluate when shopping for a canvas tent.
A Life intents canvas bell tent
What is Canvas?
Let’s start here. Canvas is a heavily woven material made out of cotton or hemp. Because of its durability and sturdiness, it is widely used for making sails, backpacks, art displays, shoes, and of course canvas tents. It is made by performing a “plain weaving” pattern that tightly connects cotton threads together. If you are looking for the strongest weave of canvas, then reach for duck canvas (duck comes from the Dutch word doek,meaning cloth), as it will provide the greatest durability.
Why Choose Canvas for tents?
The durability and beauty of canvas are the primary reasons that those spending longer periods of time sleeping outdoors choose them. But there are many other benefits of selecting canvas as your tent fabric of choice:
Water Resistance: Water actually causes the cotton fibers to expand, seal and lock together with one another.
Durability: Cotton fabric is tough, making it more difficult to rip and tear.
Heat & Humidity Control: Tiny particulates between the cotton weaves allow condensation, and summer heat, to escape from the tent.
Sustainability: Cotton canvas can easily be repaired with simple patchwork avoiding a fate in taking up costly space in the county dump.
Winter friendly: When properly equipped with a stove jack exit, you can add a wood burning stove to canvas tents to heat these puppies up. Just make sure that your tent is certified as being fire retardant.
Elegance: Natural canvas tents just look dang great.
The 13 key specifications to look for when buying a canvas tent:
1. Selecting a Canvas Weight
Canvas tents come in a wide range of thicknesses, but the general rule to follow is that a heavier canvas equates to a stronger tent which inherently has better insulating properties.
It may be obvious that as the weight of canvas increases, then so does the resistance to tearing, known as its tensile strength (just compare the logic to a bed sheet vs. a blanket). Amazingly, a slight increase in canvas weight can provide a significant improvement to the durability. For example, a 2 ounce increase in canvas weight has shown to improve tensile strength by 25%!
If you have already done some online browsing for a tent, then you would have noticed that canvas is measured in ounces per square yard (oz/sq. yd) or grams per square meter (gsm). Be suspicious if either are not mentioned.
Most reputable companies use a 10.1 oz/sq. yd (340 gsm) weighted canvas, which is good for occasional summer use. Unless you are only planning to use the tent 1 or 2 times per year, then we suggest steering clear “disposable” canvas tents on ebay and Amazon that use 8.4oz (285 gsm) canvas and that are poorly made and protected. But if you are looking to keep your canvas tent up for several months, then we recommend choosing a canvas that is heavier than 10.1oz (340 gsm).
2. Types of Canvas Tents
The two most popular 4 season canvas tents on the market are bell tents and wall tents.
Wall tents, also known as safari tents or outfitter tents, have four vertical walls can be set-up with multiple internal or external frame of metal poles. These tents come in sizes ranging from 8’ x 10’ to 16’ x 20’, with walls that are about 5 feet tall. Wall tents are fairly spacious and not typically preferred for short-term use, as these tents and their poles pack down in to several bags and take a couple of hours to set-up. But once up, these make for an amazing base camp.
Davis Tent™ Wall Tent
Bell tents, mistakenly referred to as yurt tents, are a circular tents that typically has one 10-foot internal pole supporting the center, and another a-frame pole supporting the door. These tents range in size from 10-foot to 23-foot diameters, with the 16 foot bell tents being the most popular. They pack down into single duffle bag and only take about 20 minutes to set-up and take down – making them a good option for long or short-term lodging for groups of 2-6 people.
Additionally, their conical shape not only makes them esthetically pleasing, but is also functional in withstanding high wind guests.
a Life intents™ bell tent
3. Canvas Tent Hardware Quality
Aside from the canvas, you want to pay attention to the hardware that is built into, and supplied with, your canvas tent. These small details are overlooked when price shopping tents, but will lead to frustration if you don’t notice their inadequacies until after you’ve made your investment.
Poles: Iron vs. Steel vs. Bamboo
The poles of your canvas tent provide the essential structure, support and form of your shelter. Unless you are involved in a nasty windstorm or using your tent in the snow, likely any pole will suffice. Bamboo doesn’t carry with it much recognition, it actually can have a higher tensile strength than steel (if manufactured correctly). If you plan on using your tent in the snow, or keeping it up for long periods of time - make sure you find the thickest possible center pole. Note that most center poles will bend or snap under the weight of enough snow, otherwise they may actually poke through your roof.
Bell tent poles sometimes come with a loop on the center pole that allows you to hang gear and clothes from (a huge space saver)! Our Life inTents bell tents actually come with 2 of these loops, allowing for greater gear organization.
Tent Pegs: Search for Strength
The tent pegs are what hold you shelter in place. These are typically not top of mind when shopping for a tent, but it will be once you set-up camp on rocky or hard soil. Thin and inexpensive stake pegs will quickly bend on rough ground, so seek tent suppliers that don’t take shortcuts with thin, aluminum, or even plastic pegs. Supplier using tough rebar J-hook stakes are what should make you smile.
Zippers: Look for SBS or YKK brands
As mundane as zippers are an important factor to consider if the usability of the doors and windows of your canvas tent. Check to see if your tent calls out a name brand. The two global zipper superpowers are SBS and YKK. Be cautious if your zippers do not come from one of these two quality companies.
Guy Lines: Thickness and Solid Sliders
Canvas tents come with multiple guy lines that attached to the tent and are pegged into the ground to secure your shelter. A quality rope will last for years and won’t tear when you tighten them.
Evaluate the thickness of the accompanying rope, with a minimum thickness of ¼” (6mm). Make sure that guy line sliders used to tighten the rope are metal, aluminum, or wood – definitely avoid plastic sliders. Quality guy lines will include a UV resistant property and are reflective (to help see them at night).
4. Canvas Protective Barriers
Canvas along contains many inherent qualities that, if cared for, will have a long lifespan. However, a minor oversight in care can lead to costly damage to the canvas. Quality tents will put their canvas through various treatments that added an extra barrier against water, mold, mildew, and flames
The best protected canvas is coated to enhance these properties of canvas. Such a treatment will improve water resistance, mildew resistance and even help the canvas to be more durable after this process. Sunforger is a well know brand of such treatments, but is not the only treatment that is effective at adding a protective barrier to canvas. This protective treatment does wear off the longer the canvas is exposed to humidity and UV rays - so anticipate reapplying a protective treatment with a product such as 303 Fabric Guard after about 60-90 days of use in the outdoors if you aren't using a fly cover.
If you plan to have an open flame in the inside of your tent or be placing a campfire nearby, then you will want to ensure that the canvas was treated for fire retardancy. Tent suppliers claiming fire retardancy should be able to supply you with a CPAI-84 certificate for validation. Interestingly enough, some states require tent manufacturers to have CPAI-84 fire retardancy certificate to be sold within their borders. Learn more about CPAI-84 flame resistance here.
We suggest reading the fine print or making a phone call to see if the canvas used in your tent truly does have any added protection against mold, mildew, moisture and flammage.
5. Stability Concerns: Wind and Snow Load
When guy lines are properly staked into the ground with quality hardware, canvas tents are remarkably sturdy shelters. Both bell tents and wall tents should be able to handle 50+ mph winds – the key is to tightly secure the canvas around your poles and to the guy lines to eliminate any flapping. The conical shape of a bell tent actually allows the wind to pass over it easier than a wall tent since there is less direct surface area to resist it.
Snow load may also impact the stability of your canvas tent. If your tent could be exposed to heavy snowfall then you will want to make sure that you not only secure your guy lines properly, but also make sure that you have strong poles to support the snow load of your canvas tent. A 3-inch blanket for snow resting on the roof of a bell tent could weigh in excess of a ton (2,000 pounds)! This level of compression will compromise any canvas tent pole structure, so make sure that you are able to quickly remove any snow cover, regardless of the strength of your poles.
Image source: KTMM @ Seek Outside Forum
Dry snow will accumulate less on a bell tent as compared to a wall tent due to greater pitch of their roof design. But this benefit does not mean that you can avoid regularly removing snow. Snow will certainly melt off quicker if you are running a wood burning stove inside of your tent. But if this is not an option, then you will want to reinforce your tent or add secondary snow cover for protection.
The best suggestion to help avoid anxiety about the snow load of a bell tent is to use thick poles and to place your tent under a strong tarp or wood structure. For a wall tent you can use snow load bearing poles and support systems and add a tarp system to the roof to encourage the snow to more easily slide off. For a bell tent, you may want to consider creating a custom 4” center pole made out of hardwood to help with the snow load.
6. Tent Floor Options
A solid floor in your tent will provide protection from critters, moisture, and cold. Bell tents usually come with a rip resistant and waterproof floor made from a PVC material. The floors of bell tent usually extend up the wall several inches to help guard against rushing or standing water that the tent may be exposed to. Some bell tents offer an upgrade that allows for the entire floor to be unzipped and removed to allow for walls to be rolled up to provide greater ventilation.
Wall tent floors are either sewn in, or come detached and can be laid down once the canvas tent is up. These floors are made with vinyl nylon and do a great job of keeping your space dirt free.
7. Wall Height Considerations
There will certainly be able room at center point of a wall or bell tent for you to jump around. But the same calisthenics likely can’t be performed along the interior perimeter walls. The height of the wall plays an important role in calculating the useable space inside of your shelter. The average safari tent comes with 5 foot walls, allowing great space for bunk beds, storage, and walking space for shorter people.
A bell tents conical shape incoherently comes less wall heights around the sidewalls. An average bell tent comes with 24” walls that progressively rise towards a 10 foot center pole. This means that there is a bit less standing room inside of a bell tent, and chairs may need to be placed a bit further away from the wall to comfortably use them. Not all bell tents are created equally though, so search around to find a bell tent that offers the tallest wall. Life inTents 5M bell tents come with generous 29.5” side walls , and our 6M tents come with 31" walls - helping give a bit more wiggle room for a headboard, chairs and sofas.
8. Tent Pack Size and Weight
Along with all the upside of canvas tents comes one downside, they are heavy. You won’t find many people willing to hike more than 100 yards with one, as canvas tents, along with their poles, will weigh around 100 pounds.
Canvas safari tents do pack down fairly well into about a 2’x4’ duffle bag, which will not take up too much space in your adventure vehicle. However, you will need to make room for a several more heavy & long pole bags if you are leaning towards a canvas wall tent.
9. Tent Size: Square Footage and Height
A great question to answer is: how much gear and furniture do you plan to have in your tent? Another great question is: How frequently will you be taking down the ten? Some folks use canvas tents for short weekend camping trips, while others use them for guest rooms. Determining the size of your tent depends on the use case and comfort requirements. Larger tents are probably best suited for long term set-up, large groups, king beds, and loads of luggage. So think through the square footage needs you require before making your investment.
Here’s they typical size range of wall tents and bell tents that you will find on the market to select from:
Bell Tent Diameters, Square Footage and Cot Capacity
9.8 Feet (3M)
76 Square Feet
13.1 Feet (4M)
135 Square Feet
16.4 Feet (5M)
211 Square Feet
19.5 Feet (6M)
304 Square Feet
23.0 Feet (7M)
414 Square Feet
Wall Tents Dimensions and Square Footage
10 x 12 Feet
120 Square Feet
12 x 14 Feet
168 Square Feet
12 x 17 Feet
204 Square Feet
14 x 17 Feet
238 Square Feet
16 x 20 Feet
320 Square Feet
Besides square footage, you should also consider headroom. Fortunately, you will find that most canvas tents allow one to easily stand and move about them, with 6M bell tents even having a center pole that is 11.5 feet tall! A quick check of the tent specs table should communicate the available headroom.
10. Quality Tent Stitching
Great tent craftsmanship begins with the stitching of the canvas. Single stitched tents are guaranteed to require frequent repairs. Confirm that the tent was sewn with double stitching to help reinforce the various points of stress that the tent will absorb during set-up, take-down and from mother nature.
11. Tent Ventilation Points
Even though canvas is naturally breathable material, your tent could get stuffy, hot, or muggy if it is not designed with added ventilation features to help air circulate during hot summer days and nights. Poor air circulation can also lead to condensation build-up on the inner walls and ceiling. Windows and doors are an obvious feature that will allow the air to pass through your tent when opened. We suggest selecting a tent that has several windows. But make sure that these openings have a mesh screen cover to help keep out unwanted insects.
Air vents on bell tent
Also look for netted air vents sewn into the top of the tent. Wall tents typically won’t come with this feature, but good bell tents will incorporate this feature.
Some bell tents even allow you to roll-up the entire perimeter of the lower wall of the tent to allow for even greater ventilation. But make sure that that the tent has a mesh screen in place to keep the bugs out if the canvas wall can be rolled up.
12. Canvas Tent Colors
You’ll likely only have two canvas tent color options to select from when shopping for your tent: beige and natural white. Flashy colored tents were at one time more prominent, but the options have literally faded away due to exposure from the sun’s UV rays. Darker colors are also not the best choice for summer months, as these attract vs. reflect sunlight. So choose your color from the more elegant natural white cotton canvas material that does not contain dyes, or the beige fabric that has dyes added to it.
13. Power Cord Access Points
Even though you are purchasing a canvas tent to disconnect from routine daily life, you may still want to have access to a few devices that will require electrical juice. Running cords into your tent from your solar panel or generator could expose your living space to unwanted insects, rodents, or snakes. An easy way to avoid this is to find a canvas tent that has a built-in power cord access point that can zip closed.
Did we miss anything? Please leave a comment and share your advice below.
Father of two aspiring glampers, husband to one inspirational wife, and Co-Founder of Life inTents. Continuiously striving to help make camping more comfortable.