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Living in a Canvas Tent: Lessons from Experts

September 23, 2022 9 min read 0 Comments

So you’re thinking about living in a tent long-term?

There are many good reasons to — sometimes camping trips aren’t enough to quell your call of the wild…sometimes it’s the fastest and simplest way to get established on your new plot of land…and sometimes, rent gets so insane that tent life becomes an appealing way to save money.

Just like there are many ways to go about life, there are many ways to go about life in a canvas tent — some people can’t live without electricity, for example, while others aren’t bothered by its absence in their lives. Even the reason you want to live in a canvas tent long-term can make a huge difference in your priorities, supplies list and so on.

So to answer the most common questions and cover the basics, we gathered tons of helpful insights and tips from people from all walks of life: true woodsmen, adventurous couples seeking a simpler lifestyle, and even a family caught between a rock and a hard place. They have real-life experience, and they learned plenty of lessons the hard way, so hopefully, you won’t have to.

How to Live in a Tent Long Term: The Basics

The following three things are what end up defining everything else you’ll need to consider and prepare for if you’re going to live in a canvas tent. They make the biggest differences in what’s essential for comfortable living:

  1. Work with the location
  2. Prioritize your infrastructure
  3. Budget your essentials 

That makes it all sound deceivingly simple, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of sweat and tears (and hopefully no blood) between all of that, but these three points are what will determine what your tent will need to feel like home, keep you safe and protected from the elements while also not accidentally splurging on features and supplies you didn’t really need.

Below, you’ll find loads of further details on these three points straight from the experiences of those who’ve lived it.

Location

Canvas tents are versatile. But when it comes to long-term accommodations, your environment needs a lot more consideration so that you know exactly what you’ll need to keep your tent comfortable and in good shape. For example, added protection like a fly cover might be necessary for particularly damp environments or if your tent gets a lot of direct sunlight. You’ll likely need a form of heating, like a wood stove, and/or a way to keep cool in your tent on hot summer days.

inside bell tent with people and stove

When Matt and Lily moved out to the English countryside with their young daughter, they encountered more than a few challenges due to England’s notoriously cold, wet and harsh weather. Their furniture placement caused water seepage, and harsh winds blew their wood stove down when it wasn’t firmly secured by screws.

As Lily stated: “You definitely need a sense of humor, and you can't be vain – you're just going to get upset by the mud or lack of running water."

Weather isn’t the only concern regarding location, either. When David Schilling started out on his three-year journey living in a 12x14 canvas wall tent in rural Virginia, he was quickly reminded that his location came with new neighbors — some of which invited themselves inside his tent:

“Living in a tent in the middle of the woods has gotten me used to all sorts of creatures…wasps that dart into my tent on hot, sunny days…spiders and fireflies and mosquitoes and snakes and lizards…but mice are only cute when they're not living with you.”

And as it turns out, they were living with him, scrounging on his food. In addition to several traps, he checked every inch of his setup for potential nests.

Infrastructure

Tent Setup

Your tent will need a proper foundation spot for a long-term setup. You want to be sure that the setup location has good water drainage, is not in the way of falling tree branches, and is not too far from your toilet facilities. Most people find that wooden platforms are the simplest and most reliable foundation to make for canvas tents. When setting up your canvas tent, you want to be sure that your guy lines remain tight and secure.

Jacob and Keesha from Wild Ridge Homestead have a great video showing their three-day process of setting up a canvas tent, complete with a wooden platform foundation.

Water & Electricity

How will you get fresh water? How will you bathe? How will you get electricity? The answer to questions like these will largely depend on your specific location, budget and the resources around you.

Most who live in canvas tents long-term find that it’s easier to figure out how to get by without certain conveniences rather than trying to figure out how to include them. “The simpler things are, the less alienated you feel from your own life – the more in control you are,” says Lily.

Being completely alone in the woods, David opted to go without electricity, relying on a few battery-powered devices and candles for lighting and a gas-powered stove for most of his cooking. No electricity also means no refrigeration; he noted that what you eat may need to change a lot based on your cooking limitations.

David’s Kitchen Setup. Source: dshillingtentliving.blogspot.com

Matt and Lily had a similar experience regarding cooking. “We were sat there for three hours wondering why things wouldn't come to a boil," says Lily. They eventually learned several slow-cooking recipes using their woodstove.

That being said, there are ways to get conveniences like electricity and water while living in a tent. Northers Adrift has an excellent video showing how they get hot water in their canvas tent, which is especially useful in their cold climate. Jojo and Norah from Sweden have an impressive solar setup for their unique floating tent raft — but plenty of people living in canvas tents get affordable access to electricity by using generators or an eco-friendly solar-powered battery pack.

 

tent power source

Source: 3epowers.Inc at Twitter.com

And as David pointed out, it’s also perfectly possible to have conveniences like lighting, stoves and more through a combination of battery and gas-powered appliances rather than a plug-in setup. “I cook on a two-burner gas camping stove that is fuelled by a 20 lbs propane tank that stays outside the tent. A 10' adaptor hose connects the two. A single tank of fuel lasts more than two months, which is pretty good considering I heat most of my water on the gas stove.”

Kitchen

You may have noticed that a lot of cooking talk went on just now instead of here. Simply put, a big beautiful kitchen is hard to fit in a tent, so what we think of as a kitchen often doesn’t exist.

Appliances and gear that are used for cooking are multipurpose: Woodstoves become a source of warmth and a place to cook, and instead of the cabinets of pots, dishes, pans and utensils, you often see fewer far more versatile essentials like cast iron pans, metal bowls, and a trusty knife or three. So often when someone living in a tent refers to their kitchen (if they do at all), like David’s example, they’ll point to a small corner that serves as counter space and storage space more than anything else.

Why no kitchen space? One benefit to tent living that’s usually found outside: An open fire. Many delicious meal options at the fire can make a kitchen unnecessary for many: with nothing more than some tin foil, you’d be surprised by the variety you can have with only a campfire.

The fire pit often also becomes the new living room area when living in a canvas tent long-term. In fact, Matt and Lily found this to be one of their favorite aspects of tent living, especially when it came to quality time with their daughter Louise:

“We like talking, we sit around the fire and I sing to Louise a lot. We haven't felt bored, not for a moment. We don't miss having loads of TV channels showing things we don't want to watch anyway.”

However, for those deadset on having something larger, there is one option if you have the space and budget. Outdoor kitchens (a.ka. camp kitchens) can easily resemble a modern home kitchen complete with a stove, oven, sink, and plenty of counter space. 

outdoor kitchen shelter

Source: homestead-honey.com

Depending on their size and the available resources, these can be protected by a canopy tent or a permanent roof installment. To give some context of just how fancy these off-grid kitchens can get, look no further than Cupcake and Cornbread’s kitchen tour video — simply stunning!

Toilet & Shower

This is the category that often involves the most sacrifice if you’re not in a location that has the existing infrastructure for running water and sewage or septic, but that doesn’t mean it has to be inconvenient or uncomfortable either.

Matt and Lily were fortunate enough to be on a farmer’s property, so they had access to a full bathroom in a separate building. And in many instances where a person rents or owns the land, they can get similar access to preexisting buildings with bathrooms or build outbuildings to use the infrastructure that their tent cannot.

Outbuildings are a common solution for those living off-grid because many cabins have similar limitations to tents that prevent the addition of a bathroom. Bushradical has a great YouTube video showing a simple construction of a shower house that can be used both with stored water or running water. Outhouses can be constructed in a similar manner — this can be the old-fashioned dry-well type or be connected to a sewer or septic system to make a fully modern toilet.

outdoor diy toilet
Source:  Cuyama Oaks Ranch
For those looking for the simplest solutions, David Schilling as well as Jojo and Norah showcase the most common toilet setup for those living in a tent off-grid: earthen toilets, also known as compositing toilets. Anyone familiar with portable camping toilets will recognize these; they usually include your standard toilet seat and lid, but below is a large box or pot. This is filled with a substrate like pinewood chips, which allows for no-hassle and eco-friendly disposal later on while trapping foul odors in the meanwhile. 

Especially if you add something like an additional ‘toilet tent’ to provide some privacy and shelter from the elements, it becomes a comfortable alternative compared to the outdoors. Plus, the more frequent disposal means that it’s not as prone to smelling as dry-well outhouses or port-a-potties are. Though Jojo and Norah admitted in their tent tour that they often simply go in the forest despite having their toilet on hand — what’s convenient for some might be a chore for others, and vice versa!

Essentials for Living in a Canvas Tent

  1. Climate control. Your tent will likely need heating, air circulation, humidity control, air conditioning or all of the above, depending on your climate.
  2. Food / Water plan. Prioritize what cooking methods, water acquisition and food and water storage options you can invest in or get affordable, regular access to. Estimate a general budget for appliances and monthly expenses. You will likely need to adapt your typical diet and water consumption habits according to your available resources.
  3. Tent Maintenance Supplies. Canvas tents require regular maintenance like waterproofing to avoid damage like mold. It’s a good idea to have things like duct tape and extra tent parts like spare rods in case quick repairs are needed. Consider the possibility of maintenance most living spaces often need, like pest control.
  4. Personal Hygiene. Determine your best bathing and toilet options according to your available infrastructure. It may be easier to get access to nearby bathroom facilities, construct a simple outbuilding, or adapt to minimalist measures like sponge baths depending on your location and personal needs.
  5. Emergency plan. Extra blankets, an alternative power source, and supplies like first aid equipment are good to have on hand to ensure you are safe, warm, and can perform essential activities.
  6. Solar power. Off-grid setups benefit from some form of solar power, such as a solar-rechargeable generator. Having two forms of power (e.g., gas and solar) for your electricity needs is recommended.
  7. Landscaping tools. Your tent’s foundation, any outbuildings, and outdoor living spaces will likely require tools like shovels and rakes to keep them level and clear of debris.
  8. Proper Bedding. Raising your bed off the tent floor with a frame will help to keep you warm, protect your bedding from dirt and debris and provide extra storage space to maximize the use of your tent’s interior. Always have extra blankets on hand to ensure you stay warm and comfortable in case of unusually cold nights or any issues with your heating.
  9. Food storage. Consider your options for keeping food cool (likely without refrigeration) and other preservation methods like pickling and canning. Animal-proofing may be necessary especially if bears and rodents are local fauna, and smart food storage containers will help avoid pest infestations.
  10. Exit plan. Establish where you can seek temporary shelter with someone you trust nearby or maintain a budget for accommodations in case of emergencies like severe weather. These are not instances where you want to be seeking shelter last minute.

Conclusion

Living in a canvas tent can have quite a few advantages compared to modern living depending on your personality and goals. If you’re considering living in a tent for an extended period of time, the best way to ensure you have a safe and comfortable experience is through proper preparation and being adaptable. 

Having the necessary supplies to keep your tent comfortable in the heat and cold, to cook and store food, and for maintenance and repair are vital. Organize where and how you will get access to water and electricity, and prepare to adapt the way you use these resources as it will likely be limited compared to the typical house or apartment. Lastly, always have backup supplies, extra parts, and an exit plan for temporary shelter in case of emergency.

Our Pick For The Best Tent To Live In:

Timberline Exchange Bell Tent
Brandy Lamb
Brandy Lamb

Father of two aspiring glampers, husband to one inspirational wife, and Co-Founder of Life inTents. Continuiously striving to help make camping more comfortable.



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