Backpacking long distances for days, weeks, or even months is a transformative experience, and you won’t be the same person at the end of the trip that you were at the start.
The gear you choose to take with you on trips like this is one of the most important parts of your journey. In the case of long-distance trekking, ultralight backpacking tents are essential in order to make it to the completion of your goal without getting overly exhausted or slowed down by weight.
In addition, you want to make sure that the camping tent you’re using for days on end ins’t going to release toxic off-gasses from the chemicals use to treat the tent fabric.
For these reasons, when you’re trying to decide on the best non-toxic ultralight backpacking tent for your trip, factors like the health, safety and sustainability of your tent are just as important as the weight, size and weather resistance.
This article will provide guidance and tips on how to choose the best backpacking tent to make your trip a 5-star success!
What are non-toxic ultralight backpacking tents and why are they important?
Ultralight backpacking tents are the epitome of minimalist camping gear, weighing under three pounds and designed to be carried in a backpack for extended periods. They are game-changers for long distance hikers because they lighten your load, while also keeping you safe from the elements in a comfy, protected shelter to recharge.
Why go non-toxic?
Non-toxic tents without flame retardants and PFAs are catching on, and for good reason. A 2014 study by the American Chemical Society explains that conventional tent materials contain toxic chemicals like lead, flame retardants, and phthalates.
In fact, the state of California is banning PFA chemicals in textiles via Assembly Bill 1817, starting January 2025.
Therefore, non-toxic ultralight backpacking tents offer several benefits, including:
- Reducing exposure to harmful chemicals and toxins
- Reducing damage to the environment
- Improving the air quality inside the tent
What are ultralight backpacking tents best for?
Ultralight backpacking tents are the perfect choice for people who need to cover a lot of distance at a fast pace.
GearJunkie, an outdoor and backpacking gear site, credits legendary thru-hiker Ray Jardine for coining the term “ultralight” in the 1990s. Jardine became famous for hiking the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with only a 10-pound base weight, paving the way for ultralight backpacking and inspiring a new generation of lightweight and speedy trekkers.
That’s why thru-hikers who take on multi-day, long-distance backpacking trips like the Appalachian Trail (AT) or Continental Divide Trail (CDT), are big fans of these tents. They help keep gear weight to a minimum, so hikers can focus on the trail ahead, unburdened by heavy gear.
What are non-toxic ultralight tent features?
- Lightweight and portable, weighing less than 3 pounds.
- Durable and weather-resistant to withstand rain, wind, and rocks.
- Made without toxic chemicals like flame retardants and PVC-based waterproofing chemicals
- Made with eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, hemp, or recycled materials with less hazardous chemicals.
What are different types of ultralight tents?
The six basic types of ultralight tents and shelters are:
Single Wall Tent Double Wall Tent Pyramid Tarp Catenary-Cut Tarp Flat Tarp Hammock Tent
What’s important to remember when choosing a non-toxic ultralight backpacking tent?
When picking out the best ultralight shelter, there are a few key things to consider. You’ll want to think about how heavy it is, how much space it has, and how well it can handle different types of weather.
Weight: How light should you go?
When it comes to choosing an ultralight tent, weight is at the top of the list. Your tent needs to be light enough to carry for a long time without exhausting you.
According to REI, an outdoor gear retailer, ultralight backpacking tents usually weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, with most falling somewhere in the middle.
A tent that weighs less than 2 pounds is “ultralight”, while a tent that weighs more than 3 pounds is “lightweight.”
Space: How much do you need to be comfortable?
The most important things to consider in terms of space are how many people and how much gear will need to coexist inside the tent and how long will you need to live in the tent?
In general, it’s recommended that you get a tent that’s bigger than the amount of people that’ll use it, without sacrificing weight savings.
For example, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2-person tent is a true ultralight shelter, weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces, with floor area of 29 square feet and 18 square feet of vestibule space.
In comparison, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 3-person is technically a lightweight tent that weighs 3 pounds, 8 ounces, with 41 square feet of floor area and 18 square feet vestibule space.
Thus, you get almost double the interior space with the 3-person tent, but this will add 12 ounces, or 3/4 of a pound, to your load. For this reason, a bigger tent may not be an option for you if you’re really concerned about weight.
Doors: How many do you need?
The number of doors in an ultralight backpacking tent can vary, and some tents have one door, while others have two for easy access and ventilation.
Multiple doors are preferred when you’re camping with a partner or group – each person will have more privacy and won’t have to crawl over one other when entering and exiting the tent.
In addition, 2 doors provides better airflow and ventilation throughout the interior of the tent.
Structure: Freestanding or Semi Freestanding?
Ultralight backpacking tents can be either freestanding or semi-freestanding. Freestanding tents are designed to stand independently while semi-freestanding tents require stakes or guy lines to be set up.
Semi-freestanding tents are lighter because they have less poles. However, freestanding tents are sturdier and can handle heavy wind better.
Season: What time of year are you traveling?
The seasonality of your tent refers to the construction and design of a tent relative to expected weather conditions. This is why tents are referred to a 3-season or 4-season tent.
For example, three-season tents are designed for spring, summer and fall use when rain is likely and temperatures are usually moderate; while four-season (or winter) tents can be used year round, but are heavier because they are built to handle heavy snowfalls and strong winds.
Weather: How much protection do you need?
Adequate weather protection and ventilation are important elements when camping since these two factors help to create a more comfortable living space.
A tent’s material, design, waterproofing treatments, air circulation and mesh body and windows should all be taken into consideration when assessing if the tent will keep you safe from the weather, as well as provide sufficient airflow inside the shelter.
Intended Use: What activities are you doing?
The features of your chosen tent should align with the activities you’ll be doing, as well as the environments that you may find yourself in.
For example; if you’re hiking through steep terrain under severe weather conditions, a double-wall tent is preferred because it’ll give you more protection. However, if you’re traveling through moderate or favorable temperatures and weather, a single-wall tent will work, and will be easier to carry.
What are non-toxic ultralight tents made from?
When looking for an ultralight backpacking tent, it’s important to carefully consider the material and fabric used to create the tent body, canopy, rainfly and floor. These are the areas of conventional tents that are treated with chemicals, so you want make sure these are made with non-toxic, durable, weather resistant fabrics.
Table 1: Non-Toxic Tent Materials
Nylon is one of the most popular ultralight materials because it’s lightweight, hard-to-puncture, stretchy and inherently water-resistant. It can also be created from recycled materials like reclaimed fishing nets, however it can be pricey. The bluesign® certification means that it was created in a sustainable way, using eco-friendly materials.
Polyester is a runner up to nylon in terms of popularity, because it’s also lightweight, relatively water resistant and affordable, especially compared to nylon. Polyester can also be sustainably crafted from recycled plastics.
Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF)
Also known as Cuben Fiber (CTF3), DCF is a high-performance, ultralight, non-woven composite material with high tensile strength. While DCF is not biodegradable, DCF is inherently waterproof and doesn’t require extra waterproofing chemicals.
Recycled Silpoly is a polyester fabric coated with silicone to make it waterproof. It’s considered more sustainable because it’s made from recycled plastic and scrap materials.
Hemp is not used for ultralight tents, but it’s a natural fiber that is biodegradable, easy to grow and also believed to be naturally anti-bacterial and water-resistant.
This is not a common fabric for ultralight tents, but it’s great for non-toxic canvas This is one of the best materials because it’s biodegradable and free from chemicals or dyes.
What toxic chemicals are used in conventional tents?
Waterproof chemicals and flame retardants are some of the most toxic chemicals used ultralight backpacking tents. In fact, while the need for a waterproof tent is important, the need for flame retardancy is debatable.
What health problems are associated with flame retardants?
In this video, Arlene Blum, chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, California, discusses the impact of toxic flame retardants found in plastic and foam used in our furniture, electronics, and common everyday products.
Are flame retardants necessary in tents?
Flame retardant chemicals are added to ultralight backpacking tents to meet flammability standards. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that FR chemicals contain toxic compounds like brominated, organophosphate, and chlorinated flame retardants.
These chemicals have been linked with health problems like cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive issues. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they can interfere with hormones and development in both humans and animals. In addition, these chemicals persist in the natural environment for years and decades.
In light of the health risks, do we really need flame retardants in tents?
Tent technology has changed a lot since the 1970s, when many of the first fire laws were first put into place. During that time, these laws were created in part because of tents were coated in highly flammable gasoline and paraffin to make them waterproof. The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 resulted from a paraffin coated tent catching fire, wherein hundreds of people were fatally trapped inside.
Nowadays, modern tents are designed using scientifically advanced processes and high-tech fabrics, and many are constructed with materials that have some inherent fire-resistant properties, such as vinyl or thick cotton canvas. In addition, there is no such thing as a completely fire proof tent, even those coated with flame retardants will burn if exposed to fire.
In spite of all this, many tent companies still add these chemicals to comply with outdated fire regulations, even though they can be harmful to your health. Luckily, a number of innovative outdoor brands are changing their approach and creating high-performance tents without toxic flame retardants.
Common types of flame retardant chemicals found in ultralight tents
The FR chemicals most often used in ultralight backpacking tents are:
- PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers)
- TDCPP (Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate)
- TCEP (Tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate)
Waterproofing chemicals and treatments
Tents are coated with waterproofing treatments to keep water out, coating the tent fabrics with. Fluorocarbon-free DWR (durable water repellent) is an eco-friendly alternative to chemicals like polyurethane or silicone.
What are some non-toxic tent brands?
MSR (Mountain Safety Research): With over 50 years of experience, MSR is known for its innovative and reliable camping equipment. Their tents are often made with eco-friendly materials like recycled nylon with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating.
Big Agnes: Big Agnes is dedicated to creating sustainable tents and outdoor gear made from lightweight, recycled materials, without the toxic chemicals.
Nemo Equipment creates sustainable tents and other outdoor products like sleeping bags. Their tents are create with lightweight materials like their proprietary OSMO polyester / nylon composite, made without flame retardants or forever chemicals.
Terra Nova: Terra Nova is a UK-based brand with a long history of producing high-quality, lightweight tents focusing on sustainability.
Vaude: This German outdoor gear company is committed to environmental responsibility and fair labor practices and a line of tents made with eco-friendly materials and processes.
Guidelines for using non-toxic ultralight tents
- Make sure you pitch your tent properly to ensure that it functions correctly in all weather conditions.
- Choose a flat and dry area to pitch the tent to prevent it from tipping over or getting wet.
- Do not use flame or heat sources inside the tent, as this can release harmful chemicals or start a fire.
- Keep the tent well-ventilated to prevent condensation buildup and improve air quality.
- Use the appropriate tent stakes for the terrain and weather. For example, use longer stakes for loose soil or sand and bigger, stronger stakes for windy conditions.
- To extend the lifetime of a backpacking tent, always follow manufacturer instructions and guidelines for set up, maintenance, storage, and cleaning.
- Check for loose stitching or damage to the tent fabric before each outing and repair any damaged parts quickly.
- Make sure all poles are secured completely before using the tent.
- Avoiding contact with sharp objects on tight clearances such as rocks or branches to avoid damage from abrasion.
What are the safest and most environmentally friendly materials used in non-toxic tents?
Tents made without flame retardants and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the safest and most environmentally friendly.
How can non-toxic tents maintain flame resistance without compromising safety?
There is no such thing as a fire-proof tent, even those made with flame retardants. However, as stated by scientist Arlene Blum, flame retardants do not provide significant fire safety benefits, but they do increase smoke, carbon monoxide, and soot production during fires. The best way to prevent fires is to follow basic fire prevention safety rules while camping.
Are non-toxic tents generally more expensive compared to conventional tents, and if so, why?
Non-toxic tents can be more expensive compared to conventional tents because of the materials they’re made from, which can be more costly to produce. Additionally, non-toxic materials require more specialized manufacturing and quality control processes.
Picking the perfect ultralight backpacking tent can be the make-or-break moment of your trip. Choosing the right ultralight backpacking tent requires careful research and comparison of different tents. When making you selection, consider seasonality, intended use, weight, cost, livability features, weather protection and durability, among other factors.
- GearJunkie. “Ultralight Backpacking 101: An Introduction to Going Light.”
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Flame Retardant Chemicals Used in Consumer Products.”
- National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Flame Retardants and Health.”
- Environmental Health Perspectives. “Flame Retardants and Child Development: Time to Start Revising the Toxic Substances Control Act.”
- REI. “How to Choose Ultralight Backpacking Tents.”
- European Environment Agency. “Environmental impact of products (EIPRO).”
- Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. “Flame retardant exposure among collegiate United States gymnasts.”
- Business Insider. “Recycled Polyester: What it is and Why it’s Good for the Environment.”
- American Chemical Society. “Cotton Versus Synthetic: Which Is the Best Camping Fabric?”
- PLOS ONE. “Environmental impacts of hemp and flax textile production.”
- Backpacker. “Buying a Tent: What to Look For.”
- Outdoor Gear Lab. “Ultralight Tents.”
- Switchback Travel. “How to Choose an Ultralight Tent.”