Backpacking can be a transformative experience, and the gear you choose impacts your journey. When selecting an ultralight backpacking tent, health, safety and sustainability is just as important as weight, size and weather resistance. This article will provide insights on how to choose a non-toxic ultralight tent.
Importance of Choosing the Right Non-Toxic Ultralight Tent
Ultralight backpacking tents are game-changers for long distance hikers. A top-notch tent lightens your load, keeps you safe from the elements, and gives you a comfy, protected space to recharge.
Why go non-toxic?
Non-toxic tents 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.
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’s an ultralight backpacking tent?
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 compact and lightweight, perfect for long-distance hikes, thru-hiking, and backpacking trips. Typically constructed with featherweight materials like Dyneema and Silnylon, these tents offer a high strength-to-weight ratio.
GearJunkie, a popular outdoor gear website, 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 backpackers.
A non-toxic ultralight tent should meet the following requirements:
- Lightweight and portable: A non-toxic ultralight tent weighs less than 3 pounds.
- Durable and weather-resistant: Despite their focus on eco-friendly materials, non-toxic ultralight tents should still be durable and able to withstand various weather situations.
- Eco-friendly materials: The use of natural or environmentally friendly materials such as organic cotton, hemp, or recycled materials with less hazardous chemicals.
What are different types of ultralight backpacking 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 are the pros and cons of ultralight backpacking tents?
Before you buy an ultralight backpacking tent, it’s essential to weigh up the pros and cons. There are definitely benefits, but also some drawbacks to consider.
- Lightweight: As the name suggests, an ultralight backpacking tent is light, which makes it easier to carry without getting exhausted by the weight of your gear.
- Easy to pack: Ultralight backpacking tents are designed to pack down into a small size, which means they take up minimal space in your backpack.
- Fast setup: Many ultralight backpacking tents are designed to be set up quickly and easily, which is great when you’re tired and just want to sleep.
- Less durable: Ultralight backpacking tents are typically made from lighter materials, so they’re less durable than conventional tents. This can be a problem if you plan on using your tent frequently or in harsh weather conditions.
- Less space: Ultralight tents are designed to be lightweight; they’re often smaller and less spacious than regular tents. This can be a problem if you’re tall or want extra room to move around in.
- Fewer features: Ultralight backpacking tents often lack some of the features you’ll find on conventional tents, such as vestibules or multiple doors.
Who are ultralight backpacking tents best suited for?
Ultralight backpacking tents are the perfect choice for adventurers who want to cover a lot of distance at a fast pace. According to The Trek, an online resource for thru-hiking and backpacking, these tents are a godsend for hikers who want to go the extra mile (or ten!) each day.
That’s why thru-hikers, who take on long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail (AT) or Continental Divide Trail (CDT), are big fans of ultralight backpacking tents. These tents help them keep their gear weight to a minimum, so they can focus on the trail ahead.
What toxic chemicals are used in conventional ultralight backpacking tents?
Waterproof chemicals and flame retardants are the most toxic chemicals used in all tents to make them waterproof and flame-retardant. While waterproofing is undoubtedly essential for tents, the need for flame retardancy is debatable.
Tent technology has evolved significantly since the 1970s, when many fire laws were first implemented. During that time, fire laws were created in part because of gasoline and paraffin coated circus tents, which were of course highly flammable. Tents were coated in this way to make them waterproof. The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 resulted from a paraffin coated tent catching fire, wherein hundreds of people were trapped inside and perished.
Nowadays, modern tents are designed much better than they were in the past, and even has some inherent fire-resistant properties, such as using materials like vinyl or thick cotton canvas. That said, there is no such thing as a completely fire proof tent, even those coated with flame retardants will burn if exposed to fire. Unfortunately, many tent companies still add these chemicals to comply with outdated fire regulations, even though they can be harmful to your health.
Flame retardant chemicals, waterproofing treatments, and plastics
Flame retardant chemicals are added to ultralight backpacking tents to meet flammability standards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that these chemicals include toxic compounds like brominated, organophosphate, and chlorinated flame retardants.
In addition, waterproofing treatments are applied to keep water out of the tent, typically coating the tent material with chemicals like polyurethane or silicone. Ultralight backpacking tents may also use plastic materials such as PVC in constructing tent poles and other elements.
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, reveals the alarming truth about toxic flame retardants found in plastic and foam used in our furniture, electronics, and common everyday products.
Flame retardant chemicals have been associated with various health problems, including cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive issues. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some flame retardants can disrupt hormone function and development in humans and animals, while others can remain in the environment for years.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2012 discovered that children with higher exposure to flame retardant chemicals in their homes scored lower on IQ tests and were more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study indicates that flame retardant chemicals can negatively affect brain development and function.
Common types of flame retardant chemicals found in ultralight tents
Some of the most common types of flame retardant chemicals found in ultralight backpacking tents include:
- PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers)
- TDCPP (Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate)
- TCEP (Tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate)
Flame retardant chemicals are frequently added to the foam insulation and fabrics used in ultralight backpacking tents to comply with flammability standards.
Explanation of off-gassing and chemical treatments
Off-gassing is the process by which chemicals used in manufacturing are released into the air over time. Thus, ultralight backpacking tents can off-gas and release chemicals into the air for months and years after purchase.
Alternatives to flame retardant-treated tents
There are plenty of alternatives to tents with fire retardants, including shelters made of natural materials like organic cotton or tents made with recycled materials like plastic or nylon. Additionally, you can opt for tents treated with more eco-friendly options such as fluorocarbon-free DWR (durable water repellent) or TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane).
Table 1: Non-Toxic Tent Materials
This is one of the best materials because it’s biodegradable and free from chemicals or dyes.
Like organic cotton, hemp is a natural fiber that is biodegradable and easy to grow. It’s also believed to be resistant to dust, mold, and mildew.
This blended fabric has excellent breathability and insulation while also being quick drying.
Recycled nylon and polyester
Nylon is a lightweight and breathable material that holds up well in inclement weather conditions like rain or wind.
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.
Silpoly is a polyester fabric coated with silicone on both sides to make it waterproof and more durable. Eco-friendly versions of Silpoly are made from recycled materials like plastic bottles and scrap materials.
Conventional vs eco-friendly fabrics for non-toxic ultralight backpacking tents
Conventional fabrics often contain PVC, lead-based paints, and fire retardants, which are bad for both the environment and your health. On the other hand, eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, and bamboo have a lower environmental impact and pose fewer health risks.
Table 2: Fabric comparison
Conventional Tent Fabrics (Nylon and Polyester)
Non-biodegradable, energy-intensive production, contributes to plastic pollution
Can contain flame retardant chemicals and other toxic additives that can off-gas and pose health risks
Eco-Friendly Tent Fabrics (Cotton and Hemp)
Biodegradable, renewable resources, less energy-intensive production process
Naturally flame-resistant, does not contain harmful chemicals, may require more maintenance, and maybe heavier than conventional tent fabrics
Eco-Friendly Tent Fabrics (Recycled Polyester and Dyneema)
Reduce landfill waste, less energy-intensive production process, high durability
May still contain chemicals and not be as breathable as natural fabrics
Conventional Tent Fabrics: Virgin Nylon and Polyester
Nylon and polyester are the most used materials for ultralight tents because they’re tough, light, and can resist water and abrasion. However, the downside is that producing these materials requires a lot of energy, toxic chemicals and creates significant pollution.
According to the European Environment Agency, the production of synthetic materials like nylon and polyester requires large amounts of fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. These materials are also non-biodegradable, which means it can take hundreds of years for them to decompose.
Eco-friendly tent fabrics: cotton, hemp, and recycled polyester
Organic cotton is a great eco-friendly option for tent fabrics because it’s renewable, biodegradable, and breathable. Cotton canvas tents are often used for beautiful glamping setups because they’re beautiful, ventilated, and work well in dry, warm environments. However, cotton tents may require more maintenance because they aren’t naturally water-resistant.
Cotton tents can be treated with natural waterproofing treatments like beeswax or plant-based oils. Cotton tents are also usually more difficult to set up because they don’t utilize the same pole structure as conventional tents.
Hemp is a sustainable and eco-friendly material that requires little water and no pesticides. Hemp fabrics are naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and UV rays, making them great for outdoor use. They’re also more robust than cotton, making them a good choice for tent fabrics that need to withstand harsh conditions. However, like cotton, hemp needs to be treated with a natural waterproofing agent to improve water resistance.
If you’re looking for an eco-friendly option for your tent, recycled polyester is a great choice. Made from post-consumer plastic waste, it requires less energy and resources to produce and helps reduce plastic waste in landfills and oceans. It’s also water-resistant and difficult to puncture. However, recycled polyester is not as breathable as natural fabrics and can contain some chemicals.
Practical considerations when choosing a non-toxic ultralight backpacking tent
When picking out your ultralight backpacking tent, 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 ultralight backpacking tents, weight is a crucial factor. You want to ensure your tent is light enough to carry on long hikes but still durable and comfortable for your trip.
According to REI, an outdoor gear retailer, ultralight backpacking tents usually weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, with most falling in the middle. A tent weighing less than 2 pounds is considered “ultralight”, while a tent weighing more than 3 pounds is considered “lightweight.”
Space: How much interior and vestibule space?
The interior and vestibule space in ultralight backpacking tents can vary greatly depending on the design and intended use. Ultralight tents have a smaller footprint, reducing the livable and storage space. When figuring out how much space you need, consider your height, amount of gear, and the number of people sharing the tent.
Doors: How many do you need?
The number of doors in an ultralight backpacking tent can vary depending on the design. Some tents have one door, while others have two for easier access and ventilation.
Multiple doors are preferred when 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.
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.
Should I use tent poles or trekking poles?
Ultralight backpacking tents can use dedicated tent poles or trekking poles for pitching. Dedicated tent poles are usually more stable and easier to use, while trekking poles can save weight and space in your pack, but may be less stable and harder to pitch.
Popular tent pole brands used in ultralight backpacking tents include DAC, Easton, and Featherlite. These brands specialize in lightweight tent poles made from materials like aluminum and carbon fiber.
Floor and/or bug-proof mesh walls
Ultralight backpacking tents can have different types of floors and bug-proof mesh walls. Some have a waterproof floor and walls with a separate bug net, while others have bug-proof mesh walls and a separate groundsheet. A waterproof floor with a separate bug net can be more versatile, while bug-proof mesh walls with a separate groundsheet can be lighter and more breathable.
Weather: Bugs, rain and wind
When choosing a tent for buggy seasons, it’s crucial to choose a tent with a bug-proof mesh design that will keep insects out while allowing for ventilation.
A tent with a full-coverage rainfly also provide additional protection from insects. Choosing a tent with a vestibule area for storing gear is also a good idea, as this can help keep insects out of the main sleeping area.
When choosing a tent for rain, select a tent with a rainfly and a waterproof bathtub-style floor. A bathtub floor helps prevent moisture from seeping in from the ground, and a rainfly acts as an additional layer of protection. Also, make sure the tent has good airflow, as condensation can build up and make the inside damp and humid.
If wind resistance is an important feature, choosing a freestanding tent with a dome or geodesic design can provide more stability in high winds. A tent with a sturdy pole structure and guylines are also essential for extra stability.
Reputable non-toxic tent brands
To maximize your safety and protection while you’re in the wild, try to invest in trusted brands known for high-quality products. It will likely cost you more in the short term but ultimately cost less money because your tent will last for years longer.
MSR (Mountain Safety Research): With over 50 years of experience, MSR is known for its innovative and reliable camping equipment. Their tents often use eco-friendly materials like ripstop nylon fabric with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating, making them durable and environmentally responsible.
Big Agnes: Big Agnes is dedicated to creating sustainable outdoor gear, and their tents are no exception. They offer a range of tents made from lightweight, recycled materials, and their products often feature innovative designs that balance performance with sustainability.
Nemo Equipment: Nemo is an outdoor gear company that creates high-quality, sustainable products. Their tents are designed with lightweight materials and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, making them a responsible choice for eco-conscious campers.
Patagonia: Although primarily known for its clothing and accessories, Patagonia also offers a limited selection of tents that align with its commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Their tents are designed with high-quality, eco-friendly materials and are built to last.
Terra Nova: Terra Nova is a UK-based brand with a long history of producing high-quality, lightweight tents focusing on sustainability. Their tents are designed using durable materials and eco-friendly manufacturing processes, ensuring that their products have minimal environmental impact.
Vaude: This German outdoor gear company is committed to environmental responsibility and fair labor practices. Vaude offers a range of tents made with eco-friendly materials and processes and a focus on durability and performance.
Marmot: Marmot is another well-known brand in the outdoor industry, and they have a line of tents made with sustainable materials and practices. Their commitment to environmental responsibility extends beyond their products to their manufacturing processes and corporate policies.
Research and ask questions
It’s essential to read the label carefully and research all the materials to determine what ultralight tent to buy. Don’t be shy about contacting the retailer or tent company and directly asking, “What chemicals and materials are used to make your tents?”
Specific non-toxic ultralight tents
Here are some top choices according to customer reviews and ratings.
Less than 1 lb
Less than 2 lbs
BIG AGNES Fly Creek HV UL2 Tent
2 lbs, 5 oz.
Safety guidelines for using non-toxic ultralight tents
- Check the tent’s weight capacity to make sure it can safely support your weight and gear.
- Use the appropriate tent stakes for the terrain and weather. For example, use longer stakes for loose soil or sand and stronger stakes for windy conditions.
- Choose a flat and dry area to pitch the tent to prevent it from tipping over or getting wet.
- Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when setting up and taking down the tent to ensure it is done correctly and safely.
- Do not use flame or heat sources inside the tent, as it can cause fire hazards and release harmful chemicals into the air.
- If you have a camp stove, ensure it is stable and set up away from the tent’s walls or other flammable objects.
- Keep the tent well-ventilated to prevent condensation buildup and improve air quality.
- Store food and trash away from the tent in bear-proof, sealed containers to prevent attra