Camping with MCS and Mould Illness

This summer was my first time camping. I had never owned a tent in my life so I had a lot to learn. Here is an overview that should help you get you started with tent camping. More experienced campers helped write this post.

Tents

After borrowing a tent from someone who lives with me, I decided to buy a used tent off Amazon. It turned out to be a new/returned tent so it was perfect for me. I bought this tent. I went for the cheapo option here just to get started quick. I used it after one week (with the doors all open at first for air) but it was about 1 month before I found it offgassed and could close up the doors. There are a few other better quality brands with this style tent which is super easy and quick to put up and has a great set up with the amount of ventilation. Lightspeed and Coleman have this style and are recommended by sensitive folks. Mine leaked in a heavy rain.

For a heavy rain a tent with a really good fly is needed (that comes down almost all the way to the ground) like many of the REI or MEC brands or this or this. Some people find the rain flies smell more than the tents. Mine did not smell any different. The mould avoider pros recommend a beefy rain fly with the inner tent mostly mesh so keep as dry as possible. Check reviews for how well they hold up in the rain.

Some MCSers wash the tents to remove some of the smell but this also removes some of the waterproof coating so I decided not to try that. The mesh makes it easier to tolerate a tent sooner and prevents condensation. I haven’t had any condensation in mine.

Make sure you know how and can put up your tent alone (as well as set up other supplies like a stove) before you get to the campsite.

Staying Mould-Free


bwca.com
I bought a tarp for underneath to keep dew from getting the tent wet from below, and a tarp for over the tent for heavy rains. The bottom of my tent has stayed nice and dry. I take out and turn over the sleeping mat every day or two. If the bottom of the tent gets wet you will want to dry it in the sun within 24 hours. There are footprints made for underneath tents, but tarps are generally cheaper. (You tent may come with a footprint). You want the tarp underneath to be a little smaller to tucked in so that is is under the tent. No water should get between the two. Some people tuck it and the raise it a little with sticks or rocks so that no water gets in between.

Some people find they still do have to move the tent every couple of days due to condensation or grass dying underneath. You may want to keep a backup tent that is offgassed in case of mould or damage to your primary tent. I found regular tarps from the hardware store has a strong smell but offgassed within a few days. A silnylon tarp may be more tolerable but is more expensive.

Generally you string up the tarp in an A shape so that it's touching neither the tent or the ground. Some people dig a small trench around so that the water that drips off does not go towards the tent. Without a tarp I had a lot of problems including saturation of the tent and water coming through especially where anything was touching the tent.

Brands of Tents for the Chemically Sensitive

Moonlight thetentlab.com
Brands that MCSers have done well with are Moonlight (no FR, which is rare. Coated with silicone on the outside and polyurethane (PU) on the inside), Lightspeed (polyesters with PU coating) and REI Basecamp (polyester, rainfly and floor coated with PU) - the most sensitive should try one of those three brands with some of the most sensitive people I know using REI.

LL Bean (polyester with PU from what I have seen) and Big Agnes (nylon, polyester with PU and some silicone) have been tolerable for some. The jury is out on Coleman, some people tolerate it and others don’t. Some people find cheap Walmart tents are more tolerable than ones for hundreds of dollars. The Sierra Tensegrity is FR free and uses silicone and nylon with no polyurethane which may be better for some.

Gear Aid silnet silicone seam sealer and some footprints are coated with silicone.

For those doing extreme mold avoidance or living somewhere very damp you might want to go with the more disposable option. Expensive tents from REI and MEC tend to pack smaller and lighter and should be higher quality, however if they do go mouldy it is a bigger loss. If I am traveling with a tent I want one that's not going to break unexpectedly as many places around the world do not have stores that sell tents. A bonus with the expensive ones is how long they can last. Check also how much wind they can withstand.

Unconventional Tents

These tents are insulated and the foil on the inside will also block most of the VOCs from the fabric on the outside. They say you can sleep in them down to 0 degrees Celsius. They are 269 USD. They do not have any mesh for ventilation which I imagine would be quite the problem for condensation and fresh air. For 18 USD you can get this aluminum lined small sleeping tent. The aluminum on the inside is more tolerable than the usual plastic. Others have made homemade tents with materials they can tolerate like Tyvek, Reflectix or XPS sheets. More info on that here.

Some folks who cannot handle the synthetic tents have tried canvas tents. These do not hold up well to rain and high humidity and I would not use them in those conditions nor expect them to last as long. Some companies people like are Reliable Tent and Kodiak Tents.

Beds
My Mondo King
I bought the Lightspeed air mattress which is the one all the MCSers use. It offgassed quickly (2 days in sun) and felt comfortable. It's good quality but I had back problems with it. I ended up buying the thickest Thermarest instead and LOVING it. This is as comfortable as a bed to me, though many people put Thermarests over a camping cot, that seemed excessive with the Mondo (though cots can also help you get off a cold ground). I’m not that picky about beds so I was surprised that the airbed hurt. This one has a decent R value to keep you warm, the more insulation you have under you in the cold the better.

The Mondo is very comfortable and I usually wake up forgetting I’m in a tent. It has polyurethane in it but offgassed quickly in my opinion. I used it after 2 days of airing out (not ideal), in one week I found it to be really good, and one month to be near odourless to me. This is a super good mat for a trailer or other tiny home as well.

Safest bet
I bought the repair kit for it as well because this is going to be my main bed in the trailer. When it was hot and sunny I had no problems with condensation if I turned it every couple days and some days left it standing up to air out. As it got cold and I moved it into a trailer it became very challenging to keep this dry and mould free. It needs to have slats underneath and a waterproof cover without a doubt in a cold damp environment (or cover in mylar). You will want to flip or air out your sleeping bag in the day too to prevent mould.

For the ultra sensitive, an aluminized Thermarest is the safest camping mat. People usually go with the solid foam or the small inflatable ones as they pack much smaller than the delux one I bought and are more affordable. Here is a good overview of the closed cell foam pads. But since I'm backyard camping that worked better for me. Other very sensitive folks have tolerated the small air mats. I was very impressed with how little this one smelled (less than the air mattress) but I did not find it anywhere near as comfortable as my Mondo Thermarest. The solid foam over a camping cot is a set up to consider.

None of the Thermarests have flame retardants.

Bedding

I'm extremely pleased with this sleeping bag which is warm and offgassed after sitting in the sun for a week or so. I never even washed it. I used this in the summer and some days it was too warm. I use these polyester sheets. But there are specific sheets for Thermarests and other brands of sleeping mats. They are also polyester. You don’t want any cotton in your tent it doesn’t do well outside for long. I bought a polyester camping pillow which is small (and it has cotton on the outside!) so I also got this regular sized polyester pillow. I use waterproof pillow cases to prevent mould which I aired out and washed before using. They do smell at first but polyurethane coating does offgas to many people's standards.

Others like a silk sleeping bag liner which keeps you warm and keeps your sleeping bag cleaner. Is much easier to wash a liner than the sleeping bag. I'm using this one and it's quick to dry (surprised by how chemically it smelled, needed more washes than most fabrics). You can also make a liner by sewing a queen flat sheet in half.

Having only one sleeping bag is a challenge for me to get to washing it and drying it before dark. But I can get by with the silk liner and heating blanket if it's warm out.

Staying Warm and Cool

I used a heating blanket and was toasty warm in the tent. I thought the biggest problem for me would be stabalising my temperature but that ended up not being a problem at all. This is the heating blanket I use. After going through a lot of these, the trick is I want one big enough to cover me and I want the 10 hour shut off not the 3 hour shut off to keep me warm all night. They are challenging in how strong they smell when new and since they can't go in a dryer they can be difficult to clean in cold weather camping. For those concerned about EMFs you can use this to heat the tent without putting in on your body. It won’t be as warm but it is likely safer than a stand alone heater in a tent. Or, the fancier and possibly healthier option is an infared mat.

This 60 watt heated blanket (the smaller type) will run for most of the night off this solar kit. I have an extension cord running to my tent.  Hot water bottles can be put inside the sleeping bag at night. This one has been reported to be very tolerable.

You can also set up a small heater - I own this one (which took a while to offgas), or a portable AC (make sure your tent is big enough. If it’s your first time around the block, read the dimensions carefully, they run small). It's safer to place the heater up on a small table or round of wood to keep it from knocking over or blowing directly onto something that could melt or burn. For the AC you will need to cut a hole for the exhaust and seal around it.

Some people do use wood stoves in a tent. I'm getting this one for the cargo trailer but I do not have experience setting up a wood stove in a tent.

Use heaters, heating blankets or woodstoves at your own risk of fire or electrocution. They are not generally recommended for tents.

Camping Supplies

Other items I use for backyard camping
- I cooked everything in an Instant Pot when camping which I could do on my one extension cord
- Travel Berkey is still on my wish list
- Non-cotton fast drying travel towel, I use this one.
- Eye mask and ear plugs, and for really loud situations the triple down method of (foam + silicone + ear protectors (or noise cancelling headphones). The foam contoured eye masks smell and need some time to offgas, the fabric ones can be offgassed by washing. I always keep a backup mask. The construction ear protectors do smell quite strong. One benefit of noise cancelling headphones is some noises cannot be blocked without adding white noise over them.
- I still love this outdoor dryer
-Washable wool or silk long underwear, wool socks and wool hat, gloves to stay warm in cold weather

Flame Retardants

To avoid flame retardants you may consider the Moonlight tent or Sierra Tensegrity. Some of the canvas tents do not have flame retardants.

For sleeping mats, none of the Thermarest mats have FRs. Wildkin sleeping mats and sleeping bags are also FR free.

Two other sleeping bags that are FR free are Holy Lamb Organics (but they use cotton), and Kelty.

More Resources

Lisa Petrison's camping supply list
My guide to and list for a mould sabbatical
Planet Thrive MCS Survivalist Guide for Tent Camping
From EI Wellspring Safer Camping and Safer Camping Equipment

Thank you to Emily Snelling for content support and the members of Mold Avoiders on the Road for all the advice along the way.

Disclosure

Some of the links to products and supplies on this page go through my affiliate partners. Whether a product has an affiliate program or not does not influence by chose of recommendations. If you are going to purchase any of the items listed here and if you found my site’s content useful, please consider purchasing through my links - it will not cost you any more. Thank you!




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