I have updated this post after having spent 2 years of close to full-time camping. The focus is still on avoiding chemicals, but I am adding more unusual camping equipment and techniques for avoiding mold, updating new gear I really like, and some new tricks.
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For individual help on choosing the best camping gear for you, and how to keep it mold-free, you can schedule a consultation with me here.
Choosing a Tent Type
A Cheap and Easy Start – Pop Up Tents
I bought a pop-up tent as my first tent. I went for one of the cheapest options here just to get started quickly. I was able to use it after one week (with the doors all open at first for air) but it was about 1 month before I found it offgassed the chemical smell, and I could close up the doors. I was super sensitive at that time.
A number of brands have pop up tents in this style which are super easy and quick to put up and have a decent design in terms of the amount of ventilation (more on the style I prefer with ventilation below).
Mine leaked in heavy rain so I don’t like this style of tent, other than the fact that it is very easy to pop up and if you get a good tarp over it you will be waterproof – I always put a tarp over now, more on that later.
Anyone super challenged with putting up tents might want to start here.
Rain Fly Styles – Preventing Mold and Avoiding Chemicals
For heavy rain, a tent with a really good rainfly is needed that comes down almost all the way to the ground like many of the REI or MEC brands and this Backpacking tent (pictured left). I used the Winterial version of this style for many months.
When it comes to tents on the ground, this is the main style I look for because of the good rainfly which keeps it more waterproof.
Having mostly mesh on the inside also reduces your exposure to chemical offgassing and helps to prevent condensation on the walls.
Technically you don’t need a tarp over it, but I always add one. Water that soaks the tent walls will then soak anything that is touching the walls inside. The tarp is also needed so you can get in and out when it’s raining.
I just don’t trust any tent enough to not put a tarp over top. More on setting up tarps later in the post.
Sometimes the rainfly smells stronger than the tent and sometimes it smells less. Sometimes a super beefy tent bottom is the hardest part to offgas. It depends on the brand.
Some who are trying to reduce exposure to chemical offgassing and flame retardants wash the tents to remove some of the treatments, but this also removes some of the waterproof coating. That can work if you have a good tarp over.
I have not found any evidence that many flame retardants can be adequately washed out, but it can’t hurt to try.
I like putting tents in the sun to offgas them. Smell them to test, and also touch them to make sure they don’t cause skin irritation.
The more mesh you have the more airflow and the less exposure to offgassing.
Stealth Camping – How to Camp on Balconies
For stealth camping on patios and balconies of hotels or Airbnbs I have used a one-person tent like this, I also like this Tenton brand (I like that it comes with straps to strap it to a camping cot below to raise it up).
You can also look for tents called bevy tents.
I have tried just a mat with a mosquito net over it, and I have also just strung up the just the rain fly (with no tent) over a camping cot and Thermarest if there are no bugs.
Otherwise, you can cut out the bottom. Never put a tent with a bottom right over outdoor tiles, bricks or concrete for long, you will have a recipe for mold fast.
You can put up a tent on top of a camping cot like in the pictures of the Tenton one person tent linked to above. But to keep a low profile I prefer to use a camping cot and then string up the rainfly or mosquito net so it does not go higher than the balcony rails.
Putting up a Tent when Disabled
Make sure you know how (and that you can) put up your tent alone (as well as set up other supplies like a stove) before you get to the campsite. I have shown up to campsites with tents that are defective or missing parts more than once, so I would do a trial run for that reason as well.
For those who are disabled and limited, I made this video on Camping for Those Who Can’t Camp, to try and give some examples of how camping might still be possible for you.
Brands of Tents that are Low in Offgassing
Brands that seem to be the lowest in offgassing are:
- Lightspeed (polyesters with PU coating) REI (polyester, rainfly, and floor coated with PU)
- LL Bean (polyester with PU from what I have seen)
- Big Agnes (nylon, polyester with PU and some silicone).
- The jury is out on Coleman, some people tolerate it and others don’t.
- Some people find cheap Walmart tents especially Ozark brand is more tolerable than ones for hundreds of dollars. I have found Ozark tents to be very tolerable myself.
- Cuben fiber tents – Cuben Fibre is PET – polyethylene plastic, this can be more tolerable. Many have said these don’t contain FR, but Zpacks failed to get back to me on that.
There is no consensus on which brand is the best for those with chemical sensitivities. Everyone is so different, no tent is perfect, and for some less sensitive there might not even be a big difference between the brands. You have to test them out for yourself if extremely sensitive.
Silicone treated tents might be more tolerable for some, others may prioritize avoiding flame retardants.
10 Tent Brands without Flame Retardants 2019
- Sierra Tensegrity Elite tents (Amazon).
- Mountain Hard Ware tents made after 2019 are FR-free (Amazon).
- Fjällräven tents (Amazon).
- Diamond Brand tents (Amazon).
- Nemo Some tents do not have FR. (Currently, Apollo and Chogori, says the company).
- Moonlight All FR-free and coated with silicone on the outside and polyurethane (PU) on the inside.
- Winterial does claim no flame retardants in discussions although the brand is not one that publicizes this
- NatureHike has claimed no flame retardants, but it’s not written anywhere other than private emails (Amazon)
- Six Moon Designs SilNylon, Silpoly and Dyneema Tents and Tarps are not treated with any fire retardant materials
Some canvas tents do not have flame retardants.
Cuben fibre from what I have seen is FR-free
Camping Gear without Flame Retardants 2019
- None of the Thermarest Camping pads contain FR. Some have the Prop 65 warning (but for chromium)
- The Exped mats are FR free since 2015 the lot.
- REI brand sleeping mats are not treated with FR.
- 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), Kelty, Wiggy’s, and the down quilts by Jacks ‘R’ Better.
Should you go with an Unconventional Tent?
Aluminum Insulated Tents
These Billion Brick 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 I do not know how you would get fresh air. This doesn’t seem realistic for me.
The Shift Pod is another version of an insulated aluminum tent made for Burning Man. The benefit to the aluminum on the outside is it’s reflective of sun and heat. I would think it would have similar problems with condensation in most situations. It’s pricey at 1300 USD.
For 18 USD you can get this aluminum lined small sleeping tent (that might work for balcony sleeping or in an emergency, otherwise it’s difficult with a lack of ventilation). The aluminum on the inside is more tolerable than the usual plastic.
Make Your Own Tent
Others have made homemade tents with materials they can tolerate like Tyvek, Reflectix or XPS sheets. You can also make a more typical tent from untreated nylon.
More info on that in this post here.
Canvas Tents, are they Mold-Prone?
Some folks who cannot handle the chemicals in 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 rainy or humid conditions nor expect them to last very long at all.
I have seen canvas tents, specifically, Davis tents hold up for quite a long time in a dry climate and with a woodstove inside. It can take rain and even snow, as long as it can dry out. For long term living a gravel floor or a raised up wooden platform is best.
For those who don’t tolerate cotton or who want the tent to hold up a little longer than cotton canvas, you can make one out of hemp fabric, like this one. You can expect cotton and hemp to last a short while in dry non-humid climates where you are expecting very little or no rain for a while.
If you are making your own tent out of canvas or nylon you can use the tube structure of a conventional tent and build it around that.
Large Wall Tents
Wall tents can be canvas or conventional nylon/polyester. They have straight walls and are generally larger. Barebones makes a nylon polyester wall tent. Often this type has more weather poofing and will have flame retardants because they are set up for wood burning stores.
This can be a good solution for a longer-term camping tent. Though you should take care to keep the base dry (cut out or raised up) if you want it to last.
How to Stay Dry and Prevent Mold when Camping
How to Set up Tarps Underneath and Over Tents
I bought a tarp for underneath to keep dew from getting the tent wet from below (also called a footprint), and later I added a tarp for over the tent to stay dry. The bottom of my tent stayed nice and dry at first with the tarp underneath. I would take out and turn over the sleeping mat every day.
If the bottom of the tent gets wet you will want to dry it in the sun within 24 hours (flip it and then put it back and maybe move spots). You can use the footprints made for underneath tents but tarps are generally cheaper (your tent may come with a footprint).
You want the tarp underneath to be a little smaller and tucked in so that is is under the tent. No water should get between the two. Some people tuck it and then raise it a little with sticks or rocks so that no water gets in between. I tried that but in the end tent bottoms still went moldy on me if I had damp soil.
Putting a tarp overtop helped a lot. I found regular tarps from the hardware store has a strong smell but offgassed within a few days. I use a silnylon tarp which has a less offensive odor but is more expensive. Over most tents, you need 12 x 10 or 12 x 12.
Some people find they still do have to move the tent every couple of days due to condensation or the earth going funky underneath.
Keep a backup tent that is offgassed in case of mold or damage to your primary tent. Keep backup gear especially if you are out in the wilderness, if you need geat to offgas before using, or you cannot easily drive somewhere and buy new gear within one day.
Generally, you string up the tarp up in an “A shape” so that it’s touching neither the tent nor the ground, you can also string it up with a shed slant like the photo above. 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.
In a major storm, a larger tarp overhead helps, as well as a deep trench, and if things are going swampy you need to raise it up. I have used XPS sheets to raise up a tent in a storm before I found the Cot Tents.
The Solution to Tent Bottoms Going Moldy – The Best Tents For Avoiding Mold
After throwing out many tents and then moving on to cutting out the bottoms, I have finally found what seems like the perfect tent: the Ozark Trail Two-Person Cot Tent (easier to find at Walmart Canada than in the US right now).
This is an integrated camping cot tent (pictured left). This is off the ground so the bottom will not mold. They do have the one-person version available in the US.
This had a very low odor rainfly and a brilliant design with the rainfly coming down way past the cot to protect water from getting in between.
This is the best design of a tent I have ever used, though it’s flimsy and broke on me when I took it down. It is assumed here that the Prop 65 warning here indicates the flame retardant “Tris”.
Although I didn’t like the more common style of tent cot (I had trouble with ventilation and even dangerously spiked my C02 levels one night), if the Ozark Tent is not available I would use this style again, but with caution with ventilation.
The Winterial brand is a brand I have done well with, though it was the Camp Rite brand that I tried in this style. The Camp Rite brand does have a two-person version.
I quite like the Tenton tent that is made to strap on to their XXL camping cots. You will, as always, want a tarp over this whole set up since this rainfly does not come past the cot (though on their website they sell a larger rainfly which would).
The tree tents look interesting, as they are raised off the ground, but you have to keep in mind these are really just for sleeping as they don’t look very conducive to hanging out all day. I wonder how much they sag in the middle, and they are not as easy to put up. For those who are less picky about their sleeping environment resembling a regular bed, the hammocks with nets are interesting options that are affordable and easy to travel with.
Downsides of Cot Tents
Cot Tents are Bulky
While I would never want to go with anything other than the raised off the ground tent again, this won’t work when I travel. When I travel I need to fit a tent, sleeping mat, and sleeping bag into a duffel bag.
The sleeping mats I use are huge and unless I can send a tent ahead I would have to go back to cutting out the bottom. I would use plastic bags to encase things instead of the thick tarps I mention.
Cot Tents are Colder
It is cooler when you are raised off the ground. But I don’t find it any worse than cutting out a bottom and using a camping cot (in fact I find it warmer than tents with the bottom cut out).
Ozark is a very tolerable brand for MCS. I don’t like the flame retardants they use. I have not seen a flame retardant free brand in this style.
Should you Buy a Cheap Tent or Tent that Lasts?
For those doing 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 moldy it is a bigger loss.
On the other hand, 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. Check also how much wind and rain they say they can withstand. You pay more for quality and wind and rain protection.
But all of that said, I would never spend more than 150 on a tent unless I’m sure it’s going to last me a long time (like the ones raised off the ground).
Camping Mats – Low Offgassing
I started with the Lightspeed air mattress which is the one the most sensitive to chemicals use. It offgassed quickly (2 days in the sun) and felt comfortable. It’s good quality but I had back problems with it. Many with chemical sensitivities prefer the Intex polyester air mattresses.
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), and it’s a WAY better option to travel with, but I did not find it comfortable enough.
Go with the simplest, most compact option that is still comfortable for you.
Open Cell Foam Self Inflating
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 MondoKing (though cots can also help you get off the ground which is a benefit when you have cut out the bottom or are preventing mold under the bed).
I’m not that picky about beds so I was surprised that the airbed hurt. The Thermarest has a decent R-value to keep you warm, the more insulation you have under you in the cold the better.
The MondoKing is very comfortable and I usually wake up forgetting I’m in a tent. It has polyurethane in it but it offgassed quickly in my experience. 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 odorless to me.
This is a super good mat for a trailer or other tiny home as well. It does not contain flame retardants.
I bought the repair kit for the Thermarest as well because this is going to be my main bed in the trailer, I also carry the repair kit when traveling.
I still prefer the MondoKing, but another good and more affordable (but thinner option) I use is the Lightspeed version.
Camping Beds and Moisture
When it was hot and sunny (and I was not self-contaminating) I had no problems with condensation if I turned it every couple days and some days left it standing up to air out.
You will want to flip or air out your sleeping bag as well in the day to prevent mold.
As it got cold and I moved it into a trailer it became very challenging to keep a sleeping pad dry and mold-free. It needs to have slats underneath and a waterproof cover without a doubt in a cold or damp environment.
I wouldn’t recommend leaving this on any flat surface without a waterproof cover anymore. As I got more sensitive I was not able to keep this clean without an encasement.
If you are very sensitive to mold, very unmasked, or detoxing through your sweat, encase the sleeping mat right away. You can use plastic but I prefer these thick aluminized tarps as they also block the smell.
I used those tarps if I needed to block the smell but if I just needed to encase it I used contractor bags that are thicker than the usual garbage bags. I taped it airtight.
Closed Cell Foam Pads
For the ultra-sensitive to chemicals, 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 deluxe one I bought (and these are more affordable). They offgas less as well.
Here is a good overview of the closed-cell foam pads.
You can wash these unlike many of the other options. Some even pour boiling water on them to clean them and kill bacteria. You can’t do that with all camping mats.
I like this style of camping cot the best because it packs really small, it is relatively flat, works well with a Thermarest over it, and it’s low to the ground but high enough to have airflow.
I never put a camping mat straight on the ground anymore. I always want that airflow under the sleeping mat (if you are not using an integrated cot tent).
I would not say this style of camping cot is easy to take apart and put back if you are physically disabled.
Bedding – Low Offgassing
I’m extremely pleased with this Teton 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 am currently using this Abco bag, as when it’s on sale it’s a better price.
Others like a silk sleeping bag liner which keeps you warm and keeps your sleeping bag cleaner. It is much easier to wash a liner than the sleeping bag. I’m using this silk 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. You can either use a liner to get inside of first or to encase a blanket. This will keep the sleeping bag good for longer. The polyester liners can work too.
In warmer weather, I skipped sleeping bags and used heated blankets as my only blanket. As I started to detox through my sweat things got trickier.
Now I like a warm but washable option like these Pendleton Blankets. But, when it is very cold, a sleeping bag is really the warmest option.
I use these AmazonBasics polyester sheets. But there are specific sheets for Thermarests and other brands of sleeping mats. They are also polyester, the only difference is they are fitted exactly for the Thermarest.
You don’t want any cotton in your tent – it doesn’t do well outside for long if it’s humid, and it’s terrible when wet.
I bought a polyester camping pillow which is small (and it has cotton on the outside!)
I use waterproof pillowcases to prevent mold which I aired out and washed before using. They do smell at first, but polyurethane coating does offgas (to most people’s standards).
I have tried lots of camping pillows from the air and foam ones to the polyester ones, to just using a towel. You have to figure out which is the most comfortable for you. Some are very small. The air ones can be easy to roll off of. A towel is easy to wash if you need to wash gear often.
I keep backups of everything.
Staying Warm and Cool
I use a heating blanket in almost every climate. I thought the biggest problem for me would be stabilizing my temperature, but that ended up not being that difficult at all.
This is the Sunbeam 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.
I encase my current one in these liners and wash the liner every 3 days.
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 supposedly healthier option is an infrared mat.
This 60-watt heated blanket (the smaller throw size) will run for most of the night off this solar kit. I always have an extension cord running to my tent. A small heated blanket tucked into a sleeping bag provides a lot of warmth.
Using a Heater in a Tent
I have set up many a small heater in a tent. I check the wattage and if it has temperature control (I make sure my tent is big enough, note: read the tent 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. I make sure my tent is big enough to accommodate a heater with lots of space around it and it has an auto shut off when it falls over.
I use this little Honeywell heater because it’s super low wattage (250 watts).
I find it easy to accidentally shove this when sleeping and it can turn towards the tent fabric easily. That is just one reason why this is not technically recommended. It is a fire risk. This is what I have done, but I cannot officially recommend it.
If my tent is on the ground and I have a thick Thermarest, I can be warm enough with a heated blanket and that little heater down to 5 degrees C. I don’t sleep well when I’m cold, but everyone is different, so you will have to work out those details.
Other Heating Options
- Hot water bottles can be put inside the sleeping bag at night. This thermoplastic one has been reported to be very tolerable by many.
- Hand warmers work well when you don’t have electricity. Hand warmers in your sleeping bag can be a big help. The same company also makes sock liners. I have used these in power outages, they seem totally non-toxic.
- Heated clothes like battery-powered heated jackets, socks, and gloves can be a huge help as well.
- Wood stoves are used by some. I’m getting the Cubic Mini for the cargo trailer but I do not have experience setting up a wood stove in a tent.
Cooling a Tent: AC in a tent
For the AC you will need to cut a hole for the exhaust and seal with tape around it.
If I put anything electrical in a tent I make sure I have multiples layers of protection from getting wet from above or flooding from below.
Use heaters, heating blankets AC or woodstoves at your own risk of fire or electrocution. They are not recommended for tents.
Here is the longer version of my Amazon visual list of my Favorite & my Unusual Camping supplies I bring with me on a Sabbatical.
(See the comment box on each image to see my notes on each one).
A few examples here:
- 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, this ceramic filter is ideal for well water or any other water where filtering for biological pathogens is the priority (otherwise I buy water)
- Non-cotton fast drying travel towel, I use this one.
- Earplugs, and for really loud situations the “triple down” method of foam + silicone + ear protectors (or noise-canceling headphones). The construction ear protectors do smell quite strong. One benefit of noise-canceling headphones is some noises cannot be blocked without adding white noise.
- The foam contoured eye masks smell a little and need some time to offgas (I put them in the sun). It is still my favorite mask many years later. The fabric ones can be washed to remove chemical treatments. I always keep a backup mask.
- I still love this portable dryer, I got a tonne of use out of that. I used it outside with an extension cord, undercover.
- Washable wool or silk long underwear, wool socks, and wool hat, gloves to stay warm in cold weather
- Hand sanitizer (that’s my favorite non-toxic brand) and baby wipes are essential in a tent (unscented of course, for yourself and also if there are bears around).
- My guide to a mold sabbatical
- Avoiding flame retardants
- EI Wellspring Safer Camping – How to choose a campsite with extreme MCS
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
I spent 2 years living outside in tents in order to bring down my chemical and mold sensitivities and get back into regular housing.
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