After having spent two years of close to full-time camping while I was highly chemically sensitive, I have a lot of opinions on tents! I tried a lot of different styles during that time.
This article looks at different style tents and which ones are easier to keep mold-free, which brands are low in offgassing (and chemical odors), and which ones are free of flame retardants.
There are so many more options now than when I started!
This post contains affiliate links wherever the brands I like have an affiliate program. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
First, Choosing a Tent Style
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 didn’t like this style of tent for the long-term. The pros were 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 tents now anyway, 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 NatureHike Backpacking Tent (pictured left).
I also used the Winterial version of this style for many months and was very happy with it. (This brand claims no flame retardants).
When it comes to tents on the ground, this is the main style I look for.
Because this style is mostly mesh on the interior shell, this reduces your exposure to chemical offgassing and it 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 helpful 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.
Bivy Tents or One Person or Stealth Camping
For stealth camping on patios and balconies of hotels or Airbnbs I have used a one-person tent like this Winterial brand. 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 (that one is not treated with pesticides).
I have also strung up just the rain fly (with no tent) over a camping cot and sleeping mat when there are no bugs.
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 cut out the bottom of the tent if need be).
You can put up a tent on top of a camping cot like in the pictures of the Tenton one-person tent. But to keep a low profile when balcony camping I prefer no tent – just the camping cot and then string up the rainfly or mosquito net so it does not go higher than the balcony rails.
Brands of Tents that are Low in Offgassing/Low-Odor
I like putting tents in the sun to offgas them. Smell them to test them, and also touch them to make sure they don’t cause skin irritation. You may have to test them by sleeping in them to test for tolerance if you’re chemically sensitive.
Silicone-treated tents might be more tolerable for some, others may prioritize avoiding flame retardants (that list follows).
This list of low-off gassing tents is compiled based on tents that chemically sensitive people have done well with.
Tent Brands Low In Offgassing (for the mild-moderately sensitive):
- 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.
- Winterial may work for some folks. I used this exact one (which Amazon says I purchased 3 times) as I was becoming less sensitive. I like that it is affordable and doesn’t contain flame retardants.
- Nemo Aurora
Tent Brands Very Low In Offgassing (For the moderately to extremely sensitive):
- Cuben fiber tents – Cuben Fibre is PET, this can be more tolerable for the very sensitive though they are more expensive. Many have said these don’t contain FR, but Zpacks failed to get back to me on that.
- Moonlight by Tent Lab – Are FR-free and coated with silicone on the outside and polyurethane (PU) on the inside. This brand is often touted as being better for the chemically sensitive but I have found there is not enough consensus on this. With many not tolerating it. At a steeper price than your average tent, you should test it out first. They send fabric samples.
- Six Moon Designs – silicone-nylon fabrics, very low odor,.
If you are too sensitive for any of these brands there are more options further down in this post for those who have to go more extreme.
Some who are trying to reduce exposure to chemical coating and offgassing wash the tents to remove some of the treatments, but this also removes some of the waterproof coating. That can still work if you have a good tarp over.
There is no single consensus on which single 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.
Note: Tent Styles and Offgassing: 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. The more mesh you have the more airflow and the less exposure to offgassing
11 Tent Brands Without Flame Retardants 2023
- Nemo Aurora and Chogori tents don’t have FR ($700-850 and $250-300)
- Winterial does claim no flame retardants in discussions, although they don’t have an official statement on this. ($100-300)
- NatureHike has claimed no flame retardants in private emails and confirmed by factory reps who sell to wholesalers. ($100-200)
- Six Moon Designs none of their tents are treated with flame retardants and they have many silicone nylon options which are low in offgassing (Silnylon) ($270-340)
- Mountain Hard Ware tents made after 2019 are FR-free ($200-310 price range)
- TarpTents ($270-500 range)
- Fjällräven tents ($500-1000 range)
- Diamond Brand tents ($300-350)
- Moonlight are FR-free and coated with silicone on the outside and polyurethane (PU) on the inside. ($430-600)
- TETON Mesa Canvas Tents and the Sierra Canvas Tents do not contain flame retardants. The company has given contradictory info on whether ALTOS Backpacking Tents are FR-free ($100-$600)
- The North Face all tents free of flame retardants as indicated by their chat (though it’s not clear that is accurate) ($150-$1000)
Some canvas tents do not have flame retardants.
Cuben fibre from what I have seen is FR-free.
I have not found any evidence that many flame retardants can be adequately washed out.
Other Camping Gear without Flame Retardants 2023
- Thermarest Sleeping Pads don’t contain FR. Some have the Prop 65 warning (but for chromium).
- The Exped sleeping mats are FR free since the 2015 lot.
- REI brand sleeping mats are not treated with FR.
- TETON sleeping bags, camp pads, and pillows have been tested to verify that they do meet CPAI-75 standard without adding any fire-retardant treatment to the materials
- Wildkin sleeping mats and sleeping bags are also FR free.
- Other sleeping bags that are FR free are Holy Lamb Organics, Kelty, Wiggy’s, the down quilts by Jacks ‘R’ Better, and Lucky Sheep.
- See the post on Non-Toxic Sleeping Bags for more info.
Unconventional Tents for the Extremely Sensitive
Aluminum Insulated Tents
These tents have the benefit of insulation, and the aluminum coating reduces offgassing. They don’t do well with humidity inside the tent if there is a warmer inside.
WeatherHyde 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.
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.
Home Made Tents
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.
Some folks who cannot handle the chemicals in the synthetic tents have tried canvas tents.
Are they Mold-Prone? 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.
Hemp Canvas Tents. 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.
Cot Tents – The Best Tents For Avoiding Mold
After throwing out many tents and then moving on to cutting out the bottoms, I finally found what seems like the perfect tent: the Ozark Trail Two-Person Cot Tent. Unfortunately, it looks like it was discontinued in 2020.
This style of integrated camping cot tent (pictured) is really the most ideal setup in my experience This is off the ground so the bottom will not mold.
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.
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).
It was the Kamp 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 setup since this rainfly does not come past the cot (though on their website they sell a larger rainfly which would).
These cot tent brands are coming and going. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of demand which is a shame because for mold prevention these are ideal.
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 overseas. 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 the sleeping mat, 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.
Tree and Hammock Tents
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 in 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.
How to Set up Tarps Underneath and Over Tents
At first, the bottom of my tent stayed nice and dry 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 it 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 now use a silnylon tarp which has a less offensive odor, and is more durable 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.
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. I would not attempt camping without a tarp overhead again.
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.
Part 2 looks at non-toxic sleeping bags, liners, blankets, pillows and sleeping mats.
- My guide to a mold sabbatical
- EI Wellspring Safer Camping – How to choose a campsite with extreme MCS
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 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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