June 12, 2020
By Lisa Petrison, Ph.D.
This page provides details on tarp shelters, tarps, insect nets and tent supplies.
Following is a list of links to additional articles in this series on non-toxic and less-toxic tents and shelters.
Items marked with an asterisk (*) on this page are stated by their manufacturers as being free of fire retardants.
Tarps and Survival Blankets
There are several reasons to consider using a tarp setup rather than a conventional camping tent or camping shelter.
For one thing, tarps can be configured in different ways depending on the circumstances.
They can be used as cover for posessions or as a ground cover as well as a shelter.
Especially considering how flexible their uses are, they take up a minimum amount of space in the vehicle or in a backpack.
They can be washed much more easily than a tent and dry more quickly.
They are light in weight, which is very important for backpacking purposes.
The main downside of tarps is that they tend to take some practice and skill to put them up properly and securely.
In addition, tarps often can be easier to use when there are trees or other solid large supports that can be leveraged for stability, rather than relying solely on tarp poles and guylines.
Especially for those who are not very experienced, having more than one person involved in the setup may make it much easier to get a tarp securely in place.
Unfortunately, properly using tarps is an art that I have never really mastered, due in large part to my having spent most of my time camping in desert locations.
At minimum, figuring out how to use tarps rather than a rainfly to effectively protect my tent from rain seems like it could be really helpful in increasing air flow and comfort.
I would like to take an in-person or online class in the topic, I think.
A few of the resources listed below provide some basic guidance, however.
Well-rated higher-end tarps – such as the AquaQuest and Sanctuary ones sold on Amazon – often use a fabric called “silnylon,” which is a mix of silicone and nylon that is said to work well at repelling water.
The Sea to Summit Escapist is an even more expensive tarp using silnylon that gets good reviews.
I took a look at the REI Camp Tarp in an REI store. It looked lovely and felt good to me, but that fact that it is polyester rather than silnylon means that it may not work as well in really heavy rain.
Recently I purchased a Survival Series Thermal Reflective Waterproof Blanket via Amazon. I like it because one side is reflective silver (useful for keeping things cool in sunny weather) and the other side is a muted khaki-type green (rather than bright blue or some other obtrusive color).
It feels okay to me, though it did require a day or two of sitting out to off-gas the plastic. I probably will purchase at least one more of these.
I’ve listed a few additional tarps that get good Amazon reviews that I would consider buying myself as further options.
Insect netting without any fire retardants or other toxic chemicals is widely available and generally feels really good to me.
I therefore think that it could be a good idea to keep in mind ways to use it, since conceivably that could work out better than would a conventional shelter or tent.
For instance, some of the larger nets listed below could be used to cover an entire shade shelter for use during evening hours or at other times when bugs become an issue; could be used to protect hammock sleepers; or could be used to cover an open door of a van in order to allow more air circulation.
Even large nets take up a minimum amount of space and are not very expensive, and therefore could be worth bringing along “just in case.”
Note that some kinds of insect mesh may not be sufficient to keep out biting gnats (“no see ums”) and that choosing a finer mesh (or having a selection on hand since the fine mesh may not breathe as well as the looser mesh) may be a good idea.
Tent-shaped insect nets also are available from a number of companies.
These usually use just one overhead attachment point, which can be attached to a tree or other object.
While most of the mosquito net tents listed have not been treated with chemicals, the more expensive Sea To Summit version provides the option of a treatment called Insect Shield.
This is permethrin, which is a synthetic chemical that is meant to act like the chemicals present in the chrysanthemum flower and which is potent enough to actually kill bugs (rather than just deterring them).
I use Insect Shield clothing to protect my dogs from ticks and fleas, since he spends a lot of time running in the woods and rolling in grass in Lyme-endemic areas. And sometimes if I am being really attacked by bugs, I will attach one of his shirts to my hat.
The shirts work really well for this purpose, and I think are preferable to oral or “spot-on” medications that are given to dogs to kill these bugs (and which are recognized by the FDA as causing epilepsy in dogs) routinely in my area.
I don’t think that I would want to breathe the chemical all night in a tent though.
Insect Net Camping Tents:
Tarp shelters are primarily designed for backpackers who want to minimize the amount of gear that they bring with them on the trail.
The shelters consist of a large piece of fabric providing a basic shield from the rain and sun, as well as a lightweight mosquito net tent providing protection from bugs.
This kind of shelter provides minimal protection from cold weather, since backpacking is done mostly during the warmer months.
Even for those who are not planning to backpack, this kind of shelter may have some appeal for certain situations.
For one thing, it takes up a minimal amount of room in the vehicle and thus may serve as an excellent backup shelter in case something happens to the main shelter.
In addition, the quality of the air inside may be better than with a traditional tent, since the design provides plenty of air circulation and since mosquito net is generally not required by law to be treated with fire retardants.
It also may have flexibility with regard to being used for day or for sleeping use, as conditions change.
Therefore, although this type of shelter is not necessarily inexpensive, it may have the potential of serving a need.
Although I have not managed to get any information on the exact type of fire retardants that the Sea To Summit Escapist Tarp and Bug Tent may include, the product seems to get good reviews and felt okay to me when I looked at it in an REI store. The tarp is made of a siliconized nylon fabric with a polyurethane inner coating.
The Six Moon Designs Haven Tarp and Nettent is said not to include fire retardants and could be worth considering, although I do not yet have any reports on products from that company. The tarp is made from high-strength silicone nylon fabric.
REI makes a well-reviewed Quarter Dome Tarp that could be used with a lightweight bug tent (such as those discussed later on this page). It is made from polyurethane-coated nylon.
The Big Agnes Deep Creek is a day shelter consisting of a medium or large tarp. The tarp is made from polyester taffeta with polyurethane coating.
A “Bug House” to fit under the Big Agnes Deep Creek tarps previously was available but does not seem to be offered by the company at present. Perhaps one from previous years could be found online though.
The Nemo Bugout is a tarp with mesh sides attached, which usually is set up by tying it to two trees and staking down the other two corners to the ground. The canopy fabric is polyester.
Some of the tents offered by Tarptent also could be classified as belonging in the category of modified tarps coupled with separate lightweight insect tents. All Tarptent products have tarps or roofs made of ripstop nylon impregnated with silicone.
Tarptent products (all of which are free of all fire retardants) are discussed in more detail on the Lightweight Tents page.
Sea to Summit:
Six Moon Designs:
I think that Kim Goodwin’s idea of sewing a simple tent out of Tyvek is an interesting one, since that material is waterproof but free of fire retardants as well as certain other problematic chemicals.
Kim was severely reactive to various chemicals and to mold toxicity at the time that she used this tent, and said that it was nevertheless okay for her.
She reports that the tent cost about $100 in materials and that it was pretty easy for her to sew.
Ideally, I would like to find a seamstress or tailor living in a state such as Colorado where fire retardants are not required in camping shelters to make tents like this, so that people would not have to sew the tents themselves or search for someone to make them.
If anyone is interested in taking on that role, please let me know!
I also have thought a lot about ways to easily convert a regular cot into a tent cot, since that could be especially useful when “stealth camping” on balconies.
Although manufactured tent cots have their uses, they also take up a lot of room in the car; are expensive; do not provide much air circulation; and may not be tolerated by more reactive individuals.
The larger mosquito nets mentioned above could be useful to protect those sleeping on a cot from bugs if there are overhead attachment points, for instance.
Another possibility is the use of the Cabela’s Cot Tree, which can be attached to the ends of a regular cot.
This creates a high “headboard” and “footboard” – thereby providing the potential for mosquito netting to be draped over the cot.
I think that this would work really well for sleeping on a balcony or covered terrace.
With the addition of a tarp or shade shelter to protect against rain and provide some privacy, it could work for other camping situations as well.
And as a bonus, the cot tree could serve as a drying rack for socks or other small items after they are washed by hand.
Tyvek Tent Information:
Tent Cot Accessories:
I have camped mostly in the desert and have found the standard lighter-weight tent stakes that have come with my tents to be wholly inadequate with regard to being able to be pounded into the hard dry ground.
Heavy steel tent stakes have worked much better for me, for car camping use.
Some people say they have resorted to concrete nails – such as may be available at stores like Home Depot – for that purpose.
Sturdy aluminum stakes also may be appropriate for car camping use, especially in situations where the ground is not quite as hard.
Smaller lightweight stakes are more appropriate for backpacking use, since in that circumstance the weight savings is more important than the functionality of the stakes.
Having a decent mallet to pound the stakes into the ground is also essential for car camping, and this is the kind of thing that is easy to leave behind at the campsite.
After one bad experience where I lost my mallet, I started carrying around a spare mallet (as well as some spare stakes).
Bungee cords, guylines and ropes may be used to secure tarps or other camping structures and also may have a variety of other camping uses. These generally are readily available at camping stores or at big-box stores like Walmart.
Some people camping in rainier areas have reported that a trowel (a small shovel) has been helpful to them in terms of redirecting water away from their campsite.
A trowel also may be used when camping off-grid to bury human waste in “cat holes.”
While I would suggest a larger trowel for car camping, The Tent Lab makes a lightweight trowel for backpacking use that gets good reviews.
I carried a small broom and duspan with me on the road, to sweep dirt out from my tent.
It’s also a good idea to carry a small tent repair kit along on the road, especially if a good backup tent is not going to be on hand.
A “footprint” is a piece of heavy-duty tent fabric that is the same size and shape as the tent, to protect the tent bottom from being damaged.
I think that using the footprint also protects the tent from mold, since it is easier to rinse and air dry the footprint on a regular (even daily) basis than it would the whole tent.
Although I always puchased the dedicated footprint made by the manufacturers for my tents, recently I have heard good reports about ground covers or footprints made out of Tyvek (a fabric that is often used to protect unfinished buildings from water intrusions).
I’m especially interested in a company called CampCovers, which sells on eBay footprints made of Tyvek for a wide variety of tent styles.
The CampCovers footprints are much lower priced than the tent footprints that are designed to go with most tents, and possibly they would be better since they likely would not include any fire retardants and might be more durable.
Tent/Tarp Staking Tools:
Additional Tent Supplies:
About This Blog
Living Clean in a Dirty World provides useful information for those working to recover from chronic illness through mold avoidance, clean living and related therapies.
It is presented by Paradigm Change.
Previous Living Clean Guides include:
Lisa Petrison is the founder of Paradigm Change and Mold Avoiders. She holds a Ph.D. in marketing/psychology from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Paradigm Change also provides a wide variety of additional information on the topic of the role of mold toxins in chronic illness.
The remarkable life of Erik Johnson (including details about the Lake Tahoe epidemic) is summarized in the book Back from the Edge, written by Lisa Petrison.
A PDF copy of the book is available for free to those signing up for occasional email newsletters from Paradigm Change.
Erik’s approach to mold avoidance is outlined in the book A Beginner’s Guide to Mold Avoidance.
It is available for free in PDF format to those signing up for occasional email newsletters from Mold Avoiders.
The book is also available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.
The Mold Avoiders discussion forum is run by Paradigm Change and is designed to help those who are seriously interested in pursuing the approach to mold avoidance described in the book to get their questions answered.
Only those who have been approved as Mold Avoiders Participants can read or post in the forum.
The Mold Avoiders Facebook group is designed for more casual conversations among those who are interested in this approach to mold avoidance.
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