Bell Tents all look similar online but there is a huge difference in quality and features. Sadly these days, there are a lot of low quality tents out there. Our advice is buy the best quality you can afford – ultimately it will save you money and disappointment further down the track.
We have been manufacturing Bell Tents for nearly 5 years and through our experience with using them day in, day out with our events company, Under Sky, we have learn’t a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. We get almost zero returns and this makes us happy.
We bought our first bell tent nearly ten years ago. Back then bell tents weren’t readily available in Australia, so we imported ours from the UK. As we travelled around campsites and festivals throughout Australia, a steady stream of curious admirers asked us about our magnificent tent. As we clocked up some serious miles in our bell tent, and with so many excited campers asking us where they could get their own, we started researching how we could create and manufacture bell tents that were even better-suited to Australian conditions.
Thus, Homecamp was born!
This bell tent buyer’s guide shares our original research on what makes the best bell tents. It’s what guides our design and manufacture of quality bell tents today. In this guide we’ve included tips on what to look for when buying a bell tent, the lowdown on canvas vs. nylon fabrics, sizing, waterproofing, ease of setup, fire resistance, hardware quality and other important features of bell tents. We hope you find this resource useful in guiding you through how to buy a quality bell tent.
You can always email us to arrange a call back or with questions at [email protected]
What is a bell tent?
The bell tent is a circular canvas tent with a single 2-3-metre supporting pole in the centre. Its bell-like shape is created with tension from guy ropes around its circumference. Similar to the famous Sibley tent invented by US army officer Henry Hopkins Sibley in 1856, the bell tent was primarily used in the 19th century by explorers. The bell tent’s sound structure, ease of assembly and ability to accommodate many people made it a popular and superior solution. In modern times, bell tents have found a new devotion of campers who recognise their major advantages. Modern bell tents still use the same basic shape, but vary widely in terms of features and quality.
Why are bell tents so popular?
Different folks have different reasons. Many people love the aesthetically-pleasing, sleek look and simple design of bell tents. Others find the ease of set-up and pack-down a massive advantage. The fact that you can stand up in a bell tent and walk around is another major draw. No more lying down to put on your jeans! Some people just love the feeling of sleeping under canvas.
Bell tents are a popular choice for camping at music festivals, for ‘glamping’ accommodation and increasingly-favoured by families and couples as a comfortable structure to base outdoors adventures from. They are an excellent tent for a car camping in more adventurous locations – a comfortable, sturdy and reliable tent for camping out in the wilds.
How to set up a bell tent
Bell tents are extremely easy to set up, so you get a lot of space for minimal effort. Bell tents usually include just two poles: A centre pole and an entrance pole. Setting up your tent is as simple as unrolling it, pegging in the groundsheet (floor), and inserting the centre and entrance poles. You then peg in the guy ropes – the ropes attached to the outside walls of the tent – and tension them. This creates the super-strong structure and distinctive shape of a bell tent.
Canvas bell tents vs. nylon bell tents
The vast majority of modern tents are made out of synthetic fabrics such as nylon or polyester (and other derivatives). Some of these synthetic materials are a good choice for camping and hiking because they are cheap to manufacture, lightweight and waterproof. Synthetics can also be durable, low maintenance and quick-to-dry.
There are however, distinct disadvantages to synthetic fabrics: they don’t ‘breathe’, i.e. let air pass in and out of the tent. This causes condensation to form in the inside of the tent, which can lead to annoying drops of water, moisture damage and mould. Compared with canvas, synthetic tents provide little insulation, so they will get hot in warm weather and cold in cool weather. Synthetic tents are also notoriously noisey in wind.
After continued exposure to the sun, synthetics will eventually fade, deteriorate and ultimately end up as landfill. Synthetics are often manufactured in a toxic environment which is a danger to workers and the environment.
Why buy a bell tent made from canvas?
Canvas is a woven fabric, originally made of hemp fibre and now commonly made from cotton, or a cotton mixed with polyester. Canvas is extremely durable, has a very natural feel and breathes nicely – preventing condensation. Canvas insulates against cold air in winter, stays much cooler in summer, and protects you from harmful UV rays.
Good quality, thick cotton/poly canvas has a high tensile strength and can withstand storm conditions well.
One of the best features of sleeping under canvas is the way it refracts the morning light, giving your tent space a great vibe. Canvas tents also don’t make that annoying flapping sound in the wind.
The main drawback of tents made from canvas is their weight – they can get heavy. Canvas is also more expensive, with price increasing with the quality of canvas being used. Canvas also requires a small degree of maintenance (see the care section below).
Are canvas bell tents waterproof?
No. And yes. Canvas can’t technically be called ‘waterproof’, as it is a weave and therefore has tiny holes in-between the fabric fibres. However, most modern canvas is treated with a waterproofing agent (see the care section below) and should not leak, however the first few times a canvas tent is exposed to rain there may be a small amount of water soaking through the canvas and seams. This is completely normal and the fibres need to be exposed to water to contract and form a waterproof barrier. To avoid this you can set-up your tent in a garden, hose it down and let it dry several times – this is called ‘seasoning’ and will shrink the canvas and tightening it around the stitch holes along the seam making your tent rain proof.
What to look for in a canvas bell tent
There are bell tents and then there are good-quality bell tents – and everything in between. With more and more competing manufacturers it can be difficult to separate the good from the not-so-good.
Canvas is the single biggest expense for tent manufacturing and the quality of the canvas is closely connected to the price of the tent. You will find some brands sell 100% cotton tents but in our experience this is not recommended for any serious camping with too many issues and not enough advantages. We recommend a canvas with a mix of cotton and polyester…
Australia has some of the world’s most extreme weather conditions and terrains, and there are many advantages of having a polyester fibre woven into a cotton canvas base. The polyester in the weave means that the canvas is much more hard-wearing, less prone to snagging and tearing, easier to clean and quicker to dry. Cotton/poly canvas has much less shrinkage than 100% cotton. The canvas is breathable, but takes on less water and therefore is much more resistant to mould and mildew than a pure cotton canvas.
Canvas comes in different weights measured by GSM (Grams per Square Metre). The industry standard for large tents is between 8oz and 12oz canvas – between 260 and 400 GSM.
The quality of poles, zips and pegs varies widely. Seek out a tent that has strong centre and entrance poles and heavy-duty pegs. Zippers are the single biggest point of failure in any tent – YKK branded zippers remain the best. Paracord guy ropes with metal sliders are also helpful, as these take on a lot of tension and are a potential point of failure out in the field.
Size: 4m or 5m?
Most bell tents range between three and six metres. In our opinion, 3-metre bell tents are a little odd looking and a touch on the small side. As a rule of thumb, 4-metre bell tents can sleep 3-4 adults comfortably, while 5-metre bell tents can sleep 5-6. However, you could justify having a 5-metre tent for just two people and enjoy the extra room, utilising storage space for your clothing and cooking gear. There are 6-metre bell tents available, but think about transportation – they are significantly heavier.
Other key bell tent features to look for:
Stitching and finish
There is a huge variance in the quality of stitching on a canvas tent. Look for double stitching and reinforced stitching in key areas of stress. Many brands cut corners and even the thread they use is sub standard.
Zip off floor
Some modern bell tents have the ability to zip off the floors. This is really handy for cleaning the tent and also gives you the ability to roll up the walls and get the air flowing on warmer days. Look for tents that use high quality zips (YKK) as any potential issues with zips can be expensive to fix.
Another popular feature is the fly-screen or ‘mesh’ wall, underneath the roll-up side walls. This is a great feature and means you can take advantage of the breeze and the 360-degree view without getting bitten by annoying critters.
All tents should be made from flame-retardant fabric. Alarmingly, many aren’t. Even if you don’t have a campfire, accidents do happen. Make sure your bell tent is made with fabric that passes Australian or US fire regulations, so that if a fire occurs, you don’t find out the hard way that it’s been made with flammable materials. If you are planning on a hot tent set-up using a portable wood fire stove such as the Winnerwell Woodlander or Nomad Stove then please consider pairing it with a Homecamp Classic Bell tent – this tent has been treated correctly for fire retardancy and compatible with this kind of setup.
Other bits and pieces
Look for tents that have extras such as pockets, entry points for electrical plugs, and extra-large bags for ease of packing away.
How to care for your canvas bell tent
Always put your tent away dry. Cotton-Poly is more forgiving than pure cotton, however if your tent is stored while damp there is a good chance that mildew will set in. If left, mildew will damage your tent by creating holes in the fabric. Tent canvas can be cleaned with warm water and a mild detergent, then left to dry before storing in a dry place.
Bell tent FAQs
Q: Help! I’ve broken a part of my tent, can Homecamp repair it or provide a replacement?
Of course! We understand accidents do happen so we stock repair kits and spare parts. Please contact us and let us know exactly what needs fixing.
Q: I want to use my tent for permanent or semi-permanent accommodation. Any tips?
Although our tents have not been designed for this specific purpose, they are very durable and with the right care, should last you many seasons and beyond. We recommend building a simple wooden deck or platform for your bell tent, this will allow water runoff in wet weather. we also recommend investing in a footprint ground tarp and nylon cover for your tent (ask Homecamp for details).
Q: I purchased a Frontier stove, is it safe to use inside my bell tent?
Yes. The Frontier stoves by Anevay are specifically made for use in bell tents, tipis and cabins. We recommend you also purchase the Flashing kit to properly equip your tent with a chimney exit point. As always with fires and flames, never leave your stove unattended when lit.
Q: What cleaning products do you recommend for cleaning my bell tent?
For cleaning, use a soft brush with some very weak detergent or mild castile soap. A natural recipe for cleaning your tent is:
- 5 litres of water
- 1/2 litre of vinegar
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
- 1 teaspoon of castile soap
Other cleaning products we have used include:
- Iosso tent & camping gear cleaner (USA).
For removing mildew you could try:
- Iosso Mould & Mildew Stain Remover & Canvas Cleaner (USA) or
- Coi Leisure Mould Rid (Australia)
Q: I had to pack down my tent in the rain, what next?
We recommend you unpack your tent within 24 hours to allow it to dry quickly. Hanging it over your clothesline or a table and chairs will do. Don’t pack away your tent until it’s completely dry