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. And 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.
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 have been made popular as the tent of choice at music festivals, for glamping accommodation, or as a comfortable, sturdy tent when camping out in the wilderness. Bell tents are increasingly-favoured by families and couples alike as a comfortable structure to base outdoors adventures from.
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 many other derivatives). Some of these synthetic materials are a good choice for camping and hiking because they are cheap to manufacture. Synthetics are also durable, lightweight, waterproof, low maintenance and quick to dry.
However, there are distinct disadvantages to synthetics. Synthetic fabrics 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 moisture damage and mould. Compared with canvas, synthetic tents provide little insulation, so will not keep you warm in the cold. They also don’t stay cool in warmer weather. After continued exposure to the sun, synthetics will eventually fade and deteriorate. Synthetics are often manufactured in a toxic environment which is a danger to workers and the environment.
Canvas is a woven fabric, originally made of hemp fibre and now commonly made from cotton, or a cotton mix. Canvas is extremely durable, has a very natural feel and breathes nicely – preventing condensation. Canvas insulates against cold air in winter, stays cooler in summer, and protects you from harmful UV rays.
Why buy a bell tent made from canvas?
Some manufacturers offer bell tents in various fabrics. If tent weight is not an issue (such as when you’re car camping) then canvas bell tents offer many more benefits. If you’re hiking, then you’re probably not likely to be looking at a bell style of tent anyway, as it’s really too big to be considered practical for hikes.
One of the best features of sleeping under canvas is the way it refracts the morning light, giving your tent space a soft, romantic vibe. As mentioned, canvas bell tents will stay warmer in winter and cooler in summer. 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 and hose it down to let it dry – this is called ‘seasoning’ your tent.
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 closely connected to the price. Our bell tents are manufactured with either 100% cotton or a cotton/polyester mix – both fabrics have their inherent advantages.
As you can tell by the name 100% cotton is a natural fabric that is treated with water proofing, anti mould, and UV protection. In our experience 100% cotton works well in lighter weights (250 – 300 GSM) as it drys quicker and breathes nicely – no condensation inside the tent. 100% cotton is generally less expensive than a more technical hybrid fabric such as Cotton/Poly and at the lighter weight is suited to three season camping.
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. The canvas is still 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 380 GSM.
Our new Touring Tent uses a 350 GSM canvas which can actually be described as waterproof rather than water resistant. This canvas is literally two types of canvas that are combined to give the best of both worlds results – an outer poly-spun weave laminated with an inner 100% cotton. This canvas looks and feels amazing and performs incredibly well and although 350 GSM it feels a lot thicker and tougher than almost any other tent canvas we have found – you can read more here.
The Touring Tent Sundown version is coated with with a new technology that blocks out up to 90% of sunlight, making the tent cooler and darker (fantastic for people who don’t like early starts, families and party goers).
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. Extra-thick 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.
Our new Homecamp Touring Tent has a diameter of 4.5-metres and height of 2.75-metres which takes care of the 4-metre vs 5-metre debate. Not too big and not too small, this tent also compensates for weight by using hard anodised aluminium poles thus reducing the overall weight and compensating for a heavier canvas (350 GSM).
Other key bell tent features to look for:
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 fly-screen or ‘mesh’ walls, 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.
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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?!
A: 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
More questions on choosing the right bell tent?
We think our bell tents are the best-designed and manufactured in the world. If you’re looking to upgrade your camping setup like never before, check out our range of Homecamp Bell Tents.