Tents are a fantastic way to explore the outdoors. Waking up and unzipping your tent to breathe in that fresh air and soak up the sights… there really is nothing quite like it.
We all know that outdoor living can get a little chilly at times, and taking a camping stove on your trips is a real game-changer – nothing can beat that hot meal after a day out in the wilderness or that morning cup of coffee after a chilly night…
Plus, campfires are a great way to reheat and give your campsite a homey feel, and kids (and let’s face it, adults too) love eating marshmallows that have been slowly roasted over a campfire.
But as much as we love bringing these homey touches to the great outdoors, there’s always that niggling thought at the back of your mind… is the tent actually fire resistant? People knock camp stoves over and embers get blown in the wind – these things are unavoidable. But how can you make sure that these little mistakes don’t escalate into a full-blown fire incident?
Well, here we’ll go through what makes a tent fire-resistant, which kind of tents have fire retardants (and, crucially, why some of them don’t) and then move on to how you can avoid those fires from forming in the first place – because there’s no need for your dreams of camping by the fire to go up in smoke.
Before we go into which tents are fire-resistant, let’s take a look at what makes tents resistant to fire in the first place. Tent fabrics are known for being very flammable, which means that they catch fire easily and that the flames will spread quickly – which for a lot of us explains those frantic shouts from your parents every time you ran past the camp stove as a child.
If only there was a way to prevent them from catching fire in the first place or to slow down the spreading of the fire… oh wait, there is. Flame retardants are substances that prevent or slow down the spread of fire. If we apply them to flammable substances, such as the material of a tent, we can essentially make that substance resistant, or at least more resistant, to fire.
So how do these magical chemicals work? Flame retardants are applied to lots of commercial products, and they can act in a variety of ways. Some remove heat from the burning process, which slows down the combustion reaction, others coat the surface of the object, which puts a barrier between the ‘fuel’ and the oxygen, and others dilute the air that is close to the flame, which makes it less flammable.
There’s a huge range of flame retardants out there, and some tents will use more than one kind. The overall effect, however, is the same – your tent is less likely to catch fire and, if a fire does occur, it will spread more slowly.
Okay, so there are tonnes of substances out there that can reduce the likelihood of our tent burning to a crisp… surely all tents are using them? Actually, this isn’t the case because, as we’ll see in a moment, the use of flame retardants on camping tents is a very hot topic.
Way back in 1976, the Industrial Fabrics Association International outlined a voluntary standard for the flammability of recreational tents. This standard, known as CPAI-84, aimed to reduce tent-based fire incidents, and it became the norm for your average backpacking tents to meet these requirements. The fact that this regulation was largely intended for large paraffin tents carrying a huge fire risk, such as those used for circus tents (that are often packed with people), is often forgotten.
During CPAI-84 testing, several aspects of how the material responds to fire are measured, such as how far the flame spreads, how much material falls off the burning fabric, etc. As long as these aspects meet the requirements, a fabric passes the test – no matter what chemicals are responsible.
Recent advances in modern science mean that we now know a lot more about chemicals and their effect on the body than we did when the test was established. Current research now suggests that many of the chemicals used commonly as flame retardants pose a threat to human health and to the welfare of the environment.
As a result of growing concerns over this potential threat to public health, Duke University teamed up with several US tent manufacturers to investigate these chemicals further (see here for the full paper). By testing hand wipes used before and after tent set-up by a group of volunteers, they found that levels of these potentially harmful chemicals on the skin were higher after tent set up. Similarly, air samples were collected from inside assembled tents and flame retardants were shown to be detectable, indicating that these retardants could be inhaled.
So, it is very likely that by setting up a flame-resistant tent and breathing the air within it, you will increase your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals through your skin and lungs.
Although the thought of breathing in harmful chemicals while you sleep isn’t a nice one, it isn’t time to panic just yet. Flame retardants are added to a variety of consumer products, not just tents, and a certain level of exposure isn’t enough to cause you harm.
However, the results do suggest that further research is needed if we’re to fully understand the effects of these chemicals.
If you’re worried about exposure in the meantime, here are some tips on how to avoid exposure from tents from the scientists themselves:
Although many tent brands continue to use standard flame retardants and think that further investigation is required before they ought to change their ways, some tent manufacturers have taken the findings of the Duke study into their stride.
For instance, REI, one of the partners involved in the study, have phased out certain additives from their products and are instead seeking better alternatives. Similarly, Mountain Hardware, a well-known outdoors brand, was quick to drop the use of flame-retardant chemicals. By skipping the application of flame retardants to one side of the tent material, one side of the tent fabric is left free. Mountain Hardware quickly realized that by adding silicon to both sides of the tents, rather than just one as had been done previously, they could produce tents with a greater tear strength and better water-repellent properties.
This isn’t quite as simple as it should be, as there are a few states that require CPAI-84 compliance, although there are definitely workarounds. For instance, Nemo has started to produce some flame-retardant-free tents, such as the Nemo Aurora, but it won’t ship them to these states.
Alternatively, it’s possible to skip the flame-retardant treatment process and still pass the CPAI-84 test, as Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Tarptent, Zpacks, and other brands have done by using alternative fabrics (Dyneema fabrics) that have flame-resistant properties without the need for any additives in the first place. This fabric is a particularly excellent choice for lightweight, durable tents.
As much as we don’t want to be exposed to harmful chemicals, we don’t want our tents to catch fire either. So, what can we do to avoid those campsite mishaps? Here are some top tips for avoiding fires in the first place.
When you arrive at any campsite, there are some things you should always bear in mind:
Cooking while camping inevitably increases your fire risk, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Just remember the following precautions:
If the worst comes to the worst and your tent catches fire despite all your precautions, make sure you do the following:
Although it’s not the nicest way to start a camping trip, we also recommend giving a safety briefing when you arrive on site. Make sure that all of your group knows how to avoid fires in the first place, and is familiar with the emergency procedure for what to do if a fire does break out.
Clearly, we still have a lot to learn about the impact of flame retardants on human health. The study by Duke has paved the way for future research in the area, and despite the need for further investigation and more conclusive results, many outdoor brands are taking the notion that flame retardants could be bad for health seriously. Some brands have opted to remove all flame retardants entirely, while others are slowly removing the worst offenders. Either way, there does seem to be a general trend towards stopping the use of these harmful chemicals.
However, we have to remember that fires in tents are serious, life-threatening incidents. Flame retardants don’t have the power to stop tents from catching fire entirely – at best, they buy you a little more time to get out of there. Having a tent that has been treated with flame retardants by no means replaces the need for being vigilant about fire safety when camping.
And, if we are to remove the use of flame retardants on health grounds, then we need to be even more strict with our fire precautions. After all, the last thing we want is to exchange exposure to harmful chemicals for an increase in campsite fires.
Basic techniques, such as spacing tents far apart and not cooking inside your tent, are essential measures that can save lives. Giving a quick safety briefing at the start of your trip only takes a few minutes, but it could save the lives of your family or friends. Fortunately, if you follow basic fire safety steps, the chances of you experiencing a tent fire are pretty slim, regardless of whether your tent has been treated with fire retardants.
And who knows, maybe in another 10 years we’ll have discovered a new wave of harmless flame-resistant chemicals. But whether we have or haven’t, if you follow basic safety steps, there’s no reason why spending time in the great outdoors can’t be both safe and fun.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.