Not many practices make us as sensitive to our environmental footprint as camping does. A few days without unlimited water and electric charging can show us how little we need and how much we ordinarily waste.
The ‘leave no trace’ principle is the bedrock of camping culture. Yet no matter how diligent we are on the campsite, the full environmental impact of the activity starts as the beginning of the supply chain. For most camping gear, including tents, this means oil wells and petroleum refineries.
Plastics entered outdoor recreation equipment between 1960 and 1980, replacing the heavy cotton canvas tents with chemically waterproofed, feather-light blends of nylon, polyester, and other synthetic fibres. The new synthetics offered the lightness and durability that outdoor applications prizes above all else. What’s more, they delivered these features at cost. Consumers and manufacturers have never looked back.
The accessibility of these materials came at a cost. Plastic waste and microplastic shedding from tents and climbing gear now litter Mount Everest. Unregulated campsites can be pollution hotspots, including from microplastics from plastic ropes and hammocks. Tents are also among the most difficult products to recycle since they combine many different fibre types.
Some tent manufacturers are making strides to lighten the environmental impact of camping using one or more of three strategies: making tent material from waste plastics, addressing toxic synthetic coatings on their products, and upcycled used products.
Outdoor brand Vango leads on recycled choice
Many outdoor companies today offer one or two recycled tents in their range but Vango Scottish outdoor gear has the largest choice of post-waste tents on the market, making it easier for consumers to find more sustainable products that meet their needs.
Vango’s feedstock of choice for their recycled tents are discarded plastic bottles. Plastic bottles may look and feel very different from tent sheeting. However, the transformation from bottle to tent takes place in three steps: first, whole bottles are broken into pellets, which are broken into fibres, which then become weavable.
Vango first brought out a sustainable range in 2021 when it brought out the Earth Collection, covering smaller and family-sized tents. The collection extends to rucksacks, chairs, and sleeping bags also made using recycled single use plastics.
In 2022 the company followed up with another recycled range: the National Trust range. They partnered with the British conservation group to source discarded plastic bottles from rivers, seas, and garbage dumps around the UK.
Sheeting materials are not the only environmentally damaging aspect of conventional camping gear. There are also the chemical additives used to make them water-repellant.
Typical tents are covered in polyurethane as well as a layer of toxic synthetic chemicals called ‘durable water repellents’ made from PFAS. These are the ‘forever chemicals’ that feature in so many consumer products but are highly toxic. They persist in the environment and our bodies, where they raise the risk of liver damage, thyroid disease, fertility issues, and cancer.
The polluting potential of PFAS-coated tents does not stop at the factories where they are applied. PFAS-covered products shed when used, meaning your tents and gear might be poisoning the environment wherever you take it.
With consumer awareness about the dangers of everyday forever chemicals growing, many tent manufacturers are starting to remove PFAS from their products or entire product line.
NEMO is a British outdoor equipment company that has made a PFAS-free recycled tent in the form of its NEMO Osmo Dagger. Rather than replacing PFAS-based repellent with a different chemical treatment, they instead weave the Osmo’s 100% recycled polyester and nylon sheeting fibres to be super-water repellent without the need for any chemical coatings.
British outdoor brands seem to be leading the way on sustainable tents. Terra Nova Equipment is another that is working towards phasing out PFCs from all their water repellent treatment substances. The majority of their tents are now free of the chemicals while they have also dropped the substance from some of their groundsheets and fly sheets.
Another option for consumers wanting to avoid PFAS-based water repellent is to buy secondhand products that have already shed their chemical coating. From here, consumers can choose less toxic versions of DWRs to apply themselves.
One of them is Power Shield by Portalec, launched in 2022. This 100% bio-based PFAS-free coating for waterproofing outdoor gear do not come from food crops and are non-GMO, minimising its carbon and ecological footprint further.
Nikwax is another biobased durable water repellent that can be applied to any outdoor material at home. This is a much older brand that has an established name within the industry. Nick Brown who founded the company that makes it first developed the substance in 1983 when he became interested in the environmental issues of the time: ozone depletion and aerosols.
However, achieving a PFAS-free water repelling substance still remains a work in progress for the outdoor gear and apparel industry. The toxins versions are ubiquitous, covering almost every water-resistant piece of fabric on the market.
There is still no obvious alternative that matches the toxic stuff on performance. One anonymous brand in the industry told academic researchers into sustainable outdoor equipment that: “there are no PFC-free technologies that achieve the same level of water repellency as fluorocarbon technologies. And we must live with that,” saying also that moving away from the toxic forever chemicals risks losing customers that value performance.
Canvas tent maker develops blueprint for circular partnerships
The two key advantages of modern plastic tents is that they are light and entirely waterproof. However, on almost every measure of environmental benefit and consumer comfort, cotton canvas tents win every time: they are more breathable, more insulating (keeping inhabitants cool in summer and warm in winter), and they biodegrade safely, even without industrial processing.
Traditional canvas tents made from cotton are still sold today but their heaviness and comparatively weaker water-resistance means they have found a niche as semi-permanent structures. They are usually found in gardens and at events rather than in hikers’ backpacks.
Nonetheless, canvas tents still hold an important place in the market, catering to increasing numbers of ‘glampers’ and eco-tourists who want to retain some home comforts even while minimising the environmental impacts of their outdoor stays.
US Diamond Brand Gear is one company keeping canvas tent craftsmanship alive by making hand-sewn ‘wall tents’ for events, garden offices, and glampers. Unlike modern plastic tents, they use both wooden stakes and ropes for structural support, involving a lot more labour to set up but offering more permanent shelters.
A scientific approach to sustainable camping gear
Diamond Brand’s emphasis on traditional sewing techniques to make their products is something they say contributes to product durability, working against the disposable consumer culture that can proliferate at lower price points in the outdoor tent market.
Diamond Gear’s resistance to throw-away outdoor gear culture now extends from artisanal manufacturing methods to R&D into sustainable raw materials. For example, it partnered with masters students at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill University to conduct environmental impact assessments of one of their products.
Diamond Gear’s investigation found their Hestia tent had the biggest environmental impact through the steel frame which supports the structure. The second largest came from the cotton fabric. They also found that organic cotton made a 75-80% saving on ordinary cotton.
A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a precise way of quantifying a product’s impact on the environment. It involves measuring how much making, using, and recycling a product contributes to carbon emissions or air and soil products. The assessment can be conducted for the whole life of the product, or for a demarcated slice of it.
Scientific assessments of full life impacts are still all too rare in the outdoor equipment sector and Diamond Gear Brand appears to be the only tent company to have publicly released LCA findings on their products. This seems to be a missed opportunity so far for manufacturers since LCAs could be an impactful way for tent manufacturers to differentiate recycled products on a competitive market.
Partnerships key to expanding recycled tent market
In another project, again in consultation with Duke University students, the company looked at alternative raw materials for expanding their sustainable gear. The students proposed that Diamond Brand Gear could source deastock or waste fabric from large outdoor clothing brands and set up a profit sharing arrangement for brands that supplied the feedstock.
Right now there is a huge gap in circular partnerships between big retailers and manufacturers of camping equipment. End-of-life return options operating only at a very small scale at individual outlets. This circular business partnership offers an effective blueprint that tent manufacturers elsewhere could implement.
Vintent and the upcycled aesthetic
There is one company however that has made upcycling tents their core business model. UK’s Vintent creates bespoke patchwork tents from used gear, sometimes discarded at festivals. This makes for one-off designs with sustainability credentials that are almost unmatched on the market.
These tents are not generally for individual adventurers – the business pitches their full-height tents at festivals and events around the UK. Like Diamond Gears, these shelters can become a lot more elaborate than the standard outdoor tent, with awnings, curtains and verandas.
Vintent and Diamond Gears’ efforts show that tent manufacturers catering to the events industry are pioneering circular design. However, due to the physical demands that hiking gear has to meet, the outdoor industry tends to lag further behind. Recycled plastics have a major disadvantage in this market since they tend to be more fragile than new materials.
However, the aesthetic appeal of Vintent’s whimsical designs suggests a solution. An important part of making recycled camping gear more mainstream is to make re-used waste materials become more desirable to the consumer.
Objects made from reused materials could hold much greater imaginative value than they do today. Companies could achieve this by drawing on the results of life cycle assessments that compare their impacts to a standard plastic tent. However, marketing that invests used materials with meaning is also important, for example, by telling stories about how using recycled gear aligns the camping experience with a genuine conservationist ethic.
Manufacturers of recycled tents need to spin stories around their waste fibre materials, which still lack the appeal of performance or user-experience related innovations in outdoor gear. Yet urging tent consumers to connect more with recycled options should be easier than in many other segments, given that environmental awareness is something that often inspires people to explore the outdoors.