CAMPING | Should I Buy A Canvas Bell Tent? The Ultimate Bell Tent Buying Guide

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Bell tents are more popular than ever, but is a canvas or polycotton bell tent right for you? I share my personal experience and highlight some of the pros and cons of camping with a canvas bell tent, guiding you through the decision making process and highlighting the various fabric and size options available.

In This Bell Tent Guide

  1. Introduction to bell tents
  2. Bell tent sizes
  3. Bell tent materials
  4. Using a wood burning stove in your bell tent
  5. Pros and cons of owning a bell tent
  6. Bell tent buying tips & recommendations
  7. Bell tent buying options
  8. Our bell tent reviews

1. Introduction to Bell Tents

I’ve been camping in canvas bell tents for more than 5 years now, and I much prefer the more natural feel of cotton canvas tents, however,  buying a bell tent can be a difficult decision, as it is almost impossible to see an erected bell tent in a camping shop or at a tent show. They are very fast and easy to up up, and are a great option for young families in particular but there are some downsides to owning a bell tent too, not least their cost and bulk, which can make transporting them a pain. Read on to find out about all the pros and cons of owning a bell tent, as well as the pros and cons of the various different bell tent material options that are now available.

Inside our 6m Rainbow Bell Tent from Boutique CampingInside our huge 6m bell tent aka “The Big Top”

Are Bell Tents The Hipsters Of The Camping World?

Bell tents certainly stand out, and whether you choose a the traditional beige or sand colour or go for a bright or a funky patterned bell tent like ours from Boutique Camping, they certainly do have a touch of hipster cool to them. Practically speaking though, bell tents are very fast and easy to put up. Whilst inflatable AirBeam style tents do come close to the set up time of a bell tent, when well looked after, a canvas tent also gives you extra durability.

The stunning new star canopy Emperor Bell Tent from Boutique Camping

2. Bell Tent Sizes

Modern tents usually state that it’s a 4-man or 6-person tent etc. however most bell tents don’t tend to give you that information and isntead focus on the size of the bell tent, typically ranging from 3 metres up to 7 metres. Tent manufacturers will often over optimistically state that a 5m bell tent for example will sleep 8 people or even more, so you might assume that a 5m would be far too big if you’re a small family or a couple for example.

The maximum number of people you can fit in a tent relies on you being packed in like sardines on the tiniest little narrow SIMs money can buy, and rarely takes into account the fact that everyone in that tent will also have luggage with them. Even if you don’t take loads of camping gear with you, you’ll still need space for bags and ‘stuff’, at the very least torches and camp chairs if not camp furniture. Try fitting a few camp chairs AND 8 people and all their stuff into a 5m bell, and suddenly that doesn’t make for such a comfortable camping trip!

Boutique Camping Weekender Aztec Print Bell Tent

So whilst technically that 5m bell can sleep around 8, if you are looking for comfort, in our opinion as bell tent users for the past 5 years, a 5m is ideal for up to 4 adults, less if you want to set up camp furniture and use proper camp beds instead of mattresses on the floor.

Some bell tents have much higher sides than others, which means you get far more usable space.

Remember too that the sides of bell tents slope down, so if you are using camp beds or want to set up things like a kitchen unit, you’ll have to bring them in away from the sloping walls in order to fit them in, which means they take up more space than if there were able to sit flush again the wall. Some bell tents too have much higher sides than others, which means you get far more usable space, and the height of doorways differs significantly too. If you don’t want to have to bend over to walk in and out of your bell tent, make sure you choose a bell tent from a manufacturer that provides generous door heights as this varies greatly depending on the size, style and manufacturer of the bell tent.

Boutique Camping Star Canopy Bell TentThe Star Canopy Bell tent has a very wide and tall entrance and relatively high sides for maximum usable space inside

3. Bell Tent Materials

Traditionally bell tents were made from 100% cotton canvas. Some of the benefits being that with proper care, canvas tents can enjoy a long life and they are highly breathable too. Some of the downsides however are that 100% cotton canvas tents generally cost more, they are not waterproof on their first use and they require a fair bit of care to keep them in good condition. With this in mind bell tent manufacturers have been researching alternatives, and as I write this, the following options are currently available.

  • 100% Cotton Canvas
  • Polycotton
  • Oxford Canvas
  • Polyester

100% Cotton Canvas

Canvas tents are made from natural materials so have lovely organic and natural feel to them. They are highly breathable, are great at regulating temperature and with care, they are hard wearing. Some of the downsides of a cotton canvas bell tent however is that you have to be very careful that you never put the tent away wet as mould and mildew will damage and rot the tent. Cotton canvas tends to fade over time and as well as being a more expensive option it’s also heavy. A big disadvantage with cotton canvas is that it needs weathering-in. On first use, cotton canvas tents are not fully waterproof, so the first time it rains expect puddles inside your tent! Once the fabric has got wet however, the fabric knits itself together more tightly, and so it will be waterproof on subsequent uses.

Polycotton

A polycotton tent is a blend of natural cotton and man-made polyester. These kind of tents still retain the natural look and feel of cotton canvas but they don’t require quite as much care and attention as a cotton canvas tent. They are still pretty heavy, they definitely aren’t a cheap option and they do still require more care than a modern Polyester tent, but they are a bit more resistant to mould and mildew. Colour holds better on a polycotton tent and they dry more quickly than cotton canvas tents.

Oxford Canvas

This is a new type of canvas developed by Boutique Camping, it’s a lot easier to care for and is a little lighter than cotton canvas too. The price point is generally lower and it does retain, at least from a distance, the look of natural cotton canvas. It’s fully waterproof from the first use and the colour won’t fade. This kind of tent offers very high levels of waterproofing and it’s much less prone to mould and mildew. The main downside however is that you do lose the natural breathability of cotton canvas

Polyester

Polyester is the fabric of choice for most modern tents, although an increasingly large number are now using polycotton. The main benefit of Polyester is that it’s so much cheaper than cotton canvas and polycotton. Polyester tents are much lighter and have a smaller pack size too, they are also quick to dry and don’t require as much care as cotton canvas or a polycotton tent. The down side is that you don’t get the natural look and feel of cotton canvas and polyester isn’t breathable.

4. Using a Wood Burning Stove in Your Bell Tent

One of the big positives of having a bell tent from our point of view, is the ability to use a wood burning stove inside one. If you are intending to convert your bell tent for this purpose, you’ll need to fit a flashing kit to the tent, which means, if you don’t already have an opening in your bell tent, you’ll need to cut a hole in the side of your tent. Take it from me, it’s a nerve-wracking but simple process – even I managed to fit ours without a problem.

Inside our 6m canvas bell tentTake fire safety seriously when using a wood burner in a bell tent

Wood burners should be used with great care. Take a look at this safety advice from The Camping and Caravanning club.

 

 

Glow wood burning stoveGizmo cat approves (this is his delighted face)

Bell tent flashing kitBell tent flashing kit for Frontier Stoves

Tips on using a wood burning stove

  • A wood burning stove can only be used in a cotton canvas bell tent with a properly installed ‘flashing’ kit or vent. This creates an opening for the chimney to go through and allows smoke to be vented.
  • Your bell tent will still need to be well ventilated when a wood burning stove is in use, even with the flashing kit and chimney in place.
  • Wood burning stoves are made from cast iron and are, as you might expect, heavy, so do consider their weight and size before buying.
  • Check that your canvas has been specially treated to make it fire retardant. If it hasn’t, you can buy it and treat the fabric yourself but remember that this may impact the natural breathability of the cotton canvas.
  • Make sure you use a carbon monoxide alarm, take a small fire extinguisher and we also recommend a fire blanket, poker and heatproof gloves.
  • Thoroughly read the stove manufacturers advice and safety instructions before you use a wood burning stove.
  • Use an appropriate heat-proof base for your wood burning stove to sit on, we also recommend placing a thick rug under that so you don’t risk damaging your groundsheet.
  • Remember that not all campsites allow fires, so check in advance to ensure you won’t be breaking campsite rules by using one.
  • Oxford canvas and polyester bell tents are NOT suitable for use with wood burning stoves.

5. Pros and Cons of Owning A Bell Tent

Bell Tent ProsBell Tent Cons

What’s Good About Bell Tents?

  • Very fast to put up and take down
  • Anything up to a 5m can be easily erected by just one person
  • They come in lots of different designs and colours and so they are ideal for people who like to stand out
  • Cotton canvas tents are breathable and help to moderate temperature more effectively (no waking up on a summer morning feeling like an ill fated lobster)
  • Interior space is more flexible than many modern tents as inner tents can be purchased and positioned to suit your needs
  • With many styles of bell tent, the sides can be rolled up for maximum airflow, ideal for hot summers days
  • There is a large amount of floor space, making bell tents ideal for sleeping lots of people, assuming you have no camp furniture inside the tent with you
  • Most cotton canvas bell tents are compatible for use with wood burning stoves (you’ll need a proper chimney opening making for this however and always double check with the manufacturer first)
  • With proper care they will last many years

What’s Not So Good About Bell Tents?

  • Their purchase price can be quite high compared to a basic ‘modern’ tent. Bell tents start at around £350 and go up from there depending on the size and brand you choose
  • Most bell tents don’t have windows, just half-moon vents low down, which means unless the front doors are open they aren’t great for people watching or admiring the view from inside
  • You don’t get a separate kitchen, living or sleeping area, unless you invest in additional inner tents
  • Usable space can actually be less than you’d think due to the sloping sides limiting where you can put, for example, a kitchen unit or a table
  • 5m or larger bell tents can be difficult (heavy) to put up alone
  • There’s only one place you can hang up or attach things from, a little round metal loop positioned high up on the centre pole
  • You’ll need to invest in looking after the canvas and treating it every couple of years is recommended
  • Traditional cream/beige colour bell tents show up dirt and grass stains and can quickly look grubby whilst coloured and patterned cotton canvas bell tents fade over time
  • Many bell tent entrances are too low to walk in and out of without bending, which can be a pain for those with mobility issues

6. Bell Tent Buying Tips & Recommendations

  • Unlike most modern tents, some bell tents come with separate ground sheets, we prefer and would recommend the kind with zipped or sewn in ground sheets
  • Due to the nature of canvas, bell tents are rarely fully waterproof on their first use. To be fully waterproof, the fabric needs to be wet first, and once it dries the fabric knits together, making it fully waterproof
  • Some bell tents don’t have zipped or fully closable front doors and instead are tied shut – great if you want a bell tent for re enactment or LARP, not so great in terms of practicality, particularly in wind and rain
  • Depending on the modern style tent you have and the weight of poles, you may find bell tents are bigger and heavier to carry, so bear this in mind if you need to carry your tent any distance and this is especially true if the tent is wet during take down.
  • Wet canvas bell tents weigh roughly the same as a small planet
  • Expect to pay around £500 for a decent 5m bell tent
  • Buy your bell tent out of season. Like all camping gear, if you buy at the end of the year or over winter you’ll get a much better deal.
  • Ex-rental bell tents from glamping companies are often sold off cheaply on eBay, so do keep your eyes open if you’re on a tight budget or after a bargain.
  • Many bell tents do not have fly sheets covering the air vents or doors, so our advice is to choose a bell tent that does
  • If you have a 5m bell tent or over, some campsites will charge you extra for an oversize or even a double pitch
  • Canvas can take a longer time to dry than a modern tent does

7. Bell Tent Buying Options

Here are some buying options you might want to consider. I mention Boutique Camping most frequently because I purchased a bell tent from them a few years ago and it was utterly brilliant, we sold it when we replaced with with the next size up. Many of my friends also have bell tents from Boutique Camping, and are also extremely happy and as a result, they come particularly highly recommend by us so we’ve included several tents from them below, but have also included some picks from various other bell tent retailers too to provide you with choice.

8. Our Bell Tent Reviews

Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to spend time camping in a vast array of different tents, including several different bell tents. You can see all of our tent reviews here or click below for individual bell tent reviews. We started off as customers, and have gone on to work closely with Boutique Camping, hence why a lot of our reviews feature their tents!

A Selection of Bell Tents Available

Boutique Camping Star Canopy Bell Tent⛺ 5m Star Canopy Bell Tent from Boutique Camping £695

5m Rainbow Bell Tent With Zipped in Ground Sheet⛺ 5m Rainbow Canvas Bell Tent with zipped in groundsheet from Boutique Camping £624

Boutique Camping 4m Tangerine Orange Bell Tent With Zipped in Ground Sheet ⛺ Boutique Camping 4m Tangerine Orange Bell Tent With Zipped in Ground Sheet £489.00

Robens Klondike Tipi Tent⛺ Robens Klondike Tipi Tent from Winfields Outdoors £469.99

Bell Tent Boutique 5m Bell Tent⛺ Bell Tent 5 metre with zipped in groundsheet by Bell Tent Boutique £489

5 metre Canvas Bell Tent from Bell Tent Boutique⛺ 5m Canvas Bell Tent from Bell Tent Boutique

Boutique camping bell tent⛺ 5m patterned Boutique Camping bell tent with zipped in groundsheet £579

Heavy Duty Waterproof Four Season Sibley Tent from Cozy House from £490

⛺ Heavy Duty Waterproof Four Season Sibley Tent from Cozy House from £490

Touareg Tent £599.99 from Bell Tent Boutique⛺ Touareg Tent from Bell Tent Boutique £599.99

Boutique Camping Apple Green Bell Tent With Zipped in Ground Sheet 5m, £579.00⛺ Boutique Camping Apple Green Bell Tent With Zipped in Ground Sheet 5m, £579.00

10T Desert 8 - 8 person cotton pyramid tent, sewn in ground sheet⛺ 10T Desert 8 – 8 person cotton bell tent from Amazon.co.uk £314.15

 Bell Tent Boutique Emperor Bell Tent⛺ Emperor Bell Tent from Bell Tent Boutique £527

Bell Tent 4 metre with zipped in groundsheet by Bell Tent Boutique ⛺ Bell Tent 4 metre with zipped in groundsheet £399 from Bell Tent Boutique

 Robens Kiowa Tipi Tent

⛺ Robens Kiowa Tipi Tent £854 from Go Outdoors


If you have any bell tent related questions, do feel free to ask me below in the comments section or over on Twitter.

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