Last summer our family of three took over my in-laws cabin for the summer. It’s a perfect escape—with no cell or wifi, Paige, our 14 year old, actually talks to us. There’s only one problem: it’s tiny and Paige has to sleep on the kitchen floor.
The obvious solution is a bunkie. A separate cabin is the traditional way of adding sleeping space in cottage country. But we can’t really build something permanent on a property that doesn’t belong to us. It’s a conundrum but one with an easy solution—a wall tent.
Imagine a safari tent, or the luxe-looking “glamping” tents, and you’re picturing a canvas wall tent. Easy to set up and take down, they’ve been around for hundreds of years; explorers, trappers, and missionaries used them as they travelled across Canada. Until recently, they have been mostly relegated to summer camps and to backcountry prospector and hunter camps. Driven by new designs and more durable fabrics people are discovering them for cabins and artist studios, as shelter in national parks, and even five star wilderness resorts.
“Wall tents area great option if you don’t have the time, money or just aren’t ready to build something more permanent,” says Tyler Beck, the manager of the Canvas Wall Tent Shop, a manufacturer and online retailer of canvas tents, in Castlegar, British Columbia.
Set them up right and they can be as comfortable as any wood frame cabin. “When you put a decent stove in there, you can really heat yourself out, even in the coldest winter temperatures,” Beck says. “Add some windows and a screen door, decorate them nicely, and they can feel really homey.”
They offer some of the same benefits as yurts, a popular cabin alternative. The main difference being the shape: yurts are circular, where wall tents are usually rectangular.
“The most basic walled tents are way less expensive and they take much less time to build than a cabin,” says Marc-Andre Rousseau from Biome Canada, a company that supplies wall tents to Parks Canada and New Brunswick Tourism.. “And they require almost no maintenance.”
Whether you’re looking for extra sleeping space, somewhere to stay while you build, or a four-season getaway, there’s probably a wall tent for you.
Basic sleeping tent:
At their simplest, wall tents are a rectangle with a peaked roof sitting on bare ground. They come in a range of sizes and wall heights. For the frame to support the walls and roof you can use logs cut on site, but many tents now come as kits with a pipe structure including joints (or you can supply your own wooden structure). The fabric hangs over the frame. A canvas treated for water, fire, and mold is most common, but some are now made with polyester, or even hybrid fabrics, which can be more durable.
Who it’s best for: families needing temporary extra sleeping space, or long term camping, people who can’t get a building permit.
Downsides: cold, wet ground under foot; mud and dust
Cost: They range in price from Canvas Tent Shop’s Wilderness Wall Tent, for $650 without a frame, to about $2,000 for bigger models with a frame and porch such as Deluxe Wall Tents Deluxe model or $5,600 for Northwest Wall Tents 18’x24’ insulated tent. Woods Canada tents run about $1,200.
Set-up time: All in, setting up a simple wall tent should take less than two hours, Beck says.
Maintenance: Luxury adventure and fishing retreat Clayoquot Wilderness Resort use of wall tents for guest cabins speaks to the tent’s durability. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, it’s in one of the wettest places in Canada. To keep the tents clean they blow leaves and branches off the roof a couple times a summer. In the fall they power wash the entire exterior of the tent, dry them thoroughly, and then store them in a rodent-proof building. Rolled up carefully most tents fit in a standard Rubbermaid bin.
Optional add ons:
Beck from Canvas Wall Tent Shop recommends adding a polyester-vinyl fly sheet. It attaches over the roof of the tent to protect it from the sun, mould, and damage from anything falling from above, like branches or bird poop. It’s also much easier to clean, repair, and replace than the whole tent body.
Step up comfort with a floor:
Lifting the tent off the bare ground adds comfort, particularly in wet and cold weather. It also levels the floor which makes it easier to add things like a running water, a stove, or shelving. The simplest and most common way to do this is to build a deck for the tent to sit on.
Camp Mi-A-Kon-Da, a summer camp north of Parry Sound, Ont., has housed campers in Woods Canada tents sitting on decks since the camp started in 1955, says Brandon Smith, who, as assistant director, oversees maintenance at the camp. “I think it was a cost thing at first,” he says. “We’ve kept the tents because you feel more in touch with nature in them. And the girls love them. When they come back for reunions, they still want to stay in them.”
Who it’s best for: people needing shelter while they build a cottage or who want a non-permanent structure that provides full independence from a main cottage
Downsides: extra labour and cost of building a deck; may require a building permit
Cost: DIY decks cost about $10 to $15 per square foot or about $1,500 to $2,250 for a 150 square foot tent. The tents are the same as above.
Set-up time: A day or two to build the deck.
Maintenance: With a solid foundation beneath, these tents are better able to withstand wind and snow, but if you’re not going to use them during the winter it’s still a good idea to take them down, clean them up, and store them carefully.
Optional add ons: Mi-A-Kon-Da’s tents also sit on small three foot high stick frame walls that wrap around the tent (sometimes called “pony walls”), providing extra protection from wind and rain slipping under the fabric walls.
A permanent four-season get-away
For a permanent set up, buy a four-season tent. Many models come in a winterized version built tougher for snow load. Few four-season models are as robust as the ones sold by Biome Canada, which blur the line between cabin and tent. The walls and floor use two-by-four construction, the roof and floor are lined with plywood, and sheets of insulation help lock in the heat. But the walls are canvas and the exterior of the roof is a canvas sheet lashed into place.
Who it’s best for: year round use, a permanent alternative to a cabin
Downsides: extra upfront cost; more labour to build; permit likely required
Cost: $25,500 for Biome’s Minka 4-Season wall tent. A less expensive and more portable alternative is an Insulated Wall Tent from Deluxe Wall Tents, an online store. It sandwiches insulation between layers of canvas and the smallest tent starts at about $4,000.
Set-up time: several hours to three days
Maintenance: They need just an occasional power wash for maintenance.
Add ons: You can cement the deck posts into the ground with Biome’s tents, but most sit on packed gravel foundations. This allows for easy moving and may get around the need for a building permit.
What about winter?
For colder weather, pick a wall tent with a flap for a stove pipe so you can add a heat source. This is an option even on the most basic models. Beck sells tiny, portable wall-tent–specific stoves, but just about any woodstove will work. Your best bet is to get one that’s WETT certified. On a wooden deck it’s a good idea to add some fire proof tiling underneath.
Hot tenting, as it is called, is enjoying a moment in the spotlight. Scott Bellton uses wall tents on deck pads for his remote backcountry ski camp in the Purcell Mountains of B.C. where he works as lead guide. “Once you get the stove cranking you can hang out in a T-shirt in them, even when it’s -20,” he says. They take only an hour to warm up, he says, but, don’t hold heat as well as an insulated cabin.
What about permits? In general, wall tents are non-permanent structures and thus don’t need to adhere to building codes or require permits. However, in B.C., any structure built for people to sleep in is considered a dwelling and in Nova Scotia once you add a deck under the tent it becomes an accessory building. Building code restrictions apply in both cases. And any deck larger than 100 square feet needs a permit in the Algonquin Highlands, for example, in central Ontario. Bottom line, it’s always a good idea to check with the local district first.
Where I’m thinking of putting a wall tent on Vancouver Island I probably won’t need a permit, which makes the option pretty compelling. It’s low commitment and gives Paige, and us, some privacy. But it’s one other thing that Tyler Beck mentioned that really sold me. Beyond a bunkie, he is seeing people use them as artist studios, craft rooms, and home offices. Hmm, I can see it: when Paige is at university my office becomes a canvas tent in the mountains. It sounds so much better than working from the kitchen table.