As you’re filling out your supply of camping gear, you’ll find that a tent is going to be one of the more costly items on your checklist. It’s an important tool, since it’s your first line of defense against the elements and wildlife, which is why you need to find something suitable for your needs.
However, being your first line of defense also means that your tent is going to take the brunt of any environmental damage. Wear and tear will eat away at it until it’s no longer useable, so a fair question to ask is: how long do tents last? Well, here’s a quick overview to answer that question, in addition to giving you some tips on how to extend the life of your shelter.
How to Measure the Longevity of a Tent
How long do tents last? It’s a question that’s almost impossible to answer, since there are so many different factors that contribute to the longevity of a tent. We’ll talk about those below, but in the meantime, there are certain standards that you can expect a (quality) tent to live up to.
In general, a camping tent will survive for about 150 nights of use, before it needs to be replaced. It’s true that some will only last for about 50 nights, and others may survive longer than 300 nights, but 100 nights is a good average for what you can expect.
Unless you’re a hardcore camper or backpacker, you probably won’t spend more than 10 nights in a tent during any given year. That being the case, the average tent will last roughly 15 years. If you only camp 5 nights during the year, then the tent may be able to take care of you for 30 years, when properly maintained.
But let’s talk about different factors that can contribute to the wear and tear that a tent experiences, with the first being the environment.
I worked in dermatology for a number of years, so I’m pretty familiar with the harmful effects of UV radiation on a person’s body. But skin isn’t the only thing that gets damaged when exposed to large quantities of sunlight, as most fabrics will start to deteriorate as well.
On a tent, the rainfly is going to take the brunt of that damage. What that means in the long run is that the rainfly fabric will degrade and weaken, until it’s no longer capable of doing its job properly. The waterproofing will fade away, and you’ll be left with a covering that’s only good for creating privacy.
It might not seem obvious at first, but wind can be a real tent killer, if you aren’t careful. Strong gusts have been known to snap more than a few poles, which will make the tent unusable until you can repair the problem or find a replacement.
As long as you have a good, waterproof tent, rain is probably the least concerning out of all the elements. However, even the water has a way of reducing the effectiveness of your tent over time, wearing away at the waterproof coating and creating an environment for mold and mildew. If you don’t take the time to dry and clean your tent on a regular basis, all of that moisture will wreak havoc on your shelter, significantly reducing its lifespan.
Finally, the ground itself can cause quite a bit of damage to the floor of your tent. If you don’t know how to choose a campsite, or your options are limited, you may end up making camp on top of sharp objects (rocks, roots, etc.) that should normally be avoided.
Walking, sitting, or rolling around in your tent causes the tent floor to rub against these sharp objects even more, and you run the risk of creating a hole or tear in the material. While there are ways to patch up these kinds of holes, it’s never going to be quite the same level of durability as when you first got the tent.
Some of this damage can be mitigated by getting a tent with a high denier tent floor, or by placing the tent on top of a footprint (my personal recommendation). But really, the best thing you can do is avoid jagged rocks and other objects as much as possible when you’re looking for your next campsite.
The material of your tent will play a big role it its longevity as well, both in regard to the poles and the fabric itself. We’ll take a look at each of these individually and weigh out the pros and cons:
When it comes to tent poles, you have three options to choose from: steel, aluminum, and fiberglass. Of course, there are others (like carbon fiber), but these are rare enough where they aren’t worth mentioning in this article.
If you care about durability, steel is the obvious route to take. It’s practically indestructible, though you will have to deal with the added weight that comes with that durability. Aluminum isn’t nearly as durable as steel, but it still holds up very well in most cases. It’s also relatively cheap and lightweight, making it my top pick for everything short of a glamping tent or cabin tent, where steel would make more sense.
Fiberglass is the cheapest of them all, but it’s also the most flimsy, so I can’t say I’m a huge fan. It splinters in cold weather, and strong wind gusts won’t have too much trouble breaking them.
Modern tents are almost exclusively made out of synthetics, like polyester and nylon. However, there are some larger camping and glamping tents that make use of canvas as well, so we’ll talk about both of these materials.
Canvas is thick and heavy, so it’s not suitable for backpacking or any sort of camping where you need to carry it long distances. However, in terms of durability, it outclasses any of the synthetics by a long shot. And since canvas tents usually have steel poles, they create the closest thing to a permanent shelter that you’ll find in a tent.
So, how long do canvas tents last? From my experience, a well-maintained canvas tent could last your entire lifetime. At the very least, 20-40 years would be a reasonable expectation, depending on how much use the tent gets.
On the other hand, synthetics aren’t nearly as sturdy, but they are easier to transport. You can generally get a feel for the durability of polyester and nylon by looking at the denier of the fabric, which is listed in the specs of most tents you find online.
Denier refers to the thickness of the threads used in a fabric, with a higher denier equating to a thicker thread. Naturally, thicker threads are more durable (and heavy), which means that they’ll last longer than low denier fabrics.
How to Take Care of Your Tent
How long a tent lasts is directly related to how well you take care of it. To get the most life out of your shelter, there are some things that you can do to minimize wear and tear.
I mentioned it briefly earlier in this article, but one of the best things you can do for your tent is to put it on top of a footprint. In case you don’t know what a footprint is, it’s just a simple tarp that goes under your tent. Not only does it reduce wear and tear by providing a barrier between the tent floor and the ground, but it also works to keep water from coming into the tent as well.
Be gentle with your tent in the way you use it as well. Don’t be rough on the zippers, try not to wear shoes inside, and be sure to clean it properly when you’re done with it. And when it comes time to store the tent, make sure it’s loosely rolled, and placed in a dark, dry location. As mentioned earlier, sunlight and water are going to degrade the tent more quickly, and that’s true when you’re at the campsite and when you’re at home.
When is it Time to Say Goodbye?
But, at the end of the day, tents aren’t immortal. At some point, even if you take exceptional care of them, they’ll need to be retired. It can be a tough decision to make, especially if you’re fond of your tent or you’re on a tight budget, but there are some guideposts to follow to help you make the right decision.
First off, can you repair your tent? Small holes and tears can be patched up without degrading the integrity of your tent. It’s a cheap way to extend the life of your shelter, and should allow you to finish off the current camping season, if not see you through the next as well.
The same can be said for your poles, as small cracks in these can also be repaired. If you find that your tent is starting to leak in heavy rain showers, a simple fix is to apply a coat of waterproofing spray.
However, these are simple fixes for simple problems. For more severe damage, there’s not much you can do, other than say your goodbyes and move onto the next tent. Trying to camp in a damaged tent can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst, so I would recommend erring on the side of caution. If it’s too much hassle to fix, it’s time to get a new shelter.