Under Canvas

A breakdown of canvas glamping options with Tim Rees of Quality Unearthed, an agency specialising in quirky holiday accommodation.

Glamping is a somewhat curious term derived from ‘glamorous’ and ‘camping’ and doesn’t really do justice to this popular leisure activity. Glamping is about facilitating time spent within nature’s stimuli while in sheltered comfort, which often comes in the form of unusual construction. There’s certainly a distinct difference between one’s awareness of the weather while sitting in a canvas structure compared to a more traditional brick built building. Listening to rain pitter-patter on the roof, as a log burner roars away, is a fantastic sensation.

In the last two to three years there’s been increased interest in setting up glamping sites. Higher demand for offbeat locations has gone hand in hand with an increased provision of unconventional structures. Interestingly, as more have entered the glamping market, we’re seeing a growing polarisation in standards. Increasing numbers of sites are appealing to the mass market by placing multiple, relatively cheap glamping units within a small space. Equally, increasing numbers of sites are working towards top end, five star luxury with high levels of privacy and servicing and a price tag to match.

One key change is the way guests look for glamping holidays. Five years ago Google search phrases tended to be very short–tail or generic such as ‘glamping UK’, ‘yurts UK’, ‘tipi holidays England’ or ‘tree house holidays’. Notice how the searcher is not driven by the location but rather the abode type itself. Now we are seeing more specific phrases such as ‘yurts in Devon’, ‘tree houses near London’, ‘glamping on Gower’ and ‘safari tents New Forest’: the searcher’s confidence in finding something more specific has grown. This means operators are no longer able to rely on a cool structure in the middle of nowhere. If your location isn’t already a place people want to travel to you’ll have to work that much harder to entice them with an even cooler place to stay.

In this article I’m taking a look at some of the more obvious canvas glamping options, with a few wild cards thrown in. Note that although glampsites are now also making use of more permanent pod or lodge type structures, canvas structures are not to be written off. They are an excellent, affordable way for landowners to enter the luxury, outdoor accommodation industry. Your choice of the following will depend on location, budget and inspiration. The key aspects I will consider today are the price, maintenance and infrastructure requirements, seasonality and what to look for from a good supplier.

Gooseberry Field Campsite
Gooseberry Field Campsite

Bell tents
You’re more than likely to have seen bell tents at festivals. These are very simple structures consisting of a canvas (shaped loosely like a tipi) and a central pole. Guy ropes pull the canvas out from the centre creating a moderate living space. The height is established by the central pole. Sizes are given as the diameter of the tent and range from about 3-6m. In my opinion bell tents are a short-term addition to other existing structures as they tend only to be suitable for the summer months.

  • Seasonality: Late Spring to early Autumn
  • Maintenance: Cleaned and dry stored when not in use
  • Price: £400-£900 for a 5m bell tent
  • What to look for: Quality of canvas, canvas treatment (anti-mould, water repellent, UV stable, etc), a sewn in ground sheet with quality stitching, good zip quality and air vents (these tents can get hot on a summer’s morning)
Gooseberry Field Campsite
Gooseberry Field Campsite

Some might argue that tipis, with their striking profile, kicked off the glamping holiday movement some 20 years ago. Traditionally placed on the earth, I would suggest they be placed on a platform due to the UK weather. Preventing water from entering can be an issue and tipis should be sited away from areas susceptible to high winds. They vary in design more than may first meet the eye and erecting them requires some familiarity.

  • Seasonality: Late Spring to early Autumn
  • Maintenance: Dry winter storage space will be required
  • Price: £1,300-£2,000 for a good quality 14ft tipi
  • What to look for: Canvas quality and surface treatment, wood quality, quality of zips (or the traditional toggles), advice on their erection
Quality Unearthed
Quality Unearthed

Most commonly associated with Mongolia, where they are known as ‘Gers’, yurts were also used all the way across to Eastern Europe. Yurts are more stable than tipis, with greater usable cubic space (based on the same footprint). Step into a yurt and you can stand up almost straight away, the same cannot be said for a tipi. A platform is essential on which to sit a yurt. Be mindful of how the water runs off the canvas and off the platform. It is helpful to build a raised floor inside the diameter of the yurt (and most canvas structures) so that if water does run in it doesn’t affect the space where guests walk.

  • Seasonality: With insulation a yurt can be four season, however keeping them dry when no one is occupying them makes this difficult. Realistically these are three season
  • Maintenance: Dry winter storage space will be required. Some yurts have a sacrificial outer cover that needs replacing each year
  • Price: £3,000-£7,500 for a 5m diameter yurt
  • What to look for: Canvas quality, wood quality and how much wood is used in the latticing of the khana (walls). Consider the height of the walls and windows
The Dome Garden
The Dome Garden

The less common of the canvas-type structures, geodomes are usually made of PVC (with opaque and translucent panels) or canvas. Pioneered by Buckminster Fuller, they have a space age appearance and receive mixed reactions. They offer huge internal space for their footprint which is directly related to their height. You can make use of this by adding a second mezzanine floor although be aware of how the structure stands out in the landscape. Geodomes should be positioned on a raised platform.

  • Seasonality: Like a yurt these can be four season if kept dry in winter although are more likely to be three season
  • Maintenance: Geodomes often come with a type of plastic cover to help with longevity although canvas covers are also common, particularly with smaller domes
  • Price: £2,500-£7,000 for a 5-6m geodome

What to look for: Canvas/PVC quality (particularly at the seams). Check what material is used for the supporting structure (wood/plastic/metal) and how well it is joined together (rudimentary nuts and bolts on flattened poles versus engineered attachments)

Quality Unearthed
Quality Unearthed

Safari tents
Where we were seeing a surge of yurts being erected four years ago now it is the safari tent that is on trend. Safari tents have much more space than other canvas structures and are commonly divided into living and bedroom spaces, often with bathroom facilities within the footprint making them particularly appealing to families and groups. These should be sited on a platform, ideally away from windy areas although the guy ropes on safari tents are pretty strong making them surprisingly sturdy structures.

  • Seasonality: These can be left erected year round if occupied
  • Maintenance: It is advisable to lower and store safari tents for the winter if they are not inhabited
  • Price: £4,000-£8,000 for a 5x7m safari tent
  • What to look for: Canvas quality, reinforced straps and twin layers (ie, a roof canvas and a separate internal canvas structure to give additional sound proofing and insulation)

In conclusion, my advice would be to choose a structure, or variety of structures, that suit the length of the season you’re aiming to offer at your glampsite. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and of course there are other non-canvas structures you could consider including shepherds huts, pods, tree houses, busses, aeroplanes/helicopters, dry docked boats, shipping containers, and many more!

If you want to welcome guests all year round it is possible with canvas structures so long as they are well positioned, insulated and safely heated (a whole other subject) for the duration. For shorter season structures there is the matter of disassembly and storage to be considered but this is offset by significantly lower cost when compared to more permanent pod or lodge type structures. There is also the charm factor that goes along with a canvas glamping experience. The fun really comes when you start to consider interior treatments: this is where you can really add to a visitor’s experience and differentiate yourself from the crowd.

In conclusion my advice would be to be creative; the more attention to detail you put in, the more of an inspiring experience your guests will receive. It is also very important to consider how many units you can manage – changing 20 beds two or three times a week is a lot of work and your costs will increase the more help you need. Whatever you decide, enjoy the process and give me a shout if you need any help!

About the Author
Tim Rees is the managing director of Quality Unearthed, a specialist agency promoting some of the best alternative holiday abodes in the UK. Having spent a number of years living in unusual places and working on off-grid homes, Tim spotted an increase in demand for holidays offering a more grounded, back to nature experience. He started Quality Unearthed in 2010 and can personally recommend each holiday the represented for its accommodation, location and overall experience. 01348 830922 / www.qualityunearthed.co.uk


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