Can you get sunburned through a tent?

by | Apr 24, 2023 | Health & safety

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Ever hang out in your tent on a sunny day and wonder if that thin piece of material is giving you enough protection from the sun’s harmful rays?

Yes, it’s possible for you to get sunburned while inside a tent—especially if the tent fabric is thin enough for sunlight to penetrate through it.

A little boy inside a tent with the sun shining through the doorway.

Even tents with built-in UV protection can lose their effectiveness over time as the protectant begins to break down, allowing more of the sun’s harmful rays to reach your skin.

To avoid sunburn during your camping trips, it’s essential to understand the factors that contribute to sunburn risks and take the right precautions to protect yourself.

How you can get sunburned inside a tent

Camping tent in the shaded trees.

Sunburns result from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, causing damage to your skin cells.

Although tents can provide some protection, you can still get sunburned through a tent if the fabric is thin or the UV protectant has worn off over time.

When considering the possibility of getting sunburned through a tent, it’s important to understand the difference in materials used for different types o tents.

The primary materials used in tents are nylon and polyester, but their resistance to UV rays can vary significantly.

UV protective tents

A green tent on the beach.

Some tents are specifically designed with built-in UV protection—most of which are typically designed to be used for beach lounging.

These tents typically advertise a specific Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating, which indicates how effectively the fabric blocks harmful UV radiation.

A higher UPF rating means better protection from the sun’s rays.

These tents are especially useful if you have sensitive skin or are more susceptible to sunburn.

UPF ratings for tents usually range from 15 to 50+, with higher numbers indicating better protection.

For example, a UPF 50+ tent would block out approximately 98% of UVB rays, significantly reducing your risk of sunburn while inside the tent.

The WolfWise 3-person portable beach tent, for instance, has a UPF rating of 50, which makes sense because it’s meant to be used on the beach where there’s limited shade cover.

If protection from the sun is a priority for you, look for tents that explicitly mention their UPF rating or advertise UV-resistant fabric.

Traditional tents

A blue tent at a campsite.

Traditional tents include your standard three-season tents that are made from nylon or polyester materials, which may or may not come with a UPF rating.

Nylon, in particular, is transparent to ultraviolet radiation, meaning that if the outer foil or tent fabric is made of nylon, you can potentially get sunburned while inside the tent in full sunlight (source).

Polyester is more resistant to UV radiation, but it is not entirely immune to its effects.

Some tents use a UV protectant treatment on their fabric to provide additional sun protection.

However, this protectant can break down over time due to wear and exposure to the elements, increasing the risk of sunburn even if the tent initially had UV-resistant qualities.

When using a traditional tent, it’s still really important to take additional sun protection measures, such as applying sunscreen and seeking shade when possible.

Even if your tent may provide some level of UV protection, it’s always better to use multiple layers of sun protection to minimize your risk of sunburn.

Other factors that can affect your risk of sunburn through a tent

If you already have a tent, but don’t know the UPF rating (or if it has one), don’t worry.

There are other factors that can tell you how at risk you are of developing a sunburn by staying inside it on a sunny day.

Fabric thickness

Red tent nylon fabric.

Your tent’s fabric thickness plays a significant role in determining the likelihood of getting sunburned.

Thinner fabrics allow more sunlight to pass through the tent, increasing the chances of sunburn.

On the other hand, thicker tent materials help block more ultraviolet (UV) rays, offering better protection against sunburns.

As a general rule of thumb, if the tent is thin enough that you can see sunlight, you can get probably sunburned while sitting in it.

Colour and transparency

The inside of a blue camping tent.

Tent colour and transparency are other factors that may affect sunburn risk.

Light-coloured tents let more sunlight pass through, potentially increasing your exposure to UV rays.

You may want to choose a tent with a darker colour and less transparency to effectively block harmful UV rays, reducing the risk of sunburns.

The downside to darker coloured tents, of course, is that they absorb and retain more heat—making it potentially hotter inside your tent.

Keep in mind that over time, the UV protection applied to some tents may break down, allowing more of the sun’s damaging rays to penetrate through the fabric.

This means that even if a tent initially offers good protection, its effectiveness to prevent sunburns may diminish over time.

Windows and vents

Tent vents open for airflow.

Tents with more or larger windows and vents that allow more sunlight in will also make you more prone to sunburns.

This is great for airflow and enjoying the view, but that’s about it.

Luckily, you can easily get around this problem by closing the window panels or vents up at least part way to reduce the amount of sunlight that gets through.

Vestibules or awnings

A red and white camping tent with a small awning.

A vestibule is a small hooded area outside the tent doorway—usually part of the rainfly—which can be closed up during bad weather.

Awnings are typically larger and more open shelters at the tent entrance.

Both are great for limiting sunlight from entering through the doors and windows.

If your tent as a vestibule or awning, make use of them to provide extra sun protection and reduce your risk of sunburn.

How to prevent getting a sunburn inside a tent

Two people cooking from inside their tent.

It’s important to practice good sun safety even when you’re not in direct sunlight.

So whether you’re napping, reading a book, or just hanging out in your tent, here are a few tips to help you reduce the risk of sunburn:

Set your tent up in a shaded area. Look for areas with trees or tall shrubs that provide natural shade.

Just be sure to check for widow makers (leaning trees, dead standing trees, or hanging branches) first!

Set up a tarp over your tent for added protection from the sun’s rays.

An A-frame tarp shelter should do the trick!

Apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 in and around the tent.

Even if your tent has UV protection, it’s still important to apply sunscreen for added protection.

Use protective clothing and accessories, like sun hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts and pants.

There are plenty of lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking clothing pieces you can get with good UPF ratings.

Close the window panels and vents on your tent in order to reduce the amount of sunlight that gets inside.

Close the vestibule part way or set up the awning to provide extra sun protection.

Replace your tent if it’s damaged or if the fabric is starting to wear thin.

Find out more about how long a tent should last.

Signs of sunburn

A sunburn on a man's chest.

In most cases, by the time you begin to recognize the signs of sunburn, damage has already been done.

It’s just a matter of how much damage has been done—and what you can do to prevent an even worse sunburn.

This is why it’s so important to prevent sunburn before it gets the chance to start.

The typical symptoms of sunburn can include:

  • Inflamed skin, appearing pink or red on white skin, and possibly harder to see on dark sin
  • Skin that feels warm or hot to touch
  • Pain, tenderness, and itching
  • Swelling
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters that may break
  • Headache, fever, nausea, and fatigue, if the sunburn is severe
  • Eyes that feel painful or gritty

Cooling down the affected area is the first step in treating sunburn.

Run cool or room-temperature water over the burn to soothe the pain, or take a cool dip in the lake for 10 minutes or so.

Aloe vera lotion or gel and calamine lotion can also provide relief.

Consider taking over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or ibuprofen to help reduce swelling, redness, and discomfort. 

Drink extra water to help your body rehydrate and recover, as sunburn draws fluid to the skin’s surface and away from the rest of the body.

It’s unlikely you’ll suffer a severe sunburn from inside a tent, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ignore the smaller risks.

Sunburn is no joke, and even mild burns can put you at risk of developing melanoma or skin cancer.

Protect your skin, no matter what you’re doing while enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer.

Next up: 14 common camping injuries and illnesses to be careful of

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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