A non-camper tried ‘glamping’ with Under Canvas — here’s what it’s really like
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I am not a camper.
To me, sleeping outside in a tent is most likely something you’re doing for survival purposes when the zombies come and you’re on the run — not something you do willingly for anything resembling a “vacation.”
Still, I just spent a night in a canvas tent near Glacier National Park and … I loved it. That’s not to say I’ve had a change of heart about camping in general, of course. But I actually loved this particular tent because it was all the best parts of camping with an insanely comfortable king-sized bed, housekeeping, a spot to charge your phone, a couch, a real toilet and a private hot shower all inside the “tent.”
If that sounds more like glamping than camping, well, you’re absolutely right. Or as Under Canvas puts it, it’s “experiencing the outdoors doesn’t mean roughing it.”
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Since this is the year of trying new things, my kids and I recently tried out glamping in an Under Canvas tent in Montana. Just because I’m not a camper doesn’t mean I don’t want them to have a shot at experiencing the great outdoors and ultimately decide for themselves if that’s their type of fun.
Unfortunately, if they relied on me to get the gear, set up an actual camp, start a fire from scratch and not be miserable the next day, well, it wouldn’t work out very well.
But I’m now living proof that you don’t have to be a traditional happy camper to enjoy a night or two of tent glamping. That said, there are still some people who won’t find this version of glamping quite glamorous enough.
Here’s what it’s really like to book a stay with Under Canvas.
Bad news, campers: Glamping isn’t cheap — at least not this year.
You’re definitely paying more for the experience of glamping with Under Canvas, so don’t think this is something you do to avoid high hotel rates. This is the “Disney version” of camping, with prices to match.
Under Canvas has nine locations in the U.S., including the one near Glacier National Park where we stayed.
You’ll also find them within 10 to 25 minutes of national parks such as Zion, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone and more. None of the locations operate year-round, and all are closed in the winter. The Glacier location has the shortest season of them all, operating only from early June through mid-September. In fact, our mid-June stay came just a few days after the season started.
Prices vary from one location to the next based on the date and type of tent requested. But to give you an idea, I checked a random date about six weeks from now in late July and the lowest price available at any location was $219 for a safari tent with no private bathroom at the Smoky Mountains location in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the highest starting price was $499 at the new Acadia location for a deluxe tent.
On that date, like many others this summer, the Glacier location was 100% sold out.
For our June stay, we reserved a few months in advance and paid a pretty significant $557 all-in for the suite tent my girls and I stayed in and $469 all-in for the treehouse tent my parents booked across from us. (For the record, this is more per night than we were paying for a huge house down the road for the nights prior.)
You can save a fair amount on those prices if you’re comfortable using a communal bathroom and sleeping in the smallest, most modest tent. But we’ve already established that I am not a true camper, so we went with two of the largest and most upscale tents with ensuite bathrooms to increase the odds of having a great experience.
The charge did code as a travel expense on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, fortunately, so I earned 3 points per dollar on our lavish outdoorsy stay.
Official check-in for the Under Canvas tents begins at 3 p.m., but we were still out adventuring in Glacier National Park until after dinner. We arrived around 7 p.m. just as there were many other campers hard at work on the line of grills available. There is no true food service at this particular Under Canvas beyond perhaps a packaged snack and premade sandwich, so it’s a great time to test your grilling skills.
Having already eaten while we were still in civilization, we went straight to the business of getting checked in to our tents.
There were several staff members working the check-in tent who were eager to show us around the lobby. During our visit, masks were required inside the lobby tent, but nowhere else on the property.
Inside the lobby, there were nonalcoholic drinks for purchase, some packaged snacks, (cute) shirts and much-appreciated complimentary coffee or tea available 24/7.
In more ways than one, it was clear this was not going to be a normal hotel stay.
First, there were more forms than you’d see during a normal hotel check-in, including one that indicated we knew we were staying in nature and there could be things such as wild animals the hotel was not responsible for. Along those lines, no food is allowed in the tents to reduce the likelihood of attracting unwanted wildlife. You can store your food or coolers inside your vehicle and beverages are allowed in tents.
Next up was a lobby walk-through of how to work their stoves and accessories so you don’t spend the night cold or smoke out your tent by improperly using the vents. No pressure.
To add to the campsite ambiance, at check-in we also learned bingo would start soon and that s’mores fire up at 8 p.m. That left just enough time to unpack and explore our temporary home in the trees.
Most of the tents at this location did not permit cars to park right in front of them, which was annoying at first but made sense later on as the lack of cars helped a bit with both the ambiance and safety. We parked our car in the designated lot, grabbed our hilariously large number of bags and were taken from there by golf cart down the dirt roads to our canvas-covered accommodations.
As we pulled up to our tents, I was nervous. This suddenly felt much more campy than, well, glampy.
I also realized that I never got a key from the check-in process. But the woman driving the golf cart said not to worry — keys aren’t required. I’ve stayed in a lot of different hotels, mind you, but never in one without keys. The list of new experiences only kept growing from there.
We started by exploring my parents’ tent. This treehouse tent is, as the name implies, up in a tree.
Don’t ask me what happens in a lightning storm as I don’t know (and neither did the front desk). But assuming there are fair skies, you get to climb 14 stairs and experience your childhood fantasy of living in the trees — at least for the night.
At the foot of the king-size bed is the anchor point for the whole tent: the tree.
And while there’s not a ton of extra space in this particular tent type, there were still bedside tables — each with a battery pack charger, a fan, lantern and a chair.
There’s also a balcony with more chairs — perfect for outdoor stargazing at night.
This tent had a toilet, sink and a shower with a pull chain.
In another first for this non-camper, you can have a hot in-tent shower, but only while you’re actively pulling down on the chain. And you can’t really control the temperature of the water. It’s either on, or it’s not. I found the temperature fine, but just be aware that while it is glamping in the sense that there’s a hot shower in your tent it’s not a “normal” shower by any stretch.
The toilet, while low-flow, was a much more normal part of the experience. Just keep in mind that the safari tents don’t have private bathrooms, so with those you’ll be using the community bathrooms. On the plus side, I did spot normal wheelchair-accessible showers in at least one of the community bathrooms. When I inquired, the front desk staff said there were one or two wheelchair-accessible tents available, too.
Across the walkway from the treehouse tent, our suite tent had much more breathing room and was by far my favorite of the two tents.
The shower area had the same type of amenities, including EO soap and shampoo, but it also had a barn door-style separator that could be used to section off that area from the living part of the tent.
This tent also had a couch, two chairs and a coffee table. Where the tree was in the first tent, this one had a place you could store your belongings.
If you aren’t dreaming of a treehouse stay and want a little more space, my vote is to go for the suite tent.
While space and bathroom amenities can and do vary, one thing the tents have in common is real, luxurious beds.
You can add cots for the kids for $25 in some tents, but the permanent bedding in the Under Canvas tents is a very far cry from a cot or sleeping bag.
In fact, while I was in the lobby I heard a call on the radio from a guest inquiring about what type of bedding was used because they wanted to shop for it — it’s that good. There are fluffy pillows, a blanket, a comforter and we were quite warm once we settled into bed.
This particular location was just minutes outside Glacier National Park, so while it’s summertime and temperatures can reach into the 80s and 90s during the day, it still dips into the 40s many nights so it can get chilly — even with the fluffy bedding.
If you want to cut the chill in the room, you’re going to have to use the stove to start a fire. That sounds daunting, but as a camping-challenged person, I tried it, for research.
Luckily, they make it pretty easy, even for a fire-starting novice. There are matches and kindling to get things going.
Once you have a fire really going, you can add the larger logs. I wasn’t great at keeping the fire going for hours on end, but we did use it twice for a bit just to warm up the air a little.
True campers will likely find these tents over-the-top cushy and comfortable. People who aren’t campers by nature may still be a bit weirded out by all the outdoor noises and being separated from whatever is out there by only a sheet of canvas.
As for me, I embraced it and enjoyed being so close to nature without lying right in it, but I think this is an area where your mileage may vary. My parents are light sleepers, for example, and they had a tougher time sleeping with the frequent train noise, fireworks that went off in the middle of the night and even the nearby highway sounds.
You’re not going to find a breakfast buffet, pool, hot tub, gym or other run-of-the-mill hotel amenities at the Glacier Under Canvas location. But you will find evening community campfires, yard games, s’mores, a row of nice grills and wholsome evening activities.
On the activity schedule during the week of our stay was the aforementioned bingo competition, a scavenger hunt, bird presentation, trivia, yoga and campfire stories.
Most of the other locations (except Moab, Utah) do have some true food service. I’ve learned that many also have adult beverages available on site. Frankly, as I unsuccessfully went hunting for some wine to enjoy by the campfire, that really would have elevated the stay. Rumor is the Glacier location is working on getting a liquor license.
According to the website, the Yellowstone location has access to a pool and hot tub at a neighboring property, but for the most part, your free time at Under Canvas is going to be spent doing all the things that happen at traditional campsites. Which is to say, if you don’t like sitting by campfires, reading, stargazing, strumming the guitar, playing card games or participating in similar activities, you may get a bit antsy with the lack of television and Wi-Fi.
Related: Guide to national parks in 2021
In the last year, my very suburbanite family has branched out beyond the standard hotel room a number of times. I mean, if you aren’t testing out different ways to travel in a pandemic, when will you?
We’ve rented cabins, stayed in a tiny home on wheels, rented an RV and have now tried sleeping under the stars (almost) in an Under Canvas tent. We weren’t hot thanks to the cool Glacier weather, we took warm showers, had fluffy towels, a comfortable bed, plenty of lounging space and were able to recharge our phones for adventures the next day.
At close to $500 per night per fully equipped tent, however, this would never make up the bulk of our vacation lodging.
While a hot shower in the tent is outstanding, it would also be nice if it didn’t require yanking on a chain with one arm the whole time. And if I’m being picky, some on-site food and beverages in the morning and evenings would add a bit more “glam” to the camping atmosphere.
But with all that said, staying at Under Canvas with the kids curled up in fluffy covers under the tent telling stories while I fumbled through the process of starting the stove was a fun thing to do for a night between nearby national park adventures.
If you 100% hate the outdoors and camping, this probably won’t be camping-free enough for you. However, if you want an outdoorsy experience without having to sleep on the ground, pitch your own tent or be left to fend for yourself, Under Canvas may just be your perfect glampsite.
Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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