Fabric is of course a key part of tents, and hence a staple of disaster response. With the development of high-quality woven plastic sheeting (often called tarpaulins) in recent years this has become one of the main materials used for emergency shelter.

Plastic sheeting (tarps)

Plastic sheeting is not what it used to be. Woven plastic sheets are also called tarpaulins, but are worlds away from the tarred canvas or the basic plastic sheets they used to be. There is a great article about the development of one of humanitarian aid’s most ubiquitous, and most high-tech materials: http://www.wired.com/2016/01/tarpaulin/

Together with a tool kit, rope and fixings, a pair of plastic sheets makes an emergency shelter kit:


This product is the most widely used emergency shelter because it is cost effective and versatile. People can form it into a tent, patch a damaged building or use it for something else. When more durable shelter is available, the materials remain useful. It is not as quick to create a shelter as an actual tent, but gives more control to people and allows far more people to be helped.

See also: Plastic sheeting guidelines

Family tents

11180969066_854897db6d_zPhoto Karl Schembri/Oxfam

The family tent, widely known as the ‘refugee tent’ is perhaps the best known image of humanitarian assistance. Originally a simple ridge tent with heavy steel poles and canvas, the tent has been developed into several forms, much of it as a result of the work done first by Shelter Project at Cambridge University and later by Shelter Centre, UNHCR and others to make tents lighter, more durable and more dignified, as well as making them suitable for hot and cold climates and more fire resistant.

Despite all this work, tents are only affordable and appropriate in a minority of cases of humanitarian need. They do not have the versatility of plastic sheeting and come with considerably higher purchase and logistics costs (often an order or magnitude higher than emergency shelter kits).

See also: Tent guidelines

‘Structural fabric’

This, I think, is best described as pie in the sky…

This striking pop-up, designed to meet the needs of refugees by Jordanian-Canadian architect Abeer Seikaly, is still a work-in-progress. But once built, it will do things that other temporary emergency tents have not: filter water, store solar power, survive storms – and, not least of all, add beauty in a time of desperation.”



The WinterHYDE weighs 12kg and has a covered area of 2.7m2. It is 1.6m high at its highest point. Cost is not given, but it says the shelter is suitable for a family of 2 adults and 3 children, a remarkable 0.54mper person.

winterHYDE is a life saving fully insulated, lightweight shelter that provides maximum privacy and protects a family of five from the cold. It is woman friendly and enables a single person, tool-less installation within 15 minutes and does not need any anchoring.

It seems a lot of thought has gone into this, and the website has an impressive list of supporters, but what they’ve come up with is a small, and somewhat old-fashioned, framed tent. The tent is pronounced ‘winter proof’ but only works down to 0 degrees Celcius. There is no mention of fire risk when freezing people decide their own body heat isn’t enough to be comfortable and fire up stove. It’s also pronounced ‘women friendly’ because the triple ply covering is opaque and provides privacy. There is no mention of the risk to a woman’s privacy (let alone other risks) of having to share a tiny space with four other people.

The organisation behind the product, billionBricks, states:

billionBricks is a Singapore based non-profit enterprise which aims to improve the quality of life of the homeless by providing access to shelter. We not only consider shelters as buildings, but as tools for capacity-building, empowerment and emergence from poverty. All our community interventions are scalable, replicable for larger impact.”

You can make your own mind up about whether this product will deliver that.