Nylon is of the most popular fabrics for outdoor equipment like tents, sleeping bags, hiking quilts, backpacks, and more. It is known for its strength, resiliency, and minimal weight. But there’s a lot more to nylon than meets the eye, and knowing more about it, how it’s made, and the different types of nylon available can help you make choices when shopping for gear. Today, we’re going to go over everything you need to know about nylon and what types of nylon you should be looking for when you shop.
What Is Nylon?
Nylon is actually a type of plastic. More specifically, it is a synthetic polymer that has had a profound impact on modern society since its invention. It can be spun as threads and then woven into fabric, or it can be used in injection molding, 3d printing, and other hard plastic applications. You will find nylon in virtually every type of manufacturing, including in many types of outdoor gear.
Nylon was invented at the DuPont Chemical Corporation in the late 1920s. It was the brainchild of chemist Wallace Carothers, who in 1927 began research and development on creating a synthetic fiber that could mimic the qualities of silk. (Carothers and his team were also responsible for another material that’s important in outdoor gear– Neoprene.) Polymers that could be spun into fibers that mimicked natural material were in high demand, and after undergoing several iterations, the fiber we now know as nylon was patented in 1935.
In 1938, nylon made its commercial debut when it was used to replace animal bristles in toothbrushes. But most people heard about it the next year later, when it was showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with the introduction of women’s stockings– what we now simply call “nylons.” When WWII came around, virtually all nylon production was used by the military to make parachutes and parachute cords.
After WWII, surplus nylon rope was sold to consumers, who used it for mountaineering and other outdoor activities. Nylon came into use for backpacks in 1967, when Gerry Outdoors developed the first modern nylon backpack. Today, nylon can be found in an incredible amount of outdoor gear.
The Pros and Cons of Nylon
Nylon is widely used as a performance fabric in outdoor gear due to its excellent combination of properties that make it well-suited for a range of outdoor activities and conditions.
Wondering about the advantages of nylon? Here are the key reasons nylon is a top performer in the outdoor industry.
- Affordability: Nylon is a cost-effective material, making it accessible to a wide range of consumers. This affordability extends to both gear manufacturing and consumer purchasing.
- Breathability: Nylon fabrics can be engineered to provide varying degrees of breathability. This is crucial for outdoor apparel, as it allows moisture and sweat to escape, keeping the wearer comfortable during physical activities.
- Durability: Nylon fabrics are known for their exceptional durability and resistance to wear and tear. This makes them well-suited for rugged outdoor environments where gear is subjected to abrasion, friction, and harsh conditions. Whether it’s a backpack, tent, or hiking pants, nylon can withstand the challenges of the outdoors.
- Lightweight: Nylon is relatively lightweight, making it an ideal choice for outdoor gear where weight is a critical factor. This makes nylon essential for activities like ultralight backpacking.
- Packability: Nylon gear is often designed to be highly packable, allowing it to be compressed and stored in a compact form. This is particularly useful for backpackers and travelers who need to save space in their packs.
- Quick Drying: Nylon fabrics tend to dry quickly, which is beneficial for gear that may get wet during outdoor activities. Quick-drying gear helps maintain comfort and prevents hypothermia in cold and wet conditions.
- Resistance to Mildew and Mold: Nylon is less prone to developing mildew and mold compared to natural fibers like cotton. This is crucial for outdoor gear that may be exposed to damp or humid conditions.
- Tear Resistance: Nylon’s resistance to tearing is a significant advantage, especially for gear that may come into contact with sharp rocks, branches, or other abrasive surfaces. Many nylon fabrics incorporate ripstop technology, which further enhances their resistance to tears and prevents them from spreading.
- UV Resistance: Nylon is generally resistant to UV radiation, which means it does not easily degrade or weaken when exposed to sunlight. This UV resistance is important for gear that spends extended periods outdoors.
- Versatility: Nylon can be used for a wide range of outdoor gear, including backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, hiking pants, rainwear, and more. Its versatility makes it a popular choice for manufacturers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
- Water Resistance: Nylon can be treated with water-resistant coatings or laminated with waterproof membranes to enhance its ability to repel water. This is especially important for gear like rain jackets, pants, and tents to keep users dry in wet conditions.
Nylon is not without its downsides. No fabric is perfect for all situations, so it’s important to know the qualities of nylon that make it less applicable in certain situations.
- Environmental Concerns: The production of nylon involves the use of petrochemicals and energy-intensive processes, which can have negative environmental impacts. Additionally, some nylon clothing items may not be biodegradable, contributing to concerns about plastic waste in the environment.
- Lack of Natural Insulation: Unlike natural fibers like wool or down, nylon does not retain heat well. In cold weather conditions, nylon-based clothing may require additional insulation layers to keep you warm.
- Moisture Absorption: While nylon can be treated to resist water, it can still absorb moisture, especially if it’s not properly coated or laminated. (This is one of the reasons that anglers like it for sinking lines, since it absorbs water and sinks.) When wet, nylon-based clothing may become heavy, cling to the skin, and lose its insulating properties.
- Noise: Some nylon fabrics can produce a rustling or swishing noise when worn or moved, which may not be desirable in certain outdoor activities where stealth and quiet are essential.
- Non-Breathability: While nylon can be engineered or woven to be breathable, not all nylon fabrics offer excellent breathability. In hot and humid conditions, non-breathable nylon clothing can lead to discomfort and excessive sweating.
- Odor Retention: Nylon fabrics tend to trap body odor more than some natural materials like wool, which have natural antimicrobial properties. This can lead to odors that are challenging to remove, even with washing.
- Prone to Pilling: Nylon fabrics may be susceptible to pilling, especially in areas of high friction or abrasion. Pilling can affect the texture of clothing over time and can be an indication of weakness in the fabric.
- Static Electricity: Nylon is prone to generating static electricity, which can lead to uncomfortable and sometimes annoying situations, such as clothes clinging to the body or attracting lint and dust.
- Susceptibility to UV Damage: While nylon is generally resistant to UV radiation, prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause it to weaken and degrade over time. UV exposure can lead to a loss of color, reduced strength, and decreased lifespan of nylon-based outdoor clothing and gear like tents and backpacks.
- Texture: Some outdoor enthusiasts prefer natural fabrics like cotton or wool because of their softness and comfortable feel against the skin. Nylon can sometimes feel less natural and may be less comfortable, especially when worn directly on the skin.
It’s important to note that many of these downsides can be corrected through advancements in textile technology and fabric treatments. For example, manufacturers often combine nylon with other materials or treatments to enhance its performance.
How Is Nylon Made?
The nylon construction process is quite unlike natural fiber processing. The first step in nylon production is polymerization.Chemicals are mixed and undergo reactions under controlled conditions. This reaction produces a polymer solution known as a “nylon salt.”
The nylon salt is then dissolved in a solvent to create a spinning solution. This solution is forced through tiny holes in a device called a spinneret to form long, continuous filaments. As the filaments emerge from the spinneret, they solidify into fibers.
The newly formed nylon fibers are drawn, which means they are stretched to align the polymer chains and increase the fiber’s strength and toughness. This drawing process can be done in multiple stages to achieve the desired properties.
After drawing, the nylon fibers are cut into the desired lengths and packaged for various applications. They can be woven or further engineered to create high-performance materials.
Whether you’re wearing nylon-based outdoor gear that offers exceptional durability and moisture resistance, or enjoying the comfort of nylon-based clothing that remains lightweight and breathable, knowing how nylon is made can help you understand the versatility and reliability that nylon brings to a wide range of products. Because it’s an engineered product, formulas and weaves can be tweaked to best suit a particular application.
Nylon vs. Polyester
Both nylon and polyester are synthetic materials commonly used in outdoor gear, but the two are not the same thing. Generally speaking, nylon is going to be more popular for gear because it is so much tougher, and polyester is more commonly used for clothes because it’s more comfortable.
Nylon vs. Polyester At A Glance
|Chemical Composition||Both are derived from petrochemical sources|
|Strength and Durability||Well-known for exceptional strength, abrasion resistance, and durability||Strong and durable, but it tends to be less abrasion-resistant than nylon|
|Water Resistance||Can be treated to be water-resistant or even waterproof.||Naturally hydrophobic, meaning it repels water to some extent, and can also be treated for increased water resistance.|
|Drying Time||Dries very quickly.||Dries quickly, but not as fast as nylon.|
|UV Resistance||Decent resistance to UV radiation but may degrade over time when exposed to prolonged sunlight||Known for its excellent UV resistance and is often used in outdoor fabrics
that require prolonged exposure to the sun
|Cost||Tends to be slightly more expensive than polyester.||Inexpensive to manufacture.|
|Environmental Considerations||Both nylon and polyester are derived from petrochemical sources, which raises environmental concerns. However, efforts are being made to recycle these materials and reduce their environmental impact.|
Types of Nylon
Most of the terms for nylon are fairly non-descriptive. Nylon is a family of polymers, each one slightly different and useful in specific applications. The nylon types that are most likely to be used in outdoor equipment include:
- Nylon 6 (PA 6)
- Nylon 6/6,6 (PA 6/6,6)
- Ripstop nylon
We’ll be honest: to the average consumer, knowing about Nylon 6 or Nylon 6/6,6 isn’t important when purchasing nylon items. The distinction between them is slight and primarily a matter of chemistry. The one you do need know about is ripstop nylon.
Ripstop nylon is a robust, versatile type of nylon that is exceptionally durable and resistant to tears– hence the name. Ripstop nylon is engineered by weaving nylon fibers in a technique that incorporates thick reinforcement threads. Usually, these threads are also nylon, but sometimes ripstop is a nylon/polyester blend.
The ripstop weaving pattern creates a distinctive crosshatch design in the fabric. This gives the fabric the ability to prevent tears or rips from expanding further. When a tear or puncture occurs, it tends to stay confined to a small area around the point of damage, effectively halting its progression.
Another major advantage of ripstop nylon is that it is very lightweight, especially compared to fabrics with similar durability. It is also highly packable, and can be compressed into a compact form for easy transportation and storage.
Ripstop nylon is frequently used in applications where durability and tear resistance are critical. In the realm of outdoor gear, ripstop nylon is a favored choice for items like tents, backpacks, tarps, and sleeping bags due to its capacity to withstand rugged conditions, abrasion, and exposure to the elements. It also finds application in performance clothing, particularly in outdoor and adventure sports attire such as pants, jackets, and shorts.
Denier isn’t a type of nylon. Rather, it is a unit of measurement used to describe the thickness or diameter of nylon fibers or threads. Denier is typically represented by the abbreviation “D” but can also be written as “den” or “d.”
Denier doesn’t exactly refer to the thickness of nylon cloth. Instead, it measures the thickness of individual nylon fibers. Specifically, it represents the mass in grams of 9,000 meters of the nylon fiber. Generally, a higher denier value indicates thicker and stronger nylon fibers. Thicker fibers are typically more robust and can withstand greater stress and tension without breaking.
Fabrics made from finer, lower-denier nylon threads may be used in lightweight clothing or sheer hosiery, but backpacks and tents should be made from thicker, high-denier nylon. For example, daypacks typically use 210 denier cloth, while backpacks may use cloth that’s as heavy as 630 denier. The higher the denier, the stronger the fabric. High-denier nylon fabric is also heavier than lower-denier fabric, so take that into consideration if you’re looking for ultralight gear.
Nylon for Outdoor Gear
Nylon’s versatility and performance characteristics make it popular for manufacturing all types of outdoor gear. It helps enhance the durability, functionality, and comfort of these outdoor products, making them more reliable and suitable for a wide range of outdoor adventures. Here are some examples of hiking and fishing gear where nylon is commonly found.
- Backpacks: Many hiking backpacks and daypacks feature nylon fabrics for their durability and lightweight properties. Nylon is often used for the bag’s exterior and the straps for added strength and abrasion resistance.
- Gaiters: Hiking gaiters, which protect the lower legs and footwear from mud, water, and debris, are often made of nylon to provide both waterproofness and durability.
- Hiking Boots: Some hiking boot uppers are constructed from nylon or use nylon mesh for breathability and lightweight performance. Nylon is also used for laces and eyelet reinforcements, as well as the construction of hiking shoes and trail runners.
- Hiking Pants: Nylon hiking pants and hiking leggings are known for their durability, quick-drying capabilities, and resistance to abrasion. They are ideal for rugged terrain and unpredictable weather.
- Rain Jackets and Pants: Waterproof and water-resistant rain jackets and pants often incorporate nylon as the outer shell material. Nylon is treated with waterproof coatings or laminated with waterproof membranes to keep hikers dry in wet conditions.
- Sleeping Bags: Nylon is used in the shells of many sleeping bags to provide durability and resistance to moisture. It is often combined with down or synthetic insulation for warmth.
- Tents: Nylon is a common material for tent fabrics due to its lightweight, durable, and water-resistant properties. Backpacking tents, in particular, often use nylon for their rainfly and floor materials.
- Fishing Bags and Tackle Boxes: Bags and tackle boxes designed for storing and transporting fishing gear often use nylon fabric for their outer shells and pockets. This provides durability and resistance to wear and tear.
- Fishing Backpacks: Similar to hiking backpacks, fishing backpacks may use nylon fabrics for their construction. These backpacks often include specialized pockets and compartments for fishing gear organization.
- Fishing Hats and Clothing: Some fishing clothing, such as hats, shirts, gloves, and pants, may incorporate nylon for its quick-drying capabilities. These properties help keep anglers comfortable during long fishing trips.
- Fishing Line: Nylon monofilament fishing line is widely used by anglers due to its flexibility, strength, and resistance to abrasion. It is suitable for various fishing applications, including freshwater and saltwater fishing.
- Fishing Nets: Many fishing nets, including landing nets and casting nets, use nylon mesh material for its strength and durability while remaining lightweight.
- Fishing Rod Cases: Cases or sleeves designed to protect fishing rods during transportation are typically made from nylon for its protective and durable qualities.
- Fishing Waders: Fishing waders, which are used to keep you warm and dry while fishing, often feature nylon or neoprene with nylon overlays for their waterproof and puncture-resistant properties.
- Backpacks: Bags are frequently made with nylon as it is durable and lightweight.
- Tents: Many tents leverage nylon as a lightweight and durable material.
- Sleeping Bags: Sleeping bags, hammocks, and other related gear often use nylon as a primary or secondary material.
Nylon is one of the most ubiquitous materials in today’s outdoor hobby. Gear manufacturers love it because it is strong, lightweight, and versatile– all of which add to the quality of the gear. Understanding how nylon works, especially knowing what makes ripstop nylon special and how to interpret denier, makes it easier to find outdoor gear that will perform well and last a very long time.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about