Whether you are a newbie or a pro in the world of camping, most certainly you have wondered “what are the tents made of?” Tent materials and tent fabric is the major part of a tent and most tent fabrics are made of polyester, nylon, canvas, and some other materials.
However, not all the materials would be suitable for all types of camping, as they each have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. In this article, we lay out the pros and cons of different types of tent materials.
Tent Material Characteristics
Before we dive into individual fabrics, there are few important things to consider:
In a tent, you want breathability. Breathability keeps you cool in warm weather, keeps condensation down (which is important for cold nights too), and enhances the overall experience.
Tents need to be made of materials, or designed such that the people inside don’t get wet. Materials can be waterproof, fabrics can be coated in waterproofing, or parts of tents may be waterproof. Often, the more waterproof a material is, the less breathable it is, so there are pros and cons to different materials, tent designs, and manufacturing processes.
Durability & Tear Resistance
Tents need to be tear resistance for obvious reasons. Durability is key in the outdoors, and certain materials, and manufacturing processes (like Ripstop) will improve durability.
Tents are often made with layer systems such that the inside later is very breathable, and an outside later (often a rain fly) can be added overtop to turn a tent waterproof, but keep it breathable, by creating space between the breathable layer, and the waterproof layer. Most tents are designed this way to get the best of both worlds.
Denier refers to how tightly woven a fabric is. A higher denier, is more tightly woven, a fabric is. Higher denier equals:
- Greater water resistance
- Less breathability
- More durability
If your backpacking, weight of a tent is very important. Certain materials are more lightweight than others, and therefore, they lend themselves better towards backpacking. If camping next to a car, weight may not be a concern.
Tent Fabrics And Materials
Modern tent fabrics can be made of various materials like Polyester, Nylon, Canvas or Cotton, Poly-Cotton, and DCF (formerly known as Cuben Fiber).
Let’s look at each of them and find out their compatibility with your camping needs.
Nylon Tent Fabric
Nylon is a man-made fabric that is often used in tent construction. In today’s tents, this is the most common material used. It is affordable, and more lightweight than other common materials like polyester.
Nylon is a fabric that has stretch to it. This helps increase the overall durability and increases the resistance to tearing and punctures.
Nylon is not waterproof on its own, but it can be combined with silicone to form SilNylon. The silicone strengthens and waterproofs the cloth. Polyester textiles do not have this treatment.
UV light causes nylon to degrade. This is particularly important for mountaineers who use their equipment at high altitudes, where the UV index is extremely strong. It is important to note that heavier fabrics tend to be more resilient to UV rays. Nylon may not be the best materials for those spending extended periods of time at high altitudes exposed to the sun, but it is the most commonly used tent material for its balance between weight, price, performance, and durability.
Pros of Nylon Tent
- Relatively inexpensive to manufacture
Cons of Nylon Tent
- It is slightly more expensive than polyester.
- Sun exposure can cause harm.
Nylon is the most commonly recommended tent material for most backpackers and campers due to the value, strength, and versatility.
Polyester Tent Fabric
Polyester is also a very common tent material. Polyester tents are less expensive than other fabric materials because they are composed of plastic that is less expensive to manufacture and weave than other materials.
Polyester tents used to have a reputation for not having high durability, but new formulations of polyester have proven to increase strength and durability substantially while still maintaining very lightweight construction.
When compared to similar weight nylons, polyester has a lower tear strength. To match the strength of nylon, manufacturers will need to use heavier, thicker polyester.
Polyester stretches much less than Nylon, which hurts its resistance to tearing, but actually helps ease the use of a rain fly. Because it doesn’t stretch or absorb moisture as much as Nylon, a polyester rain fly may be a bit easier to set up and avoid any sagging.
One of the most significant advantages of polyester is that it often results in a lighter weight tent. This can be great for ultralightweight setups, or those that don’t need a highly durable tent.
Polyester becomes great a great waterproof tent material with added PU coating (every tent comes with waterproof coatings).
Pros of Polyester Tent
- Reasonably priced
- Packing and setup tends to be a touch easier due to low stretch
- Highly waterproof with PU coating.
Cons of Polyester Tent
- Less durable than other tent materials
If you are someone looking for the least expensive tents, the lightest tents, or the easiest tent to set up by yourself, polyester tents might be a great option for you.
Tents Made of Dyneema Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber)
Dyneema Composite Fabric, also known as DCF, and sometimes known as Cuben fiber, is an ultra light and strong tent material. Dyneema is the brand name for UHMWPE (ultra high molecular weight polyethylene).
This material creates an extremely durable and strong tent that is extremely lightweight. Tents manufacturers can make any equally strong tent with far less materials, which in turn reduces weight.
The weakest point of any DCF tent is often the seams as seams need to be bonded in order to protect the seams from separation.
DCF is waterproof, and doesn’t have any moisture retention, therefore, tents don’t need to be coated with any type of waterproofing, this makes this tent more durable, and reliable in wet conditions.
DCF is not an abrasion resistant material. This can be a downfall for traditional tent setups. Think about the abrasion with stuff sacks, tent poles, and other items. Therefore, they can potentially degrade quickly.
These advantages come at a far higher cost than typical nylon or polyester materials. Because of the lack of durability, and hight cost, this is not recommended as the ideal tent material.
Pros of a DCF Tent
- Extremely lightweight.
- Great waterproofing
Cons of Cuben Fiber Tent
- Most expensive.
- Susceptible to damage via abrasion
You can choose DCF tents if you need an extremely lightweight and weather-resistant tent fabric for backpacking. But you will have to be aware of the high price and lack of long term durability.
Cotton Canvas Tents
Cotton canvas is a traditional tent fabric that has been used for quite some time.
Cotton is long-lasting and enables air to travel through, preventing musty odors and dampness from spreading. Cotton canvas absorbs water, and expands, which naturally makes this woven material waterproof. You may also find cotton canvas coated with waterproofing materials to make it even more waterproof.
It genuinely makes you feel warm on a cold, windy day, but it cools you down on a hot day.
They are much more expensive now than polyester and nylon, but they last for years. The main disadvantage of cotton fabric is its weight.
This makes it more difficult to set up, pack it up, and transport it. Cotton canvas is indeed an old-school yet secure investment. Generally speaking, canvas tents are not used for backpacking due to the weight. Canvas tents are used for car camping, or longer term camping trips where setting up a slightly more permanent structure is the plan.
Pros of Cotton Tent
- All-weather durability
- Material that is breathable
- Damage resistant
Cons of Cotton Tent
- More costly.
- Much heavier.
- Takes time to set up and pack it back.
Cotton/canvas tents are a great choice if you need a 3 or 4-season tent, want to go car camping with your family, or are just looking for something comfortable that can withstand heavy weather and you have the money to spend. This is not a recommended for backpackers.
Tents Fabrics Made of Poly-Cotton
As the name indicates, poly-cotton is made of a polyester and cotton hybrid. Poly-cotton fabric is a polyester and cotton blend that is composed of 65% polyester & 35% cotton.
As a result, it aims to combine the best of both sides by mixing durability & breathability with cost and convenience of usage.
Polycotton tents are useful for family camping, single camping, and almost any type of camping you’re interested in.
This tent material is marketed as having the ideal balance, but in reality, it’s more of a “middle” compromise. It’s more breathable and warmer than a regular polyester tent, however, it’s also thicker and heavier.
Pros of Poly-Cotton Tent
- Tough material.
- Wind and rain resistant; reasonably breathable.
- Long life expectancy.
Cons of Poly-Cotton Tent
- More expensive.
- It’s heavier than a polyester, nylon, or DCF tent
If you need a tent that bridges the gaps between polyester and cotton, this may be a good option. The added cost of the blended material leads us to believe that a nylon material is likely a better option for most use cases.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Tent Fabric is the Most Waterproof?
DCF is likely considered the most waterproof tent material, followed by polyester, cotton canvas, and then nylon. DCF doesn’t require any waterproof coating, whereas polyester and nylon both do.
Which Tent Fabric is the most durable?
Nylon is often considered the most durable tent material due to its abrasion resistance, and stretch.
Are Polyester And Nylon Waterproof?
Both polyester and nylon are water-resistant. However, polyester is more water resistant than Nylon. Furthermore, the water-resistance of polyester increases with advanced PU-Coating. But, unless coated with specific compounds, neither Polyester nor Nylon becomes highly waterproof. In most tent setups, both are adequately waterproof due to coatings, but are susceptible to those waterproof layers coming off after long term use.
Should I Get Poly-Canvas Tent for Backpacking?
Though Poly-Canvas tent fabrics have 65% Polyester, still they are not that lightweight to provide a comfortable experience while transporting. They are much heavier than other tent materials.
Do I Need a Tent Footprint or Tarp?
Carrying a tarp will give you an extra layer of protection and keep your camping area dry. Read our full article on tent footprints for more information.
Which Tent Fabric Will Be Ideal for Backpacking?
We believe that for most common backpacking needs, nylon tents have the best mix of value, durability and weight for backpacking. It has great versatility, and is an inexpensive material relatively, making most nylon tents affordable.
A tent is made of various materials. But the tent fabric is the most important part of a tent as it covers you from wind, rain, sunlight, and snow.
When looking for a new tent for your next camping trip, it’s crucial to know what you’re looking for in terms of tent materials. You should always look for durability, comfort, and price with the different seasons in mind.
We recommend reading our guide on the best budget backpacking tents to learn more about choosing the best tent.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor 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. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about