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Tent Fabrics: What Are Tents Made Of

Written by Bertie

Flick through 1930s hiking magazines and your tent fabric options were canvas or canvas, occasionally with some sort of patent rot-proofing treatment. Fast-forward 90 years and it’s a whole different game. You can splash out $20 for a respectable-looking hike tent from the outdoor store or $700 for something similar-looking from a specialist ultralight gear retailer – and the difference is often in what it’s made of.

Summary

  • Choosing your tent fabric is about finding a balance between waterproofing, durability, weight and cost.
  • A cheaper polyester or polycotton tent is fine for occasional camping – you don’t always need to get the most expensive models.
  • Lighter fabrics like nylon and cuben fiber are better for hike tents.
  • Canvas or polycotton are great for bigger, more durable tents where weight isn’t an issue.

The Characteristics of Tent Fabrics

Broadly, there are four things to think about when you’re considering tent fabrics.

Waterproofing

Usually expressed in terms of ‘hydrostatic head’ (HH), where a higher value is better. You’ll notice that groundsheets tend to have a much higher rating and be made of heavier fabric than the flysheet, for obvious reasons. Most tents have a waterproof coating, which is generally polyurethane (PU) or silicon – and sometimes a combination of both. Which one is better depends on all kinds of variables, but in general silicon tends to be more durable than PU. On PU-coated tents, the seams are usually taped, while on silicon-impregnated ones you may need to caulk the seams yourself with special sealant.

Strength and Durability

Different fabrics have varying tensile strengths (how much you can stretch them before they tear) and some are easier to puncture than others. The two aren’t always connected – in  some cases a fabric might have fantastic tensile strength but be very vulnerable to damage from sharp objects or even repeated creasing. Likewise, some tent materials will last much longer than others. One of the main things that will eventually degrade a tent’s fabric and waterproofing is sunlight (UV).

Weight

For backpackers, the weight of a tent’s fabric is hugely important, while for car campers it’s pretty much immaterial. Lighter tents usually come with significant trade-offs in other areas.

Cost

With tents you usually get what you pay for, which isn’t to say that cheaper tents aren’t worth considering. If you want a seriously lightweight, durable tent for a four-month thru-hike or a large family tipi that will give you decades of service, then it’s going to hit your wallet pretty hard – but if the extent of your camping is one week a year on a well-drained commercial campsite then you don’t need to pay big bucks for something top-of-the-range.

Different Tent Fabrics

Polyester

Most of the cheaper tents you come across will be made of polyester, normally with a PU (polyurethane) coating. Polyester is inexpensive and reasonably tough, and it doesn’t absorb water so your flysheet (outer) will usually stay tighter when it gets wet compared to other fabrics. By that same token there isn’t much stretch in polyester, which can make it more prone to accidental damage under tension.

Polyester stands up better to UV damage than nylon or cuben fiber, but it’s not nearly as hard-wearing as canvas or polycotton.

Nylon

These days the lightweight hike tents that long-distance pack-rats and mountaineers crawl into at the end of a long day are usually made of silicone-impregnated nylon (silnylon). In terms of its strength-to-weight ratio nylon isn’t that dissimilar to polyester, but nylon is more readily available in the lighter weights. The silicon makes it waterproof while improving its strength, and it’s also mould-proof. Silnylon has a distinctive ‘slippy’ texture compared to other fabrics, and you might find that your silnylon tent also has a polyurethane treatment in some areas for the best of both worlds. Depending on your model of silnylon tent, you may need to caulk the seams with special sealant to stop them leaking.  

Nylon is stretchier than polyester, which has pros and cons. It tends to sag a bit more in the rain but it can be less vulnerable to accidental tears. Like polyester, nylon is prone to sun damage over time.

Canvas

Even just the smell of canvas can conjure up the heady nostalgia of childhood scout camps. Chances are the tents you slept in back then will have been several decades old, impregnated with that distinctive scent of fried food, paraffin and old socks. Canvas is tremendously durable and back-breakingly heavy, making it best suited for fixed camps rather than hiking. It’s breathable and largely bomb-proof but has two major Achilles heels.

Firstly, you’ll usually compromise the waterproofing if you get anything oily or soapy on it. Many a canvas tent has been ruined by a spillage of greasy washing-up water or a jet of bug spray, leaving a porous patch where the water can drip through and pool in the interior.

Secondly, canvas takes a long time to dry out and is prone to rot. In practice, this means that it’s often very difficult to pack a canvas tent away completely dry, so you normally need a garage or a big yard back home where you can get it all unpacked and properly dried out before you store it for the next camp.  

Polycotton Canvas

There’s nothing wrong with being a jack-of-all-trades. Polycotton canvas is a mix of cotton and polyester, generally with some sort of waterproof coating, and it gives you some of the benefits of both fabrics.

Polycotton is breathable like canvas – making it much cooler in the summer and less prone to condensation – and it’s also very durable. The polyester element makes it a lot lighter and quicker-drying than canvas, and there’s usually a cost saving in there too. The main downside is that it’s still pretty heavy compared to the synthetics, making it more suited to the campsite than the backpack.

Though it’s not as long-lasting as old-school canvas, a decent polycotton tent will give you many years of service, and it makes a great choice for a larger family tent like a tipi.

Cuben Fiber

If there’s one fabric above all others that has the ultralighters rubbing their thighs it’s cuben fiber. Also referred to as Dyneema (DCF), this was originally developed for the sails on racing yachts, but its unique characteristics have made it ideal for lightweight tents too.

Cuben fiber is a synthetic composite fabric that’s got incredible tensile strength for its weight. It’s super-lightweight, windproof and waterproof, and for that very reason is much beloved by running snakes and the sorts of ultralight backpackers who weigh every bit of gear on their electric kitchen scales.

Inevitably, cuben fiber is a lot more expensive than other tent fabrics – think double the price in some cases – and it’s also a good deal more delicate. It’s got fantastic tensile strength but it’s infuriatingly easy to puncture with a buckle or hiking pole or whatever.

Also it’s in the nature of cuben fiber tents that they’re not always very comfortable. The cost and characteristics of the fabric mean that it’s predominantly used for ultra-lightweight, single-skin tarp tents that suffer from condensation and often don’t have a groundsheet. These designs may pack down to the size of a pair of socks, but might not keep you as warm and dry as other shelters. 

Which Tent Fabric to Choose

Picking a tent fabric is about balancing out weight, cost, waterproofing and durability. As with most outdoor gear choices, you’ll usually have to compromise on something.

For occasional short camping trips on commercial campsites or at festivals, a cheaper polyester tent should be fine. For hiking, you’re more likely to want a higher-end polyester or silnylon model. Cuben fiber is the fabric of choice for ultralighters and long-distance runners, but some might argue that its fragility can make it a riskier option for longer, more remote trips.

If you’re car camping and weight isn’t an issue then a traditional canvas bell tent or tipi could easily last longer on this earth than you do, while a polycotton version will be a bit lighter on your wallet and easier to handle.

FAQs

What material are tents made of?

Tents can be made of a variety of materials including polyester, nylon, cotton, polycotton or cuben fiber (also known as Dyneema).

What is the best material for a tent?

The best material for a tent depends on what you want to use it for. For hiking, you might choose nylon or cuben fiber, while canvas or polycotton are better for car camping.

What are waterproof tents made of?

Waterproof tents can be made of fabrics including polyester, nylon, cotton or cuben fiber. In many cases it’s the coating that makes it waterproof, and this is usually polyurethane (PU) or silicon.

Are cotton tents waterproof?

Cotton canvas is naturally water-resistant, but most cotton tents are also treated with a waterproofing compound to improve this.

What is the bottom of a tent made of?

The bottom of a tent is usually made of heavier material than the rest – often with a thick polyurethane coating.

About the author

Bertie

I’m Bertie and I’ve been enjoying the wilderness for as long as I can remember. I get out camping, hiking and backpacking whenever I can. And when I can’t, I enjoy writing about outdoor-related stuff!

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