Canvas vs. Nylon Tents: Key Differences You Must Know!

Canvas vs Nylon Tents

Last Updated on December 7, 2021

Outdoor activity enthusiasts often need to buy lots of gear to enjoy their hobby safely. Regardless of whether your passion is camping, hiking, backpacking, or hunting, your tent is one of the most important pieces of gear you will buy. It is also a piece of equipment with a large outlay compared to many other pieces of kit. Therefore, it is essential you make the right choice.

You need a tent that is practical, warm, and comfortable. So, you must consider the conditions in which you will camp, whether you are a lone traveler or a family group, and how often you will use this item.

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing your tent is the materials from which it is made. Two of the most common materials used for tents are canvas and nylon. When these two fabrics are directly compared, which is the best for tents?

What is Nylon?

Nylon is a synthetic fiber, which means it is man-made. The term nylon is used to describe a family of synthetic polymers that you can melt into the shape of fibers or into many other shapes. As this is a cheap and versatile material, it is used to manufacture many things.

What is Canvas?

Canvas is a fabric made from natural materials, such as flax, hemp, cotton, or other similar yarns. This strong and unbleached fabric is very durable, so it is used not only for tents, but also for boat sails and to create surfaces for oil painting.

Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents: What to consider?

Type of Camping

The type of camping you adhere to the most dictates the materials your tent needs. A backpacking tent needs to be lightweight. A winter camping tent needs to be warm. Nylon tents are known for their reduced weight while canvas tents for their warmth and breathability.

Remote location camping often requires carrying a tent further which means lighter materials such as nylon are the better choice. Pitching a tent in an easy-to-reach campsite allows you to choose heavier tents made from materials such as canvas. Here are the main characteristics to look at when choosing the right tent materials for the type of camping you do the most.

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Size and weight

Canvas is thicker than nylon. This is why canvas tents take up more space than nylon tents when packed for traveling. As a result, backpackers favor smaller and lighter nylon while canvas tents are preferred by those who set up camp for at least a few days.

Canvas is heavier than nylon as it’s a thick material. Canvas tents typically accommodate at least 6 people and they weigh around 55lbs. A similar capacity nylon tent is about half this weight.

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Nylon tents are more suitable for backpackers because they are lighter than canvas.

Sustainability

Canvas is the most sustainable tent material. It’s made out of cotton which means it’s natural, breathable, and biodegradable. Old canvas tents slowly biodegrade making their way back into earth. Old nylon tents are a source of pollution as they aren’t biodegradable.

Durability

Nylon is a synthetic material that will deteriorate faster than canvas and is more likely to tear. Therefore, a canvas tent is the most durable option.

UV Resistance

Canvas is the superior material for UV resistance. Pure canvas materials aren’t used on tents. Canvas is UV treated. This treatment can be re-applied over time to make the tent last a long time even when camping in direct sunlight. UV and waterproofing canvas tent treatments are multipurpose sprays used to keep the tent dry. They are applied liberally by users.

Maintenance

Nylon tents are superior to canvas tents with minimum to no maintenance. Nylon dries quickly and it rarely needs waterproofing or UV coating. Canvas tents need waterproofing treatments as the material absorbs water. Canvas tents also take longer to dry so you need to wait out more before packing a canvas tent to avoid mold on the tent.

clean tents drying

While synthetic tents can be simply left to dry canvas needs more care. Credit: Alan via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Protection from Elements

Nylon is very good at protecting campers from the rain as the material isn’t as absorbent as cotton. It can be packed easily and it dries quicker as well. Canvas tents packed quickly are subject to mildew formation.

Water Resistance

Nylon tents are generally treated with a water-resistant substance while canvas tents are not. However, canvas tents have natural weather-resistance once weathered. Although it takes more effort to make a canvas tent water-resistant, the result means there is little difference between nylon and canvas tents.

Insulation

Canvas is superior in cold weather where the thicker material offers better thermal protection, essentially retaining heat better than nylon. Canvas is regularly used in winter tents with stoves. The material is an insulator rather than a conductor as nylon.

More on this: How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping

Wind Resistance

Wind resistance is high on both nylon and canvas. High winds can rip the tent in extreme conditions. Canvas rips are easier to fix than nylon rips. Furthermore, nylon is lighter and as a result noisier in high wind camping.

Comfort

All tents need to be as comfortable as possible. Comfort is a combination of breathability, ease of setup, drying time, and even noise levels.

Breathability

Waking up in a tent with poor ventilation is a reality for nylon tents. Canvas is naturally breathable making the material a true winner when it comes to multi-person camping as more people inside the tent need more air through the night.

Drying

Quick drying time recommends nylon tents first. Nylon repels water so most nylon tents are completely dry and ready to be taken down sooner than canvas tents. Canvas also tends to absorb water which means it has longer drying time.

Ease of Setup

Nylon tents are up to twice as light as canvas tents. One-person setup is typical for lightweight nylon tents while canvas tents might need 2-person assembly. Easy pitch and instant pitch tents are almost always made from nylon.

How to assemble nylon tents

Nylon tents come in all shapes and sizes. Most are easy to pitch by laying the tent’s nylon on the floor and running the support poles through it followed by anchoring. Many nylon tents are made with an easy pitch design which simplifies this process further by already adding the support poles through the nylon only for users to raise and anchor the tent. Pop-up tents (no assembly required) are also often made from nylon.

How to assemble canvas tents

Canvas tents take a bit longer to pitch. You first need to unfold the tent and secure it with wind stakes at an angle. You then need to put together the center pole and the frame of the tent. Tension guy lines are then used to secure most canvas tents.

Noise (wind)

While lightweight, the synthetic nature of nylon makes it noisy in high wind camping. The reduced weight of the material makes it move around more which creates extra noise. Canvas is thicker and as a result, heavier. This means it doesn’t move around as much in the wind making for a more comfortable sleeping experience.

Canvas Tents

What are Canvas Tents Made Of?

Canvas tents are plain-wooden fabric tents made from cotton. The material is thick, sturdy, and suitable for heavy duty tents such as those designed to accommodate at least 4 people. These tents are popular outside the camping world due to their ruggedness. The combination of canvas and steel poles recommends these rugged tents for military and humanitarian use as well.

canvas weave structure

Canvas is a popular choice for tents

What is Weathering?

Weathering is the process of waterproofing a canvas tent. Tiny holes in plain weave canvas need to be sealed to keep water out in the eventually of raining or snowing. These holes are larger in sewn areas. Weathering is a process where these holes need to become smaller, particularly by making canvas absorb water thus diminishing the spaces between the fibers. This is done by using a sprinkler and hosing the tent down.

Can You Waterproof Canvas Tents?

Canvas is waterproof naturally. But it is not completely waterproof without treatment. Canvas waterproofing sprays are available to waterproof a canvas tent. Some of these sprays come with silicone content which acts as a water barrier when applied on canvas.

Almost all canvas tents are going to leak at some point, usually whenever the waterproofing coat wears off. Campers need to re-apply waterproofing canvas sprays on the tent. The balance here is to add enough coating to waterproof the tent but not as much coating so that it impedes canvas’ famous breathability.

Are Canvas Tents Good for Summer?

Canvas tents typically stay cool in the summer. In countries that are some of the hottest in the world they are used as permanent structures to live in. Cotton is thick and it keeps the air inside cool for longer. However, canvas also takes longer to cool down. Eventually, canvas heats up when the tent is out in the sun and canvas tents retain heat more than typical nylon tents.

More on this: 20 Best Hot Weather Tents for Summer Camping – Buying Guide & Reviews

Are Canvas Tents good for Winter?

Thick canvas is also ideal for better temperature regulation inside the tent. Thick canvas doesn’t allow warm air to easily escape the tent which makes canvas tents great for winter. The material is known for offering the best thermal protection when mixed with synthetic fibers but it also offers superior heat retention properties compared to pure nylon tents.

Cleaning a Canvas Tent

Canvas tents need to be cleaned thoroughly as they can develop mold when packed quickly without sufficient drying time. Absorbent cotton retains water longer than nylon, so cleaning canvas tents is recommended after every use.

Vinegar mixed with water or special tent cleaners are used to keep these tents in good shape. You can mix 50% vinegar and 50% water and spray the tent from top to bottom. It then needs to be hosed down to remove all vinegar or remaining cleaner.

The Pros and Cons of Canvas Tents

PROs

  • Good insulation - Canvas is a much better insulator than nylon, so it will keep you warmer in colder conditions.
  • Breathable - Canvas is a natural material and this means it is more breathable. This is the reason a canvas tent does not get condensation like a nylon tent.
  • Durable - Compared to nylon tents, canvas tents do not deteriorate as quickly. They also do not lose their color from exposure to UV rays.
  • Quieter - As canvas is a heavier fabric than nylon, it does not flap as much in the wind. Therefore, there is less noise to disturb you in the night.

CONs

  • Heavy and bulky - The biggest disadvantage of canvas is its weight. Not only is it heavy, but it is always bulky. This means it is mostly suitable for car camping as these tents are far too heavy for backpacking and hiking.
  • Preparation - You need to weather a canvas tent before you use it, and this can take some time. It involves leaving the tent out in the rain, so the canvas will expand so that there are no holes. If you do not do this, the tent will leak the first time you use it on a camping trip.
  • Maintenance - You need to spend time drying out a canvas tent before putting it away. They are also more prone to mildew, so need regular cleaning.
  • Price - As cotton is the main material used in canvas and it’s more expensive than man-made fabrics, canvas tents are more expensive than tents made from nylon or other synthetic materials.

Nylon and Polyester Tents

Nylon and polyester tents are more affordable, lighter, and not as bulky as canvas tents. They are also more affordable given they use man-made fabrics instead of natural materials.

What is the Difference between Nylon and Polyester Tents?

Stretchiness is the main difference between nylon and polyester tents. Nylon has better strength to weight ratio due to its stretchy nature while polyester isn’t as stretchy. This stretchiness is both a pro and a con as it allows material maneuverability but nylon tents are not as aesthetically-pleasing as the tent has more wrinkles compared to polyester and canvas.

The Pros and Cons of Nylon Tents

PROs

  • Affordability - Nylon is one of the cheapest materials used to make tents, so tents made from nylon are ideal for those on a limited budget.
  • Low weight - Tents made from nylon are lightweight. This means that nylon tents are a good option for backpackers and hikers who need to keep the weight they are carrying to a minimum.
  • Quick drying - When people are camping, they want their tent to dry quickly before packing it away so that it doesn’t get everything else wet or start to smell. Nylon is a quick-drying material, so it is ideal for tents.
  • Low-maintenance - Nylon tents do not require a lot of care. They do not rip easily, so you won’t waste time repairing your tent each time you use it. They also do not get mildew easily, so you won’t need to clean the material regularly.
  • Water-resistance - Most nylon tents are treated to improve water-resistance to keep you dry in your tent. How water-resistant a nylon tent is will vary from one manufacturer to the next.

CONs

  • Poor insulation - Compared to many natural materials, nylon is not a good insulator. This means the inside of a tent has extremes of temperature, so they get very hot in warm weather and very cold in cold weather.
  • Not breathable - Nylon is not naturally a breathable material. As a result, the inside of your tent may get condensation.
  • Flapping - Due to the lightweight nature of this fabric, nylon tents are prone to flapping in the wind and the noise of this may disturb your sleep.
  • Deterioration - Over time, a nylon tent will begin to deteriorate. They will also lose color from exposure to the sun’s rays.

FAQs

Are canvas tents hotter than nylon?

Canvas tents tend to remain cooler than nylon tents until they eventually warm up on the inside. They also take longer to cool from this point onwards as the air inside is better insulated by thicker tent materials.

Canvas tents take longer to heat up and to cool down in the summer. But these tents are also warmer during the winter as the warm air inside takes a longer time to escape. It’s easier to maintain warm air inside a canvas tent than inside a nylon tent. In fact, some of the best winter tents are large canvas tents designed to make room for a stove.

Do canvas tents mildew?

Canvas tents mildew when they are taken down before completely dry. Natural cotton fibers take longer to dry. It’s best to leave a canvas tent with doors and windows open for a few hours to dry completely before packing it down in its tent travel bag. While this takes longer than taking down a nylon tent it’s a step that can’t be overlooked and one of the main reasons canvas tents are mostly put up when camping for a few days and not just for overnight camping.

Canvas tents also mildew when not cleaned often. The canvas material absorbs moisture as well as smells and it holds on to them longer. This material needs to be cleaned frequently to avoid mildew formation.

Are canvas tents good in the rain?

Canvas tents have almost full waterproofing naturally. The plain weave fabrics only leak in sewed areas of the tent or when the canvas waterproofing treatments start to wear off. Canvas tents that are maintained correctly are completely waterproof. During the winter, melted snow on a canvas tent should never get inside the tent either.

More on this: Best Tents for Rain- 20 Best Waterproof Tents Reviewed!

Do canvas tents get condensation?

Canvas tents can get condensation. It’s one of the primary reasons these tents are made with mesh ventilation windows. The explanation for the condensation is simple. Moisture inside canvas tents doesn’t have an escape route as canvas creates an impermeable layer between the inside and the outside of the tent.

Condensation inside the tent is best visible on cold surfaces. These surfaces are often the walls of the tent, especially when camping in the winter when water droplets form on them. The same water droplets form on other cold objects inside the canvas tent such as on its supporting steel poles.

Are canvas tents worth the money?

Better durability is one of the main reasons canvas tents are worth the money. They tend to last longer than nylon tents and they are also rarely replaced as ripped canvas is easy to fix with seam sealers compared to ripped synthetic materials.

Canvas tents are considered all-season tents. This means they can be used for wintertime camping. Not all nylon tents can be considered for sleeping out in cold weather.

Learn more: What Is a Three Season Tent and a Four Season Tent?

Wind, rain and UV resistance are also superior in canvas tents. Canvas often remains unaffected by constant sunlight exposure and this is why it’s considered a robust material. This robustness makes canvas ideal for some of the most demanding tent uses such as military, emergency relief and others.

military canvas tent

The ruggedness of canvas is excellent for military demands

Final words

Both canvas tents and nylon tents have pros and cons. What will suit some people will not suit the next, so which you choose is down to personal preference and which aspects of a tent are the most important to you.

Nylon tents are the ideal option for most hikers and backpackers. Lighter and compact, they are very easy to travel with. These tents are also quick-drying, essential for trips when you have to move quickly and don’t have much time to dry the tent out.

Tents for group camping and families can be made from either nylon or canvas. Nylon is ideal for groups who need to travel light while canvas has its all-season benefits such as better thermal protection in cold weather, the lack of condensation and even the benefit of comfortable all night sleeping through reduced wind noise.

Nylon tents are the modern choice from a technological perspective. This quick-drying material is easier to maintain compared to canvas and campers who like the latest camping gear typically gravitate towards nylon tents.

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