Last Updated on September 13, 2021
Your outdoorsy spirit has finally led you to start thinking about what kind of tent you want to buy. With so many different options on the market, it can be a daunting task to begin sifting through the internet to find the best one for your needs, but we’re here to make your experience easier with this simple guide.
To begin your search, it is important to consider how tents are made. Tents are made of fabrics, poles, and ropes, for starters. These three basic components vary from tent to tent, so let’s take a deep dive into each of them to understand how each is made:
A tent’s fabric is where you will find the most variation on the market. For this reason, we will break down the different fabrics used to make tents and the qualities of each one.
If you are shopping for a tent online, you’ll be able to see the tent’s fabric composition easily in the specs. If shopping for a tent in a store or a used tent, you can usually find the fabric composition on the tag.
Polyester is the most common tent fabric on the market. If it isn’t entirely polyester, it will likely be a blend of polyester and other fabrics, like cotton or nylon. Sometimes this blend is an indicator that the cotton or nylon fabric of the tent has been treated with PCV (Poly Vinyl Chloride) as a waterproofing agent.
Polyester is essentially a thin plastic that is often woven with other types of materials to create a fabric that is more durable. Polyester has become the new standard for tent fabrics due to its durability and water resistance.
The greatest advantage of having a polyester or polyester blend fabric tent is its long-lasting quality. Additionally, polyester retains its shape and weight when wet, which makes it easy to clean and transport.
A disadvantage of polyester in general is its unsustainability. It is a cheap fabric and the most accessible one on the market, but it is plastic, after all. That means that a polyester tent, when thrown away at the end of its life, will take thousands of years to biodegrade in a landfill. This is something to consider if your environmental impact is important to you.
Nylon is nearly just as popular and accessible as polyester, and often woven together with it to create a durable, lightweight fabric blend. If a tent is 100% nylon, it’s the lightest fabric you’ll find, which makes nylon tents extremely easy to transport.
Because of its lightness , nylon tents are ideal for backpackers looking to reduce the weight of their packs by any means possible. Additionally, nylon fabric is water resistant as nylon fibers do not absorb water.
Something to consider with nylon is sun exposure. Nylon tends to be sensitive to the sun’s rays and can change color or even degrade over time if left too long in the sun.
The nylon used for tents is often coated in silicone, acrylic, or polyurethane (PU) in order to further protect the tent’s fabric. These substances, like polyester, are different forms of plastic which one should keep in mind if you are avoiding plastic waste.
Cotton or Canvas
This is as old school as it gets when it comes to tent fabrics. Canvas tents were once the standard for tent fabrics, but have been replaced with lighter, more durable fabrics like nylon and polyester over time.
Nowadays, cotton tents are actually the gold standard for luxury “glamping” style tents, as they are more breathable and stylish than their nylon and polyester counterparts. Waterproofing a cotton tent does come with its challenges and patience (more on that later), but the end result is a more eco-friendly, yurt-style tent.
The heaviness of a cotton tent means it is not ideal for backpackers, unfortunately. If you are driving to your campsite, however, having a cotton tent may be a great option for you.
See how canvas and nylon tents stack up against one another in our full breakdown.
Here’s a neat video of a tentmaker's breakdown on how their canvas tents are made!
Most tents that you can find are water resistant, with the exception of canvas tents which may require extra waterproofing. Some tents are even double-walled, which means that they have a rain shield in addition to the tent’s body, creating added waterproofing.
If you want to know how waterproof a tent is, check its waterproof rating, also known as the hydrostatic head. There is a wide range of waterproof ratings. A 1000mm hydrostatic head would be a material that is only suited for summer camping and very light moisture, whereas a 3000mm hydrostatic head is ideal for year-round camping.
An even higher waterproof rating is given to tents which have a built-in groundsheet, which is a thin tarp that creates an extra barrier between the ground and your tent. These tents usually start around 5000mm hydrostatic head and can resist even the wettest conditions.
Planning to camp in the rain? Check out our 20 Best Waterproof Tents!
In order for a tent to take its shape, it needs strong poles. Ideal poles are not only durable, but also lightweight making for easy transport. While poles were originally made with steel, modern poles are usually made from fiber-glass or aluminum.
Fiber-glass poles have bungee cords inside them, which allow them to link together and fold nicely. However, they can become brittle over time and more prone to breaking. Aluminum poles have all the benefits of fiber-glass poles, without the risk of breakage.
Some poles come color-coded to help campers find the right places for them while setting up their tents. If your poles are not color-coded, try doing so with some electrical tape. This can speed up the setting up process of your tent.
To ensure stability, tents have guy ropes which are secured to the ground. If you are camping in windy conditions, these guy ropes will help your tent stay secure and taught. While you’ll most likely find guy ropes on smaller tents, they can be useful for larger tents as well.
Be careful not to pull your guy ropes too tight, as it can cause tears in your tent’s fabric. Tears are the enemy of waterproofing and should be avoided at all costs!
Which tent is right for me?
Now that you know everything about how tents are made and the different components that go into making them, how do you decide which one to purchase? Here are some things to consider:
First, you’ll want to narrow your budget. Some tent materials are cheaper than others, resulting in a lower price. Tents made from synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon tend to be cheaper than canvas tents. Those with fiber-glass poles also tend to be on the cheaper side.
Now, think about what kind of weather you are hoping to go camping in. Tents come in various weather ratings according to the seasons they are best suited for. A 4 season tent, for example, is suited for even the harshest weather conditions, while 3 season tents offer less protection from the elements.
For windy locations, pay close attention to the pole material. Aluminum is much more sturdy than fiber-glass and therefore better suited for windy weather. Aluminum poles are also better in colder temperatures because they are less likely to break.
Consider how much waterproofing your tent needs according to where you plan to camp. If a downpour is likely, you will want to make sure your tent has at least a 3000mm hydrostatic head rating.
Method of transportation
Consider how lightweight you will need your tent to be. If your mode of transportation is your own two feet (aka, backpacking), you will want a tent made of the lightest materials possible. Backpacking tents typically have nylon or polyester fabric with aluminum or fiber-glass poles.
Looking for the perfect backpacking tent on a budget? We’ve got a list of the 10 best backpacking tents under $100.
If you are traveling in your vehicle and the weight of your tent is not an issue for you, you might opt for a canvas tent, which tends to be heavier. If you are not worried about a downpour because you can easily pack up and leave in your car, perhaps waterproofing may not be a big concern either.