Last Updated on September 30, 2021
You know you want a tent for your next backpacking or camping trip. But have you given any thought to what tent materials you should look for?
The type of fabric used is arguably the single most important quality to look for in a tent. It’s what primarily determines how well your tent will hold up against the elements, including the wind, rain, snow, dirt, and the sun.
This guide covers the primary materials that tents are made from, the pros and cons of each, and how you can decide the best option for you.
As you’ll soon see, there’s no such thing as the best overall tent fabric, but there are definitely certain tent materials that are preferable over the others depending on how you’ll use it.
What Kind of Material Are Tents Made From?
If you were wondering what type of material are tents made from, you’re about to find out.
The vast majority of tents are made out of either polyester or nylon. However, there are other kinds of tent materials that are commonly used as well. Each of these materials are best suited for specific scenarios.
What Materials Are Camping Tents Made Of?
Traditionally, most tents were made out of cotton-type materials or canvas. While very durable and heavy, these tents were also not very waterproof.
More modern types of tents are usually built out of lighter materials from man-made fibers. They’re also usually treated with waterproof coverings such as polyurethane.
Polyester and nylon are two such examples of these kinds of modern day tents. While not as durable as canvas, they are much more lightweight and easy to carry tents.
Let’s discuss the most common materials tents are made out of:
Nylon fabric is a very lightweight material that is commonly used on smaller sized tents, such as the kinds of camping tents you can stash away in a backpack. Nylon is effective as a tent material because it does not absorb water. This also means nylon will not shrink or become heavier under rainfall.
Furthermore, nylon is relatively cheap to produce, which translates to a lower price on the shelf.
Additionally, most nylon tents are covered in a polyurethane, silicone, or acrylic coating. If you were wondering what waterproof tents are made of, these are the most common coatings used. These coatings offer further protection against rain and are what make nylon tents truly waterproof, so they make excellent tents for rain.
On the other hand, nylon is vulnerable to the sun’s UV rays. Be careful about keeping your nylon tent exposed to sunlight for extended periods of time. Under prolonged exposure, the color can fade away and the materials can physically deteriorate.
Another disadvantage of nylon is the lack of insulation. This means that the interior of your tent will become very hot when it is hot outside, and likewise very cold when it is cold outside.
Overall, as a small expedition-type tent for backpacking trips, a nylon tent is an excellent choice. It’s lightweight and will not become heavier because it won’t absorb water.
- Very lightweight
- Does not absorb water
- Good choice for a backpacking tent
- Vulnerable to sunlight
- Not very well insulated
- Will flap around more in the wind due to its lightweight
Polyester is another very popular and more modern choice for a tent material like nylon. It is heavier than nylon and a little more durable. As with nylon, polyester is commonly coated in waterproof layers of silicone or acrylic. The fabric won’t absorb water, and therefore won’t become heavier or shrink under periods of intense rainfall.
A major advantage that polyester has over nylon is it’s less vulnerable to sunlight. In other words, the fabric won’t degrade as easily when exposed to sunlight for prolonged time periods.
As with nylon, polyester is not the best material when it comes to insulation. It is also not very breathable. This means that condensation can build up on the inside (even as rainfall or moisture is kept at bay from the outside).
All in all, polyester is a good choice for a tent if you want something that’s a little bit heavier and more durable than nylon, but is still light enough for use in a backpacking or expedition type tent.
- Less vulnerable to sunlight than nylon
- Good choice for a backpacking tent
- Dries out quickly
- A little more durable than nylon
- A little heavier than nylon
- Not very well insulated
- Not naturally breathable
Cotton and Canvas
As previously noted, cotton and canvas were among the most popular choices for tents before nylon and polyester came along. Cotton and canvas tents are much heavier than polyester and nylon, and therefore a lesser choice if you want something lightweight that you can stash away in a backpack.
But for longer camping trips where you’ll remain in one location, canvas is a better choice. The material is very breathable and ventilates well. It’s also a far more effective material than nylon or polyester when it comes to ventilation. In other words, the interior of your tent should be cooler than outside in hot conditions, and likewise warmer inside than outside in cold conditions.
Something you will need to do with a cotton canvas tent before you take it out camping is to ‘weather’ it. This is where you expose the canvas to water so that the fibers swell, which will tighten up the fabric and waterproof it. Cleaning canvas tents does require more effort though.
There are two ways to weather your tent: either set it up at home and spray it down with water from a hose (then let it dry out afterwards), or take it out camping when it’s raining and be prepared for raindrops to make their way through the materials.
Cotton is also much more resistant to sunlight than nylon or polyester. The colors will not fade away and the materials will not degrade as easily.
You can also expect to pay a steeper price for a cotton canvas tent than for one made with lighter materials like polyester or nylon. This is why canvas tents are often thought of by many people as being a ‘luxury tent’, or at the very least, as a tent that’s a better investment in the sense that you’ll pay more upfront but also get more use out of.
- Insulates very well
- Very breathable
- Won’t flap around as easily in the wind
- Resistant to sunlight
- Less likely to have condensation than nylon or polyester
- Heavy and bulky, and not the best choice for transport or backpacking trips
- Needs a break-in period called ‘weathering’ to make it waterproof
- Much more expensive than polyester or nylon
Other Tent Fabrics
Nylon, polyester, and cotton canvas are easily the most popular materials used for camping tents. But there are other materials that are often used as well.
For example, one type of tent material that has gained popularity in recent years is a hybrid between polyester and cotton called ‘polycotton.’ This kind of tent is designed to be lighter, with some of the durability and strength of cotton. It’s also usually coated in another material like acrylic or silicone to make it more water resistant.
Another type of tent you may have heard about is PVC, or poly vinyl chloride. This is simply a canvas tent with a PVC coating over the roof to help waterproof it. While effective at keeping rain, snow, and moisture at bay, PVC also reduces ventilation. This translates to more condensation building up on the inside of the tent.
More on this: How to Air Out a Tent
Conclusion - What Tent Material Is Best For You?
In conclusion, nylon or polyester are your best choice for a tent if you want something lightweight that’s easy to transport. Both are affordable, waterproof and will dry out quickly. However, neither are very breathable or well insulated, so keep this in mind.
Cotton canvas is heavier and bulkier, and not as easy to transport. However, it’s far more insulated and breathable than nylon and polyester as well. It’s also more resistant to sunlight and less likely to develop condensation on the inside.
Ultimately, choosing the best tent material for your needs comes down to determining what your situation is. If you want something lightweight for use on a quick backpacking expedition, nylon or polyester are the way to go.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something a bit more durable for family camping trips or trips out in the woods in inclement weather, a cotton canvas tent that’s been properly weatherproofed is the superior option.
It's also useful to know the different requirements for different seasons, so check out our guide on 3 seasons vs 4 seasons tents.