The materials used to make any sort of outdoor gear are always a subject of great importance. A delicate balancing act is necessary for the highest performance equipment, between weight and durability, efficiency and usability, quality and price. The selection of fabrics and other components in tents, backpacks, and the rest of your backcountry gear is an important aspect in the success of your trip. That’s why we’ve put together a thorough comparison of these two popular tent fabrics.
The decision between a nylon or canvas tent can be difficult to make, as there are some seriously compelling arguments from both sides. Canvas tents might be hailed as a more traditional and even more reliable choice. On the other hand, nylon tents along with other man-made materials could be better suited to today’s ultralight requirements.
Any choice regarding camping tents comes down to compromise, assisted by a clear idea of your own unique requirements. Every camper needs something different from their backcountry shelter, so there is no single best camping tent for every requirement.
There is a huge range of tent options on the market for campers because there really is a vast array of different needs to be fulfilled. That’s what makes recommending a single tent as the best so unrealistic. A lightweight backpacking tent, fully equipped with all the newest technologies, might be outperformed by a budget family tent on a windy day; there is no single specification to measure the effectiveness of a tent.
Eventually, every camper must make their choice between strong, light, and budget-friendly tents. It’s for this reason that we emphasize knowing what you need; if you have a realistic idea of your needs from a camping tent, then it will make decisions like the choice between canvas and nylon much easier.
What to consider when choosing a new tent
If you want to know which type of tent material is better, your personal specifications are the place to start. A nylon tent might be ideal for winter campers due to the improved insulation, however, it’s a story if you have to carry your tent to the campsite. In this situation, a canvas tent would be too heavy for most campers to manage alone, so a lighter weight nylon tent is more appropriate. As you can see, your camping situation plays a large role in dictating the fabric of your tent.
Firstly, think about the type of camping you plan to do. It’s unlikely you’re considering a new tent for a single camping trip, so instead, aim for the type of camping you do most often. Remember, a good camping tent is an investment, so make sure you choose one that will suit your needs for many expeditions to come. Contemplate the style of camping you’ll most often need your tent for; are you just at the campsite, or doing some extreme mountaineering? Car campers have very different requirements for those on a backcountry backpacking trip, so just keep in mind how well a tent will work for your camping style.
The weather has always had an uncomfortable amount of control over our camping trips, as unfortunately, nothing can destroy your back to nature getaway quite like a freezing downpour. Protection from the elements is absolutely essential from your chosen tent, so make sure your selection is up to the job. As well as waterproofing, a tent may also need to shelter campers from the wind, cold, and even sunlight. The season you camp also plays heavily on this aspect, it comes down to decisions like the one between warmth and breathability. If you know you need a tent for winter camping, then the choice is obvious.
The next thing you should keep in mind when it comes to tent choices is the location of your campsites. Do you most often hit established campgrounds, or do you prefer exploring and finding a hidden spot? Think about how you’re transporting your tent to the location, and following that, to the campsite. The size and weight of your tent when it’s packed up is imperative here, as a heavy and bulky tent just isn’t feasible if you’re camping in a remote location alone. On the other hand, lightweight and space-efficient tents are unnecessary at commercial campgrounds, and you’d be much more comfortable in a larger tent.
Of course, you need to know the number of people who will sleep inside your tent, as this obviously has an impact on your final decision. Not only do you need to ensure that there is enough physical room, but other factors can come into play when dealing with different numbers of people.
Think body heat, condensation, even wear and tear. If you want to make an intelligent decision about tent materials or any other outdoor gear choices, then remembering small details about this can make a fantastic difference. Additionally, you may want to consider possible special requirements you might need to be fulfilled by your tent, such as those of any campers with disabilities.
The final aspect you need to examine when choosing a new tent, and often a relevant deciding factor, is budget. Unlimited finances would remove almost every obstacle you may face when trying to choose the right tent, but unfortunately, most of us aren’t in that position.
We recommend trying to make a fiscally responsible decision by choosing a tent which offers the best value for money. Higher price tags offer more advanced tent technology and materials, where cheaper tents often skimp on quality and durability. Decide on your personal budget, and then you can get the best value tent which offers the best features for your dollar.
What do you need from your tent materials?
So we’ve established what to look for in a tent, but what features are you looking for in that tent’s construction? When questioning which is better between two different tent materials, we have to set a standard regarding what we’re looking for. There are certain attributes that make tent materials either suitable or unsuitable for use, so let’s outline exactly what it is you need from either canvas or nylon tent materials.
- Durability: Camping tents have to put up with a lot of wear and tear, so you want a material that’s going to withstand the pressures of outdoor use. Having a durable fabric will prevent your tent from forming tears and holes as easily. If your tent fabric isn’t strong enough, then the repeated pitching and packing away might cause damage, or the floors wear through. You should also consider how easy repairs might be to make if necessary.
- Breathability: Breathable fabrics aren’t always used in tent construction, however, they do have some great benefits. They help to control the humidity as well as the temperature and can assist in preventing condensation inside your tent. However, breathable fabrics can be less waterproof, so you might need additional protection from the rain.
- Weight: As is the same with any piece of outdoor performance gear, weight is everything. Heavier materials create an increased burden if you’re carrying your tent any distance at all. On the other hand, ultralight fabrics can be less durable, and damage easily.
- Weather protection: Of course, one primary purpose of your tent is to keep you dry when the weather turns sour. Any tent material needs to offer campers protection from the wind, the rain, and whatever else is thrown your way.
- Insulation: Good insulation is a basic need from a shelter, no matter the camping conditions. In hot climates, better insulation will keep temperatures more comfortable inside, while tent materials should trap the heat inside in colder weather.
- UV Resistance: Hopefully, your tent will spend plenty of time outside in the sun. Although this makes for enjoyable camping, harmful UV rays from the sun can damage your tent materials. Certain fabrics face degradation due to UV rays, but UV resistant materials can solve this problem. Just like every camper needs to wear sunscreen, tents should also be protected from the sun. Otherwise, damage from harmful rays can destroy your tent and make it much less protective.
- Lifetime: Think about how long-lasting different tent materials are. If you want to invest in a sturdy backcountry shelter, one which will last for years of camping trips, consider all these aspects as a whole and estimate how long the tent will be functional for. Long-lasting fabrics used in a well-constructed tent can offer you a reliable camping home for the future.
Before the introduction of synthetic materials, most tents were made from a cotton canvas material. They were highly functional and very popular, however, once man-made fabrics began being used to make tents, canvas lost some of its popularity. The new nylon and polyester tents were lighter, smaller, and cheaper as well. Much more easily transported, these new fabrics overtook canvas tents in the backpacks of campers all over the world.
Because cotton canvas tents are more heavy-duty by nature, they’re considered a better choice if you need more protection. The fabric is thicker and more durable, making it more successful in the face of adverse weather conditions. Canvas tents are also popular for longer-term trips, as once the tent is pitched then you can reap the benefits of this tent fabric. The obstacles of transporting a larger sized tent are more worth it for extended camping trips.
Camping tents made from nylon are much more common than cotton canvas, you can’t enter a campsite without spotting one. Nylon is a very lightweight material and packs away easily, so it could be better suited for thru-hikers and backpacking. The thinner material is also quick-drying, so packing away after a downpour has less risk of bad smells and mildew. Nylon and other synthetic materials are also much cheaper than natural options, any budget price tent is likely to be made from these fabrics.
Nylon can also have technical features such as ripstop, which helps to prevent tears and holes in your tent. There is more opportunity for technical innovation when making a tent from nylon, most top-of-the-line camping gear is made from synthetics, not canvas. Nylon has a good strength to weight ratio, meaning given its lightweight nature, it still offers good abrasion resistance and durability.
Advantages and disadvantages of canvas tents
Now you know a little bit about canvas tents, and it’s clear what attributes we’re looking for, let’s take a look at how canvas tents measure up. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of camping in a canvas tent, and see how it measures up against our criteria. Choosing the right camping tent will always involve an element of compromise, but it’s still best to aim for your ideal shelter.
- Durable: Cotton canvas is a very strong and highly durable natural material, and when looked after properly, the fabric shouldn’t degrade over time. Canvas isn’t in danger from UV rays, nor will it fade in the sunlight. It’s also worth noting that in the event of a tear, canvas tents are much easier to repair than synthetics. This sturdy material offers a very protective backcountry home.
- Breathable: Canvas is a fantastically breathable fabric, and canvas tents always offer good airflow and ventilation. A breathable cotton canvas fabric will help regulate the interior humidity, as well as preventing condensation on tent walls. A few days into your camping trip, synthetic tents can start to feel stuffy and constrictive. With a canvas camping tent, you’ll never have to worry about this problem.
- Good insulation: When you’re camping in cold weather or heading out for a winter expedition, the canvas can allow you to be much more comfortable. Cotton canvas is a great insulator, keeping heat inside the tent in colder conditions.
- Long-lasting: Cotton canvas doesn’t degrade in the sun, and is generally a very hard-wearing material. If you know your tent will be well used and well-loved, then canvas might be the perfect material choice for you.
- Weight: Canvas tents’ biggest flaw is simply the sheer weight of the material. This natural fabric is very heavy, meaning that realistically canvas is only good for car camping. Any hiker or backpacker would need to carry their tent, potentially for miles, and canvas is simply too heavy to fulfill these ultralight requirements.
- Size: On top of the increased mass, the physical size of most canvas tents eliminates them as an option for many campers. There isn’t really a compact one-person option for cotton canvas tents, you could say they’re more suited to larger camping parties.
- Set-up: The time it takes to pitch your tent is a valid category to consider. When camping, most people prefer to spend their time enjoying nature, rather than spending hours pitching a tent. Canvas tents, in general, require more time and energy to pitch and put away, which deducts valuable time for other activities.
- Weather-proofing: Canvas tents have decent weather resistance, although they are often slightly less waterproof than synthetic competitors. The main issue with canvas tents regarding weather is actually the drying time of the material. Extra time and maintenance are necessary for canvas tents, especially when drying after the rain. Canvas is highly absorbent and can take a long time to dry. If your canvas tent is packed away too early, it can lead to mold and mildew.
- Expensive: Cotton canvas tents are considerably pricier than man-made materials. Canvas isn’t really ideal for anyone on a tight budget, even though we thoroughly believe they’re a worthwhile investment.
Advantages and disadvantages of nylon tents
Nylon tents have a very different set of positives and negatives, so let’s fully explore these before making a decision. Remember the points that need to be considered, and your own personal requirements, while we compare how well nylon tents stand up against the same criteria.
- Weight: The biggest advantage of synthetic tent materials is the much-reduced weight in comparison to canvas. Nylon tents have great strength to weight ratio and are much easier to carry on your back. When packed down, a nylon tent can easily fit in a backpackers load, without risking the ability to hike.
- Weather protection: As nylon is a thinner material, it does offer limited protection from particularly bad weather. However, one advantage of nylon tents is that they’re commonly and easily given a waterproof coating. Waterproofing a tent is easy and makes a huge difference when it comes to staying dry in the rain. Nylon is also much faster-drying once wet, and so there’s less packing away time and a reduced risk of mildew.
- Long-lasting: Nylon tents, in general, don’t need much maintenance, and can put up with a lot of camping wear and tear. Many tents are made from ripstop nylon, which doesn’t tear easily, meaning you’re less likely to need to make repairs.
- Cheap: Arguably the most important point is that nylon tents are available at much lower prices. You can get a good quality nylon tent for a fraction of the cost of a canvas tent, and in most situations, it will serve you just as well.
- Limited insulation: As a thin and lightweight material, nylon doesn’t offer much in the area of warmth. The lack of any real insulation means nylon tents can get uncomfortably hot in warm weather, and let all heat escape when it’s cold.
- Not breathable: Nylon tents usually suffer when it comes to ventilation, as this synthetic material isn’t very breathable. This can cause stuffy air inside your tent, as well as leading to condensation.
- UV deterioration: Although it is possible to protect against UV rays, most nylon tents will eventually become damaged from the sun. Unfortunately, this synthetic material just can’t stand up to sunlight forever, and eventually, UV damage can cause wear and tear.
We’ve gone into great detail about everything there is to know about choosing different tent materials, as well as the pros and cons of the options in this case. So, which tent is better? Would a canvas tent be more suited to you, or is ever-popular nylon the right way to go? Let’s go back to the personal requirements that we discussed at the start; you need to remember the type of camping you’re planning to do. Consider how you will transport, pitch, and maintain your tent.
For thru-hikers and backcountry backpacking, nylon is the obvious choice. A nylon tent can provide good shelter from wind and rain and is the only feasible option if you’re camping alone. Canvas tents are just too heavy and large to transport to primitive campsites and remote locations. They’re also considerably cheaper, so if you have a lower budget then we also recommend a nylon tent.
On the other hand, if you’re a car camper with money to spend, then a canvas tent could be a fantastic investment in future camping trips. As long as you have the time to maintain a cotton canvas tent, the increased protection from the weather, and improved insulation can be very compelling. Canvas is, in general, more durable than nylon, you can expect a quality canvas tent to last for years. The lack of condensation and increased breathability also make canvas the ideal choice for longer stays at the campsite, whereas nylon might be preferable for shorter trips.
The competition between canvas and nylon will always come down to personal requirements, as the best tent is different from every camper. Large canvas tents are ideal for family camping, nylon is more appropriate when you’re solo. Canvas is more expensive, but cheaper nylon might not last as long. Simply follow our guide when choosing a new tent, and you should be able to pick out the perfect camping home.
If you’re looking for the best canvas tent, check out our Best Canvas Tents guide.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to see a comparison of some different tent materials!