Tent Fabrics 101: Which Material is the Best?

You might think that tents are all the same, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

All of the materials used to make tents are extremely different, which means that they have different advantages and disadvantages. The type of tent you pick depends on what you personally need. Also, there are tents made for single people or families, so you should decide which is the best tent for you!

camping tent in forest

A quality tent can be all the difference between a good and bad camping trip.

What Materials Are There?

There are many different kinds of tent materials, but some work the best. Many companies now only use certain fabrics to make tents because these fabrics have been proven to work very well. 

  • Polyester
  • Nylon
  • Cotton canvas
  • Polycotton 
  • Cuben fiber

As stated previously, all of these fabrics have pros and cons, and learning more about them will help you decide which camping tent is best for you and your lifestyle. 

Polyester Tents

Polyester is a synthetic material that has ranging denier ratings. Polyester is better for wet conditions because it doesn’t absorb water like some of the other fabrics. However, polyester doesn’t have good breathability at all. It can be quite a heavy fabric too, so it’s not the best tent for backpacking. 

Polyester is a good tent material for cold, wet conditions. You want to be able to keep warm from the outside, and polyester is good at keeping your body heat inside the tent. It’s a very good insulator. 

Pros:

  • Great UV resistance
  • Good durability
  • Water-resistant
  • Less prone to mildew than canvas

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Bad breathability
  • Prone to tears 

Nylon Tents

Nylon fabric is the most common material that you’ll see when tent shopping. It’s a synthetic material that has a denier rating to tell you its thickness. This material makes a very lightweight tent, which is why it’s typically a backpacking tent.

It’s also very breathable, so you’ll definitely want this type of tent in the hotter months. On the other hand, nylon absorbs water like crazy. If you think it’s going to rain and all you have is a nylon tent, you might want to consider waterproofing it. You could do this with a waterproof fabric coating or some kind of tarp tossed across the tent. 

Pros:

  • Lighter than canvas and polyester
  • Super stretchy
  • Dries quickly
  • Very breathable

Cons:

  • Not very durable
  • Absorbs water quickly
  • Not great protection from UV rays

Cotton Canvas Tents

This is a natural material tent, and it’s a lot more breathable than synthetic fabrics. Also, it has better UV resistance than the different fabrics. All of this is to say that a canvas tent is the best tent for hot summer days. It’s also a great insulator, so you really can’t go wrong with a canvas tent any time of year. 

However, if this tent gets wet, it will start to mildew quickly because it’s very slow to dry. You can try to weather your tent by getting it soaking wet and letting it dry out, and you can actually do this a few times. These tents can also be more expensive than nylon and polyester tents.

Pros:

  • Very breathable
  • Good water resistance when coated
  • Great UV resistance

Cons:

  • Very heavy
  • Expensive
  • Susceptible to mildew

Polycotton Tents

Polycotton is another kind of canvas tent that has the best qualities of cotton and polyester. It’s got the breathability of cotton, which is always very important. It’s mildew resistant because it has that quality from polyester. 

However, it got all of the bad qualities from cotton and polyester too. It’s very heavy, so it’s not the best for backpackers. You shouldn’t get this if you’re looking for a lightweight tent. It also is very expensive, so it’s probably not the best for people who are trying to save money. 

Pros:

  • Very breathable
  • Durable

Cons:

  • Slightly expensive
  • Heavy

Cuben Fiber Tents

Also called Dyneema Composite Fabric, cuben fiber is a new tent material. It’s 100% waterproof, and it has a great strength-to-weight ratio. It’s incredibly lightweight because of this, and that makes it a great backpacking tent. On the other hand, this fabric is outrageously expensive.

And, it is very prone to wear and tear more than the other fabrics. You definitely won’t have a cuben fiber tent as long as you’d have a different kind of tent. If you need a tent with a long lifespan, you probably shouldn’t get a cuben fiber tent.

Pros:

  • Completely waterproof
  • Strong material
  • UV resistant

Cons:

  • Damages easily
  • Very expensive
  • Not as durable as other fabrics

Ripstop Fabrics

Ripstop is a type of fabric that is woven into other materials to make it less susceptible to rips and tears. It makes a kind of square pattern on the different fabrics that it gets woven into. There are only ripstop nylon and ripstop polyester tents. 

When it comes to ripstop nylon, it does make your tent stronger. If you get a hole in the tent, it won’t continue to grow bigger and bigger. The ripstop will help the material stay together. However, the fabric is heavier than regular nylon. 

Polyester ripstop is virtually the same as nylon ripstop because it has the same material woven into it. The only real difference is that it’s polyester. It’ll prevent tears and big holes, but it’s very heavy. It’s not the best material for backpackers because of how heavy it is. 

Fabric Coating

Some tents can have different chemical coatings that add to their performance level. Most coatings will add to UV resistance and water resistance. Some of the coatings can’t be used on all the different fabrics that tents are made of, but it makes the tents better.

The coatings can also add to the cons of the fabrics, so you should choose the best tent coating for you. The coatings are polyurethane, silicon, UPF, and SPF. 

Polyurethane Coating

Polyurethane adds to how waterproof the tent is, and it can only be applied to nylon and polyester fabrics. Also, being added to the fabric won’t break the bank because it doesn’t change much about the price. It also doesn’t permeate the fabric; it just sits on top of the fabric.

Because of this, you can put tape on the seams if you need to! This coating does add some disadvantages to the tent too. You need to clean and dry a tent with polyurethane coating very well before putting it up for storage. Also, if a tent with polyurethane coating is exposed to the sun for prolonged periods of time, the chemical bonds will begin to break down.

This will cause the lifespan of your tent to decrease, as well as the water-resistance of the tent. 

Silicone Coating

A silicone coating is very popular on nylon tents, and it’s called silnylon. Silicone goes into the nylon fabric of the tent, so it doesn’t allow the seams to be taped because the fabric is very slick. You’ll have to seal the seams by hand with a liquid seam sealant. 

camping tent on mountain

The sun can ruin a tent if it doesn’t have the proper coating.

This coating makes the nylon waterproof, and it actually makes water slide right off the fabric. It will also cause the fabric to dry very quickly. While the coating makes the fabric very heavy-duty, it also makes the fabric incredibly thick. It doesn’t have good breathability because of this. It can get very muggy inside the tent. 

UPF and SPF Coatings

Two of the other coatings for tent fabrics are UPF and SPF. You might have heard of SPF from sunscreen bottles, and it’s exactly the same thing. It stands for Sun Protection Factor, and UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. They are basically the same thing, but they have a few differences.

The same difference is that SPF is mostly used for sunscreens, and UPF is used for fabrics. UPF coatings will increase the UV resistance of the tent fabric, as well as make it fire retardant. If your tent has a UPF rating of 30 or higher, it will have the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation.

If a tent only has an SPF rating, it isn’t protecting you from the different kinds of UV rays the sun gives off. 

What is a Denier Rating?

A Denier rating uses the measurement D to show how thick, durable, and heavy the fabric is. A high Denier number means that the material used to make your tent is high-quality material. Nylon fabric has a low Denier rating, but that’s because of how lightweight it is.

It’s actually very durable. Family tents have very high Denier ratings because of how large they are. They usually have a Denier rating of about 200D to 300D. They can be as low as 150D though. Rooftop tents have a rating between 320D to 400D. 

What is Thread Count?

You might recognize the term thread count from buying bedsheets, and you might not really know what it means. It means the number of threads per square inch of fabric, both vertically and horizontally. The higher the thread count (T) is, the lower the Denier rating is.

A higher thread count on bedsheets usually means really soft and high-quality sheets, but that’s not always the case with a thread count in tents. The thread being used matters more than the thread count in tents. A better quality fabric that has a lower thread count might feel softer and higher quality than a low-quality fabric that has a higher thread count.

The fabric that is used matters more than the thread count. 

What is Hydrostatic Head?

Hydrostatic Head is a type of measurement that exhibits how waterproof a fabric is. The measurement is HH, and it measures the amount of water in millimeters that can be placed on the fabric before it penetrates the fabric. A rating of about 1000 mm HH means that the fabric is showerproof.

It is considered waterproof if it has a rating of 1500 mm HH to 2000 mm HH. Groundsheets need to have around a 3000 mm HH or higher rating. However, cotton canvas tents don’t have a Hydrostatic Head rating because they use different techniques to keep out water.

The HH rating is meant to rate the fabric used to make the tent, not the tent itself. Most outdoor companies will give Hydrostatic Head ratings on their tents, and they should. If you don’t see a rating on the description of the tent, you might want to get a different tent. 

How To Tell How Heavy a Tent Is

The term GSM, grams per square meter, is used to measure the weight of a cotton canvas tent. However, it’s a very complicating thing to understand. Fabric weight typically means how thick the fabric is, and it doesn’t always mean that a higher GSM is a heavy, thick tent.

Most of the time, the higher the GSM, the stronger and heavier the tent is. Many tents range from 300 GSM to 400 GSM.

Final Verdict

The five main tent fabrics all have their advantages and disadvantages. You just have to decide which type of tent is best for your style of camping. If you’re a backpacker, you might want a cuben fiber tent or a nylon tent. If you want to go on a family camping trip, you might want to get a cotton canvas tent so that it’s very breathable with everyone inside of the tent. It all just depends on what kind of camper you are. 

If you’re a backcountry hiker and camper, you should really consider getting a tent that has a ripstop fabric sewn into it. It’ll help you not ruin your tent if you accidentally snag it on a branch or tree root that’s sticking out of the ground.

You can find any kind of these tents on Amazon, but you should find a well-known outdoor company like Patagonia, REI, or Columbia because they make quality products. You can get whatever kind of tent you want, and use these points as a guide to help you pick out the perfect tent for you.

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.