What Material Are Tents Made of? (Guide to Tent Fabrics)

Tents are made from many different types of materials. But, there are just a handful of fabrics that are most commonly used.

And, of course, each type of fabric has its own set of pros and cons.

In this guide, you’ll learn what those tent materials are, what each type is best used for, and which fabric is best for your camping style.

Guide on Materials Used to Make Tents

Tents can be made with various types of fabrics. Historically, they used cotton, which is also known as canvas. Though this served the purpose of making the tents sturdy, they were quite heavy and prone to having mold and mildew issues.

Fast forward to today, and the tents you see are mostly made from lighter, man-made fibers, like polyester and nylon. These materials are further treated to make them waterproof by either adding polyurethane coating or by having silicone impregnation. So, it becomes feasible for you to use these while camping, even during harsh weather conditions.

Now, these treatments may make the tents waterproof, but they do not completely protect them from harmful UV rays. Eventually, thin fabrics are going to get damaged if they are highly exposed to UV rays.

While we cover the pros and cons of various fabrics in our tent materials list below, you’ll most likely end up choosing a tent made of nylon or polyester. Why? Let’s find out.

Cotton Canvas

Canvas tent

As stated earlier, canvas was the original and at one time, the only fabric used to make tents. Even today, cotton canvas is a premium choice for camping tents, but they may prove quite heavy on your pocketbook. So, most people don’t prefer canvas simply because of the budget aspect.

Still, a cotton canvas tent is a great choice in today’s camping world, as the cotton fibers allow them to breathe well during the day, giving you comfort without being stuffy. At night, a canvas tent holds in heat effectively.  This airy feature prevents gathering water droplets and condensation.

A canvas tent will last you a long time with proper care, and they are even resistant to most weather conditions.

However, apart from cost, one downside that we talked about above is that canvas is quite heavy. They will be a noticeable burden if you’re hiking or backpacking with one on your back.

Pros
  • Durable
  • Sustainable for all type of weather conditions
  • A great choice for a camping tent
Cons
  • Heavy
  • Expensive

Polyester

Polyester tent

Polyester is arguably the most popular tent fabric on the market today and is considered to be the new standard.

Polyester is essentially a synthetic fiber derived from petroleum that offers durability and affordability at the same time. If designed with a higher denier (a measure used to define the density of the fabric – typically higher is better), this material has the potential to handle various weather conditions and camping landscapes. If it gets a tear, you can repair it easily in no time.

Contrary to the cotton tent, a polyester tent is very light in weight. The lighter fabric makes them more manageable. They are also more affordable than conventional cotton tents. Even the high-quality polyester tents with advanced features will cost you less than a simple cotton tent with no additional accessories. Above all, it has the capacity of protecting you and the tent from harmful UV rays from the sun.

So, the next question you may ask – is there any downside?

The answer is – not really. It’s just that you get a distinct polyester fabric smell, but this too goes away with time.

Pros
  • Lightweight fabric
  • Durable
  • Affordable
Cons
  • Polyester fabric is smelly at first

Nylon

Nylon tent

Let’s put it this way – you’ll only choose nylon fabric tents in two situations:

  • If you’re looking for cost-effective tents
  • If you’re looking for high-end and expensive hiking tents

Confused? Let’s clear the air.

Producing and assembling nylon is not at all expensive. (Beware of some really cheap nylon tents available on the market, as they won’t serve your purpose.)

However, even though it’s a bit stronger material than polyester, it soaks up water like a sponge. So it must be properly waterproofed. Otherwise, it won’t be able to handle moisture at all.

Now, you may ask, if it’s not waterproof, why is nylon used in backpacking fabric and why is it expensive?

Nylon indeed is one of the most preferred materials for small tents that can be used for backpacking trips. But, at the same time, you need to ensure its durability, and this is where the role of treatments comes in. To make it waterproof and durable, nylon undergoes various advanced treatments, which in turn makes it expensive. You can increase durability by choosing a nylon tent with a ripstop pattern, which is essentially a reinforcing technique that makes them more resistant to rips and tears.

Overall, a nylon tent is a recommended choice for serious backpackers who need to travel with a lightweight shelter.

Pros
  • Extremely light
  • Easy to produce and assemble
Cons
  • Not waterproof or durable unless treated
  • Expensive to make it good enough for use

PVC

PVC tent

Poly Vinyl Chloride or PVC is basically a canvas or polyester fabric that has undergone a special treatment. In short, the treated material is referred to as PVC and it somewhat resembles acrylic.

So, how is this material for a tent? It provides a heavy-duty waterproof feature to your tent, as the treatment process makes it almost completely resistant to even the heaviest rain.

However, the treatment adds considerable weight. Additionally, it also prevents the air from traveling through the sides, which may result in condensation and also give you a stuffy-like feeling. Talking about its cost, PVC is going to cost you a little more than the original material.

And keep in mind, this material is mostly used for event and commercial tents, not camping tents.

Pros
  • Enhanced waterproofing
  • Impervious to mold
Cons
  • Heavy
  • Condensation issues

Polycotton

Polycotton tent

Now, this is a less popular tent material, but it’s gaining in popularity as a replacement for your traditional cotton tents. As the name implies, polycotton fabric is essentially cotton with polyester weaved into it.

What you end up with is a tent that has the benefits of both cotton and polyester. Its durable and breathable like cotton tents, but more mold resistant and quick drying like polyester.

Polycotton tent fabric sounds amazing, but its still not going to be right for every situation. While they are still lighter than your typical canvas tent, they are heavier than a polyester or nylon tent. And are oftentimes more expensive.

Pros
  • Light and cheaper than cotton canvas
  • Middle ground option for weight and breathability
Cons
  • Uncommon material for tents, but gaining in popularity

Dyneema

As a quick honorable mention, Dyneema is a new kid on the block with a ton of potential!

Dyneema is a composite fiber that, in time, could take the tent world by storm.

Let’s take a quick look at it’s pros and cons.

Pros
  • Ultra-lightweight – In fact, it weighs half as much as nylon
  • Ultra-strong – 15 times stronger than steel
  • Chemical and UV resistant
  • Waterproof
Cons
  • Very expensive
  • Do not stretch, which can make it difficult to pitch the tent
  • Not heat resistant

What Kind of Tent Fabric is Best for You?

From all the above options, choosing a tent material that is best for you will depend on your camping needs.

For example, are you a recreational camper who prefers camping during summers? Go with a high-quality polyester tent. If you’re looking for a durable and lightweight backpacking tent, a nylon tent might be your best bet.

In other words, you simply need to weigh the pros and cons of each type of tent material and see how they match up with your camping needs and budget.

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