What is a Tent Made of? A Guide for Materials and Fabrics

By: Derek Vitiello | Last Updated on December 22, 2023

When you’re out camping, having the right tent is essential. It provides shelter and protection from the elements and keeps you comfortable so that you can enjoy your time outdoors. There are a lot of factors to consider when purchasing a camping tent, and one of the most important decisions you’ll make is what material the tent is made of. Different materials have different benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to understand them before making a purchase. Let’s talk about the different tent material characteristics, as well as the pros and cons of nylon tents, polyester tents, canvas tents.

Tent Material Characteristics

Different materials offer different pros and cons when it comes to breathability, waterproofing, durability, and weight. Let’s dive into what makes a good tent and the things to keep in mind when searching for your new tent.

Breathability

Breathability, or air permeability, is the ability for air and moisture vapor to pass through a fabric or membrane. Generally, breathable materials allow humidity inside to escape, thereby preventing condensation build up within the tent. This can be especially important in humid climates and cold weather conditions.

Waterproofing

tent materials - what are tents made of

Waterproofing is an essential feature for any tent, as it helps ensure that interior stays dry when exposed to rain, snow, and other wet conditions. The best tents are designed with waterproof fabrics and coatings that repel water and provide a waterproof layer.

Seam-sealing, the process of using a sealant to waterproof seams and other weak points on the tent, is also an important part of ensuring that no water can penetrate your tent. Additionally, most tents come with rainflies which cover the tent and further protect against precipitation. With these features in place, you’ll be able to enjoy your camping trip without worrying about getting wet.

Durability & Tear Resistance

When choosing tent fabrics, it is essential to take into account its durability and tear resistance. Cotton is an excellent material option for tents due to its ability to withstand the elements of outdoor use, such as wind, rain, and sunlight. The fibers in cotton are woven together in a pattern that makes them less prone to tearing or ripping.

Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, provide good tear resistance and durability in comparison to other materials. Nylon is lightweight and has a high tensile strength which makes it very durable, while polyester is resistant to mildew and rot. In addition, both materials are resistant to UV light, making them suitable for outdoor use. Synthetic fabrics can be made more durable by using ripstop materials, which involves having perpendicular lines of fabric sewn into the regular pattern. If the material does rip, the tear will stop at that intersection instead of continuing on.

Weight

When it comes to tent materials, weight is an important factor to consider when making a purchase. Heavier materials such as canvas are extremely durable and can be used for a variety of different tents, but the added weight makes them more difficult to transport and setup.

Nylon and polyester fabrics are both extremely lightweight, which makes them ideal for backpacking and easy setup, but they lack the long term durability of heavier materials like canvas.

What are Tent Fabrics Made Of?

Tent are made from a range of materials, including nylon, polyester, Dyneema Composite, and canvas. Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages depending on the intended use for the tent.

Polyester Tent Fabric

Polyester tent fabric is the most popular choice among campers and outdoor enthusiasts due to its durability, affordability, and ability to hold its shape in all types of weather conditions. Although polyester has a lower tear strength and less abrasion resistance than nylon, it also has less stretch which means that it holds its shape better than nylon. This makes it ideal for camping in harsh weather conditions, as it will remain taut and fair better than most other fabrics. Polyester is also an excellent choice of fabric when it comes to waterproofing your tent. The fact that polyester is quick drying, lightweight and resists mildew and degradation from UV rays makes polyester tents a great candidate for your next camping trip.

Pros

  • more water resistant
  • more uv resistant
  • less stretch than nylon, more stable

Cons

  • less durable and tear strength ratio compared to nylon

Nylon Tent Fabric

Nylon is also a good tent material because of its good strength to weight ratio and its low cost, but it’s not as commonly used. The inner walls of budget friendly tents are made of nylon because nylon stretches and can take on the shape created by the poles very well. However, it does have some drawbacks. Nylon is vulnerable to UV damage from the sun, which can cause the fabric to become brittle and less effective over time.

Because of the way nylon soaks up moisture, it can soak up waterproofing treatments and become a great tent material. However, it is still susceptible to drying out and becoming brittle, which is why polyester is the preferred tent material over nylon.

Pros

  • lightweight
  • cheap
  • high abrasion resistance

Cons

  • can become brittle
  • more susceptible to UV damage compared to polyester

Tents Made of Dyneema Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber)

Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), otherwise known as Cuben Fiber, is a new material that has revolutionized the production of tents and other outdoor equipment. DCF is not technically a fabric in the traditional sense, but rather a composite of different materials that are laminated together. This composite primarily consists of a nonwoven matrix of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fibers combined with specialized films and laminates.

The UHMWPE fiber is the same material used in the production of heavy-duty body armor, providing exceptional strength-to-weight ratio that can’t be matched by traditional fabrics. The specialized films and laminates give DCF its waterproof capabilities, as well as adding to its ultralight weight and superior tear strength.

However, the main downfall of DCF is that it isn’t as abrasion resistant as nylon.

Pros

  • Extremely lightweight
  • Waterproof

Cons

  • Most expensive
  • Susceptible to abrasion damage

Cotton Canvas

Cotton canvas is one of the oldest and most time-tested materials used in tents. Its durable, abrasion- and tear-resistant properties make it a great choice for camping in all seasons. While cotton tents aren’t waterproof by themselves, they are treated with a PU coating that can protects against water, allowing for long-lasting protection in wet weather. A cotton canvas tent can also be treated with flame-retardant additives, making it a great choice for campers looking for fire safety. When combined with aluminum or steel poles, cotton tents are incredibly strong and reliable that’s sure to withstand high winds and rain. However, because of its weight, cotton canvas isn’t the best option for backpacking and is best used for car camping or in situations where your gear doesn’t have to be carried as far or moved as often.

Pros

  • Time tested
  • Abrasion and tear resistant
  • Great for winter weather
  • extremely breathable

Cons

  • Heavy
  • More expensive than synthetic options

Polyester Vs. Nylon Tent

When diving into the realm of tents, two of the most commonly encountered materials are polyester and nylon. Both have carved out their niches in the camping world, but they come with distinct characteristics.

Polyester tents tend to fare better under prolonged exposure to sunlight, as they’re more UV resistant and less prone to degrade over time in the sun compared to nylon. This means that they’re less likely to lose their color or strength after long stints in bright environments.

On the other hand, nylon, being inherently more stretchy and flexible, excels in withstanding the constant tension and flexing, especially in wet conditions. This means that a nylon tent can better adapt to shifting loads, such as wind or snow accumulation, without sagging or misshaping.

However, it’s worth noting that while nylon is initially lighter than polyester, it tends to absorb more water and can become heavier when wet.

When it comes to price, the overall affordability is determined more by the other features of the tent rather than just the material. For example, a tent with aluminum poles and thick fabric will be more expensive than a fiberglass pole tent with thin materials, regardless if that fabric is made from nylon or polyester.

In essence, the choice between the two often boils down to specific camping needs, environments, and personal preferences.

Environmental Impact

Both polyester and nylon are synthetic fibers, derived primarily from petroleum resources. When assessing the environmental impacts of these materials, especially in the context of camping tents, several factors come into play.

Production Process: The initial creation of nylon is more energy-intensive than that of polyester. This translates to a larger carbon footprint during nylon’s production. Moreover, the production of nylon emits nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s considerably more potent than carbon dioxide. Polyester production, on the other hand, generally has a lower water footprint and uses antimony as a catalyst, which poses its own environmental concerns but not at the same scale as the nitrous oxide emissions from nylon.

Durability: A material’s lifespan greatly influences its overall environmental impact. If a product lasts longer, it reduces the frequency of replacements, which in turn reduces the cumulative resource use and waste. In many applications, nylon tends to have a slightly better tear strength and abrasion resistance than polyester. Thus, in situations where tents are under regular stress (like high-wind environments), a nylon tent might last longer, leading to a potentially reduced environmental impact over time.

Degradation: Neither nylon nor polyester breaks down quickly in the environment, contributing to microplastic pollution when they degrade. However, nylon takes longer to break down than polyester, making its long-term environmental impact potentially more significant when considering waste.

Recyclability: Both polyester and nylon can be recycled, but the infrastructure and processes for polyester recycling are currently more widespread and established. This means that, at the end of its life, a polyester tent might have a higher chance of being recycled than a nylon one, depending on local facilities.

Tent Material Table

PropertiesCanvasPolyesterNylonCuben Fiber (DCF)
Cost2/54/54/51/5
Breathability4/53/52/55/5
UV Resistance2/55/53/55/5
Portability2/55/55/55/5
Quick Drying1/55/54/55/5
Tear Resistance
5/53/54/55/5
Resistance to shrinkage
3/55/55/55/5
Long term use
5/53/52/53/5
Stretchability
4/52/54/52/5
Inherent water resistance
3/54/52/55/5
Abrasion Resistance
5/53/54/55/5
Maintenance
3/55/54/55/5
Total44/6047/6043/6051/60
A table comparing each of the 4 most popular tent materials

Best Tent Material for Cold Weather

Canvas fabric is widely considered the best material for cold weather and winter camping. It provides superior insulation compared to other fabrics, which helps keep warmth in the tent. Additionally, the natural breathability of cotton fibers prevents condensation buildup within the tent’s interior. This makes it ideal for camping in cold climates, where temperatures can drop below freezing at night.

Aside from providing superior insulation and breathability, canvas also tends to be much more durable than other fabrics. A canvas tent will usually last much longer than a nylon or polyester tent and require less maintenance over time. Additionally, canvas tents can have a built in stove jack, which allows you to use a wood burning stove inside to create a hot tent.

Best Tent Material for Hot Weather

Polyester is well-suited for hot weather and summer camping. It is lightweight, durable, and allows for good air circulation by using mesh panels. Polyester has a high water repellency which is great in humid climates; it also has good UV resistance that will keep the fabric from fading or deteriorating in sunny weather. No-see-um mesh is an incredibly lightweight, porous material that allows for great air circulation and also keeps out small insects like gnats and mosquitoes.

When shopping for a tent for hot weather camping, you’ll want to look for a model with plenty of ventilation options to help regulate the temperature inside. This can be in the form of mesh windows, a mesh door, a screen room, lower ground vents, and higher vents in the top of the rainfly.

Best Tent Material for Backpacking

The ideal tent fabric for backpacking is normally polyester due to its excellent durability to weight ratio. It’s lightweight and boasts excellent durability, making it an ideal material for extended outdoor adventures. Dyneema (or cuben fiber) is also an incredibly strong, lightweight synthetic fabric made from ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers that is often used for high-end backpacking gear such as tents and tarps due to its superior strength and durability to weight ratio. However, it can be more expensive than other fabrics.

Pop Up Tent Material

Pop-up tents, known for their convenience and rapid setup, often utilize lightweight materials to ensure they’re easily portable. A common fabric used for these tents is polyester due to its lightweight nature, durability, and cost-effectiveness. Polyester pop-up tents usually come coated with a waterproof layer, making them suitable for light to moderate rain.

Additionally, some higher-end pop-up tents might incorporate nylon for its stretch and strength attributes, especially in the tent’s base or in areas prone to wear and tear. Overall, the choice of material in pop-up tents strikes a balance between quick functionality and durability.

For example, this Coleman Pop Up Tent is made from polyester. It also comes in a dark room version that blocks out sunlight. You can read more about blackout tents and instant tents by following those links.

FAQs

What is a ripstop fabric?

Ripstop is a type of fabric with reinforced stitching that helps prevent tears from spreading. It’s typically used for items such as sails, kites, and parachute materials, but can also be found in tents and other outdoor gear.

What is Dyneema or Cuben Fabric?

Dyneema (or cuben fiber) is an incredibly strong, lightweight synthetic fabric made from ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers. It’s often used for high-end backpacking gear such as tents and tarps due to its superior strength and durability to weight ratio. However, it can be more expensive than other fabrics such as polyester or nylon.

Which tent fabric is the most waterproof?

Polyester and Cuben fabric are the most waterproof fabrics used to construct tents. However, true waterproofing of a tent lies in the coatings that are used to waterproof the fabric. These coatings can often be waxed, sprayed or laminated on top of the material and can provide superior protection against moisture while also increasing durability.

What are the effects of finishes on fabric?

Finishes can have a variety of effects on fabric. The most common finishes are used to add waterproofing, UV protection, and flame resistance. Waterproof finishes help keep water out of the fabric while still allowing for breathability. UV protection helps shield against the sun’s rays and prevent degradation over time, while flame retardant finishes can help protect against potential fire hazards.

Are polyester And nylon waterproof?

By themselves polyester and nylon are not waterproof – the waterproofing of tent fabrics comes from the coatings and treatments used on them such as waxing, PU, or silicone lamination. These treatments help create a barrier that water droplets can’t penetrate, making the fabric more waterproof than untreated materials.

How breathable are tents?

The breathability of tents largely hinges on the type of fabric used and its treatment. Common tent materials such as nylon and polyester can be inherently less breathable, especially when treated with waterproofing agents. However, to counteract this, many tent fabrics are crafted with a breathable PU (polyurethane) or silicone coating that allows water vapor molecules to pass through but prevents liquid water from penetrating, striking a balance between waterproofing and breathability. Tents will also have other features that enhance breathability like mesh windows, a double-wall design, and vents.

Conclusion

When selecting a tent fabric for backpacking, it is important to consider the strength and durability of each material. Polyester provides superior water resistance while being lightweight and durable, making it an ideal choice for extended outdoor adventures. Nylon offers great durability as well but is less common. Canvas can be used for winter camping or larger tents that will be used over longer periods of time due to its breathability and comfort level. With these considerations in mind, you should have no problem finding the perfect fabric for your next camping trip!

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Since 2017, Know Nothing Nomads has cemented itself as the “approachable experts” in everything camping, hiking, climbing, and adventuring in the Great Outdoors.

With over 60 years of experience in the outdoors, we don’t just talk about outdoor gear or recommend a good hiking trail.

We USE the gear we talk about. We’ve hiked 1000’s of miles. We have camped 1000’s of nights in the wilderness. We have sent hundreds of boulders and projects.

We don’t just know a few things about the outdoors — WE EAT, SLEEP, AND BREATHE IT.

We are not journalists from a magazine telling someone else’s stories from behind a computer. We are the ACTUAL outdoorsmen that those people write about. 

We are not a “gear lab” that runs tests on gear in life-like conditions. We are the seasoned, “trial-by-fire” experts who have taken the gear into the wilderness and USED IT. Read about our gear testing process here

We started Know Nothing Nomads to share our passion and expertise with our readers to inspire, educate, and enable you to explore the outdoors in the way that we have. And you will be more equipped and capable than ever before with the knowledge you gain here guiding you along the way.

And the best part? We are real people that LOVE our readers and this community. If you need anything or have a question about any of the things we have to write about, just reach out. Normally, one of us can respond within 24 hours, sometimes within minutes. THAT is the approachable expert.

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About The Author

Derek, Co-Founder at Know Nothing Nomads

My goal with my writing and Know Nothing Nomads as a whole is to share my passions of hiking, camping, and a love of the outdoors with our readers.

Making the difficult and uncertain feel more approachable to people that might not know enough to feel comfortable taking their first steps into the wilderness is a driving factor for me.

When I'm not writing you can find me on a trail, in a forest, or next to a river with hiking shoes on my feet and a fly rod somewhere close by.

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Hey there!

We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!

2 Comments

  1. Mary Jo

    Do you have any information on travel bike covers? We are traveling across country.

    Reply
    • Derek Vitiello

      Hey there Mary!

      Thanks so much for commenting! I don’t personally know much about bike covers, but this article on Bicycling.com would be a great place to start

      Reply

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