One essential ingredient for camping is having a high-quality tent. Without this piece, you’ll wind up literally sleeping under the stars, meaning that you’re exposed to the cold and the elements.
Fortunately, modern tents use various materials to make them both durable and weather-resistant.
The best tent fabric will help protect you from the elements. This article breaks down different types of tent fabrics and how well they work.
So how do you choose a material that will guarantee a fun camping adventure? Read on to find out.
The best tent material for lightweight backpacking tents is Nylon. The best fabric for a big camping tent that you don’t have to move around often is canvas. Most low price camping tents come in polyester, which is fine for casual camping.
What is the Best Tent material?
In a general sense, the best tent fabric will keep out the elements while insulating the interior. This fabric should ensure that you don’t have to worry about rain or snow seeping through, getting you wet.
It should also help trap as much heat as possible so that you stay warm at night. That said, the fabric should also be somewhat breathable, so the tent doesn’t get too stuffy.
Unfortunately, there’s not one tent fabric that works perfectly for all-weather and camping conditions. However, we’ll look at the top four materials – polyester, canvas, polycotton, and nylon to see how they stack up under scrutiny.
Related: Looking for an easy camping solution all from the safety of your truck? Check out our guide to the best truck bed tents for camping.
Top Waterproof Tent Materials
No matter what time of year you go camping, having a waterproof tent is necessary. Even if rain isn’t in the forecast, you have to worry about morning dew collecting on the outside. If your tent isn’t waterproof, that dew can seep inside, making you and your camping gear all wet.
Why Isn’t Tent Fabric Both Waterproof and Breathable?
If something is waterproof, it generally isn’t breathable, and vice versa. The reason for this is that fabric relies on weaving hundreds or thousands of fibers together.
For a material to be breathable, there must be tiny gaps between the fibers for air to flow through. Conversely, for the fabric to be waterproof, the layers have to be sealed.
Now, waterproof and breathable materials exist, but the cost of these materials is substantial. Unless you want to drop hundreds (potentially thousands) of dollars on a tent, you won’t be able to find a model with these characteristics.
However, if you’re looking for a tiny, single-person tent, you can find high-end models that are both waterproof and breathable.
Polyester Tent materials
For manufacturers to make polyester, they have to melt PET plastic pellets down and spin them into long, thin fibers. Because polyester is made of plastic, it’s naturally water-resistant. However, for a polyester tent to be waterproof, the fibers have to be woven extra-tight.
Overall, polyester is a good choice, particularly if you use a waterproof tent fly.
Bottom Line: Polyester should keep most rain out, but water can still seep in.
Nylon fabric Tents
As with polyester, nylon fibers are made from synthetic chemicals. However, rather than melting plastic pellets and spinning them into threads, nylon is formed by melting the raw material into a sheet, then breaking it up to melt into strings.
Like polyester, nylon is naturally water-resistant, although not necessarily waterproof.
Bottom Line: Nylon works well for light showers and morning dew, but it won’t work well in a storm by itself.
Canvas fabric Tents
Canvas is a natural material created out of either cotton or linen. Because it’s natural, canvas is not very waterproof. Instead, the fibers absorb and retain water, meaning that canvas tents can leak.
That said, you can make your canvas tent waterproof by soaking it repeatedly to help tighten the spaces between the fibers. However, this process can take days to complete, and it’s not 100-percent effective.
Canvas is the most breathable of the fabrics, however, which can provide added ventilation to prevent condensation.
Bottom Line: If you want to use canvas, be sure to waterproof it first or use a water repellant tent fly over it.
Polycotton Tent Materials
Polycotton is a blend of polyester and natural cotton. Depending on the manufacturer, the combination might be 50/50, or it could skew to one side, such as 65 percent polyester and 35 percent cotton.
The purpose of polycotton is to get the best benefits of both materials with fewer downsides. Unfortunately, as tent fabric, polycotton can be pretty absorbent, meaning that it’s not very waterproof.
Bottom Line: Polycotton is better than canvas, but not as good as pure polyester.
What’s a PU coating?
Woven fabrics are not waterproof on their own. Many tents come with waterproof fabric coatings. These can include a polyurethane coating (PU coating or polyester urethane coating), a silicone coating, or a polyether urethane coating (PE coating).
Polyurethane, Silicone or Polyether coatings add water resistence and improve the waterproofing of tent materials. Tents also have their seams sealed to reduce the chance of leaks through the connection points between materials.
Fabric Denier and Material Durability
Along with water resistance, the best camping tent material should be rugged and durable. Not only will you have to pack and unpack the tent every time you go camping, but it must also withstand the elements. Plus, branches and other debris might wind up scratching the tent walls, so you need to avoid punctures and rips.
An easy way to tell whether a material is durable is by looking at its fabric denier rating. While the Fabric Denier isn’t foolproof, the denier is a good place to start.
What is Fabric Denier?
When comparing materials for camping tents, you’ll notice they have a denier rating. This number reflects the thickness of the fabric, so a higher number means that the material is thicker. On average, tent fabrics will be between 50 and 500, but lightweight tents can have a lower rating.
Keep in mind that a fabric denier rating doesn’t necessarily mean that one fabric is “better” than another. As a rule, the type of fabric used will make more of a difference. However, if you’re looking at two similar tents and one has a higher number, it should be more durable.
Finally, remember that more material means a heavier tent, so you’ll have to plan accordingly, especially if you’re hiking to your campsite.
Since polyester is a synthetic material, you can find it in a wide range of denier ratings.
Thinner tents may be 15D, while thicker models could be as high as 600D. Lighter versions are not as rugged because they’re more prone to rips and tears. So, if you’re a little rough when setting up a tent (or you plan to camp in rough spots), we recommend a higher denier rating.
Bottom Line: Polyester can be as thin or as thick as you like, so choose one that suits your specific camping trip needs.
Again, since nylon is similar to polyester, you can find a wide range of denier ratings for this material. That said, the low end will typically be around 20 or 30D and up to 1000D on the high end.
Nylon is also naturally more durable than polyester, thanks to its stretchiness and tear resistance. So, a moderately low rating (like 70D) should be more than sufficient for most camping.
Nylon comes in different types, such as Nylon 6, Nylon 6.6, or silnylon (nylon tents coated with silicone). Nylon 6 shares many characteristics with other types of nylon. However, Nylon 6.6 provides more strength and excellent resistence against abrasion.
Bottom Line: Nylon is naturally lightweight and provides excellent durability and strength. Most denier ratings of this tent material will be suitable for camping.
As a rule, canvas is thicker than both polyester and nylon, meaning that it weighs more and is generally more durable. However, since canvas is made from natural fibers, it can rip and tear pretty easily.
Overall, you won’t find lightweight canvas because the threads are too thick. Also, canvas tents usually don’t have a denier rating because the material is similar across models.
Bottom Line: Canvas is pretty rugged, but it can tear relatively fast. High-quality canvas can resist punctures, but not as well as stretchier materials. Canvas tents can be made of Cotton or other materials such as polycotton.
Like canvas, polycotton threads are pretty limited in how large or small they can get. Because the materials are natural, manufacturers can customize the denier rating of a polycotton tent as they do with nylon and polyester.
Even though polycotton uses polyester, the blend has to use similarly-sized fibers to work. Otherwise, the cotton thinner material would slip out during use.
Bottom Line: Polycotton is tougher than canvas or nylon, but sizes and thicknesses are limited.
How Lightweight are Different Fabrics?
Your tent’s weight can matter a lot, depending on the type of camping you’re doing. If you’re heading to a flat campground in a car, truck, or SUV, a heavy tent won’t be much of an issue. However, if you’re hiking to your campsite and carrying the tent the whole way, you want something lightweight yet durable.
Generally speaking, polyester is a pretty heavy material, particularly if you choose a tent with a high denier rating. However, if you get a thinner tent, you can find some pretty lightweight models. On average, polyester tents can weigh between four and 10 pounds, depending on the dimensions.
Bottom Line: Polyester is heavier than nylon but much lighter than natural fabrics like canvas.
Between the two synthetic tent fabrics, nylon is by far the lightest. This is why a nylon tent is the classic backpacking tent. So even if you get a tent with a high denier rating, your tent shouldn’t be more than 10 pounds. You can expect the whole thing to weigh around five pounds on average with all the extras included.
Bottom Line: Nylon is the best for lightweight camping.
Most canvas tents are large and spacious, as it’s hard to create a small, one-person tent with this material. So, you might need two people to move the tent into place, depending on your level of physical prowess. Pound for pound, canvas tents are the heaviest option, with some models weighing 50 pounds or more.
This is clearly one of the major cons for any campers that need to move around regularly, but this isn’t a surprise given the thickness of the fiber.
Bottom Line: Canvas is a naturally heavy material, so it’s not suitable for backpacking but is an excellent camping shelter.
One of the major cons of both polyester and cotton materials is that they are relatively heavy. However, they pale in comparison to canvas. On average, these tents can weigh between five and eight pounds, with larger models going up to 15 or 20 pounds.
Bottom Line: Polycotton is heavier than other synthetic fabrics, but it’s still easy for one person to carry one of these tents.
Nylon vs. Polyester Tent
When comparing different tent fabrics, the two most common options are polyester and nylon. Since these materials are pretty similar, let’s break down how they stack up in different categories:
- Strength – Nylon is generally much stronger than polyester, and it’s harder to rip and tear. Nylon is also a bit more puncture-resistant. Winner: Nylon
- Weight – Nylon is naturally lightweight because of how it’s made. So, pound for pound, a nylon tent will be lighter than a polyester one. Winner: Nylon
- Cost – Polyester is made of cheaper materials, so these tents will often cost less than nylon. In some cases, the cost difference can be roughly half. Winner: Polyester
- Water-Resistance – Nylon absorbs water more than polyester, making it less ideal for wet conditions. Winner: Polyester
- UV Damage – Polyester tends to withstand UV damage better than nylon because it doesn’t fade or become brittle over time. While you can minimize this problem with a tent fly, nylon won’t last as long as polyester in sunny environments. Winner: Polyester
Bottom Line: Both materials are good for camping, but they’re beneficial for different reasons. Nylon tents have more advantages. They are generally better than polyester which is why it’s practically the default material for backpacking tents. But polyester does have better UV resistance from the sun.
What is Ripstop Fabric, and Is It Good?
As the name suggests, ripstop fabric helps stop rips from happening. Ripstop comes with many high-quality tents, particularly at the various joints where you’ll apply the most pressure. For example, ripstop works well next to the grommets where the tent poles fit in.
Ripstop fabric is made by weaving strong synthetic fibers into the fabric in a ripstop pattern. These fibers help prevent large tears and rips from undoing the rest of the material. The strands also help reinforce the fabric so that it’s more tear-resistant no matter what.
Overall, ripstop fabric is more expensive than other tent materials, but it holds up longer and won’t break as easily. So, if you’re thinking of buying a ripstop tent, it might be worth the investment.
What is Dyneema Fabric, and Is It Good?
Dyneema is a brand name, and the company makes high-end fabrics for tents and other outdoor gear. According to the manufacturer, Dyneema is up to 30 percent lighter than nylon and 15 times stronger than steel (based on a similar weight ratio). This fabric is also tear, water, UV, and abrasion-resistant.
As you can imagine, Dyneema-made tents will be more expensive than those that just use nylon or polyester. However, if you’re an avid camper and you like to backpack to rugged locales, Dyneema can be a valuable material.
Overall, we recommend this tent fabric if you’re a hardcore backpacker. Otherwise, it might be too expensive for casual campers.
Polyester Oxford Fabric for Tents
Like Dyneema, polyester Oxford fabric is a particular brand name. Although this material is made from polyester, it’s much more durable and water-resistant. In most cases, Oxford fabric is completely waterproof, making it ideal for camping tents.
Also, the material is often fire-resistant, which is helpful if an errant spark or ember winds up on your tent. Other materials will melt and create a hole, but Oxford polyester should be able to stay solid.
As with Dyneema tents, the extra cost for Oxford fabric is worth it if you’re an avid camper and backpacker. You can spend less on tent repair and reuse your tent over and over again.
PU, PVC, and Silicone Waterproof Fabric Coatings
If your tent doesn’t use naturally waterproof materials, you can upgrade them by adding a waterproof coating. Polyester urethane (PU), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and silicone are the most common coating options. Let’s break down the pros and cons of each coating:
- PU Coatings – Polyester urethane is the go-to option for tent manufacturers because it helps repel water under most conditions. However, PU-coated materials are less tear-resistant, and the waterproofness can wear off over time. Unfortunately, PU actually absorbs water, albeit very slowly. So, in the long-term, your tent will stop being waterproof at all.
- PVC Coatings – Instead of coating the fibers directly, PVC coatings act as a barrier on the back of the material. This option works well because it’s tear-resistant and waterproof. Even as the top layers get wet, water won’t penetrate the PVC, keeping the interior warm and dry.
- Silicone Coatings – The best way to waterproof your tent is to add a layer of silicone to both sides of the fabric. Silicone is naturally hydrophobic, meaning that water slips right off. This substance also increases the fabric’s tear strength, thus making it more durable. Overall, we highly recommend silicone-coated materials if you can find them.
Do UV Rays Affect Tent Fabrics?
The short answer is yes, UV rays do affect tent fabrics. However, some materials (like polyester) are more resistant to UV rays than others. Nylon and canvas are probably the least UV resistant, so continuous exposure to sunlight can weaken these fabrics.
What happens is that the fibers get hard and brittle, making them more likely to rip and tear. UV damage can also remove waterproof coatings over time.
Other fabrics that we haven’t covered here are Dyneema, Cordura Nylon, and Cuben. Let me know in the comments if you want these!
Now that you understand the different factors surrounding tent fabrics, you can choose the best one for your needs. Happy camping!
Related: Planning to head out camping in your truck soon? Check out our truck camping checklist.