Choosing the right tent fabric can seem overwhelming. There are many different types, which is why some tents feel like they weigh a million pounds while others pack up smaller than a football.
So, what are tents made of?
Tents are made of many different materials, from rugged and weighty canvas tents to lightweight and pricey Dyneema models. They all come with different tradeoffs between weight, price, and toughness.
Think about it as a “pick two” game. If you want a tent that’s light and tough, it’ll probably be expensive. If you want one that’s cheap and durable, it might break your back if you try to hike with it.
Quick View on What Tents Are Made Of
Tents can be made from the following materials:
The Different Types of Tent Material
Lots of tents are made from nylon because it has a great strength-to-weight ratio. Like many synthetic materials, it’s made from plastic.
The fabric can be spun very thin, which means nylon tents are lightweight and pack into a small stuff sack. But they’ll cost you more than the cheaper, heavier options.
Polyester is another synthetic fabric. It’s durable and can be found in many outdoor products due to its ability to take a beating.
Polyester tents are cheaper than nylon ones. The trade-off is that they’re much bulkier and heavier.
Canvas is a natural fiber, derived from cotton. It’s super affordable and super durable. Check your dad’s closet — he might have a canvas jacket from the ‘70s that’s holding up well.
Canvas cotton tents expand in warm weather and constrict in the cold. This keeps you cool in the summer and warmer in the fall and winter.
The trade-off, again, is weight. You definitely don’t want to pack a canvas tent on your back. Save it for car camping.
Polycotton is a blend of polyester and cotton — see what they did there?
More tents are made of polycotton rather than pure canvas because polycotton is easier to maintain.
It’s also less prone to getting moldy than other tents, as it dries quickly. It’s even more durable than canvas.
Polycotton tents can be pricey, but they’re great options for a car camping or glamping tent and will last you a long time.
Now we’re getting fancy.
Dyneema is a brand name for ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fabric — try saying that five times fast. It’s a popular choice among ultralight backpackers and rich people.
It’s very light and super strong. Dyneema fibers are up to 15 times stronger than steel fibers!
Remember the “pick two” game from earlier? That’s right — it’s expensive. But as more and more outfitters adopt the fabric for their tents, we’ll likely see the price come down in the future.
How to Get the Right Tent Fabric
If you need a cheap tent fast, hit up your local Walmart and grab one. It won’t be pretty, and it might not last long, but it’ll be yours.
Also, try buying used gear. And if you’re not hiking with it, try a heavy canvas or polycotton tent that weighs a ton. If you’re putting it in the car, who cares?
Once you start looking at places like REI and other outdoors stores, the prices will climb quickly. But the product quality will be much better than a Walmart special.
If you need a lightweight tent that packs up small, you’ll have to shell out a bit more.
I learned this when I was researching a hiking tent to buy with my girlfriend. (We settled on a Tarptent Double Rainbow, which we are deeply in love with due to its light weight and packability. But what’s right for us might not be the best option for you.)
That said, look for deals! Try buying all-season tents in the winter, and vice-versa.
Also, keep an eye out for Black Friday and post-Christmas sales at outdoors stores.
Wet or Stormy Weather
All these fabrics are water-resistant on their own. But waterproofing usually comes down to the treatment those fabrics get.
Companies will use silicone or urethane to keep out moisture. Pay attention to what kind of treatment your tent has.
Also, note whether its seams are sealed. The stitching creates little holes that must be taped or otherwise plugged up.
For some ultralight tents, you’ll have to waterproof the seams yourself. The material is waterproof, but the seams need sealer to keep out moisture.
On the plus side, this gets you very familiar with the ins and outs of your tent right away.
If your camping trip will be both wet and stormy, you’ll need something that won’t blow over in the night.
There are more affordable options, but you might find that investing in a fabric like Dyneema is the way to go.
Through-Hiking or Multi-Day Camping
Portability is important when you're taking everything with you on your back.
Avoid canvas and polycotton tents. Aim for nylon, or if you can afford it, Dyneema.
Polyester can work too, but your back might be sore after the trek in.
Pro tip: If you’re camping with friends, you can split up a multi-person tent into the body, poles, and fly. Then each of you can take a separate part. This means each person won’t have to carry as much weight.
Here's where you can have some fun. Since you don't need to worry about the weight of your tent — aside from what your vehicle can handle — you can go all-out.
With car camping, you can ditch the trip if things go wrong. That means you can risk bringing a cheap, heavy tent. If it starts leaking, patch it up with duct tape.
If that doesn't work, the worst-case scenario is leaving a day or two early — not being stranded in the mountains.
Heck, why not try sleeping under the stars? If the weather is nice, leave your tent in the car.
Sleeping outside hits different with no barrier between you and the endless sky. You just might have the best snooze of your life.
Some people even bring inflatable tents to the family campground. These monstrosities inflate with an electric pump, so you can sit back and watch your palace rise on its own.
I've seen families hanging out in eight-to-twelve-person tents with living rooms inside!
My hard-done-by Scout heart aches when I remember fumbling with bent, freezing poles and heavy canvas. Kids these days have it too easy, I tell ya.
What’s the Best Waterproof Tent Material?
All the materials we’ve discussed are naturally water-resistant.
However, they are not completely waterproof, and many companies will use a type of silicone or urethane treatment to seal your tent against the rain.
The waterproofing of a tent is a factor of more than just the tent’s fabric.
So, instead of focusing on getting a tent with “waterproof material,” I recommend putting your attention on the design of the tent itself.
This means looking for tents that have waterproof treatments on their fabrics (silicone/urethane treatments and DWR), sealed seams, and a rugged construction.
Doing so will help keep you dry when the weather won’t cooperate.
Read also: Best Waterproof Tents
What Does “Ultralight” Mean?
It’s not a technical term. It just means that the fabric is very light. Ultralight camping has become trendy in recent years. Some devotees get maniacal about shaving off every gram from their pack.
That’s led to an explosion of boutique outfitters competing to see who can put out the lightest, most minimalistic tents.
These tents are usually quite expensive. However, they can last a long time if they’re taken care of.
What Is a Ripstop Fabric?
As the name implies, ripstop fabrics are made to avoid ripping and tearing.
They can be made out of any tent material and are usually interwoven with reinforcement nylon threads. This forms an interlocking weave that stands up to outdoor adventures.
Ripstop fabrics usually have a good strength-to-weight ratio, making them ideal choices for lightweight tents that need to stand the test of time.
What Is the Difference Between 20D and 210T?
These terms might be in the tent’s name, or further down in the description or tech specs.
The D means “Denier,” and the T stands for “Tex.” The numbers that precede them refer to how much they weigh.
The yarn that makes 20D fabric weighs 20 grams per nine kilometers.
The thread for 210T fabric weighs 210 grams per kilometer. That means 210T is equal to 1890D!
Because it’s so much denser, 210T fabric is much tougher than 20D fabric. But your back will thank you if you pack 20D for a long hike.
What Are Tent Bottoms Made Of?
Tent bottoms are usually made of the same material as the rest of the body, but often a reinforced version.
For instance, the ultralight Nemo Hornet one-person tent body is made from 10D nylon ripstop, but the floor is 15D.
Of course, you can help your tent floor last longer by using a tent footprint or tarp, which is almost always a good idea.
There's no one "best" tent fabric. As with most camping supplies, the right fabric depends on what you're doing with it, how long you plan to use it, and what you can afford.
Your first tent should be something cheaper unless you know that you'll need high-end material for a specific trip.
Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of what tents are made of. Whatever tent material you choose, do your research before you commit.
When you're ready to pull the trigger, you'll be rewarded with a tent that'll last a long time.
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Jack Hauen is a freelance writer and backpacking aficionado. When he's not writing, he can often be found in the Algonquin backcountry, wheezing through a portage that looked smaller on the map.