Have you ever stopped to wonder what tents are made of?
You’re not alone.
Campers far and wide have asked themselves this same question for years, and we’re here to clear the air once and for all.
So what are tents made of? Most tents are made from polyester, nylon, canvas, polycotton, or Dyneema fabric, with aluminum, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or steel poles. These materials are popular among tent manufacturers because they offer a good mix of weight savings and durability, making them perfect for use in the great outdoors.
In this article, we’ll discuss the different functions of materials you might find in your camping shelter and how to select the material that will work best for you.
That way, you can feel confident that you know the ins and outs of your gear.
What Materials Are Camping Tents Made Out Of?
Tent Materials List:
Types of Tent Fabrics
The gold standard for tent fabrics, nylon is an all-purpose material that’s praised for its superb strength-to-weight ratio.
This synthetic fabric is made from plastic and was first developed in the 1930s in the United States by a group of scientists at DuPont Chemicals.
It is a particularly popular option for camping tents because it is exceptionally strong even though it is a relatively thin fabric.
Therefore, many nylon tents are quite lightweight and packable.
The downside of nylon, when compared to polyester, polycotton, or canvas, is that nylon can be quite expensive.
Like nylon, polyester is a type of synthetic fabric. It was first developed in the nineteenth century by weaving together fibers made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate).
Polyester is a durable, widely used fabric in the outdoor industry because it’s quite strong and abrasion-resistant.
When compared to nylon, however, polyester is a bit bulkier and heavier.
Nevertheless, it is generally a much more affordable fabric for backpacking and car camping tents.
Also known traditionally as duck, canvas is a type of woven fabric that’s made from cotton.
Canvas has been used for thousands of years as a fabric for nearly everything from tents to tote bags because it is affordable and highly durable.
One of the interesting benefits of canvas is that the cotton fibers expand and shrink with the humidity and temperature of the air.
Thus, canvas can keep you warm in the winter, yet it is breathable enough for summer use.
Since canvas is very heavy, it is normally only used for car camping and glamping tents. But when it comes to durability, canvas is second to none.
As the name suggests, polycotton is a mix of polyester and cotton fabrics.
In tent manufacturing, polycotton is more commonly used because it is slightly easier to maintain than its pure cotton counterpart.
In particular, polycotton is less prone to mildew than other fibers and tends to dry much more quickly after rain.
In addition, it is slightly more durable than canvas, and its color is less likely to fade over time.
Although polycotton is expensive, it is a nice choice for car camping and glamping tents.
The newest fabric on our list, Dyneema is a brand name for a type of fabric called ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).
This means that it is made from synthetic materials that are astonishingly durable, even after years of use.
In fact, Dyneema fibers are up to fifteen times stronger than steel fibers!
Since Dyneema is so strong, it can be manufactured into very thin pieces of fabric, which makes it exceptionally packable and portable.
Previously called Cuben Fiver, Dyneema is becoming popular among ultralight gear manufacturers. As you can imagine, however, Dyneema isn’t the cheapest fabric on the market currently.
But when going ultralight is your goal, it’s hard to imagine a better fabric than Dyneema.
Why It’s Important to Choose the Right Tent Fabric
Regardless of your personal camping style, choosing the right tent fabric is exceptionally important.
The fabric you select will impact your camping experience and whether or not you’ll actually stay warm and dry in a storm.
Here are factors to consider when choosing a fabric for your camping experience:
Weatherproofing. While all camping tent fabrics are naturally water-resistant, some are better in foul weather than others.
So, selecting the appropriate fabric for your camping location and style can determine whether you stay dry at night.
Portability. Some fabrics, such as nylon and Dyneema, are much more portable than the alternatives.
As a result, folks who prefer to head out on adventures will need to choose a lightweight fabric they can carry on their backs.
Comfort. When we talk about tent fabrics, comfort refers to breathability. In general, cotton-based fabrics, like canvas and polycotton, are more breathable than synthetics, like nylon or polyester.
For extended summertime car camping adventures, canvas and polycotton might be more appropriate.
Affordability. Price is always a concern when shopping for outdoor gear, and tents are no exception.
As a general rule, the lighter the fabric, the more expensive it is, so you can expect nylon tents to be pricier than their polyester or canvas counterparts.
Durability. No one likes to buy gear only for it to break after a single camping trip. With tents, the fabric you choose can quite literally determine your gear’s durability, with canvas being among the most rugged on the market.
Durability is also a factor of how thick the fabric is, so you can often find some pretty darn rugged polyester and nylon tents.
Which Tent Material Is Best?
In reality, there isn’t a single tent fabric that’s best for all uses.
For lightweight campers and backpackers, tents made from nylon are advantageous because they offer weight savings and durability.
Alternatively, polyester is ideal for folks who are okay with a slightly bulkier and heavier tent in exchange for affordability.
For car camping, where durability is prized above all else, canvas and polycotton are hard to beat.
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.
Types of Tent Poles
Tent poles are made of 4 primary materials, each of which has its own unique advantages and disadvantages.
Here’s what you need to know:
Aluminum. Your go-to tent pole material, aluminum offers the perfect blend of weight savings, durability, and affordability for the vast majority of campers.
Steel. This is a nice choice for when durability and affordability are key. However, steel is quite heavy and bulky, so it’s best for car camping.
Carbon Fiber. Carbon fiber is a composite material made from fibers of carbon rather than nylon or polyester. It is super strong and lightweight, but it is the most expensive option available.
Fiberglass. Fiberglass is a type of fiber-reinforced plastic that is used in some ultralight tents. It is more affordable than carbon fiber, though less durable than both aluminum and carbon fiber.
Are Tents Toxic?
Sometimes, yes. Many tents are treated with flame retardants to help protect you in case there’s a fire in your shelter.
A 2016 study from researchers at Duke University found that many tents are made with chemicals that could negatively affect human health.
However, the outdoor industry is changing rapidly, and we’ll likely see fewer chemicals in our tents in the future.
Do All Tents Have a Proposition 65 Warning?
No, not all tents have a Proposition 65 Warning.
Proposition 65 is a California state mandate that requires all businesses to label items that may have cancer or disease-causing chemicals.
But, as we learn more and more about the health effects of these chemicals, many companies are choosing to avoid potentially dangerous materials when manufacturing their tents.
How Many Types of Tents Are There?
There are over 2 dozen types of tents, depending on how you classify various shelters.
If we categorize tents by their shape, some of the most popular kinds include dome, geodesic, and cabin tents.
We can also categorize tents by the type of camping that they’re designed for, such as glamping or mountaineering tents.
To learn more, check out our guide to tent types.
At the end of the day, there’s no single tent material that’s best for all camping styles.
While some campers will find that a canvas tent with steel poles is best for their car camping adventures, others will opt for tents with a lightweight Dyneema fabric and carbon fiber poles for their solo missions into the mountains.
Therefore, what’s important is that you find the right tent fabric and pole material that’s right for your adventures. With this knowledge you have acquired, you can make wise choices on all your future camping tent purchases.
See you in the mountains!
About the author
Gaby is a professional outdoor educator, guide, and wilderness medicine instructor. She holds a master's degree in outdoor education and spends most of her time hanging out with penguins and polar bears in the polar region. When she's not outdoors, you can find her traveling, reading Nietzsche, and drinking copious double espressos.