A Comprehensive Guide to Tent Materials

We break down the most popular materials used in tents today to help you better understand the pros and cons of each.

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While shopping for a tent, one of the many features you’ll need to weigh in making a buying decision is the type of material used in the tent’s construction. If you are not familiar with tent materials, this guide will help you to identify the pros, cons, and best uses of different tent fabrics. Let this article serve as a guide for materials to be on the look out for when purchasing a waterproof tent.

Cotton fiber

Cotton

While you won’t run into as many cotton tents today as you might have in times past, they are still a great option for those looking to avoid condensation and enjoy great breathability and insulation.

Pros:

  • Cotton can allow great airflow, which is especially helpful in hot climates.
  • The powerful insulation properties of cotton also can keep warmth inside in cold climates.
  • Cotton prevents the buildup of condensation, which can remove a lot of hassle from camping experiences.
  • Many people enjoy the texture and scent of cotton.
  • Cotton tents are usually durable and long-lasting.

Cons:

  • Cotton is pretty heavy, and may not be ideal for carrying long distances.
  • A new cotton tent must be “weathered” before it can be used in the rain (otherwise it will leak).
  • A cotton tent will not come cheap.

Best For: Consider a cotton tent if your primary goal is to prevent condensation and sleep in a tent which remains comfortable in hot or cold weather. 

Polyester

One of the most common tent materials available is polyester. This synthetic is quite a bit like nylon (more on nylon in a bit), but it outperforms nylon in terms of durability and lifespan.

Pros:

  • As just mentioned, polyester is rugged and can stand up to a lot of use. Sunlight does not cause the same rapid degradation of polyester as it does with nylon.
  • Being lightweight, polyester is easy to transport. It is also easy to collapse into a compact space, which helps both with transportation and storage.
  • Mildew is unlikely to be a problem with a polyester tent.
  • Polyester is affordable, keeping tent costs down.
  • Even though cotton does a better job protecting occupants of a tent from UV rays than polyester, polyester outdoes other synthetic materials in this regard.

Cons:

  • Polyester doesn’t breathe. This can lead to two problems. Firstly, in a hot climate, it can be uncomfortable to sleep inside. Secondly, condensation buildup can be an issue, especially in areas where big temperature swings are common.
  • When wind picks up, polyester can make a lot of noise.
  • While polyester can outlive nylon, it will not likely outlive cotton.

Best For: For a tent which is low-maintenance, lightweight and compact, polyester makes a good choice. You can also consider this as a budget option.

Polycotton

As you might have guessed, this material is a blend of polyester and cotton. It was designed as a “best of both worlds” fabric for tents.

Pros:

  • Polycotton may be heavier than polyester, but it is lighter than cotton.
  • Polycotton offers some of the mildew resistance that polyester does.
  • Just as cotton provides protection against UV rays, polycotton possesses this property as well.
  • Polycotton, like cotton, is quiet in the wind.
  • The cotton in the blend makes polycotton more durable than polyester.
  • The texture and scent of polycotton are closer to cotton than they are to polyester.
  • Excellent breathability and insulation provide further benefits to polycotton.
  • Like cotton, polycotton resists condensation.

Cons:

  • Like cotton, a polycotton blend may be expensive.
  • Just as you need to weather cotton before you can use it in the rain, you may need to do the same with polycotton.
  • As with cotton, there is more upkeep around maintaining polycotton.

Best For: If you cannot decide between cotton and polyester, a polycotton blend is ideal. Even though it shares a few of cotton’s drawbacks, it is lighter-weight, and still offers many of the same benefits.

Nylon fiber

Nylon

This is another synthetic option for a tent. Nylon tents are popular because they are especially lightweight. They can also be very cost-effective, but this depends largely on what types of coatings are applied.

Pros:

  • As mentioned, nylon is very light. This has to do with the properties of the fibers. While nylon can form runs (like nylon tights), a “rip-stop” thread pattern prevents this, but keeps the bulk of the material thin and light.
  • Because the material is so thin, nylon tents can also be very compact, which is ideal for storage and transport.
  • A wide variety of coatings are available to enhance nylon.
  • Nylon is often very cheap.

Cons:

  • Nylon tents can lose their shape when they are exposed to precipitation.
  • Sunlight degrades nylon, shortening its lifespan.
  • Some nylon coatings are very expensive.

Best For: Nylon can be a good option to save money on a lightweight, compact tent.

PVC-Coated Cotton

One more cotton tent variant to consider is a canvas tent which has been coated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This coating usually is applied to the roof of the tent.

Pros:

  • PVC provides excellent waterproofing.
  • A PVC coating also can boost the overall strength of the tent.

Cons:

  • A cotton tent with a PVC coating will be even heavier than a regular non-coated canvas tent.
  • PVC (or any other coating) applied to cotton can re-introduce condensation back into the equation.

Best For: You should think about getting a PVC-coated cotton tent if your main priority is waterproofing and you are not bothered by the extra weight the PVC adds.

Conclusion: Selecting the Right Tent Material Can Help You Enjoy the Ideal Experience

Everyone has different priorities when shopping for a tent. For some, waterproofing might be most important. Others may be looking primarily for a tent which is lightweight. Still others may be most interested in durability, breathability, or other qualities. Whatever you are in the market for, you now know which materials can best suit your needs. Good luck shopping for the ideal tent!