There are many tent fabrics in the market now and it can get confusing for new campers, so I’ve written this guide to show the pro’s and cons for each material used in tent manufacturing.
Many campers have their preferred fabrics and will chose their new tents based on this and others will let the tent design and their needs be the deciding factor. The choice is always yours but if you have some knowledge on fabrics before you go tent shopping it can be a real added bonus.
Canvas, the original tent material. Canvas is a great material that allows good circulation of air, meaning very little condensation. It also means that you are kept cooler during hot spells and warmer in the cold days. Many canvas tents have no need for ventilation panels that we see in todays, nylon, polyester or polycotton tents.
For me canvas means a superior tent. However fully canvas/cotton tents are rare these days.
One of the main disadvantages of this material is the weight. Todays tent manufacturers are using fabric much lighter than cotton and thus making it easier and quicker for us campers to erect our tents once onsite. It also means that packed sizes become smaller and easier to carry. This is a godsend to backpackers and hikers that have to carry their tent each day.
However, these tents need to be weathered, preferably before use.
Due to the nature of this material it will naturally leak on it’s first outing and needs to go through a process called weathering. The cotton material will take the moisture from the rain or water (if you are going to hose it down) and allow the cotton threads in the weave to swell and expand. This process will allow the threads to swell and nestle into each other and eventually become so tight that it naturally waterproofs itself.
So, if you ever buy new, don’t be alarmed if it leaks on it’s first outing or two, best bet is to get it up and weather it yourself before any trips.
PVC Coated Canvas
This material is normally used more in large frame tents and trailer tents. The manufacturers will coat, mainly the roof with a PVC (poly vinyl chloride) coating. This is to further waterproof the roof of the tent, but this also adds extra weight.
Remember a PVC coating will not allow the material to breathe as it should so condensation therefore can be an issue.
Polycotton tents are made with mix of cotton and polyester materials. Most tent manufacturers will use polycotton in their superior tent ranges.
The mixing or fabrics allows the tents to be lighter than sole cotton tents yet strong and durable. Polycotton also allows good airflow within your tent especially it is untreated as cotton fibres will expand when wet.
However, most polycotton tents are coated these days to keep the material waterproof.
This is now one of the most common fabrics used for tents as it does not shrink or bag when wet, unlike nylon tents. This is a great lightweight material and stands up well against sunlight and UV rays. Polyester does not discolour as easily as nylon.
Manufacturers will also use different coatings on their tents and the best thing to look for is a coating that is waterproof but breathable.
Coatings used vary from PU (polyurethane), acrylic and silicone. With acrylic being the cheapest and silicone being the most expensive this will be factored in to the price of your tent.
Nylon is a great lightweight fabric used for tents but can become baggy when wet. This means tightening of guy lines and risk of maybe the odd leak if water collects on the top of the tent. As well as not standing up to becoming wet they don’t stand up well to sun rays and can discolour easily.
Although most manufacturers now coat their nylon tents to help protect above damage it is always best to check before you buy that there has been a coating applied to aid in the prevention of weather damage.
Preserving Your Tents Fabrics
Once you have purchased your tent it is always good to check out what, if any coatings it has had applied and how long these will last.
Most people re-apply coatings to their tents every few seasons. Please follow your manufacturers guidelines for doing so.
It is worth using a UV protection as well as waterproofing agent to do this. UV rays can weaken your fabric considerably resulting in the material tearing more easily. Just 2 weeks of strong UV rays can weaken your tent fabric by up to 50%.
Also ensure your tent is completely dry before packing away. This reduces mould and mildew from forming on the material as this is not the easiest to remove.
Never use soap or detergents on your tent when cleaning as it will strip the waterproofing agents applied. And NEVER machine wash or tumble dry your tent! Some coating agents will help clean your tent as you apply it.
Don’t allow people to play with bubbles around or near your tent as the detergent in them will also affect and damage your tent material.
If you do get a tear in your tent, do not panic, well, not unless it’s a big rip. There are self-adhesive repair patches on the market, and they can give you an extra few seasons with your beloved tent for only a few pounds and some time to apply. I try to always have a colour matched repair patch in the tent bag for emergencies. Some tents also come with repair patches.
Nowadays most tent manufacturers will have labels stating that the material used is fire retardant, as no tent material is fire proof!
Even so if a tent catches fire it will go up quickly. GET OUT as quick as you can. Remember you and yours safety first, a tent can be replaced, lives can’t.
Keep a bucket of water or sand near your tent, or if you can afford to invest in a fire extinguisher. Please remember that if you use electrics, which many people do these days take this into consideration if purchasing an extinguisher.
Keep a sharp knife handy. We keep one in the bedroom pocket in case of a fire so we can cut our way out in case of an emergency.
Never have naked flames in your tent. No gas stoves or candles. If you use a gas stove cook outside, as well as the risk of fire there is also a risk of carbon monoxide build up and poisoning from gas stoves.
I hope this helps when it comes to choosing your next tent, the right fabric for your needs can make a big difference.
Also see Groundsheets.