Tent Fabrics

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/Cotton

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

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.

Polyester

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

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.

Fire Safetyfire extinguisher

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.

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12 thoughts on “Tent Fabrics”

  1. A very useful article on tent fabrics that are used these days. The old tried, tested, and trusted canvas tents are ones that I grew up with, used while in the Army for 25 years, and still use these days as a camper in Europe. They are heavier, as you say, but they do last a long time with proper care.

    I also have some tents that we use for shorter trips or for hiking and climbing too. These are made with the polyester materials you mention. The thing I like about them is the lightness and the compact manner that they are folded up. They take up little space.

    For the first-time buyer, this is a very useful article. They can easily learn before shopping what kind of material that they are getting with a particular tent. This will help them to select one that fits their needs. These days there are a lot of varieties of tents, unlike when I started buying tents!

    Thanks and I have bookmarked your website, you have some really great content I want to examine more…

    Reply
  2. I love the the review you shared here and I must tell you I have gained another todayThank you for this incredible blog post about tent fabricsThank you for the very valuable tips – I’ve made plenty of notes.This is a great information, it will be very helpful

    i need to cheap in this question

    1. Is there any major difference between canvas and cotton? 

    Reply
    • Hi Aboiye,

      Canvas is merely the name given to a material that is made with closely woven fibres and cotton seems to be the fibre of choice in tents.

      I hope this helps.

      Reply
  3. It never crossed my mind that polycotton can be used in producing tent cover, the fact that it allow airflow makes it a nice material for people living in hot temperature region of the world like Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and so on.Am not sure if is everyone use UV protection on their tent cover. Personally, I have not seen any rental service that use such protection here. Maybe it is the reason why they get spoilt so fast.

    Reply
    • Yes properly protecting your tent from UV is very important if you wish the fabric to stay strong and reliable.  We do not have nearly as much heat and sun as mentioned countries above but we still see aging and deterioration of material within a few years if not treated.

      Reply
  4. OMG.  I am so glad that I found your website.   I love the name also, “Camp Me Happy.”  I am in the early stages of shopping for a small tent that I can use when I go on hikes to places that I am planning to photograph.      Until reading this article, I had not really put that much thought into the different types of tent fabrics.  My main concern was whether or not it was water proof.   I am also concerned about how long it takes to assemble and disassemble the tent.  

    Yet now you have me thinking about ventilation and condensation issues.   Thank you.  This is a very informative article.  

    Reply
    • Hi Sondra, so glad you found and like the site.  If you are planning to carry the tent on your person think about weight first. Most tents are fairly waterproof these days but I’d choose polyester over nylon.  Depending on where you will be travelling with tent and who with will determine size of tent.  

      There are also many good inflatable tents on the market.  In other words inflatable poles rather than carbon or fibreglass.  Makes pitching quicker but more costly.

      Hope you get one that suits your needs and makes you happy.

      Reply
  5. Hi Michelle, and thanks for bringing me back to wonderful memories of our tent camping days.😊  I was surprised to read that tents were still being made of canvas, for the weight.  Whenever I go to a store like Academy, I only see what I thought were polyester. 

    That brings me to my question.  You mention several different coatings, and say that silicone is the most expensive.  Does that mean it is the best?  And are there any differences in the look and feel of the different coatings?

    Thanks again for your well written, informative article.

    Reply
    • Hi Steve thanks for asking this. Not all coatings make a difference to the feel of the fabric but silicone does.  Although more expensive in my experience it is not always the best.  Silicone is probably the most waterproof and can give a wax like feeling, but due to being so waterproof it can cause the problem of condensation build up on the inside of the tent.  

      You are still looking for the material to have some breathability factor to help reduce condensation.  No point ensuring tent is waterproof from rain if it is also going to hold moisture inside the tent too as things will enevitably still get damp and wet.

      Always keep the tent well ventilated to help reduce condensation.

      It really comes down to needs and preferances for the individual, a great summer tent can make a lousy winter tent and vice versa.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply
  6. Great post and good info.

    For me it seems polycotton is probably the best for us, as it has a lot of advantages, certainly knowing we live in Belgium, and we go to the forest now and then. 

    The fact many companies make them with a coating, is even better, no rain problems, no worries to get wet stuff inside your tent. 

    I will show this to my wife, hopefully she thinks the same as me.. Thanks for sharing it! 

    Reply
    • Thanks Emmanuel, I hope your wife finds it useful.  If you are going to buy for going into the forrest I recommend buying in person so you can really feel the weight.  Even walk around the store a few times carrying it to give you an even better idea and remember you will have other kit to carry too.

      I have known people who will buy online or even instore and then not realise till they have to hike with it how heavy it actually is.

      Happy Camping!

      Reply

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