The Different Tent Fabric Types

When living the sheltered lives most of us live, venturing into the outdoors can be intimidating enough, without the added pressure of trying to select outdoor gear and understand the terminology related to it. This article is designed to take a bite out the confusion you may be facing during your search for the perfect camping or backpacking tent.

Here, we will discuss the similarities and differences among tent fabrics to help you select the fabric which you believe will best be suited to your needs. Of course, each fabric has its own positives and negatives – otherwise there would be only one type of perfectly wonderful fabric and this article would not exist. It will be up to you to weigh those positives and negatives against your own needs to make a wise decision when it comes to purchasing your tent.

This article will also touch on a few other key factors regarding tent fabrics and the technical terminology you may come across in your search for tents. Topics we will cover briefly here include denier, thread count, and waterproofing.

Cotton Canvas Tents

Though relatively rare these days, there was a point in time when cotton canvas tents were the norm. Their popularity has begun to increase over recent years; more and more people are being drawn away from synthetic materials and toward natural materials such as cotton.

Of course, it should go without saying that cotton is much more environmentally-friendly than many of the newer, synthetic options available on the market. Untreated cotton is not only sustainable, it is also biodegradable over time. Don’t worry, by “over time” I mean a considerably long time – you will not find it disintegrating around you as you camp.

Another positive aspect of cotton tents is that they are quieter than other types of tents. As a light sleeper, I find this to be quite an amazing selling feature. I have had many camping trips ruined by the exhaustion which set in after a few days without a proper sleep. Instead of sleeping, I found myself lying awake listening to the trees rustling, the animals moving, the owls calling, the people three campsites over having a party, and the tent itself flapping around in the wind. I’m not here to tell you that a cotton tent is soundproof – it is just a tent, after all. However, it will deaden outside sounds much better than the other tent fabrics and is, itself, much quieter under the breeze.

Going along with the fact that it is somewhat soundproof is the fact that it is somewhat insulated. The basic properties of this material mean that it will help to trap warm air inside on cool nights but will also keep the heat out on hot days. Perhaps it is this insulation factor that also insulates it from noise.

The biggest downside to cotton, in my opinion, is its weight. I’m a bit of a granola-eating, tree-hugging, save the whales type of person, so cotton is, naturally, one of my first choices when it comes to tents. I love that it is so environmentally friendly. That being said, I also have some muscle problems which make it difficult for me to carry heavy packs over long distances. Unfortunately for me, cotton tents are quite heavy. Of all the fabric options you have to choose from in the world of tents, cotton is the heaviest. Therefore, I have opted to stay away from cotton when it comes to backpacking tents and, instead, opt for something a little more lightweight. If you would prefer not to have an incredibly heavy pack and are unable to divide carrying responsibilities among a group of people, I would suggest steering clear of cotton for your backpacking tent.

Something important to know about a cotton tent is that it will not be weatherproof the moment you open it up. You will have to weatherproof it yourself in order to avoid a leaky night in a rainstorm. You can choose to coat it with something which, essentially, will turn this into a polycotton/coated cotton tent. However, that will take a lot of time and will be rather unnecessary. All you need to do to weatherproof a cotton tent is set it up and let it get rained on. You can also set it up and spray it down with hose. It will leak this very first time, but the process will also cause a bond to form among the fibers of the fabric, pulling them together so that it will be waterproof the next time you use it. Some cotton tents have already undergone such a process prior to being put out on the market for sale. Be sure to read your tent’s packaging. If there is no indication that it has been weatherproofed, do not assume that it has. Instead, spend the time to set it up and hose it down.

Polycotton or Coated Cotton

Let’s get something clear before we move any further in this particular conversation – polycotton and coated cotton are the same thing. Don’t be fooled by articles and descriptions which mention only one term or the other – these are the same type of material. Like cotton, polycotton or coated cotton is much more environmentally friendly than purely synthetic fabric options. That being said, it is not 100% natural. It is cotton which has been coated with something or has had something added as it was being weaved.

Like cotton, polycotton is rather durable and makes less noise than a lot of the other options available. As a bonus, it is more lightweight than traditional cotton and more weather resistant. However, it will still be heavier than many of the fully-synthetic fabrics out there.

Nylon

You may notice that nylon isn’t an extremely popular fabric in the world of tents. This is mostly due to the fact that it can rip rather easily. Nylon is mostly used for backpacking tents. Its lightweight properties make it perfect for stuffing into a backpack for a long hike up a mountain. The small size of a one-person backpacking tent means that it has smaller walls, making it less likely to rip or tear as the result of being hit by something or torn apart by the wind.

If you do intend to purchase a nylon tent, look for one which has been created with “ripstop” technology. This ingenious technique for crafting nylon tents is mostly found among those which are high quality and a somewhat expensive. “Ripstop” nylon has been woven together in such a way as to reduce the likelihood of a run if rips or tears occur. Think of a pair of nylon leggings. If you were to cut a tiny hole in one you would see it easily spread into a large hole just from the fabric being moved around. The same thing is likely to happen with a nylon tent. A small hole can turn to a very large hole in a matter minutes if a wall is flapping in the wind. “Ripstop” nylon will stop that hole from growing, allowing you the opportunity to patch it.

Polyethylene

This thick, tough, durable material is often used for tarps and tent floors. It is rare to find a tent made entirely of polyethylene, mostly because this material is difficult to fold into a small space and can add a lot of unnecessary weight to the tent itself. This unnecessary weight would not only cause problems for those intending to carry their tents for long periods, it also puts extra pressure on tent poles because it is more difficult to hold up.

As a tent floor, polyethylene is one of my favorite materials. I love that it is durable – I often do not need to purchase a footprint to place underneath my tent since my tent features a polyethylene floor. I also love that it is easy to clean. Water will bead up on it, making spills easy to clean, and I can sweep sand and dirt right out the door.

Polyester

Perhaps the most popular type of tent fabric on the market today, polyester is a durable and reliable man-made material. It is much more difficult to tear through a polyester tent than it is to tear through one made of nylon. It is slightly less durable than cotton, but weighs much less. It will not stretch easily and isn’t easily damaged by sunlight or weather.

I would say that polyester exists somewhere in the middle of cotton and nylon. It is not as light as nylon but is much lighter than cotton. It is not as durable as cotton, but is much more durable than nylon.

Of course, like any other fabrics on this list, you must also take into account such variables as denier, thread count, and waterproofing, because not all polyester tents are created equal.

What Is Denier?

If you have already begun your search for your next camping tent, you may have come across the term denier or seen descriptions boasting that a tent is “20D” or “40D”. I would like to quickly explain what these terms mean, so that you can make a wise purchasing decision. A fabric’s denier is the thickness of its individual threads or fibers.

Obviously, a higher denier means a thicker strand. What you may not realize, however, is that a thicker strand does not always equal a stronger fabric. Remember that different types of fabrics have different strengths based simply upon what they are. To understand the strength of a fabric, you must consider the type of fabric as well as the thickness of each thread and the number of threads in an area.

Thread Count

A fabric’s thread count, often depicted by a number and a capital letter T (i.e. – 2300T), tells you how many vertical and horizontal threads can be found in each square inch of fabric. Again, higher thread counts often mean stronger materials, but material type and thread thickness must also be considered.

Your strongest tents will be made from strong material (cotton or polyester) that has both high denier and high thread count.

Waterproofing

Tents can become waterproof in a few different ways. Some materials are naturally waterproof. Some materials have other materials added to them (for example, polycotton is cotton and other materials) to increase their water resistance. Some tents have special coatings applied to them or to their seams. You can also choose to add a coating to your tent or your tent’s seams on your own.

When looking for a tent, you will notice that waterproofing is indicated by a number and “mm.” “MM” stands for millimetres. This figure tells you how many millimetres of water a tent can handle at one time before it will leak. This is a clear case where higher numbers are better, because higher numbers mean more water resistance. The more water resistant your tent is, the less likely it is to leak. On the other hand, it will often be more expensive as well.

Consider Your Unique Needs

Consider your own needs when purchasing your tent. You have learned how to spot the best tent on the market, but do you need it? Consider the size of your tent, when you plan to use your tent, where you plan to use your tent, and how you plan to transport your tent before making any major decisions.

You may prefer a more reliable, environmentally-friendly tent made from cotton if the environment is extremely important to you. However, if you intend to carry your tent with you on your back, you may want to select something more lightweight.

If you are planning to camp during rainy seasons, you may want to spend the extra money to purchase a very waterproof tent. However, if you only plan to camp for one or two nights and intend to check the weather before committing to a camp out, this extra expense may not be necessary.

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