I’ve spent time under the stars in different camping tents and one of the takeaways is that the choice of tent material determines your camping experience.
It also reflects on your tent’s quality.
And this brings us to the question “what materials camping most camping tents are made out of?”
Generally, most modern camping tents are made of polyester or nylon fabric. Canvas and cotton are also options but are rarely used because of their weight.
On the other hand, most tent poles are made of aluminum or fiberglass. Both materials are sturdy and lightweight.
Each tent material has benefits and drawbacks and is suited for different conditions. Plus, even tents of a similar material vary greatly in performance.
That said, let’s jump straight into our guide and check some of the tent material options to consider.
Table of Contents
Tent Fabric Classification- Best Tent Materials
In the section below, we’ll go through each tent material in detail and look at what it brings to the table.
Hopefully, by the end of the guide, it should be easy to determine what material you need for your camping conditions.
Tents are made out of different tent fabrics, but most tents are made of nylon, also known as ripstop fabric.
Numerous grades of ripstop fabric/nylon are sold under different trade names, but nylon is usually the main component.
The biggest draw towards nylon tents is their lightweight design. Nylon tents are by far lighter than cotton and canvas tents.
They make a great option if you ever need a backpack tent or move it regularly.
Unfortunately, the lightweight design means these tents are flimsier and noisier in strong winds. There’s a high chance that the wind will blow away these tents.
Ease of setup and maintenance is yet another plus of the nylon tents. Setting up a nylon tent is a breeze and exactly what I usually look for if I plan to have many one-night stops on my backpacking trips.
And because of their lightweight design and ease of setup, managing the nylon tents is also easy.
A concern with nylon maintenance is their lack of breathability. But the issue isn’t limited to nylon only because all synthetic tent materials have breathability issues.
Synthetic tents are more likely to suffer from condensation than natural-made fabric tents.
But that’s not big of an issue for me. A well-ventilated nylon tent will mitigate condensation.
When it comes to durability and strength, nylon is a bit stronger (marginally, though) than its synthetic partner, the polyester tent fabric.
But only out of the box and in books.
See, nylon absorbs water much more than polyester fabrics, and once it’s wet, its tensile strength is weakened. In short, it becomes substantially weaker than polyester in wet weather.
The same case is replicated with UV radiation. Nylon is more susceptible to sunlight degradation than polyester. Exposure to sunlight can impact the nylon’s tear strength much more than polyester.
In short, nylon is “stronger and tear-resistant” in books than polyester, but in real-life tests, the superiority is flipped. After all, the durability and reliability of a tent are put to the test in windy and rainy conditions.
Both synthetic tent fabrics are also non-waterproof, but nylon is impregnatable. Impregnation simply mixes nylon and silicone to form a waterproof product called SilNylon.
The treatment makes nylon waterproof, but the material will still soak up water. The good news is that a recreational camper doesn’t have to worry about water dripping through your nylon shelter.
If you search almost all the high-rated and modern tents, they’re going to mention made out of “high-quality polyester” with a series of figures attached.
Polyester is an affordable and one of the most common tent materials. It’s usually found on almost all affordable tents, including lightweight backpacking tents.
It’s also a synthetic material, and therefore, it shares plenty of characteristics and benefits with nylon tents.
For example, polyester is ultra-light, much more than the canvas fabric or cotton fabric tents. The lightweight design makes polyester tents an inspiring option for those who need a lightweight backpack tent or are always on the move.
Lightness aside, I’m a big fan of the tents made out of polyester because of their strength.
Of course, they can’t match up to the canvas tent’s strength, but they break down or degrade less fast than nylon tents.
Polyester is significantly more UV-resistant than nylon. It also doesn’t stretch as much as nylon, so it’s naturally more UV and water-resistant.
But understand the durability of the polyester tents will also depend on the fabric denier. Denier is simply a measure of the thickness of the fabric.
Polyester with a higher denier number is denser and has many polyester fabric threads. It can withstand UV and rain much better.
Polyester doesn’t absorb water either, but it’s not waterproof. It doesn’t sag, though, which is a good thing, especially if you need to mitigate the risk of tent condensation or dampness.
However, it’s always good to bolster its waterproofness by applying a polyurethane/PU coating. It’s the equivalent of silicone impregnation on the nylon tent.
The PU coating adds to the waterproofness of the polyester tents, ensuring there’s no water passage through.
Of course, as with any other waterproof coating, the PU coating can also deteriorate, especially after extended sun exposure.
I usually make a habit of packing my polyester tents up early and pitching late. UV degradation has never been an issue for me. But if you leave the tent with direct UV exposure for a couple of days, it’ll weaken.
Understand that degradation by UV is almost always happening to some extent, even on cloudy days. But it’s more rapid and pronounced in direct UV exposure.
My only concern with tents made out of polyester is insulation abilities.
It has low insulation properties meaning they’re not ideal for use in a location with extreme temperature conditions.
For example, the tent walls can get extremely hot during summer camping and become unlivable in the chilly conditions because of the cold.
Their poor insulation limits their use in different conditions, and I’d not recommend a polyester tent as a 3-season or an all-year-round camping tent.
3) Canvas/Cotton Tents
A properly cared for quality nylon or polyester tent can last for many years. But a properly cared for cotton canvas tent can last for many decades.
Canvas tents, also known as cotton tents, are the most durable tent fabric options on the market.
The cotton canvas material is the traditional form of tent fabric and offers a real-world difference between the afro-mentioned camping fabrics.
The first and main difference between a cotton canvas tent and the polyester/nylon fabric tents is they’re made out of natural material (cotton), while the nylon is synthetic.
The difference in material goes a long way to influence the individual characteristics of each tent fabric and forms the basis of other main differences.
A big benefit of a cotton canvas tent is its comfort. They’ve better insulation than synthetic tent fabrics and are hardly affected by the outside weather conditions.
In short, the cotton tents will maintain a stable temperature; keep you cool on the hot days, and keep you warm on the chilly days.
It’s no surprise that a cotton canvas tent is used in glamping or “luxury” camping.
The reliability and strength of a simple cotton tent also attract me big time. See, through our Scout Camp, we use canvas tents year after year because they can hold up to anything.
They’re fantastic to use because you need to work hard to tear, poke or cause damage to the tent. And in the unfortunate event that you damage the tent, the damage won’t spread easily.
Moreover, the tents are easy to patch, and a speedy sewing awl is all you need to do canvas repairs at any time in the bush.
The canvas tent is also significantly more durable than most synthetic tents. I’ve used my canvas tent in hailstorms, and every time, not a single drop makes it inside.
It also holds up to strong winds without a problem. It feels sturdy and will save you from the bent poles and the annoying noises from flapping fabrics.
In short, a canvas tent will always win out for me, especially on serious and heavy-duty camping trips.
For such comfort and durability of the canvas tent, you’ll be trading convenience and lighter fabric.
Canvas tents are bulky, some weighing a couple of times literally as much as the regular tents. Ideally, the canvas tents are better suited for the long-term camping setup and not for the short overnighters or weekend camps.
The tents also pack down to the size of an elephant, so they might be the most suited option for backpacking.
Setting up a canvas tent is also a Herculean task because of its bulky size. Folding the tent is equally a challenging task.
Furthermore, untreated canvas wicks water, so it’s prone to rot even when slightly damp during storage. Packing wet canvas tents presents an unhealthy living space and will easily turn a pleasant hike into a grueling and exhausting slog.
On this note, if you’ll choose canvas tents, I’d recommend that you always let the tent dry out. Otherwise, it’s easy for mildew and mold to creep up ad create an unhealthy environment.
Even with all its shortcomings, a canvas tent is still a great choice, especially if you need to go car camping long term in one place.
Another problem I could see with the canvas tent is light filtering through. If you’re not an early riser, you might wake up with the sun blaring through the tent fabric.
4) Polycotton Tents
If you’ve ever slept in a polyester or nylon tent on a windy night, you’ve an idea of what it may feel like sleeping inside a plastic carrier bag. The noise is terrible.
Conversely, if you’ve used a cotton shield before, you understand the inconvenience of drying your tent before packing and the weight issue.
The polycotton tent fabric saves you from all of that.
As its name suggests, polycotton is simply a polyester and cotton blend. A halfway material is usually marketed as the best of both worlds.
But in my opinion, polycotton is the perfect compromise between polyester and cotton.
It’s more weather-resistant than the typical polyester tent, breathes better than polyester, and lasts longer.
The tent is also lighter, easier to use, and takes up less storage than the typical canvas tent.
The polycotton tent eliminates the typical problems of pure cotton and pure polyester tents. They include durability, breathability, comfort, and ease of setup.
A properly made and cared for polycotton tent is a Buy It For Life (BIFL) as it’s reliable and will serve you for years to come.
I’m a huge fan of the polycotton tents because they eliminate the issues of natural fibers such as low strength and susceptibility to mold and mildew. It also presents more benefits, including heat resistance and better UV protection.
Understand the standout benefits or characteristics will also depend on the ratio of the tent fabrics. For example, if the polycotton tent has a larger cotton fibers percentage, it’ll exhibit more of the cotton tent characteristics and vice versa.
5) Cuben Fiber (DCF) Tents
I run a boy scout troop, and we actively use a dozen tents from different brands. In addition, we always replace our tents for our inventory every year.
And from the existing patterns, the Cuben Fiber Tents seem to be more durable and convenient than all other tent fabric categories.
They’re also one of our most advanced options and a handy pick for backpackers. They’re ultra-lightweight, and users hardly feel their presence.
The other great draw with the Cuben Fiber Tents is their strength. They’ve a higher tear strength.
I understand there’s an unfounded hype regarding DCF tents, with some claiming it’s stronger than steel or tougher than woven tent fabrics.
It’s cool stuff, though, and while it doesn’t carry the “so bomber” hype that marketers try to portray, it’s super solid and the most durable of all-out existing tent fabrics.
The material is also generally durable, and if properly taken care of, it’ll serve you for quite a long.
Performance outdoors is also awesome, and I like it because of its water resistance and insulation.
The DCF tents are suitable for use in different weather conditions. It won’t allow water to get through or even lead to condensation. The tent will also keep you warm in the chilly conditions.
Of course, with so many benefits under its belt, expect to dig a little deeper. The DCF tents are super expensive but worth it, in my opinion.
Which is the Most Waterproof Tent Material?
No tent fabric is most waterproof than the other. Instead, the coating ad seams determine the waterproofness of a fabric.
Let me explain.
The Waterproofness of a tent is usually measured through a waterproof rating, usually expressed in millimeters (mm).
It’s a standard rating that shows how a fabric can stand against water, regardless of the material.
Here’s a simple example that depicts the waterproof ratings of different tents;
-1,000mm waterproof rating will stand up to rain showers
-1,500-3,000 mm waterproof rating can handle most the wind and rain conditions.
-3,000mm+ rating is usually found in most of the 3 or 4 season tents and can stand the heavy rain and snow
Therefore, a 3,000mm rated polyester tent will be as waterproof as a 3,000mm nylon tent or a 3,0000mm cotton tent.
Generally, the most waterproof tents have multiple fabric layers for added weather protection. Their seams also have better reinforcement to minimize water leakage.
What is Most Tent Pole Made of?
Most tent pols are made out of aluminum and fiberglass. The other less popular materials used for making tent poles are steel, carbon fiber, and composites.
The choice of tent poles is equally as important as the tent fabric.
Tent poles will determine how well your tent stands up during harsh weather conditions, especially when it’s windy and rainy.
But more importantly, the tent poles form the basis of your tent framework, holding everything in place.
Fiberglass Tent Poles
Fiberglass is one of the most inexpensive tent pole materials and the reason it’s commonly found in budget-friendly tents.
But the price tag isn’t reflective of its quality. With proper handling, the fiberglass tent poles are long-lasting, and they’ve the added benefit of not rusting.
While the fiberglass durability doesn’t match the aluminum poles, I’ve been using them for quite a while now and haven’t run into any reliability issues.
But in my opinion, the fiberglass tent poles are an awesome option, especially if you’re car camping where tent failure isn’t a big deal. Plus, you can always walk back to your car to fetch a repair kit if it snaps.
The fiberglass tent poles are also immune to lightning as the material is a non-conductor. So, if you’re planning to camp in a lightning-prone area, fiberglass could be a great option.
A big concern with the fiberglass tent poles is the flexibility, or rather lack of it. The fiberglass poles are rigid, making them likely to snap or break.
I wouldn’t recommend using them in areas with strong winds because that may exert undue pressure.
On top of that, the fiberglass tent poles tend to splinter, especially when exposed to cold weather.
Fiberglass poles are also bulky, so they are a less desirable option for those planning to take on a backpacking trip.
An annoying element of the fiberglass poles is the ferrules.
See, aluminum poles usually come tapered on one end to allow a seamless fit between different poles. On the other hand, the fiberglass poles are solid and need a “ferrule or sleeve to join the sections.
While the ferrule holds the fiberglass section tightly, it also makes it challenging to push them through or pull them out.
Aluminum Tent Poles
I got my first tent with aluminum, and they’ve proven to be a lot stronger for their weight, especially when compared to fiberglass.
Aluminum’s strength usually comes in handy during windy conditions. An aluminum tent pole will bend instead of snapping and breaking with the added flexibility.
Another pro of the aluminum tent pole is the lightweight design. Due to their lightness, they’re often used for backpacking tents.
The aluminum tents will hardly add bulk to your camping gear, and you’re less likely to notice their presence.
My only concern with the aluminum tent poles is the poor weather resistance, especially against moisture and air.
The aluminum poles are corroded easily, which ultimately affects their structural integrity.
However, manufacturers usually avoid the corrosion risk by anodizing the metal. Still, it makes more sense to store your aluminum poles completely dry.
Nevertheless, corrosion has never been a big issue for me. After all, it takes a long time to be noticeable.
The other concern, lightning, has never been an issue for me.
The real drawback of the aluminum tent poles is the price. They’re pretty expensive than the fiberglass options.
Apart from aluminum and fiberglass, tent poles also come in different materials.
The composite tent poles are usually a blend of different materials.
They’re equally as light as the aluminum poles and hardly break. Instead, their flexibility allows them to bend.
The steel poles are the definition of strength. They can take a beating without breaking or bending, but it comes at the expense of weight.
Usually, the steel poles are often used for car camping because of their bulky design.
The carbon-fiber tent poles are ultra-lightweight yet sturdy.
I’d recommend these poles for the backpackers, but be ready to dig deep into your pockets.
Wrap Up: What’s the Best Camping Tent Fabrics for Me?
The best tent material will depend on your camping needs.
But in general, my idea of the best camping material keeps the elements out while providing a conducive camping experience.
The material should ensure you’re not worried about the weather inclement while making it easier and convenient for an outdoor enthusiast to set up and use the tent.
But as basic as these requirements may seem, it’s challenging to find a tent material that meets all of these needs. There’s not a single-stop tent design.
See, if you need a tent that will protect you from rain, it will compromise breathability. It is because it needs to have the fibers closely knitted together.
On the other hand, if breathability is a main priority, be ready to give up on weather protection.
Therefore, you need to define your family camping needs to find the right option.
For example, the best tent material for lightweight backpacking is nylon, while the best tent fabric for car camping and weather protection is a canvas.