Tents are one of the most important pieces of camping gear. They protect us from rain, wind, and animals when we sleep in the outdoors. So it’s perfectly reasonable to ask: What are tents made of? Are they reliable? How do different materials perform? What is the right tent material for me? I’ve asked all those questions myself.
I spent 8 hours looking at the specs sheet on my tent and doing research online to answer these questions. Here’s what I found:
Most modern camping tents are made out of nylon and polyester. Cotton or canvas tents still exist but are much less common due to their heavyweight. Tent poles are most commonly made out of aluminum and fiberglass.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of material, and they are suited for different types of camping. Moreover, the qualities of tents can vary greatly even if they are made from the same material. The coating, seams, and density of materials all have an impact on how durable and waterproof the tent will be.
What Are Tent Fabrics Made of?
The big distinction here is between man-made synthetic fibers and cotton or canvas. Polyester and Nylon are both synthetic fibers, so they share many common characteristics.
Polyester is probably the most common material for tent fabrics. It can be found in almost all affordable car camping tents but also in some backpacking tents.
It is much more lightweight than cotton or canvas. This makes polyester tents much easier to transport but also flimsier and noisier in windy conditions. They are also easier to maintain than cotton or canvas. But you’ll likely see more condensation build up in your tent since the material is not really breathable. You can pick tents with good ventilation to mitigate this issue.
Another downside of polyester is that it provides minimal insulation, so don’t expect a 3-season polyester tent to keep you warm and cozy on a 30-degree night. You’ll need a heater in that case. During the summer, don’t be surprised if you feel warmer inside the tent since the small space traps heat and the fabric won’t help block the heat.
While polyester is generally durable, fabric strength varies at different deniers. Denier is essentially a measure of how thick or dense the fabric is. A higher denier usually translates into stronger fabrics. Most tents will be in the range of 75D to 150D.
Polyester also doesn’t absorb water, so it won’t shrink or expand in heavy rain. But that doesn’t mean it’s waterproof by itself. In fact, rainwater can still seep through the gaps between those fibers, which leads me to…
Polyurethane (PU) coating is usually applied to polyester tents to make them more water-resistant. It is the cheapest coating and therefore the most common in budget-friendly tents. Many brands have cool names for their coated polyester, like Coleman WeatherTec and Outwell Outtex Select.
But this water-resistant coating can deteriorate over time due to exposure to the sunlight. To make it last longer, you can collapse your tent every day after you get up in the morning and set it up again when you get back to your campsite. But I know we all get lazy sometimes, and even I myself haven’t been doing this every time.
Nylon tents are also very common. As a man-made fabric, Nylon has a lot in common with polyester and has similar advantages over cotton or canvas. It’s lightweight, easy to pack, and easy to maintain but not insulated or breathable.
But nylon is more lightweight than polyester and thus more common among backpacking tents. Nylon is generally stronger and stands up better to wear and tears. This means a nylon tent can have the same durability and strength as a polyester tent but with less material, making it lighter. Take these Naturehike tents for example. The 3-person nylon tent weighs about half a pound less than the polyester ones.
Nylon is also not waterproof by itself, but it can be mixed with silicone (the technical word here is “impregnate” but who knows what that means) to create something called SilNylon. The silicone makes the fabric highly waterproof and stronger. This treatment is not available on polyester fabrics.
Due to these differences, nylon tents are usually more expensive than polyester tents. Again in this Naturehike ultra-light series, the price difference is about $50.
Cotton or Canvas Tents
To make things clear, cotton and canvas tents are essentially the same since the canvas is mostly made from cotton. After reading about nylon and polyester, you can probably guess what the pros and cons of the canvas are. Canvas tents are mostly used for glamping or “luxury” camping nowadays due to their great comfort but heavyweight.
Canvas offers much better insulation than synthetic fibers. It actually keeps you warm on a cold and windy day but cool on a very hot day. It’s significantly more comfortable than most tents for this reason alone.
The bulk and weight of canvas tents make them harder to carry around and practically useless for backpackers. But you can’t deny that they will be more sturdy on a windy day — no more bent poles or annoying noises from flapping tent fabrics.
As the name suggests, poly-cotton combines polyester and cotton. The Roben HydroTex Polycotton fabric is an example of this, with 65% polyester and 35% cotton. It’s marketed as something that has the best of both worlds, but I think it’s more of a compromise in the “middle”. It’s more insulated and breathable than a regular polyester tent, but it would also be bulkier.
Cuben Fiber (DCF) Tents
This is the most advanced of all tent fabrics and pretty much only used for ultra-light backpacking tents. It combines extreme lightweight with high tensile strength. Some say it’s stronger than steel, but I’m a little skeptical of that. It’s also very water-resistant and can be used in a variety of weather conditions. For all these advantages, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for a tent made from Cuben fiber.
Which Tent Fabric is the Most Waterproof?
This was the first question that came to my mind when I started looking into what tents are made of. After all, being soaked during my sleep doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience.
The answer is that the fabric itself doesn’t determine how waterproof it is — the coating and seams do. Let me explain.
There’s a waterproof rating measured in millimeters universal across all tents. Here’s an idea of what you can expect at each rating:
- 1000mm, lowest level to be considered waterproof, best used only in rain showers
- 1500mm – 3000mm, most appropriate for summer camping, can handle most wind and rain
- 3000mm+, usually on 3- or 4-season tents that can withstand substantial snow and heavy rain. This Coleman tent is right at 6000 mm.
While one layer of PU coating is 100% waterproof, tents with higher waterproof ratings have at least 2 – 3 layers to account for potential wear and tear. They are also more reinforced at the seams so that there’ll be fewer leaks.
What Are Tent Poles Made of?
Ok, now we get to talk about tent poles. It’s interesting that when I first started researching what tents are made out of, no one mentioned tent poles — every page was talking about tent fabrics. But poles are very important because they hold everything together. So I want to quickly fill in that gap in this article.
Tent poles are most commonly made out of aluminum and fiberglass, although carbon fiber, steel, and composite materials are also used. And you have something called “air beams” for inflatable tents. There are pros and cons of each when it comes to strength, durability, flexibility, weight, and price.
Fiberglass Tent Poles
This is currently the cheapest material for tent poles, and it’s used mostly in affordable car camping tents for mild weather. Fiberglass tent poles can be quite long-lasting with the proper handling given that they don’t corrode. They are also safe in a thunderstorm as they don’t conduct electricity.
But a key downside of fiberglass tent poles is that they can be heavy and bulky. Due to its low strength to weight ratio, it takes more material to provide the necessary strength for a tent to withstand the winds.
Fiberglass is also less flexible than aluminum, so it’ll snap more easily in strong winds or under pressure. Make sure you handle fiberglass poles properly so that you’re not putting unnecessary strain on them. They may also splinter in colder weather, so think twice about winter camping in a tent with fiberglass poles.
Aluminum Tent Poles
Aluminum tent poles are commonly used light-weight backpacking tents, though they are also available in some more expensive car camping tents. They are stronger than fiberglass at the same weight, so less material is needed for the same strength.
Aluminum poles are also more durable and stronger than fiberglass ones in windy conditions. They are more flexible, so they will bend instead of breaking or snapping even in cold weather. You can repair your tent poles if they get bent by strong winds, and manufacturers will likely send you replacement poles.
Due to the lightness and strength, expect to pay more for tents with aluminum poles than those with fiberglass poles. But keep in mind that there are always exceptions.
Aluminum tent poles do have some minor downsides. It corrodes. Manufacturers try to slow the corrosion by anodizing, but it’s still recommended that you dry the poles when you store them. In addition, aluminum poles are more dangerous during a thunderstorm since they conduct electricity. To be completely honest though, I’ve never had these issues myself. Corrosion generally takes a long time to be noticeable, and thunderstorms are rare given I check the weather forecast.
Other Materials for Tent Poles
You are unlikely to get tents with these pole materials if you’re just a casual camper like me. So I’ve only included a brief description for each.
Composite materials are equally lightweight as aluminum poles but are more flexible. They will bend but get back in shape without repair.
Steel poles are quite heavy and are commonly used in large car-camping tents. They can be used to support the canvas or the roof. Canvas tents usually have steel poles due to their heavyweight.
Carbon fiber tent poles are known to be extremely lightweight and strong. They are typically used on long backpacking expeditions by experts and are generally quite expensive.
Which Material Is Right for Me?
That was a lot of information to take in. You might have come for a simple answer but now feel you’ve got some decisions to make. Don’t worry, I’ve summarized the best tent material for each situation below. After all, no material will be perfect for all types of camping.
Car Camping on Warm and Sunny Days
Any affordable polyester tents with fiberglass poles will do just fine here. They are by no means the strongest or the lightest, but you won’t be pushing the limit of these materials. Of course, you can still purchase aluminum or nylon tents if you have the budget.
Car Camping in Unpredictable Weather
It’s better to upgrade to aluminum poles for more protection against strong winds. Also, make sure the waterproof rating is high so that you’re prepared for a sudden downpour. Both nylon and polyester will be fine here.
Car Camping in Cold Weather
I rented large canvas tents with steel poles for the few times I went winter camping. It’s worth it for the additional insulation. That being said, you can do just fine with nylon or polyester tents with a heater. Aluminum poles are also suitable since they remain strong in low temperatures, but I won’t risk it with fiberglass poles.
Backpacking, All Weather
Weight is the most important factor here given you’ll be hiking miles to your campsite. I’ve always used my Naturehike tent with nylon fabrics and aluminum poles for the most lightweight combination. Aluminum poles are also weather-resistant.
There you have it. You now know what tents are made out of, as well as how to pick the right materials for your next adventure. If you want more information on how to choose a tent, here are some more guides.