Different Types of Tent Fabric: Pros and Cons

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Written By Jay Clatworthy

Off Grid Camping contributor.

Tent Fabric

Knowing what sort of tent fabric you want in a tent is one of the first questions you need to answer when looking to buy a new tent.

Tent fabrics, in particular, can impact your safety and comfort in the great outdoors. In most cases, you will need a good balance between cost, performance, and convenience. 

Some factors you will be looking at include ease of storage and setup, durability, strength against weather, and protection against internal condensation.

In this guide, we will explore the pros and cons of the most popular tent fabrics. 

Nylon

If you want a small tent that packs light, then nylon would probably be your top choice.

Nylon is usually best for times when you need a compact, lightweight tent for short-term use in an area with mild temperatures. It is the perfect tent fabric for backpacking.

Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros

  • Nylon is one of the least expensive tent materials. 
  • Lighter to pack and carry than most other fabrics. 
  • The material is very thin and compact, so it’s easy to store away or pack when moving. 
  • Stronger than polyester. 
  • It can be coated with Silicone to be waterproof. There’s a wide variety of other coatings suitable for use with nylon tents that enhance the fabric in different ways.
  • When threaded in a rip-stop pattern, it becomes difficult to rip and improves durability. 

Cons

  • Tears easily, so it’s unsuitable for large family-sized tents.
  • It is easily weakened by UV exposure, so not suitable for prolonged periods in sunlight. 
  • Changes shape and stretches when wet or exposed to hot weather and moisture in the air.
  • Not breathable, collects condensation. 
  • Nylon coatings can be very expensive. 

Polyester

Polyester is the most common and most popular tent fabric choice, and for a good reason.

Polyester is a synthetic fiber with qualities much like nylon but has better performance and longer durability. Polyester is a budget option that is low-maintenance, compact, and lightweight.

Pros

  • Inexpensive compared to cotton. 
  • Doesn’t change shape when wet. 
  • It’s waterproof. 
  • Doesn’t disintegrate when exposed to direct sunlight. 
  • It is not heavy. Doesn’t absorb moisture to become heavier.
  • It can be packed to a small size. 
  • Lasts longer than nylon since it’s far more difficult to tear and form runs. 
  • Comes in a wide range of quality standards to meet all budgets and needs. You will need to consider denier, thread counts, and waterproofing when comparing different polyester qualities. 

Cons

  • Low breathability, leading to condensation. 
  • Low heat resistance.
  • Low UV resistance. 
  • Limited lifespan compared to cotton. 

Cotton

Cotton was once the most common and popular tent fabric. It still remains a great choice for those looking for superior insulation and great breathability.

It is the perfect choice when you need a tent that will remain comfortable whether in hot, cold, or wet weather. Some of the pros and cons of cotton tents include:

Pros

  • Cotton is one of the most eco-friendly options, especially if made out of untreated cotton. It is an environmentally sustainable choice of tent fabric. 
  • Better breathability and air flow, especially if you intend to use the tent in hot, humid climates. 
  • Cotton provides excellent insulation, keeping the inside of the tent warm in cold climates and cool in hot climates. 
  • It prevents the formation of condensation. 
  • Most people enjoy the natural fiber’s scent and texture. 
  • Cotton is highly durable and doesn’t damage easily. 

Cons

  • Even though cotton is a naturally waterproof material, it needs to be weathered to make it watertight. Weathering a tent is basically just making it as wet as possible then allowing it to dry out. For materials like cotton, you might have to weather repeatedly before you achieve watertight conditions. 
  • Cotton can get very heavy, especially once it absorbs moisture. 
  • The material is thick, so transporting big tents might require extra consideration. 
  • Cotton is expensive

Polycotton

Polycotton is a blend of natural; fiber, cotton, and synthetic fiber polyester.

It is thus a mixture of the best of both worlds, as most people consider polyester to be the best synthetic fiber for tents while cotton is the best natural fiber for tents. Some of the most recognizable pros and cons of polycotton tent material include:

Pros

  • It is a much lighter material compared to cotton. 
  • Polycotton offers higher mildew resistance compared to cotton fabrics. 
  • Polycotton provides better UV protection than polyester. 
  • Polycotton provides better noise insulation against the wind compared to polyester. 
  • Polycotton has a much better and natural texture than polyester. It feels and smells much closer to cotton. 
  • Polycotton offers outstanding breathability and high resistance to condensation.
  • Polycotton provides superior insulation from heat and cold compared to many other tent materials, both natural and synthetic. 

Cons

  • Polycotton blends can get expensive. 
  • In most instances, you will need to weather polycotton before you can use it, especially when new or after long-term storage. 

Dyneema Composite Fiber (DCF)

DCF is the lightest of all tent materials. While it’s highly popular, there are also a few factors working against it. 

Pros

  • Extremely lightweight.
  • Super strong, with Dyneema fibers registering a strength factor 15 times more than steel of the same weight. 
  • Highly durable.
  • It is completely waterproof and doesn’t absorb water. 
  • Has superb chemical resistance. 
  • Doesn’t tear easily. 

Cons

  • Very expensive, costs much more than most of the other tent fabrics. 
  • Has low heat resistance. You shouldn’t cook under a DCF tent. 
  • Doesn’t stretch, which makes it difficult to pitch. 
  • May puncture when pitching, which can lead to small leakages. 
  • Doesn’t stuff, so it’s tedious to store away. You have to carefully fold it. 

Vinyl

Vinyl, or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), fabrics are some of the most common and popular today, especially for large outdoor events. Vinyl is a synthetic fiber composed of two building blocks, chlorine, and ethylene. 

Vinyl is the world’s most versatile plastic and is used in a multitude of other different applications, not just tent making. Some of the pros and cons of this popular tent material include:

Pros

  • Vinyl is exceptionally watertight compared to cotton. It doesn’t need weathering. 
  • Vinyl is much lighter than cotton and doesn’t absorb moisture to become heavier. 
  • Vinyl is highly durable and easy to maintain. 
  • Vinyl tents are easy to custom make for special effects, parties, awnings, and different tent structures. 
  • High UV protection.
  • Cost-effective material.
  • Better noise insulation from wind and raindrops compared to most other materials. 
  • The inside of the tent will still look clean even when the outside looks dirty. 

Cons

  • Though durable, vinyl can be costly to repair when damaged. 
  • Can build up condensation inside the tent. 

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)-Coated Cotton

When your highest priority is waterproofing, then a PVC-coated cotton tent could be your best solution. This is a cotton variant with PVC applied to the roof and outer wall sections of the tent. 

Pros

  • PVC provides unparalleled waterproofing capabilities. 
  • The PVC coating enhances the overall durability of the cotton tent. 

Cons

  • The PVC coating reduces breathability and collects condensation. 
  • PVC-coated cotton tents are even heavier than regular cotton tents. 

Polyethylene (PE)

Polyethylene tents are as popular as PVC tents. They are tough and popular for heavyweight use.

It’s difficult to damage and can be used repeatedly for many years. Many militaries and humanitarian organizations tend to prefer PE tents for their durability and UV resistance. 

Pros

  • Last long and do not damage easily. 
  • Very affordable and is one of the cheaper tent material options in the market. 
  • Most PE tents are coated with plastic on both sides. So they are easy to clean and are water-tight. 

Cons

  • Form condensation inside the tent.
  • Not as breathable as cotton. 

Polycarbonate 

Are you thinking of installing clear tents for an event or permanent enclosures for a restaurant? 

Polycarbonate tents are gaining lots of popularity, especially with people being extra cautious about self-isolation. The tents allow you to enjoy social gatherings without feeling exposed. 

Polycarbonate tents are also popular for military applications, agricultural sheltering, indoor exhibitions, and aircraft hangars. 

Some of the pros and cons of polycarbonate as a tenting material include:

Pros

  • It is a self-supporting structure. Unlike the other tent materials we have discussed, with polycarbonates, you don’t need support beams and posts in the middle of the tent. 
  • The tent can be clear so you can view through the walls. 
  • Cost-effective alternative to a permanent building, especially for event venues for weddings and corporate events. 
  • They can be very secure. The polycarbonate is difficult to break even when using tools. 
  • Polycarbonate tents offer wide flexibility in use. You can add windows, secure doors, use as a canopy, add air conditioning and lighting, or install heavy-duty flooring. You can also make it in different shapes and sizes. 
  • They are weatherproof and can withstand strong winds, heavy rains, and other unpredictable weather conditions. 
  • They are usually prefabricated for easy setup and fast removal. The planks are made in a way that’s easy to transport using minimal space.

Cons

  • It can be expensive to make, especially with heavy customization. 
  • It may not be easy to transfer from one application to another. You can’t easily change a wedding polycarbonate structure into an exhibition tent.
  • It can be difficult to clean, as dirt and debris that collects on the outside are easily seen from the inside. 
  • Needs heavy anchorage to keep the tent in place. 

Conclusion

There’s a lot to consider when choosing your tent material. You have to think about weather conditions, how long you will need the tent up, budget constraints, and transport options among other considerations.

With this guide, the pros and cons can help you find the right tent material for your needs.