Between the fabric, stakes, poles, and guy lines, there are so many options and features when choosing your tent material.
What will be the most durable and helpful for your camping style? Well, only tent research and testing will truly answer that for you. There are plenty of advanced fabric technologies these days, but they can get fairly expensive. How do you choose your tent material without breaking the bank, but not compromising on durability and weight? Well, we’ll walk through all the different options for you today. Whether you are going backpacking and need everything as lightweight as possible or want the longest lasting family tent there is, we will find the perfect tent material for you. And after that, all you will need to do is set up your new purchase and one of these best places to camp! So, get that notepad ready because we’re about to get educated on fabrics, poles, stakes, and stitching.
The most common tent material for the poles is aluminum. Being relatively lightweight and still strong, it is an excellent choice that isn’t too expensive either. Aluminum is quite flexible, even in cold weather. This allows for a high tensile strength, or a great ability to withstand stress before breaking. This is something you will want in a tent that is going to be in the harsh elements such as rain, snow, and wind. The downside to aluminum is that it corrodes. Most will have an anodized surface to protect it from corroding, but make sure to store them dry when you’re all done galavanting in the woods. Overall, aluminum alloys are a strong, cheap, and flexible tent material when it comes to poles.
Carbon Fiber & Fiberglass
While made slightly differently, carbon fiber and fiberglass are another alternative tent material for poles. Carbon fiber is incredibly lightweight but will cost a little more and have a few downsides. But, if you count every ounce when out on the trail, keep this in mind if you are looking for a pole tent. In cold weather, the carbon fiber and fiberglass can shatter easily, being close to irreparable. Aluminum may tent or bend over time, but usually doesn’t just break in half if dropped hard on a rock or hit with a mallet. Fiberglass will be a little bit bulkier to have the same amount of strength as aluminum but is also cheaper. It is common for large family tent styles, as usually, you aren’t out in winter or harsh conditions.
Man-made tent material is often cheaper and has some quality technology in it. Nylon is just that: an excellent tent material that is lightweight and water-resistant. Uncoated nylon itself is water resistant, but not waterproof. So, it will usually be coated in one of three things: acrylic, polyurethane, or silicone. While they all will make your tent waterproof, an acrylic coating will be the cheapest but least durable. Silicone being quite expensive but lasting practically a lifetime. Most lightweight tents are made with nylon, but the price difference of an entry-level tent to a top of the line tent is in the coating.
Nylon does become slack when it gets wet, so you will need to tie out quality guy lines if rain is in the forecast. If the tent does become slack and droop in, you might be in for a damp night. On this subject, many people think their tent leaks when in fact it is simply condensation. Because nylon is coated with a waterproof layer, it does not breathe well. So, if you go with a nylon tent material, make sure there are vents to help the moisture you breathe out during the night escape. Lastly, this means this lack of breathability will make hot days hotter and cold days colder.
When you hear the word nylon, do you think of pantyhose? Maybe, maybe not. But, either way, you’ve probably seen someone with a run in their stockings. This is a common occurrence in nylon. In order to prevent small holes from becoming gaping ones, companies have developed ripstop nylon. This introduces a larger thread every inch or so, effectively creating a stronger barrier to stop a rip. By only having the thick thread every few inches, the fabric stays lightweight but is now more durable. Be sure to invest in true rip-stop nylon tent material if you want your tent to last.
Lastly, all nylon is susceptible to the sun’s UV rays. Over time, it will break down if not treated well. There are coatings to protect it from the sun, but if you plan on camping in the desert day after day, think twice before getting an expensive nylon tent.
Polyester has many of the same attributes as nylon with a few differences. It will be coated with something, just like nylon, in order to make it waterproof. However, polyester is a heavier tent material, so this is much better for car camping and long campground stays. In addition, it tends to resist the harmful UV rays better than nylon, giving it more durability. Lastly, polyester doesn’t sag when wet, so you won’t have to double and triple check your guy lines in the rain. So, polyester is probably the most popular tent material for its durability and attributes as long as you’re not trying to shed weight.
If weight is not a factor, then good old cotton, also known as canvas, is an absolutely spectacular tent material. Cotton naturally breathes, which keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter without getting stuffy. Beginners are aware, though, that you have to put a new cotton tent through the process of weathering to make it waterproof. When the cotton tent gets wet for the first time, the fibers with swell and nestle in next to each other. When this happens, it may initially let some water through. But, after drying, the fibers will be perfectly tight next to each other, naturally being waterproof. This process and tent material also avoids any unnecessary chemicals and plastics on your tent, which is pretty sweet.
Cotton is quite a bit heavier than its man-made tent material counterparts. But, if you’re going to be setting up camp for a while, it is a fantastic option. It also insulates sound much better, giving a little more privacy to you and your family. Lastly, if you have a good cotton tent, you will not need a second layer. Most tents have a thin, mesh first layer with the outer layer being the fabrics we have been talking through. With cotton, it is breathable and waterproof, so you don’t need the extra layer.
Poly-cotton is what it sounds like: a tent material blended from natural cotton and man-made polyester. This combination provides a much lighter alternative to one hundred percent cotton while still maintaining some breathability and waterproof attributes. That being said, it is not as airy, and often needs a coating if you plan on camping for long periods in ill weather. As far as cotton and poly-cotton tents go, you will need to dry them out thoroughly before storage. This will take longer than a thing material like nylon. Without doing this, you will end up with a mildewed tent which is much more susceptible to tears.
Tent Accessories & Features
So you think you’ve picked a great tent to protect you from the elements in every direction, but have you thought about underneath? A ground tarp or footprint is incredibly important as the bottom of your tent can often have water flowing under it in wet conditions. In addition, the ground can quickly steal much of your body temperature. Many tents come with a bathtub floor, essentially advertising that they are waterproof and durable. However, it is important to protect your investment. They can only withstand so much of a person walking and rolling over sharp rocks and roots before tearing, which will ruin your tent quickly. So, get a ground tarp.
Usually made of vinyl, you can grab an old tarp from the shed or invest in a footprint specific to your tent. Either way, these will be thick plastic tarps which will keep you dry. If you end up using a random tarp, make sure to fold it carefully to not collect water under where you sleep. Or, if you’re still learning, we promise you’ll only do it wrong once. But, on the whole, thick vinyl ground tarps will extend your tent’s life, as well as provide you with a more protected nights’ sleep.
All tents will have to be sewn together in some way. It’s simply how things are made with fabric. When purchasing a tent, it is important to look at it and feel it in person. This way, you can get a feeling for the quality of the tent material. Make sure to look at the seems as well. The stitching should hold up well when stretched. It is also the spot on the tent that will most easily leak. So, see what the tent manufacturer has done to alleviate this. Is there an extra coating on the seams, or does the tent come with extra sealant for you to apply? Are the seams in places that it would not matter as much if moisture came in, or will you get dripped on? Keep these in mind when looking at your tents. The stitching is often the weakest link when it comes to the different tent material.
Zippers may be one of the most frustrating but marvelous inventions to date. Being able to open up a tent with one hand and seal out bugs with the same hand is brilliant. But, with such fragile parts, zippers can get quite finicky. So, when looking at tent zippers, there are a few things to consider. First, look a the zipper teeth. Are they durable and thick, with a larger zipper? Hopefully. A few companies make their own zippers, but YKK has been a long-time winner in the zipper department. So, before fully jumping into your next tent purchase, make sure the zipper is quality, or else your whole investment will be close to worthless.
Tent material can make or break a camping, hiking, or backpacking trip, so choose your fabrics, poles, and coatings with care.
If you’re looking for the best car camping tent or a brand new pop-up tent, there are so many different options to choose from. By understanding exactly what makes up a tent, you will be able to decipher exactly what you are purchasing. Some tents will appear more expensive, but not have the best features when it comes down to it. More money does not always mean a better tent. So, get to know the different options for tent material so that you can make an informed decision. Finally, we wish you happy camping and a great shopping trip when picking out your new tent!
Related Article: The Best Pop Up Camping Tent: 5 Top Options
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