Nylon, Polyester, Cotton…These are just some of the tent fabric options you can go for when buying a new tent. But what are their differences and most importantly – ability to withstand a variety of weather conditions?

At AimToDiscover, we’re striving to enable adventurers for an educated choice, so in this article, you’ll learn about:

  • Most common tent fabrics and their differences
  • Water resistance of tent fabrics
  • Tips and tricks to make the best choice

But first, get ready to hear some hard truth.

Chances are you’re looking for an affordable, highly water-resistant, durable, and lightweight tent. Unfortunately, that combination is very unlikely due to the characteristics of tent fabric.

Just imagine the cost of a high-quality jacket that provides the same qualities. The amount of fabric used on the jacket is nothing when compared to a tent. So unless you’re willing to spend a fortune for a mountaineering type tent, be ready to compromise.

What are tents made of?

Most tents are made from Nylon, Polyester, or Canvas materials. As the tent consists of various parts such as rainfly and floor coverage, expect to find a variety of materials used to ensure durability.

The most common tent fabrics are:

  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Cotton canvas
  • Polycotton tents
  • Dyneema (Cuben fiber)
  • Gore-Tex
  • Vapex

The three latter tent fabrics are usually used in higher-grade tents for mountaineering or extreme weather adventures. They are durable and more reliable – at the cost of a mind-bending price, of course.

The strongest tent material you’ll find is Dyneema. Due to a special Dyneema fiber weave, it is a ripstop fabric suitable for extreme weather conditions and heavy use. It’s incredibly strong and light considering its durability. However, it is also very pricey.

Tent material types and their properties

Infographic – nylon vs. polyester vs. canvas tent properties

The most common tent materials used are nylon, polyester, and cotton canvas. Nylon and polyester fabrics are synthetic while cotton canvas is natural. Polycotton tents are a combination of synthetic and organic material combining the best characteristics of both options.

Let’s see some of the most apparent characteristics of these materials.


Nylon tents are considered stronger than polyester ones. It’s commonly used due to an optimal strength-to-weight ratio at an affordable tent price. Nylon is light, compact, and stretchy.

These are the most distinctive properties of nylon.

Resistance to abrasion

Compared to polyester, nylon has higher abrasion resistance. Therefore, tent floor, tent pole ends, and clips made from nylon will last longer. It’s worth mentioning that these are the most common tent failure areas. So pay attention to their durability when choosing a tent.

Strength due to stretchiness

Nylon fabric is stretchy. This means that any applied pressure gets distributed over a larger area due to stretchiness. So the fabric is less likely to tear. However, this also means more wrinkles that aren’t visually appealing.

High water absorption

Nylon has a higher water absorption rate, which presents several issues. First, a nylon fly will get heavy and sog after rain. In this condition, it might touch the inner part of the tent, causing a new set of problems. Waterproof coatings can help to mitigate this issue.

Take a look at how a nylon tent stretches under heavy rain. You’ll immediately see that the fly has severely sogged.

Take a look at how a nylon tent stretches under heavy rain. You’ll immediately see that the fly has severely sogged.

Susceptible to UV damage

Nylon degrades from UV exposure. If you’re planning to use a nylon tent at higher elevations, then consider that it degrades faster than polyester. This will make the fabric weaker and reduce its lifetime and reliability. So it won’t be a good fit for those who use the tent in a high UV index environment.

Keep in mind that most tents don’t have any added UV protection.

Key Takeaway. Nylon tent is sturdier and more lightweight than a polyester tent. It’s not suitable for prolonged high UV exposures.


Polyester tents are not as common as nylon tents due to several reasons such as reduced tear strength. However, this might change soon as the technologies advance providing higher quality formulations for high-end lightweight polyesters.

These are the distinctive qualities of polyester:

Higher fabric tension

Polyester fabrics have a lower tear strength than nylon due to higher fabric tension. To increase tear strength, manufacturers often choose thicker polyester. That’s the most common reason why polyester tents are usually heavier than nylon tents.

It’s worth mentioning that decreased stretchiness brings more stability to the tent. For example, a polyester tent won’t sog as fast in heavy rain. It’ll also hold better in windy conditions if the tent pole construction is right.

UV resistance

Polyester of the same thickness and color has a higher UV resistance than nylon. Keep in mind that fabric color and thickness play a significant role in long term UV-resistance.

Low water absorption

Polyester is hydrophobic. Therefore, it doesn’t absorb as much water as other alternatives. Regardless, if there are water piles on your tent after heavy rain, water will eventually soak through.

Remember that image of a nylon tent after heavy rain? (Scroll up if you don’t.) Here is how a polyester tent looks like after heavy rain. Compared to a nylon tent, a polyester tent is holding up much better.

Key Takeaway. Polyester is a cheaper alternative commonly used in lower-quality tents. While recent technologies have improved the strength of polyester, nylon is still superior in terms of durability. Polyester is usually heavier, more prone to tears, and provides more stability.

Canvas tents

cotton canvas tent

Cotton is an organic material that has some distinct advantages as well as disadvantages when compared to synthetic alternatives.

These are the main characteristics of canvas tents.

High durability

Cotton canvas tents are weaved with two-ply threads. This technique adds extra weight and durability to the fabric. The thickness and the special weave make it more tear and abrasion-resistant. Even if the fabric does tear, the weave pattern will stop further development of the tear.

Increased breathability and insulation

Canvas tents are also very breathable and can absorb water. So you can forget any issues with condensation. Moreover, tent canvas fabric is highly insulating – it can keep the temperature down while summer camping and retain warmth during cold weather.

Natural water resistance

While this might sound counterintuitive – cotton canvas is naturally water-resistant. Due to its weave pattern, it’s able to swell and retain water making it naturally water-resistant. With a good canvas tent, you shouldn’t even need an extra tarp for protection.

Heavy and slow drying

While all of the above sounds great, canvas tents do have some disadvantages. It’s heavy and very bulky. So it’s not suitable for overnight hiking trips. Moreover, they are usually less affordable and prone to mold and mildew if not dried correctly.

Compared to other tent materials, a canvas tent is a lot sturdier and more suitable for long-term camping. It requires more care as it dries longer and needs weathering.

Key takeaway

A cotton canvas tent is great if you’re not planning to carry it in your backpack. It can provide a reliable and comfortable shelter if you take care of it correctly. Cotton comes with the added benefit of being organic and highly breathable.

Polycotton tents

A poly-cotton tent combines some of the best canvas fabric properties with polyester properties:

  • Highly durable
  • Waterproof
  • Breathable
  • Good insulation properties

Polycotton tents are usually a combination of about 35% polyester and 65% cotton. The proportions might vary but the overall performance is usually similar. Keep in mind that while polycotton tents perform well, they are still quite heavy and bulky.

Key Takeaway. Polycotton tents are a good combination of natural and synthetic tent fabrics.

Are tents waterproof?

waterproof tent fabric

Yes – to some extent. The natural water resistance of different materials varies. To learn the waterproofness level of the tent you’re considering, check its HH rating (hydrostatic head rating). The higher the rating, the higher the water resistance.

None of the materials are truly waterproof without a special coating.

While waterproofing is very common, it comes with certain downsides. Any waterproof fabric coating will make the fabric heavier and weaker. Moreover, treated fabrics are more expensive due to waterproofing technologies.

Tent fabric waterproofing – HH rating and coatings

A material is generally considered waterproof with an HH (hydrostatic head) waterproof rating of 1’000mm or more. To achieve this and higher water resistance levels, fabrics are treated with several types of coatings.

You’ll notice that most tents have either PU or Silicone waterproof coating used on the outer layer of the tent – commonly referred to as fly or flysheet.

The water resistance of a fabric is commonly measured by a water pressure test. This process is called hydrostatic head (HH) testing. The results of this testing reveal the level of water pressure before the water begins passing through. So the higher the waterproof rating – the longer it will take for water to pass through the fabric.

PU coating (Polyurethane)

Polyurethane is a protective water repellent coating that is applied to tent fabric in a liquid form. To get the desired properties, it’s applied in a thin layer that ensures both – waterproofing and an acceptable weight of the material.

This type of coating can be applied once or multiple times – single-coated or multicoated respectively. PU coating increases:

  • Water-resistance;
  • Durability;
  • Flexibility;
  • Weight.

How about the downsides of PU coating?

Any tent fabric that is coated with PU is heavier.  Essentially it’s plastic attached to the fabric so the extra weight is to be expected. If you’re looking for an ultra-light tent, then PU coating might not be the best choice.

Silicone coating

Silicone coating is widely used in many industries – for cooking utensils, thermal and electrical insulation, lubrication, and much more including tent waterproofing.

To differentiate pure silicone coatings from mixes, the silicone-coated fabric is commonly referred to as sil/sil. This means that the fabric has two layers of silicone – one on each side. You might even find specific material names such as silnylon (silicone-coated nylon) and silpoly (silicone-coated polyester).

This type of coating increases fabrics:

  • Water-repelling properties;
  • Mold/mildew resistance;
  • Longevity (due to high chemical stability);
  • Tear strength;
  • Price.

Unlike PU coating, the application of silicone is limited to the thickness of the fabric. Therefore, a lightweight tent fabric treated with silicone might be less waterproof than the equivalent of PU coating. That being said, silicone is highly hydrophobic, meaning that it won’t allow the fabric to soak up the water. Therefore, it is very unlikely to have issues with mold.

Silicone / PU coating

You might come across a combined coating referred to as sil/PU. This usually means that the inside of the fabric is coated with PU while the outside was treated with silicone. This combination provides strengths of both treatment types. However, when done incorrectly, it can reduce the longevity of the fabric as the application is tricky.


Before choosing your tent, consider the setting in which you’ll use it.

Do you need a lightweight backpacking tent or a comfortable tent with lots of room? Will you camp on the top of the mountain where the durability of your tent is an absolute must or you’ll use the tent in your backyard? After deciding the intended camping gear usage, the right camping tent material choice is often clear.

If you’re looking for a comfortable quiet and reliable tent for comfort camping, go for cotton tents. But if you’re about to dive into some adventures with a tent attached to your backpack, explore nylon or polyester tent options.

Categories: Camping tents

Veronika Prilucka

Hi there, my name is Veronika and I am the creator and editor of this site. My hobbies include hiking, skiing, camping, backpacking, and challenging myself. With this blog, I'm sharing my knowledge to encourage other people to get outdoors more often.