What are the Best Camping Tents Made Of? And How To Compare
Tents are arguably the most important piece of camping gear you can buy. If this is your first time shopping for a tent, you’ve likely scoured the internet in search of valuable info so you can pick the perfect tent for your camping excursion. This starts with knowing what tents are made of.
The best camping tents are typically made from polyester, as it's lightweight, durable, can be treated for waterproofing, and is affordable. Nylon and cotton tents are also great options for tents, each with unique benefits and drawbacks compared to nylon tents.
Beyond those three standard tent materials, there are several blends and less-common materials to consider as well. Each type of tent fabric material has its pros and cons, and which one will work best for you will depend entirely on what kind of camping you will be doing. Let’s break down each type of material in detail so you can make the most informed decision possible!
Polyester Tents 101
Polyester, a tent material that is essentially just thin plastic, currently occupies the “industry standard” for tent construction. Polyester tents are the most common tents on the market. They have quickly taken over the camping industry and for good reason.
Pros of Polyester Tents:
- Lightweight: Polyester tents are popular for their lightweight construction and reliable mobility. They can be easily pitched by yourself, and are equally as simple to deconstruct and pack up.
- Durability: Polyester tents are tear-resistant, and easily handle abuse from rocks, sticks, and hard ground. And, if for some reason they do rip, they are easily and cheaply repaired. Polyester also resists stretching, allowing the tent to hold its shape throughout many camping trips.
- Affordability: Polyester tents are cheap to produce and therefore can offer a much more competitive price than the more expensive cotton canvas tents. Even the highest-end polyester tent with the most accessories and add-ons will still run cheaper than a similarly-sized cotton canvas tent.
- Waterproof?: Polyester on its own does not absorb water, which will keep your tent from getting heavy or saggy in the rain. However, the polyester weave on its own is not necessarily waterproof, so most polyester tents are treated with a polyurethane (PU) coating. This water-resistance coating is cheap, making it the coating of choice for most tent manufacturers. The coating itself can deteriorate over time, however, as it is exposed to the sun. To prolong the lifespan of the coating, we recommend tearing your tent down every morning and setting it back up at night before bed. This might seem like a lot of extra work, but it’s worth it to stay dry!
- UV Light Resistance: Polyester is more resistant to UV rays than its cousin, Nylon. This resistance means that they won’t degrade under the beating sun over time, prolonging their lifespan.
Cons of Polyester Tents:
- Smell: One of the most common complaints about polyester tents is that the material has a strong smell at first, and may take multiple uses to air it out enough for that smell to go away.
- Minimal Insulation: Don’t expect a polyester tent to keep you cool when it’s hot or warm when it’s cold outside. The material is not breathable like a cotton canvas, which can cause it to get quite stuffy on hot days. And, when it’s cold, the thin plastic does little to prevent the transfer of heat from inside to outside your tent.
- Waterproof?: As we mentioned above, while polyester itself is water resistant, it does require an extra coating of PU to be fully waterproof, and this coating can degrade over time.
Nylon Tents 101
Like polyester, Nylon is another synthetic compound. These tents are quite popular in specific situations. They are the often overlooked champion amongst backpackers due to their lightweight construction and various benefits. It has a lot of similarities to polyester but is even more lightweight and easy to transport.
Pros of Nylon Tents:
- Lightest-weight: Nylon tents are the most lightweight tent you can buy, making them the most popular choice for backpackers and hard-core campers.
- Even More Durable: Even though they are lighter than polyester tents and use less material in their construction, Nylon is significantly stronger and more resistant to wear and tear.
- Waterproof Treatment: While Nylon on its own is not waterproof, it can be treated with silicone to waterproof and even further strengthen the nylon fibers.
- Price: Nylon tents are much cheaper than cotton, making them a relatively affordable option for those who want to try backpacking.
Cons of Nylon Tents:
- Waterlogged: Left untreated, nylon tents act like a sponge, absorbing water when it comes in contact with the fibers. This leaves nylon tents appearing heavy and saggy, which can pull down on your tent walls and cause some discomfort on the interior of your tent.
- UV Damage: Nylon is much more susceptible to UV rays and will degrade over time if left out in the sun or camping at high altitudes. We recommend utilizing a UV protection spray for your tent to minimize this damage over time.
- Price: While not extremely expensive, Nylon tents are typically pricier than polyester tents, with an average difference of around $50.
- Insulation: Like polyester, nylon has the same issues with interior climate control. On hot days, the lack of breathability makes for a stuffy inner cavity, especially if the exterior of your tent has been treated for water resistance. On the other hand, on cold days the thin material and heat-transmissibility of the nylon itself do almost nothing to keep the heat in.
Cotton Canvas Tents 101
Cotton canvas is what all tents used to be made from. It was, and still is, the original tent fabric. And cotton is still used today, though it has fallen out of popularity. Nowadays, cotton is mainly used for “glamping,” or luxury camping, as cotton tents are quite comfortable, but hard to move around.
Pros of Cotton Canvas Tents:
- Weather Friendly: Cotton tents work well in a wide variety of weather scenarios. On hot days, cotton tents retain less heat and are breathable, leaving the inside cool and comfortable. In the cold, cotton tents shine because of their excellent insulation. The heavy weave stops the wind from breaking through to the inside, and the fabric slows much of the heat transfer that would normally happen with other types of tents.
- Waterproof: Of course, weather-friendly also includes protection from inclement weather, namely rain. Their water resistance is one of the main selling points of cotton canvas tents. However, it is important to note that brand-new cotton tents will almost always leak the first time they are rained on. This is because cotton tents need to go through a weathering process, where the new fibers get wet and swell, naturally sealing small gaps in the weave.
- Strong and Resistant: Cotton canvas material is incredibly durable and resistant to all kinds of wear and tear. Cotton fibers are more resistant to the effects of weathering, remaining sturdy and functional in most environments. Their woven construction means they’ll last a long time, upwards of 10-15 years, before needing to be replaced. They are also less likely to rip or tear than polyester or nylon tents.
Cons of Cotton Canvas Tents:
- Weight: Cotton canvas tents are notoriously heavy. They are not suitable for backpacking and require at minimum 2-3 people to pitch.
- Upkeep: Because of the natural fibers, cotton tents are much more prone to mold and mildew. They are also likely to fade and yellow over time as they tend to damage in the sun. These tents require the most care and attention compared to synthetic tents.
- Price: Their reliable construction and comfort don’t come without a cost. Cotton tents are the most expensive kind of tent you can buy. If you are an infrequent camper, a cotton tent may not be worth the price.
Which Tent is Right for You?
Ultimately, the type of tent that will work best for you is entirely dependent on your camping situation and your desired usage. Each type of tent is perfectly viable in its own way, and their respective “cons” often have simple workarounds to make them less deal-breaking.
That being said, polyester has taken over the camping market for good reason and would be our suggestion to those looking to break into camping as a hobby.