Tent fabrics- which is best?

So, you decided to go camping? First things first – shelter! The wide array of sleeping options and solutions on the market, ranging from trailer tents to ground tents to sleeping on the roof of your car, will make your head spin. But it doesn’t stop there. What about the most suitable fabric for your tent? How do you choose between nylon or canvas? As usual, we turned to the experts in all things tents related, Tentco, for some advice.

Outdoor activity enthusiasts often need to buy lots of gear to enjoy their hobby safely. Regardless of whether your passion is camping, hiking, backpacking, or hunting, your tent is one of the most important pieces of gear you will buy. It is also a piece of equipment that requires a large outlay compared to many other pieces of kit and as such it is essential that you make the right choice.

Tents have been with us for an unfathomably long time, as people throughout history have sought shelter in all sorts of situations, from the permanent and semi-permanent dwellings of various cultures to the nomadic shelters of explorers and hunters around the world. An impressive variety of materials have been used to make these tents over the ages, but for the modern explorer, it pretty much comes down to canvas and nylon.

Canvas tents have been around longer than nylon – just think of the classic triangle canvas tents depicted in old movies and cartoons over the decades! These are tough, thick, and durable – as its use to this day attests. Nylon tents are, of course, slightly newer to the market. They are a lightweight and cost-effective alternative to canvas tents, making them ideal for hikers in particular.

For the modern camper the differences between nylon and canvas are important to consider. “And,” says Tentco’s Theuns van der Kolf, “the type of camping will very much determine what would work or not. Both options have pros and cons, so you need to make sure you understand the features of each and check that it suits your needs.”

What is nylon? Nylon is a synthetic fibre, which means it is manmade. The term nylon is used to describe a family of synthetic polymers that can be melted into many shapes, including that of fibres. As this is a cheap and versatile material, it is used to manufacture many things.

What is canvas? Canvas is a fabric made from natural materials, such as flax, hemp, cotton, or other similar yarns. This strong and unbleached fabric is very durable, so it is used not only for tents, but also for boat sails and to create surfaces for oil painting.

Size and weight

One major difference between nylon and canvas is the weight. Nylon packs nice and small once rolled up and weighs a fraction of a canvas tent of the same size. Canvas also doesn’t pack as tightly as nylon and so will take up more space in transit.

This is something to consider when your space is limited, when travelling with a small car, for example. Also, if you’re hiking to your campsite, nylon tents are almost always the better option, since they are small and light. The advantages of canvas might make it the only option if you’re camping somewhere with inclement weather but know that you will have to accommodate for this when packing.

Insulation and comfort

Canvas provides better insulation than nylon and so retains more heat in cold environments while providing more effective shade on warmer days. The effect varies between specific material properties like thickness and treatments, but in general, canvas controls temperature more effectively. “Be warned, though – regardless of the fabric, tents get warm. Very warm. Especially if you’re in the middle of nowhere on a pan in Botswana! So, make sure you set up with ample shade,” says Theuns.

Weather resistance

Canvas tents shine when it comes to resisting wind and rain – and even hail. While nylon is capable of withstanding storms, especially at the higher end of the price range, canvas is simply more durable in the face of nature’s forces. With waterproofing treatments and ripstop stitching, canvas is the way to go for stormy weather. Remember, the tent frame is as important as the material it supports when it comes to windy conditions. Steel and aluminium frames do a much better job against the wind than fibre nylon bow-style frames – keep this in mind if you’re expecting strong winds.

Ease of use

Any tent – whether its nylon or canvas – is going to take a bit of getting use to in terms of setting it up. “As I always say, practice makes perfect,” chuckles Theuns.

For weekend trips or an overnight trip, nylon tents are very popular because they typically take up less room in your vehicle and they are much easier to set up than their canvas counterparts. Canvas tents tend to take longer to erect, and one person will struggle to set up a 3m x 3m alone (at the very least you’ll need help erecting the frame).

When it comes to portability, nylon definitely has the upper hand. Nylon tents are lightweight, making them an excellent choice for backpackers and anybody looking to keep their load light.

Maintenance

The different tent materials all require some kind of weatherproofing, which can be achieved by applying a waterproofing spray. With canvas tents, however, it can also be done by just drenching the tent completely, and letting it dry out. This can be done once, or may need to be repeated several times, depending on the particular tent.

You’ll need to clean a canvas tent more often than you would a nylon tent, to make sure you don’t end up with a mouldy tent. When you’re cleaning a canvas tent, make sure to do so carefully. While it may sound like an easy solution, it is not advisable to use a pressure cleaner or hose, and you shouldn’t scrub the canvas tent fabric.

Nylon tents aren’t as sensitive, and you don’t have to take as many precautions when cleaning them. All tents need some care taken to make them last, but canvas tents are traditionally longer lasting. Nylon deteriorates faster due to sunlight.

Nylon tents are more prone to tears and damage and their rather flimsy groundsheets will more easily pick up punctures, while rip-stop canvas is strong and more resistant to tears and puncturing (ground sheets). While both tents can be patched or sewn up, your canvas tent will undoubtedly outlast its nylon sibling, but it does come with a higher price tag.

In closing

There is no right or wrong decision here. What to choose very much depends on your needs and way of camping. If you’re looking for a backpacking tent the choice is clear: a good-quality nylon tent that won’t weigh you down on your travels is the way to go. If you’re a car camper and don’t mind the extra weight, invest in a good canvas tent. As long as you take proper care of it, it’ll last you for many years to come.

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