If you are looking at buying a family tent you will have come across a confusing mix of different tent fabrics, from polyester to poly-cotton, and a whole collection of different brand names. It’s hard to know which is best. We try to clear things up…

Which tent fabric is best

There are lots if different tent fabrics, with some being a lot more expensive than others. But are they worth it?

Each tent fabric has its good and bad points.

Which tent material is the best will depend on your needs. For example, do you need a tent that’s easy to transport, or are you looking for a tent to be your holiday home for a week or more?

Man Made Nylon and Polyester

The vast majority of tents are made out of man-made fabrics, either polyester or nylon based.

For family tents, you will typically find Polyester. Nylon is used for lightweight backpacking tents.

Why is Nylon or Polyester the best material for tents

  • Cheaper – you can get a lot more affordable tents with man-made fabrics (the exception is, of course, some of the tents for extreme expeditions, such as those used when trekking the South Pole).
  • Lighter – from smaller backpacking tents to even larger family tents, these man-made fabrics are a lot lighter and less bulky than natural based fabrics, making tents made from this material a lot easier to get to the campsite.
  • Quick to dry out.
  • Less maintenance. Can be more resistant to mildew and rips.

Why is Nylon or Polyester not so good for tents

  • Compared to cotton, they are not good insulators. This means that tents can get very hot when it is warm, and chilly when it gets cold.
  • The material is not naturally breathable. Condensation can build up on the inside of the tent – sometimes enough to cause puddles.
  • They can deteriorate and lose colour over time through exposure to the sun’s rays.
  • The lightweight material means they flap around a bit more in the breeze…which can be a bit noisy if you are trying to sleep.

Man Made Fabric Coatings and Water Resistance

The man made fabrics will be made or covered with coatings to increase water and UV resistance.

The quality of these coatings can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and tent to tent.

Man-made fabrics are graded by how water resistant they are, known as the Hydrostatic Head. Some tents will have more water resistant fabrics than others.

You can read here to understand more about Hydrostatic Head and what makes a good leak-proof tent.

Cotton and Canvas Tent Fabrics

Canvas is the traditional tent fabric, and it has lots of great properties for a tent.

In days gone by, Canvas was made from Hemp, but these days canvas for tents is made from cotton. So, tents advertised as ‘canvas’ or ‘cotton’ are actually made from the same thing.

Why Canvas or Cotton is the best material for tents

  • Compared to man-made tent fabrics, cotton insulates extremely well. You won’t get as hot on a warm day, nor as cold when it is chilly.
  • Cotton is a breathable fabric and can absorb water. This means that you are unlikely to have an issue with condensation.
  • Due to its weight and insulation properties, canvas/cotton tents can be quieter, and not so noisy if there’s a breeze.
  • The fabric can last a long time and is more resistant to harmful UV rays.
  • (Personally, a new canvas tent can smell a lot nicer than the chemical smell you sometimes get with man-made tents).

The problems with canvas and cotton as a tent material

  • Cotton and Canvas is very heavy and bulky. This means transporting a large tent to a campsite can be problematic – possibly enough for you to no longer fit it in the boot of your car. It can also make pitching a bit more work.
  • You normally need to ‘weather’ the canvas before using it. This involves leaving a new tent out in the rain (or under the garden hose) so that the canvas expands and fills in the holes in the stitching and fabric. Without doing this, your new canvas tent could leak.
  • Cotton and Canvas requires more maintenance. As it absorbs water, you need to dry the material out before putting the tent away, and this can take a lot longer than man-made materials. Without doing so, you will get mildew in your tent.
  • It can be easier to snag and cause a tear, which can turn into a big tear.
  • Cost – cotton or canvas are a lot more expensive than man-made fabrics.

Coatings and Treatments on Cotton Tents

Cotton tents shouldn’t be coated with a waterproof membrane as polyester tents have since the cotton needs to remain breathable and are already UV and water resistant.

However, some manufacturers have applied a light waterproofing treatment to the cotton. The cotton still retains its breathability, but the treatment means that water will bead off the tent if there is a light shower or morning dew.  Innovations like this make cotton more practical for family camping as it helps reduce the drying out time. (Especially important for campsites that insist you leave your pitch by 10 am!).

What about Poly-cotton Tents?

Poly-cotton is a hybrid between man-made polyester and cotton. Essentially a poly-cotton fabric is a cotton fabric with some polyester weaved into it.

All the good qualities of cotton (or canvas) can be found in poly-cotton tents. They have some of the bad points too (such as cost, weight, and maintenance), but the polyester in the weave makes them slightly more resistant to mildew than pure cotton or canvas, and the polyester also helps reduce the risk of large rips.

So which is the best tent fabric?

As you can see, each fabric has a lot of good properties, but also some not-so-good points.

For me, the feel and insulating properties of canvas (or poly-cotton) make for a great family tent, especially if you are having a camping holiday.

If you get a chance to visit a camping show, tent display, or even have a chat to campers with a canvas or poly-cotton tent on a campsite, I urge you to compare it to a polyester tent.

Wait until the sun comes out for a few minutes. Go into a canvas or poly-cotton tent and it will feel pleasantly cool (not cold). Then walk into a polyester tent and you’ll immediately feel and breath the baking air.

If it is cold and a bit breezy, do the same test again. The canvas or poly-cotton tent will feel a lot warmer and quieter than the polyester tent. It will feel like a comfortable refuge.

So for family holiday tents, if you can afford, transport, and pitch it, go for canvas, cotton, or poly-cotton is my recommendation.

However, for quick weekend camping (and definitely backpacking!) then man-made fabrics are the way to go…though some air-framed tents can make pitching a cotton or polycotton tent a lot easier and more practical, making them work for the weekend camp too.

Polyester fabrics can work really well for holiday tents as well. Just remember to open the vents, and if your tent’s doors and windows allow for a through-draft of air, then use that when it gets hot.

If you are camping outside of the summer months then the insulating properties of canvas/cotton/polycotton are definitely worth it.

For campsites with an electric hook-up, you can use a tent heater and the fabric will retain more of that heat than a polyester tent. (See keeping warm and this Heater for more details).

Some canvas tents also have an outlet for a wood burning stove flue. This can make the tent very warm indeed. (Click here to read about our experience of using a wood-burning stove in a polycotton tent).

Brand specific fabrics

Some tent companies brand their mix of tent fabrics, treatments, and coatings. This can make it a little confusing to understand just what each is.

The table below doesn’t list every tent brand fabric, but there’s quite a few here. Note that each brand will have slightly different qualities and care instructions, but the table will give you a guide to if the manufacturer is referring to a man-made or cotton based fabric.

Brand Fabric Fabric Type Manufacturer’s Description
Coleman WeatherTec Polyester Waterproofing tech. Click here for video.
Kampa WeatherSheild Polyester Kampa WeatherSheild is the waterproofing treatment Kampa applies to their polyester tent fabrics, which come in a variety of thickness and hydrostatic head ratings.
Hydrofilm Polyester Hydrofilm is the name Jack Wolfskin tents have given to their Polyester groundsheets.
Outwell Outtex 100% Ripstop Cotton Cotton Cotton with a weave to reduce the chance of rips.
Outwell Airtex Polycotton Treated to help water droplets run off the tent.
Outwell Outtex 6000 Polyester Polyester with a 6000mm Hydrostatic Head
Outwell Outtex 5000 Polyester Polyester with a 5000mm Hydrostatic Head
Outwell Outtex 4000 Polyester Polyester with a 4000mm Hydrostatic Head
Outwell Outtex 3000 Polyester Polyester with a 3000mm Hydrostatic Head
Outwell Taslon Polyester This is a Polyester based fabric, typically the Outtex 6000, that has a weave to give it the appears of polycotton or canvas on the outside of the tent. The fabric is also thicker and Outwell claim it is tougher, so it should last longer.
Robens HydroTex® LT 40D Nylon A nylon ripstop flysheet with a silicon external coating and a PU internal coating
Robens HydroTex HD Polyester 75D (fabric weight) polyester 185T (Thread Count)
Robens HydroTex DP Polyester 68D (fabric weight) polyester 190T (Thread Count)
Robens HydroTex 5000 Polyester Polyester with a 5000mm Hydrostatic Head
Robens HydroTex Polycotton Polycotton 65% cotton / 35% polyester. Breathable with a light water repellant treatment.
Vango Protex 70 Polyester 70D polyester
Vango Protex 150 Polyester 150D polyester
Vango Protex Cotton Polycotton A blend of cotton and polyester.

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  1. Thanks For Sharing

    11:47 am on November 15, 2018
  2. Hi

    Your article states:
    “However, for quick weekend camping (and definitely backpacking!) then man-made fabrics are the way to go…though some air-framed tents can make pitching a cotton or polycotton tent a lot easier and more practical, making them work for the weekend camp too.”

    What does that mean? which air-framed tents?

    Thank you!

    12:13 am on June 12, 2018
    • There are Outwell, Vango, and other brands of tents made with poly cotton and using air-frames, such as the Outwell SmartAir or Vango AirBeam technology. This means that you don’t have to set-up a steel poles with the polycotton tent. Simply inflate the tent’s ‘air tubes’ instead.

      7:38 pm on June 12, 2018
  3. This site was very helpful, thankyou very much!

    3:50 am on March 19, 2018
  4. I have just spent 2 hours trying to find the correct material to use to make an extra bedroom in my family tent, and only seem to be able to find flysheet material. I need it to be breathable but not waterproof, has anyone made a bedroom before, or know of a supplier of the necessary material?

    5:35 pm on August 16, 2017
  5. Hi I am in the middle of finding the right tent for my family…i have 5 children and so I am looking at a 7 person tent but get so confused with the best material etc. I purchased a vango marna 600xl and on the fisrt time using the poles at the front snaped and got a tear in the tent. I am now wondering about steel poles be better and what tent would be a great all round tent..have been looking at Vermont outwell or Drummond 700. Do you have any advice please. Also thinking if the size of Vermont tent limit me to campsites

    10:16 pm on August 12, 2017
    • Hi Sabrina,

      Sorry to hear about your Vango tent.  I’m really surprised that happened. Did you look at patching it?  You can find repair kits on Amazon. I have found that the brand Seamsure provide some good glue that will work with your tent fabric.

      As for new tents, the Drummond and Vermont are both good tents. I do like all the features in the Outwell Vermont. However, I don’t think the size will be too much of a problem for many campsites. What will be the problem is the time taken to pitch it, as well as the size for getting it to the campsite. It’s really only practical for longer camping stays, and not one or two nights at the weekend.

      Steel poles are strong, but if they do break, they are harder to replace since they are custom made to a specific tent model. Your fibreglass pole that snapped can be easily replaced.

      Have you ever considered inflatable tents?
      We’ve been using inflatable tents now for a number of years, and have had no problems with the Outwell ones, Vango, Easy Camp, and Coleman. They’ve come a long way, and means you don’t have to mess around with tent poles. 🙂

      Hope that helps.

      8:18 am on August 17, 2017
  6. Interesting. I have recently seen a canvas material used on a slide-on camper, but only for the roof area.. It has the typical khaki colour on the inside, but a different, black coloured, soft material layer on the inside. Any adiea what type of canvas, or layered canvas this could be?


    3:47 pm on July 19, 2017
    • That’s interesting Piete. I’ve not seen one like that.  I assume it must be two separate layers that they have either stitched or bonded together.  I guess the soft darker fabric makes it quieter and darker than just regular canvas.

      7:13 pm on July 19, 2017
  7. What a great article with lots of insights. Thank you very much!

    8:00 pm on July 3, 2017

    6:54 pm on May 12, 2017
  9. Hi, do you have any information on the Oxford Polyester groundsheet currently used as a sewn in groundsheet on the Vango Illusion 800xl? It seems to be a different material typically used. I have looked at many new tents and was almost ready to purchase the Illusion 800xl when I noticed that there was damp patches on the groundsheet, not just isolated the this model but all the vango tents with this type sewn in ground sheet had the same issue. I had a look at all of the other tents on display with a traditional sewn in groundsheet and they where all bone dry. Your help and advise would be hugely appreciated.

    9:02 am on May 1, 2017
    • Hi Ian,

      Unfortunately I don’t have details on that.  The groundsheets are usually much tougher and have a higher hydrostatic head than the tent fabric, but Vango don’t have any details published on this year’s groundsheets.  Of course, the damp patches might not be due to ingress of water as, if the conditions are right, it could be where condensation has pooled. A bit strange that you only saw this on the Vango models though.

      7:59 am on May 3, 2017

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